Main A Rush of Blood

A Rush of Blood

Ten-year-old Hilda's search for her missing friend has terrible consequences in this gripping psychological thriller.
When her friend Meda fails to turn up for dance class one evening, 10-year-old Hilda is convinced that something bad has happened to her, despite Meda's family's reassurances. Unable to shake off her concerns, Hilda turns to her mother, Molly, for help. Molly runs the Jolly Bonnet, a pub with links to the Whitechapel murders of a century before and a meeting place for an assortment of eccentrics drawn to its warm embrace. Among them is Lottie. Pathologist by day, vlogger by night, Lottie enlists the help of her army of online fans - and uncovers evidence that Meda isn't the first young girl to go missing.
But Molly and Lottie's investigations attract unwelcome attention. Two worlds are about to collide in a terrifying game of cat and mouse played out on the rain-lashed streets of London's East End, a historic neighbourhood that has run red...
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Mr Farkas











Mr Farkas






Mr Farkas



Mr Farkas




Mr Farkas


Recent titles by David Mark





The DS Aector McAvoy series










* available from Severn House


David Mark

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

First published in Great Britain 2019 by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of

Eardley House, 4 Uxbridge Street, London W8 7SY.

First published in the USA 2020 by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS of

110 East 59th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022

This eBook edition first published in 2019 by Severn House Digital an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited Trade paperback edition first published in Great Britain and the USA 2020 by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.

Copyright © 2019 by David Mark.

The right of David Mark to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8905-8 (cased) ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-648-7 (trade paper) ISBN-13: 978-1-4483-0347-2 (e-book) ; Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland

For Nicola.

‘For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.’

– Leviticus, 17.11


Cecil Court, Central London

The book smelled of meat, as if its pages had once been used to line a butcher’s block. It carried the whisper of old churches; of pork-fat candles and blotted blood.

It was a slim volume. Fine calligraphy to the title and flyleaf. No missing pages. A sheen to the black ink. Some philistine had scrawled some spidery opinions over some of the pages, but if it was period graffiti then it could well add to the value. A quality item.

Mr Farkas raised his fingers to his mouth and sniffed them. Enjoyed them. He thought the aroma of old books unendingly pleasing. Warm, somehow. It made him think of clothes that had been left to dry in a snug kitchen.

He looked around him. The little bookshop in the handsome arcade was rarely busy but the teeming rain and thundery skies had today depleted the numbers even more. He had the little bookshop to himself. He lifted the book to his face, breathing deeply, as if trying to draw the fading whiff of carnality into the very centre of his being.

Behind closed eyes, he saw her. Saw his girl …

Mr Farkas had to bite down on his tongue to prevent himself from crying out. He reached forward, taking his weight upon his left hand. He realized he was trembling. He anchored himself; planting his sensible shoes on the scarred wooden floor. The years were catching up with him. The past months had leeched the last of his youth from his skin and he had taken on the grey pallor of somebody who spent too much time indoors.

‘Focus, Mr Farkas,’ he whispered, and the similarity of the two words suddenly struck him as amusing. ‘Focus, Farkas, focus, Farkas …’ He had to press his lips together to suppress the giggle that threatened to shoot forth from his lips. The woozy feeling was hovering around the horizon of his consciousness and there was that same stale sickness in his gut. He wondered if bitterness could metastasize. Whether unshed tears could become a tumour.

Relaxation time. That was what his wife had insisted he pursue. No work. No hospitals. No running around. Go and do what helps you relax …

He examined the book again, his pulse quickening. What a find! A first edition. A real Jean Denys! He knew of the existence of the book but never imagined he would stumble upon one in a stack of yellowing paper and medical guides at the little bookshop two minutes from Trafalgar Square. He pictured the faces of his rivals when they learned he’d found an original. He concentrated on dredging up what he knew about the tome. It had been controversial, he remembered that. Had there not been talk of blasphemy, of Pagan practices? Blood from pig to man; from lamb to dog; from adult to child. Denys had claimed to have discovered the secret of soul transference: a way to alter the personalities of madmen by filling them with the blood of meeker creatures. The transfusionist had seen it as the first step towards a kind of immortality, a way to keep blood flowing even when the original host vessel has long since perished. It had been sent to the Royal Society in 1665: born in a time of plague and fire. It was a significant artefact: a true collector’s item. A bonanza of a find.

‘Beautiful,’ whispered Mr Farkas as he stroked the book’s cover. The paper felt luxurious against his fingertips. Waxy. He was tempted to put the tip of his tongue against the page.

He leafed through the pages; fingers gentle, as if shushing a frightened bird. Two words, scrawled in reddish-brown, swam suddenly into his vision.

George Acton.

He felt himself start to shake.

Acton. Alchemist to the Royal Court. Royal Physician. A pioneer whose experiments in blood transfusion had led to some of the great discoveries of the age. A figure on the fringes of immortality who flared brightly then disappeared from history.

Excitement bloomed like a folded rose. He took a deep breath and felt a fresh twinge of pain. He realized he had been squatting for too long. He raised himself up, gingerly, still holding the pamphlet. He had to act calm. The bookseller might see his enthusiasm and claim there had been an error in the pricing. The thought of losing the book within moments of discovering it was too much to bear. He felt a sudden rush of light-headedness. He chided himself as he realized he had forgotten to eat again. He would be scolded when he got home.

Mr Farkas cuffed at his eyes as he felt a tear bubble up like blood from a pin prick. He raised his hands a moment too late. The droplet of salt water had tumbled on to the precious papers he held in his pale hands. He looked down through blurred vision. The teardrop sat reverentially on the ‘A’ of Acton. It held its form, pearlescent and perfect. Then it dissolved into the page.

The copper scrawl began to swell. To dissolve.

It was like watching blood seep from a corpse.

Mr Farkas started to feel unwell. He could no longer see what was written on the page. He began to shake. Spit gathered at the corner of his mouth. His pupils contracted: dead flies in rancid milk. He began to see things. Taste things. Felt something moving inside his skin. He jerked, suddenly, as if he had emerged from icy water. He was clutching the pamphlet in a fist. He had scored crescent moons into the page. They leered up at him like smiling mouths.

Mr Farkas smiled back.


Her name was Meda, and people said she looked like me.

She wasn’t much of a dancer. Always half a step behind, like a buffering download. She had a habit of throwing an extra 180 degrees into each pirouette. Finished up facing backwards, looking at the audience with her broad shoulders and big round backside and wondering where everybody had gone. Mum said she looked like a plucked goose in a sparkly leotard, which was a bit upsetting, considering how often she told me we looked alike.

She only came to Streetdance class on a Wednesday night so her mum could earn a few quid cleaning offices at the end of Coronation Road. She didn’t hold out much hope of turning Meda into a star. Her little princess wasn’t an athletic sort. Used to be shiny and damp and pink by the end of the warm-up. If you pressed her cheeks you could leave big white fingerprints on her skin.

She had a surname too. Stauskas, or something not far off. Lithuanian. I can see her now. A furry hood on her puffer jacket and baggy knees to her leggings. Tall for her age and ungainly in that pre-teen way. All arms and legs. You wouldn’t have felt safe taking her for a look around an antique shop. Wouldn’t have let her pour from your favourite vintage teapot, though she would have loved to be given the chance. Liked old things, did Meda. Could have spent forever stroking a pair of fox-fur cuffs or staring into the back of a carriage clock. Didn’t suit modern clothes, though her Mum dressed her like a pop star. Hooped earrings and hair pulled back too tight. Flashes of make-up on her cheeks. It just gave her a haughty kind of face that made me think of old Victorian photographs: all high necks and cameo brooches and lap dogs snacking on Turkish delight.

Her family lived in a flat between Bethnal Green and Stepney. Three brothers, a sister, her mum, dad and Uncle Steppen, squished together into five rooms on the second floor of a drab, grey-fronted old building with a rubbish-strewn balcony secured behind chicken wire and broken glass. She liked cartoons and knew how to use a sewing machine. She wore high-topped trainers with Velcro and her hands were always cold. She kept a handkerchief up her sleeve like old ladies do. She ate fruit like it was sweets and carried a miniature book of animal facts in the inside pocket of her coat. That was what got us talking. One of those ‘who likes animals more?’ contests that I used to be so competitive about. Meda rose to the challenge. Took me on with some degree-level knowledge on meerkats and told me I was ‘talking bullocks’ with my assertion that hippos only had four teeth. I took the defeat uncommonly well. Made her laugh with an impression of a King Charles spaniel on a motorboat. We tossed some facts back and forth about Siberian huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. We got to know each other the way kids sometimes can. Best friends in the time it takes to drink a can of Fanta. She spoke with an accent. I thought she might be from Liverpool or Newcastle but she explained that home was a city called Visaginas, which looked like a butterfly if you saw it from above. She’d had a Pomeranian when she still lived there. Sasha, she said, though I thought that was more of a girl’s name. Had to be brushed twice a day and he’d been stolen once by some men who were having some kind of dispute with her dad over money. He was on a farm now, out in the countryside, with grandparents who could give him room to run around. Sasha, that is. Not her dad. I told her about my cat, Ripper. Big fat face and fur the colour of turning leaves. Told her she could come meet him if it was all right with her mum. She looked like I’d told her it was going to be Christmas every day from now on.

I was breathless when I introduced her to Mum.

This is Meda, I said, pronouncing it properly. She’s Lithuanian. She’s taught me to say hello and thank you and ‘Welcome to the Jolly Bonnet’. She likes animals. Do you think we look alike? I do. She doesn’t. We’re going to open a sanctuary for mistreated dogs. But no Chihuahuas or yappy Yorkshire terriers. We don’t like them. She knows her mum’s number if you want to ring and arrange it. She doesn’t live far from here. She walks herself home. You should let me do that. I know these streets. We could walk together …

I can see her now. Can picture her face. Two big teeth at the front and two little ones where her fangs would be if she were a vampire. Not the prettiest of girls, though her mum was a looker. She would have grown into her looks, I think. I don’t know if she would ever have got any more elegant. She moved as though it was her first day in a new body. Bloody liability at showcase events. Sylvie had to stick her in the back row after the competition in Putney. With her big frame and long arms she’d seemed the best of all of us to be entrusted with the job of catching little Reena as she somersaulted down from the top of our three-tier human pyramid in a dazzling whirl of sequins and pigtails. Meda got into position a moment too late. Reena hit the wooden floor like she had fallen from a plane, arms and legs still fully extended. The imprint she left on the polished boards looked like a gingerbread man. We all heard the thud. All saw our parents and brothers and sisters wince in unison as the dark-haired little Bangladeshi girl hit the ground and stayed there, mumbling incomprehensibly into the shiny wooden boards. We kept dancing, like Sylvie had taught us. Kept high-kicking and back-flipping while Beyoncé bellowed from the speakers that girls run the world. Only stopped when the sound technician pulled the plug on our music and the St John Ambulance man shouted at Paulette for accidentally kicking over the oxygen cylinder. Meda felt awful about it all, though she still grumbled when Sylvie moved her into the back line at the next class. Reena was OK by then, although a rumour went around school that she could no longer count past the number six and would only answer to the name of Kevin. Even in the back line it was hard to disguise Meda’s inadequacies. I can see her now, staring intently at the other girls and mimicking our actions an instant too late. Had she made it into the cast of Riverdance, the chorus line would have toppled like dominoes.

