A short(ish) story
Our Lane of the Immaculate Heart
We are made wise not by recollection of our past, but by responsibility for our future.
George Bernard Shaw
It is the night of Monday, 8 August, 2011. Unlike the rest of London, Altab Ali Park is quiet. A tiny green speck on the map lodged in the skewed trident formed by three arterial roads: Commercial Street leading north, past the site of the infamous Old Nichol rookery and out into the Tottenham Marches; the Whitechapel Road running east, to Stratford, Romford and out into the rural dark of Essex; and the Commercial Road, following the line of the Thames southeast to Limehouse, where the capital’s great Docks once buzzed and thrived. A constant flow of people circulates around the park – red blood cells forcing their way through the choking East End streets against a ceaseless soundtrack of voices, traffic, sirens. Particularly sirens. Particularly tonight. But tonight the park – a flat expanse of grass around a white outline marking where the Church of St. Mary Matfelon, Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart, once stood – is quiet. As life teems all around, inside the boundaries of the little park it is silent as the grave.
Eighty feet above the outline of the old church’s tower, a tiny old woman sits, suspended in mid-air. Enveloped in dark voluminous skirts, a knitted shawl pulled tight around her head; all that can be made out from the ground is a pale face, curved and luminous like a crescent moon and set with piercing, hooded eyes that sparkle, fathomless, hard as polished flints and blacker than the night.
She slowly revolves, like a weather vane or a benevolent gargoyle atop the invisible spire, her dark eyes scanning the city in uproar. In Hackney to the North, Bethnal Green to the East, Lewisham to the South and Camden to the West, low cloud reflects the angry glare of intense flames. Large fires. Big buildings set ablaze. On all sides, sirens blare and wail. Flashing blue lights race along the major roads. Cars have been set alight, windows smashed, shops looted. People robbed, beaten and stabbed. Groups of masked figures ebb and flow along the streets, stopping to hurl missiles, smash, grab and taunt the nervous, outnumbered ranks of police, who stare out tensely from behind plastic shields. For a third night in a row now, London’s burning. Again.
The old woman turns away from the pandemonium and focuses on the corner of a narrow street to the northeast – over the minarets of the East London Mosque and the roofs of the London Hospital, running parallel to the sunken railway tracks passing through Whitechapel station. Now known as Durward Street, once upon a time this was Ducking Pond Row. Women accused of witchcraft were drowned here. Later, it became Buck’s Row, a dingy, ill-omened little street sandwiched between industrial buildings on the north side and tired little cottages on the south. As the old woman stares along the dimly lit street, an old man – not much more than five feet tall, slim and bird-like, perhaps in his mid-seventies – turns the corner from Brady Street, where the Roebuck public house once stood. His cheeks are hollow, his nose sharp and a scraggly salt & pepper beard clings to his prominent chin. He has a stretched old tattoo of a tear falling from the corner of his left eye, and an anchor on the back of his left hand. Thinning grey hair is combed back across his skull, held in place and given a yellow sheen by decades of grease and cigarette smoke. His eyes too are yellow, around grey irises that have the patina of dull metal. He looks neither left nor right, but stares blankly into the middle distance, completely unconcerned by his surroundings. Or maybe so familiar with every nook, cranny and paving stone he need not look where he is going. He shuffles steadily along the pavement with the automatic resolve of an old mechanical toy.
From her invisible perch, the old woman follows him as he passes the new flats with their black railings and two steps up to smart front doors, modestly echoing the architecture of more affluent parts of the city. When he reaches the last block, he pauses. Just before the railway cutting and the looming bulk of the old Board School building there is an empty bay, just big enough to park three cars. The old man seems reluctant to pass it. The old woman’s eyes narrow. The old man shudders, crosses the street and starts to pass the spot on the other side. Then stops dead in his tracks. He looks up. Walking towards him is a little man dressed in a shabby dark suit and a battered kind of big bowler hat, pulled down hard over his forehead. A dirty red scarf is knotted tight around his neck, inside a grimy collar. He looks a good forty years younger than the old man, perhaps an inch or two taller, but with similar sharp features and a scraggy dark beard clinging to his chin. This man’s eyes are restless, roaming up and down the street. He is heading straight towards the old man, as if oblivious to his existence. The old man stands, fists tightly clenched by his sides, staring down the approaching figure. As he comes closer, there is a smell of stale beer, horse manure or rotten meat. The younger man’s hands are shoved deep into his pockets and moving – fidgeting with something. As he comes within a couple of yards, the old man’s feet unconsciously shift into a boxer’s stance and his right hand moves towards his jacket pocket. Far away, up on her spire perch, the old woman frowns and whispers, “No, no. That’s no use now.”
