Short Story – The Waterman

There is a reason I don’t write many short stories! But hey, my blog, my rules. So here goes –

The Waterman

Clouds are drawing over a sinking sun, returning Whitechapel to its familiar grey. The streets are busy as usual, the worn and dirty cobbles bearing the weight of all the strata of London life. If we look very carefully, we can see two policemen patrolling up and down the Whitechapel Road. One of the constables is older than the other. The younger man, a cadet we presume, is looking nervous. Now our policemen have stopped opposite the grimy façade of The London Hospital. The older man is talking, he has spread his hands.

“You see! You see all this filth! And they expect us to watch over it all.  I tell you, the army couldn’t keep an eye on all the shenanigans that go on in this shit hole!”

The young man nods as he concentrates on stamping his feet and blowing on his un-gloved hands. His breath is floating before his eyes. The old man continues his tirade.                                                                                                                      “And as for our ripper friend, he’s a demon he is. A demon in the dark! Doubt he’ll ever get caught. Mind you, he made a mistake last time. Must have been too slow, she managed to scream. Just once, loud enough though. I heard it, oh yes, but he was gone by the time we all stood in her blood. Sensed him though, there, in that dark place. He left an essence,  you could feel the evil!”

He got his breath, then continued.

“You don’t know, do you? Just how close he came to being nabbed.  No, course you don’t. They kept that quiet, the powers that be, can’t be seen to fail too often eh! Oh no, that wouldn’t do!”

Darkness was starting to devour the shadows. A high- pitched shriek of a laugh startled our two men. A couple passed by on the opposite pavement. The woman gives the policemen a furtive glance; her long dress trailing through the muck. The man is huddled in a long coat, a large hat pulled down over his head. The eyes of the law follow them as they parade up the street.

“Our laughing beauty is Old Meg,” our older friend says, “Picks them up at Saint Katherine Docks, she does. Drags them up to her hovel in Key Street to part them with their wages. High price for a dose though, but never mind. Don’t worry about the man, that’s not our ripper.  He’s not so brazen, oh no, lurks in the dark he does, works in the wee small hours.  Mind you, he’s a waterman of a different kind our demon, likes the rain, loves the taste of fog, feeds on the damp!”

He looks his young companion in the eye, then jabs his thumb behind him.

“Found our first one back there, Back’s Lane. Mary Jane Nichols.” he draws out the name, “Right bloody mess she was.” He smiles, “Think you could manage on your own?”

A nervous nod of the head.

“No, you’re not ready yet, folks round here would have you for breakfast! Let’s get you back to your station, get a cup of tea and warm up, you look like you need it

The young man agrees, these streets chill your soul and he will be glad to escape from them, at least for tonight. 

Together they retrace their steps back down the Whitechapel Road. Darkness falls like a shroud, a Thames breeze chills their faces, drizzle has turned to a black rain. Our older friend looks at his young companion’s face. He thinks;

You feel it alright don’t you eh?, feel it deep in your soul. Are your nerves sparking? Is the fear crawling up your backbone? Never mind son, you’re not alone, don’t know why they keep sending kids down here. Scared shitless aren’t you my young friend, one flash of a knife and you’d be off as fast as your immaculate boots could carry you. Up to us oldies to catch our Waterman, ah yes.

He would like to laugh, instead he stops, points across the road and says,

“There you go son, Church Lane. Down there, cross the road, follow Alie Street round and you get to Lenman Street and your station. Off you go now, before it gets too dark! “

The young face gives him a look of pure disdain. He continues anyway,

“I’m going to sniff around the Ten Bells on Commercial Street. Popular place for whores that is! See if there’s any new juicy gossip doing the rounds.”

Our new constable mumbles a goodnight of some sort and sets off. He’s had enough of this old sod,  would like to tell him to fuck off, but holds his dry tongue. The old fool will get his comeuppance. 

Our old sod shakes his head at the retreating back, then walks on. Now he has reached the cavern that is the entrance to Commercial Street, he turns right. It’s proper dark, down the side streets, where no gas lamps flicker, the dark is a solid thing. So thick you swear you could carve your name on it.

He lied of course, he has no intention of visiting the Ten Bells. There is no need, he’s been there already and he has a name. Mary Jane Kelly, a whore of many years standing so to speak, would flop on her back for tuppence, it was said.  

Two nights ago he had settled into a dark corner of the pub with a luke-warm pint of piss and froth that passed for beer in the hell hole that was the Ten Bells. Not in uniform, of course, it was a night off, but hey, a policeman’s work and all that. Anyway, in she had stumbled, pissed as a newt, stinking of gin and the filth of London. She joined a sitting group of similar creatures and soon they were cackling away like a coven. He had forced himself to order another pint at the bar and was waiting with trepidation when a voice of pure gravel rose from the witches table.

“No!, no!, Jeanie!, everyone knows our ripper works on the river! A filthy Jew at that! I should know, I’ve had most of them!”

That had sparked of a louder cackle than before.

“Who’s the loud one?”, he had asked the barman.

“Oh that’s Manky Mary. Why?, fancy a go?”

“Wouldn’t touch it with yours!”

The barman had laughed and soon all the secrets of this part of Spitalfield had poured out along with yet another loathsome pint.

The cold brings our man back from his reminiscence. He is standing under the weak glow of a streetlight. Opposite him is the dark abyss that is the entrance to Millars Court. Manky Marys humble abode is down there, number thirteen to be precise, the barman had been sure of that. The rain has stopped, but it has made a river of the street. 

He senses him. He’s here, he knows it, the rain has called Him, the Waterman is so close he can almost smell him. He looks down, his reflection sneers back at him,

“Ah, there you are!”, he says, “Ready to take me to the other side?”

He looks up, clouds have parted to reveal a perfect half- moon. He looks around to make sure no-one is about, reaches into his right sleeve and withdraws a knife from a scabbard strapped to his arm. He raises it and mimics slicing the moon along its perfect edge.

“You see! God is not the only one with a sharp blade!”

He wades across the road and folds into the dark. He will knock at her door, she will let him in, everyone trusts a policeman after all.

This time, no-one will hear the scream!

Derek Ross

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