Short Story Winner June 2013

Freya McClements - The Fog

Stand here, beside me. Under the gaslight.

It is a quarter past eleven, and the raucous laughter you hear is tumbling drunkenly onto the street from the public house opposite. Look over and you will see silhouettes move across the Britannia’s lead glass façade, like puppets in some Oriental theatre. Watch them – but do not go in. Do not yield to the cold cutting slowly through you, nor look up at the gas flame guttering overhead. Rather peer straight ahead, as I do, into the fog.

On nights such as this, the fog creeps out from where it has lain during the day and fills the streets and alleys, promenades and squares of this great city with its cold moist presence. It steals along, past splendour and squalor; past darkened cathedrals silent in the midst of slums; past the glowing stacks of an industrial wasteland. It crawls and it shuffles, wrapping itself round travellers as they scurry home with collars up and faces down; it covers up the indiscretions which moon and gaslight might otherwise reveal, the secrets we would hide from others’ gaze. It becomes a mask for our sins.

But then is not all life just that? A donning of masks? Do we not hide ourselves behind masks of convention and form, suppress our true selves behind a morality that is the very antithesis of our animal instincts? If Mr Darwin is right, we are but clothed apes, and yet we garb ourselves in religion and metaphysics, appropriate for ourselves a higher purpose – one that elevates us above the beast. We consign to darkness all that we fear, under its black sheets give rein to that most basic of instincts – the need to procreate. Do we not confess our very sins in the dark?

All this is mere conceit, you say, and perhaps you’re right, for we live our lives in the light. We draw sustenance from it, worship it, work in it. From its dark companion we shy away – from the mouth of the cave, the open grave, the depths of the human mind. No, you are right, my friend. The light is our element, our medium.

Look. A man has stumbled out of the doorway opposite and is struggling to disengage himself from the warmth and familiarity within. He has clasped his collar to his throat and has braced himself against the cold night air, against the colder domesticity that lies in store. Watch him – but not with sympathy, for he has indulged himself this night and in his drunkenness has failed to notice us as we stand in observance of him. Let him lurch off into the darkness, unheeding and alone, reliant upon the companionship of walls and gutters to see him home.

Of course, this night we are out in, Thursday 9 November, is no ordinary night. Just as this autumn, of 1888, is no ordinary autumn. This is the autumn of the Whitechapel murders, the autumn of the Ripper, that monster from our darkest imaginings who has emerged to stalk this city and commit acts so terrible, so utterly depraved in their cruelty and perversion, that it is scarcely conceivable that any human being could have perpetrated them – or that any other should have had to endure them.

I wonder... Forgive my forwardness, but what nightmares have you fashioned just now from out of my words? What scenes of carnage and horror? No doubt you think me morbid, but we are drawn to such thoughts, are we not? Isn’t that why we rush to the sound of an accident, scan newssheets for the lurid, strain ears to catch every piece of malicious gossip? We take comfort from the sufferings of others, then hide our relief, our smugness, behind a veil of sympathy, a pressing of hands.

You see, that is why I have no time for the clergyman who stands in his stone pulpit, above it all, or the philanthropist who walks amongst the poor with his pockets heavy. Their hypocrisy sickens me and turns my stomach. They are whitened sepulchres, their façades hiding the decay that lies within. But no, once again you are right. They are not all like that. There are – there must be – exceptions.

It is now eleven twenty seven. Glance round you carefully – for Evil itself has taken up lodgings nearby. Scan the shadows that swirl on the edge of your vision and, like Odysseus on the banks of the Styx, wonder what wraiths will emerge from within this Hell. If I shiver, it is because I am afraid – afraid of being lured beyond the dim yellow that bathes us and plunged into the darkness beyond. If you are wise, you too will cling to this womb of light and mouth silent prayers for those abroad this night.

I have extracted a watch from my waistcoat pocket and can feel its mechanical heart pulse comfortingly in my hand. The upturned face shows eleven thirty two…

A noise – can you hear it? Somewhere to our right. Strain now for the familiar, for the tread of footsteps, the clip-clop of hooves, the tap of cane on stone. It is useless, of course, for the fog distorts and muffles what it conceals within itself, stifles it so effectively that we must wait until sound turns to substance and a figure emerges. Look – there – to the right. Someone is coming.

Breathe again. I can see the helmet and brass-buttoned uniform of a metropolitan policeman. In fact, I know him well, and remember with gratitude his diligence during the Fenian outrages that so shook this imperial city. His son is in India, following the flag, and his wife bakes bread for a stall in Leather Lane. He too is lamenting the night we are out in, is gesturing with arms outstretched as if to bundle up the fog and take it with him.

Tonight, of course, he has a mission, the most important of his career. It is – as you have no doubt guessed – nothing less than the apprehension of the Ripper. At this very moment, a hundred of his colleagues are but a whistle’s blast away – a net of virtue and justice waiting to be thrown over the creature that has so terrorised all of London. If you permit me, I will assure him of our help, bid him goodnight, and let him continue walking his beat. Our own vigil we will resume under this gas-lamp.

It is now eleven forty three. The door of the public house has opened once more, silhouetting the figure of a woman in its jaundiced light. It is no-one you know, merely a prostitute – one of the many who inhabit the Whitechapel area. She has pulled her shawl around her and has stepped uncertainly into the night. She does not look up as she begins to cross Dorset Street, arms folded under her breast.

