She had had better days of course. Better days and better times, thought Marie Jeanette Kelly as she was gazing into her near empty glass of gin in the Ten Bells Pub, one of her regular haunts in Whitechapel. Now it seemed her luck had run out. She hadn’t paid her rent for six weeks and her landlord, John McCarthy, was getting impatient. She must find a way to make up for it and there was only one thing she could do. She was not looking forward to it. She wanted the warmth and comfort of the pub for a bit longer.
Maybe she wasn’t completely out of luck. She hadn’t given up all her hopes and expectations yet. If only she could make enough money and escape that darkly lit and dingy little flat in Miller’s court, with barely enough room to breathe… Perhaps she would meet another rich gentleman, an honest one this time, who would take her to France again…or even to America! Any place where she could forget the horrors of her past and look forward to a brighter future. She was still young after all. She was only twenty five. She quickly finished her drink and ordered another. She knew she often abused alcohol but she hadn’t lost her good looks yet, not like the other lodgers at Miller’s court, who looked like proper harridans. She was undoubtedly getting drunk now, but how else could she cope with the squalor, the poverty, the constant fear… She hated her shabby little room but dreaded being thrown out, especially when they were about to enter the dark and chilly winter months. After all, it was still better than the workhouse. Joe, her boyfriend, had been out of work for a few months and they were struggling to make ends meet. He was a nice chap that Joe Barnett. He had always tried to look after her well, she couldn’t complain. It made him so angry not to be able to give her the lifestyle he felt she deserved. She had had to go back to her old trade and he didn’t like it. Sometimes he tried to frighten her off the streets by reading her gruesome accounts of the “Ripper Murders”. “Do you think I have a choice?”she would yell at him. Still, she was terrified. Sometimes, she too had been quite nasty to him, especially when she was drunk. She often vented her frustrations on him, crying, screaming that he was a good for nothing, and that all the men in her life had let her down.
Not her father though… She still retained some memories of her childhood in Limerick, Ireland, and then Carmarthenshire in the heart of Wales where her family had moved when she was little. They were happy memories, with her parents and her six brothers and sisters. What would her father think of her now? He was a good man. He worked as a foreman in an ironworks. They didn’t have much money but it didn’t seem to matter so much in the fresh air of the Welsh Valleys. He used to tell his children bedtime stories, fairy tales and Irish legends that would make your hair stand on end. He liked to sing as well and so did she. She had felt very close to him.
She had married Tom Davies, a collier, when she was only sixteen. That memory seemed very far away and was starting to get hazy. The gin was soothing her body and numbing her senses. Yes, she had got on very well with her husband but he hadn’t lived very long. He got killed in a mine explosion just two years after their wedding. That was when things had started to go downhill for her. Still it was nice to imagine what her life would have been like if Tom had lived. They would have several children now and perhaps he would be telling them stories by the fireplace, just like her father had.
She had drifted apart afterwards. She had started to drink heavily and to rely on the support of several men. Her family had disapproved of her lifestyle. She had moved to Cardiff and her father had tried to go looking for her but she was too proud and too ashamed to face him. From Cardiff she had moved to London where she had drifted further into prostitution. She had met a French woman, Marianne, who had offered her work in a West End brothel. For a while, her life had been relatively good. She was very pretty with her rosy cheeks and freckles, her shiny blue eyes, her curvaceous figure and silky blond hair. She had a lot of success with the gentlemen. She had been dressed in the most delicate finery and driven around Knightsbridge in a horse drawn carriage. She could almost picture herself as a lady then. One gentleman had offered to take her to France with him and Marianne had encouraged her to accept. He had bought her the most expensive presents, silk and jewels, and said she could have her own flat in Paris. She would be his mistress and he would treat her like a princess. Of course, it hadn’t quite been the case. Once they arrived in Paris, the man wanted her to work in a brothel where the living conditions were much harsher than the Knightsbrige one. She had felt so hurt and betrayed, and blamed herself for being so naive and gullible. She had almost imagined herself marrying some French aristocrat and living a life of luxury without a care in the world. She had returned to London. She didn’t want much to do with Marianne afterwards. Marianne had known all along who the “gentleman” was and had been willing to sell her to the highest bidder. She collected her fine silk and satin dresses and left without a word. From then on, she had changed her name from Mary Jane to Marie Jeanette and would always pretend to be of French descent.
