Read by Sophie Morris-Sheppard
Is it the lights or is it the sound that makes me remember?
The frost down at Blackfriars now seeps onto land from the river, so that it's no longer possible to tell where the divide comes. Catcalls and mist carry memories from this time last year. Donkeys are still giving sleigh rides, children still skating on beef ribs tied with leather to the soles of their shoes. Old Punch is there, knocking Judy for six while a fat man collects pennies from the people who watch.
I steady myself, steady my load, centre my balance and keep walking through the snow. In the dark a lamp glows, and the cold hint of a fishy smell says I'm close to the bank. Dansiker the student steps out into the path ahead and for a moment the world turns dizzy as I try to connect his face – which I have only seen before in the indoor glow of theatres and taverns and upstairs rooms – with the cold new setting. He is sheltered by the tall poles of the bridge so I can only see half his chin – the shadow slices a diagonal right through his handsome nose. He reaches into his cloak and pulls out a tiny scrap of paper.
'Is it right?'
'Of course it's right.' His hand extends towards my belly. I almost claw it in an attempt to shoo it back. 'How far are you now?' He smirks.
I ignore him.
I reach into the pannier of my skirt and pull out my own scrap of paper. This one when opened reveals a tiny gleaming pile of gold flakes, carefully shaved from a sovereign. I know these flakes will be transformed by one of Dansiker's friends into forged coins, and spent very quickly on one of three things; cider, opium or women. I don't care. I have given up caring for him or any of them. Fear replaced everything since she disappeared.
It was the feeling of solidity underneath the feet that was the strangest. More secure and evenly packed than rock. Even the fissures quickly filled. Meltwater froze into smooth mirrors. Part of the fun was wobbling all over the place, between the stalls.
Strung across London Bridge, salt-beaten bunting. Torches had to be lit even during the day to counteract the hard fog that gripped in pristine white clouds round bodies and stalls, giving everything the softened look of theatrical gauze.
Every time it came around, there were customers galore. The frost, like the summer fairs, brought into the air – along with learned pigs and cats that could turn spits – an appetite for things everyday life held no truck with.
If you passed the cider man, the elves boxing, the sad cold donkey offering sleigh rides, if you continued past the hot fruit puddings and cinnamon wine, then turned left behind the printer’s stall, ignoring the signs that said 'bought on the Thames Ice 1768' you'd have come to our stall.
You'd have had to tip the jobless waterman we paid to mind the door. But once inside, you could have been in a tavern den. We soaked the cloth walls with fat to keep the heat in, then covered them with animal hide we'd borrowed from the tanner's man in return for – well sometimes we could get our own way very easily. In the centre our fire smouldered up through a chimney hole, giving off a smoked light, heavy as clouds of opium, tickling round the clasps of bodies that lay, de-breeched, clapped together in knots, huddled in privacy only by the smoke.
At that time Rosanna couldn't earn; she was too far along and a belly her size couldn't pull the wool over anyone, even those who liked their ladies fat. She sat in a corner and would say, when we asked if she wasn't cold, 'I have a stove wrapped to me, here,' and pat her stomach, and rock it back and forth as if it was already born.
We were surprised then when the man asked for her.
He looked drunk. Vinegar whiffs of a very cheap port were on his breath and coat. He was on the verge of taking up with any one of us, unbuckling himself as soon as he set foot in the tent, when he stopped and peered into the corner. I thought he might have been bewitched by Rosanna's face, for she is very pretty. Is? Was. But then he seemed to get a grasp of himself and it was in this instant that I took note of him. He was a very short, very round man. Neat and deep in the eyes, flabby and ruddy in the cheeks with a hard frost of pockmarks across his nose.
He walked towards Rosanna and took her chin coolly in his hand like she was a specimen.
'How far are you?'
'Seven, eight months. I don't know Mister.'
At that word we all relaxed a little and I realised then that there had been something uncanny in the way he had looked at her.
'How much?' he asked. For a horrible moment I thought he was meaning how much for the child. But then he stroked along her jaw. Rosanna caught my eye and got her composure back, for she never missed a trick, and said, 'Two guineas,' which was double what the rest of us usually asked. But the man reached into his pocket and passed the coins across. I tried to occupy myself with other matters but when he lifted up her skirts right above her waist, and brought his face down close to where the skin was bloated and stretched, I couldn't help but notice. Rosanna laughed like it tickled her. Then she let loose a cry and we all shot up, the two customers rutting by the fire and all.
'Show me where it hurts,' he said, and she pointed.
'If you come with me,' he said, 'I can give you something for the pain.'
That was the last we saw of Rosanna or her child.
