If you follow some of the Team Mushens (as in Juliet Mushens, our lovely agent. Yes, she has a posse. I know.) group on Twitter, you’ll probably have heard about the Halloween Shorts thing we’ve got running, arranged by the marvellous @mygoditsraining.
I say “we”, because I’m kind of cheating on this one and going slightly off-campus. While the others have all been terribly good and clever and written proper actual new short stories for Halloween, I’ve not had time and am horribly disorganised and, well, me.
However, the other day while I was rummaging through my hard drive looking for yet another file that I’d managed to save to completely the wrong place and then lose (because – again – me) I came across this. Think of it as something from the catacombs.
Murderess Lane is an old story of mine… I must’ve written it around 2009, 2010 – something like that and it was published online by Hub Fiction magazine. I’m very attached to it, partly because it’s set in Smithfield and the City of London. This has long been one of my favourite places and I’ve both lived and worked there. It’s part of my history – which is probably why I feel an incredible urge to go back and mess with it. This is also the story which introduced the Hall of Corpses – which is the closest thing to a mythos I’ve got. It’s turned up (either alluded to, in disguise or flat-out as itself) in a couple of things I’ve done, for no other reason than my idiotic affection for the idea.
So, ahead of Halloween (and posted now because come tomorrow I disappear down the convention rabbithole for a week)… welcome to Murderess Lane.
I once met a man who had a habit of finding strange places. I say “habit” rather than “gift” although that’s what I’d call it, myself. He was a man who could be found next to a bar – no matter the time of day or night; the kind of man who, if asked the right sort of questions and given the right sort of drinks, would tell you anything you wanted to know. Just the kind I was looking for.
I met him in a pub in west Smithfield, where he was slowly but steadily working his way through the row of bottles behind the bar: he wasn’t especially pleased to see me, but I sat down beside him anyway and began by asking if he was the man who had found the Hall of Corpses. The question didn’t surprise him, and instead he squinted across at me, then laughed. “So you know about that one, do you?”
I did. It was the stuff of urban legend, one that had already been doing the rounds for years by the time I first heard it – that somewhere beneath Smithfield, London’s busy meat market, there’s a maze of tunnels originally built to bring in livestock for slaughter. And that somewhere in that maze, there’s a room. A market worker, so the story goes, got lost down there one night and came across a tunnel he’d never used before, and as in most of these stories, he walked down it until he reached a door – big, heavy, old – carved with strange letters and faces that stared out at him. He pushed the door open and stepped into a place he couldn’t wait to leave: stretching away into the distance, far past the boundaries of the market, full of shadows… but not quite dark enough to hide the bodies.
Hanging from the roof, rows and rows of bodies, stripped and gutted and butchered like the animal carcasses above ground; only these weren’t cows or pigs – these were people. As far as the eye could see, dead people swinging from hooks. And he was so busy throwing up over his own shoes that he didn’t hear the footsteps behind him, or the key turning in the lock…
The legend winds up, if it’s told right, with the poor market worker never being heard from again – except if that’s true, where’s the story come from? Exactly. But that’s only the start of it, as a couple of years ago, a rumour started to do the rounds: that someone had not only found the Hall of Corpses, he’d made it back to tell the tale. Which was why I was sitting next to a drunkard in an empty pub at three o’clock in the afternoon. Despite the smell.
We talked; or rather, I talked while I bought him drinks and he occasionally mumbled into the bottom of the glass. I told him how I had come to London, how I had fallen in love with its strange histories, its lost legends. How I’d heard the one about the Hall of Corpses…
“And you wondered how you’d go about finding somewhere like that, right?” he said, turning to look at me. I nodded; must have said something I thought was witty. He simply looked me up and down, then shook his head. “You think you want to find them? The hidden places? You listen to me, princess: you don’t. They’re all forgotten for a reason. The city bundled them up and hid them away and let you forget about them. You should trust it knows what it’s doing. But you think it’s funny, don’t you? You think it’s clever and you’ll go looking anyway. And one day… well, I figure you’ll find it out soon enough.” He drained his glass and set it down with a bang. “You want to find one? Really? One of these lost treasures you keep talking about? It’s easy enough: all you have to do is open your eyes. And then open them again.” He rubbed at the bristle on his jaw and sniffed. “Try the City. Somewhere near the Exchange should see you right. But don’t you come crying to me when you find what you’re looking for.”
And that, I said to myself, was no less than you should have expected. Open your eyes, and then open them again. Uh-huh. So I picked up my bag and left, walking towards the Tube station – keeping a healthy distance between myself and the market, just in case. I suppose I must have been thinking about that Hall of Corpses story, or the things that he said, because after a while I looked up and realised I’d gone way past my station: I was in the middle of the City, in front of the Royal Exchange. Just where he’d told me to go. Maybe it was my subconscious. Maybe it was destiny. There I was, standing exactly where he’d said I should look. For what? No idea. What was there to lose? Alright, so I might look like a total plank, but… why not?
I took a deep breath, I closed my eyes. I opened them again and looked about me. Still looked the same: even down to the bus parked squarely across the yellow box on the road. Nothing different there. I closed my eyes again, opened them… and closed them, opened them… again and again until I was dizzy and a little old lady passing by asked “whether you’ve got something in your eye, dear?” Serve me right, I thought as I sat down on a bench. The whole thing was stupid. Legends, myths, fantasies… they’re all just that.
