A short story on the tragic birth of a monster.
London, England, 1881
A familiar scent of urine assaulted the boy’s nostrils as he rounded the corner into his usual scavenging ground. Before taking another step, his furtive eyes darted towards the recessed doorway. It was closed, as he had expected. The baker should have disposed of the day’s trash by this time of the day. As the boy walked towards the trash can, his ill-fitted boots stepped over shards of broken glass, grinding them into the dirt beneath. The resulting crunch mingled with the jarring squeaks of rats rummaging amid an adjacent pile of rotten fruit.
He opened the lid of the trash can, and his eyes brightened at the sight of his dinner: a few loaves of day-old bread sitting upon a mound of trash. His grimy hands eagerly swept his prize up.
“Hey!” a brusque voice boomed out.
Hugging the loaves tightly, the boy tried to flee the cramped alley. Within moments, he felt a vice-like grip on his shoulder. His body arched backwards from the sheer force before plunging hard onto the dirt floor. The bread loaves tumbled away from his hands; their brown crust now stained by all manners of filth. The boy looked up to see a burly figure standing over him with arms crossed. The baker, Mr. Miller.
“You again? The garbage belongs to the bakery, lad,” bellowed the red-faced baker.
Mr. Miller’s moustache bristled with every word. The boy, seeing the shaking arms of the larger man, crawled away, hoping to avoid a beating.
“I don’t care if it’s scraps. If you want something then you have to pay!”
The boy dragged himself into a kneeling position. His dark eyes stared upwards from behind dishevelled locks of grime matted hair.
“I… I’m sorry…” he croaked out, coughing, while placing his hands together as if he were praying. “I won’t come back, so just this once… Please.”
Mr. Miller snorted, folding his meaty arms, but the boy did not miss a slight curling of the sides of his lips. The street urchin lunged for his legs, clutching them.
Tears streamed down the boy’s stained cheeks as he begged, “Please forgive me! I’m begging you!”
At this point, he noticed a slight change in the larger man’s demeanour. He knew Mr. Miller was revelling in his dominance. The baker revealed his yellowing teeth with a static smile, and gestured away nonchalantly.
Maintaining a stern stare, he said, “Let go. I got it already, lad. Get your trash, get lost and don’t come back, you hear me?”
The boy nodded incessantly like an obedient dog, before picking the stale loaves up, and bolting away. The putrid stench of the baker’s alleyway clung itself to him, blending in with his sweat-drenched pores. He exited the alleyway, moving deeper into the twisting roads of the Whitechapel district. As he made his way back home, he smiled as he hoped that his mother would be pleased with his haul for the day, and hoping that she did not have too rough of a day. Sometimes her customers were violent, and the boy did not like seeing his mother in the sorry state she would be in, crying and in pain. He enjoyed the meagre dinners they had, and her warm embrace. She would always tell him that they were just waiting for his father to return and take them out of Whitechapel. But the cycle of hardship continued day after day, and he could witness the toll it took on his mother. He swore that once he was able, he would work hard and take her out of this life.
The walls were close and wound over and under each other in a confusing maze of arches and alleyways, but he knew them well here. On every corner people bustled, paying no heed to the sight of a running and stinking child clutching loaves of bread.
The evening crowd had started to form around the corner of the street he called home. The Two Brewers public house served as a locus of entertainment on the desolate street, and it was currently filled with singing and loud conversation by its patrons, who were starting to get intoxicated before the sun even set. The boy stopped by the adjacent house, in front of which a small group of men crowded around. Two women were flaunting themselves at these potential customers. He recognised them, co-workers on the same floor where he lived with his mother.
“C’mon, handsome chap. Looking for a warm place, aren’t you love?” the larger woman slurred, her eyes glazed back. Her blonde hair hung messily down to her meaty waist as she arched her chest forward.
One of the men from the crowd, sneered at her and walked forward, licking his plump lips. “Martha love. I got something ere’ for you.”
