Imagine yourself a child living down the street from a serial killer. This is the premise of my first book, and I’ve taken the plunge and posted the first chapter here. My story is based on events surrounding real-life serial killer John Reginald Christie. Christie lived in a dingy street called Rillington Place, in north Kensington, London, from 1937 to 1953. I don’t want to say too much more, other than I’m hoping for feedback — and I hope you like it.
Most people in Britain would tell you the thing they remembered most about March 24th, 1953 — if they remembered it at all — was that it was the day Queen Mary died. She was a well-liked queen — as much as you can like someone you’ve only ever seen in pictures. People used words like ‘enduring’ and ‘steadfast’ and ‘dignified’ when they talked about her.
Mum, on the other hand, was more forthright. “I’m tellin’ you, Arthur,” I’d heard her say to my father about a month earlier, after yet another news story on her worsening ‘gastric illness’ (which we all later learned was cancer), “I don’t know how she put up with him — him ‘n his stamps ‘n bloody shooting. Could he have been any duller?” ‘He’ and ‘him’, of course, being George V. He’d died of flu in 1936.
And now, seventeen years later, to no one’s surprise, it appeared Mary was going to join him. By the time the BBC interrupted the Light and Third Programmes well after ten o’clock that March night, Britons had braced themselves for the worst — and being Britons, took great pleasure in proving themselves right. “Didn’t I tell you Arthur?” mum said, nodding sagely into her tea towel as she dried the mugs she and dad used for nighty-nights. Dad, meanwhile, sitting at the kitchen table scanning the football scores, barely mumbled a reply. Not that mum expected or needed one. She knew she was right.
By the next morning, the Queen’s death had preoccupied the country. Except our street, where her passing had taken a back seat to events that were unfolding in the house at the end. Number 10. It was Mr. Brown who found them. The bodies, that is. He’d been fixing up the downstairs kitchen and been looking for a place to put a little shelf for his wireless. He’d started peeling off some wallpaper, and had come across a hidden door.
But this is actually where the story ends. I should probably start at the beginning, turning the clock back five years to the time when I first met one of the tenants of Number 10, Beryl Evans.
Looking back on my neighbourly acquaintance with Beryl through grown-up eyes, I can see now what a young, naïve girl she was. A girl who, at eighteen, might have seen marriage as an escape, but on the contrary found herself pregnant and a prisoner in our harsh, gritty pocket of Notting Hill, relegated to a life of cramped, treeless row housing and dirt-bare gardens, with outdoor lavvies that stank in summer, and grey sheets and knickers perpetually strung up between soot-covered walls.
But this is hindsight talking. At the time, it was simply where I lived. Where we all lived — my mum and dad and older sister. Plus my two best friends, Elsie and Bel. Short for Annabel. Though Bel didn’t actually live on our street; she lived round the corner on St. Mark’s Road. Regardless, the three of us were inseparable. We also were rather mischievous given half the chance. Elsie was the ringleader. She was always daring one of us to do something outrageous. Nick allsorts from the grocery store. Blow kisses to the milkman (he once blew them back). Exchange Mr. Heavey’s post with Mrs. Phelps’. Say good morning to queer old Mr. Christie — which I did, and which led to my introduction to Beryl. Here’s how it happened.
It was a Saturday morning — a fine day in May so sunny and fresh that even Rillington Place looked…well, if not quite inviting then perhaps more habitable than it usually did. We sat on the pavement outside my front door playing jacks. Bel was winning — she almost always won at jacks — and Elsie, as usual, didn’t like it. She was looking for a diversion, and she soon found one. The front door at Number 10 had opened and out had come Mr. Christie. Reggie No-Dick, I’d once overheard someone call him (not to his face, of course). At the time, being twelve years old, in post-war Britain no less, I couldn’t quite (pardon the pun) grasp the anatomical ramifications of ‘no dick’. Oh, I knew well enough what ‘dick’ meant, but no dick? How could that be? How on earth did he pee? Urination was as far as my ponderings took me; it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that ‘Reggie No-Dick’ and his other nickname, ‘Can’t-do-it-Christie’, were the result of his rumoured impotence — rumours that had haunted him from an early age growing up in Yorkshire.
“Go say hello to him,” Elsie whispered, nudging me in the ribs with a bony kneecap.
“You say it!” I hissed back, knowing full well that Elsie would get her way. I was a bit of a pushover (‘non-confrontational’ is how I like to put it now) and Elsie, being Elsie, was extremely persuasive.
“Come on, I dare you.” Elsie taunted. “Double-dare. Triple-dare!”
How could I turn down a triple dare and retain any semblance of pride? I looked sideways at Bel, who kept her eyes down, clearly wanting nothing to do with any of this. She in fact was more non-confrontational than I. But she was killer at jacks. Alas, in the unofficial pecking order this particular day, I was the number-one peckee and Elsie, the supreme pecker.
