OBITUARY. At special behest, we mark this October 9th, 1832, the passing of one Abraham Farley, eighteen years of age, of late a hired hand in The Prospect of Pye, Smithfield. Farley was laid to rest in Blackshaw Cemetery and will be mourned by his mother and sister in York. “Come to me, all ye who are weary and burdened, and I shall give you rest.” Matthew 11:28-30.
It is a curse to go to your grave as a young man and yet still breathe and weep. A lad shouldn’t feel the worms slithering over his skin and the beetles nipping at his ears. A spider, outraged in the dark at the invasion and crawling over a fluttering eye—the eye of a man such as I. Amongst the fruit, the salt beef and the jug my fellows gave me, here I rest in a narrow hell, my spine aching, with no pillow for my head. On my chest, no cross or flowers; instead, two pistols primed with powder, which cost a pretty penny from a jaded soldier down at the Knightsbridge barracks, and more to secure his silence. A twitch and my brow might knock on wood, bring the night watch running. My nails bite into my palms, my teeth a rictus to rival a corpse, keeping me still as the insects riddle and crawl, delighted by the blood-warm feast.
In a shallow grave, in the cemetery of Blackshaw Road, I lie awake in the coffin.
Oh, the taste of dirt and the waiting . . . Come, Hunter, I am your dead! Come at midnight like you always do, with the half-moon high, with your lackeys, your sack and your wooden spade, creeping past the watchmen with your lanthorn shielded. Come, come, I am your lad, your sweet Abe, who you took under your wing down Smithfield way, and then like a man takes a woman, in shadows, secrets and sin. In grunts as you yanked down my breeches and took me roughly over the hop sacks all those weeks ago.
You said I was your golden boy. I was never as golden as Harry.
Aye, I was a green thing then, soft in the head like my mother used to say, with an ear for your pretty lies. I was tall and sinewed enough to gain employment in your tavern, but that wasn’t why you hired me. You had me up and down the stairs, hefting your crates, your inebriated patrons and soon enough you, sweating in the gloom with your hand over my mouth lest the drunkards upstairs should hear us.
And later hefting bodies too, fresh and pale from the grave, bound for a handful of willing anatomists from Lambeth to Bethnal Green. Riding St George in the cellars or digging up cadavers would see the both of us swing and no mistake. They did for Burke up in Edinburgh, the notorious ‘resurrectionist’ hung in the square, his accomplice and the doctor they sold to escaping the arm of the law. But your own labours furnish you with guineas and guineas are your true love, are they not? Though you wailed to find me in the kitchen, silent, pale on the floor, the both of us know the devilment that squirms in your heart, Jebediah Hunter.
And so I wait, your Abe, your Lazarus, for the hour of my unearthing.
The days of our labours and passions, how well I remember them. In the smoky bowels of the Prospect of Pye, there wasn’t much trouble slipping them the poison; often your quarry was blootered enough. The air in your establishment curdled with pipes, lanterns and sour gin breath, with the laughter of merchants, soldiers and whores, the slap of hand on bosom and thigh while I made your foul acquaintance, running trays to this and that table, lugging barrels and swabbing floors. Outside the stink of London, the belch of factories and Thames fog pressing against the windows, the wind blowing the odd traveller in like how it blew in Harry.
Before all that, you’d watch me with eyes dulled by laudanum and drudgery. On occasion you’d lick your chops, a dog staring at scraps. When you trusted me enough, when we’d made sufficient congress for me to know that to snitch was to risk my hide—not that anyone would take my word over yours—you showed me the powders you procured from Ms Canning, the druggist down in Holborn. From under her counter to yours, you said with a tap of your nose, pocked as a raspberry and just as red. You slapped my buttocks then, as I recall, hard enough to imply a warning. Such was my introduction into the business, the true business of Pie Corner, which took place around midnight on the odd night and had nothing to do with the drink.
How I wish I could say it was my conscience that brought me to this pass, waiting here in my grave. It grieves me to confess a different calling. Truth be told, at first I didn’t mind all the murdering. Having run away from home and living in the gutters for a month and more, I was quite content in your employ, suffering your pawing and your lips around old Captain Standish in the tavern cellars. It’d make a stuffed bird laugh to know what a hot meal and a bed can do, turning one over to sins both venial and mortal. My right eye turned from God the first time you lay a finger on me, Hunter. My left with Colonel Hogwood.
The Colonel was disgraced, we all knew that. We never found out why, but the gossip pointed at desertion. In his hat and faded redcoat, the former tipped to shade his whiskers, the latter hidden under his coat, the old man liked to hold court in the barroom and regale anyone who’d heed him with tales of war. His pipe would swing this way and that, punctuating his prattle with coughs, wheezes and clouds of smoke, the battle in his chest serving as suitable background noise. In each tale he played the hero, rescuing French ladies from burning buildings, duelling with Napoleon himself. Hogwood was as much a glutton for an audience as he was for pork and gin, his cheeks ablaze whenever an unsuspecting sailor or slattern pulled up a seat or I plonked down another dish in front of him.