She decided to mend her ways. She tried really hard. She sought a different type of employment. She worked as a maid for Mrs Buki, a Christian lady who wanted to lead her on the path to a respectable life. No more drinking or strange men. Of course, her wages were not high and she still felt the bitter sting of her broken dreams. Her luxurious dresses, what use would they be to her now? So she had sold them and begun to drink again to obliterate the pain. She had come staggering to Mrs Buki’s place one evening and her charitable employer dismissed her straight away. She found herself back on the streets. Gin had now become her most constant companion.
She had drifted from one man to another, one shabby room to another, and finally landed at 13 Milller’s Court in the East End, that suffocating little hovel. She didn’t have many belongings with her. She had hung a little painting she was fond of above the fireplace, The Fisherman’s Widow. It showed a young woman weeping into the arms of a much older one. The only other items were a chair, a bedside table and a bed which she had pushed against the wall. It was on the ground floor of a tenement rented by other prostitutes, most of them older and quite hardened. She got on well with most of them but didn’t know them intimately. Her only true friend was Maria Harvey, who was sweet and new to to trade. Joe was jealous of her, jealous of their close friendship. But there was nothing improper in it. They swapped clothes, exchanged secrets and just had a good laugh together. With her friend, Marie recovered something of her lost innocence. They felt safe in each other’s company.
Poor Joe. Perhaps she had been unfair to him… He only wanted to protect her. As she got up to leave the pub, she remembered some of their bitter quarrels. One night she had got so drunk she had broken the flat’s window with her fist. She thought it was on that same night she must have lost her key. Now she had to slide her hand through the hole in the window to open and lock the door. Joe had grown tired of their arguments and left a few days ago. Still he visited her and they remained on good terms. He had lent her some money. Not enough for her rent though. She was six weeks in arrears and had promised Mr McCarthy that she would have the money for the next day. He knew that if she worked hard enough she would always manage to pay. And tomorrow was Lord Mayor’s Day. That meant more people out on the streets so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a few clients. Right now she still had to drag herself outside. The cool November air chilled her to the bones. It had started to drizzle and the fog was closing in.
Marie swayed a little on her feet. She didn’t want to spend too much time in the cold. Even her bed in Miller’s Court had started to feel like an appealing prospect. She hoped she wouldn’t get drenched. She was still proud of her clothing. She always wore black. Black skirts didn’t get soiled in the mud. She always remembered to wear a pretty white apron on top. She also liked to let her hair loose, cascading over her shoulders. Tonight though, she wished she had worn her bonnet to protect her from the rain, which was getting heavier. She wrapped her black shawl tightly around her shoulders. “Somebody, soon”, she prayed.
That man over there, with ginger hair and a moustache, carrying a pint of beer, he would do. He looked jolly enough. They both marched along Dorset Street, now strangely deserted, past John McCarthy chandler’s shop and into the dark passage leading to Miller’s Court. A gas lamp dimly lit the street. At the entrance stood Mary Ann Cox, her neighbour. They exchanged a few words:
“Good night Mary Ann.”
“Good night Marie Jeanette. Take care of yourself.” Mary Ann looked at the man suspiciously but Marie Jeanette didn’t care. Her spirits had lifted.
“I am going to sing a song,”she slurred. She felt dizzy but somehow elated. Soon it would be all over. She was determined now. She would start a new life for good. Pay her rent and move on. She had always been a fighter. She couldn’t allow herself to be defeated now.
She lit a candle by her bedside table and started humming a song “Sweet violet I plucked from my mother’s grave.”
“You have a nice voice,” the ginger haired man said.
“Make yourself at home my dear,” she whispered to him as she started to unfasten her clothes.
