Snoopers' PurgatoriumBy Tom Johnstone
Anything take your fancy, sir? I only ask, because no offence, but it seems like you’ve got this place mixed up with Snoopers’ Paradise. The only snoopers that darken these doors are the ones from the Inland Revenue, and if you’re one of them, I handed in my tax return back in October. None of this filing it online nonsense. I like to have something to grab hold of, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of which, I’d be grateful if you could keep your hands off the merchandise if it’s all the same to you, sir. That sign’s no joke, you know – the one that says “all breakages must be paid for”. I’m only trying to save your pocket in these lean times. And before you ask, that Dalek is not for sale. That’s a genuine BBC prop, that is, and nothing would induce me to part with it. What do you mean, it’s only a toy? For your information, in the Seventies the BBC couldn’t afford life-size Daleks for the crowd scenes, so they used these model ones. Of course, they looked nothing like the big ones used for close-ups, but that’s by the by, and it doesn’t change the fact that this is a bona fide collector’s item, and would fetch a damn good price in the dealers’ room at Modelworld; and forgive me for saying so, sir, but you don’t look like you have the means.
My apologies, sir, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just my way. Let me make it up to you by showing you some of the real gems of my collection. I don’t show them to just anyone, you know. I keep them in the back room, but I’d better shut up shop for a bit. Can’t afford to pay someone to mind the shop for me when I’m out back or out buying biccies, so I have to use this “back in ten minutes sign”. You often see them in this part of the Lanes – makes you wonder what the shop keepers are up to, or whether they’re ever open at all, I shouldn’t wonder. But this little alley’s so narrow, hardly anyone comes along here anyway…
Don’t worry yourself, sir, it won’t bite. Just come through here, if you can get past that bust of the Prince Regent there. Mind that tank as you go by. No, they’re not turtles, they’re terrapins. Now in here’s where the real treasure’s to be found. I tell you, sir, there are a few things in here that would break the bank on that David Dickinson’s Real Deal.
What was that you said? Something about how random it all is? Well, you might think that a piece of rope might be a far cry from a blood-stained meat cleaver and a set of early nineteenth century bank notes. But you’d be wrong.
In fact, the bank notes and the butchers’ knife are connected to that rope almost as if they were both tied to it. Money for old rope, did you say? Very drole, sir.
I can see you’re looking at that glass case in that dark corner over there. If you look a little closer you can see that it contains – well, that’s odd! I thought it was the poor lighting in here, but it’s gone. Very peculiar, that is.
You wouldn’t happen to be one of those distraction burglars, would you, sir? Weren’t be loitering in the shop and keeping me busy, while your accomplice snuck in the back and made off with James Botting’s wheelchair, would you?
Well, I’ll just have to take your word for it, won’t I.
Now where was I? Oh, yes, the bank notes, the rope and the butcher’s knife. These things tell their own story. Look at the stains on the meat cleaver. Don’t look so nervous, sir: the Cranbourne Street butcher it belonged to didn’t actually kill anyone with it, though he was part of a plot to slaughter some of the British cabinet, using different sorts of weapons, mind you. When the Law came for him, he didn’t have time to wash the animal blood off the tools of his trade, and I never saw any reason to either!
Those bank notes tell a story too. They belonged to the banker Henry Fauntleroy, hanged for fraud in 1824. These days, crooked bankers only risk losing their knighthoods or their bonuses, not their lives. Ah, you’ve noticed the writing all over the bank notes, have you? Go on, knock yourself out, have a read! Look at the handwriting, sir – brilliant work, don’t you think?
A crowd stands before me, hands linked in a mocking chain. No doubt they would jeer at me as I take the stand on the scaffold at Newgate. But I in turn laugh at them, for I know that they are mere counterfeits, paper people.
I know this because I fashioned them myself.
I have little else to do here in the condemned cell, save write this sorry tale, and watch the rats scurry hither and thither. These paper people too I fashioned with my own hands from a promissory note. Was God thus when he made Man? I cut out their shapes with the knife I used to employ to cut open letters, letters from creditors, letters from depositors peevishly clamouring to withdraw funds, letters from the Bank of England saying that alas they can no longer extend our credit, letters from a family demanding to know with increasing shrillness what has happened to their trust fund.
Alas, I can cut no more of my little paper friends, for my gaoler spotted the paper knife and took it from me, fearing I would shed my own life’s blood in advance of my appointment with Jemmy Botting. And well I might, for it is said that Botting gives his guests a drop of no more than two feet, so that the neck is stretched rather than snapped outright, a lingering death that I confess I do not relish. If only I had been as frugal with my fortune as he is with his rope! Now all that is left is these few pitiful promissory notes on which I pen this narrative, not even enough to bribe Mr Botting to add another foot to the drop, so why not use them as manuscript paper to set down my tale?
It was my father that signed my death warrant, when he inducted me into our noble and honest trade. Thus I joined the family firm Marsh, Stracey, Fauntleroy and Graham. When my father died, I became a senior partner. My future was assured – that is, until certain investments the firm had made proved ill-advised. One of my partners decided to move onto pastures new, but not without first extracting his pound of flesh. And as I watch the rats skitter about trying to nibble at my toes and at my paper friends, I am reminded of this paper friend that deserted the sinking ship, much as rats do, but first foraging in the stores for the last remaining rotten lumps of cheese!
I could have stood idly by and suffered the depositors to close in. But I had a responsibility to the other partners and shareholders. Not only that, I had a responsibility to my father’s memory. His dying words: “Henry, I leave my portion of Marsh, Stracey, Fauntleroy and Graham in trust to you – use it wisely, my son!”