What the patrons never saw, when the evening stretched into the wee hours, was what a mean old bastard the Colonel was. When the tavern emptied, leaving only the swizzled dregs, how his cheeks would take on a deeper shade and he’d cuss and call out for more. Always more. More. More.
“Here, boy,” old puff-guts would cry, drunk and abandoned in his corner, his shirt speckled with gravy. “You shabbaroon. You scullion. Stop pretendin’ to wipe those tables and bring me more Mother’s Milk. Hearken, or Mr Hunter shall hear about it. I’ll lend him the use of my cane!”
This had proved no idle threat. The odd cuff around the ear, a boot to the behind I could stand, but the Colonel had sat, smiled and watched Jeb thrash me on more than one occasion, under threat o’ his refusing to pay.
Why, King William and the saints forgive me, it was nigh on a pleasure to oblige him on that rainy night February last, giving him a stew laced with the old Inheritance Powder. Like expectant mourners, I stood trembling next to you, Hunter, and the jolly cook Mr Thorpe, as Hogwood—much like the beast he was named for—guzzled down his midnight supper, belched and soon turned redder than usual, clutching at his cravat. He thumped the table as if he could command the air in the same fashion he commanded food. At last, with a retch, he disgorged his meal back onto the table and all down his coat, a tide of carrots, spuds and gristle steaming like the pots on the hearth. Then he slumped face first into his bowl, the inglorious end of all his tales and ills.
I’d given a yelp, unable to stop myself, and placed a hand over my mouth.
“Mind me now, Abe,” Hunter had said. “You’ll be wanting to steel your stomach for this work.”
How was he to know how joyous I was? I wiped the sweat from my brow at the triumph. And the thrill of the tasks ahead.
“Do they pay you by the pound down in Lambeth?” The cook, Mr Thorpe, enquired. “Could buy a horse and carriage with this haul.”
Both of the men had laughed.
Such was the business of Pie Corner and the occupation in which I found myself. “Feed ’em up, get ’em out,” as Hunter was wont to say. And when the pickings were slim, as they ofttimes were, him, the cook and some rascal from the East End would go a-digging in the graveyards thereabouts, first scouring the obits in the Packet, then looking on the morrow night for corpses. The anatomists, Hunter explained, were a dainty lot and preferred to avoid maggots in their surgeries, let alone some skull splitting open like a rotten fruit or an unforeseen spill of intestines on the floor.
“The sounder a body, the better.” Hunter would say that too. And once the cook, jolly as he was, told a tale of how he’d danced with a corpse down in Bow Cemetery, her cerements sweeping the grass, her breasts pressed fast against him. “Fair as Mrs Jordan, she was,” said he, and cackled. “But there were only heat in one o’ us that night.”
That had earned him a slap from Hunter, although the bigger man had laughed and tipped me a wink. There’s no knowing the truth of it. But I knew the truth about the snatching, because I happened to go with them once or twice. Only to keep watch, mind, lug the sack and shovel, or to test my strength against the odd stone or mortsafe. In the wake of Mr Burke, the cages to protect the graves were becoming more commonplace, and what with the increased patrols they most certainly fuelled the men’s apprehension along with the canny shift to the poison.
Never did I hear Hunter justify his work—no tipped hat to God, no sighs for the exhumed, and no shrugs for the doctors who gladly took his trade—until Harry came calling to the Prospect, a month or so ago. Shorter, younger than I, I looked up at his skinny form on the threshold and fancied him filthier than I’d ever been, his feet bare and his clothes in rags. Under his chimney-brush hair, I could make out these flecks of gold, his eyes bright as he appraised me, bent over my mop. As if drawing courage from a lad close to his age, I marked a spark of defiance in his gaze and the boy cleared his throat, straightened and petitioned the barroom entire.
Quoth Harry, “‘And in Hades, he lifted up his eyes,” (Having had my nose pressed to the Good Book up north, I recognised the verse.) “‘being in torments, and see-eth Abraham afar off, and the beggar Lazarus in his bosom. And the rich man cried and said, ‘Father, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in’—”
Those were the first words I heard from you, Harry Pickett, my failing, my friend. Before you were done, Hunter was there, all barrel-chested and barking, one paw on the nape of your neck.
“Close the dratted door, you quim!” he cried. “Or have you got the Asiatic? Might have by the looks of ye. Well, what’s it to be, boy? A bath, a bowl or the gatehouse of St Bart’s?”
