The Red Ribbon
Daylight drifts in through the open window and I wake with her head next to mine on the narrow bed. I breathe in the sweet scent of her hair, her perfume so out of place in the dank room. I slide my arm out from under her slender neck and walk to the window. The grey city stretches out below me and I notice the first of the workers making their way through the labyrinth of soiled alleyways to their workhouses. A cold wind blows carrying with it the stench of the streets and the people who walk them. I shudder and quickly pull the panes shut once more.
Turning back, I study her body from the window. A flawless figure; I chose her because of it, as many others had. It feels like such a long time ago now, those first days. Her face is peaceful and beautiful in the morning light and it’s hard to draw my eyes away. I move over to the bed and kiss her lightly on the forehead. She doesn’t stir.
I smile to myself and wander over to the washbasin below a dirty mirror in the corner of the room. As I stand before it, my chest bare, hands dripping with water, I notice the scratches where her longing fingers had grasped at my skin, tearing it in a moment of ecstasy. I admire them like war wounds.
The sun has risen high enough to filter through the window and its rays have turned her hair to gold. Her red ribbon lies beside her on the pillow.
She stood casually on the sidewalk, bathed in the last rays of sunlight, fixing her eyes on the passers by and offering sultry smiles. A tall man across the street made a gesture with his head and she crossed over to him, twirling a lock of her golden hair. I watched them from a dark alleyway, pressing myself against the cold brick wall, lost in shadow.
Above, the first stars of evening were twinkling weakly through the choking smoke spiralling up from the chimneys of workhouses and factories. Inside these buildings, hundreds of people worked in the heat of the boilers, muscles aching, sweat beads trickling down their faces. I had once been one of them, straining my back in a cotton factory, breathing in the fluff that drifted like snow through the air, until I had developed a cough that had made it almost impossible for me to work. The foreman had sacked me. I had been forced back out onto the streets, scrounging around in the mud for a penny or two, or overturning bins for a crust of mouldy bread.
But I always kept enough aside for her.
After weeks without a steady job, I had ended up down at the river, robbing the dead that washed up on the mud after every high tide. I only survived by the lucky find of a gold pocket watch. After all, what had been the harm in it? The old man had no longer been able to lift his hand to look it at and it had ticked so beautifully. With the ten pounds I had received from the pawn broker, I had managed to rent a bed away from the river, overlooking the street where the nightwalkers roamed and the factory workers trudged.
The smell of the smoke clung to everything and columns of it continued to rise from the factories well after the fires were neglected. It had been that way for so many years that I no longer noticed the stench. I no longer knew whether my clothes were clean or soiled.
A little while later, I saw her smooth down her skirts and take up her position back under a glowing streetlamp. Her client nodded to her as he passed and disappeared into the night, a few coins lighter. I felt the chill of a storm approaching and glanced at the sky. When the rain fell in this city, it was brown from the smoke and did little to wash the filth from the gutters.
Behind me in the alleyway, a window opened and a woman emptied a bed pan out onto the cobblestones. My nose wrinkled as the stench of urine mixed with that of the smoke and filth already upon the air and I forced myself out of the shadows and into the street to escape it.
Another shift must have finished for the day, for a wave of dirty children and tired-looking men and women swept past me, all eager to head home. None were keen to linger in that area; they all knew what sort of men and women frequented the dark alleyways.
When the last of them had moved on, I searched for her figure again across the street, but she had disappeared. She must have caught another’s attention. I felt my fists clench involuntarily at the thought of them up against a wall, his hands cupping her breasts, her behind, whatever she would let him touch. Feeling sick, I wandered along the footpath a little to clear my head.
Despite the fact I could do little to improve my appearance, I brushed down my old brown jacket and rearranged the mass of dark hair under my grey cap. The clothes I wore were ones I had picked up from dodgy stalls down at the docks, probably stolen from the dead. I had not been able to afford anything else. I rarely changed my shirt or trousers, for I only had two of each, and both were constantly dirty, and what was the point of cleaning them if they’d only get just as dirty again by the end of the day? My boots were strong and trusty but my socks were full of holes, as were my only pair of gloves.
It was quite some time before she reappeared this time and it had begun to rain. She had not stood at her place for more than a few moments before she finally noticed me. Her cold, hard stare unnerved me somewhat but I mustered my courage and crossed the street. She moved a little way along the pavement to the shelter of an overhanging balcony and waited for me there, brushing the droplets of water off her dress.
When I approached, she straightened up and folded her arms.
‘Do I satisfy those great big eyes of yours?’ she asked with a note of bitterness.
My breath hitched in my throat. I couldn’t draw my eyes away from her full rounded lips and her long lashes. For a while, I merely stood there, silently opening and closing my mouth like a dying fish.
