Kate Griffin & The Music Hall Murders
“It has been my privilege to stand in The Gentle Author’s shoes for the last week and to meet so many interesting people in the course of writing these pieces – as you will have detected, I am fascinated by London and its stories.
Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders (published by Faber and Faber) is a distillation of tales I have heard from my family over the years and of my own, slightly off-beat, enthusiasms and interests. I am happy to admit to being a connoisseur of those classic fog-bound Hammer films, the cobbled streets of Sherlock Holmes and the cheap, spangled glamour of the Music Hall. My novel is a cocktail of all the things that, for me, represent the dark essence of Victorian London – with a romping dash of studied theatricality.
Importantly, I have deliberately placed a clutch of strong female characters at the centre of the action because, all too often, it is the men who dominate tales of old London, whether as proto-coppers or sinister miscreants. From my own family history, I know just how important and tough the women of Limehouse and the hinterland of the docks in the East End really were.
If you decide to read more I hope you will enjoy it and let me know – I am on twitter @KateAGriffin
In the meantime, thanks for reading my posts this week and thanks to The Gentle Author for publishing them. I shall leave you with the opening scene from Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders...”
Kate Griffin, Spital Sq
Lady Ginger’s fingers were black. From the flaking tips of her long, curling nails to the crinkled skin just visible beneath the clacking jumble of rings, her hands were stained like a coal boy’s.
Not that she’d sully her fingers with anything as menial as a scuttle, you understand. Oh no, Lady Ginger was too grand for that.
She lifted the pipe to her lips again and sucked noisily, all the while watching me with those hooded eyes.
The room was dark and the air smelt like Mrs Conway’s special paint box at The Gaudy.
Tell the truth, it always makes me feel a bit noxious when I clean up Mrs Conway’s dressing table after a show. That ‘lucky’ cologne she uses honks like a fox in a fessional. That’s what Lucca says, and he’s from Italy where the Romans are, so he ought to know.
Anyhow, I just stood there fiddling with the frayed cuffs of my best frock, waiting for Lady Ginger to say something.
After a moment she inhaled deeply, took the pipe out of her mouth, closed her eyes and leaned back into the pile of embroidered cushions that passed for furniture. The bangles on her skinny yellow arms jingled as she settled into the nest of silk.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked over at the man standing guard in front of the door, but he didn’t make a move, just kept staring at the bird cage hanging up by the shuttered window.
I took a couple of steps forward and cleared my throat. If the old woman had fallen asleep, perhaps I could wake her up?
Now I was a bit closer I could see her tarry lips – the fine lines etched around her tiny mouth were black, too. It looked like she’d swallowed a spider and it was trying to get out again.
Opium’s a horrible thing. Ma always said it was smoke from the Devil’s nostrils and that it could coil you tighter than a hangman’s noose. Not that Joey had taken any notice of her.
I coughed loudly, but still the old lady didn’t budge. I was beginning to think that she might be dead when the parrot went off.
‘Pretty girl, pretty girl…’
Lady Ginger’s eyes snapped open and she grinned up at me – her mouth all wet and dark. No teeth, as far as I could see.
‘You are seldom wrong, Jacobin. She’s a pretty piece indeed.’
I was amazed.
Lady Ginger’s voice was 100 years younger than the rest of her. All high and fluttery like a girl’s. And posh, too – very cultured it was. I’d never been near enough to hear her before. Down at the docks when she visits with her lascar boys there’s always been too much bumping and shouting to hear what she’s saying to them – and, anyway, I’ve kept a distance since Joey. When she comes to The Gaudy – not often, mind – she’s got her special curtained box near the stage with its own staircase and door to the side alley, so we never see her arrive or leave and we never see who’s with her, neither. It’s always best not to ask too many questions in Paradise.
‘So, you are Kitty Peck?’
Lady Ginger shifted on her pile of cushions and pulled herself up into a sitting position. The loose gown she wore swamped her scrawny frame as she adjusted her legs and crossed them. Her feet were bare and now I saw she even had rings on her gnarly toes.
She reached for her long pipe and began to suck again, all the while staring up at me.
Then she spoke in that odd little voice.
‘I had dealings with your brother, Joseph, wasn’t it? Fair like you, and handsome with it. Now what became of him, I wonder?’
I didn’t answer. We both knew what had happened to Joey.
‘Cat got your tongue, Kitty Peck?’ Her long eyes narrowed and she smiled. Then she reached for an ebony writing box next to the cushion pile, the bangles on her arms clacking and jangling as she hauled it onto her lap. Opening the lid so that I couldn’t see inside, she began to rummage.
‘Well, I can’t say I blame you for not wanting to talk about him. A bad business, that was.’
My belly boiled and I had to fight the urge to say something I’d regret.
‘Joey’s been… gone for two years now, and I miss him every day.’
‘Do you now? Miss a murderer? What a loyal little sister you are Kitty Peck.’
He’d worked for The Lady, right enough – and everyone in Paradise knew what that meant – but Joey wasn’t no murderer. He couldn’t even put a half-dead bird chewed up by a cat out of its misery. He’d left that sort of thing to me.
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
Lady Ginger grinned wider, her eyes glinting in the thin candlelight.
I could see her more clearly now. It was the closest I’d ever been to the woman who put the fear into half of London, and as I stood there I realised with a shock that she was a faker.
All this time I’d thought she was a Chinawoman, but that long plait, those fingernails, those clothes, those jewels – they were just a costume. Lady Ginger was as English as I was.
‘Still, loyalty is a quality I value,’ she continued, producing a green leather case no bigger than a matchbox from the depths of the writing box. She flicked open the shagreen lid with one of her long black fingernails and shook three tiny red dice into the palm of her hand.
‘Do you know what these are, Miss Peck?’
I shook my head.
‘They are the future.’ She raised her open palm so that I could see the dice more clearly. Now I looked, these wasn’t like the dice played by men at the back of The Gaudy. Instead of the usual dots, the faces were covered with golden patterns.
Lady Ginger closed her fingers and shook her fist. I could hear the dice clicking against her rings.
Then she spat three times on the wooden floorboards next to her cushions and dropped the dice into the triangle formed by the glistening blobs of black saliva.
She stared down for a moment and then she began to chuckle. ‘Come closer, Kitty Peck, and tell me what you see.’
Now, she’s not a woman to cross. For all I wanted to back out of that stinking room, skiddle down the winding stairs and get as far away from Lady Ginger’s Palace as possible, I didn’t want to rile her. So I bent down and looked at the dice – all three showed the same pattern.
I reached forward to take up the nearest one, but – quick as a limelight flare – she lashed out, scratching my wrist with one of them curled nails.
‘No one touches the dice, but me. However, I will allow you to read them. What do you see?’
I rubbed my wrist and cleared my throat. ‘Nothing, Lady. Not numbers leastways.’
I stared hard at the golden swirling shape repeated on the top of the three red cubes and realised that the pattern had a head and what looked like wings.
‘It might be a dragon?’ I ventured.
Lady Ginger swept up the dice and poured them back into the green case. Then she stared at me.
‘You show promise, Miss Peck. Very few people are able to read the I-ching by intuition alone. It seems I have chosen well. And the dice confirmed that – although three dragons warn of an element of risk.’
She reached for her pipe and sucked noisily again until the little carved bowl at the end began to glow and a thin trail of sickly sweet smoke coiled up into the air. All the while she looked at me and I was reminded of Mr Fitzpatrick at The Gaudy when he’s assessing a new girl for the chorus.
As it turned out, I wasn’t far wrong about that.
“Do you have a head for heights?…”
Portrait of Kate Griffin copyright © Colin O’Brien