She was good at making me laugh. Everything sounded funny the way she said it. She didn’t smile when she told jokes, which somehow made them funnier. And she would get her words wrong sometimes. She would try and use phrases that somebody had told her we used in London but they always sounded weird coming out of her mouth. She would tell me that she had been ‘bubble busy’ instead of ‘double’ and it took us ages to work out that she was trying to say ‘stone the crows’ when she responded to some piece of gossip with the claim she had been ‘stoning her clothes’.

I don’t spend a lot of time wondering what Meda would have become. It’s not that the thoughts make me sad or that I get all maudlin about it. I just don’t think there’s any way I could come up with an answer. We were only friends for a few weeks. You could count the amount of time we spent together in hours. One class a week, every Wednesday night, from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. Believerz street dance class. Two hours of sweating and giggling and trying to keep up with the black girls in the care of a passive-aggressive French lady who lived on runner beans and water and had once appeared in a video for a band I had never heard of and who Mum said looked like she was made out of varnished baguettes.

Outside of the classes and competitions I only ever saw Meda twice. She came with us to the Stepney Green city farm one blustery Saturday. Fed the goats and did impressions of the chickens and ate every scrap of the packed lunch that Mum had made us. Spent her pocket money on a hot chocolate and a little book about British birds. Picked up some leaflets from the display stand and spent a few minutes watching a man in a green jumper demonstrate traditional crafts and then chainsaw some tree stumps into wooden toadstools. She came home with us after that. Loved my room. Played with my stuffed wolves and Polly Pockets and grinned like something from a cartoon when she saw Mum getting ready for work and slipping into her Victorian wig and gown. She thought the whole flat was ‘exceptional’. She liked that word. Mum’s artwork, displayed corner to corner against bare brick walls, was ‘exceptional’. The antique typewriters and microscopes and the dozens of dead mice displayed in top hats and wedding dresses on wall-mounted potato crates. The old doctor’s bag and the antique stethoscope and the dozens of fat old books stacked like logs against the chimney breast. All were ‘exceptional’. I could tell she was sad to leave.

Meda. My friend. Big and clumsy and happy to be in England. Loved having a friend who was a real Londoner. She was my friend and I was hers and if I think about anything other than what I know for sure, I might find myself conjuring up images of her worst moments, strapped to that stark white bed in that stark white room – watching her blood fall on to the starched sheets like rose petals on to snow. And I don’t want to think about that. It brings back too many of my own memories. Memories of absolute darkness and brilliant, painful light. Memories of gleaming brass and shining glass and blood flowing into and out of my arm. Memories of a reflection – my face obscured behind a mask made of someone else’s skin. And when I think of that, I feel myself growing bitter. Growing jealous of Meda. Of all the girls who didn’t come back. They became one thing instead of another. They went from alive to dead. Their heart ceased to beat. Their blood ceased to flow.

I’m not so lucky.

I’m still somewhere in between.


Whitechapel. London.

Then …

This is the Polly Nicholls snug room; back bar of the Jolly Bonnet. It is a small, comfortable space that smells of meat pies and furniture polish. It is illuminated with oil lamps and candles. It contains a cosiness; an air of autumn. At the centre of the room is a table made from an old wine vat, its surface stained almost black by decades of spilled wine and beer. A trio of rickety leather chairs are positioned like points on a masonic star. In one sits a straight-backed, short-haired woman in her mid-thirties, dressed in a Victorian costume that speaks of steam engines, hair grips, gaslight and clockwork. She wears tight black trousers, knee-high boots and a lacy, high-throated white top with three-quarter sleeves, which she has pinned below her delicate jawline with a brooch embossed with a red skeleton. Her hair is a henna-brown that clashes with the ruby of her fingernails and the black of her fingerless gloves. A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles hangs on a chain around her neck. She is dressed to complement her surroundings, which give off an air of the sophisticatedly shabby; that luxuriously threadbare quality so beloved of glossy magazines.

The light flickers suddenly, as if a train has passed overhead. Black and gold, black and gold. A loose wire, perhaps.

‘Cut it out, Polly,’ says the woman under her breath. The instruction masks the sound of clumping footsteps. There is a fizzing sound and then the bulb flares bright white. The lamp pitches a golden blush on to the face of a young girl who is barging through from the main bar. She is a scowl of a thing; all wrinkled nose and bumpy brow. She’s tall. A bit squishy in places. She looks like an overgrown cherub, with her big mop of honey-coloured hair, round eyes and apple-blossom cheeks. She slumps down in one of the armchairs and throws her schoolbag on to the other.

Molly looks up from her book. She looks tired. She has had to apply extra make-up to cover an outbreak of tiny pimples that has emerged in her hairline and on her chin. She suffers with stress-related eczema. She is working long hours and her tongue is stippled with tiny ulcers that betray her current poor health. There never seems enough time to eat proper meals any more.

‘Mum!’ says Hilda, looking at her expectantly. ‘You’re just sitting there. You’ve gone dead-eyed again. You look like a corpse.’

They sit in silence for a moment. Molly’s eyes return to her book. Hilda folds herself deeper into her chair and looks up at the ceiling, where steam from her wet coat and sodden hair is vanishing into the darkness.

‘What’s wrong with Polly?’ asks Hilda at last.

‘In a grump. Sick of it. Not happy in the slightest.’

Hilda nods, understanding. Neither of them has any real belief in ghosts or spirits but they have taken to referring to the Bonnet’s idiosyncrasies as being the work of ‘Polly’ – the understandably restless spirit of Jack the Ripper’s first victim. Molly has encouraged Hilda to remain silent about this fact during group discussions at school. She realizes that, out of context, it sounds a little odd. Much of Hilda’s life sounds odd on paper.

‘It’s probably the weather,’ says Hilda, wriggling herself upright. ‘Cats and dogs out there. Worse. Cows and zebras.’

‘Unicorns and porcupines,’ says Molly, playing along. They could do this for a while.

Hilda gradually lets go of her bad mood. The apartment she and her mother share is two streets away, in an old pumping station transformed into stylishly shabby apartments. It is a nice place, and home to her fat-faced cat, Ripper, but it is this bar, where her mum is boss, that she thinks of as home. It is a gift for any child with a vivid imagination. Her mind has invented wonderful stories here. She keeps telling her English teacher that she should come in for a drink. Gushes with enthusiasm over the fixtures, fittings and finery. Gets her eras in a tangle from time to time. Mixes up the Tudor with the Victorian. Tells her teacher that the bar is the kind of place where Guy Fawkes might meet with his co-conspirators. The sort of place a working girl, a soiled dove, might down a final tot of rum before evaporating into the murk of Whitechapel for an assignation with a madman’s blade. A lot of effort and money has gone into the creation of such an illusion. Though this building on the corner of Brushfield Street is several hundred years old, it has only been a hostelry for a few years. When the Ripper was doing his bloody business, the premises was a print works. Its only real connection to the world’s most famous serial killer comes in the form of the posters that were printed on the presses during the panic which followed the third of the Ripper’s murders, when rich and well-meaning women began a campaign to provide greater comfort and safety for the unfortunates of the hellish neighbourhood where the murderer seemed able to strike with impunity. One such poster hangs above the fireplace in the main bar. It is the first thing that tourists see when they push open the creaking double doors and gaze at the shabby elegance of the Jolly Bonnet – Whitechapel’s premier Victorian gin bar.

‘Homework?’ asks Molly. ‘Hot chocolate on the way?’

‘Julien is doing it,’ replies Hilda. ‘He said he didn’t mind.’

‘He’s sucking up,’ scowls Molly. ‘An hour late this morning. We were supposed to clean the lines and do a tasting for the new puddings. And he was still in the same shirt as yesterday.’

‘I like Julien,’ shrugs Hilda. ‘He’s funny.’

‘He’s not funny,’ says Molly, then concedes that perhaps she is being harsh. She likes her junior barman. He’s twenty-three, Croatian and is tattooed from his ankles to his neck. He has a moustache waxed into tips and looks splendid in his braces, bow tie and button-down shirt.

‘You used to give me a kiss when you got in,’ says Molly. ‘It was the best bit of my day. Too cool now, are you?’

Hilda rolls her eyes but smiles as she rises from her chair. She rounds the table and gives her mum a cuddle, pressing their cheeks together. Molly smells of Cool Water perfume; of cake, tea and hairspray. Hilda is all wet clothing and outdoors.

‘Extra marshmallows,’ says Julien, arriving soundlessly from the main bar and placing a large, copper-coloured mug on the table. It contains steaming hot chocolate and seems to have been topped with most of the pick’n’mix in London.

‘I haven’t forgiven you,’ says Molly, giving him a harsh look. Julien mimes slapping his wrist. Molly, despite herself, sticks out her tongue.

‘Your friends are coming through,’ says Julien. ‘Lottie. Sheamus. The little fat one.’

‘That’s mean,’ says Hilda.

‘Christine’s not fat,’ says Molly, waving her hand. ‘She’s got a gland thing. It makes her puffy.’

Hilda is considering her response when the staff from the pathology lab at the hospital troop into the snug. Lottie is leading. She is a small, curvy woman with olive skin and bright purple hair. She is wearing a long black leather jacket over a tight black hoodie – unzipped to show off the cleavage that is responsible for many of her thousands of followers on social media. Her chest is tattooed with an anatomically perfect sketch of the human heart and lungs. She is a pathologist by day and YouTube darling by night. She is also thoroughly filthy, a part-time burlesque dancer, and Molly’s best friend.

‘Wetter than a herring’s nostril out there,’ says Lottie, shaking her hair, rubbing Hilda’s head, pulling up a chair from the fireplace and taking a swig of her Gin Fizz in one fluid gesture. ‘I’ve been gagging for this …’

Molly inclines her head to accept Lottie’s kiss on her cheek. She looks up as the other morticians make themselves comfortable. She stands and directs the peculiar-looking gentleman into her vacant seat. His name is Sheamus. He is all skin, bones and ill-fitting clothes. Christine pulls up the other chair. She is drinking Baileys and eating crisps. Shorter than Hilda, she has large, slightly wonky eyes and doesn’t say a lot.

‘The Gargoyle is asking about the scarificator again,’ says Lottie, sitting down and finishing her drink in one slug. She puts the empty glass on top of her head. ‘You sell it to that abomination of a human being and I’ll stab you through the eye.’

