by D.R. Miller
a full shot of Mother’s Ruin
Mary glared at the surrounding crowd. She held her glass in front of her like a weapon as her eyes darted around the room, daring anyone to argue.
‘There is no such person as Jack the bleedin’ Ripper!’ she stated matter of factly. Mary knocked back her gin, smacked her lips, then sighed a satisfied Aaaaah.
The denizens of the packed Ten Bells pub cheered and jeered in equal measure as she slammed the empty glass on the table to complete her row of eight.
‘Then why, pray tell, is ‘e on flyers stuck to every lamp post across London!’ Dotty demanded above the hubbub.
Dotty’s words were dangerously slurred. As she swigged back her own shot of Mother’s Ruin, her legs came up to leave her horribly unbalanced on her stool. Alarm rippled round The Ten Bells in the form of a pantomime gasp but, remarkably, the crowd’s expectation of calamity was quickly replaced by a burst of rapturous applause as Dotty clumsily managed to pull herself together and place her glass on the table to complete her own row of eight empty shot glasses.
Another four shots were delivered to each woman amid a fanfare of clapping as the two combatants glared at each other across the sticky round table. Mary’s flame-red hair was reflected in her eyes as she watched her opponent tilt and sway. She had this in the bag, she knew. The gentlemen’s club she used to work for in the West End all those years ago had taught her how to drink hard while staying lucid enough to do whatever was necessary to relieve a man of his hard-earned money. Poor Dotty though, ten years Mary’s senior with jaundiced skin and a glazed expression from years of drink, well, she had only ever known the grog houses of Whitechapel where the cheap liquor could leave you blind. Or worse.
Mary carefully picked up one of the new glasses and narrowed her eyes at her opponent. She waited for the crowd to quieten before saying her piece.
‘He’s made up, so ‘e is. A bogeyman to force us into the workhouses!’ Mary saluted the crowd, swallowed the drink, then delicately placed the glass on the end of her row to the loud guffaws of the baying mob.
Dotty was not to be beaten. With almost miraculous luck, she grabbed her glass at the second attempt, then waited for the chuckling at the back of the bar to stop. They should be more respectful of their entertainment.
‘Then oo killed four women these last coupla months, yer dozy tart?’
A smattering of laughter, then expectant silence as Dotty slugged the gin, rammed the glass into the table, coughed, sputtered, then drooled into her bodice with a victorious but toothless grin.
Raucous cheers filled the air along with several half-empty mugs of ale. Mary screwed her mouth up tightly as several fingers pointed at her, their owners laughing at her obvious ire. A theatrical swipe of her arm silenced them again and this time she stood; her tenth shot held delicately between her fingertips.
‘The murders was all committed by different men. Husbands and pimps,’ she said snootily, careful to pronounce the words correctly.
Mary downed the drink, wiped her mouth on her sleeve and placed the glass at the end of her row.
Before the crowd even had chance to cheer, Dotty was on her feet, swaying like autumn leaves in the wind. She steadied herself against the table with the fingers of one hand, reached for her next drink, then quickly thought better of it as she almost fell face first into the collection of glasses in front of her. Pulling herself together with a determination that only free drinks could have mustered, she leaned heavily on the table using both hands. Suddenly she looked wistful, mournful.
‘I knew Polly Nicholls. And Annie. They weren’t for sale. Not like you!’ She said bitterly. Dotty’s emotion was lost on the crowd as hysterical laughter and applause broke out in The Ten Bells. But expectant silence quickly replaced the mirth when the onlookers remembered she needed to drink her glass.
Dotty, still swaying, looked at the little glass in front of her. Even in her inebriated state she could see Mary smiling triumphantly. Two Mary’s, in fact. She would not be beaten. With a sly grin, Dotty braced herself on the table, then bent her arms to lower her head to the glass. Grasping it between her gums, she clutched the table for dear life as she flicked her head back and shot the burning liquid down her throat. As she went to spit the glass into her line, a gasp went up as her lips lost their grip. The Ten Bells held its breath as the glass bounced onto the table in front of her, then jittered to a rest, upside down.
The resulting cheer was audible on the other side of Spitalfields Market.
Mary was not to be outdone by this old soak. She lifted her eleventh glass high, then turned to salute the patrons of The Ten Bells. In an instant, Dotty’s applause changed to chants of Ma-ry, Ma-ry, Ma-ry. When the chants finally died down and Mary could almost hear a pin drop, she finally spoke.
‘Jack the Ripper? Us women get ripped off by every man Jack o’ you bastards every day!’ As the bar burst into an odd mixture of confused laughter, cheers and even jeers from some of the men present, Mary quaffed her gin, then slowly placed the glass down, her little finger extended daintily.
It was uncertain for a time whether Dotty would even be able to find her next drink, but, to the astonishment of all present, she managed to lift it shakily. Concentration was etched into her forehead as her head rolled alarmingly around her shoulders. Yet again, the noise died in anticipation.
‘I a-agree. You sh-should see the s-size of my r-rent!’ She hiccupped, then promptly fell backwards over her stool and landed heavily on the ground beside it.
Mary threw her arms in the air in triumph. There was another round of cheers, then she paraded the room in a victory lap. As she accepted the congratulations, she held open the pocket of her apron to accept ha’pennies and pennies alike from any punter who was willing to pay her for their evening’s entertainment. Barely five minutes had passed before her circuit was complete. Mary peered into her pocket glumly. Barely enough coins to afford the rent. Forlorn, she looked around the bar at the backs of all the patrons who had already gone back to their glasses and conversations. The same patrons who been cheering her on just a few minutes ago had already forgotten her.
A knot of desperation was growing in her belly when she noticed a man in a black wool coat sitting alone at the bar. His face was obscured by a thick cloud of pipe smoke, but there were no holes in his shoes and his trousers showed no signs of repair. A man with money perhaps? Mary silently offered a prayer of hope, exhaled, then approached him with a gin-soaked smile, playing with her pocket provocatively.
‘A penny for ze winner, mishter?’ She flirted, trying her hardest to lay on a French accent for added allure.
‘My name’s Marie,’ she continued. She preferred Marie to Mary after her time in Paris.
‘Aren’t you going to look after your friend on the floor over there?’ The man’s voice was a smooth, authoritative baritone, well-spoken with the hint of a northern accent which Mary barely even noticed.
‘She’ll be alright until closing. Are you looking for somethin’ more by chance?’ Mary coolly kept eye contact with the cloud of smoke as she pushed her chest forward and swung her shoulders back and forth playfully.
Through the haze, she saw a thick moustache twitch briefly as the man glanced around the bar.
‘Do you have somewhere to go?’
‘I do. I ‘ave a room at Miller’s Court,’ Mary replied proudly, forgetting her French accent.
‘Then I have a guinea for its use,’ the man replied, suddenly holding up a shiny coin to prove his words.
‘A girl is always happy to open her pocket for a guinea,’ Mary teased lasciviously, adding a smile and a wink for good measure.
As the man playfully dropped the coin into her apron, Mary tried to smother a trembling sigh of relief with a giggle of satisfaction. She leaned in close to him.
‘Come on then mister, while the fire’s still hot,’ she whispered, close to his ear.
The man stood, then bent down to pick up a bag which she had not noticed before.
‘What you got in there then?’
‘Tools of the trade, my dear, tools of the trade.’ The man’s smile was empty, but Mary did not notice through her drunken haze.
Without even a glance from any of the other patrons, Mary looped her arm through her customer’s elbow as the pair stepped out into the cold, unforgiving streets of Whitechapel.
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