(published 12th February 2018)
Fog hung heavy in the alley that housed Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop. It licked the wet cobbled path, leaving a dull glow around the dimly lit lamps that perched atop the stone. Little of Salter Alley was visible to the naked eye. A blessing maybe, to those who wandered past.
There too, was a definite thickness in the air, a dewy sort of damp. It clung to the bricks and pawed at the assortment of stores that ran parallel to one another. Stores that were distinct in their goods, but alike in their nature. Decrepit, unwanted, flogging items of little worth.
Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop was different. Not in its manner of course. At first glance, it was as unseemly as the rest. But Mr. Fenway had business, and lots of it. Making money, it seemed, was the cure for any December ailment. Yet due to the ever-oppressive climate, Mr. Fenway’s goods remained elevated at the shop front, hooked up and high, stock still. Where, in the warmer months, baskets slumped at street level, brimming with various parts to be slung back into the shop for wrapping, in the colder air, it was avoided, lest the frost claw up and eat each item whole. It was only the hanging items, and the faded white sign, that gave the shop any sort of colour, or indeed life.
The foundations that kept Mr. Fenway’s steady were as black as coal, so dark in fact, that it was hard to tell where one brick ended and another began. Even the window, should it seldom exist, let out little light other than a feint yellow glow, kept solely to one corner, the left, which if the glass was given a clean, would reveal a small flickering candle. Just enough to let any customer know that Mr. Fenway was inside, and the store was open.
The window too, was partially covered by the goods hanging from the metal hooks, which ran in two lines, one upper, one lower, along two metal bars that did the very same across the entire front of the relatively modest sized building. Each hook held in its grip various items. Some larger than others.
Usually legs of several sizes, some from thigh to foot, others from kneecap to ankle, were placed on the lower metal bar. The smaller items, such as hands, feet, and arms, were clipped to the top. Torso’s, should Mr. Fenway have any in stock, joined the legs, but were always pushed to either end, framing the store like a Renaissance sculpture, minus any proclivity for display or talent. The stone path that lay underneath each hook was tinged in crimson.
The wooden door clicked shut, after a small shove from Paloma Grey’s gloved hand. Above the door was a slanted shelf, where jars of what appeared to be eyes of weakening colour, stared back into Miss. Grey’s, jealous no doubt of their tired but still lifelike vigour. Some said Miss. Grey had a curse upon her, such was the variation in her eye colour; one greyish, heading into blue, the other a sea green.
The ding of the rusted bell had yet to rouse Mr. Fenway from the backroom, although it was clear he was there, the sound of metal grinding gave him away. In the absence of a timely response, Miss Grey began to look around, and away from the jars of beady gazes.
The candle wick that sat in the left corner of the shop window was sliding to a small ember, wax dripping down the wooden bench which it was stuck on, slithering towards an already quite large mound of old dried paraffin.
The shop was adorned with similar looking candles, dotted around in haphazard fashion, to light different corners and varying items on display. Only one gas lamp hung from the ceiling, suspended on a curved iron bar. It lit the shop well enough during the late Autumn months and early into Spring, but in Winter Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop remained bathed in an uneasy dark ink. And each jar, tin, hook and white plate, home to a swathe of pieces and parts, appeared all the more macabre for it.
Along the front wooden bench was where the innards, as they were known, were displayed. Lungs of varying shades, hearts of varying sizes, and the odd intestine, both small and large, sat stacked, ready for selection. In the height of summer, ice would usually bed down each piece. Such was the frigid temperature gifted to Mr. Fenway’s by the crisp Winter nights, that it simply wasn’t needed.
An array of hands and feet sat along the back wall behind the counter, some with nails still lacquered, others bruised, mottled green and brown in places. Evidence of the wear and tear of everyday life. Legs, along with arms, torsos, and the occasional neck, were perched directly opposite, mounted and balanced, sticking together in places, and dripping viscous fluids, blood or a sweet yellow substance, onto the stone below. Tins and jars of kidneys and teeth, jaw bones and individual fingers, were left wherever they could be suitably put, each swimming in a cloudy forming liquid, quite thick, should one wish to stick in a thumb. The smell of methanol and metal seeped through the air.