“Oh, if it isn’t Mr. Johnson. Let’s be havin’ ya,” the prostitute cackled, grabbing her customer’s hairy arms and leading him through the rickety front door of the whorehouse.
The boy, largely ignored, kept his head down and entered his home behind them. The door to the whorehouse was faded and swollen with age. The windows were filthy, and instead of curtains, there were grubby linen sheet pinned to the inside of their frames. Immediately as he entered, he was greeted by grunts and moans. The room was dark, the overcast twilight struggling to breach the heavy sheets over the windows.
As he took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloom, he could make out the silhouettes of writhing bodies through half-open doors. He had grown numb to these sights. He knew that later the street outside would grow more raucous and sometimes violent, as the drinking got heavier into the night. On some nights, he could see the fights taking place from his windows, lit by fires in oil drums and cheered on by a drunken crowd thirsty for blood and entertainment.
He made his way up the wooden stairs, at the end of which a middle-aged woman, with brown hair tied up in a bun, stood with her hands on her hips and a cigarette in between her gaudily red lips. Her saggy cheeks puffed as she spotted the young boy toiling up the stairs with loaves in hand.
“Oh, if it isn’t little Jack. Come back from a day of thieving?” she said in her high-strung voice.
“Polly,” Jack greeted the owner of the house. “How’s my mother?”
Polly removed the cigarette from her lips, and let out a puff of smoke. “If you are asking about whether Anne is occupied, she is not. But she hasn’t been out of her room since noon. Customers are out the door, and she needs to get working.”
Jack noticed the visible annoyance in Polly’s features, and nodded. “I’ll check on her.”
Polly shook her head, waving Jack along before making her way down the stairs. A twinge of worry hovered in the boy’s heart as he approached the, but he shrugged it off. It was not uncommon for her to remain in her room, not answering Polly’s calls. Perhaps she had a rough morning with a customer.
Jack rapped his knuckles on the door. “Mother?”
“It’s Jack. Are you okay?”
Still no answer. This time, the twinge of worry had blossomed to grip his heart like a claw. He clutched the bread loaves as tightly as he could with one hand while twisting the door knob with the other. The door slowly creaked open. With every inch, his heart pounded faster in his chest.
The tenseness in his shoulders dissipated as soon as he spotted his mother sprawled on the floor with a ragged woollen blanket wrapped around her frail body. He noticed the vacant look in her eyes and the newspaper spread in front of her. Beside it, a lit candle flickered. Hardened wax stuck to the floorboard around it. The window had been covered with a dirty linen sheet, but somehow the room still felt chilly.
It was almost as if Anne did not notice the arrival of her son. Her bony fingers tightened their grip on the blanket. Her eyes, red and swollen, continued their vacant stare into nothingness. A chill ran down Jack’s spine.
“Mother?” his voice came out as a squeak as he approached her. “What happened?”
A second passed before she opened her mouth to speak. Her words tumbled out of a parched throat, like a tortured animal crawling out of a trap. “He didn’t come back…”
“Who didn’t come back?”
Jack knelt to place the loaves down, before placing a hand on his mother’s shoulder. Instead of accepting her young son’s touch, Anne turned away abruptly, the blanket sweeping out a cloud of dust.
“Leave me!” she screamed, before crawling on all fours to her bed.
“Mother, what happened? Tell me!” he begged, but his mother merely curled herself into a ball, shivering on the cold floorboard. His gaze turned towards the newspaper she had been reading. He picked it up, before casting a quick glance towards his mother, who shook her head vehemently.
“It must be a lie… He promised…” Anne murmured to herself in ragged breaths.
With the aid of the candlelight, Jack struggled to make out the headline of the page. He had been taught to read the alphabet in the neighbourhood’s free school, and his mother had always encouraged him to read, hoping he would take after his father.
And it was his father’s name he saw printed in the headline, which read, “Playwright James Smith achieves success with marriage into nobility.”