The stranger in the battered hat stops suddenly and peers over the old man’s shoulder, into the gloom; past a set of wooden gates just before the railway cutting, along a row of tired little cottages, to where faint yellow light and song seep from the windows of the Roebuck pub. The small figure of a woman is picking her way through the puddles on the wet ground. Both men watch her approach. She is short, middle-aged, her nose a little crooked and her face puffy from ill health, or hard living, or an overly healthy appetite for the drink. Or all three. She is dressed in long dark skirts and a reddish brown coat with a cape attached and a black straw bonnet, and is walking unsteadily, occasionally teetering, putting out a hand to steady herself. Every now and again she stops, smiles, hums a few notes of a tune and then moves on again, her face a mask of grim determination. Seeing this, a smile cracks open the younger man’s mouth, revealing a set of brown, decaying teeth. He runs his tongue over his top lip, sending flecks of white spittle flying, removes his hands from his pockets and starts to cross the road with a jaunty, swaggering gait. Seeing him, the woman steadies herself, loosens her coat and straightens her back – all the while pretending not to pay him any mind. He stops in front of her. They exchange a few words. The woman laughs coyly. The younger man holds out his arm for her; she hooks herself on and they take a few steps, then are lost to view in clouds of smoke or fog that come swirling along the narrow tunnel of a street. A train thunders along the rails beneath where the old man is standing and he starts, as if waking from a nightmare. “Come”, the old woman up on the spire whispers. “Leave them now. Come.” The old man shudders, coughs and spits a ball of green-black phlegm into the gutter and turns, resuming his mechanical walk westwards. As if guided by remote control, he turns right onto Vallance Road and after a few hundred yards left onto Old Montague Street, then takes the right fork at the junction leading into Hanbury Street. Towards Brick Lane.
Once she is sure he is on track, the old woman turns to face the Southeast. Her eyes linger a moment on the severe, rectilinear bell tower of the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Boniface on the corner of Adler Street and Mulberry Street, then move on, skipping over the big square office blocks lining the Commercial Road to a narrow side street opposite the London Metropolitan University. She peers down this little street, past the sprawling buildings of the Harry Gosling Primary School. Her gaze comes to rest on the crossroads formed by Henriques Street and Fairclough Street. The intersection is deserted. She closes her eyes and whispers, “Where are you?” As soon as she opens them again, a striking figure comes sweeping round the corner. He is a man of medium height; slim, with small, dark, glistening eyes and a prominent nose. He wears an open-necked shirt, a long dark coat almost down to his ankles and a dark Homburg-style hat. It’s hard to tell in all the shadow, but he looks old, yet sprightly – manic even. He is clean-shaven, but a few patches of greying stubble have been missed and a small square of paper clings to a cut on his chin. He pauses on the corner, then turns up the collar of his coat, pulls down the brim of his hat and starts walking nervously up Henriques Street towards the Commercial Road, keeping close to the high brick wall bordering the school playground. The old woman watches as he eases along, sticking close to the wall. Sirens intermittently wail as police cars tear along the Commercial Road ahead of him. Suddenly, backlit by a blue flashing light, a figure is approaching him. A youngish man in flamboyant clothing – baggy check suit, a light-coloured hat and a colourful scarf thrown around his neck – is sauntering towards the old man, swinging a decorative cane. He somehow has a theatrical look. He is whistling a jaunty, music-hall air. Both men stop dead. The old man in the long coat presses himself so hard against the school wall he seems to be trying to embed himself in it. The theatrical man has frozen too, and is also staring – but not at the old man hidden in the shadow. He is looking at a couple standing in front of a set of big wooden gates. The man is broad-shouldered, swarthy, with a small dark moustache and wearing a