‘Cat got your tongue, Jack?’
‘You… You’re so beautiful, ‘s all!’
She rolled her eyes and glanced around at the dreary streets and alleyways. They were completely deserted now. The rain would probably keep most of the members of her profession off the streets tonight. There would be very little business.
‘What are you doing here, Jack?’
‘You know why I’m here, Ruby,’ I said, hugging my arms close to my chest to keep them warm.
‘How many times do I have to tell you? This has to stop.’
‘Because I can’t afford to do it anymore!’
‘But I can pay!’
‘Don’t flaunt your money at me, John,’ she said angrily.
‘Why not? Other men do.’
‘Well, maybe not for long!’
She folded her arms and turned away. Desperately, I reached out, grabbed her shoulder and spun her back around. Her expression worried me.
‘What did you mean by that?’
‘I mean I may not have to do this for much longer,’ she said shortly, avoiding looking at me. ‘There’s a… There’s another man, John. He comes to see me almost every day.’
I felt my heart lurch in my chest and my grip on her shoulder tightened.
‘What kind of man?’ I asked, my eyes narrowing.
‘He’s rich, or he seems to be. He’s looking for a permanent mistress to set up in a little flat on the other side of the river. He’s asked me. I… I said I’d think about it.’
For a long while, all I could hear was the sound of my own heart thumping loud and hard in my ears. She continued talking but I didn’t hear her voice. It was as though I was suddenly deaf to the world, cut off from it by those scathing words.
‘He’s going to pay for the room, the furnishings, food, my clothes, everything!’
She had turned to face me now and I looked anxiously down at her beautiful rain-speckled face.
‘But… it would mean I can never see you again, John, or anyone else. The condition is that I be exclusively his, for whenever he wants me.’
There was something in her expression that tugged at my heart. Her smile was false. I had seen many false smiles on those perfect lips of hers, but also her rare and unveiled secret smile of pure joy. She was not wearing that now.
In an instant, my mind began to race. The man must be old, unattractive. It was the money and security she wanted. She needed a roof over her head and a constant presence in her life to look after her, provide for her.
I could be that man!
With a single look, she had led me astray, far away from my own world and down into hers. For her body, I had turned my back on my family. For her kiss, I had thrown away my real name. For one sweet caress, I had sacrificed my future. She had seduced me with her large blue eyes, shy fingers and whispered words. I had known no other woman like her.
My father’s banking firm was a prosperous one. I had run away from home two long years ago, in 1878, from the scolding, the expectations and the looks of bitter disappointment. I had no doubt that my father and mother thought I was dead. I had swapped my clothes with a fisherman and had evaded the detectives ever since.
But what if I returned?
‘Come with me,’ I said, reaching for her hand but she moved away.
‘You must leave.’
‘You can’t bind yourself to him, Ruby!’
‘My name is Margaret, John! Margaret. I’m going to accept his offer. I need to accept. Tomorrow, I’ll be gone.’
‘But I can pay for your lodgings!’ I insisted. ‘I have the money!’
‘No, you don’t, John.’
‘But I can get the money!’ I continued earnestly. ‘I can ask my father!’
She shook her head and began to walk away but I lunged for her arm once more.
‘Then please, Ruby. Please,’ I said quietly, running my fingers gently along her exposed neck. ‘Just one more time.’
The red ribbon.
She had given it to me as a keepsake the last time we had spent the night together. She had been a different person then. She had been the woman I had loved. Tucked up together in my small attic room, I had made her scream with pleasure three, maybe even four times, but her decision had remained the same.
At dawn, she had left and disappeared into the morning mist, leaving behind her scent, a few strands of golden hair and her ribbon.
But last night, I found her once more. Months and months after that final night we had spent together. Last night, I took her body again as my own, as though those months had never existed, as though nothing had changed and she was still Ruby, still that mysterious woman on the street, still selling her love for coins…
I splash my face with water from the basin and smooth back my dark hair. She still lies motionless on the bed, bathed in morning sun. I smile.
I move away from the basin and bend to pick up my clothes which lie scattered across the floor in an echo of our passion. Strewn between them are her petticoat, bonnet, scarf, gloves, delicate boots, dress and undergarments. I remember feverishly pulling at each layer, desperate to feel her skin against my own.
I pick up her lilac dress and press it against my face. It smells like her, but not like her at all. The dress smells like a respectable woman, a woman of purity, morals and innocence. That is not my Ruby. My Ruby is all passion, desire, sweat and energy.
I let the dress fall back to the floor and approach the bed where her perfect form is lying tangled in the sheets. She looks like an angel who has fallen from the heavens.