Jack blinked in disbelief. All throughout the last thirteen years, his mother had always told him that his father would come back for them once his plays started selling. Jack crumpled the newspaper, feeling a fiery rage course through his vein. All he wanted to do was to burn it.
He turned to look at his mother, holed up in her corner of the room. Her golden blonde hair, which Jack loved to play with when they were cuddled up in bed together, had lost its lustre. Dishevelled and uncombed, it hung in knotted strands, half covering her tear streaked face. Jack felt an urge to comfort his mother, the only family he had ever known.
“Don’t worry, Mother!” he said as he walked towards her. He forced a smile, which just yesterday possessed the ability to light a similar one on his mother’s face. But this time it was met with a cold indifference.
“I’ll protect you!” he chirped.
As his hand stretched out towards his mother, she suddenly flinched away from him. She rose from the floor and flung herself to the lone table in the room. She clapped her hands over her ears and shouted, “Shut it!”
Jack stood rooted to his spot. His mother had never raised his voice at him before, not even once. His hands trembled and his throat felt dry. He could see her shoulders shaking as if she were holding in a fit. For the first time ever in this room, he felt small and afraid.
“Ugh!” Her hands tightened as she attempted to insulate her ears from any words her son might utter. “Leave me!”
Biting his lips to hold back the tears, Jack moved to leave the room. He stopped in his steps as he reached the door, casting another glance towards his mother. She continued staring at the floor, not willing to even look at him. He felt as if an ice-cold dagger pierced his heart. Alas, he could not hold back the flow of his tears as they tumbled down his cheeks. He sprinted down the stairs as fast as his little legs could take him.
The world seemed to be a blur. He paid no heed to a startled Polly who he bumped into, nor the gnawing hunger in his stomach. A cool wind brushed past his wet cheeks as he rushed outside. He did not know where he was going, except that he wanted to be alone. He turned the corner of the street, breath wheezing and rasping. Just then, he felt a drop of water plop onto his hair. Then another. Soon, a drizzle ensued and all around him, people rushed for whatever nearest shelter they could find.
Jack continued walking in silence, hands in pockets and head down against the steady rainfall. His mind was filled with the image of his mother turning away from him. He had almost forgotten the headline he read in the newspaper about his father. All he could think of now was the fact that during the whole time earlier, his mother did not call out his name even once. It was as if she saw him as a stranger. He wept, not knowing what he had done to upset his mother, to deserve such rejection.
The rain masked his tears as he moved amid scores of people on the overcrowded, stinking streets. It soon intensified and an ominous rumble of thunder sounded somewhere in the distance. Soaked to the bone, Jack ducked into a side alley. Rotten food and waste were piled high against the walls, making him gag. He moved deeper into the alley and ducked into a recessed doorway and sat down on his shaking legs, resting his back against the filthy brickwork. It offered him some protection from the elements, and more importantly, solitude to try and process the incident.
The tears came again, great sobs of pain that felt as if they would have no end. The storm was now close, the rain no longer falling but being driven into the streets with overwhelming ferocity.
As he sat amongst the filth, an inquisitive rat, large and black, scurried alongside him and began to rummage amid a pile of rotten fruit oblivious to Jack and his troubles as it sniffed at the stinking black mound. Jack stopped crying and watched the rat as it explored the waste, pausing occasionally to stand on its haunches and sniff the air. He watched, mesmerised by the way the rat’s sides moved as it breathed, the way it nibbled at the decaying flesh. A sudden hot rage overcame Jack. He leaned close, reaching towards the animal, which was unaware as it continued to eat. He lunged at it, grabbing it around the neck. The rat squealed and squirmed trying to claw at Jack, who despite almost losing it managed to retain his grip around the creature’s neck. The rat was still squealing, a sound which Jack did not like. It reminded him of the noise of the countless men who had been on top of his mother, a noise that he had to endure waiting outside the room he lived in. That must be it. The harsh and depraved life of a prostitute had turned his mother mad. Overcome by a wave of frustration and anger, Jack squeezed the rat’s neck, feeling the soft tissues compress under his grip. The rat’s movements began to slow, its legs kicking. There was a wet crunch and it went limp in his hands.