The backroom was Mr. Fenway’s private business, an area where no customer was allowed to tread. Thankfully, it was what lay on the front bench that Paloma Grey required. A lung, just the one, small enough for a young child, was her point of purchase. A job at Mr. Thickett’s factory had given Paloma the bare means to save enough. A seamstress on a pittance of a pay packet, 7 shillings a day, it was only thanks to the grace of God, or perhaps the grace of questionable luck, that she lived in a dwelling which did not require great volumes of rent money. The sacrifice was sharing one room with three others, including her son Finley, and a bathroom with fifteen more.
Such was the quiet nature of Miss. Grey to avoid complaint at all costs, she accepted what came her way, overcrowded housing or not, with a curt but thankful nod.
Yet the grace of God, or lack thereof, was what brought her to Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop. Finley, in his infancy, had gotten sick. Consumption most likely, tuberculosis to be sure. He’d suffered bouts of each in fits and starts, but into his fifth year of life, both took a steady hold. A new lung was required to get him breathing right, doctor’s orders, to which Miss Grey followed to the letter.
However, lungs, as one might well know, came at a price. There were no handouts, and Mr. Fenway, although mild mannered, would never allow a concession to suspend itself at his door. Yet, he did strike up deals, bulk orders, ones too, which had benefited Miss. Grey in the past.
Before Mr. Thickett took over the factory with a firm hand, the Kane Brothers had owned the company. In their tenure they replaced arms, hands, fingers and even eyes, for staff whose bones were run down and muscles ready to snap. Each was free of charge; the only fee was working two extra days at the end of the month. No need to shell out for the ‘stitching service’, provided by various Haviland Hospitals and Infirmaries across the city. The brothers paid for it all. And even when lungs needed to be replaced, or hearts set a new, they did so with a fair kindness, especially when surgery such as this required the body to be opened, and more money to be spent.
But that was the Kane Brothers way, not Mr. Thickett’s. When Paloma had needed a new arm, her original too worn down to carry out efficient factory work, George Kane, the older of the two, had paid for the lot. But when Paloma required three new fingers; index, middle and pinkie, a mere five months ago, Mr. Thickett paid for none. As he so briskly stated, “it is your hand Miss. Grey, and by your hand should you pay”. Reason, and Mr. Thickett, as everyone at the factory knew, were not synonymous.
A clatter spooked Paloma out of her surveying, eyes and body whipping from the collection of musty lungs to the archway where Mr. Fenway had finally appeared. A stout man in stature, and a man of principles should anyone ask, Mr. Fenway was what one would expect of a body butcher. No facial hair, round pig like face, red splotched arms, grubby fingernails. He was not unwashed mind, should anyone think otherwise. He wore a shirt and tie each day, the cuffs stained brown, and his apron, which was once a pristine white, had taken on a faded life of its own thanks to being churned in river water almost daily.
“Miss, how may I help?”
He looked at her directly, but with little regard. Customers were customers, each and all alike. And despite her faded but pretty pinned up auburn hair, her sad but pretty oval face, and tatty but pretty dress and coat, Mr. Fenway was not attentive. Just another body. Plenty of those in the back room.
“I’m wanting a lung,” Paloma said. “…a child’s”, she added, her finger pointing vaguely in the air.
Mr. Fenway was not one to mince words.
“There’s none in the shop Miss. It’ll have to be put to order.”
Putting it to order meant waiting for either a donation, a delivery, or putting the word out. No guarantee of when it would arrive, let alone if it ever would.
“You sure Sir? Maybe in this here pile?” Paloma queried, plucking her finger from the air and down to the tray housing the lungs. “It’s an emergency really.”
But only adult’s lungs lay in the pile. There was little to be done. All Mr. Fenway could promise was that he would try to locate one, and Miss. Grey, should she so wish, must return in a week’s time, not any sooner, to see if one had arrived. In a fit of despair, she offered to pay, or at least set a down payment on the lung. Her purse was placed on the counter. Perhaps it was to mark the lung as her own, or to show Mr. Fenway that she was serious, and would hand over the three-guinea needed to secure a purchase. But a swift apology was voiced. Mr. Fenway did not take payment for anything he had not sold right there and then, or could not ensure he would supply. He was, after all, a man of principles. Paloma left in an instant.