peaked cap and a dark, sailor-style coat. The woman is in her forties, slim, thin-faced with dark curly hair pinned up under a small black bonnet. She is wearing a dark, fur-trimmed jacket that hugs her waist, and has a dainty check scarf knotted tightly around her neck. A red rose is pinned to her breast. The broad-shouldered man laughs out loud, reaches out and places a hand on her shoulder. She seems unsure, and glances up the road towards the theatrical-looking man. As she does so, the broad-shouldered man places his other hand on her shoulder and shakes her. She looks at him, alarmed. He says something – she gives a short reply. He shakes her again, more vigorously, then pushes her, roughly. She falls to the ground, and cries out. Three times, but not very loudly. Startled, the theatrical-looking man crosses the road, glancing over his shoulder as he does so. A tall, thin man in a light-coloured hat with a pipe in his hand is walking behind him. The theatrical man quickens his pace. The man with the pipe hurries after him. The old man in the long coat has now sunk to a squatting position and is rocking backwards and forwards on his heels. As the two men pass him on the opposite side of the street, a coarse man’s voice shouts out something that sounds like “Lipski!” At this, the old man screws his eyes closed and starts tapping his forehead and chanting under his breath. Too quietly for the words to be made out, but it sounds like a prayer. In an arcane language.
The old woman up on the spire looks down on him. “It’s all right,” she whispers. “It’s nearly over.” The old man continues to rock back and forth. His chanting becomes quieter. He sits there a while, eyes closed, softly chanting. Then his eyes spring open and he looks up: he hears the sound of hooves on cobblestones, clip-clopping slowly, very close, then pulling up. A pony and trap stops outside the wooden gates. The sound of singing can be heard in the air. Rough but tuneful, choral singing. Rousing folk songs or anthems, in a foreign language: Polish or Russian. The couple are nowhere to be seen now. A small, tired-looking man jumps down from the cart and swings the big wooden gates open. He starts to lead his pony through, but it shies, whinnies and refuses to go any further. The man disappears into a dark passage, leaving the back end of the cart sticking out onto the cobbled road. The old man watches, no longer rocking back and forth, but crouching, completely still in the shadow beneath a darkened window. After a few moments, a figure flits out of the pitch black passage. The pony whinnies again and stamps its hooves. The figure glances left and right along the street, then pulls his hat down hard over his face and hurries towards the intersection. He is young, pale and thin, unkempt, with a dark moustache and a few days’ growth of beard. He wears a dark, wide-brimmed hat, his shirt is open at the neck and a shabby dark suit hangs loosely around him. His glittering, dark eyes are never still for a moment. He sweeps silently past the old man, almost brushing against him. At that very moment he glances down, and his eyes meet the old man’s. They are devoid of light but emanate a bottomless fury; like deep dark caves, harbouring and fermenting all the evils of the world. They stare straight through the old man as if he wasn’t there. The old man buries his head in his arms and rocks back and forth furiously, incanting in a loud, wailing voice, pounding his forehead with his fist. The old woman stares down at him. “Come”, she says, after a short while. “It’s past. He’s gone. Come.”
After a few minutes, he slowly uncoils and stands. He takes a good look around, dusts off his coat and sets off up Henriques Street, walking straight past the metal gates to the school playground without so much as a glance. He dashes diagonally across the bustle of the Commercial Road into Greenfield Road, then left onto Coke Street, right onto Plumbers Row and left onto the Whitechapel Road, passing the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, all the while keeping his face front, seemingly oblivious to everything and everyone around him. With no heed to the traffic, he ploughs straight across the Whitechapel Road and ducks into a zigzagging alleyway next to Starbucks. Within a few minutes is at the junction of Old Montague Street, Osbourne Street, Wentworth Street and Brick Lane.