A cathartic release washed over him as he realised what he had done. His pent-up emotions of frustration, anger and sadness dissipated for the moment, leaving behind a strange excitement. He turned the dead animal over in his hands, running his fingers over its wet fur, feeling the ridges of its bones, the softness of its skin. He turned the rat over onto its back, gripping with both hands and running his thumbs down its underside, before stopping at the flabby stomach. He pushed his thumbs into the flesh, tearing the skin until it gave way, thick gloopy innards squirting out and over his hands. The smell of copper and utter filth did not repulse him. He dropped the dead rat, admiring his macabre work. He felt his brain ringing in his head, and tip of his tongue wetting. Already he wanted to do it again.
He returned to the room that night a soaking mess. Usually, his mother would worry over him catching a cold, and make sure he had a proper change of dry clothes. However, that did not happen as his mother lay in bed, ignoring him. Jack did not greet his mother, for fear that she would fly into a rage at any moment. He spotted the crumpled piece of newspaper still lying on the floor, and burned it using the candle’s flame. He ended the night by eating the bread loaves he had scavenged that evening, alone.
The next morning, when Jack woke up, he had almost forgotten the events of yesterday, and started the day off by greeting his mother. When his mother did not deign to reply, instead staring off at the ceiling, reality set in with a deep sadness. He wanted to ask her, what was it that he had done to displease her? But a dark fear gripped his heart as he remembered the contorted expression that he saw on her face yesterday when he attempted to comfort her. That was not the mother he knew.
Jack went about his daily routine, going to school in the morning, and scavenging around for food in the afternoon. When he returned to the whorehouse, he faced an annoyed Polly.
“I heard about what happened. Some of the other girls knew about the playwright,” Polly said to Jack, her nose wrinkled up in disgust. “Honestly, it’s pretty much a cliché for prostitutes. It’s her fault for believing in the guy.”
At that moment, a defensive instinct overcame Jack and he snapped. “It’s not my mother’s fault!”
Polly gave a derisive snort. “Oh, look at you, little boy, tryin’ to be the hero for your mother.” She pointed a finger at the closed door, before continuing, “But we are all whores here, tryin’ to make a living. It’s the way it is. Can’t believe in the sweet words of some fancy man.”
Jack clenched his fist, and held his anger back. “Shut it! Mother’s a good person. Having to be a prostitute ruined her.”
“Ruined her? Oh please,” Polly hissed, shaking her head. Her mascara laden eyes stared down at Jack as she shrugged. “Well, I don’t care what you think as long as I get my money. If your mother doesn’t work, I will have to kick the both of you out.”
Without waiting to hear a reply, Polly strutted down the stairs, leaving Jack to his thoughts.
“Oh, that’s it!” A masculine grunt echoed out of a nearby room, followed by high-pitched yelling in feigned ecstasy.
Jack could feel the rage waiting to erupt inside of him. He was sure that it was living like this, day to day, that drove his mother to madness. She had clung on to the idea of his father returning, hoping that it would deliver them out of desperation. But that hope had disappeared.
A panting sound cut through his train of thought. “You like that don’t you love?”
Jack felt sick from the depravity surrounding him. The smell of sweat and filth suddenly intensified and the house seemed to be closing in on him. He rushed down the stairs and out into the street, going wherever his legs would take him. Somehow, he found himself in another alleyway, similar to yesterday. He spotted a rat scurrying within a black mound of decaying food and knelt down, like a hunter stalking his prey. He did not know why he was doing this, only that it provided him with an outlet for his anger and depression. His hand lunged out like an arrow, and it found its mark. This time, he imagined it was Polly. The image of her smug face, with its excessive makeup, had been burned into his mind.
