Short Story Runner Up - November 2012

 

Fiona Bailey - The Pit

 

Bill tossed his cap on the bed, and followed it himself, but gently, perching as primly as an aunt on the edge of the eiderdown. ‘How ya doin, girl?’ he said, his breath puffing visibly into the cold air. The small pile of coal in the fireplace was doing its best for their tiny room, but was no match for a London autumn.

One glance at his wife told him the answer; the cover pulled high up to her pale chin and the edges of the pillow she rested her head on were crumpled, and marked again with spots of sweat. The purple shadows that had held their ground under her eyes for weeks, were deeper still than they’d been that morning.

‘Fair,’ she said, ‘and better for that pie you brung me.’ She drew a hand from her nest and waved it at the plate set on the floorboards, most of the pie still there but broken up, as if she could make it disappear just by destroying it.

‘It’s not just wittals yer need, is it.’ Bill looked over at the wire cage in the corner of the room where flashes of grey, brown and black writhed in patterns. ‘Four score, thereabouts, a good price tonight, and I’ll be off to Barners in the morning to get more of that tonic. Have you swanking along the Strand like a lady quick as you like.’

He patted her leg through the cover and managed to hide his shudder as he felt her poor bones. The tonic wouldn’t help, not really, however much they pretended that it could conjure some strength into her. Sally needed a doctor. He had to do something.

***

Later that night, Bill pushed into the crowded building at the back of The Crown, holding the cage up to his chest and using it to force a path through the men waiting outside.

A few benches were pulled in rough rows around the walls. Around one side, the nobs sat in their fine coats and top hats, drinking brandy and talking loudly to their fellows about the Queen’s recent marriage, the disgraceful state of the streets, and the prospect of good sport tonight. On the other side, working men muttered over their beers, and it seemed that Long Ben’s run from the Peelers was the gossip of the night.

He approached the Landlord, who was leaning carelessly on the stained rat-pit wall, speaking to the one figure all there would recognise by the uniform of his own invention that he wore with aplomb.

‘Evenin’,’ Bill said, planting himself at their side with the cage at his feet.

The Landlord just nodded at him but Jack Black, rat-catcher to Queen Victoria herself, turned and smiled. Bill couldn’t stop himself glancing down at Jack’s waist. The famous leather belt, pulling in a good belly between the scarlet waistcoat and breeches, was inset with six pewter rats. Each rat was different and horrifying in its detail. Rumour had it that Jack had spent a summer plunging dead rats into wet plaster to make the moulds and had cast the awful things himself.

‘Mr. Black.’ Bill held out a hand to be shaken by the king of the catchers, but it was ignored.

‘Let’s see whatchoo got there,’ said Jack, bending to peer inside the cage. Its wire was patched with odd bits of scrap that barely held the struggling rats within. The rats rolled over each other and as they watched, a scuffle broke out, when a big black with a tail nearly a foot long bit and screeched at a smaller rat in a fight for a few extra inches of space.

‘He’ll be a good’un.’ Jack scratched his armpit thoughtfully. ‘But keep’em packed and they’ll be quiet. Stack’em up tight, one on another like them acrobats at the circus. As long as you feed enough it keeps‘em more peaceable.’ He straightened up again. ‘They ain’t supposed to be fighting each ovver.’ The Landlord laughed and started counting the rats.

‘Two score, and a few half-dead or only half-grown, that’s what I make it. Two shillings,’ he said. Bill knew from the twist in the Landlord’s mouth that there wouldn’t be any point arguing for the full count, the bastard. The Landlord fumbled in a pocket and dropped a few coins into Bill’s palm.

A boy came to carry the rats to the side room. As he opened the door a hot sour stink fell over the crowd and all the voices grew louder.

‘I’m going to win tonight! It’s my birthday,’ one optimist called out, and his friend nudged him and poured more brandy into his cup.

Bill stepped towards the yard, then hesitated. He should get back to Sally. Would it hurt to watch the first couple of matches though? He felt the coins sitting damp in his hand. Two shillings for crawling round the river front for weeks dragging fouled sewer rats from their holes with his bare hands and pushing lumps of salt into the bites to stop them turning bad; he deserved a beer.