Molly sighs. The Jolly Bonnet has become a must-see destination for anybody with an interest in the murky world of morbid anatomy. Lottie has helped her friend source an enviable supply of specimen jars, death art and all manner of Victorian medical equipment. The bar is a paradise for women who wear black eye make-up and who used to draw skulls on their pencil cases at school. It is also popular with the die-hards, the fanatics who will travel thousands of miles to bid for eighteenth-century scalpels that were used to disembowel some notable asylum inmate in some experiment or another. Without really trying, Molly has amassed some decent exhibits and sometimes it is all she can do to stop some of the more rabid collectors from running off with her pickled spleens.

‘I’ll go be polite,’ says Molly. She turns to Hilda. ‘You’ve got an hour for homework and hot chocolate. If Auntie Lottie happens to do some of it for you then I’m not going to ask too many questions, okay? But there’s no Believerz if it’s not done and I know you want to see Meda. How’s all that going anyway?’

Hilda coughs, theatrically. ‘Sveiki. Esu Hilda, nors aš kartais norèčiau buvo vadinamas kažkas. Sveiki atvykę į Jolly Bonnet. Aš tikiuosi, kad jūs neprieštaraujate mano Muma yra taip keista.’

‘Impressive,’ says Lottie. ‘I can ask for a threesome in Danish if that’s any help.’

Hilda joins in the laughter and Molly hopes to goodness that she is only pretending to understand. Leaving the cosiness of the Polly Nicholls behind her, Molly makes her way down the dark, lamp-lit corridor to the front bar. There’s a decent crowd in tonight. Half a dozen men in nice shirts and loosened ties, drinking pints of real ale and playing with their mobile phones. A man and a woman, sitting in the window, arguing about something unfathomable as they share a triple burger, taking their bites in turn. A French girl, drinking white wine and typing ideas into her laptop. The old boy, hand over his face like he’s got the worst migraine in the world. And him. The collector. The one Lottie calls the Gargoyle. Back for more.

‘Your Grace,’ says Brendan, effusively. He has thinning hair swept back into a nasty little rat tail and there is a mottling of grog-blossoms on his nose and jowls.

‘Brendan,’ says Molly. She allows him to bow and press his damp lips to the back of her hand. She manages a smile, which turns to horror as she sees what he has brought with him. ‘Oh, you dickhead, there’s eyeballs on the bar!’

A wooden case sits on the bar in front of Brendan in the sort of position most people would deposit a laptop. Inside are fifty glass eyes, carefully arranged into beautifully crafted wooden squares. They are a variety of different colours and are staring out in all directions.

‘Are they not beautiful? They arrived today.’ He looks at the eyeballs as if they are children and they stare back without expression. He preens a little. ‘Nine hundred and eighty pounds at auction, but it was worth it to defeat Autolycus. Manufactured by the wonderful Lemoine Flizet Peigné in Paris a century ago. Only one tiny chip to one specimen. I find myself utterly transfixed. I have not yet utilized them for their original purpose as prostheses, but perhaps if my lady commands …’

Molly pulls a face, exasperated. Brendan is constantly bringing in his specimens and regaling the staff about his ongoing feud with a rival collector by the name of Autolycus. Molly has got very good at saying ‘that’s awful’ while not really listening.

‘You are so frigging weird, Brendan. What do you do with all this stuff? I mean, I used to collect teapots. I like oil lamps. All this medical stuff – it’s a bit creepy.’

A whiff of strong perfume and damp clothes trickles into Molly’s nostrils and a moment later she feels Lottie take her in a hug from behind. She peers over her shoulder and looks at the eyeballs. ‘Nice,’ she says, begrudgingly. ‘Parisian?’

‘Of course!’ says Brendan, delighted.

‘And they’ll be going to a museum, will they?’ she asks, sounding disapproving. ‘You’ll allow people to enjoy the craftsmanship …’

‘I am a private collector. It is a long and noble calling. They will fit in at my private museum. My own Aladdin’s cave. My palace of oddments and peculiarities …’

Molly rubs her forehead. She could do without this. ‘You were trying to buy it,’ she says, flatly. ‘Again. You were offering money to Julien to turn a blind eye while you took it. And don’t say you weren’t. Or show me your blind eyes. Now, are we going to have to go through this again?’

Brendan has his heart set on a scarificator. It is a small device and currently shielded from dirty fingers within a tall glass case behind the bar. The Mallam scarificator allowed for vaccination against smallpox. All its user had to do was dip its four lethal-looking blades into the pustules of a person already infected, then flip the lever to stab the blades into their arm. It was one of the more brutally ingenious devices of the eighteenth century and looks to Molly about as appealing a concept as a French kiss with a shark.

‘I am in funds, Duchess,’ says Brendan. He is holding a brandy glass containing enough Courvoisier to house a goldfish. ‘I know you to be a fine specimen of womanhood. You are a collector, as am I. You strike a hard bargain and I applaud you for it. But if I do not have the item then I declare I shall be of miserable cheer for the rest of my days. I implore you, name your price.’

‘Brendan, I’m tired, mate. I haven’t got the energy tonight. Get your balls off the bar.’

‘Wednesday, yes?’ says Brendan, unexpectedly. ‘Dance class. You and the enfanta. I would not dream of standing in your way. But please, I implore you – give me an indication that all is not lost.’

‘Brendan, there are only so many ways I can say the same thing,’ she says. ‘The exhibits are on loan. If I sell one, or lose one, it will go to court. I only work here. I own nothing. And if you tell me I own your heart, I promise, I will glass you.’

Molly looks up as the man at the end of the bar gives a polite laugh. She hadn’t noticed him before. He’s not a big guy but he has broad shoulders and his big arms strain at the fabric of his brown leather coat. His hair has been trimmed down close to his skull and there is a map of scars upon his left temple. His stubble is a day away from becoming a dark beard and he is looking at Molly with eyes that suggest he is reading an invisible inscription on the inside of her skull.

‘My dear, I would implore you to name your price,’ says Brendan. ‘I will make the cheque out to whomsoever you decree. Or perhaps I might pay cash …’

‘Seriously, Brendan, have your drink and toddle off home. I’m not in the mood. Could I be clearer? Hilda gets this concept and she’s only fucking ten!’

Brendan starts laughing, showing badly capped teeth. He seems about to return with a counter-offer when the mobile phone tucked into Molly’s bra starts to vibrate. It’s her alarm, telling her she needs to get her daughter home and changed for Believerz and try to feed her something halfway nutritious along the way.

‘Mum, are we going? I really want to see Meda. And you know how Sylvie can be when we’re late. Can we run?’

‘We’re going, we’re going,’ Molly mutters, looking through the darkened window at the diagonal rain beyond the glass. ‘Can you keep up the pace?’

Hilda grins. ‘Ready …’

‘Steady …’ says Molly.

They both cheat, and set off early.

Several pairs of eyes turn and watch them go.

An overview of Medical Cannibalism and the Benefits of Vampirism

An article by Goldsmith’s research fellow Eve Burrell

February 11, 2013

For many centuries, it was not uncommon for people in the western world to consume flesh and drink blood. These people were not vampires or cannibals in the sense that we would know them today. They were people seeking strength, sustenance and an extended life. Gruesome as it might seem today, the drinking of human blood, the smearing of human fat, and the distilling of human bones into a much-prized spirit, were done with the intention of healing.

Today, lifeless corpses are viewed as something unpleasant. They are something that inspires fear and revulsion. But for a long time the corpse was a veritable supermarket of ingredients for healing potions. The scientists of the time were somewhat literal in their prescriptions. Powdered blood was said to help bleeding; human fat helped bruising; ground-up skulls helped with migraines or dizziness. What’s more, physicians and patients believed that ingredients obtained from corpses were most potent if they had died violently. The physician Paracelsus wrote that after a man was hanged, his ‘vital spirits’ would ‘burst forth to the circumference of the bone’. It was thought that when death came suddenly, a person’s spirit could stay trapped for at least enough time that the living might benefit from its power.

Epileptics of ancient Rome drank the blood of slain gladiators and the practice gained renewed favour as a health tonic during the Renaissance. The blood was typically harvested from the freshly dead, but could also be taken from the living. Marsilio Ficino, a highly respected fifteenth-century Italian scholar and priest, said that elderly people hoping to regain the spring in their step should ‘suck the blood of an adolescent’. By the 1650s there was a general belief that drinking fresh, hot blood from the recently deceased would cure epilepsy, as well as help with consumption. Meanwhile, dried and powdered blood was recommended for nosebleeds or sprinkled on wounds to stop bleeding.

Skulls were another commodity prized for their healing powers. The seventeenth-century English physician John French offered at least two recipes for distilling skulls into spirits, one of which he said not only ‘helps the falling sickness, gout, dropsy’ and stomach troubles but also was ‘a kind of panacea’. (The other recipe was better for ‘epilepsy, convulsions, all fevers putrid or pestilential, passions of the heart’.) English King Charles II, an enthusiastic chemist with his own laboratory, is reported to have paid six thousand pounds to a professor at a local college for a recipe for distilled powdered skull, which thereafter became known as ‘the King’s drops’. The remedy was popular for a variety of complaints and seems to have often been mixed into wine or chocolate …


Mr Farkas lives in a big brown house at the end of Fournier Street in Spitalfields, London. Were he to open the shutters and lean out of the window in the attic room, he would be able to see the Ten Bells pub and the shadows cast by the great dirty iceberg of Christchurch. He would hear the carillon and call of the bells. Were he to strain his ears he would perhaps hear the occasional word drifting up from the street guides who lead tours around this historic neighbourhood. Some of the experts believe that Jack the Ripper lived here. Modern profiling techniques have been applied to the locations of his victims and this street, where working girls used to ply their trade and drink their gin, is at the very centre of the kill zone.

Mr Farkas does not care about the Ripper. He does not understand the fascination. He takes no notice of the crowds who gather near his front door and who wonder how a property on such a sought-after street could have been allowed to fall into such disrepair. There was a time when he would have been tempted to open the shutters and pour cold water on the guides in their frock coats and top hats and to listen to the squeals of the tourists who keep taking pictures of his front door. But Mr Farkas does not have the strength any more. He has not leaned out of the window of the attic room for a long time. He has dizzy spells and does not like the feeling of insubstantiality that overcomes him when he looks down from a height. He imagines himself torn away on the breeze like a shirt snatched from a washing line. Or worse – toppling forward and plummeting to the road beneath. He can see it perfectly. Can imagine himself coming apart like a bag of dropped offal and exploding all over the pavement. Mr Farkas does not like the idea of such destruction. His flesh matters little to him, but the thought of his blood being so ill-used is a horrifying one.

Mr Farkas is a thin, reedy sort of man. His greying hair is thick and neatly parted and covers his ears on both sides, as was the style when he attended university. He has a large nose that does little to draw attention away from his bushy, impressive moustache. He is very pale. His fingers look like candles on a birthday cake and his lips are the sickly grey of soggy paper. There is a sheen of sweat upon his skin.