If Commercial Street, Whitechapel Road and Commercial Road are the arteries of the East End, then Brick Lane is its aorta, running north to south through the soul centre of the territory: simultaneously highway and underbelly. For centuries, successive tides of immigrants have flowed up and ebbed down this lane, meeting at this crossroads of cultures bringing new languages, traditions, ideas and beliefs. Savouring inexplicable joys and suffering infinite sorrows. If Jack the Ripper had wanted to cut the heart out of the East End, he should have operated along Brick Lane itself, ripping upwards from Jewish Old Montague Street in the South to the vicious slums of the Old Nichol in the North. But he was down on whores, not immigrants.
As the old man in the long coat passes up the Lane, the voices of generations of newcomers ring in his ears: Huguenot French, Irish and Scots Gaelic, Yiddish, Chinese, Punjabi, West Indian patois, Turkish, Kurdish, Greek, Pashto, Arabic, Hebrew. Weaving his way through the crowds past pubs, curry houses, halal butchers, bagel shops, betting shops, mini-cab firms and second-hand clothing stores, he pauses at the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque, its gleaming metal minaret grafted onto a building that has previously served as a spiritual home for Huguenot protestants, Wesleyans, Methodists and Jews. The old man stands still, the tide of hurrying pedestrians breaking around him. A group of young white men get out of a 4x4 and start handing out leaflets on the pavement. One has a cross of Saint George flag draped around his waist, another a tattoo up the underside of his forearm in large, gothic letters spelling out EDL. A group of earnest-looking, bearded young men dressed in the long, ankle-length tunics of traditional Muslims see and approach them. The white men see them coming, jump back into the 4x4 and race off up the Lane. Up on her invisible spire, the old woman rolls her eyes impatiently to heaven. “Come on!” she whispers, staring down at the old man. “Keep going!” He wakes from his reverie, turns and glances up at the motto engraved on the sundial above the mosque’s entrance. “1743. UMBRA SUMUS.” We are shadows.
Confident he is moving again, the old woman turns to the West. Fires are raging unchecked in Ealing and Camden, police and fire services overwhelmed on a third night of disorder, which is now spreading to Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool. Her gaze shifts from the suburbs towards the centre of London: over the White City and Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington, the green of Hyde Park and the spires of the City of Westminster. The office blocks and skyscrapers in the square mile of the City of London are still, dark and quiet, as if trying not to draw attention to themselves. Saint Paul’s cathedral stands serene and stately as ever, disdainful of the commotion.
The old woman’s gaze stops on a narrow road lined by offices and bars running between the church of Saint Catherine Cree and the expansive buildings and playgrounds of Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School on Aldgate. A tallish, dapper man rounds the corner. He is dressed in a well-tailored three-piece suit with a striped shirt and a red silk tie. A small white flower sits in his buttonhole. His grey hair is neatly cut, with a razor-sharp centre parting and a thin, perfectly manicured moustache that follows the bow of his slightly prominent upper lip. His eyes are dark, deep-set and exude a sense of profound but gentle melancholy. He walks hesitantly, with air of a man on his way to an appointment he doesn’t want to keep. As he approaches a turning on the left, just ahead of the wall bordering the school playground, he slows even more. As he is about to draw level with this turning, he makes a decision, lifts his head and marches, eyes front, further along Mitre Street towards Aldgate. The old woman above Altab Ali Park glares down at him. “No!” she hisses. “NO! Stop! STOP!” The man’s movements slow and become laboured, as if his feet are sticking to the ground. He stands for a moment, frozen mid-stride, his body pushing forward as if against an invisible wall. “Come on,” the old woman whispers. “You can do it. Trust me.” Slowly, he rewinds and turns on his heel. A row of shabby, three-storey houses, dark and empty, looms over the cobbled street by the entrance to Mitre Square. Some of the windows are broken and have been half-heartedly boarded up. The last, on the corner, is a shop. Chas. Taylor, picture-framer is painted on the door in white italic letters. Empty picture frames fill the window. The old man in the suit stares at his reflection in the dark glass, perfectly centred in an ornate golden frame set with cherubs. He straightens his tie, takes a deep breath and rounds the corner into the square. A gas lamp throws a dim, flickering light. From just ahead of him, around the back of the picture-framer’s shop, comes the sound of heavy boots on cobblestones. He edges forward along the shop wall, shrouded in shadow. The footsteps stop. For a second or two it is quiet, then a shrill whistle tears the cool night air to shreds. A dark figure rushes across the square, spotlighted in a pool of red light. The old man edges around the corner of the shop. The back of the shop and the house next door to it form a right-angle with a high wooden fence and a set of wooden gates. There, on the ground, in the deep shadow, is a shape, like a bundle of discarded clothing rags refuse or no – outstretched legs, a hand, another – torn, stained, clothing displaced – some buttons – lying in – a pool, dark, sticky – white apron, cut, smeared, filthy – stocking, torn, ripped – boot off, bonnet, upturned, crumpled, on the ground – in a pool – pool of – woman – no – the the – opened up ripped open hacked face slashed nose ears gone belly open
The old man is shaking. His face deathly pale. He sinks to his knees. Over his shoulder, he hears voices, and more shrill blasts on a whistle. Hurrying footsteps. A cry: “Come to my aid mate! There’s another woman cut to pieces.”
