Winner of Canvey Writers first in-house Short Story Competition, 2016.
Editor’s Note: This story was chosen as the winner by a group of writers on Canvey Island who voted on a selection of short stories inspired by the theme: The Gift. We had all kinds of stories using the theme in many different ways, but this was chosen because of its unusual theme and one that whetted a few appetites. Part of the prize was publication on this site. So do enjoy…
Ruby picked herself up from the gutter where she’d landed and scowled as the battered old doors of the pub swung shut behind her. She’d been caught trying to dip a customer and the landlord had thrown her out. Not that he had anything against a spot of pickpocketing, he was happy enough to take a cut of what she lifted when she worked his premises, but she’d committed the sin of getting caught.
“I can’t be seen to condone robbing the customers, girl – it’s bad for business,” he’d said as he’d manhandled her towards the door.
Cold rain was falling from the sky now, lashing the cobblestones and running through the filthy gutter as Ruby straightened and wiped her muddy hands on her dress. She had to get out of the rain. She turned towards The Ten Bells further down the street where, hopefully, trade might be a bit better. Barely into November and already the temperature was falling fast; at this rate, there’d be snow on the ground before Christmas. Ruby shivered in the night air and pulled her shawl tighter round her shoulders.
Pushing open the door to The Bells, Ruby entered the smoky room, grateful for the warmth from the hearth. She looked around to see whether there were any likely punters about and, seeing a face she recognised, made her way across the room towards him.
“Hi, handsome,” she said, “wanna buy a girl a drink.”
“Sorry, sweetheart, I’m flat broke – no chink at all,” he replied, shaking his pockets.
“Not even enough for a tuppenny upright, darling.”
Ruby leaned in close to whisper these words, she had to be careful, the landlord had warned her before about soliciting and she knew he’d throw her out into the cold, rainy night if he caught her.
“Sorry,” shrugged the man and turned back to his beer.
Ruby moved away, scanning the crowded room for fresh meat. She spotted a man in a long, dark astrakhan coat on the other side of the room and, even from this distance, she could see he was dressed well. She turned and started to head in his direction but was pulled up short as the landlord caught her by the arm.
“’Ere, if you’re touting for trade, out you go.”
“I’ve just come in to get warm and get out of the rain, John,” she replied, pulling her arm free but when she looked back towards the toff in the corner, she saw he’d disappeared and swore softly.
Later that night, Ruby was still walking the streets. In the past, she’d always seemed to have a gift for attracting good luck – which she thought, maybe, was to make up for her beginnings. A foundling, she’d been brought up in an orphanage and put to work at the age of seven. There was never enough to eat and the regular beatings had left her with a scar to one side of her face and a slight limp. Hardly surprising then that she’d taken off as soon as she was old enough. She knew she wasn’t unique; there must have been thousands of kids like her – but, as she’d grown older, she’d begun to notice that, somehow, things always seemed to go in her favour. Life had never been easy but whenever it started to get really desperate, something always turned up. She thought back to the time when, unwell and unable to work, she’d found half-a-crown lying on the pavement – just as her money had run out. The gin hadn’t stopped flowing that night and Ruby chuckled at the memory and thanked her guardian angel for working so hard. Of course, the unexpected windfall didn’t last long, but there’d always – so far at least – been a next time.
The rain was falling steadily now but Ruby’s luck had yet to put in an appearance. She’d been in one pub after another and had walked the streets in between for hours but had found no takers.
Finally though, weaving along Commercial Street, she saw, up ahead, the well-dressed man who had been in The Bells earlier and thought perhaps her luck was kicking in at last. He was standing on the corner outside The Brit and now wore a soft felt hat pulled down over his eyes. She felt a quick flash of hope that, maybe, standing there was her night’s rent and she picked up her pace. Before she could reach him, though, Mary from Miller’s Court rounded the corner of Dorset Street and they’d started chatting.
Mary was young and good-looking with blonde hair; always well-turned out she invariably wore a spotless, white apron. Tonight, on this dreary night, she added a bright splash of colour in a red shawl. Ruby had to admit that, given a choice between the two of them, she knew which she’d choose if she were the cove.
She saw him put a hand on Mary’s shoulder; they laughed and then turned to walk down the street together. Watching her night’s lodging disappear with another judy, Ruby pressed her lips together as a stab of anger shot through her. She knew that Mary, at least, had a room of her own and wouldn’t need to come out again tonight whereas without doss money Ruby, herself, had nowhere to go.
The rain was falling heavily now and Ruby needed to find shelter. It was past two in the morning and she knew there wasn’t much chance of picking up any business now, especially with this weather. The few farthings she’d had in her pocket had been enough for a couple of drinks and the cheap booze would help to keep her warm as she resigned herself to sleeping in a covered passageway she’d used before. She sighed, and wrapping herself up as best she could, settled down for the night in the entrance to one of the many courtyards in the rookery, where at least it was dry.
Tonight, her luck seemed to have deserted her entirely and Ruby was afraid that she might have lost her gift for good.
She slipped into an uneasy, dreamless sleep. Somewhere around four o’clock, she was roused from her slumber by shouting from someplace close by. That wasn’t unusual for Dorset Street though and as it quickly fell silent again, she soon drifted back to sleep. She slept on, fitfully, for another couple of hours; then the night cops found her and turfed her out.
Ten days later, Ruby joined the vast throng outside St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch for the funeral of Mary Jane Kelly – latest victim of The Ripper. People – even those who couldn’t possibly have known her – were openly weeping and men held hats clutched in their hands as the coffin appeared. The whole city had been shocked by the reports of Mary’s death and thousands had turned out to pay their respects to this poor young woman who had met such a tragic end.
Ruby was there, not only because she’d known, and liked, Mary but also because she knew that if Mary hadn’t rounded the corner when she did, the body now lying in that coffin would have been hers.
Clutching a posy of wild flowers picked from the churchyard, she followed the funeral cortege, along with what appeared to be the rest of the East End. They were headed for St Patrick’s Catholic cemetery on the outskirts of the city, in Leytonstone, where Mary Kelly would be laid to rest.
She stood back from the graveside in the chill afternoon air for a very long time until all the other mourners had left and the grave had been filled in. Finally, when she was completely alone, she stepped forward and placed her small bundle of flowers on the fresh mound of earth marking the grave.
“God bless Mary, rest in peace and thank you,” she whispered.
Ruby was happy that she still had her gift and that it had been protecting her all along. She would always be sorry that, this time, the price of her good fortune had been someone else’s life but she was grateful for the second chance and determined not to waste it, if only for Mary’s sake.
The man in the astrakhan coat had been in the paper after the killing and Ruby thought she probably knew who the Ripper was. Speaking out definitely wasn’t a risk she could afford to take, though – not only was it very doubtful she would be believed, it was also extremely likely to get her killed.
Ruby needed to leave Whitechapel that much was clear. Following the hearse through London, she’d seen the slums, with its dirty hovels and dingy alleys, fall away behind as the streets ahead improved mile by mile.
She knew nothing about Leytonstone but Ruby was an enterprising girl and, eyeing up her surroundings, quickly decided that it would do. Besides, she thought, with a shrewd smile, something was bound to turn up – it usually did.
About the Author
Vicky is a retired legal secretary with two grown-up children. She has always had a desire to write but only really got started when she joined Canvey Writers earlier this year. This story was chosen by the group as the WINNER of their first in-house writing competition in 2016. Vicky’s previous story published on this site, Dialling 999 has been selected for The Best of CafeLit 5 and will be her first publication.