I cried when she left me after that cold, rainy night of passion. I had tried to persuade her to stay, I had tried to tell her that we could be together, that she could forget being a mistress, that I would support her, that I would marry her! But she had looked at me with pity and shook her head.
‘No, John,’ she had said sadly. ‘Yours is but the dream of a boy. It can never be.’
I dressed slowly and gingerly in the growing morning light and, with each item of clothing that I fixed on my person, a growing inevitability settled upon my shoulders. I would have to go back to my father. Ruby was lost to me now. There was no point in staying by the river.
I left my room for the last time and began the long walk from the docks to the cleaner, civilised streets. Images of her clogged my mind, so it was some wonder I continued to walk in the right direction. It seemed as though my legs had their own memory and knew exactly where we were going.
I stood across the street from my old family home for a long time before I ventured onto the top step and knocked. The walls were smooth, clean sandstone and the front steps were untainted by the scum of the streets. The windows were large and sparkling and the brass door knocker was bright with polish. It had been two years since I had run away and the dirty warrens of streets and buildings down by the river had become my norm. Looking up at the mansion in which I had once played as a child and studied as a young man, the magnificence of it hit me in the chest, as though I truly was a beggar from the riverside.
I almost turned on my heel and fled but there was a flutter of a curtain in one of the ground floor windows. After a moment, an ageing maid opened the door.
‘Clear off!’ she cried, making frantic gestures with her hands.
I cleared my throat and straightened myself up.
‘Jane… don’t you recognise me?’
Startled, the maid scrutinised my image for a moment.
‘Take off your hat,’ she said sternly.
I did so and my brown unkempt locks tumbled out. With my cap held loosely in my hand, I smoothed my hair away from my face and offered her a small, tired smile. Jane’s eyes widened and she quickly stood aside to let me pass.
‘Mr Matthews believes you’re dead, Master John!’ she exclaimed as soon as she had closed the door behind me.
‘I certainly feel like it.’
‘He shouldn’t see you in such a state, sir,’ Jane said, bolting the door and ushering me into the kitchen. ‘A haircut, a shave, a bath and a change of clothes is what you need!’
My father met me that afternoon when I was clean-shaven, smelling of soap, and as respectable as I could possibly look. I spun him a tale of sailing to Europe, of forging a business deal in cotton machinery with a young man from Paris, of falling in love with his sister, of the business deal falling through, and of fleeing back to England when she had refused my hand. Even though my father frowned, he warmly embraced me back into his household, exclaiming again and again how much I had been missed.
And so I began to learn the ways of my father’s firm. I grew and my prospects blossomed, but I never once forgot about my Ruby.
In the first few months, I cried into my pillow, mourning the loss of her skin against mine. Her beautiful face swam before my eyes as I slept and her voice echoed in my mind, whispering words of love and promises she had never meant to keep…
As the years drew on, the brilliant colour of her hair began to grow dull in my mind and her eyes were less a vivid blue. I began to remember all her cold stares, all the times she pushed me away, all the times she had failed to keep her appointments with me. At first, I tried to shun these memories, desperate not to taint that perfect woman who had once been mine.
I sat in front of my dresser, staring at my reflection, watching as my boy-like features changed into those of a respectable young man. With each passing moment, those boy-like thoughts of Ruby also began to fade away until there was nothing left but bitterness.
The flood gates opened and there was no stopping the anger.
She was a nightwalker, a whore. She had never loved me. She had only tolerated me, as she had tolerated every single one of her clients. That was all I had been to her, just another sad and lonely man in need of… In need of what? Comfort? Release? Love?
I began to see all the evils of her trade. The disease and the loss. The children that women like her gave birth to and then left out in the cold to die. I saw the weak men who could not say no to the women who pulled suggestively at their coats and then robbed them while they slept. I saw the young girls who were forced into the trade to feed their mothers who were no longer beautiful enough to attract the clientele.
When my anger became so strong, I took to the streets again, searching for the woman who had bewitched me. I wanted to find her master, tell her what she really was, to release him from whatever spell she had put on him. I wanted the whole world to know how she sucked her men in, chewed and then spat them back out. I wanted to see her ruined, as she had ruined me.
I no longer dreamt of her in my bed, her arms around my neck, her lips meandering across my body. I pictured her standing in front of me, her eyes bulging, her lips slightly parted in a silent scream as I fixed my hands around her neck and squeezed tight.
One day in 1887, when I was leaving a book shop, I saw Ruby. For a moment, I didn’t recognise her, for her hair was tucked away under a fine bonnet and her body was pressed tightly into an expensive dress. She was walking along the footpath with a collapsed umbrella in one hand, a purse in the other. Her petticoat was exquisitely decorated, her shoes were delicate and about her neck was a string of pearls.
