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Authors: Jon Mayhew

Mortlock (5 page)

BOOK: Mortlock
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The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,

Your brains come snivelling down your snout.

‘The Hearse Song’, traditional folk song



The Boy with the Toad

The cold nipped and worried at Josie’s fingertips and cheeks, making her glad of the scarf and hat that Gimlet had made her put on before following him down the street.

‘Can’t be too careful if those old Aunts are a-hunting for you,’ Gimlet said, and spat into the gutter.

Josie clung to Gimlet’s coat-tails to avoid being swallowed up by the heaving, jostling crowds that swarmed up and down the narrow, muddy street. She craned her head back and peered up at the sky.
You wouldn’t think it was morning
, she thought. The black buildings overshadowed everything, making the light in the street as dim as twilight.

‘We can’t be too far away from Mr Wiggins now, Josie,’ Gimlet said, pulling her close. ‘Stay by me. This area is troublesome and there are a great number of undesirables about.’

Josie knew of the Seven Dials, a rough area littered with ramshackle tenements and flooded cellars, crammed with the poor and hopeless. The buildings seemed to lean in on each other like drunks at a wake. Josie thought that if one fell down, then the whole area would tumble like dominoes in a line.

She and Cardamom had always skirted around the Dials to get to the theatre. Dark alleyways and entrances to courtyards snaked off left and right. She flinched at the ragged crowd that surged around her. These weren’t the merrymakers of the Erato. Dubious, unshaven vagabonds leaned against crumbling walls and smoked pipes, assessing Gimlet and his strange, muffled companion. Black-toothed women laughed raucously on the street corners. Here and there Josie heard raised voices, saw scuffles. She fixed her gaze forward.

Wiggins’s funeral shop shone like a jewel in a dung heap. Its windows were bright and clean, the paintwork all black and shining, unscathed by the passing multitudes or the mud from the street.

‘How does he keep it so clean?’ Josie marvelled, staring at the sooty shopfronts that sagged on either side of Mr Wiggins’s immaculate shop.

‘He’s a very particular man is Wiggins,’ Gimlet said, smiling. ‘He likes everything to be just so.’

‘I can see.’

‘He applies that to his funeral arranging, too. He’s a popular man around here. He doesn’t take account of who you are or where you’re from. He looks after everything. Sadly, he doesn’t make a huge amount of money.’

Josie hung back as Gimlet approached the door. Her earlier excitement had evaporated and now part of her didn’t want to think about a brother at all. It raised too many questions about her mother and father. What would he be like, this brother? Would he be like her?

They pushed the door and a tinkling bell heralded their arrival. The inside of the shop matched the outside. Tidy, almost bare, a long counter stretched across the back of the shop and various samples of coffin wood and brass handles stood in regimented lines along its surface. The smell of wood polish and clean brass hung heavy in the air.

A young boy, small and pinched-looking, slouched on the counter. He wore the black suit of an undertaker, worn at the cuffs and rather too large for him. It threatened to swallow him up. The boy ignored them, his head to one side as he watched a toad twitching, pinned beneath his index finger. His hair was cut very short. It was the same shade of blond as Josie’s. His eyes were large and had a lazy quality that made his whole face look insolent or haughty. Gimlet coughed. The boy continued to prod the toad, making it squirm. Gimlet gave another polite ‘Ahem’.

‘You wanna get something for that, mister,’ the boy observed, not taking his eyes off the toad. ‘Seven Dials is full of quacks who’ll cure your cough for a farthing. Either that or come back in a month when you’ve turned up yer toes and we can ’elp.’

‘I’m looking for Mr Wiggins,’ Gimlet said, casting a dark glance over to Josie. She could see his jaw tighten as he ground his teeth.

‘Well, there’s plenty of folks just dyin’ to meet ’im,’ the boy snorted, poking at the toad’s back. Its foreleg jerked up. The boy grinned.

‘Could you tell me where I can find him?’ Gimlet asked through a fixed smile.

The boy looked up at them for the first time. Josie couldn’t help but think that he looked a little toad-like himself, with his wide, turned-down mouth and large eyes. The boy scratched his nose and flicked the toad off the counter. To Josie’s surprise and disgust it whirled through the air like a spinning top and bounced off her coat.