“Hurry you silly cow, before he goes back inside!” She was getting more impatient, and bumped me again with her knee, harder this time.
I looked across at him. He was slowly and purposefully washing his front window. Watching him methodically soap and rinse each square of glass — and appreciating, even then, what little good it did in this tired, grey street of ours — I was struck once again by what an odd man he was. Tall and rakey, with a bald, egg-shaped dome of a head and a weasely face made all the more weasely by his small, round spectacles. His wife, Ethel, was the complete opposite: large and buxomly, with tight curls framing saggy jowls. She was much nicer than him, however, and often would stop and say hello or have a quick chat with mum.
Elsie kneed me a third time.
“What do I say?”
“Just say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Christie’.” Elsie giggled wickedly. “What a beautiful morning it is, and what a fine job you’re doing on those windows. Would you like to do ours when you’re finished?” She let out a raucous laugh. Across the road, Christie’s circular scrubbing had slowed, and while he didn’t look over, I sensed he was listening. Inwardly, I shivered. Aside from looking both gawky and crusty at the same time, there was something about him I didn’t like. Something I didn’t trust, but couldn’t articulate.
“I’m not asking him to do any bloody windows!” I retorted.
“Well, then, go over and ask him if you can help him wash his.” More peals of laughter. This time Christie shot a glance in our direction.
Just as I was plucking up my courage to do something — if only to shut Elsie up — the door to Number 10 opened again. It was a woman this time. The young, pretty woman who’d moved in last year with her husband. Her name was Beryl, mum had said. Her husband was Timothy. I’d seen them come and go the odd time, but never had spoken with them beyond exchanging the odd shy hello.
At the moment, Beryl was maneuvering the baby’s pram through the front door, shifting it this way and that to nudge it past the frame. The jigging and bouncing caused the unseen occupant inside to cry out. Mr. Christie glanced over but made no move to help. The crying grew louder. I could see the woman look scornfully at him, making a face that he couldn’t see as he bent back over his bucket. I smiled to myself, thinking that if I were a bit older, I could imagine Beryl and I being great chums. I had flashes of pyjama parties and toe-nail painting and hair in rags, which would have continued a few moments longer had Beryl’s voice not interrupted them.
“There’s a good girl, now, Geraldine. Time for sleep.” She rocked the pram gently back and forth on its squeaky wheels. By now, Mr. Christie had finished the windows and was trying to squeeze by her to get back in the door. She jerked the pram to one side so he could pass, and the motion caused Geraldine to erupt once more into loud wails. Behind her, the door slammed shut.
“Sod off, bloody idiot,” she spat, not realizing she had an audience. “Right, Geraldine, let’s get you out for a moment.” And out she came from under the bonnet, a cherubic, downy-headed baby wrapped in a yellow blanket. Beryl tucked her up against her shoulder. Geraldine was now quiet, peering wide-eyed over her mother’s shoulder at us. We all waved at her. Beryl, meanwhile, kept her back to us. She reached into the pram again, rummaged around, then pulled out a soother, which she plopped into Geraldine’s mouth.
“There now. Maybe now you’ll have a little nap for mummy.”
Most parents, as I myself later discovered, are nothing short of relieved when their so-called bundle of joy finally drifts off, giving mummy or daddy — usually the former — a bit of precious time to themselves. Beryl, however, probably would have preferred if Geraldine had slept indefinitely, which is a bit ironic considering the events that were soon to transpire. It was rumoured on the street that she had about as much interest in child-rearing as she did in housekeeping, and judging by the almost eternally unwashed state of her daughter (this according to my mother’s back-fence gossip), Beryl clearly was no housekeeper. She also liked to spend what little money Timothy brought home, and as an illiterate lorry driver who drank a lot of his pay away at the the Kensington Park Hotel, he was unable to keep his wife in the manner to which she no doubt would like to be accustomed. They fought often, and loudly. Not that we were nosey (though I can’t say the same for my mother); it’s just that on such a jammed little street with our houses practically on top of one another, it was hard to ignore the goings-on of our neighbours.
But this was my first real encounter with Beryl. She and Timothy had moved in last spring and Geraldine had been born in the fall. With the baby to keep her busy, she didn’t get out as much as she liked, and now with the weather turning fine and Geraldine a little older, sturdier and more portable, perhaps Beryl would have more outings like this one.
She still stood with her back to us, but now she’d become aware of her daughter’s apparent rapt attention. She spun around.