And I am certain that you believe not a word of this cant. Neither did the jury, when my lawyer raised it in my defence. I suspect my father did say something to this effect in extremis. But I confess I cannot recall his exact words. Alas, I cannot even recall if I was present at his deathbed! I may have been in the room. It is more likely that I was in my cups.
Had the depositors suspected the parlous state of the bank’s coffers, a run on the bank would have ensued: that much is true. It is also true that I had responsibility to prevent such a catastrophe. I also had a house or two to keep, a London one for business in Berners Street, and a Brighton one for pleasure, that fine Grecian villa Hampton Lodge, whose wine cellar was the envy of High Society. I could have abandoned these properties, perhaps moved to the stews of Botting’s Rookery, where my hangman and his beggarly neighbours reside amid the stench of drying fishing nets and the like.
But what would Father have said?
There is one thing the old man did for me, for which I was grateful until it proved to be my undoing. He provided for my education, one of whose branches was the gentle art of Calligraphy. Those of us whose untutored scribblings refused to bend to our instructor’s prescribed curves received smart blows to the knuckles until our childish fingers were tamed and trained. I, alas, was a poor student at first, and my hands still bear the scars. Once the raw wounds healed, the fingers emerged reborn and reshaped by the rod. I found that not only was I able to do as I was bid, but I had developed a genius for mimicking the hand of anyone I wished to. I began to ply a lucrative trade in counterfeiting our School Master’s signature on the assignment papers of any student able and willing to pay my rates. When he discovered my misdemeanour, I took a beating I’ll never forget, but neither did I forget my newly acquired skill, which proved most advantageous when forging the signatures I needed to bail out my sinking ship in Berners Street. That way I believed I could maintain Hampton lodge, with its well-appointed wine cellar, noble promontory and billiard room styled after Napoleon’s campaign tent. Ostentatious, some detractors might say, a folly constructed on the orders of a vulgar parvenu.
And indeed now my properties seem like so many paper houses, populated by a man of paper.
There is one real thing however. I met my hangman this morning. The gaoler granted him entry in order to prod me, to weigh me up for the drop. I recognised his squat build and roughly-bearded face, his dark, cold eyes. This man used to pass me every day on Western Road. I would often see him loading a horse-drawn waggon with snaking coils of ship’s rope that could have berthed a tea clipper, and strange wooden brackets of whose function I was but dimly aware. I took him for some carpenter or shipwright. And now he prods me as though I were a prize bull at a county fair, this little man. Strange: I would have thought a hangman would have been taller! And I used to wonder why the street urchins used to chase after the cart as it used to trundle down to the Old Steine, bound for the London Road.
There were tens of thousands of onlookers at the execution of James Fauntleroy, the man who tried to stop his bank getting broken, and in doing so broke his neck. Brilliant calligrapher though – you can see from looking at the handwriting. Lovely craftsmanship that! Some of the crowd might have been people angry because they hadn’t been able to draw out their savings, I suppose. But there couldn’t have been that many of them: the bank in Berners Street wasn’t a big bank. Maybe people hated bankers then even more than they do now, eh, sir!
But though the London mob might have enjoyed a good public hanging, that doesn’t mean the hangman was popular. In later life, Botting ended up stuck in a wheelchair, the very same rickety wheelchair that ought to be sitting in that glass case in the corner. His chair used to trundle along the street much as his horse and cart of death used to do back in the day. He couldn’t earn his living hanging any more, but he would get by as best he could, scrounging the odd tot of gin from anyone who’d listen to his tales of his career as a hangman. Perhaps he was on his way back from some tavern when the accident happened. Western Road would have been little more than a filthy rutted track back then, sir, and very busy with people and carts bustling to and fro. It would be easy for a wheelchair to topple over, or for someone to fail to see him and knock into him.
It wasn’t the fall that killed him though, sir. Though there were quite a few people around, not one of them lifted a finger to help him as he lay there. I don’t know if he died of his injuries, or from exposure and starvation. But as I said, though public hanging was popular, the hangman wasn’t – especially one that skimped on the length of the drop so as to prolong the death agony.
But listen to me! I’m getting morbid, sir. I do apologise – it’s just my way. I only wanted to show you these little curiosities, and how they’re all linked, not random at all: the bank notes of the fraudster, the butcher’s knife of the Cato conspirator and the rope that hanged them both! Not to mention the little matter of the hangman’s wheelchair that seems to have gone walkabouts…
Now I can see you’re wanting to get back now, and don’t worry – I won’t keep you hanging about for much longer! But just before you go, there was one other odd little thing about the sad demise of Jemmy Botting. The spot where his wheelchair toppled over and dumped him in the street was right outside Hampton Lodge. Now you’re not going to tell me Henry Fauntleroy knocked him out of his buggy, are you, sir? He couldn’t have – he was dead, wasn’t he? Of course, those idiots that run those ghost tours would have us believing some mysterious crook-necked fellow pitched old Jemmy out of his wheelchair, although it's true that he was a solitary character towards the end, given to odd fancies about his former trade dispatching people for a guinea a head. Some of those ghost tour people also claim they’ve heard the creaking of unseen wooden wheels on the corner of Western Road and Montpelier.
What’s that you said, sir? Like the ones you can hear right now?
Don’t turn round, sir, but I think I ought to let you know. That wheel chair’s come back. It’s not in its glass case anymore, and there’s someone in it, a stocky little fellow reaching for a length of that rope coiled up on the floor. Now, look at that! Fine strong Brighton fishermen’s rope that – they don’t make it like that anymore!
This page was amended on 09/04/2014