Authors: M.P. Wright
Dedicated to Jen, Enya and Neve
with all my heartfelt love and thanks
No one’s as dear, as baby to me
wee little fingers, eyes wide and bright
now sound asleep, until morning light . . .
The muscular man who stank of three-day-old sweat and stale booze led her by the hand, blindfolded and barefoot, down the twelve cold, flaking sandstone steps, which she slowly counted in her head one by one until she reached solid ground again. Her head felt light, her limbs weak, and she struggled to remain upright, fighting the overpowering drowsiness that had enveloped her body. It was only when she felt the man’s large thumb lift her chin ever so slightly that she was brought back from the drug-induced limbo that had subdued her. His touch had reawakened her: back to the fear, a return to the terror.
It was earlier that evening when her introduction to the heavyset white man had been made while she stood in the crowded room amongst the many drunken party revellers. Shortly afterwards she had been escorted outside and into the back seat of a large, expensive-looking silver car. The man had got in beside her and caressed the side of her cheek with his pale, thick knuckles before tying a crimson silk scarf across her eyes. This was when the fear had taken hold of her, deep into the pit of her stomach. She had panicked and pushed herself forward, her right hand reaching out towards the car door handle, but her futile attempt to escape was suppressed by the man’s strength as his forearm slammed her back and a seatbelt was drawn tightly across her chest. This had been the point that mind, body and spirit had given way to the narcotic flowing through her body.
The car had pulled away slowly and she had begun to feel a strange, serene sense of calmness enter her being; the drug that had been slipped into her drink earlier that evening was now beginning to take the edge off of the unknown horror she had become immersed in and it had begun to dampen her ability to think coherently. Slumped back and cushioned by the plush leather upholstery, the man had rested her hand in the flat of his palm and he rhythmically stroked the back of it with icy fingers, which had increased the calmness inside her and her need to sleep. As the effects of the drug took a greater hold upon her, she had calmed, no longer able to resist, with no wish to fight.
It was then that the nightmare had receded from her subconscious and a gentle feeling of being rocked to sleep had falsely offered her the solace of safety and comfort as she dreamt of gently swaying to and fro in her mother’s arms, just as she had done in the hospital after she had contracted rubella as a child. The high fever and inflammation around her brain had burnt through her tiny body and had ultimately taken her hearing from her. But it was her subsequent muteness, which developed during the months of distressing recovery, that had caused her the greatest agony: unable to speak, to laugh, to . . .
A violent slap from her captor across her left cheek had brought her from the warm, protective embrace of her mother back into the land of the living again. Her brain felt as if it was being knocked from side to side in her skull as bright red, blue and green spots flashed and jumped in front of her eyes behind the blindfold. Her knees began to buckle, but the muscular man gripped at her upper arm. The pressure of the tight hold he had applied to stop her falling to the floor sent a shockwave of pain throughout her upper body and reaffirmed the harsh reality of her situation.
A musty, damp odour clung to the insides of her nostrils as the man took her firmly by the wrist and guided her across the chilly floor before bringing her to a sudden halt, spinning her around on her heels and then slowly pushing her backwards until the cold burn of stone seeped through her cotton dress and chilled the skin across her buttocks. The man pushed her back, down onto a thick marble slab. He tied her wrists firmly on either side with thick rope through a pair of iron loops that had been fixed into the top of each corner of the stone plinth. The drug flowing through her bloodstream continued to subdue her natural instinct to struggle free from her enforced bondage, and she returned briefly to the heavy-eyed dream state that had previously cushioned her from the ongoing nightmarish reality that cruelly kept dragging her back to consciousness.
She wanted to call out, to scream for help . . . the unfairness of her muteness prevented that. She felt the buttons on the front of her dress fly from their stitching as the fabric was torn open, exposing her young, soft ebony skin. Her bra was cut at its straps and pulled away from her breasts. Then the man’s cool hands ran up each of her outer thighs until he reached her stomach. He looped both his thumbs behind the elasticated hem at the top of her panties, drew his hands apart slightly so that they were in line with her hips and in a single vicious downward motion dragged her underwear down her legs to her ankles before yanking them off her feet.
Petrified, she lashed out with her legs into the darkness, connecting with nothing. Now alone and unable to see, hear or cry for help, she withdrew to a place deep within herself where she hoped she would be safe, protected from what was about to happen. Her tears flowed and were absorbed into the silk scarf that was still tied around her eyes and in her head she sang to herself. The same song that her mother had sung to her as a toddler all those years before, when she was frightened, when she needed to feel safe . . .
“Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop; when the wind blows, the cradle will rock; when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall; and down will come baby, cradle and all.”
The big man turned and watched as a semicircle of men walked silently out of the shadows of the cellar, all dressed in crisp black dinner suits, their faces covered by Venetian masquerade half-masks, their presence in the semi-darkness picked out by the large cream church altar candles that were housed in the small dug-out recesses of the white alabaster walls. They began to move closer towards her semi-naked body, some with arms already outstretched, their fingers eager to explore her exotically coloured flesh.
The woman’s captor backed away into the shadows, returning up the sandstone steps, leaving her to an unknown fate. He tried not to think about her again, and when he got to the top, he loosened his tie and took in a deep breath of the icy night air to try to clear his head as he stood at the entrance of the cellar. He reached for the huge brass handle of the old oak door and closed it quietly, resting his forehead against one of the panels as he did so. He turned around and looked up at the clear, star-filled sky, then pulled a half-bottle of Scotch from his jacket pocket, unscrewed the cap and knocked back a hefty swig of the burning spirit before making his way across the snowy lawn towards his car, the bottle hanging from his shaking hand, which slapped against the side of his leg as he walked. An unexpected, piercing scream from the depths of the underground vault followed him and echoed out into the bitter chill of the winter night.
There’s only so much staring through the bottom of an empty glass a man can do when he’s got less than one and ten in his back pocket. Not enough to get me another pint, that was for damn sure. I tipped out the remaining copper coins from my battered brown leather wallet on to the copy of the
Bristol Evening Post
that I had spent the last hour trawling through in a desperate attempt at finding myself a job. I’d bottomed out on that and was now looking to get drunk.
I was sat in the Star and Garter pub on the corner of Brook Road, in the St Pauls area of Bristol. I’d been in the bar for the better part of three hours nursing my drink and was in need of a refill. I’d rented myself a place nearby shortly after arriving in Britain and the Star had become my local, but I was hardly a regular and the chances of me putting anything on the slate weren’t happening. I was outta work and broke.
Outside, the snow was three inches deep on the pavement. It was my first experience of an English winter and my fascination with the stuff had soon worn off. I’d no interest in trudging back to my pokey terraced digs to sit and freeze my ass off in front of a two-bar electric fire that I couldn’t afford to put on.
I had nothing in to eat, apart from three tins of Libby’s canned fruit in the larder and a half-bottle of milk that was stinking my kitchen out. The place was as bare and unwelcoming as when I’d first moved in there.
In the March of 1964 I’d sailed from Bridgetown, Barbados. It was a ten-day journey across the Atlantic to Southampton with the promise of work at Wills’ tobacco company at the end of it. My uncle Gabe had worked there for over a decade and had pulled a few strings to help me out. I’d stuck it out for ten months before buss-mout’in’ the foreman, Teddy Meeks, in the face after he’d accused me of thieving cigarettes. I didn’t like him and I’m pretty sure he hated me. The allegations that I was a thief were untrue. I’d sucked up all his bullshit and jibes since I’d first been introduced to him by Walter Keats, the general manager, but it was the “nicking nigger” remark that had got me mean and he’d paid for it with a broken jaw.
Why, I don’t know, but I’d gotten away with the assault without any criminal charges. The fact that I had known that Teddy had been loading up boxes of two hundred cartons of Strand cigarettes onto the backs of delivery vans that would then find themselves in the social clubs and pubs all over Bristol city at knock-down prices with a nice little cut going to Meeks may have had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was because he’d heard a little of my past and my time with the police back home.
Whatever his reasons, Meeks’ own illegal activities would continue and he’d still no doubt be picking on some poor bastard back at the factory while I was scratching for the price of another pint.
Now, when I could afford to, I’d drink to forget the likes of men like Meeks, and a past that I had run from, a past that still had a grip on my soul and kept me awake at nights. I didn’t hold out much hope for lady luck to change things and I wasn’t the praying kind.
My mama had once told me, “Child, don’t you be praying too hard fo’ someting God don’t want you to have.”
But tonight God was about to perversely answer an unspoken prayer and my late mama’s words would come back to haunt me from across the ocean in a way I’d never have thought possible.
“Buy you another one of those, son?”
Alderman Earl Linney stood over me, his hulking frame blocking out the glare of the gas lamp on the opposite wall. I’d seen Linney around giving the locals his warm-handshake routine and knew of his reputation as a successful businessman. It was rumoured that he had his fingers in just about every rich man’s pocket in the city, and if he was just about to stick them into his own to get me another drink, hell, I wasn’t about to say no.