Mr Farkas is sitting in one of the rooms on the second floor of the house. He does not remember entering it. He is accustomed to these moments of returning to himself without recollection of where he has been. He is an educated man. A respected academic. It is true that these moments of disassociation, of disconnection, are becoming more frequent, but he tells himself he has been under a great deal of pressure recently. He does not sleep well. He eats infrequently. He is cold much of the time, despite the perspiration on his brow. Lately he has made the decision to stop taking his tablets.

Mr Farkas blinks, slowly. He takes stock of the environment in which he finds himself unexpectedly situated. He is in the room that his wife used to use when she dabbled in art. It faces out on to the street instead of into the enclosed back garden and the light from the streetlamp casts a lurid yellow glow through the open shutters. It mingles with the blue light that shines from the laptop computer by his feet. He is sitting down in a leather armchair. It is plum-coloured but appears a deep shade of ox blood in this light. The rest of the room is largely bare. A stack of books are piled in a ruined pyramid in the corner and an easel with a broken leg leans against the shutters. A paintbrush sticks through the canvas, skewering the eye of the vaguely female face that smiles dazedly out from the smears of paint.

Mr Farkas examines himself. He is dressed in his finery. Grey-black, high-waisted trousers in brushed cotton. High-collared white dress shirt and waistcoat in herringbone tweed. He wears a blood-red cravat at his collar. He is draped in a soft blue smoking jacket, embroidered with turquoise threads. There is a patch worn smooth on the velvet of the collar and he finds himself stroking it as he casts his eyes around him. He is dressed as she likes. He is her creation. Her anachronism. Her old-fashioned Daddy.

Mr Farkas thinks of Beatrix.

Of his cica.

His blood.

Mr Farkas rarely allows himself to speak in his native Hungarian. His English is almost without accent and the academic textbooks that he has written are regularly praised for their precision and mastery of language. Through training and willpower he has ensured that his thoughts invariably arrive in his head in his adopted language. He only allows himself this one indulgence – this one word from his childhood. He calls his child his cica. His kitten. It suits her. She is soft and languid and seems to purr when he strokes her hair. She is playful and inquisitive and has the same piercing eyes as her father. She is the blood of his blood. She is made of the same things as he is.

Mr Farkas stares at a patch of damp on the patterned wallpaper of the chimney breast. The paper was expensive. Game birds and exotic fruits upon a rich blue background. It seems to shimmer in the peculiar light. Mr Farkas stares. After a time it becomes a face, the way clouds become dragons and flames form into dancers. It is a round, well-fed face. Dark, deep-set eyes and a slack mouth, as if the jawbone has been dislocated and improperly set. The face has a dark widow’s peak which disappears into some form of flamboyant periwig, and the throat is bisected by a disk with ruffled edges. It becomes clearer the more he looks. Becomes more precise. More real. Soon Mr Farkas is unsure whether he is looking at the pattern in the damp, or whether it is looking at him. It is no longer a part of the picture. The alchemist is standing in front of him. Heeled shoes and breeches. Stockings to the knee. A dark, formal coat over a blood-red waistcoat. He is considering Mr Farkas critically, as though mentally disassembling him into his component parts. He moves, and Mr Farkas thinks of magic lantern shows from his childhood. The alchemist moves fluidly; a gracefulness made up of flickering images, all minutely different from the last. It is as if the alchemist is disappearing and reforming too fast for the eye to process. Mr Farkas finds it unsettling. The alchemist’s presence always precedes a terrible headache and nausea. The doctor has urged him to be alert for any such symptoms. He has allayed the doctor’s fears. Told them that he is not experiencing any hallucinations, painful cranial pressure or hearing the soft, sibilant voices that have undone him at different times of his life. He is only half lying. Mr Farkas does not believe he sees hallucinations. He knows the alchemist is here. He is simply the only one who can see him.

A creeping feeling of disquiet inches over Mr Farkas. He is overcome by a sensation of having done something shameful. It is a feeling he can only liken to waking from a dream having committed adultery. He feels grubby, despite his fine clothes. He feels as though he has dressed in splendid garments while still unwashed and caked in filth. He does not like it. He feels himself shuddering and becomes aware of a chemical taste in his mouth. He does not remember taking any medication but he cannot say for certain that he has not. He knows himself to be an occasional slave to his pleasures. He has been known to sip from his cache of illicit prizes from time to time. One entire room of his house is given over to the oddities that he has collected over the past thirty years. He has a love for medical paraphernalia. Mr Farkas regrets that he did not train to become a doctor. Were he given his chance again, he would train as a surgeon. Instead, he has made a living as an expert in the history of medical advancement and is one of the world’s leading authorities on antique medical equipment. His home contains artefacts worth almost as much as the property itself. He has been known to help himself to the occasional sample from his private museum of curiosities. He has routinely dropped laudanum on to his tongue from an original pipette manufactured in Belgium in the 1840s. The dealer from whom he purchased the item claimed that it had briefly been owned by Lewis Carroll, though he had been unable to verify the claim. The provenance does not matter to Mr Farkas. He cares little for Carroll. The laudanum helps Mr Farkas see. It helps him find the right mental frequency, tuning him in to the voice, the vision, that has provided him with such comfort these many months. Were it not for the chemicals, Mr Farkas is unsure whether he and the alchemist would have found each other. And without the alchemist, Mr Farkas would never have understood what was required of him. He would have continued to think of life and death as distinct states. He would have thought his bloodline dammed. Instead, something approximating his offspring continues to breathe. And that pleases Mr Farkas and the alchemist very much.

For a time, a young research fellow used to help Mr Farkas with his experiments. She compiled a thick folder of the documents and scribblings that they had pored over together. She had drawn exquisite anatomical specimens and her neat handwriting had turned Mr Farkas’s scrawled notes into something close to art. Mr Farkas had been touched by the gesture and his rare, awkward smile had made the girl grin in a way that made him uncomfortable. It made him wonder if his wife had been right when she told him that it was folly to invite her into their home. Folly to encourage her burgeoning obsession with the professor who had been appointed to oversee her PhD. He had dismissed his wife’s fears. Told her that he had tutored thousands of students and that it would take somebody extraordinary to turn his head. He did not want her for anything other than her willingness to do as he asked. It was her approval that he liked most – the way she condoned what must be done in the name of advancement.

The documents within the young student’s scrapbook have long since been ripped into scraps. The home which used to mean so much to Mr Farkas and his family is now a broken-down mass of shadows, damp and fallen brick. The garden is overgrown and most of the rooms are empty. Mr Farkas will eventually make things right with the property but for now he has other concerns. He must make things right with his daughter. He must make things right with his blood.

Mr Farkas breathes in and catches the whiff of it. That tang of iron and vinegar.

A memory surfaces.


Angry conversations about platelets and blood counts and urgings that he should prepare himself for the worst.

He screws up his face as if biting down on the memory. The picture bursts and his mind floods with the juice of other remembrances. Exertions. Recent undertakings that left his chest heaving and his skin coated in mud, sweat and blood. He cannot quite recall how Beatrix had evaded him when she sleepwalked away from her bed in the cellar but it had been a hard job to find her and bring her home. He seems to recall having to hurt somebody but he is not sure whether the memory is real or something he has read. He fancies that it is the work of imagination. He knows he is not a violent man.

Soon, Mr Farkas will walk downstairs and into the kitchen. He will pull up the heavy door in the floor and descend into the specially adapted cellar room beneath. He will sit by his daughter’s bedside and he will read her one of her favourite stories. These moments are precious to him and he knows what they mean to her. They distract them both from feeling too negatively about the future. He cannot deny that she is getting sicker. Her face looks pale and ragged, no matter how hard he tries to apply lipstick and rouge to her greying features.

Mr Farkas would suffer far more in these moments of despondency were it not for the alchemist. He has reached out through the centuries and spoken to Mr Farkas. He has given him instruction on what can be done. What must be done.

Tomorrow he will give Beatrix her medicine. He will attach a rubber tube to the goose-feather quills that puncture her veins. He will bleed her into a gleaming silver cup. He will fill her full of the refrigerated blood that he guards as if it were treasure. And then he will lay his head upon her chest and listen to her heart beat, hard and true, with a blood that he will never allow to die.

Mr Farkas casts an eye on the computer screen. She will be talking to him soon. The girl with the blue hair and the large breasts and the understanding of what goes on beneath the skin. He enjoys her. She has spirit. Her understanding is rudimentary but he would like to talk with her some day. He believes that she may be crucial in raising awareness of the alchemist’s work. He has sent her several messages on the discussion forum on her website, urging her to consider turning her attentions to the forgotten master. Perhaps she will do so tonight.

The thought causes a frisson of excitement to course through Mr Farkas’s veins. He slides towards the computer. Opens up the document he is working on. It is a short article for an academic magazine detailing the life of a seventeenth-century anatomist and surgeon. He is satisfied with the article but is not yet ready to send it. His work requires a conclusion. He fancies that when Beatrix sits up and holds him and stares out through new eyes, he will glimpse at once an end, and a new beginning.


‘Do I have lipstick on my teeth?’ asks Lottie, pulling a face at Christine. The gurn is extravagant and more than a little manic.

‘No, you’re fine. Pearly white.’

‘My sort of fine or a general fine?’ asks Lottie, concerned. ‘The sort of “fine” I say when it’s really not very fine at all, or a general kind of “hey, that’s damn fine”?’

‘Could you stop looking at me like that please? You look like a chimpanzee on a rollercoaster. I’m a bit out of my depth …’

Lottie looks as though she is going to push for more and then takes pity on her friend. Christine is socially awkward and always seems to be doing battle with a surfeit of saliva. She is at her happiest labelling exhibits at the pathology museum and writing long and impenetrable blogs with titles like The Death of Death and Is Cremation a Feminist Issue? She has a lot of followers on social media but has never used her own image to promote her output. She prefers to hang back in the shadows. Lottie presumes that she lives with her parents and that her bedroom is all black potion bottles, Edgar Allan Poe stories and Buffy the Vampire Slayer posters.

‘Nothing up my nose?’

‘Lottie, I don’t want to look up your nose.’

‘Why? Is there something up it?’

‘This was never in the job description!’