Hunter said all this, naming the nearby church where he’d dug up one or two bodies, and both his hands were upon you then, grubby and sin-stained as ever. Had he spied the same gold that I had? Aye. It was shining in his eyes. To riotous applause and laughter, he dragged you squirming across the floor towards the door of his cellars.
Oh, you must’ve thought yourself in some kind of hell. Like me, I’ll wager that the growl of your stomach deafened you to the shriek of it, the merriment, the damned all around.
The door closed, your own coffin lid. And that’s how you tangled with our fortunes.
Your first, if I may call it that, was the Dame Baumann. Baumann was about as much a dame as I was a prince, and that’s to put it gently. A German woman, broad and buxom, and in truth, a whore—albeit a poor one at that. Rumour had it that she went unpaid more oft than not, in her tatty skirts, her bonnet with the wilting feather and more holes in her stockings than the larder. How she liked to flounce about the gentlemen when in her cups, and later sulk in corners, patting fresh powder over her sores, spurned, penniless and drunk. The Dame had a penchant for wine, wine of any sort, and it was a glass of musky Catawba that Hunter served her up that hot August night, courtesy of yours truly.
A glass, that was, and the old Inheritance Powder.
“No one’s going to miss her,” our jolly cook said. “Not from Smithfield to Saxony. God as my witness, we’re but puttin’ her out o’ ’er misery.”
Oh, I should’ve read in that a portent. What a buffoon I was! I should’ve known it, Harry, when I’d heard you bleating most nights, curled up on the bunk next to mine, your shoulders shaking. You seemed so much tenderer than I, less given to the business of survival. Perhaps you missed your mother as I missed mine. Perhaps she’d cussed you less and held you more, I cannot say. But had I thought less about my own ensnarement, the shifting of bodies and such, I might’ve realised you weren’t fit for the task, nor so at ease with closing your eyes and thinking of England as Hunter had his way . . .
One night, I think I gave you comfort, stroking your fine gold hair. Scrubbed then, as all of you was scrubbed, the brush leaving marks on your skin. If we kissed in the dark, I forget it. Perhaps I only like to think it, assuaging my own part in things, the guilt that led me to my grave, patient, filthy under the earth. If I dreamt it, I forget the taste of your tears, the silk of you in the dark. Sentiment was of no use in the Prospect and I could not wrest your fate from thee.
The Dame Baumann had given this odd little sound, like a bird was trying to burst from her throat. Then the glass fell from her brass-beringed hand, smashing on the floor. With a sigh of motheaten skirts, she’d slumped sideways in her chair. One tit popped free of her corset and regarded Hunter, Mr Thorpe, Harry and I like a puckered, wounded eye.
“The lady fair looks comely in repose,” the cook noted, his hands on his belly as if to ease his appetite. “An’ of course at last she’s shut up.”
“Well, she’s still warm, Mr Thorpe,” Hunter snapped. There was vexation in his gaze. “We have to get her down Lambeth by cart upon the hour. Unless you have other plans?”
Thorpe laughed, but there weren’t much to it. Hunter snapped his fingers to set me to the business of the ropes and it was then that I spied Harry, sheet-white and shaking his head at the miserable sight, the Dame Baumann undone. The barroom was all empty, the patrons gone to the river to guzzle gin, fondle and filch, mafficking in the heat. Never did I see a lad look so cold as I did on that night.
In a mutter like bones, Harry said, “ ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Exodus, twenty thirteen.”
How Hunter looked around at you at that! Hell itself flashed in his eyes—yet under it a doubt, I thought, some vestige born of childhood prayers and passages, perhaps. It softened his bark into a croak as he turned to you.
“What’s this, my saucy boy?” he said, and Harry fell into his shadow. “The woman was food for the worms regardless, hellbound since her youth, I’ll warrant. You think to upbraid me, the man who put a roof o’er your head and a meal before you every eve? How do you think I pay for it?” The big man sucked in a breath, struggling to calm himself. Oh, how his hands shook! “Spare us your sermon, lad. We ain’t got time for a thrashin’. Assist Abe here with the ropes and shut your bloody mouth.”
The ropes never felt so slippery in my hands; it was as if they echoed the knots in my stomach or flailed like the yet-supple limbs they were intended to bind, prevent them from knocking about in the cart and drawing unwanted attention. My last act of grace, Harry, was to fire you my own look, and a sharp nod of the head, calling you from the brink of your error. Secrets were a vital part of the business, friend. A lack of discretion in the Prospect was not to be advised.
Had you but heeded me. Instead, you ran for the door.