Tears fill his dark, mournful eyes. The old woman looks down on him. Two men arrive at his side – one a bearded police constable in a long coat, a metal oil lamp clipped to his leather belt giving off a dim reddish light, the other a rough, dishevelled man in a worn suit clutching a truncheon in one hand and an oil lamp in the other. The second man holds his lamp above the body. They stand for a moment, silent. The constable rouses himself. “Go for help. I’ll….” The second man runs around the corner of the shop. More whistle blasts ring out. The old man removes the white flower from his buttonhole. He looks up at the police constable. “He can’t see you”, the old woman whispers. The constable bends down, his face green. Trying not to look at the bloody mess, he feels for a pulse. The old man gently places the flower at the dead woman’s feet. He stands, turns and starts to walk across the square. As he goes, he is aware of a dark shape watching him from the deepest shadows. He lifts his head and carries on, without looking back, out onto Duke’s Place. Towards Saint Botolph’s church. Towards Brick Lane.
Brick Lane is buzzing, always, even on a Monday night. Especially this Monday night. iPhones and Blackberries are lighting up with news of the riots. There’s an expectant hum in the air – but the life of the Lane carries on regardless. Always. Gaggles of tourists scurry along the narrow pavements, with or without gesticulating tour guides, waiters outside restaurants try to entice them inside, bouncers and club touts size up potential customers, locals nip out for some late night shopping, or a quick pint, or to phone home. The young, hip and beautiful parade on their way to a pop-up gallery opening or to drink at the Vibe bar or dance the night away at 93 feet east.
Unnoticed among the throng, three old men approach the intersection of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane. Little specks, carried along by the flow of red blood cells pumping towards the Lane. Converging like antibodies responding to a threat. Eighty feet up in the cool night air above Altab Ali Park, the hint of a smile plays around the corners of the old woman’s mouth as the three men arrive simultaneously at the crossroads. Wordlessly, they acknowledge one another’s presence. The look of an uneasy, unspoken, unwanted unity. Shoulder to shoulder they walk up the middle of the narrow road, heading north. Whereas individually they blended into the eclectic crowd, now this unholy trinity marching purposefully up the Lane draws attention. Ahead of the them, under the archway where the buildings of the Old Truman Brewery bridge over the road (so the work of the brewery could go on without interrupting the lifeblood flow along the Lane), young revellers sit and stand along the street, talking, drinking, laughing. They instinctively move aside as the trio pass. A young man seated on the kerb starts to whistle the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. His friend shouts, “Hey, Blondie! You know what you are?” A pale young woman in sunglasses shouts, “It’s not Blondie. It’s… Jack the ******* Ripper!” The three men stop dead. They turn around, three pairs of bloodshot eyes scanning the crowd. The young men look down, swig from their expensive beers or stare blankly at their phones. The crowd collectively holds it breath. Up on her invisible perch, the moon-faced old woman frowns. “Move on!” she hisses. “Move on!” The three men turn and continue up the Lane. Gradually, the conversation and laughter start up again.