He squeezed on to a bench alongside a rowdy pack of costermongers. He watched them order another round of beers. Money was easy-come, easy-go for them, and with plenty to spare for the bright coats and long boots they all wore. They liked to wear their money, the costers, making it harder to steal and giving the satisfaction of one in the eye for their neighbours. If he could only get some stake money together he could join them in flogging eels or lace or knives down the rich streets. He wouldn’t wastehiscoin on coats, oh no. Sally would get a doctor and warm blankets so she wouldn’t get sick again next winter.

The Landlord tipped the first batch of rats into the pit and the familiar roar leapt up from the men. He couldn’t really see from here, but he didn’t care, he’d seen it enough times. The dog with drool pouring from its bloody mouth as it hurtled around the small circle in an ecstasy of shaking and killing; the panicking rats shitting as they ran; the blood up the wall; the handler scooping up any rats smart enough to climb; and those odd times when the dog would simply stop and the foolish rats would sit up and run their paws over their whiskers, washing and washing and washing, as if they were wealthy children getting ready for a nice nursery tea and none of this were happening.

The boy passed him a tankard in exchange for a tuppence, and he sat, deaf to the hubbub around him, thinking of Sally’s wan face as he stared into his beer. Then he drank deeply.

A few beers later, a change in the noise penetrated his reverie. Jeers and boos. The costers were all standing and shouting. His curiosity was roused and he stood with them. In the pit, a young terrier was half-heartedly loping after the rats, enjoying a game of chase, but not catching them, despite the urging of the handler.

‘I could kill those rats better’n than your dog,’ Bill shouted, swaying slightly. The coster next to him sniggered and Bill felt his face redden, but one of the toffs looked over at Bill, measuring and weighing him just as if he were nothing more than a dog after all.

‘I’ll wager you a sovereign to do it,’ the gentleman called back to Bill, ‘but you have to do it with your teeth, same as the dog, for a fair fight.’

‘You’re on!’ Bill replied, thinking of a fat golden sovereign. The men cheered as he made his way to the side of the pit and he saw coins passing hands in all directions. He stepped over the wooden wall. The terrier’s owner caught it roughly by the neck and hurled it back over the pit wall then, scowling at Bill, left the pit.

Bill wrapped his scarf tightly around his neck, tucked the ends deep into his shirt, and rolled up his coat sleeves. The rats calmed and sat, as did the audience, all waiting to see what was going to happen.

The gentleman who had made the wager with Bill held his breath and unwittingly gripped the knee of his companion, fingers tightening with excitement at fresh sport this night.

Bill dropped to his knees and snarled at the rats, showing them his brown and broken teeth, then lunged forward.

 

He’d been lucky; the rats had been grain-fat farm rats brought up from Essex. Cleaner than London rats. Better safe than sorry, he thought, as he paused on his way home at the pump in the yard to douse the bites that covered his head, neck and arms. The cold water helped to quell the pounding of his blood in his head.

It was near midnight when he crept into their lodgings, slipping as quietly as he could towards the embers of the fire, but Sally was awake and waiting for him.

‘Bill?’ she said, ‘you’re late.’

He kept his swollen face turned away from her. ‘Go to sleep, sweetheart.’ His fingers snuck into his pocket and rubbed the sovereign. Tomorrow, he thought, thank God or maybe Ole Nick considering what he’d been driven to, there would be a doctor.

 

*****

About The Author

Fiona Bailey is an ex copywriter, whose career has taken a rather strange non-writing turn in the last few years. To keep herself entertained she is studying for a Literature Degree with the Open University, and the two creative writing modules she did for this have kicked her writing bum back into gear. She intends to move on to a Creative Writing Masters in 2014.

'The Pit' was inspired by the interviews with Victorian rat catchers in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. Jack Black (and his rat belt) was real, and all the small details (like salt to treat rat bites) came from these men's experiences.

You can find out more about Fiona at her blog: http://writetillyourfingersbleed.blogspot.co.uk/