Head bent, Emily stitched in the wavering candlelight, bone-weary, eyes dazzled by the glitter from thousands of sequins, creating mini starbursts in her peripheral vision. They shimmered from the piles of handmade lacy shawls, stacks of velvet evening purses, and silk dresses pinned to the trio of mannequins (dubbed ‘Mister’, ‘Mistress’ and ‘Missy’) which stood waiting for the privileged, pouting ladies and their menfolk who tossed fans of five pound notes onto Ma’s shop counter, as if they were used handkerchiefs.
Poor old Ma – always smiling, bowing, acting ever so humble. It made Emily’s stomach twist watching how she behaved with the customers.
The needle slipped, pricking Emily’s finger, again. She jerked the trembling drop of blood away from the precious satin and silver threads
‘No blood on the merchandise,’ was Ma’s mantra.
Tears welled in Emily’s eyes. Her eyes were gritty, and red-veined, yet the evening purse had to be completed, down to the final, minute sequin, by dawn.
The buyer, Edward Fortescue, was one of old man Titus’ business associates. He was a man with cachet and cash, but made Emily’s skin erupt into goosebumps. It was the way Fortescue’s beady eyes roamed over her body, and how his fat, wet lips reminded her of slugs.
Ma just told her ‘to not to be so daft, girl, and that ‘his gold is all that matters.’ They both knew the prestige of having Fortescue as a client, with his access to the Salt family and their wool-spun millions. The two women lived in the shadow of those same meandering, mammoth mills.
Emily, however, had heard the rumours, the cobwebs of gossip from the girls who worked in the nearby taverns and the chorines dancing at The Prince’s Theatre in town. Stories concerning Fortescue’s sordid ‘habits’ and ‘peccadillos’. Of what he bought with a guinea, a bottle of whiskey and his privilege. Worst of all, it was tattled, one chorus girl had vanished, after spending the night in his company; she’d not been seen since.
A couple of drunks staggering home shouted outside in Ada Street; Emily jumped. She wished Ma hadn’t had to rush off to do neighbourly sickbed duty, wished she had a sibling asleep upstairs, wished she wasn’t alone, after midnight.
The house sounds, usually so familiar, seemed to rub upon her nerves, making her see and hear things that weren’t there. Emily got to thinking of babes moaning, lone dogs crying, and banshees wailing.
It’s just the wind, it’s chilly out or the wood’s settling. Don’t be a daftie, as Ma says.
A shadow loomed up outside the front window. Emily froze, needle quivering, as she watched the figure come right up to the door, rattle the handle, pause for a few elongated moments, before moving away.
Emily blew out the tell-tale candle and moved behind the largest mannequin, ‘Mister’, in the hope its shape would hide her and fool the visitor into thinking no one was home.
A deep, treacly voice called. “Come out, kitten, come and play.” The words were slurred. But she recognised it as Fortescue. Emily gripped the mannequin’s base, till her nails left indentations in the surface.
“Kitten, soft and sweet, show me your pretty little – f . . . ace . . .” He sniggered at his joke. Emily tasted bile rising in her gullet.
She heard heavy steps moving around the back of the house, towards the piss stinking alley, where they threw out the slops.
Please let him slip and crack his skull.
The back door creaked open.
Damn Ma, she never locks it.
Fortescue was in. Emily’s nightmare was now inside with her in the kitchen, with only a wall between them.
“Pussy-cat, show me your claws. Scratch me.” Fortescue lurched into the room. He stunk of booze and something else – sickly, corrupted.
Emily shoved the ‘Mister’ mannequin. It fell to the stone flags with a clatter, and, in that moment, she darted past Fortescue who grabbed at her long hair, yanking her backwards off her feet. He pulled her to him, fleshy face leering down, eyes glittering with a strange darkness, lips mouthing obscenities.
Emily ran her hands down her sewing apron, fingers seeking. She knew she had it, it had to be there. Seamstresses always carried the tools of their trade, just as they always wore an array of pins tucked inside the collar of their dress.
Her right hand fastened on to the steel handles of Ma’s pinking shears. By now Fortescue had pulled her around to face him, smearing her neck with slobbery kisses, pressing himself against her, at the same time tugging at his trousers with his other hand, beery breath blooming and smothering her.
He was three times or more her size and weight, so Emily knew she had only one chance. In his drunken haste and passion however he was careless, and thought her no danger. Just as he’d unbuckled his belt, Emily thrust upwards with her right hand, shears facing outwards, aiming at the heart of his right eye, wanting only to extinguish the lecherous light she’d glimpsed there. And to be free of his grasp.
The shears sunk in, with a soft squelch, and liquid poured down his face, dripping onto her hair. Fortescue screamed, released his grip on her, and reared backwards, still grasping a hank of her dark hair in his fist. He scrabbled at his face, wailing and careering into the family of mannequins and the wall.