The three men leave the bars and clubs behind and pass into the less populated stretch of the Lane where it crosses the railway lines on their way out to Bethnal Green and Stratford. Ahead of them is a dark underpass where the Shoreditch line passes overhead. It is not a deep tunnel, but the streetlights don’t fully penetrate it and the Lane seems to disappear into a gaping black void. The men’s footsteps echo off the concrete and brick of the underpass, then fall silent. A short, sharp scream rings out, followed by the sound of a brief scuffle. A young woman – dark-skinned, long dark hair, short skirt and high heels – is lying on the pavement in the middle of the underpass, her handbag spilled open on the ground, looking up at a man. He is chubby, grey-haired, sloppily dressed, a nondescript grey sports jacket pulled half way down his back, his grubby white shirt untucked. He is breathing deeply, his watery eyes charged with excitement and boring into the woman, who is backing away from him, shuffling on her hands and feet. He suddenly becomes aware of three shapes in the gloom – one to his right, one to his left and one behind him.
“Aye aye, what’s goin’ on ‘ere then?” says a rough, cockney voice.
“Funny little games?” – the voice is high-pitched, with an indefinable, foreign-sounding accent.
“I don’t think it’s funny at all,” says a third voice: cultured, refined, somehow sad.
“She was trying to rob me, the bitch…” the man stammers.
“Pull the uvver one mate.”
“We don’t believe you.”
“So how come it’s you has this then?” the posh voice asks, a hand slipping into the man’s pocket and emerging holding a six-inch kitchen knife.
“That’s… I just… I…”
“Oh, believe me, we know all about you.”
The man’s decides to make a run for it, but before he can move his arms are pinned behind his back by two sets of strong hands. They spin him around. Deep, dark, melancholy eyes stare, unblinking, into his. A sneer curls up one end of a perfectly manicured pencil-thin moustache. Long, artistic fingers test the edge of the blade. “Let me see,” he says, holding out the knife, handle first. “Maybe you would like to do the honours this time. You actually being born within the sound of Bow Bells, and all that.” The cockney voice reaches out and takes the knife, the posh voice taking over holding the man’s left arm. He has a truly vice-like grip.
“My pleasure, me old china.” A gnarled hand with an anchor tattooed on the back takes hold of the man’s shirt and rips it open. The buttons pop off and bounce away along the pavement. The gnarled old hand then moves up and grabs the man by the throat. The old cockney’s face is within inches of the desperately struggling man’s. The eyes are yellow around grey irises like dull metal. The leering mouth is open, revealing a few brown, decaying teeth. A tattooed tear runs down the sunken cheek. Globs of spittle land on the man’s face as the men recite in turn:
“Well I ain’t a doctor.”
“And I ain’t a yid.”
“Nor I a foreign skipper.”
“Merely your light-hearted friend,”
The tip of the knife touches the man’s flabby stomach and he lets out a blood-curdling scream, but it is drowned out by the wail of police sirens and running feet as the underpass is suddenly full of charging bodies; a herd of mostly young men sweep through, running hell for leather, their faces hidden by hoods and scarves. Immediately followed by a phalanx of police in riot gear, heavy boots pounding the tarmac, kicking and lashing out at the stragglers with long batons. Pressed hard up against the wall of the underpass, the young woman loses sight of her attacker and her three saviours in the mass of whirling bodies. Once they have passed she looks around. She is completely alone. She scrabbles her things together by the flashing blue light of police vans and shop alarms, smoothes her hair, adjusts her clothing and gets shakily to her feet. As she walks out of the underpass, a tiny little old woman approaches her from a side street. Hardly five feet tall, she has a knitted shawl pulled tight around her pale face, which is curved and luminous like a crescent moon and set with piercing, hooded eyes, hard as polished flints and blacker than the night. She holds out something to the young woman, who looks deep into those hard dark eyes, then reaches out and takes the small white flower. “Thank you,” she says.
(c) Terry Holland 2015
aye aye! keep yer 'and on yer pfennig!