‘Yeah, I could,’ the boy said, jumping off the stool behind the counter and sauntering through a curtain at the back of the shop. ‘He’s right behind yer.’

The bell tinkled again and a short, pot-bellied old man with pebble-thick spectacles perched on the end of his stubby nose stepped in. His chubby fingers grasped the lapels of his frayed black suit. He rocked on his heels and bent his thin legs as if he were trying to make himself bigger. His tall top hat looked out of all proportion to his body and bore a white ribbon, indicating that he had been to the funeral of a child.

‘Can I help you?’ he said, squinting through his thick lenses.

‘Mr Wiggins?’ Gimlet extended a hand. Mr Wiggins inclined his head and fumbled for Gimlet’s fingers.

Josie bent down and picked up the toad. She gave a small yelp and dropped it again. It was dead and had been for some time judging by its desiccated state. How on earth could that be?

The two men paused and glanced at her before continuing.

‘Yes, hmmm, yes, I
Mr Wiggins,’ said the frowning man, sounding as if he’d only just realised his identity. ‘How may I help you in this hour of deep . . . sadness?’ Wiggins breathed the last word out. Josie continued to stare at the dead toad. What sort of boy poked and pawed the mummified remains of amphibians?

‘I’m sorry, Mr Wiggins, we aren’t here to bury anyone, although we
come at a time of great tragedy.’ Gimlet gave Josie a sidelong glance and she snapped her attention back to the undertaker, flashing him a stage smile.

‘Really?’ Wiggins craned his neck further forward, peering harder at Gimlet and then Josie. ‘Most irregular. You come to an undertaker but don’t require a burying?’

‘I’m a friend of the Great Cardamom,’ Gimlet said. ‘This is Josie – he was her guardian.’

‘Ah,’ Mr Wiggins said, removing his glasses, polishing them on a sample of shroud and looking up blindly. ‘I see.’

‘I’m afraid I have some bad news,’ Gimlet began.

‘I already know about Edwin Chrimes,’ Wiggins said, putting his glasses back on. ‘News travels fast in this profession, sir. Saddening news, sir, saddening. We were childhood friends.’

‘So I believe. Josie knows about her brother . . .’ Gimlet began.

‘Quite so, yes.’ Wiggins gripped his lapels and clicked his heels. ‘I apprised young Alfie of the facts not long ago myself. Once I’d heard, of course. The truth would out, I suspected.’

‘Indeed. He did make one wish clear,’ Gimlet said quickly before Josie could interject on her guardian’s behalf. ‘That was, to be buried in Gorsefields Yard.’

The colour drained from Wiggins’s face. Josie thought he was going to rip his lapels off, his knuckles turned so white. ‘Gorsefie— Well, I . . .’

‘Is that a problem?’ Gimlet asked.

‘I – no . . . no. I don’t suppose so. Just not one of the best places. Erm . . . full. You wouldn’t consider Highgate Cemetery? It’s being extended . . . very respectable –’

‘No!’ Josie snapped, stepping forward and waving Cardamom’s note under Wiggins’s nose. ‘It was his last wish.’

‘Josie, why don’t you go and get acquainted with your brother while Mr Wiggins and I talk?’ Gimlet said, giving her a hard stare. ‘Where will she find him, sir?’ he asked, turning back to Wiggins.

‘Alfie? Why, he’s just gone in the back, sir. I do believe you were talking to him two minutes ago.’

‘Oh, joy,’ Josie said, giving Gimlet a hard stare. The toad boy was her brother. Her twin, even! He was meant to be the one who would understand how she felt. He was horrible. She paused at the curtain and took a deep breath before stepping through.

The room at the back of the shop matched the front for tidiness. Boxes stood in neat piles and blue, white and green bottles lined themselves up for inspection on the shelves. The smell of carbolic soap mixed with a sweeter, sickly smell that Josie couldn’t identify. She thought of Gimlet’s messy, chaotic studio. What would Mr Wiggins make of that? Here, four long wooden tables stood in the middle of the room. They were bare and well scrubbed, apart from one, which had something lying on it covered in a white sheet.

Alfie propped himself up against this table, resting his chin on his hands as he gazed at Josie. She could just about see him over the shrouded shape on the table.

‘So, you’re my brother,’ she said. She tried to hide the disappointment in her voice. How could she share the same beautiful gypsy queen of a mother with this street urchin in black?

