Short extract from The Thief of St Martins

Sussex, England, Thursday 3rd January 1935.

Dottie sat on the hard bench and made up her mind she would be here a while. She couldn’t give way now. To keep her nerves steady and her eyes dry, she fixed her attention on the cell itself. 

First, she measured with her eyes the length and breadth. About eight feet by six or seven, she decided. More or less the size of the small staff cloakroom off the scullery passage at home. Then she looked at the way the benches were attached to the wall; presumably so no one could pick them up and throw them at anyone else, the immense, terrifying female warder for example, or another inmate.

She glanced at, then quickly away from, the other two women in the cell. She wondered vaguely if one could catch fleas from being in prison. She had been so itchy since her arrival. She scraped at a spot just behind her knee. Then, itchy again, she risked a further covert look at them from behind her hand as she scratched her temple.

The woman on the other bench was hunched up against the wall, concealed beneath a huge ragged shawl, apparently asleep. Her shoes—holed and heel-less—lay beneath the bench, one resting on top of the other. One bare grubby foot poked out from under a skirt or some other dark voluminous garment.

On the opposite end of Dottie’s bench, the other woman leered at her, open-mouthed and gap-toothed. She was a red-faced greasy-looking creature in what appeared to be just her underclothes—and none too clean either—with a blanket wrapped around her. She was clearly amused at the idea of a well-to-do young lady in jail with a couple of ‘women of ill repute’. She looked strong and aggressive. Her bare arms, poking out from under the blanket in spite of the chill, were muscular and solid. Dottie felt a knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach.

The outer door opened, very slightly thinning the darkness with a little grey light. Before the warder—a woman of almost six feet in height, and not much less in girth—had even begun to unlock the gate, she was bellowing orders at them. Dottie’s two companions took little notice; it was Dottie she’d come for.

‘Manley, get up. You’ve got a gentleman caller.’

The red-faced woman along Dottie’s bench laughed.

The ‘sleeping’ woman called out, ‘And not for the first time, neither!’ then cackled at her own wit. So not asleep after all. The cackling gave way to a paroxysm of coughing and hacking that made Dottie feel ill.

Dottie approached the bars with caution, then seeing they were all laughing at her timidity, she straightened her back and lifted her chin.

‘It’s Manderson, thank you very much. Not Manley.’

But they only laughed harder. Dottie bit her lip. She would not cry. She wouldn’t give any of them the satisfaction.

The warder pinioned her by the arm and chivvied her out into the draughty corridor, pausing to handcuff her. The corridor was almost as dark as the cell, and Dottie was slow to see where she was to go or understand what the warder wanted her to do. As a result, she got slapped twice by the warder, who clearly believed in the adage that actions spoke louder than words.

A door on the right was thrown open, and Dottie was thrust, blinking, into a room brightly lit by an electric light hanging low over the table. A figure across the room rose, but with the light in her eyes it was half a minute before she found the chair and sat down. Then she looked across the table into the eyes of Inspector Hardy.

It was so unexpected. It broke her composure entirely. The tears ran down her face, and with no handkerchief to check them, the prison uniform rapidly became spotted with damp patches.

Hardy was aware of a rage greater than anything he’d ever felt in his life. He glared at the warder.

‘Get those handcuffs off her at once! Then get out. This is a private interview.’

The warder threw the keys onto the table and giving him a filthy look, banged out of the room.

He came around the table to unlock the cuffs. It concerned him to see bruises on Dottie’s wrists, and it made him feel ten times worse when she said very quietly, ‘Oh no, those aren’t from just now, those are from yesterday when they first brought me in.’

He removed the handcuffs and threw them down on the table with a bang. He had to do that, or he would have taken each wrist in his hand, stroked each bruise then kissed it. He forced himself to get his temper and his emotions under control. The loud noise of the handcuffs falling onto the table helped, as did the swift action of it, though not by much. He took a deep breath, resumed his seat, and, not knowing what else to do, began to shuffle his papers.

When he glanced up, her lovely hazel eyes, with the dark smudges beneath then, were resting on his face. She’d stopped crying but tears streaked her cheeks. He was dismayed by how pale and fragile she looked. He looked down at his papers again, then cleared his throat.

‘So, it seems you’re being charged with murder.’

‘Yes,’ said Dottie Manderson. She couldn’t think of anything else to add.






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