Chapter 1 of Deviance, London Psychic #3. Click here for buy links to the full book.
The train rattled along the tracks on the brick bridge above their heads, lending a rhythm to the words spoken below. London was never completely dark, the city lights lit up the sky at all hours, but tonight it seemed that the darkness was deeper, the space between the stars an all-consuming black. As the nearby church bells tolled midnight, the small group gathered together. Candles flickered, casting a halo around their heads, bent in respect to those lost here.
They stood in front of a pair of tall gates, closed and locked to segregate this small area of scrubland in the heart of Southwark, a stone’s throw from the river and affluent Borough Market, at the junction between Redcross Way and Union Street. The dull metal struts of the gates were alive with multi-colored ribbons, each inscribed with a name. They represented those whose remains lay under the earth of Cross Bones Graveyard, names gathered from records of history in an attempt to personalize the dead. Their shades walk these streets still, a sliver of their memory in the hip-swinging walk of sex workers, their song in the local pubs, their laughter in the late-night bar crawlers.
“I was born a goose of Southwark by the grace of Mary Overie, whose Bishop gives me license to sin within the Liberty.”
The words of local poet John Constable rang out in the night air, his poem a tribute to the women who had once plied their trade here under the authority of the medieval church. They were known as Winchester Geese, controlled by the Bishop of Winchester and their taxes filled the coffers of the church. But in death, these women and their bastard children were outcasts, denied a burial in consecrated ground. Tonight these Outcast Dead would be honored in the memories of those who walked in their footsteps centuries later.
A young man with a guitar played a mournful dirge, his voice clear in the night air. His blond hair reflected the light from the candles, a blue streak through it giving him a rakish look. Jamie Brooke stood on the edge of the group listening to his song. She held a candle in both hands and gazed into the flame as her thoughts shifted to the memory of her own daughter, Polly, who had died six months ago from a terminal illness. The ache of grief still made her breath catch on days when her guard was down, but here, amongst these other mourners, the memory was tender.
A smile played across her lips. Polly would have loved this group of colorful people who lived outside the conformity of the city suits. These were no mourners in dull black. There were several women from the Prostitutes’ Collective, holding a banner high. They honored their sisters and brothers who had died servicing society, courted and loved in secret while rejected and hated in public. One woman wore a belt of a skirt, tall spike heels revealing killer legs. Jamie caught the woman’s face in profile, realizing that it was a man in drag, or perhaps someone transgender. Not that it mattered here, in the city where all could find a place.
As the group joined together in song, Jamie recognized a woman in the crowd, her pixie-cropped ash-blonde hair shining almost white in the candlelight. Known to Jamie only as O, she wore light makeup, her petite features making her look like a teenager, wrapped tight in a black denim jacket and skinny jeans. But Jamie knew what lay beneath her clothes. She remembered her first glimpse of O, dancing naked at the Torture Garden nightclub, her full-body octopus tattoo undulating as she moved. She was certainly no teenager.
A woman started crying silently and O put her arms around her, solidarity clear in the gesture. Jamie noticed other signs of a tight-knit community as people held hands, love evident in the way they looked at each other. For a moment, Jamie wished she had that kind of community. But her years as a police officer and caretaker of her sick daughter had meant little time for friends.
What would my ex-colleagues think of this gathering? Jamie thought. This patchwork of personalities held together by respect for the dead and perhaps, by a hope that they could transcend the bleak future of those gone before. Jamie knew that many here would go out tonight and trade their bodies for money in the hotels and backstreets of Southwark. It ever was and ever will be. She looked up at the stars, which had witnessed lust in these streets since Roman times. Human nature didn’t change. There would always be sex and death, drinking and drugs, peace and war, violence and love. There would always be light in the dark too, and Jamie hoped to be one of the bright ones in this borough.
“Tonight we march along the same streets as the Outcast Dead, in memory of those who came before us and the sisters and brothers we have lost along the way.”
The strident voice echoed through the street, an Irish lilt evident in her tone. It belonged to the leader of the event and one of the personalities of Southwark: Magda Raven. That’s what she called herself anyway – no one seemed to know her real name. She was tall, built like a pro netball player, her long limbs muscled and toned. She wore a tight black t-shirt and black jeans, both arms displaying full-sleeve tattoos that covered them from shoulder to wrist.