Jack washed the sticky blood off his hands in a horse trough after the deed. The flush of anger that had been welled up within him calmed itself. He grinned. It felt better than yesterday, probably because he imagined the rat as Polly. No one should ever insult his mother like she had done. As he walked down the street on the way back home, he caught sight of a poster, plastered on a wall. He stopped in his tracks, only because he saw the words “James Smith” on it. It was a poster advertising the latest performance of his play that very night, even stating that he would attend.
A stirring begun in his chest, and he realised needed to see his father. Perhaps he did not know that he had a son in him. If he knew, he would come for them, and take them out of their misery. Then his mother would be happy once again.
Fortunately, the theatre that James Smith was performing at was not far off. Jack started off on his trek with an extra spring in his steps. He turned into one street after another, navigating through places he knew by heart. As he strode towards his destination, the run-down public houses slowly turned into better quality furnished ones, more spaced out on better lit streets.
Within an hour, Jack reached the theatre, which had a long line stretching out its double doors onto the cobbled street. As he approached the doors, he felt the dirty looks shot at him by the crowd. Noticing at the prim and proper dresses and coats of everybody around him, Jack felt out of place in his rags. He craned his neck and his eyes darted about as he tried to look for his father.
“Hey, do you have a ticket?”
Jack turned around only to see a large full-bearded man, dressed in a crisp black suit. Pin stripes lined tight pants which highlighted his trunk-like legs.
“Ticket?” he mumbled, as he cast another sideways glance.
“Get out of here before I throw you out.”
The man grabbed Jack’s shoulder, dragging him towards the other side of street. Jack tried to resist, grabbing the man’s arm, but to no avail. Just then, a chorus of cheers arose from the crowd. From where he was, Jack could not make out what happened, but he realised it might be his father’s arrival that was drawing the cheers. He sunk his teeth into the man’s knuckle and immediately broke free of his handler’s grip before rushing across the street towards the theatre’s double doors.
As he got closer, he saw a man dressed in a brown trench coat and wearing a black bowler hat strolling through the crowd. He stopped to wave at the cheering dozens around him before taking off his hat. At that moment, Jack recognised him. It was James Smith. He remembered the distinct moustache from the papers. His dark eyes seemed much more piercing in real life than in monochrome grey. For a moment, James’ gaze met that of Jack’s, and his eyebrows furrowed in bewilderment.
“Father! I’m Jack!” Jack shouted as he tried to shove himself through the crowd.
Upon hearing the words, James’ eyes widened immediately. The cheering crowd suddenly went silent.
“Take him away! I do not know this boy!” James shouted, waving his bowler hat frantically.
Before Jack could utter another word, he felt a palm cover his mouth. His feet left the ground as he was swept up in the air. He struggled to open his mouth and flailed his arms. The last look he had of his father was of the playwright wearing his bowler hat, and walking through the theatre’s double doors.
The burly man brought Jack to an alley a street down before dropping him. The air left Jack’s chest as he felt the impact of cold hard stone.
“Now,” the man spoke, his husky voice laced with menace. “The next time I see your filthy face, I will be sure to break it. You understand me?”
Jack nodded, before getting up to sprint down the alley, the image of his father shouting at him to be taken burned into his mind.
Upon returning to the whorehouse without further incident, he made his way up the stairs, dejected. It was the second time in two days that his parent had turned their back on him. He stopped outside his room. As usual, sexual noises filled the house. He looked down at the dirty rags he wore, and chastised himself. He was so naïve to think that his father would not turn him away. Who would not? Their worlds did not overlap. His father the famous playwright belonged in gilded theatres, while he in filthy whorehouses.
He twisted the doorknob to enter the room, only to see his mother at the table. She was folding pieces of paper and sticking them into envelopes.
“Mother? What are you doing?”
Anne paid her son no heed, murmuring to herself. “He’s coming back… He’s coming back…”
“He’s not coming back!” Jack lashed out. He could not hold the anger within him any longer. His right hand shook, its fingers twitching, and he could imagine the soothing smell of copper.
