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Chapter 1     

Tallowed portals  

November is a good month for body snatchers. In summer, corpses are quickly rotten and worthless, and even the gravediggers need strong drink before they can face the stench of a graveyard.  In January, the soil freezes hard and the spades make too much noise. So it was a night in early November when two men, and a lad of fifteen pushing a handcart, turned the corner from Union Street into Red Cross Street, and stopped at the gate of the Cross Bones burial ground.            

Old Blakey had done his part of the business.  As arranged, he had ‘forgotten’ to lock the gate. The grave he had told Bill ‘the Bag’ Baines about that morning was near the south wall. The fresh mound of earth gave its position away, but the sexton had decorated it with a jawbone from the bone house, just to be sure they wouldn’t miss it. 

            There were few gravestones at Cross Bones.  Anyone with a little money in the burial club would be buried in the College Ground, or in a vault at St. Saviours if they were well-to-do. Cross Bones was mainly used for Parish burials, and all the parish could afford was a cheap deal coffin and a shallow hole in the ground. At times of sickness, and that was most of the time in Southwark, the dead wouldn’t even get a grave of their own. They would end up in a pit so deep the water came in at the bottom, and filled so high that latecomers needed to be hammered down to give them a bare covering of earth.  In the summer, when the air was black with flies, the stench from the pits would spread out of the burial ground into the surrounding houses, as far away as Borough High Street.

Bill had left nothing to chance.  Earlier in the day he had rubbed tallow on to the hinges of the gate so no one in the houses round about would be woken by its squeak. It opened noiselessly. The cart was lifted through, and the gate shut. 

Bill and Eli jostled the cart across the uneven ground. Although it was a clear night, the ground was covered in mist, a white, curling miasma that seemed to come up out of the soil itself, as if the spirits of the dead had managed to squeeze out of the oozy ground but hadn’t been able to work out what to do next. 

            William took up his position near the gate in case anyone was still about. He shoved his pinched hands deep into the pockets of his hand-me-down coat.  The coat was too big; or maybe William was too small for the coat. Southwark lads were small, but William was smaller than most; or at least his bow legs were. From his waist up to his bullet head he was a big and strong as a grown man, and even with bent legs he walked with a London swagger.               

            Bill and Eli took the spades from the cart and started digging at the head end of the grave.  Bill found that he was doing all the work.

            “Put yer back into it, man!”  He whispered, but Eli had already been at the gin.  Bill tried to kick some sense into his fuddled brain with a boot up the rear. Eli jabbed wildly down with his spade, and caught Bill on the side of his foot.

            Bill forgot about the people in the nearby houses.  He howled in pain as the blade of the rusty tool cut through the leather of his boot. He dropped his own spade and grabbed Eli round the neck, cursing him as only a South Londoner could. But Eli was too far gone to care; he sat down on a grave mound among the shroud tatters and scattered bones and wept. His own Marjorie had filled a hole at Cross Bones barely three months ago, and he had been useless ever since.  

            “Will, come and give us an ‘and ‘ere, will yer?”

            William took one last look up and down the street then crossed the ground to help his uncle. He was a sharp lad who knew what to do. His powerful arms and shoulders more than made up for his legs. He picked up Eli’s spade and started to dig, keeping time with his uncle to avoid any further accidents.

            Blakey had made sure that the grave was shallow, and within minutes their spades hit the coffin with a dull thump. Bill jammed the spade into the lid and twisted.  A chunk of it came away.

“Give us a glim from that darky and let’s see what we got.”

William hung the dark lantern over the hole. A white face with a slack jaw stared up at them with one open eye.   Bill leant down and sniffed.

            “Fresh enough. She’ll do.”

            At least she was the right way round. The dead were supposed to be buried with the head to the west in regular Christian fashion, but undertakers were not always careful in these matters. The body snatcher’s skill was to dig as little as possible, and pull the corpse out through a small hole at the head end. Feet first was harder, as hands and arms got jammed as you tried to wriggle it out.

            Then Eli started to sing a crude pub song he’d heard the night before, turning it into a mournful dirge.

            “For Chris’sake shut up!” Bill whispered loudly, but Eli wouldn’t. Any minute now a window would go up. Bill didn’t wait for that. He punched Eli, once, on the side of the head, and the old soak slumped down on to his mound of earth.

            Bill took one side and William the other. With a heave, the body was out of the coffin and on the ground.

‘Blast it! She’s got ‘er own clothes on!’

           Bill was a smart man. Strictly speaking, you couldn’t ‘steal’ a body because bodies didn’t belong to anyone; but clothes did. Body snatchers up before the beak were sent down for stealing goods, not bodies. So Bill put the clothes back. “Don’t take nuffin’ but the body,” he drummed into his young apprentice.

Cheap parish shrouds ripped easily; clothes didn’t. William took out his knife, and Bill unclasped his own. They started to rip at the clothes, but it was hard work.   Bill cursed again.

            “She weren’t a common little dollymop. This stuff’s quality, I know.”

            At last the job was done. The corpse lay white and stiff and tangled on the sodden ground.

            “Get that stuff back in the coffin and I’ll bag ‘er up.”

            William gathered up the torn clothes ready to stuff them into the coffin. He felt something between two layers of cloth. He pushed a curious finger into a hidden pocket. There was something hard and round there. A coin maybe.  No, a ring!