“Well hallo! I didn’t know anyone was here!” She bounced Geraldine nervously, clearly caught unawares. “Look Geraldine, we’ve got company.” She craned her neck and peered around into her daughter’s face, playing proud mum. Geraldine’s hair was now visibly greasy, her blanket covered in stains. Continuing to stare at us, her jaw slackened and her soother dropped out of her mouth. Her lips searched hungrily for a replacement and found tight, grimy little fists. A few seconds later, long wet strings of drool were dripping off them. Beryl rolled her eyes. “Geraldine, for goodness sake — mind your manners!” It seemed as if Beryl was trying to make a good first impression and was finding her daughter embarrassing. It struck me as odd that a grown woman would expect a teething infant to mind her manners. Geraldine seemed blissfully unaware of her mother’s embarrassment and continued to gnaw away. Beryl, meanwhile, struggled to keep the baby upright while stooping down sideways to retrieve the soother from the pavement. Geraldine’s face crinkled unhappily. Before it could disappear behind a wail, I’d jumped up and run across to help. Beryl had managed to retrieve the soother and now was wiping it on her skirt. Feeling compelled to explain the lack of hygiene, she motioned to the door of Number 10. “I don’t want to climb them stairs again.”
“I can run across and wash it at my house,” I offered, eager to help as well as thwart any further attempts by Elsie to embarrass me. I sensed Beryl’s hesitation. She seemed to want to get going, but didn’t want to appear ungracious or unclean by declining my offer. I quickly added, “I won’t be a minute.”
Beryl smiled — it was a wide, lipsticked smile, like a film star’s, making her all the more an anomaly in our dreary street. “Thank you — that’s very sweet of you.”
Back at my door, Elsie and Bel were silent, obviously taken aback at my uncharacteristic impulsiveness and Samaritan-like bravery. In the kitchen, mum sat at the table peeling potatoes. She watched with mild interest as I ran past her to the kettle that sat on our stove, perpetually filled and waiting for the next pot of tea. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t nothing me. What on earth are you doing with the kettle?”
“Is that a baby soother you’ve got?” Voice getting louder. Perennial frown becoming more pronounced. “Don’t dip the bloody thing in the tea water! Heaven only knows what it might be carrying!”
But it was too late. I had dipped and dashed and was heading out the door again, wondering about the logic of worrying about germs from a baby’s soother in a street where cockroaches and rats were akin to house pets.
Seconds later I was back in front of Number 10. Elsie and Bel had not moved. Geraldine was now fidgety and whiny, with Beryl frantically rocking and bobbing to keep the wailing at bay. She was clearly relieved when I returned, clean soother in hand. Geraldine saw it coming and opened her mouth gratefully to receive it. A few seconds of sucking and her eyes were heavy.
“I’d better pop her in before she drops it again.” Beryl lowered the baby back into the pram and pulled the shade down low. “Thank you so much; I’m ever so grateful.” She looked back at the door a final time. “I try to avoid the ups and downs on the stairs with the pram. Mr. Christie doesn’t like it. Not to mention the fact that it’s bloody exhausting.” She laughed, and I smiled. She was so pretty. So… bubbly. Yes, that was it. I’d heard bubbly used to describe people — usually women — and for Beryl it was a perfect fit.
“Well, I really must get going or she’ll wake up in the queue at Sainsbury’s.” She gave an awkward little wave and we all waved back. Then she gave the pram a push and was off.
We watched her click-clack her way down the street in her scuffed black pumps, purse swinging and little hat perched on one side of her head. The squeaking and rattling of the pram lessened as she went and, eventually, when she turned onto busier St. Mark’s Road, it disappeared.
The front door of Number 10 opened again. It was Mr. Christie. Startled, I stood there wordlessly, looking up at him. “What do you want?” He squinted in the sunlight, which bounced off his shiny head. Suddenly part of me wanted to laugh. Another part of me knew better.
“I… Nothing, Mr. —“
“Well don’t be hanging about, then — off with you.” And he slammed the door shut once more.
I needed no further prompting. Running to the safety of front door and friends, I saw they were both spooked as well.
“He’s absolutely batty,” said Bel.
“He reminds me of a lizard,” said Elsie.
“Why a lizard?” I asked.
“Because he seems — I dunno — kind of slimy.”
“Lizards aren’t slimy,” Bel corrected. “Worms are slimy.”
“Thank you Miss Encyclopedia Britannica.” Elsie rolled her eyes. “Actually, I’ve changed my mind. His bald head looks like the end of a giant,” — she paused for effect — “a giant willy.”
We all looked at one another, the collective vision of a spectacled penis hanging silently above our heads. Bel’s eyes bulged and her cheeks puckered. The laughter exploded from her a second later, and soon all three of us were doubled over. A quick glance over at Number 10 sobered me up; there at the window peering out between a curtained slit was Christie. The slit closed again.
“Come on everyone,” I rallied, “let’s go in and have some toffee. Mum’s just been shopping.” With sweets still in short supply — the last vestiges of rationing — everyone gladly agreed, knowing that in my house, with my dad and older sister on the prowl, we’d be wise to get some now as it might all be gone by tea.
[end of Chapter One]