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.