Mr Thorpe was upon you first, grabbing you by your scruff on the threshold as you fumbled with the lock, desperate for the sanctuary of London and the company of rats. With a roar, our jolly cook flung you back into the room, tables rattling, plates and flagons crashing to the floor. I winced at the crunch of bone, his fist smacking into your skull. Blood and teeth sprayed across the floorboards, painting the ale-stained wood. One boot lifted into your ribs and you gasped, sobbing among the cold gravy, the dog piss and the chicken bones. Then you squirmed like you’d squirmed at the start, Harry, trying to crawl under a table and away, away from the puffing Thorpe.
Quick as lightning, Hunter was there, a length of rope in his hand, fit to give you the flogging of your life.
“Please, master. Stop,” I cried, checking myself from leaping towards him. “The lad meant no offense, did you, Harry?” And here I pitched my entreaty at the boy who was wriggling under the table, his eyes bright pennies over his shoulder, drinking in his pursuit. “Tell ’im, Harry. Tell Mr Hunter you’ll be good. Let’s get the Dame to the doctor.”
Heart thumping, I glanced at the woman in question, attempting to draw all eyes in the room back to the business at hand. Dame Baumann stared back at me with no care for my dismay, no cares whatsoever in the world.
And no one in the Prospect was listening to me.
With one hairy hock of a hand, Hunter grabbed Harry’s ankle and dragged him out from under the table. The lad squealed, the lanterns glinting off his hair, an angel wrestling in the gloom, but the proprietor held him fast. Then his noise cut short when Hunter wrapped the rope around his neck. It weren’t no thrashing he had in mind.
I wanted to scream, to call down heaven. A part of me wanted to tackle Hunter and Thorpe myself, but I knew that would’ve been folly. I’d have only added my doom to your own. Nor could I look away as you clawed at the rope, your throat purple, your face turning red. Your spluttering assailed the rafters, faint amongst the wreathing smoke, until that too was done.
Oh, it was your eyes I remember most, Harry, the way in which they bulged from your skull, meeting mine own where I stood across the room, observing what your righteousness had bought you. You looked at me in a mask of shock, as if I had betrayed you. And as if I was lost.
Farewell, I’d whispered in my mind. May God forgive me.
By then, I’d learnt enough to know that God never gives back the dead.
Sin is no good for sleep. I learnt that quick enough too—and Harry, poor Harry, you haunted my dreams when I did. Golden, pale, you’d raise a finger and point out the stain on my heart. I’d awake sweating and gasping on my bunk, and weep to look over at yours, empty as the feeble chamber in question.
While Hunter and Mr Thorpe spoke no more of it, and I never discovered what they did with your corpse (it’s unlikely they could’ve sold it, what with the marks around your neck), I made it my business to find out where the brute kept his guineas, in a chest down in the cellars. In the days that followed your murder, I laid all of my plans. It was Hunter himself who paid for this coffin—a fitting purchase if ever there was one—and the rascals I dealt with down in Hackney who dug me this shallow grave. It was they who furnished my person with food and the flintlock pistols, and swore to unearth me should vengeance fail. The poison I procured from Ms Canning, some fine white powder from the tropics, she said, that’d send a man into the deepest sleep and render him as good as dead, at least for a day or two.
Drinking rum for courage, one September night I drank it down. As wings of darkness claimed me, I fancied I heard you wail, Mr Hunter, when you found me on the kitchen floor. You sold me to that doctor down in Lambeth, yet my cohorts followed you, appraised of the surgeries where we plied our trade. It’s astonishing what coins can do and there was enough of yours in their pockets for them to spirit my body away, and leave me to awaken here in Blackshaw Cemetery, in the turned ground of the potter’s field, under a sham wooden cross with my name on.
Thank God they kept faith with our bargain. Ms Canning told me they had reason to see you undone, either some old score to settle or an itch for the Prospect of Pye. Perhaps they wanted their paws on the business of snatching itself. It isn’t a market open to all, with all its risk of hanging and despite London’s plentiful corpses . . .
The last item on my list was the obituary. No pauper like myself, a runaway and a tavern lad, would’ve ever gained a mention in the Packet, not if all was aright with the world. Yet naught was aright, was it, Mr Hunter? I hoped when you scoured those pages that you’d spy me there and wonder. Were you going mad?
Hope alone sustains me. Well, that, and beef and water. The reed for air and the pistols, loaded in my grip. The worms wriggle, kissing my ears. I no longer keep a thought for myself. Should matters go awry and I perish here, then my secrets, my shame will perish with me and make a fitting end.
Come, Hunter. Come for your dead. Come at midnight like you always do, with the half-moon high, with your lackeys, your sack and your spade, creeping past the watchmen with your lanthorn shielded.
Come, come, I am your lad, your sweet Abe. And I wait for thee.
When your spade strikes wood and you tear back the lid, then shall I make my repentance. For Harry and for all of our sins.
Come. I long to see the same look in your eyes that I saw in his.