by Martyn Prince
London just isn’t how I remember it. I know I have never been away, not once, but the changes seem to have happened all of a sudden, without warning. It’s as if I have slept all these years. Perhaps I have? To be honest, I’m not really sure what year it is.
Several of the buildings I knew have been knocked down now, and all but one of the shops on that little parade has changed hands. I remember being able to buy a very good cigar from the tobacconists on the corner, down where Charlie’s apple stall used to be, but now it has been turned into some kind of ghastly cafeteria. And there was the flower shop too, near that old bookshop you used to visit. That’s where I would buy your roses. I can’t quite remember what kind they were, but I do remember the colour: red, always red. And I would buy no fewer than nineteen — the age at which we married. You adored roses.
But that was before things went wrong, of course — in the early days of our marriage, those happy days before someone else bought you flowers. Do you remember the roses, Justine? Do you remember how often I bought them for you, how often they would grace your table? I wish I could see you again, just once, and maybe I could buy you some more.
I am so sorry about what happened. I didn’t mean to do it. I was wrong, utterly. I desperately want to see you again. I can’t stand to be alone here anymore. Everything has changed and I’m so very lonely now.
London just isn’t how I remember it.
Yours as always,
Of course London isn’t how you remember it. You speak of it with a fondness grown soft over the years. The time of which you speak, the shops, the people — all that was more than a hundred years ago. Things were so very different back then. But I sympathise with your feelings, Jack. It’s just the same for me, though with my extra freedom I tend to stay away from the city as much as possible. If only you could find some way to leave?
Surely you must have noticed how things changed over the years? Perhaps you should try going back to the house? I know the memories are bad, and there are bound to be new people living there (always a shock), but it might help you to cope. Maybe you should even try the other place? I know it may be even worse, and that the memories could be so harsh there, but it still might help.
And as for the roses — yes, I do remember them. Those red blooms brought much joy into our house. And I was grateful to you, more than you could ever know. What I did was stupid and foolish, and I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking back then; it meant nothing; it was just silly infatuation. But you took it so seriously, and that’s when things went bad. Then you punished me like the others. You made me experience the powerlessness, the violation, the fear of death, and then death itself. And then life punished me when it was over.
Now we are the same, linked in death. I can rest no more peacefully than you, imprisoned in twilight for as long as you still linger, the memories of my fear, the borrowed memories of all the others, staying with me always. Perhaps they are forever.
But I do not think it would be a good idea for us to see each other again. Too much time has passed now and there would be no common ground between us. Everything we ever knew, as a couple and on our own, is gone. Every place we ever went has changed. And the people we knew — they’re gone too, and not one of them went the same way as us.
I am sorry, truly, but there would be no point in us ever meeting again.
I am so lonely here without you. I don’t want to stay in London anymore. There’s nowhere left for me to go now, no one for me to talk to. Couldn’t you at least find it in your heart to come and see me just once? Won’t you, if only for a few moments, just talk to me? I promise not to mention what happened.
I know that parts of London are painful for you because of what I did — you couldn’t even write them down in your letter — but I promise you we won’t go anywhere near them. They are just as painful for me now.
If you could only try and understand why I did it then perhaps you wouldn’t hate me so much or be so loathed to come back. I didn’t love the other women, I hated them. I hated them rather than hating you, and I did those hideous things for the same reason. If I could have carried on without you finding out then everything would have been fine. But you did find out, and you wouldn’t understand. That’s when it went wrong, when I finally did the same to you. I am so very sorry.
I suffered when you were gone; I was nothing without you. And I knew it would only be a matter of time before someone found out what I had been doing, what I had done to you. So I had to disappear. I gave up everything. I faded away into the streets and became one of the crowd.
No one ever knew who I was, so no one ever caught me. But I suppose they didn’t need to. It was the streets that killed me in the end. I rotted there, alone with my memories, with the shadows of my guilt. I rotted there with the rest of the scum. But it was without their peace, without anyone to care for me through the years of sadness. There was no peace for me then, nor is there now. No peace, not even in death. I am trapped in hell.
Please, Justine, come and see me — just for a while. Talk to me. I’m lonely.
Yours in hope,
You sound so sad in your letters. What kind of torment must you be suffering? It all seems so long ago, so distant, that I wonder if you really are a prisoner of the past as you describe. Surely, by now, there must be some forgiveness for you? And if there is, and you can find a resting place elsewhere as I have done, then perhaps I too may find some additional comfort. If I am to walk the Earth for as long as your spirit still remains, then perhaps I might be allowed to rest easy on some silent shore, where the living do not remind me of all I was and all I no longer am.
So I shall come and see you. I won’t stay long — just a few days — but I shall come and we shall talk. We shall take a walk through the streets of Whitechapel and then take a turn along the river. We shall see if, at last, you have been forgiven and whether we both may find some peace.
I will arrive by train within one day of you receiving this letter (they are so fast nowadays that I can scarcely believe it). I will arrive mid afternoon at Fenchurch Street where I will expect you to meet me.
I was so glad to hear that you were coming. My heart, lonely as it had become, leapt with joy when I thought of meeting you at the station. I was so happy, so glad that we would at last be together.
So why didn’t you come? What happened after sending me your letter that could have made you change your mind? I waited at the station for hours. I ran to each train that pulled in, eagerly following every face that emerged. But there was nothing. I paced up and down the platforms, wondering if you were lost, and ready to offer you my arm as I had done before. But you weren’t there. You weren’t there!
Where are you, Justine? Please, for God’s sake, for the sake of a God that has imprisoned us both, where are you?!
I’m sorry, much sorrier than you could possibly imagine. The truth is, I was there. I hid in the shadows and the half-light and watched as you searched amid the crowds. But I could not speak to you.
You see, I did not arrive at Fenchurch Street as I thought. My train — I was never very good at this sort of thing — was bound for St Pancras. So, when I got there, I decided to take a long walk across town to meet you. And it was during my walk that I changed my mind.
I think I must have passed a dozen bookshops on my journey and, remembering my passion for literature, I decided to look and see what the world was reading nowadays. And I was shocked at the amount of frightening horror that was displayed before me. Shelves upon shelves of stories designed to curdle the blood, to disgust and dismay. There were pictures on covers that made me feel ill. But that wasn’t the worst of it. No, my biggest shock came when I read that some of these stories were based on fact, that not all of the horror had been designed to frighten people but to tell the truth about what real people had done.
And then I saw you, Jack. Not your face, nor your clothes … but what you were.
Oh Jack, if only you could know what you have done, what legacy you have left. If only you could realise the extent of your horror and the kingdom it has inspired. The world is a different place because of you, and that is why it will not let you go.
And so I came to realise that you truly are a prisoner of this city, a city which you helped to create, one which keeps your memory alive, and one that will not let you leave. And I am a prisoner too, not so confined nor so lonely perhaps, but a prisoner nonetheless. I am to walk the earth because of what I did to you and, however I choose to think of it, because of what I helped you become.
I’m sorry, Jack. I pity you.
Illustration – A Gift for Jack – reproduced with the kind permission of the artist, Martyn Prince.
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