Lottie laughs and starts blowing raspberries to make her lips look fuller for the camera. Christine mimics her, but while Lottie looks cheeky and sweet, Christine seems to be doing an impression of a motorboat. Lottie looks away. She sometimes wonders if she has befriended a version of herself from an alternate reality. Lottie was just as shy as Christine during her school days in Reading and if it were not for a conscious decision to embrace her own uniqueness, she could have easily become a timid and introverted adult. She knows what it is like to be the victim of endless dead arms and Chinese burns and has fished her exercise books out of so many toilets and rubbish bins that she has never got out of the habit of doing duplicate copies of her homework. But at 15 she decided that it was better to be different than to blend in, and spent her birthday money on the kind of black boots that figure in a certain kind of person’s darkest fantasies. She started wearing white foundation and thick black eyelashes and eyebrows. Started dyeing her hair a deep purple-black. Started wearing chokers and little purple corsets over tight black skirts. Half a lifetime later she is Dr Lottie. She’s the darling of the Death Salon, the Queen of the Coffin Club. She’s a well-respected pathologist and an excellent curator of the necro-museum she personally established, and she is a recognizable figurehead for the whole sub-culture of morbid anatomy. Her regular webisodes on her own YouTube channel have got huge viewing figures and the work on mainstream TV is picking up. She could easily be dining at The Ivy or quaffing champagne at a gallery opening right now, but she feels more at home in the Jolly Bonnet. There is something comforting about the place. It feels a little like a wrinkle in time – as though she could constantly open the door to another era. She wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a regular had been killed by Jack the Ripper or that the guy who drinks Guinness and wears Crocs has lost his house in a Luftwaffe raid.

‘Could you hold it for me please?’ asks Lottie, handing her phone to Sheamus. They are sitting at the circular table in the snug. Christine has eaten three packets of crisps and Sheamus has switched to water in case he is too sleepy to play on his Xbox when he gets back to his flat.

‘Just a trailer, is it?’ asks Christine, softly.

‘Agent says that’s what I should be doing more of,’ says Lottie. ‘Little bursts. Gifs. A few seconds of this or that. It’s about staying in the consciousness of your followers, which is a sentence I never thought I would say.’

‘But they must be people with an interest in anatomy and death,’ says Sheamus, confused. ‘And that’s not something you can just whiz through …’

‘A lot of the viewers just want to see an example of mad stuff that’s been removed from rectums,’ shrugs Lottie. ‘Others tune in for something a bit more in-depth, which sounds crude, though I don’t know why. Some people really do want to know about the history of the profession and some of the stories from around the world. People waking up in body bags. Ninety-year-old smokers with magnificent lungs. Bullets found inside the bodies of people who have no idea when they got shot. The weird stuff. They love all that.’

‘And you,’ says Christine, almost too quietly to be heard. ‘They like you.’

‘Well, I suppose,’ says Lottie, wishing she had a stock response to such praise. ‘I’m cheaper than porn, I suppose. But this is just me. And if it helps get people interested in the craft then it’s no bad thing.’

Christine pulls a face. For a moment she looks like a rabbit about to burst into tears. ‘Do we want more people in the craft? I mean, my numbers of followers are going up. There are more and more people coming to the Death Salon meetings. I mean, it’s meant to be an alternative lifestyle …’ Christine trails off, seemingly appalled with herself for having spoken. Lottie pats her arm. She understands the feeling. She used to be part of an exclusive club. Now everybody seems to be worshipping Day of the Dead masks and doing interesting things with human remains.

‘Guilty as charged,’ smiles Lottie. ‘That’s what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Get the conversation going again. Get people to recognize their own mortality and to embrace it.’

‘Sounds like a suicide club,’ says Sheamus, shoving his finger in his ear and twisting it, as if chalking a pool cue.

Lottie feels her enthusiasm waning. She decides to leave it until Molly returns before she films herself. She always feels more vibrant in Molly’s company. She brings a sparkle to her eyes. Puts colour on her cheeks. Her last three casual boyfriends have all subtly implied that she sees Molly as more than a friend. She has not dignified the accusation with an explanation. She doubts they would understand. She does love Molly, but it is not in any way that her occasional bedroom partners could understand. She just wants to be near her. Wants to please her. Likes breathing in the same air she has breathed out. She is her best friend and something more. Something indefinable. Something that makes her a pathologist and morbidity scholar who actually believes in souls. She has dug around inside enough corpses to know that not everything can be found with a scalpel.

‘Not bothering?’ asks Sheamus, as Lottie puts her phone down on the barrel.

‘Maybe in a bit. I need inspiration. Or another drink.’

‘I’ll get them,’ says Sheamus, and takes her empty glass. ‘Spare you having to talk to the sweaty chap again.’

Lottie smiles her thanks. She likes Sheamus. He’s physically on the repulsive side but she imagines she will probably allow him to have sex with her some day. He is a good friend and has helped her with lots of research projects and she fancies it would be rude not to give him something that he would so obviously enjoy. She has told Molly as such, only to be told off for valuing herself too cheaply. Lottie spent a lot of time thinking about the scolding and eventually realized what her friend had been trying to tell her. On the back of the telling-off, she has decided not to have sex with people until they really deserve it. That way, the reward has more value.

‘I’m sorry if I sounded like I was going on,’ says Christine, and Lottie is horrified to see tears in the young technician’s eyes. There is steam on her thick glasses.

‘Oh goodness, don’t be silly,’ says Lottie, feeling awkward and putting a hand on her well-upholstered arm. ‘You’re my friend. I love to hear your opinions.’

‘I always let myself down,’ says Christine, looking at her shoes. ‘My dad always said so. So much potential and then I spoil it with my big mouth.’

Lottie looks around, hoping for rescue. None is forthcoming. She is stuck with this shy, sad little Goth girl and her rucksack full of assorted woes.

‘Hey, actually, I wanted your opinion on something,’ says Lottie, desperately trying to distract her companion.

‘Oh yes?’ asks Christine, looking up.

‘Yes … erm, yes … that creepy chap in the front bar.’

‘Brendan? He collects medical equipment. Specimens. Victorian paraphernalia. He’s quite interesting.’

Lottie cocks her head, surprised. ‘Really? I didn’t know you’d spoken.’

‘Yes, I knew him before I started drinking here. He’s a bit of a drinker but he has a good collection. He’s the one I suggested you have on for an episode, remember?’

Lottie keeps her face impassive. She receives a lot of messages from Christine and tends to skim most of them or delete them undigested. ‘Oh, right. Sorry, two and two didn’t make four for a second. I’m such a ditz … How did you know him, then?’

Christine shrugs. ‘We were at the same auction. He knows his stuff, like I said.’

Lottie has a hazy memory of Christine’s original application for the intern position at the hospital. She had listed her interests as ‘taxidermy, morbid anatomy and the study of surgical equipment’. It had accompanied a degree in histopathology and a philosophy diploma. She’d seemed absurdly overqualified on paper. Only when she interviewed the timid little thing did Lottie understand why she had struggled to find a better position.

‘Do you have much of a collection then?’ asks Lottie, hoping that Sheamus will hurry back with their drinks.

‘I wasn’t buying,’ said Christine. ‘This was for a research paper I was putting together. The history of transfusion and the symbolic role of blood. Some of Jean Denys’s papers were available to be viewed. I couldn’t resist. Neither could he. He’s a big fan.’

Lottie screws up her face as she tries to place the name. ‘Anatomist,’ she says, wincing. ‘Transfused calf’s blood into a mad bloke in Paris to try and calm his troubled mind. Ended up charged with murder.’

Christine nods, appreciatively. The tears in her eyes are sparkling now as she warms to her theme.

‘Did you know that in ancient Rome, people would pay to drink the blood of dying gladiators so that the strength of the fallen could pass on to the living? The blood contained the essence of a person, you see. Fifteen hundred years later, people still believed that. When Denys transferred the blood of the calf to the mental patient, it was in the certain belief that the calf’s “mild soul” would quieten the heated, troubled blood in the recipient’s body. Of course, that’s the tip of the iceberg. You wouldn’t believe the lengths that he and his rivals went to practise their techniques. There were anatomists transfusing milk and wine and vinegar into their pets to see what effect it would have on their disposition. I’ll send you the link if you think there could be a webcast in it. For you, I mean. Not with me, or anything …’

Lottie nods. She has never seen her friend so energized. She has a sudden mental picture of Christine’s home. Can imagine a lot of dead birds and stuffed rats in wedding dresses. She would put good money on candles in empty wine bottles, pictures of cemeteries taken through cobwebbed railings, and at least one top hat crowned with feathers. She feels a sudden surge of fondness for Christine and her ilk. She likes the idea that there are thousands of people out there, all fascinated by her work and her webcasts and the work she is doing to make death as sexy as it used to be.

‘She can talk,’ says Sheamus, returning from the bar.

‘Molly? She’s back?’

‘No, old girl. Looks like something from a fairy tale.’


‘Apparently I’m a right skinnymalink, whatever that might be. Need a good sheep dip. Smarten myself up a bit and get the mice out of my beard and I might be a looker.’

Lottie laughs. ‘She’s got character. Molly says her nan gave evidence at the Mary Kelly inquest. Spotted Mary with a gent in a tall hat the day before she died.’

Christine looks startled. ‘Is that true? Her own grandmother?’

‘Well, if Connie was born about 1930 then of course it would be possible, but no doubt half the East End can lay claim to the Ripper story.’

‘Doesn’t she talk about it? That would be fascinating.’ Christine looks as though she has just learned that she is in the presence of a megastar. ‘Would she talk to you?’

‘Don’t even go there,’ says Lottie, affecting an American accent. ‘She hates all the Ripper stuff. Reckons we should all get over it.’

‘But she drinks in a Ripper bar!’

‘She likes the atmosphere, so she says. Likes the way Molly handles problems. Thinks I’m a right mess of a human being. Doesn’t like the hair, although I bet you half her neighbours in sheltered housing have a blue rinse.’

They drink their drinks and Lottie feels herself becoming more enthusiastic about a broadcast. She checks her reflection and the phone’s connection and a moment later is talking into her phone.

‘Evening, Coffin Club. Bloody horrible night, isn’t it? I’m not sure the rockabilly curl will last all the way home. I’ll be looking like a drowned Fraggle by morning. Just wanted to drop you all a quick hello from yes, you guessed it, London’s finest gin bar. It’s been a fine night in the company of these fabulous people.’ She spins the camera and Sheamus waves. Christine covers her face, as if the light of the phone will burn her. ‘We’ve got a shy one! You’ll have to excuse us. We’ve had a shock. A fellow enthusiast of all things curious has just proudly displayed his collection of optical prosthetics. That’s glass eyes to you and me. All different shades, from iris to the whites. I’m not sure which shade I’ll need come the morning. Old piano keys, I reckon. Smoker teeth. Anyways, if you’re interested I’ll ask him to have a root through his collection and unearth a few oddities for your pleasure. Any requests? Anyhow, go and play with your pickled livers. Dr Lottie, out.’

Lottie gives a sigh of relief. Got it first time. She can expect at least 50,000 views. Her agent will be happy.

‘Don’t do that to me please,’ says Christine, quietly, in her ear. ‘I don’t want to be seen. I’ve told you that before. I’m not like you.’

There is an icy tone in Christine’s voice. She has gone pale. Lottie feels instantly terrible. ‘Oh, darling, I’m so sorry! I forget. It just comes naturally to me, I suppose. But I promise, I won’t ever point the camera at you again.’