It was a mere three days into the week-long wait when Paloma Grey found herself wondering whether the questionable lack of luck parading itself on her life was coming to a head.
In the first instance, Finley had gotten worse, deteriorating at a sublime rate. Gurgling cough and biting temperature thrown into a noxious mix. As such, the necessity for a new lung was “now paramount, Miss. Grey”, if he should make it to the end of Winter. The second swirl of shoddy luck came directly at the hands of Mr. Thickett’s factory. If ever a building housed the propensity to ruin one’s life, then his was it.
The weather had worsened since Paloma’s trip to Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop. And whilst she had visited him on a dreary Monday, the Wednesday had proved lifeless in all forms of warmth, prospect and positivity. A blanket of suffocating cold had set itself about the city, turning the factory into a sea of forlorn faces and blue lips. Even the walls, which were thick stone, had begun to frost over, glistening patterns forming in unwanted areas.
The frost had yet to reach Miss. Grey’s nimble fingers. Sat in the fourth of seven wooden rows, each decorated with a metal sprung contraption used for spinning various items, both for the body and for the home, Paloma’s hand was whirring. An efficient worker, thanks to her recently replaced appendages. But where the frost had kept itself a safe distance from her fingers, it had not the same respect for her left arm. The problem with attaching new limbs was that they didn’t match.
Before Mr. Thickett had taken over, when parts were simply supplied and all you had to do was be there to see them placed upon you, there was little chance to be picky. Expiration dates, therefore, were never in sync. And where deft fingers spun away, the left arm attached did not, labouring in its seemingly old age. It ached, and grew stiff as the morning lumbered on. By mid-afternoon, it began to give out.
The clock slid past two when Paloma looked up and away. Only for a moment. Mr. Thickett had entered the factory floor. Due to the size of the room, he appeared imposing from every angle. He was not a large man, not in any sense of the word. But thanks to the relatively small layout, cramped as it was, he filled every corner. Maybe it was his demeanour, ornery and obstinate, that made him so intimidating. Less respected, more feared. He caught Paloma’s eye just as her left arm met the sharp needle of the spinning machine.
The wail that went up could be neither replicated by words or indeed in person. A seven-inch point of acute metal puncturing the skin of an arm several times in quick succession. Aching arm or not, it’s dullness did nothing to numb the pain.
Paloma was dragged from the contraption, arm soaked from elbow to fingertip in the most vivid red. It dripped about the stone floor, and worked its way into the skirts of Miss. Grey’s outfit. She was rushed to the nearest office, and laid out across the stone, unconscious thanks to shock.
It took well over an hour to rouse her. When she awoke, the arm, and hand, was gone. Stiches ripped and plastered, the smell of ethanol seeping into the cloth that covered her shoulder. She’d been minus a limb before, but never in such circumstances.
Mrs. Reed, the supervisor, was flitting about her, creating a commotion witnessed only from the bare corner of Paloma’s cracked eye. She blinked once and Mrs. Reed halted. “What a silly thing you are”, was all Paloma heard before the footsteps that belonged to only one man alone, rode into the room.
Mr. Fenway did not mince his words out of integrity. Mr. Thickett did not mince his words for quite contrasting reasons. He was callous, and did little to hide it. Snarling teeth to be found if he ever dared smile. “That limb needs replacing before the end of the week, Miss. Grey. You’ll be docked pay for each day you’re absent, starting now. See to it that it gets sorted swiftly, or I shall have to step in”.
He left as quick as he came, slamming the wooden panelled door as he went. No chance of a reply. There was little use too. On the one hand, he’d never listen. Mr. Thickett did not care for prolonged conversation. On the other, should Paloma fail to locate a new left arm, as Mr. Thickett stated, he would “step in”. If she refused, or mentioned Finley, he’d see to it that Miss. Grey would never work again, in his factory or another. Finley would be struck down from every school, home and establishment, from current youth until death. And any references should she wish to make claim to, would be burnt in the nearest fire.