She closed her eyes and lay on the bed, waiting for him to do his business. He was huffing and puffing and she kept looking at The Fisherman’s Widow, the only painting in her room. It reminded her of her mother. Perhaps she should go back to Ireland, back to her roots and lost youth. The man had got up to leave. She heard him slam the door. He had not been too rough even though he was drunk. It had all seemed like a dream. The room was spinning all around her. She suddenly felt very tired. There would be no one to soothe her pain like in her painting. She would not be awaiting anyone’s return. Not even Joe could rescue her now. She had wept enough tears, there had been too many broken promises, men had trampled on her heart too often, and lured her with false pretenses. No more knights in shining armour, no more princes that turned into frogs. She realised she was still softly humming that song. It was eerily quiet outside. The candle light was flickering. She lay still on her bed…
She must have dozed off for a little while. She awoke, sensing a presence in her room. Someone had lit the fireplace. There was a man standing by her bed.
Still half asleep, she slurred, “Joe, is that you?”
She sat up, fully alert now.
“I’ve got the key to your room, Marie Jeanette.”
“I’ll pay the rent, I promise. I’ve nearly got enough money. I’ll pay you tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about the rent, Marie.” He had sat by her bed. His voice was gentle, as if talking to a small child.
“What do you want? Have you come to spend the night with me?”
“Yes, Marie. Ever since I saw you, I have always wanted to spend a night with you.”
She screamed as he drew a knife out of his leather bag and pressed her head against her pillow. She didn’t feel too much pain when he slashed her throat. As the blood was gushing out, splattering the walls and soaking her bed, the last thing she lay her eyes upon was the weeping woman in the painting. Marie Jeanette Kelly had found her resting place at last.
Je suis dans le bar. Tu n’es pas là mon amour, je m’emmerde… J’ai d’abord commandé un diabolo grenadine, ça me rappelle ma jeunesse, puis après un ballon de rouge. J’ai essayé de t’écrire mais les mots ne venaient pas. Que te dire sinon que notre relation a été mon oxygène après des années de mort lente avec Eric. Ingénieur, Paris, puis S…où je me mourais d’ennui puis encore Paris. Je n’avais pas de vapeurs, je ne me droguais pas à l’éther comme les héroïnes d’autrefois pour soigner mon mal de vivre, mais je buvais en suisse, la femme de ménage a bien dû s’en apercevoir mais motus. A l’époque, j’étais encore Madame.
Allons donc garçon, un bon rouge qui tache, qu’importe le flacon pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse… Il savait bien Eric, il savait bien sûr que je voyais Antonio, mais dans sa famille il faut garder les apparences, coûte que coûte. “Tu ne devrais pas laisser ta femme danser le tango”.. La belle soeur avec sa tête de vieille fille bien rance. La même qui me demandait c’est pour quand les petits enfants à chaque réunion de famille. Pas tout de suite, merci, pour l’instant je baise Antonio, pas évident. A moins qu’ils n’héritent d’un petit danseur argentin… Et pourtant il fut un temps où Eric et moi étions prêts à tout essayer. Mais j’accumulais les fausses couches. Quand votre ventre devient une tombe, forcément le désir s’émousse.
Non, je ne vais pas chialer maintenant, je n’en suis qu’à mon premier verre, non, mon deuxième, enfin, peut importe. Bientôt je ne compterai plus.
Sa tête à Eric quand je lui ai annoncé que je le quittais. Pour de bon.
– Mais qu’est-ce que j’ai fait?
– Rien, tu as été parfait.
– Mais alors quoi?
– J’étouffe, c’est tout.
– Et ton hidalgo il te fait grimper au plafond toute la nuit, c’est ça? Il n’arrête pas?
Ne sombrons pas dans le sordide. Je n’ai pas voulu être trop cruelle. Il m’a un peu suppliée, un peu insultée, un peu menacée. Il n’est pas tombé à genoux. Je lui en serai toujours reconnaissante. Je suis partie en emportant quelques vêtements et mes chaussures de tango. J’en ai plusieurs paires, les Comme il Faut qu’Antonio m’avait rapportées de Buenos Aires, les plus précieuses.
Quelques jeunes bien habillés entrent dans le bar. Je me sens gênée, mauvais genre. Une femme seule devant son verre de pinard. Je paie et sors. Une pluie fine s’abat sur les pavés. J’erre un moment sans savoir quelle direction prendre.
Une enseigne criarde, quelques notes de musique un peu rétro… Je pénètre dans le bistrot, demande un kir pêche. Fantaisie du moment. La patronne est rousse et obèse. Elle a une bonne tête. Fréhel chante Tel qu’il est il me plaît, c’est un tango musette.