Christine seems mollified. She gives a little nod and starts to put on her coat which has been hanging on the back of the chair. Lottie waves a hand in front of her own face, wafting at her eyes. There had nearly been tears. She feels chastened and the sensation is an uncomfortable one. She finds herself feeling both guilty and ill-used at once. She hadn’t meant any harm. And sure, shyness is a horrible thing, but you can overcome it. She’s proof – you can become somebody new. The girl needs to go drink some gladiator blood.

‘I could use you in early in the morning,’ says Lottie, breezily. ‘The syphilis specimens need to be moved to a new jar. Is that cool?’

Christine gives a nod. Her eyes are hard to read behind her glasses. Lottie realizes she is being a cow and tries to make amends. ‘Thanks for all that info on the blood chap. I’ll look into that, yeah. Could you send me the piece you wrote?’

A little grin splits Christine’s face and Lottie feels relieved. She is not great at dealing with emotional people. Her expertise is the dead.

Lottie sits in silence with Sheamus for a time. She can think of little to say. She would like to be on camera all the time. She seems better able to communicate when she has an audience instead of a companion.

‘Shall we go sit with Connie?’ she asks, at length. ‘We can hear what she thinks of my career choices and shoes.’

‘If she calls me a lanky fucker one more time I may cry,’ says Sheamus.

‘Prepare yourself for tears,’ says Lottie, and lifts herself from the chair. As she glances at her phone, she sees that Christine has already sent her half a dozen links to different articles on Jean Denys. She rolls her eyes and sends a smiley face of thanks. She’ll read them later.

‘Anything?’ asks Sheamus.

‘A sea of blood,’ says Lottie, shrugging. ‘Honestly, Christine needs another hobby. You can’t live on taxidermy and specimen-labelling alone.’

‘That’s what my old Mum used to say,’ mutters Sheamus, as they emerge into the front bar. Connie is sitting in her usual position and she covers her eyes with her gnarled hands as she looks at the duo in the doorway.

‘Facking hell, it’s the Munsters.’

‘I love her,’ says Sheamus, sitting down at the bar. ‘Connie, I love you.’

‘Fack off, Beanpole.’

‘Now now, Connie, no need for that …’

‘And you look like a … what are those things? Funny shoes? Out on the common. Pick things up …’

‘A Womble?’ asks Lottie, hopefully.

‘No, a hooker, that’s it.’

Lottie shakes her head, face all smiles. She loves this place. Loves it here. Loves London, with its rain and its noise and the feeling that every breath has been through a million other lungs before it reaches your own. No wonder it attracts people like Christine, she thinks. No wonder it’s a Mecca for those with a hunger for bones and blood. The city is built upon so much of it that it’s amazing the East End doesn’t sink.

‘Your health, Connie,’ says Lottie, raising a glass.

‘Fack off.’


Late for everything, Mum and me. Never turned up anywhere without the need to spit out an apology while sucking in oxygen and looking around for a water fountain. We were the scatterbrains. The dizzy duo that the sensible parents would scowl at as we ran across the playground, eating a sausage roll from a plastic wrapper and gamely licking yesterday’s graffiti off the back of my hand. Sometimes Mum got upset at the disapproving looks she received from the other parents who sat double-parked in their Land Rovers and Porsche Cayennes and spoke with their stylists and trainers and poodle orthodontists on hands-free mobile phones. I’d heard other people call them ‘yummy-mummies’.

We were late on the night we learned about Meda. It was 6.14 p.m. by the time we made it through the blue door and up the stairs that led to Sylvie’s studio. Wet hair and soaking shoulders and one leg of my jogging pants soaked to a darker blue than the other. We stood outside the door for a moment, catching our breath.

‘Got your snack?’ asked Mum, looking me up and down.

‘Two mini cheeses and a Kit-Kat,’ I said, patting the pockets of the soaked denim jacket.

‘Eight, yeah? I was going to head back to the pub but by the time I get there I’ll have to come back. You could go with Meda’s mum but I’ve lost her number … Oh, yes, there’s that chicken place up on the busy road. Or that nice old bar in Limehouse. Do you think I could get there in time? Why am I asking? Go on, get in, love you … be brilliant!’

I had a grin on my face as I opened the door. Mum always said that. Said it every morning when she dropped me off at school. It was as much a part of our life together as ‘love you, daisy-brain’ before she switched the light off and ‘wake up, numpty-face’ each morning.

Sylvie was demonstrating the new routine, all sinewy and stretchy like she was made of knotted tights. The girls in the front row were focussing. Mimicking her moves, bright eyes and lineless faces. Nobody even looked as I scampered to my place in the back row, pulling off my jacket and shaking my hair. I chucked my stuff into the pile and did a quick couple of stretches then slotted myself in at my usual position. Greza, the Turkish girl with the huge brown eyes was smiling at me from my right. I gave her a grin back and looked past her for the familiar bulk of Meda. I couldn’t see her. Next to Greza stood Priya, with her perfect black hair sleek and dark and silky, like fancy pyjamas. I looked around to see if Meda had been moved to a different line or whether she was sitting on one of the benches by the window nursing a sprain of some kind. She wasn’t there. I glanced at the pile of coats and bags and could see nothing of hers. I scanned the room, hoping to see her big, daft shape. I can picture it perfectly. There were a few posters on the wall from performances that the class had taken part in and a big framed print of some pop star from Belgium and a woman who looked like a younger version of Sylvie. Kids in front and behind me and everything reflected back from the big mirror that covered the whole wall by the door. A black and silver stereo system hooked up to a triangular speaker, reverberating each time the bass line thumped. But no Meda.

‘She’s not here,’ said Paulette, leaning in. She was a big girl herself, with a deep voice and breath of cheese and onion. ‘She wasn’t at school either. Maybe she’s got that bug. My auntie had it and she was in bed for three days. Makes you sick so much that your eyes pop.’

I was disappointed. Dance class had been fun at first but I’d been bored for the few weeks before Meda and I became friends. I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be but the amount of practice required to make me better seemed like an awful lot of effort. Wednesday nights had become more about catching up with my friend and the thought of waiting a week to show off my new language skills seemed unfair. There was a distinct listlessness to my dancing that night. I was the little black cloud at the rear of the studio, scowling every time I spun. The dance music seemed too powerful and enthusiastic. I wanted to pull the plug and listen to the sound of the rain on the glass and the swish of tyres on wet road.

Sylvie had no answers when I managed to grab a moment with her at break time.

‘Did Meda’s mum call? Did she say if she was coming? She might turn up after break …’

Sylvie gave me one of her shrugs. She was good at shrugs. She had the cheekbones and shoulder blades for it. ‘I have heard nothing,’ she said, sticking out her lower lip and opening her hands wide to emphasize her point. ‘You are her friend. Call her. Do you have Facebook? Is she on that? Tell her mother we pay in twelve-week blocks so she must bring her money next week, yes?’

I sought out the other girls who attended the same school as Meda. Sian was one of the better dancers and normally looked at us back-rowers like something a tramp had just coughed up. But I must have caught her on a good day because she stopped dipping her banana into toffee yoghurt and gave me her attention.

‘She normally walks past my bus stop but she didn’t yesterday or today,’ she said, tugging at the tail of one plait and cocking her head at the strip lights on the ceiling. ‘And my friend Sofia sometimes walks with her to the chicken place on the way home and she told me on WhatsApp that she’d been on her own when that lad with the tram-lines in his eyebrow said those things about her sister being a slag and if Meda had have been with her she would have said I’m sure so maybe she’s just off sick or something.’

I replayed what she had told me a few times and put in the things she had missed, like pauses and sense. I asked questions but she didn’t have any answers and she got bored quite quickly. She started playing with her phone and I felt myself getting hot across my back as my temper prickled. I’d received a mobile phone for my birthday but had lost it within three weeks and would not be getting another one until I could prove I could look after something expensive. Mum said I certainly wasn’t going to be allowed to set up any accounts on social media. She’d read about some girl of my age who had thought she was talking to a distant cousin on Facebook and was actually talking to a dirty teacher from her school who persuaded her to send him photos of herself without her knickers on. I promised I would never send anybody any pictures of anything but it would be a while before I changed her mind.

‘Is she on there?’ I asked, nodding at the phone. ‘Could you see? She’s got a big family and one of them might say if she is OK.’

Sian looked at me like I was simple. ‘I haven’t got her number.’

‘No, Facebook. Are you friends?’

Sian pulled a face. ‘I hardly use Facebook. It’s for old people.’

‘But Meda does. She said so. Said she uses it to talk to her grandparents back home. She likes putting on photographs of animals and did a video of herself talking about why you shouldn’t wear fur.’

Sian blew out through her sticky lips and eyed her yoghurt. ‘What’s her proper name?’ she asked at last, behaving as if she were doing me the biggest favour ever.

I shuffled about, looking at the clock on the wall, as Sian played with her phone like she were a hacker from a movie. We tried a few spellings of the family surname but everything we managed to find was in some language that looked like it should have been carved into the wall of a cave and the few pages that were in English were of super-pretty teenagers with big boobs and white teeth.

‘She’s not on it,’ said Sian, shrugging.

‘Try the Believerz page,’ said Paulette, who had lumbered over and joined in the conversation. ‘There were the pictures that Sylvie stuck on after the competition. Loads of families put on nice messages for Reena. Maybe somebody commented.’

Sian handed me the phone and picked up her banana. ‘You do it,’ she said, exhausted by it all. ‘But don’t look at my selfies. I haven’t edited them.’

I found the page in moments. Most of it was devoted to pictures of Sylvie and her favourite three dancers, beaming for the camera and striking perfect poses. I opened different pages at random and eventually found an album titled ‘Putney/Reena’. I spotted a few pictures of myself in among the hundred or so snaps of our troupe giving our all. I looked like I knew what I was doing, though my face was all red and sweaty and if you looked closely you could see that the label of my leotard was sticking out. I lingered for a moment on the pictures of poor Reena, laying there like a starfish as we danced around her and the parents urged the paramedics to push their way through. Then I started flicking through. I’ve always been a fast reader and it didn’t take me long to scroll through the dozens of comments from family, friends and witnesses who were all wishing Reena a speedy recovery. Among them was a comment from a Rita Cicenaite. It was in a reply to a suggestion from one of the other dance mums that the girl who had failed to catch Reena should feel ashamed of herself. Rita was defending Meda. Her observation was simple. ‘If you have nothing helpful to say, keep quiet. She feels awful.’ I touched the screen and brought up the girl’s profile. She was in her late teens and much prettier than Meda. She had nice green eyes and pinkish lips and had taken her profile picture in front of a brick wall at a funny angle. She was being followed by 113 people and she had four friends in common with Sian. The top post on the page had been written just three hours before.

Feeling so helpless. Why can’t the world be nice to the nice ones? I love you, cuz.

The words captioned an image of a girl, aged around five or six. She was lying on the back of a huge, shaggy-maned white dog, grinning for the camera with a mixture of teeth and gums. There was no mistaking Meda. You could tell from the picture that she was already big for her age and the dog didn’t look as though it was going to take her cuddles without complaint for very much longer.

