The Church Street Harlot

Another Dead in Whitechapel

“Another dead in Whitechapel!” Gretta exclaimed irritably. She swung the yellowing remains of yesterdays newspaper down onto the over laden table, and barged her bulky figure through the narrow gap between chair and wall in the long, narrow scullery. Mary eased her chair further under the table as Gretta pushed past, and she scanned the length of the table. The other girls, mostly younger than her, were whispering frantically amongst themselves. This room was freezing, and they were all in nightgowns, but Mary had the sense that they were shuddering for another reason.

Indeed, Mary seemed to be the only one not perturbed by the news, and she carried on scraping the edges of her breakfast bowl for one more spoonful of watery porridge. One girl, Mary did not know her name, seemed so shaken by this news that her cheeks has lost all colour and she was shaking like one afflicted with a fever.

Mary leant across the table, on the pretext of grasping one of the huge milk urns, leant her head closer to the young girls. So close, that her flyway locks of rough hair brushed the young girl’s white cheek.

“You know... you really have nothing to worry about,” she whispered, not wanting Gretta to here. Talk of the recent events frayed her already short temper.

“Nothing to worry about! And if there’s nothing to worry about, why are three women dead in the past month and rumours of more whispered on every street corner!”

“People get murdered all the time,” came Mary’s reply, nonchalantly. She sipped her tea.

“It is the manner of their murders and the item of their professions which worries me,” the girl hissed, fear gripping her further.

“So, three whores found dead and butchered in London town, and it’s put the fear of God into you all?” snorted Mary, her voice raised a little. She gestured her hands at the rest of the girls, who looked up timidly.

Enough, Mary!” chided Gretta, with such a rage in her voice it made the girls quail even more. Mary raised her eyes to the ceiling.

“Bad for business, that’s all. I’ve had two girls quit since, and from the looks of you lot, I’m about to lose more,” she grumbled.

Gretta’s perception on the matter was a unique one, and Mary chuckled despite herself. Any more confrontation at this time of the morning was unadvisable, so Mary hitched up her nightgown and went upstairs to sleep.

Some hours later, when the sun had gone down and the gaslights on the street below has begun to hiss, Mary was awoken by the girl she had spoken to at breakfast.

“Ma-ary, Mary, wake up,” she coaxed, gently.

“I’m awake,” Mary mumbled, from beneath the covers.

She clambered out of the bed resentfully, and crossed the minute room to her wardrobe. Pulling out the same frock she had worn the night before, she proceeded to dress, barely noticing the girl still in the room.

“Who are you?” Marry enquired, looking up from lacing her corset with curiosity, her tone less harsh than normal.

“Anna... Annabelle,” she replied, still as timid as she had been hours before.

“If you wouldn’t mind, Annabelle,” Mary said, as she gestured to the door.

Annabelle got up and left without protest, leaving Mary alone to apply her makeup.

It was a bizarre ritual. First, the pasting on of powder to smooth out her rough skin, kept hard by little care and sleepless nights. Then, sweeping stokes of rouge to colour her cheeks, giving her the appearance of a china doll. Lips, slicked over with a deep scarlet, not her most flattering shade, but the customers loved it. It was getting late, and Mary had the feeling tonight she would not be so lucky at avoiding rain.

Down the rickety stairs and out the brothel’s back door, she picked her way down a shotgun alley and out onto the deserted pavement. Without so much as a backwards glance, she set out east, to her only destination; Church Street.