An extract from Bridget Walsh’s debut novel, The Tumbling Girl, published by Gallic in May 2023.
Charlie Moore wasn’t looking for any particular girl – he wasn’t that fussy, truth be told – just someone halfway pretty and willing to take his mind off his troubles for a short while. Here on the Strand it shouldn’t take long. He walked past the Palace, its garish posters advertising mesmerists, mashers to rival Nellie Power, and various acrobatic delights, and wound his way through the crowds, past a group of newly arrived visitors to the city. Fresh off the train at Charing Cross, most likely. Eyes like saucers as they took in the varied delights of the Strand. A group of jolly dogs – gents who’d clearly spent the entire afternoon in their club – barrelled past him, nearly pushing him under the wheels of a carriage. He swore at them, but they’d already vanished in a cloud of alcohol fumes.
After a few minutes a hand rested gently on his arm and he heard a whispered invitation.
He looked at her. Not bad. He’d had worse.
‘How much?’ Charlie asked.
‘A bob?’ she said.
Charlie snorted. ‘You must be joking, love.’
He reached into his pocket, drawing out a meagre handful of coins and carefully keeping the rest of his money out of view.
‘Look,’ he showed her, ‘I ain’t got no more than fourpence.’
‘All right,’ she said. ‘But we’ll have to go down the Arches. I ain’t walking halfway across London for a measly fourpence.’
Charlie baulked. The Adelphi Arches were a network of tunnels facing onto the Thames. Before the Embankment Gardens had opened, they had made an impressive sight from the river; huge arches topped by the houses of Adelphi Terrace. Since the opening of the Gardens, they were less visible but still impressive from a distance.
Close up was a different story. Anyone with any sense kept well away from the Arches. Unless they were drunk, or desperate. Charlie was both.
And she was only fourpence.
The woman led Charlie down Villiers Street, then through a maze of ill-lit back lanes, the soot-blackened buildings glowering down at them. Charlie kept his hands firmly in his pockets, holding tight on to his money and gripping the life-preserver he carried with him at all times. The area was notorious for sharps, pinch-faced cockney pickpockets preying on any innocent flat they could spy. Charlie had just been paid and wasn’t prepared to hand over his hard-earned money for nothing.
They took a final turn, and the Arches opened up in front of them. The smell made Charlie gag. It had been a while since the Thames had flooded, but the stink of raw sewage still lingered. The woman grabbed hold of Charlie’s hand and moved forward relentlessly, as if oblivious to the stench. Heading deeper into the darkness, they passed alcoves and passages housing horses, cows, and wretched humans. Charlie jumped, as what looked like a pile of rags suddenly moved and cursed him. In the gloom, the floor writhed with the scurrying of rats. One ran over his shoe, and he kicked it into the shadows. He wanted to turn back, but was unsure of the way out, terrified at the thought of getting lost.
And the woman had a surprisingly strong grip.
Occasionally, the dim illumination of someone’s candle offered a respite from the gloom, but then the darkness would descend all the more forcefully. Charlie wasn’t sure which was worse – the blackness or the horrors revealed in those stuttering flares of light.
‘Where are we going?’ Charlie whispered.
‘Not much further, love,’ Fourpence said. ‘I’ve got a little spot just over here. And I’ve got a candle or two, so we can see what we’re about.’
In his pocket, Charlie gripped the life-preserver so hard he could no longer feel his fingers.
Finally, they reached their destination. An archway indistinguishable from all the others, a mound of cloths in the corner that Charlie guessed was the woman’s bed.
‘Here we are, love,’ Fourpence said, giggling. ‘Home sweet home.’
Feeling his way in the gloom, Charlie bumped into a large, bulky object hanging from the ceiling. It swung slowly from where he had collided with it. It was heavy. He backed away.
‘What the hell is that?’ he said. ‘Here, light those candles you said you had.’
‘Hang on a sec, love,’ she murmured. ‘I put me scratchers down here somewhere, now where are they—?’
The match flared, the smell of sulphur briefly cutting through the stink of sewage and decay. Fourpence turned, sheltering the candle with her hand.
‘Now, love,’ she said, ‘what was it you were saying?’
Charlie’s eyes lifted to the object slowly swinging from the ceiling.
It was a woman. Her features were distorted. Her tongue, swollen and purple, protruded between her lips. She looked young. It was difficult to make out many details in the half-light.
Fourpence screamed, dropped the candle, screamed again. The last thing Charlie saw before the darkness descended was a pair of shoes swaying in his eyeline. Cream silk, embroidered with tiny red roses.