A sob hung heavy in her throat at the thought. She shut her eyes and yearned for the severed arm to rise up, fingers throat bound.
The following Monday, Paloma returned to Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop. It was the date he had told her a week earlier.
The alley was still bathed in its lurid light, a permanent fixture as the shortest day approached. Permanence, it appeared, hung heavy around Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop. Nothing had changed in the week since. Body parts still lined the front of the store, except the right-side torso. A fixture last Monday, it was absent today. The only alteration.
The deadening candle that sat in the window was flickering, albeit less radiant than before. And even Mr. Fenway, as he did the previous Monday, failed to respond to Paloma’s presence as she entered. Yet the stack of arms, male by the cut of them, slightly more muscular and unkempt, was her only concern.
She slid one from the shelf, careful to keep the others from following suit and dropping on the floor. Paloma held it up to her still limbless left side and measured for size. It would do. Strong, with a sizable hand. A decent grip, should she need it. Twisting and checking it a final time, she walked over to the counter, and placed it with a thud.
“I’ll be there in one moment”, called Mr. Fenway.
Paloma avoided the plates of lungs next to her. They hadn’t changed since last week. Mr. Fenway appeared, smearing deep crimson onto his faded apron.
“Ah, Miss. Grey. The lung you were wanting is here, if you would still like to purchase. I’ve kept it out back”, he pointed, unnecessarily.
“No? You sure Miss?”
“Quite. Just the arm.”
Mr. Fenway knew of situations such as this, although Paloma daren’t reveal a word. Mr. Thickett was a known figure. Notorious in method and manipulation.
“Well, alright. But I’ll keep it on hold for you. Always good to have spares in the shop.”
She swallowed back a sob, relief at his unexpected kindness.
“Thank you, Sir. I’ll return for it, I promise.”
Mr. Fenway plucked the item off the counter and turned to the wrapping station. He didn’t ask why. It needn’t require explanation.
He rolled out the wax paper used for wrapping, curled the arm up, before tucking the ends of the paper in, folding each carefully. Tape, or other sticky sealing substances, were never used, and only the tight pull and a loop of string held the package together.
It cost just shy of three guineas. All the money Paloma had saved for Finley, gone in a click of a register, minus a few pennies or two. She held the arm close as Mr. Fenway handed it over, pressed tight against her upper body, and made her way to Haviland Infirmary West Street, where it would be attached later on in the day.
By Tuesday morning, Miss. Grey was back to work, new limb attached, taking precarious steps in snow that had turned compact during the night. Rarely did it snow this far South, and if and when it did, it kept the city oddly still, frozen and biting. It had fallen all night, in heavy clumps, thick and wide enough to fill the palm of a hand. The factory was akin to a white cathedral, radiant, unnervingly so, in the early light.
Paloma was ahead of time. Working hours didn’t start until 8, yet it was barely past 7am. But she knew Mr. Thickett would be in already, soaking up the only heat source in the factory via a specially fabricated fire in his office.
She made her way past the workers entrance, and took the side door that led to the collection of offices, sweeping round the one she’d been dragged into the previous week. Mr. Thickett’s was the last. Looming large and uninviting. Whilst the others faced one another, his was built purposefully away from the rest, requiring those who wished to visit a lengthy walk down a dingy narrow corridor. It had been a late addition to the factory. The Kane Brothers had kept their quarters elsewhere, but Mr. Thickett had a penchant for the morbid, and displayed it at every opportunity, building regulations included.
There was no lamp to be found on the way down, and Paloma had to rely on the natural luminescence of the waking sun, sky cleared after the night of snow fall. It did little more than cast the red brick walls in a scummy glow, but with only one door to find, and one way to get to it, light was rarely required. You could trace it without eyes. A small few had before.
She knocked once as she reached the door. The glass rattled where she’d tapped it, the letters H.B.T cemented in gold dead in centre. There was no verbal reply, but Paloma heard the scrape of a chair. Mr. Thickett jammed open the door. It stuck thanks to a slightly slanted frame. He swept a gaze over her.