I stopped in my tracks and watched her as she moved along the pavement, glancing in the shop windows. I crossed the street ahead of her and planted myself firmly in her way.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I…’
She made to move aside but, again, I blocked her way. Ruby’s eyes looked up my smartly suited form and finally rested upon my face. She gasped.
I grabbed her hand and dragged her off the main street into an adjoining alleyway.
But I didn’t stop. She complained and struggled but her strength was nothing to mine. When I finally did come to a halt and let her go, we were standing alone in a lane several blocks away. The ground was dirty and the houses leant over perilously into the street. Ruby hastily grabbed at her skirts and lifted them protectively up off the ground. In the process, she dropped her umbrella and purse, which I quickly snatched up. She looked afraid and I relished in the expression.
‘Why have you brought me here?’ she asked angrily.
‘This is where you belong.’ I motioned to the dark houses around us, to the cheap inns, the street corners and the gutters. ‘Not with that man!’
‘He’s my security!’
‘And does he know how many men you’ve had? Does he know it’ll take years to wash their sweat from your body, their taste from your mouth?’
‘How dare you? Leave me alone! And give those back!’
She reached for her purse and umbrella. I handed her the hooked handle of the umbrella but weighed the purse for a moment in my hand.
‘This is fairly light. Your master in a spot of trouble? He’s not as wealthy as you hoped, is he, Ruby?’
‘That’s none of your business, John!’
I grinned, reached into my pocket and brought out a wad of notes.
‘How about one for old time’s sake, eh, Ruby?’
‘Never. I want nothing more to do with you.’
Still grinning, I pushed her roughly up against the wall of a building and brought my face close to hers.
‘Oh, how proper you speak now! I’m sorry to tell you, Ruby, but these clothes and that hat don’t fool me. Underneath all this finery, you’re still that same woman. I know it, you know it, and half the men in London!’
‘How dare you!’
‘Come, take these,’ I said, pressing the pounds into her hand. ‘There’s a room to rent just around the corner. I remember it well. We can go there. Just a quick one, Ruby, then you’ll never see me again. I promise.’
I pull on my trousers and join her again on the bed. I brush her hair away from her face and take up the red ribbon in my hand. Her hair looks beautiful when it’s loose, like a piece of sunshine I can touch.
I trace the line of her bare side with my fingers, feeling the lingering warmth of her skin upon my own. She is mine now, she will be mine forever, just like this. Ruby will never return to her master and, in time, he will be grateful for it.
I stand above her and stare down at the bruises around her neck. There are cuts too, abrasions and scratches. The once soft white skin is broken, tainted by the marks left by the red ribbon I know clutch in my fist.
She is mine now. She will be mine forever.
The memory of her contorted face will be forever engraved in my mind, her pleading eyes as I fixed the ribbon about her neck and tightened it, inch by inch. Sitting astride her, I grinned and whispered, ‘I want to make you feel pain like I have felt it, Ruby! Don’t scream. Don’t scream, my precious, darling Ruby. It will all be over soon.’
Now she is still. I imagine her burning in the fires of Satan’s fury and a smile crosses my mouth. Where will I go, heaven or hell, after killing such a sinful creature? Will I be praised in God’s kingdom or will I be punished along with her?
How could I be punished for banishing one of Satan’s children? I have saved countless men from succumbing to her snake-like charms! But what of the hundreds and thousands of others of her kind? Can I possibly let them do to others what Ruby has done to me?
Will their disease spread to consume all goodness? Will there be a cure?
I reach over and take the wad of notes from her unmoving hand. I have work to do. I yank the pearl necklace from around her neck and thrust it into my jacket pocket. In the streets nearby are many of her kind, waiting for men to flick them a few coins in return for a moment of sinful bliss against a wall.
I clutch the red ribbon tighter in my hand as I leave the rented room and emerge onto the street. It’s raining the brown rain of the city but the filth of the gutters still stand there, smiling and motioning men towards them. I catch the eye of a brunette and she approaches me, swaying her hips.
‘Interested, sir?’ she asks silkily, gazing up at me with bright green eyes. ‘How about it?’
I look her up and down. She is young and shapely but her long brown hair is tied up with a little blue ribbon. The whore reaches forward and brushes my cheek as I pull the ribbon from her hair. Her dark locks tumble down across her bare shoulders, loose and free. I feel her eager hands as they reach into my jacket, searching for my wallet. I grab her wrist and drag her off the street, clutching the red and blue ribbons in my hand.
I will not be punished for the work I will do. This disease is one from hell and it must be cleansed. I am the cure.