Emily stared aghast from the corner of the room. Meanwhile the air in the room shifted, as though a door or window had been opened. There were shadows emerging from the walls, from the air itself, bulking up then morphing into figures before swarming around the room like flies on honey. They fell on Fortescue as he crawled, half-blinded, on his hands and knees towards the front door.
He never got there. The shadowy figures coated Fortescue with oily mucus, cocooning his body, suffocating him. Emily watched as the colour faded from his cheeks and his chest ceased to rise and fall. She should have felt alone, and afraid, but she did not.
Behind her the ashen dregs of the fire burst into roaring flames, and the candles, stuck to their tin plates, flickered to life. The room was now warm and cosy, except for the mutilated, blood-soaked corpse lying there.
“Who are you?” Emily whispered. “Are you – ghosts?”
The fire crackled, and the kettle on the stove whistled its tune.
“Help me, if you can. I dunno what to do.”
The shadows lined up around the walls, fluttering like moths, overlapping, always on the move. Then the whispering began.
Draw the curtains.
Take off his boots.
Strip the body of valuables.
They were all female voices, a mix of old and young, but Emily couldn’t make out any faces in the shadows.
His heart was black.
He was a devil.
He strangled me, ducks.
He beat me black and blue, he did.
Emily stood up, tucked her hair into her cap, smoothed her dress and apron, and took a deep breath. She would do what the voices were asking of her.
She bent down and removed Fortescue’s gold ‘Albert’, his leather wallet swollen with notes, a tiepin with a solitaire diamond and a ruby pinky ring. The profits from these would keep her and Ma in comfort for years. Next, she stripped the cooling corpse of its expensive clothing, down to the longjohns and linen undershirt, no longer a pristine white but splattered cerise.
She went upstairs, accompanied by the shadow figures, and pulled a sheet off Ma’s bed, and let it float in their ghost hands ahead of her down the stairs. She wrapped Fortescue’s body in it, forcing herself not to stare into the one remaining, cloudy eye and then finally, with hot water from the kettle, she scrubbed the stone floor and the pinking shears until the steel blades shone. She slipped them back inside her apron pocket. A talisman.
Whilst she worked the shadows moved around her stroking her arms, and cheeks, lending their support, with words of encouragement.
You are not alone, Emily.
We are with you.
Let us help you.
The task is nearly done.
You have freed us.
Sweating, exhausted Emily sat in the sewing chair and drew a breath. Invisible hands massaged her shoulders and mopped her brow. But the ghosts had more work for her. She shivered as she listened to their instructions.
Sew his eyes shut and his lips.
Bring out the needle, several chorused.
Threads and a needle were thrust into Emily’s hands. “No! I can’t. Don’t make me do that.”
If you do not stitch him blind, then he will haunt you, child. Yours was the last face he saw before he died. He will remember you forever.
Emily sobbed, with tiredness and shock. “I can’t do what you ask. It’s too horrible.”
You are a seamstress. You can sew any material. Besides you are not alone. We are here with you.
A hand took hold of hers, and guided her reluctant fingers towards Fortescue’s bloodied face. It took only a few minutes, with the thick, black thread to stitch together the hated slug-like lips, and eyelids. Emily’s empty stomach clenched; she tried to throw up.
“What now?” she asked. “I can’t carry him out of here to the river, not on me own. He’s too heavy.”
The shadows swirled, regrouping once, twice, three times, as though they were in conference. A minute or two passed. There was a knocking on the door.
“It’s the Peelers! They’ve come for me.”
Open the door.
Trust us, Emily.
Emily felt gentle hands at her back pushing her towards the door and another’s cool hand guiding her own, clammy one, to the door knob.
You will not swing, trust me. Trust us. For we once were you.
This woman’s voice was mature, kindly. Emily took a leap of faith and opened the door. Two men stood there, not Peelers, just ordinary working men, caps in hands, upright but swaying. They were not drunk though, for when Emily looked closer she realised, “They’re walking in their sleep? How can that be?”
We come to them in dreams.
They will do our bidding.
Instruct them, girl.
“Come inside, er – gentlemen. I have an object of some weight and heft for you to relocate.”
In astonishment Emily watched the two men sleepwalk into the room, eyes wide open, yet seeing nothing in this world, and who knew what they were seeing in their dream worlds.
The pair bent down in unison, one positioned at the head, one at Fortescue’s bare, un-booted feet and lifted this huge man, as though he were as light as a child. They carried him, swinging between them, out into Ada Street. The shadows swarmed around the dream-walkers, with their deathly burden, brushing shoulders, wrapping around their chests, and around the corpse, as if sharing the load.
To the river.
To the Aire.
Let him sink and be flotsam and jetsam.
Stay here, Emily, rest after your labours.
Your task is done.
The two corpse bearers walked away into Saltaire’s night, towards the river, their footsteps fading and the shadows drifted away with them. Emily was at last alone in her home. She closed the door and sat by the fire. Her eyes closed, and sleep stole her away.
In her dreams her fingers moved, constantly pulling a needle and thread, in and out, as she whispered, “Nice, small stitches, skin to skin . . .”