One arm was tattooed like a stained glass window, with the figure of Mary Magdalene kneeling in front of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane. The other arm was a riot of ravens, wings beating in a tornado of wind and nature, as if they would lift from her skin. Jamie had heard Magda called an urban shaman, that she walked the city with a vision of the other worlds it contained, and she had heard of Magda’s campaign to turn the graveyard into a memorial park. The woman was seemingly unstoppable, a hero to the local people and a thorn in the side of developers who wanted to make a tidy profit from this valuable land.
The cemetery had been so full of human remains in the late nineteenth century that it was closed as a health hazard and became an urban myth over time, a legendary graveyard for the forgotten dead. Thousands were buried here, and the land remained locked in dispute.
“Let us honor their memory now by tying ribbons in their name.”
Magda’s last few words were drowned out by the rising sound of a hymn and feet stamping to a rousing chorus.
A group of people rounded the corner at the end of the street. They were mostly middle-aged, more women than men, their voices strident as they sang. They carried banners embroidered with scenes of pastoral perfection and emblazoned with slogans. No sin in Southwark. Hate the sin, love the sinner. At the bottom of the banners, their allegiance was printed in black: The Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Magda pointedly ignored the singing and continued with the service, indicating that those present should come forward and tie new ribbons to the gates next to the faded ones from previous months. O walked forward, kissing a pink ribbon before tying it to the gate, her head bent in remembrance.
“Dirty fucking whores.”
The shout came from behind the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and some of the singers turned, faces shocked by the language. But others glared at the group gathered by the gates, supportive of the words that condemned those they considered unclean. Emboldened by the harsh words, the Society singers took a step forward as if to push back the people who offended them with their mere existence.
They filled the width of the street, their dark coats and muted colors a dull contrast to the bright clothes of the sex workers and their supporters. Jamie noticed that some of the girls pulled hoods up, shielding their faces in fear of recognition.
Magda Raven stood silent for a moment, looking towards the Society group with fire in her eyes. She attached her own ribbon to the gate and lifted a candle towards the sky.
“Mother Goddess, virgin and whore, from whom all life comes.”
A low hiss came from the Society at her words, and they took another step towards the group.
“May we who remember the Outcast Dead be blessed on this night and protected on the nights to come.”
Magda poured some of the wax from her candle onto the bottom of the gates, marking it in remembrance. Then she walked through the crowd and began to lead the sex workers along the street, down Redcross Way towards the river. The Society walked behind, matching their steps.
Jamie lingered towards the back of the group alongside some of the male sex workers and local campaigners. Her senses were alert to the possible threat here, honed by years in the police. Most of those who marched under the banners of the Society were harmless middle-aged women from Southwark Cathedral who thought they were doing good by denouncing sin on the streets. Their eyes were guarded, their fingers gripped their banners tightly, armor against being polluted by the sin of the fallen.
But Jamie saw hate and fanaticism in the eyes of some of them. She had seen that same look in the eyes of racist thugs, religious fanatics and, once, in the smoky Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe, where she had almost died.
At the end of Redcross Way, Magda led the group into Park Street and then Stoney Street. The bars of Borough had mostly closed, but there were still a few people in the streets, laughing as they headed home. Some noticed the two disparate groups, the calm slow steps of the colorful sex workers, followed by the tramp of the Society.
“Come ‘ere, darlin’,” a man shouted across the road at one of the younger girls. “I’ve got somethin’ that’ll put a smile on yer face … or somethin’ on your face at least.” He guffawed and his mates collapsed in laughter as they staggered off down the road.
O took the hand of the younger woman and they kept walking, faces set in respect, some looking down at the candles they held. Jamie knew that they must hear such words often. It came with the job, but that didn’t make it right.
The group approached the end of Stoney Street near the medieval Clink prison, where old warehouses had been turned into luxury apartments overlooking the Thames. Magda turned right, leading the group towards the ruins of Winchester Palace. The monthly vigil always culminated at Southwark Cathedral just a little further on, where they would leave a symbolic wreath in memory of the unconsecrated dead.
The great rose window atop a high stone wall was the only thing that remained of the original twelfth-century palace, illuminated by spotlights at night. This was where the Bishops of Winchester had lived until the seventeenth century, rich men who often held the post as Chancellor. The coffers of the church in this, the Liberty, were filled from the proceeds of the stews, the brothels, the Clink prison, gaming, theatres and all manner of pleasures suppressed in the City across the river. This was where London used to sin – and where, perhaps, it still did. Jamie remained at the back of the group, a buffer between the working girls and the protestors. She felt the eyes of the Society members on her back as she walked, and she wondered briefly what they thought of her.
As the first of the group passed into the light of the Winchester Palace ruins, a scream rang out, a long shrill note that pierced the night.