Deux jeunes entrent, le garçon porte des lunettes, la fille est brune et sérieuse. Ils sont un peu éméchés, mais sagement. Ils commandent chacun une coupe de champagne et m’en offrent une. On va trinquer mi amor. A nos amours. A notre rupture.
Un clochard fait à son tour irruption avec son chien, qui s’ébroue et cherche à me renifler l’entrejambe.
– Pierrot, dis à ton clébard de se tenir, crie la patronne. Ici c’est un endroit respectable.
Je bois un verre, puis un autre et encore un autre… Un jour Antonio, tu m’emmèneras loin d’ici, à Buenos Aires ou à Montevideo… Tu rêvais de construire une maison dans la campagne uruguayenne à l’abri de toutes ces vieilles belles qui ne cherchent qu’un gigolo. Le déclin de l’Occident, tu m’en as assez parlé et ta haine de l’oligarchie. Faisais-je partie de l’oligarchie pour toi?
Une bande de jeunes pousse la porte. Ils parlent fort, ils ont pas mal picolé… “Ça va la belle?” Je minaude un peu pour qu’ils me paient un coup. Toute notion de respectabilité a maintenant disparu, toutes mes inhibitions se noient dans les brumes de l’alcool. Le brun commence un BTS de technicien en je ne sais plus quoi, son copain suit l’école de la vie avec quelques séjours en case prison. Je les délaisse vite pour un Anglais solitaire, un rouquin d’une cinquantaine d’années. Il m’offre un cognac. Il a aussi quelques verres au compteur et plus d’un compte à régler. Sa femme est française, elle le quitte mais veut garder la maison, les enfants, prestation compensatoire plus frais d’avocats mais il m’assure que ça ne se passera pas comme ça. J’ai du mal à me concentrer sur son discours, la tête me tourne, j’ai besoin d’air. Il ne s’en rend même pas compte, tellement occupé à vitupérer contre son ex. Je me lève, je suis très pâle.
– Ça va bien Mademoiselle? me demande la rouquine derrière son comptoir. J’aimerais me blottir dans ses bras dodus. Je renverse le verre de l’Anglais qui s’écrase sur le sol et se brise en mille morceaux. Une tache rougeâtre s’étale.
– Je suis désolée, je suis désolée, je répète. Les larmes me montent aux yeux. Je ne veux pas qu’il le remarque. Je m’enfuie en courant. La nausée me prend à nouveau. L’Anglais me rattrape.
– Laissez-moi vous accompagner à la Grange aux Fauvettes, c’est la boîte à la mode. Vous avez besoin de vous changer les idées.
– La boîte à la mode de ce bled, je hoquette.
– Je vous en prie, ne soyez pas méchante. Je me sens seul ce soir.
Moi aussi je me sens seule coco, mais pas en manque de toi… Il me serre le bras très fort. Je crois un instant qu’il va crier, me secouer, faire une scène, n’importe quoi mais finalement il s’en va comme un chien battu. Je m’adosse à un mur de cette ruelle sombre, luttant contre les hauts-le-coeur. Un miaulement déchire le silence, on dirait le cri d’un bébé. Un petit chat tigré, sauvage, vient se blottir dans mes bras. Je le caresse et le serre très fort contre moi.
– Toi et moi on est de la même race, je lui dis.
I have had a good night’s sleep and I know this has just been a foolish dream. I must have been really desperate. To think even a slug would do a runner after being kissed by me! Oh well, lots of princes turn into frogs after the first kiss, don’t they? Still, I wonder what was going on in my mind…
I’ve got to go, musn’t be late for school. Talk to you later…
I am sitting by the window again, unable to concentrate on anything. I tried to do my homework earlier on, but I was feeling restless. Then I went to bed but kept tossing and turning. I even tried to count sheep but had to give up. I heard an owl howling in the distance and got up. The moonlight is almost dazzling. I sat in front of the mirror, trying to see if something had changed inside me after my (imaginary?) encounter with you. I definetely feel more alive. My cheeks have acquired a rosy glow and I can see a glittering light in my eyes. My hair is shinier and silky to the touch. I feel almost pretty. I am ready to face the whole world now, and all those silly girls at school seem so insignificant now. I am so much stronger than them!