Look – see how she has frozen in fear as she beholds the twin spectres we present in our diminishing arc of light. Step forward and let it illuminate you. See, she is laughing now, cursing herself for her fears. Wish her goodnight, as I have done… as I have often done when I have pressed a bright new shilling into her hand. Poor creature. Watch her as she hurries off into the fog and smile sorrowfully at her tragic plight.

You must forgive me, but I have decided to abandon my vigil and return home. No doubt the drunkard we watched earlier has already done so, and sits slumped in his parlour or lies snoring next to his wife. No doubt the honest constable still patrols Whitechapel, and our lady of the night walks quickly through the streets, her stride lengthening as she seeks the safety of her lodgings in Miller’s Court. Well, I too must go.

Tell me, are you disappointed to find that our evening in Whitechapel is ending thus? Is there a sense of anticlimax that things are precisely as they seem this night in 1888? That a constable is merely an honest guardian of society, a drunk simply a drunk? Do you feel cheated? A little betrayed? Why did I accost you on such a night, then disappoint you? Is that what you are thinking?

Well then, reader – what did you expect? What did you want? That I had gone with the prostitute whose path crossed ours only moments ago? That I had lain with her in some soiled bed? Would that have given you the gratification that you have been anticipating, that you have secretly craved? Believe me, you would have been disappointed, your fantasy unfulfilled.

You are smiling now, reader. Your fantasies are not mine, you are saying, and this story mere artifice. But there is a side to the nature of mankind that is drawn to the image of a prostitute. In our dark fantasies, she is young, her parents dead, her face beautiful. She is exploited by men for whom she has no affection. She is a victim.

The reality, however, is very different – a squalid coupling in which the man is the real victim – a victim of his own shallow lusts and her deep deceptions. She is no fallen angel. No, man is the fallen one. In the twin lights of day and reason, she would stand revealed for what she is: corrupt and twisted, her sole virtue her availability. Her face would be coarsened by drink, her body racked by the diseases that are her payment for pandering to man’s vices.

That is her crime, the crime of all such women. They lead even the most passive, the most virtuous of us, into indulgence of our darkest imaginings. We delude ourselves with thoughts of what might be if we were not constrained by social convention, by emotional ties, by barriers of fear. In our minds, we stray from all that is worthy in ourselves, in our desire and frustration we lose our way and wander in a fog of immorality, stalked by our own guilt.

So they lead us on, these women. On into an abyss of sin, deceiving us and mocking us, promising us what we cannot have and taking from us what we cannot afford to give. For their sakes we corrupt ourselves physically, give free rein to the evil that lies within us, letting it copulate with the much greater evil that lies within them.

Is that what you wished for tonight? To partake vicariously of such evil? If you did, you are a fool – as deluded as those who have lain with such women in the hope of finding fulfilment – for they are liars and hypocrites, their vulnerability but a mask to fool you.

Or did you wish for something else, reader, when you first joined me here? Did you wish, perhaps, to come face to face with the evil that lies dormant within all of us – the anger that comes from knowledge of deception, from knowledge of how we have been tricked into betraying ourselves? Perhaps you hoped, secretly, that I would deliver the horror by which we are all repelled and attracted.

No doubt you are objecting to such presumption on my part, this claim to familiarity with someone whom I have never met.

But believe me, we have met. We met when you began to read this, when you first accepted this invitation to enter into my thoughts, into my mind, and to stand beside me under this lamp. For in doing so, you invited me to sit beside you in the comfort of your own home or in some moving vehicle. We have entered into a familiarity beyond that which you would achieve with a neighbour or a business partner – beyond what you could achieve even with your spouse, the partner with whom you share each night, but not each thought.

For you have shared something of which you would not speak to any spouse: the dark fantasies that you share in common with all mankind – the desire for illicit coupling, for the gratification that comes from fear and panic, from the wanton destruction of innocence. These are the fantasies that we feed on to make up for the lack of such nourishment in our everyday, our oh-so-ordinary lives.

Reader, I know you now.

You will read on now, in spite of any offence, for you suspect that your darkest fantasies will be fulfilled, your suspicions of me confirmed. I will not disappoint you.

In a few minutes time, I will walk up behind Mary Kelly. Like the others, she will look at me with relief, with a trusting innocence that will belie the sins to which she has been a party this night. Loathing will coat my tongue, fill my throat, turn my stomach, but I will kiss her gently, will take her arm and lead her reassuringly through the fog. She will be the fifth.

In the very room where she has committed her crimes, I will cut her open. I will hack and hew my way to an understanding of the evil that lies within her, the evil that has led me astray as surely as it has led astray so many other men, and made of us beasts. I will wash my sins in a fountain of her blood.

Pity her not. Neither her death nor the manner of it. Rather pity yourself, for in your hypocrisy you are as guilty as I. You have accompanied me willingly tonight and are a party to what will take place, and attempt as you will to deny complicity, to turn the page and shake your head in distaste or denial, you have found what you were looking for in the fog this night… as have I. 

*****

About The Author

Freyamcclements

Freya McClements is from Derry, and is a BBC journalist and literary reviewer with the Irish Times. In 2006 she was shortlisted for the Orange/Northern Woman Short Story Prize, and in 2009 she received an award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) to write a volume of short stories, 'The Dangerous Edge of Things', which was published by Guildhall Press in 2012. In 2012 she received a further ACNI award towards her first novel, which is due for completion in November 2013.