“I’ve come to apologise, Sir.”
“Right. Come in.”
There were two chairs in the office. One wooden, beside the fire, undoubtedly the one in which Mr. Thickett had been perched. Another, leather, thick and robust, sat behind his desk, where a letter opener and ink pot remained, nothing more. Neither chairs were offered. Paloma stood and Mr. Thickett returned to the one beside the warmth, pockets rattling as he sat.
Miss. Grey tumbled out in nervousness.
“I want to apologise for my foolishness, Sir. I should have kept my eyes on my work, I fear. It’s my own fault, I’m sure of it. If only I’d concentrated more. Oh, it won’t happen again, of course, I should be more care…” Mr. Thickett did not reply. But it was clear he wished her quiet.
“… I’ve a new arm too. Ready to work again. Would you like to see?”
Mr. Thickett, in his penchant for the morbid, also had a penchant for inspecting the limbs of his staff, especially ones that had been replaced under his tenure, to assess whether they were a suitable fit. Or not. Able to carry a day’s work without complaint. He didn’t stand, but held out his palm, and beckoned Miss. Grey forward.
A tight grip, he pulled on the left limb, stitches just about holding.
“Slightly loose, Miss?”
“Only had the surgery yesterday Sir, might be why.”
He examined further.
He slid the cuff of her dress sleeve up her arm slowly, twisting and turning the limb, crooked nails scratching ever so slightly. Pressing the pads of his fingers into the dip where hand met wrist, and up where forearm met the upper, he held still, then squeezed the bicep.
He’d barely got the words, “a man’s arm” out, before splayed strong fingers lunged for his throat.
There was little time to think before Mr. Thickett’s pulse began hammering wildly under Miss. Grey’s thumb. Nothing like the shock of unexpected asphyxiation to set the heart going. She’d never felt a thrum quite as quick before, and never felt one slow quite as quick either. Grasping with both hands, he aimed to unclasp the other as it clutched in tighter. Action to little avail. Some things are inevitable. Death, in this case, was it.
Revenge was not Miss. Grey’s way. Not unless it was deserving. Saliva started to drip from the corner of Mr. Thickett’s lip, slipping out of his mouth and dribbling into his stiff collar. He released the grip on her hand, succumbing, pale faced and eyes wide. A limb as robust as this, it didn’t take long. He slumped back into the chair, and then collapsed onto the chilled floor.
Paloma followed him down, fingers still about his throat. She squeezed a final time, pulled up her right leg, set her foot on his chest, and heaved back, ripping the left limb from her body, hand still attached to Mr. Thickett’s frame. The loose stiches purposeful. She tied her sleeve, double knot, high up about her shoulder, and curled away from the corpse.
In the trip from chair to floor, the money that lay in Mr. Thickett’s pocket had poured out onto the stone below. A couple of guinea’s worth, maybe more. He kept it on himself for no other reason than to posture. Diminish those around him under a now lifeless thumb.
Miss. Grey scraped it up, placed it the velvet bag Mr. Thickett always tucked it in, and shoved it deep inside her dress, avoiding contact with any part of her former employer.
She stood, resolute, though shaking, most likely from the trauma of unadulterated vindication via the murder of another, and didn’t bother to glance back as she left, door jamming on its close.
“Back again Miss. Grey? And so soon?”
Mr. Fenway’s Body Shop had yet to escape the relentless punishment of Winter, shop as numb inside as it was out. The glass jars of eyes had started to ice over, lifeless and frozen. The stench of methanol choking.
“Yes Sir. Here for that lung. If you still have it”, Paloma avoid his scrutiny. “And a new arm too, maybe one with more finesse this time.”
The velvet bag was positioned on the counter. Pushed, right index finger forward. Mr. Fenway nodded and returned to the backroom.
A young writer from North Yorkshire, Emily has recently discovered that she actually likes creative writing, despite everything she may have previously said. Quite likely to be found in a local cafe drinking four cups of tea and procrastinating about her work, (someone feed her please), she can also be found on Twitter @emily__harrison. She apologises in advance for her tweets.