Milly’ diary Top Secret!! Monday Evening.
Deep down I knew you were not the Prince Charming of my dreams. You were not even a frog! But still I am quite disappointed… Let me explain why…
When I decided to go for a walk by the sea today, everything seemed to be going badly in my life. Mum and I have just moved to Gosport to live with her new boyfriend who is in the Navy. I really hate it here, it´s so dull! There is not much to see apart from the Submarine and Explosion Museums. Of course, you have Portsmouth across the water with Nelson’s ship and a really trendy place they call Gunwharf Quays where everything is meant to happen, or at least something… Well, there is a cinema, a casino and lots of trendy shops where you can’t afford anything. Mum and her new man took me there last weekend. We went to a Mexican restaurant and had lots of spicy food. But they got quite drunk and I felt in the way. For the time being I prefer to stay in my room or go for walks. There is a beach near our house called Stokes Bay and that’s where I decided to go after school this afternoon. I kept thinking about all those bitchy girls in my Form Group, especially Lesley and Tasha, who were whispering nasty things about me all day… Let´s say I am not the most popular girl at school. I managed to make friends with the other new girl, who is a bit of a misfit, like me. Her name is Wanda and she is from Poland. She has only been in this country for a few months but her English is improving day by day and I fear soon she will no longer be my friend. I have red hair and freckles. I am quite fat, and I don’t think I am adapting very fast, unlike her… I have never been kissed, not even by a slug…until today!
The beach is all pebbles, not sand, and usually quite chilly but it suits me fine. Well, it suited my mood at the moment. Some people were flying their kite. It was very windy, so I kept walking and walking for a long time, until I felt tired and paused. I noticed you, the little slug, crawling among the pebbles. I bent down to have a closer look at you. Your tentacles were darting towards me and your eyes gazed directly into mine, as if trying to tell me something. I had no idea what it could be, perhaps that we were brothers in misfortune, or that we shared some kind of special bond together? I felt sorry for you. I let you nestle into my arms and suddenly, suddenly, I know no one will believe me, but you spoke to me.
” Take me back to your place” you said. “At midnight I want you to give me a kiss. I’ll turn into a prince because you’re my princess.”
So I took you home as you had instructed. I did my homework, let you crawl by my window, and waited for the sun to set and the moon to appear. I knew you wouldn’t want to get away. You were lonely, just like me. I watched the last rays of the sun filter through the curtains. I was starting to feel sleepy and I think I dozed off for a little while. When I woke up, a full moon was shining through the window. It looked very bright and almost red. You were still here.
“Can I kiss you now?” I whispered. You didn’t answer but I saw you look at me again with that helpless, almost human look.
“Don’t close your eyes”, I thought I heard you say. I took you into the palm of my hand and tried to stare deep into your eyes, but your skin was really slimy! I felt a bit repelled by it. Still I moved my lips closer to your face and I kissed you. I kissed you with my eyes closed. When I opened them, you were gone.
C’est la fin de l’après- midi. Je décide d’aller boire un verre. Je trouverai bien un petit café où je pourrai continuer à t’écrire. Des lettres que tu ne recevras jamais. Un jour, mon amour, j’écrirai notre histoire, que tu le veuilles ou non. Je pense toujours autant à toi et ma nuit de débauche n’a pas dissipé ma tristesse. Elle m’a seulement laissé un mauvais goût dans la bouche. J’ai pris une douche ce matin, comme pour me laver de l’odeur de cet homme qui pourtant avait su me donner un certain plaisir. Puis je me suis baladée dans les rues de cette petite ville paisible. Je regardais les vitrines des magasins. Ces vêtements qu’autrefois j’aurais pu m’offrir, mais depuis que j’ai quitté mon mari pour toi, ce luxe est une chose du passé… J’aime toujours être élégante. J’ai abimé mes talons sur les pavés comme dans les milongas où nous allions communier ensemble.
J’ai failli entrer dans une église pour prier mais ma prière aurait été païenne, seulement que tu me reviennes. Ou que cette femme meure… Elle et toutes mes rivales.