            Almost without thinking, he slipped it on the end of his own finger, then dropped it into his pocket. “Don’t take nothing but the body.” It was all very well for Uncle Bill to say that. But then, he shouldn’t keep him so short of money. Even a cheap ring would raise enough for a good feed on the quiet.  No one would know.  

            Bill worked the canvas bag that gave him his nickname over the body. He was still cursing about the pain in his foot. Eli snored gently on his mound of earth, his mouth open and drooling. If it wasn’t for the noise, he could have been a corpse that had climbed out of his grave but didn’t have the energy to dig himself back in again.

            William helped his uncle shove the body’s bare feet into the sack, and Bill tied it up with a piece of whipcord.  Between them, they heaved it onto the cart. Bill looked at down at Eli. The drool had now soaked his dirty yellow beard and was dribbling down towards his neck.

            “Can’t leave him ‘ere. If they finds ‘im e’ll blab.”

            “”Anyway, he might freeze to death,” pointed out William.

            “Then ‘ee’d be in the right place, wouldn’t ‘ee?  Useless lummock! Let’s ‘ave ‘im on the cart.”

            Bill took Eli’s shoulders and William grabbed his legs, but the old drunk woke up at this point so they dumped him on his legs instead of on the cart.   Bill turned to more important matters. He pushed the broken coffin lid back into place, then, with William’s help, backfilled the grave. With a few flicks of his spade, Bill recreated the mound that had covered it.  No one would know that the body wasn’t sleeping peacefully below – at least, not until the grave was opened again to make room for someone else.    

            Soon they were pushing their way down Red Cross Street, past silent houses. The moon was hidden by cloud and it was pitch dark, but they knew every rut and cobble in the road and could almost feel their way home.  Bill hobbled along, leaning heavily on the cart.  Eli tottered along behind. 

At the bottom of Red Cross Street they turned into Mint Street. Star Court was a narrow, almost invisible turning to the left.  

            “Baines! wot you got there?”

          Bill the Bag was not the only body snatcher in Southwark. The year before a new gang had moved in, led by a dockhand who had lost his job through thieving. Tugger Tuffin was big and ugly, and had big, ugly friends. He was quite happy to let Bill do all the work of digging up the corpse, then help himself to it. Tugger Tuffin didn’t like hard work. He liked to get his corpses the easy way; and slitting a throat was the easiest way of all.

          By some horrible chance, Tugger himself was in Mint Street, returning home from some dark enterprise of his own.  But Tugger was alone, and it was three against one – well, two against one. Eli had his back to the wall and was slowly sliding down to the ground.  Tugger weighed up the odds. Casually, he slipped a knife out of his pocket.

          Bill wasn’t going to give up his prize easily. He grabbed hold of the bag and hung on. William was feeling brave too, but then he was at the front of the cart, ready to guide it into the narrow entrance, and Tugger and the knife were at the back.

          Tugger reached out with his spare hand to take hold of the bag, preparing for a tug of war with Bill.  At the same moment William shoved the cart violently backwards. The wooden shaft struck Tugger high up between the legs.  It hurt. 

He let out a howl and dropped the knife.

          Bill just stood there, mouth wide open.

          “Come on, quick!”

          Bill came on, quick. Before Tugger could recover they whipped the cart round into Star Court and in through the gate at the bottom. The bolts were slammed to. Made it!  Except for Eli, of course. He would have to take his chance. If he died of cold, or got knifed by Tugger, he might fetch a couple of guineas.

         They were in a cobbled yard squeezed in beside the cheap lodging house where Bill and William had a room. Here Bill ran his ‘official’ business as a sail mender, but, truth to tell, Star Court was too far from the river for that ever to be a success.  Bill fumbled in his pocket for a key, then opened the door of a lean-to shed between the privy and a coal store. This was Bill’s business premises. William helped him hump the sack inside and dump it on a rough table.

             Bill collapsed on to a rickety bench, shaken by encounter with Tugger. The pain in his foot started to throb again.  He undid his laces and carefully pulled his shoe off. He looked at his foot in dismay.

            “Curse the blasted old ……!  Look what ‘ee’s done!”

            The wound on the side of his foot had stopped bleeding, but was black with blood and dirt. A massive bruise was spreading towards his toes.

            “You want to wash the dirt out ‘o that,” William warned. “It’ll turn bad.”

            But Bill was in no mood to be told what to do.

            “Turnin’ doctor now?” he growled. He reached into a hiding place and pulled out a bottle. Yanking the cork out with his teeth he swallowed a good slug of gin.

      He poked William with a grubby finger.  “You were a good lad tonight, Will.” 

      “Sorted that Tugger out, didn’t I? Right in the balls!”

      “You did, lad. Though I’m beginin’ t ‘wish you ‘adn’t – ‘e ain’t a forgivin’ man, that feller.  Now look ‘ere. Eli’s finished – useless.  You knows the work – you’re my partner now, and we’ll get a new lad for look out. Are you on?”

            “Does that mean I get more money?”

            Bill looked shifty and quickly changed the subject.

            “Come on partner. Reach over them pliers. I’ll show you how to get her pretty pearlies out without breakin ‘em.  There’s a false teeth maker down Newington’ll give a good price for these beauties.”  

 

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