Underneath the picture were a variety of other messages written in another language. A dozen different people had commented on her words. The screen filled with consonants and accents and a jumble of emojis. A teenage boy called Matas had left pictures of teardrops. A blonde called Renata had included a link to a song by Coldplay. Atia had left question marks and a picture of a little posy of daisies. I felt hot and cold all at once, as if I was running through melting snow. The buzz of a dozen different conversations seemed to turn into a drone of static and jet planes. All I could think of was some desperate need to grab somebody who spoke Lithuanian and demand they translate the mass of pointy gibberish into an explanation about my friend.

‘Time,’ shouted Sylvie, and she turned the music back on. My grunt of frustration was snatched away on a wave of techno and Sian took the phone from my hand.

I barely paid any attention to what came after. I sleepwalked through the choreography and barely even looked up when Honey slipped on some squashed banana, pulled a box split she wasn’t expecting and needed to go and lie down on the bench and moan into the wood. I kept making fists with my feet inside my shoes. I got jittery every time I sat down. Something had happened. Somebody was worried for Meda and, as her friend, that meant I should be too. By the end of class I was convinced that Meda had changed schools or moved back to Lithuania or that she was dying of one of the illnesses that strike you like lightning and leave you lying out cold and bare beneath a white sheet with tubes coming in and out and flowers dropping their petals on your feet.

I needed answers. I needed to make sure everything was OK. I needed Mum to put things right.

And I’m still so bloody sorry for what I began.


Molly leans back against bricks the colour of rotten wood and luxuriates in the fantasy that she is a soiled dove – the gentle name for a Victorian whore. The rain is coming down hard and the sky has turned the same shade of bruising that she imagines her character would display upon her sore forearms and knees: all indelicate hand marks and imprinted cobbles mottling her grimy skin.

She can see her reflection in the dark glass of the blue van parked with one wheel half up on the kerb. She enjoys being able to look at herself. She is still wearing her Jolly Bonnet clothes and the cold night air has leeched the colour from her skin, accentuating her red lips and dark lashes. She experiments with her position. Places one boot upon the wall behind herself – forming a neat figure-four with her legs. She pulls down her blouse a little and pushes up her breasts, pouting at her reflection. She wrinkles her nose, dissatisfied with the presence of the van. It is an anachronism she cannot fantasize around. She would prefer to look upon the black lacquer of a coach and horses, embossed with a tasteful gold crest and plum-coloured plumes. She has passed a pleasant twenty minutes here, comfortably inconspicuous in the gap between the two circles of light that spill from the streetlamps overhead.

For a time, she imagines herself to be called Alice. She came to London with her father and four sisters. Perhaps Irish-born. Welsh, if not. Sought work in a city where there was no comfort or succour to be had. Married a gin-soaked brute who spent what little money she had saved from her work as a glover’s assistant and who beat her mercilessly before, during and after their brutish couplings on their stinking straw mattress in their one-room Spitalfields hovel. She imagines that Alice would take comfort in gin, but not to the extent of the other girls who offered to spread their legs for the price of a quart of ale. She imagines a quiet defiance in her eyes – an intelligence and intensity that would continue to burn even as a procession of rough-handed men slipped coins into her hand. She enjoys being Alice. Decides that when she and Hilda get back to work she will start work on a new cocktail in honour of this new Victorian alter-ego. Starts thinking up possible names for the tipple and giggles to herself as she imagines writing the name ‘The Whore’s Drawers’ on to the blackboard behind the bar.

Suddenly she hears feet slapping hurriedly along the wet pavement. Hears a name she has never really grown used to being called.

‘Mum. Mum, it’s Meda. She’s not at dance. I’ve been on Facebook. I know you said I shouldn’t but I was worried and I really think there’s a problem. Can we go check? I know where she lives. And you’ve got her mum’s number. Could you ring? Have you been out here all this time? Why didn’t you go to the burger place? It’s freezing. You’re soaked through …’

Molly drags herself from her fantasy and looks at her daughter. Her sweat has frizzed her hair at the temples and her face is at once pale and flushed. Her coat and bag are both slung over one arm and she has a look of real concern in her eyes.

‘Sorry, sweetheart, I was miles away. How was dance? Did you do OK? How’s Meda?’

Hilda seems ready to stamp her foot with frustration. She locks her jaw and takes a breath. She stands still as Molly reaches out to take her hand.

‘Mum, listen. I just said. Meda wasn’t there. She hasn’t been at school. And I went on a Facebook page and there were all of these people saying stuff in Lithuanian about something happening to her …’

‘You went on Facebook? You’re not allowed on there. You’re too young. And you lost your phone …’

‘Mum, you have to listen!’

Molly looks at her daughter and realizes she is being serious. She feels bad at once for being too lost in her own flight of fancy to give Hilda her full attention. She softens her expression and spreads her hands. For an instant she feels like a police officer again – using expansive and welcoming body language to persuade a child to divulge a secret about what they have just seen. Out of habit, she begins to reproach herself, then realizes that such an avenue of introspection will again cause her to stop giving the child her concentration. She forces herself to focus.

‘Right, tell me the lot. I’m all ears.’

When Hilda has finished, Molly gives a nod. She isn’t quite sure what to think but instinctively she feels an urge to minimize the situation. Often she feels like this is her main role in life; that it is her duty to modulate every new occurrence, whether it be a poor mark at school or the loss of a favourite toy, all the way up to the end of a relationship and complete financial collapse.

‘I’m sure you’ve got the wrong end of the stick,’ says Molly, and the face she pulls suggests the gentle scepticism favoured by doubtful parents the world over.

‘Did you not hear me?’ demands Hilda. ‘And don’t say I’m being dramatic. I’m worried. There were flowers, Mum. A little emoji, and all these words of sadness and all sorts.’

‘She’s probably got the flu,’ says Molly, kindly.

‘The flu?’

‘Or maybe she’s having to go away or something. Or her dog died.’

‘Her dog died? The only dog she knows here is the homeless man’s. Banky. Nice man, she says. I wonder if he has seen her. She buys treats for his dog sometimes. He lives in a sleeping bag in a park. He’s nice. Scottish. Do you think we should find him?’

Molly rubs her thumb and forefinger over her eyebrows. She would like to be back in 1889, waiting for a date with Jack the Ripper.

‘What is it you’d like me to do, Hilda?’ she asks.

‘Call her mum!’ says Hilda, and Molly notices that she is opening and closing her hands as if squeezing a ball. ‘You’ve got her number. Just check. Please, Mum.’

Molly is about to say no when she realizes that she has no good reason for doing so. Behind Hilda she can see the other girls trooping out of the blue door in the old brick building. Most are getting into waiting cars, huddling inside their hooded tops. A few other parents are waiting on the pavement, extending hands to take bags and coats and sweaty palms for brisk walks to Tube stations and taxi ranks. Meda’s mum should be up ahead, all sharp cheeks and pinched features and too-blue knock-off jeans. She should have just finished her cleaning job near St Paul’s and have the look of somebody desperate for a bag of chips and a sit-down. Molly has only spoken to her a handful of times but she knows Meda well enough that she does not think it so great an imposition to call and see whether the child is poorly. She realizes she is worrying about whether there is some cultural impediment to ringing. That she is worried, on some level, that in Lithuania it would be an act of gross insult to call an acquaintance and enquire about the wellbeing of an offspring.

‘Text her if it’s easier,’ says Hilda. ‘Or a direct message. I can show you how to use WhatsApp …’

Molly sighs. She knows she will give in to her daughter’s demands. She pulls out her phone and scrolls through looking for the right number.

‘You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,’ she grumbles. ‘I’m going to look like a right bloody bell-end.’

‘You always tell me it’s better to be safe than sorry,’ says Hilda, and while she falls short of putting her hands on her hips, she looks as though she is considering it.

‘Right, got her,’ says Molly, ignoring her daughter. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say …’

She listens to the phone ringing and her mind is filled with imaginary pictures of Meda’s life. She sees a brood of brothers and sisters; cigarette smoke and vodka; a flat-screen TV and furniture still packed in plastic. She feels bad at once and wonders whether Meda’s mother would presume that her own house be all mock-Georgian sideboards, stuffed stag-heads and grandfather clocks.

‘Nobody’s answering,’ says Molly, after a time. ‘If it goes to voicemail, I’ll just leave a message, and …’

‘Kas po velnių yra?’

Molly almost swears, biting back the curse at the last moment as the gruff male voice startles her.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, sounding suddenly a lot more English than she had when speaking to her daughter. ‘Yes. Forgive me. This is Molly Shackleton. I’m Hilda’s mother. From dance class. Erm, my daughter …’

‘Kai anglų kalė. Aš atsikratyti ja,’ says the man, and though she cannot understand the words, she fancies that he is talking to somebody else. She hears her name, rendered almost unrecognizable by the thickness of the accent.

‘Look, if this is a bad time, it’s not that important …’

‘Molly?’ asks a female voice, and the ‘l’ at the centre of her name sounds impossibly extravagant in the thick Slavic tongue. ‘This is Meda’s mother. Meda not able talk right now. I sorry. I can’t …’

Molly listens as the woman dissolves into a slur of sniffs and strangled syllables. She hears the male voice, brusque and businesslike, before the phone goes dead. Molly looks at the phone for a long moment before turning to her daughter, who looks at her with wide eyes.


‘She couldn’t really talk,’ says Molly, trying to make light of it. ‘I think they had people there.’

‘Who was it who answered? That didn’t sound like her mum.’

‘He didn’t say. Maybe her husband or somebody. Honestly, you’ve got ears like a bat.’

‘We have to go round there. Meda’s mum sounded like she had been crying. I know something’s wrong. Please, Mum …’

It takes them twenty minutes to reach the property, huddling into their clothes as the rain sluices down from a sky that seems to contain all the motion and shapes of an angry ocean. The Stauskas family live in an apartment on the first floor of a soulless block of maisonettes on Portelet Road. The ground-floor properties enjoy gardens front and back but the homes above are half the size and can be accessed only through a communal entrance block and an angular staircase that smells of damp dog and takeaways.

‘It’s that buzzer,’ says Hilda, wrapping her arms around herself. She is soaked to the skin and her lips look swollen with the cold.

‘I know,’ says Molly, jabbing her finger on the intercom and suppressing a shiver. Her make-up has run and her hair is plastered to her face. She will not make it back to work without first going for a hot bath, a hot chocolate and a couple of tequila slammers.

‘Do it again,’ says Molly, over the sound of a lorry rumbling by on nearby Globe Road. She steps back from the panel of buzzers and looks up at the flats above. To her left and right, most of the front doors are encased behind metal shutters and even the bicycles left out on the second-floor balconies have been chained to the drainpipes. There are lights on in most of the windows. Many seem to be illuminated by a bright, unshaded bulb, spilling out a harsh light into the wet, dark air.