Anne shot her son a venomous gaze. “What do you know? We loved each other so deeply. Those words in the papers? They were lies.”
The first words out of his mother today, and they were about that scumbag. Polly’s words rang in Jack’s mind. It’s her fault for believing in the guy. The desperation in his mother’s tone roused further pain within him.
“I saw him, Mother. I saw him just now. I-”
Her hands slammed the table. “You saw him?!”
“I did. I even called out to him, saying my name.”
Anne shot out of her seat and grabbed her son by the shoulders. Jack froze, realising that it was the first time in two days his mother had touched him. But instead of warmth, her hands emanated a frost like coldness.
“And? What happened?”
Jack gritted his teeth and held his mother’s hands. “He… He said he did not know who I was and shouted for me to be taken away.”
Time seemed to slow down at that very moment as Anne’s expression hovered between disbelief and rage. Her jaw could not stop twitching as she struggled to articulate her next words.
“But… I always wrote him letters. I told him about our son!”
Anne staggered back to the table and picked up one of the few scattered envelopes. “I must send him another letter. I must tell him-”
“Mother!” Jack screamed. The sight of his mother clinging on to a letter fuelled a sudden burst of rage. “He’s not coming back, Mother.”
Upon seeing his mother’s stunned expression, Jack softened his tone. “I love you, Mother. I will do anything to get you out of here. We will survive, just the two-”
Before the last words left his lips, Anne’s hand flew out in a flash, delivering a stinging slap to her son’s cheek. Before Jack could gather his wits about him, a pair of hands gripped his throat. He tried to resist but his mother seemed to be drawing an inhuman strength from her feral rage. She forced him towards the room’s dressing table, and he winced at the impact of his back crashing against its corner.
“It’s all your fault,” she hissed while tightening her grip. “I should have never have given birth to you. I should have stabbed you in the womb with a coat hanger, just like all the rest.”
At that moment, realisation dawned upon Jack that the love he thought his mother held for him had never been directed to him from the start. He had always been a tool that tied his mother to the man she loved.
“And you!” Anne shrieked. “You went to find him. He must have been disappointed to see your filthy face.”
Jack tried gasping for air but could not for his mother’s hands clung onto his throat with an unyielding grip. He tried prying them away but only succeeded in giving himself a second of reprieve of breathing.
“You ruined our family! You ruined everything!”
He felt her nails digging into his neck’s soft skin. His arms flailed wildly in a last desperate struggle. His vision started to blur.
Jack’s hands fumbled around the dressing table, and his right one felt a pair of scissors. He mustered the strength to grab it. In that instance, all he could see was the contorted rage of the woman he called his mother. It was as if a demon had possessed her. Nothing of her remained recognisable.
In that moment, she was a filthy rat.
He swung his right arm, thrusting the end of the scissors into his mother’s throat. She tried to scream but could only let out a dry gasp as she let go of Jack’s neck. Panting heavily, Jack’s hands grasped his beck as he struggled to regain his footing. Blood spurted out of the wound as his mother pulled the scissors out. Her white dress soon became dyed with her own blood as she staggered back. Within seconds, she fell to the ground on her side. The life dimmed from her eyes and soon faded into nothingness.
Realising what he had done, Jack rushed to his mother’s side. His hands shook at he placed them on her cheeks. The fury that overcame him at that moment had dissipated, just like as if he had killed a rat.
“Oh no… What have I done?”
His heart clenched as a torrent of contradicting emotions flooded it. As Jack cradled his mother’s lifeless head on his lap, he let out an anguished howl that split the still air. Outside the whorehouse, a drunken crowd of denizens yelled, egging equally drunken brawlers on, unaware that a murder had just taken place upstairs. Little did they know that a monster had just been born from a great tragedy.
This monster would, in eight years, become the most infamous serial killer in history, leaving behind a legacy only matched by the sheer brutality of his work. He would become known as JACK THE RIPPER.