Had that been there a moment ago?
Directly across from me was an alley running between two heavy stone office buildings: one housing an insurance brokers’ and the other a discreetly expensive firm of solicitors. Two buildings that I could swear were attached to one another a moment ago. Now there was a gloomy gap between them, blurry at the edges and…
I stared into the darkness. It stared right back.
I grabbed my bag and ran. Back down Cheapside as fast as my little feet could carry me, awash with fear: feeling like I’d done something I knew I wasn’t supposed to, and had been found out; been somewhere I shouldn’t be. Seen something I shouldn’t have. Maybe that’s what it was, but all I knew was that I wanted to get as much pavement between my back and that darkness as possible. I was afraid it would swallow me whole.
A busy crossing made me stop, catch my breath while I waited for the light to change, leaning on the signal post and trying to pull myself together… which might have been easier had I not become aware of a woman standing next to me, slightly too close for comfort, pulling a dirty grey shawl around her shoulders. People stepped around her on the pavement without seeing her, without her seeing them—but she could certainly see me, and she was watching me with a look of intense amusement.
“Wotcha running for?”
I must have looked at her blankly, because she smirked and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Ain’t no point in running, pet. You’re in now.” She looked me up and down before turning away and sauntering down the road, turning onto a street I knew shouldn’t be there, just as I knew that the building behind me (were I to turn around and look at it) wouldn’t be a bookshop anymore – it would be something else. I didn’t want to know what that might be.
The crossing lights changed, the traffic stopping. Ahead of me, everything was as it should be and I thought that if I kept going, kept moving ahead, I would be alright. If I could get to the station, I’d be fine: I was overtired, that was all, and I needed to get home. Just needed to get home. But behind me I could feel something shifting; a pressure as though the streets were pulling and twisting to let something other through. A man brushed past me from behind as I crossed the street, standing out from the dark suits everywhere around because he was dressed in tattered tweed and wore a noose around his neck. He turned and grinned at me as he passed, but not before I saw the hole where the back of his head should be.
I could scream, I said to myself. I could scream, and then someone will stop and help me. They’ll call an ambulance. Someone will help. Someone. And just as I thought this, an old woman pulled at my elbow. “Thought this was what you wanted, deary? To see the lost spaces?”
Her eyes were sewn shut, and I was running again. Between people, real or imaginary; between buses and cars and horses and carts. Between A-boards for golf sales, and crowds of flagellants.
I’m losing my mind, I thought as I saw the sign for the Tube station ahead… I’m losing my mind.
It was getting dark. A staircase stretched down into the ground, its walls set with glittering teeth – and with one quick look, the Tube became a non-option. Instead, I turned left into what should have been a public garden; now a grim maze of winding passages with no doors or windows – just high brick walls. I turned this way and that, left then right, doubling back on myself time and again until I was hopelessly lost.
This couldn’t be: I know this city. I know it, and I love it for all that I know. But as I realised that I was lost and I sank to the floor; as I drowned in my panic, I heard laughter behind me. It was my friend from the Hook and Cleaver pub, the man from Smithfield, but somehow he looked taller, stronger, less disheveled. A dirt-streaked courtesan hung on his arm, her shoes caked with mud and blood, her eyes glassy. “You found your way, then?”
“I think I lost it.”
“No, you found it alright. You wanted to see, and now you do. You see all those hidden places you were so keen to find. Never thought to consider whether you’d like them, did you? Well, now. Too late for that: tears and spilled milk. You’re stuck seeing what you see: once your eyes are open, they don’t close again – not until they’re closed, if you get what I mean? You’re lost to the city, like me: you’ll see what it wants you to see and there’s no way back. It’s why I drink, you know. I can’t stop any more. I can’t see anything else, not even when I try – only this, so I drink to make it stop. To make it leave me alone. I just want to see the same as everyone else. I want to see roads and cars, and pavements and chewing gum. Buses running red lights, even those fucking bike couriers. But I can’t stop seeing this place, these things. And it doesn’t stop; it never ends.”
I couldn’t answer. I just looked up at him, leaning so very casually against the wall while I sat in a broken puddle on the ground. He shrugged. “Take my advice and stay to the west. You’re not ready for the east yet.” He sniffed again, just like he had a world ago. What was that: an hour? “And if you’re wise, you won’t come looking for me.” Then he was gone, leaving me alone in the dark.
I once met a man who had a habit of finding strange places. I say “habit” rather than “gift” although that’s what I would once have called it, myself. He taught me to see the things that are hidden in the streets of a city, the things the city chooses to keep to itself, and he taught me how – at least for a short while – to stop seeing them. So I sit here in this bar, and wait: for the dead to creep in at the edges of my mind, for the sounds of a past that may never have happened to break through the din of today. I wait for the day someone comes in and asks me whether it’s true that there’s a chamber of horrors beneath the market. And when they come, I’ll tell them that it’s not just a chamber (it’s easy enough: all you have to do is open your eyes. And then open them again) but a whole world of them.