‘Should I press again, Mum? Should I?’

The clouds alter their shape as Molly looks up through the rain in the direction of the maisonette. For a moment she sees a curve of moonlight before the ragged clumps of mist reassemble themselves into a collection of scallop shells and broken feathers.

‘Ar Jūs bandote man galvos skausmas?’

‘Mum, they’ve answered. They’ve answered.’

Molly hurries back to the intercom. She is too cold and damp and grumpy to care about propriety and her voice is flat as she speaks.

‘Yes, sorry, I think we got cut off before. I’m Hilda’s mum. Is Meda there, please? We’d like to take her out with us if she’s well.’

The impromptu greeting is met with silence. Molly strains to hear but there is only the empty static of the line.

‘Buzz again, Mum. Buzz again …’

‘Stay there,’ comes the male voice that Molly recognizes. ‘I’m coming down.’

Molly turns to her daughter. The child looks thoroughly bedraggled and her skin has gone ghostly. Molly opens hers damp coat and wraps it around her daughter. She kisses the soaking crown of her head and smells the strawberry of her bubble bath and the sweat of her exertions at dance class. She hopes that in a moment they will be holding hands and running through the rain towards the Tube, laughing at what silly scatterbrains they were and joking about all the things they had been imagining before they received some reassurance that Meda was absolutely fine.

A light flicks on inside the hallway and Molly steps from the shelter of the door and back on to the pavement. A dark outline forms into the silhouette of a tall, broad-shouldered man. The door opens and the light reveals his face. Molly is overcome by a sudden sensation of familiarity but the feeling is quickly overcome by anxiety as she sees the cold intensity of his stare.

‘Hello, hello,’ babbles Molly, unconsciously slipping into the role of ditzy mum. ‘Thanks so much for coming down and I’m so sorry to bother you, but like I said, we just wanted to take Meda out. This is her friend, Hilda. Has Meda mentioned her? They’re in the back row at Believerz together, and …’

The man wrinkles his nose slightly as she talks. He seems to be sniffing the air around her. He’s a little older than Molly. There is a dark stubble covering his cheeks and upper lip and his short black hair is speckled with grey in a way that makes it seem he has been haphazardly painting a ceiling. He has dark eyes that make Molly think of tadpoles. He is wearing a white T-shirt beneath a V-neck jumper and the hand with which he holds the door open is adorned with two heavy gold rings and a jumble of indecipherable tattoos.

‘Meda’s not here,’ says the man. He speaks quietly, and takes time over his words. ‘There is a family emergency. A sickness. It would be best to come back another time.’

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Hilda. ‘Is it Meda? Is she poorly?’

‘Poorly?’ asks the man. He’s handsome, in a brutish, brooding sort of way.

‘Ill. You know. Sick. Is she sick?’

The man turns his attention away from Hilda and back to Molly, who feels a sudden irritation at the way he dismisses her daughter without apology.

‘It’s not that weird, is it?’ asks Molly, adjusting her pose to seem more confrontational. ‘She’s her friend. She wanted to know she was OK …’

‘Why you think she not OK?’ asks the man. He steps out of the doorway and into the shadow cast by the balcony overhead. His face takes on a haunted, cadaverous aspect.

‘There was something on Facebook,’ butts in Hilda, before Molly can lead. ‘A family member. All sad. Flowers and a gun and stuff. I had a bad feeling.’

A look of irritation crosses the man’s face and he wrinkles his nose afresh. He makes a clicking sound with his tongue. ‘Facebook,’ he mutters, contemptuously. ‘A curse, no?’

Molly is surprised to see him twitch his features into the most feeling of rueful smiles.

‘I just use it for work,’ she says, and seems bemused that the thought has become a sound. ‘Maybe some pictures. Or a nice memory.’

‘You post all that motivational bullshit?’ asks the man, reaching into a pocket and retrieving a cigarette case. He retrieves a fat white cigarette and lights it with a cheap lighter. He breathes deep and huffs out a slow lungful of smoke. ‘I hate that. All that shit about the next step being the first on a road to somewhere wonderful. All that “love yourself or nobody else will”. Is that right? Have I said that right? Makes me want to puke. You let your daughter use?’

Molly shakes her head. ‘She hasn’t got an account but she still knows how to use it. Hard to stop them, isn’t it? Like banning telly when we were kids.’

‘I had no television when I was child,’ shrugs the man, watching Molly intently. ‘We had radio. Two stations. Propaganda and techno. I not like either.’

Molly finds herself smiling. She wonders where she has seen him before. She bites her lip as she tries to remember. Was he a customer?

‘I talk to Meda’s family about what they put on these websites,’ says the man, almost apologetically. ‘I tell them no. But they do anyway.’

‘You’re not part of Meda’s family?’ asks Molly.

‘You head home, yes? Meda be fine. All be fine. But stay away for now, yes? Difficult time for the family.’

Hilda shoots an anguished glance at her mother. ‘We’re not just leaving it at that, are we?’ she asks, indignant. ‘I want to see her. I need to see her.’ She stomps away from the door and on to the path. ‘Meda!’ she shouts, upwards through the rain. ‘Meda, it’s Hilda. Are you there? Are you OK?’

Molly turns to shush her daughter. As she moves, she feels the man brush past her. Gets a whiff of leather, vinegar and a pungent tobacco.

‘You wake the neighbours,’ says the man, approaching Hilda. ‘The neighbours here – they are not happy to be woken.’

‘It’s not even bedtime,’ says Hilda, turning to look at him and fixing her mouth in a defiant line. ‘You’ve got her in there, haven’t you? You’ve done something to her. Who are you anyway? I know all about her family and I don’t know about you. You’re not Uncle Steppen.’

The man stops, his cigarette hanging from his lower lip. ‘I am a friend of Steppen,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘An old friend.’

Molly hurries to where the two are standing. Hilda looks ready for a fight. The man does not seem bothered by the rain that has already soaked through his clothes. His jumper clings to well-defined muscles.

‘Sorry if this is all a bit odd,’ says Molly, positioning herself between them. ‘We didn’t mean to cause a bother. Do you think you could maybe call us when she is feeling better? Or when there’s a good time. I run a pub called the Jolly Bonnet …’

‘I know,’ says the man, flashing his half smile at her once more. ‘Nice real ale. Good meat in pie.’

Molly suddenly has a flash of recollection. He had been drinking in her pub as she and Hilda left this evening.

‘That’s a coincidence,’ she says, coldly.

‘No,’ says the man. ‘It’s not.’

Before Molly can reply, a shout from overhead causes all three to look up. A man with short blonde hair is leaning over the railing. His face is a yellow colour, like farmhouse butter, and despite the dark and the rain, he is wearing mirrored sunglasses.

‘Karol,’ he shouts again, and the warning tone in his voice becomes more pronounced as he lets rip with a stream of syllables in his native tongue.

Slowly, the man called Karol turns his attention to the two girls. He gives a nod that could almost be apology. ‘The football match,’ he says, by way of explanation. ‘There has been a goal. I go join my friend, yes? You go home now. Not think any more about this. Not call house for a while. Leave family to fix things, yes? Then we all be happy.’

Molly finds herself scowling. She does not like the way he spoke to her, though he has been nothing but polite.

‘He didn’t say anything about football,’ protests Hilda. ‘Meda’s been teaching me …’

‘Nice to meet you,’ says Karol, turning away and heading back towards the doors. ‘You pretty with your make-up washed away.’

Molly raises her hand to her face. She has not thought of a reply by the time the door bangs closed. She and Hilda stand still, saying nothing, unsure what to do except stand and listen to the sound of a million drops of rain thudding into the soaking ground.

They walk away in silence.


We were back in the Bonnet by half past nine. Lottie was sitting at the bar, resting the weight of her face on the heel of her hand. Her friends had long since headed off and she had been making do with the company of strangers and the bar staff for the last couple of hours. She gave a huge grin as she saw us appear in the mirror behind the gin bottles and she turned around with her arms wide open as we pushed through the double doors. She was drinking black coffee from a pewter cup and from behind the bar Julien raised his eyebrows at Mum and nodded at her friend, indicating that Lottie had been on particularly fine form this evening.

The only other customer in the front bar was Connie. Red coat, red nails and a great tangle of fox-fur hair atop a face that looked like it had been pulled three feet away from the skull and then twanged back into position. She must have been at least ninety years old but there was nothing grandmotherly about her. She drank halves of real ale and got through three pickled eggs per session. Whether she chose to eat them with her teeth in depended upon her mood. She swore like a docker and had never heard a racial slur that she didn’t like. She called me ‘ratbag’ and was full of stories about men with names like ‘Hatchet McGinty’ and ‘Slagshagger Brown’, and she would forever say things like ‘Gawd rest him’ when telling stories about the time such capital gentlemen hacked up some interloper who had pushed in front of her in the queue for bagels.

‘Darlings,’ said Lottie, and she elongated the ‘a’ to make herself sound like a Russian princess. ‘You came back. I knew you would. Loyal, that’s what I like about the pair of you. Committed. Decent.’ She looked at Mum as she shrugged out of her coat and clomped behind the bar to get herself a gin and tonic. ‘That dress is a poem, my dear.’

I sat down on the bar stool next to Lottie and rested my face on her bare arm. She smelled of gin and wet clothes. Something else too. A chemical whiff, like an air freshener dipped in bleach. I felt her stroking my hair and wondered, as I always did, how many body parts her fingers had pickled and prodded in the past few hours. Oddly enough, I didn’t mind that Mum’s best buddy spent her days with her fingers fiddling about in other people’s entrails. If I was ever on a slab with my chest pinned back like tent flaps, it’s Lottie who I would want to weigh my stomach and liver. She’s good at it and has very soft hands. She certainly gave good cuddles and she was the only person I trusted to cut my toenails. As far as I was concerned, she was the only person with sufficient professional training to be trusted with the task. Mum said she was a godsend and I couldn’t disagree. Before she became our friend it used to take half an hour of arguing just to get me to take my socks off and I wouldn’t have my big toenail trimmed unless Mum was sitting on my bum and holding my ankle like the neck of a cobra while I screamed the words ‘child abuse, child abuse’ into the carpet.

‘So sad,’ said Lottie, softly raising my face. She looked into my eyes. Her make-up was a little smudged and there was a hair stuck to her lip-gloss but she was still great fun to look at. ‘Was dancing bad, my darling? Did you slip? It’s OK if you slipped. When I was your age I was so uncoordinated that I would have thought it was a victory just to get up the stairs. How’s your friend, anyway? The big daft one who looks like she’s about to burst into a chorus of “No Cats in America”. Did you tell her the new words you’ve learned?’

Mention of Meda was enough to set me off. Lottie saw my lip wobble and pulled me into a hug and everything that had happened came pouring out as I snivelled and whispered and babbled into the warm safe cave of Lottie’s chest. I don’t think she understood half of what I was talkin