I remember Dansiker's words.
'I saw a girl today I thought you once knew.' He was lolling off the side of his chair, the corners of his mouth pulled down and dribbling bitter trails of laudanum. No one I have ever known takes laudanum as much as medical students.
'Oh yes.' I didn't pay much heed to his words at first. I could hardly hear them. There was a play going on downstairs, a racket being made by angels with greasy wings fighting devils in papier-mâché masks.
'Yes a girl who used to work with you on the Thames. At the frost fairs.'
My spine froze.
'I was at a lecture. I bet you want to know where it was.' He didn't wait for me to take his bet. His face was leery and red, the tails of his fringe damp. 'On the dissection wing.'
Oh, he looked like the devil himself in the red candlelight. I kept it all in.
'It was so very curious. The visiting man had managed to preserve ..."
I didn't hear what he had managed to preserve. My foot skidded on the wooden floor as I crossed to Dansiker and slapped his face up to sitting. I slapped him three, four times until he looked me straight in the eye. 'Don't tell me lies.'
He was sober now.
'I don't tell you lies,' he whispered.
'Who was he? This man.'
Dansiker shook his head, frightened of my rage now. 'I don't know. He visits from time to time. He has a speciality.'
'What kind of speciality?'
'He's ... he's an obstetrician. We're told the best in his field.'
'And his name?'
But Dansiker didn't know his name. Only that he came once a fortnight to the medical school. Always with a fresh specimen. And her load.
The shore retreats as I trudge on, up towards Spitalfields where I can already smell the wine and coffee. Ask for the Spaniard, Dansiker had said. I pull out the scrap of paper and make sure I have read the address correctly.
The place on Rose Lane is small and hard to find, and I thought I knew every tavern east of the Fleet river. The weather is whipping up a storm and while I wait for the Spaniard to come to the door, a woman passes by and without warning grasps hold of my two cold hands in hers. 'Don't you catch your death my love. In your state.'
I smile. I say, 'It's all right, I have a stove wrapped to me,' and touch the enormous swelling of my belly.
Her eyes crease, and she moves on just as the lane ahead of me darkens with the shape of a big black-haired man.
'I was to ask for the doctor.'
He sizes up my silhouette, looks both ways and takes me by the arm inside.
There, his eyes, two flints in the candle dark of the chamber.
I try to find something different in them, this time, now that I know what he is. But there is only his cool indifference, his professional mask.
Someone is cooking something downstairs, tavern food, the cheapest dregs of meat.
He pulls a rag from a dirty bed and gestures me down. 'How did you find me?' he asks, and for a moment I think he knows who I am, what I am here for. But then I see that he can't even meet my gaze. He can't look at me as he makes a show of pouring a glass of some liquid on top of a chest, makes show of taking out his sharp instruments from his filthy doctors case.
'Dansiker, the medical student.' He doesn't recognise the name.
I look around the room wondering if this is where he brought Rosanna. Or if this is where he sleeps, or simply where he does his evil deeds. Aside from the bed and the chest there is no furniture. But there is a stain on the floor that chills me to the spleen to look at.
'Now,' he leans into my face, bringing the candle closer. 'Show me where it hurts.'
He has a long pointing shard of silver in his hand.
I wonder if he will try to drug me, if he drugged Rosanna first. If he drugs any of them. Or if he already sees them as something outside of their souls, something cold and leathery and pliable as whaleskin, already on his slab, ripe with mysteries, tapestried threads of hollow veins and brittle bones, and medical advancements and his own glory.
He eases me down. He reaches his hand to the heavy sack of my belly, lifts the secret folds of my skirt.
And there he stops, as he finds underneath not the swollen pregnant skin he seeks but instead a thick wadding of bundled cloth, a ball of folded cloak. Quickly, I seize upon the knife that is stuffed in there, and has been jabbing its handle into my organs. And I stab, and I stab, and I stab, and stab again. And as tears of thickened blood spring from below his waist, as the fat and the flesh give, his unholy cry, his crumpling tell me that yes I show him, I show him where it hurts.
(c) Lucy Ribchester, 2013
Lucy Ribchester won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2013. She lives in Edinburgh, writes by day and works by night as a private tutor and ESOL teacher. Her stories can be found in Vintage Script, Erotic Review, Valve and the forthcoming edition of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
Sophie Morris-Sheppard has recently played Rebecca Locke in a series called The Paradox, a project which she helped devise as a short film in 2011. She is involved in several new writing initiatives in London. Her professional credits span the full spectrum of theatre, TV, commercials, film, voice over, rehearsed readings and most recently role play. www.sophiemorrissheppard.com.