‘So, you’re my sister. Wiggins told me about you today when he heard about that magic man dying,’ he said with a sneer. ‘Could’ve kept it to ’imself to be honest. Anyway, you don’t look like my sister.’

‘You don’t look like my brother,’ Josie retorted. ‘You’re too small for a start. You look about eight years old!’

‘D’you know what this is?’ Alfie’s wide mouth broke into a grin as he pointed to the shrouded object on the table. Josie shook her head. ‘It’s a dead body. D’you want to have a look?’

Josie shook her head again and took a step back towards the curtain.

‘Go on. Wiggins is always tellin’ me to have a look. Most folks just keep their dead at home until they’re buried.’ Alfie’s eyes seemed to glow as he fixed his gaze on Josie and began folding the sheet back. ‘But Wiggins offers a special service for those as want to pay.’

Josie watched, hypnotised, as Alfie exposed a wispy mass of white hair and a pale wrinkled brow. She wanted to look away but a grim fascination made her stare.

‘What he does is drain all the blood from the veins,’ Alfie murmured, revealing the white face of an old woman. She looked like she was in pain. Her mouth and eyes were shut tight, making her whole face wrinkle. The jawbones protruded through stretched skin as thin as parchment. ‘Then he pumps them with arsenic. You’ve heard of arsenic, haven’t you?’

Josie nodded, chewing her thumbnail.

‘It’s a deadly poison. Sometimes they sit up when he does it!’ Alfie giggled, twisting his finger in the corpse’s hair. ‘He says it’s only the fluid pumpin’ through the veins but it looks proper peculiar!’

‘Don’t!’ Josie protested, clenching her fists at her sides. How could she be related to this nasty little creature?

‘Y’see, when a body passes away, so to speak,’ Alfie’s voice became a whisper, ‘it begins to rot. Flies get in through the mouth, nose . . . and other ways.’

‘Stop it,’ Josie hissed.

‘The eggs can hatch within a day if it’s warm enough . . . All them maggots.’

‘That’s horrible. How can you talk this way?’ Josie looked away in disgust.

‘It comes to us all in the end,’ Alfie said, rolling his eyes to heaven, ‘but a bit of arsenic in the veins soon puts a stop to any of that unfortunate decay. Mark my words, folks’ll be clammerin’ for this in years to come. Embalmin’, they call it.’

‘Is that what you do?’ She risked a glance back at the boy.

‘Not exactly.’ Alfie coughed and looked crestfallen. ‘Wiggins won’t let me touch the chemicals. I’m a mute.’

‘A what?’

‘A mute. I stump along after the coffins lookin’ all mournful. Like I’m sorry that the deceased has kicked the bucket.’

‘And that’s it?’ Josie said. To her it sounded ridiculous. Surely he must have other duties than following a coffin?

‘It’s an important job. I help out carryin’ and fetchin’ stuff, too.’ Alfie sniffed and looked defensive. ‘There’s a lot to see to at a funeral.’

‘Sounds dull,’ Josie muttered.

Alfie gave her a sneer and leaned forward, pressing his elbows on the body’s middle. The corpse’s chest rose and its head fell back, emitting a low groan that rattled from the dead woman’s jaws. Josie screamed and leapt back, her heart hammering. Alfie gave a howl of laughter.

‘That livened you up a bit, then!’ He sniggered as he released the pressure on the corpse, allowing it to settle once more. ‘Don’t worry. Nuthin’ more than a few gases lettin’ themselves out the old lady’s throat. It could be worse!’

‘Hideous! How can
be my brother? I hate you.’

‘Well, I wasn’t exactly clappin’ me hands with glee when old Wiggins told me about you,’ Alfie snarled. ‘Bad enough bein’ an orphan and never knowin’ your ma or pa, but then to get lumbered with a stupid sister, too.’

‘Stupid?’ Josie spat, snatching up a small, empty bottle that lay on the table nearest her. ‘Stupid?’ She sent it whirling across the room. Time slowed. She watched the blue glass catch the light as it travelled. She bit her lip as Alfie threw himself behind the table – too late. The bottle bounced off his forehead with a hollow clunk and shattered on the tiled floor. He slumped behind the table, groaning.

Josie turned on her heel and pushed her way out through the curtain, nearly ripping it down in her anger.

BOOK: Mortlock
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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