In Fleet Street, death was an Event. It was the one certainty people had, and they watched it all with ill-concealed excitement, especially when the circumstances were suspicious, then it became the subject of eager speculation. And for some, death was also an opportunity.
The sky was clouded and gray, the sun hidden like a pampered child into the folds, only sticking out occasional streams when the mood suited. The streets were awake and about in their miserable lives, but today the usual activity had been postponed for greater entertainment. They crowded together, old and young, surrounding the broken, abandoned marionette left on a lonely stage.
Half-hidden between the barkeep and the lady who sold rat as rabbit meat, Geordie could see the distance between the body and the crowd, an invisible barrier that kept them from moving any further but didn’t stop their vulture gazes from devouring every inch of the rotting body with the utter impassivity of those who didn’t have the concept or the ability to care of another’s well-being. Did anyone know who he was? Had they seen him before? Did they even care? The crush of bodies was quite gargantuan and more than a few bodies were nudged, bumped and elbowed away for a better look that they might exchange the story of it for a half-pint or two.
So no one noticed when a small, dirty hand slipped into a few pockets and lightened their load before disappearing into the crowd. Geordie kept his gaze ahead. He’d stared down at the body before – at Mitch – and the sight had smacked him so hard he could conjure up a picture of him now. Throat open with a flash of white, filleted and splayed like the fish in Greenwich market with their eyes dull and the hearts still beating as they lay with death creeping up icy trails.
The crowd around him moved about in the ranks, but the number had yet to disperse. There hadn’t been quite this sensational an event since the bookkeeper, whose wife left him for a shoe-cobbler, had thrown himself out a window. Geordie’s face was squashed up to the hard bosom of the old widow down the street who took in charring and at desperate times, bent over a railing at night for a drunken sailor. He was good with his hands and quick on his feet, moving the small body that could still pass for a boy of nine in between the brief pockets of the crowd, his hands deft and sure, his gaze determinedly staring at everything, everything but Mitch. They talked over his head, exchanging tales that grew more sordid with each transfer until he could almost believe it wasn’t Mitch they were talking about.
The smell of rancid meat pored from the butcher’s skin and soaked into his coppers and Geordie’s face was sticky and grimy from being nudged about with hairy forearms. At one point when another wave came, his hand had been forcefully shoved from Fat Martha’s apron where he knew she kept her tenant’s lodging money. Grunting, he slithered from his fleshy cage and keeping his voice low even when his hands were stepped on, crawled until he was back to his prize and relieving her of her burden. The old drunk was next her, the one who spent his days singing bawdy songs, his large nose crimson with drink. Geordie knew he’d managed to finagle some coins from a flustered fancy man who he enjoyed harassing, refusing to leave until the money had passed his hands. Geordie thought of leaving him be. The man stank of sour ale, his coat hung limp and his fingers were swollen and knuckled and he would be an easy one. But he’d been kind to Mitch once. The man was mumbling to himself through gummy teeth now, as he stared greedily at Mitch. He lurched forward suddenly, breaking from the crowd and crossing the forbidden barrier to Mitch, leaving Geordie exposed in the comfort of the circle. One scaly hand grabbed Mitch’s shoe and he wrenched it away, cackling loudly and triumphantly as he brandished his prize. Something sliced across Geordie’s chest, watching that brittle scarecrow sling the lone shoe over his head as if he were any better than desperate, grasping guttersnipe and why should it be that he be alive and Mitch, dead?
‘Watch yer way, ye mangy cur!’ The drunk slurred in Geordie’s direction. He turned and stared hard at the man, who was now thrusting the shoe all about with that crazed look while everyone took a step or two away from him, none of them actually seeing the man, or Geordie. Perhaps he’d drink and without pay, be beaten by the tavern-keeper, never an understanding man. Perhaps he’d try to beg a drink when he realized his money was gone and Geordie knew he wouldn’t succeed. Either way, he lived by his drink, and Geordie had just taken that away. His hands clasped around the coins he’d lifted, the last of the man’s savings. He slipped off into the crowd and disappeared, anonymous and forgotten.