A Commonplace Killing
That neglected triangle where the Camden, Holloway and Caledonian Roads intersect, long oppressed by soot and the continuous rumble of the railway, its bounds set by the gloomy bulk of the women’s prison and the desolation of the empty Livestock Market, had been done for long before the Hitler War blasted every last vestige of respectability to smithereens. From the tops of buses you could see how, in other parts of town, the bomb-sites had been transformed by clumps of fireweed, willow-herb and ragwort; but in Holloway only fireplaces and doorframes, like overturned tombstones, protruded from rubble patches scattered with the broken bones of chimney pots. Within a few minutes’ walk, you might find yourself passing Pentonville on hanging day, or the Crippen murder house; but for the most part Holloway languished in obscurity: a meagre landscape of peeling stucco and thwarted ambition unrolling in street after nondescript street of villas built in more aspirant times and gradually declined into bed-sitting rooms inhabited by prostitutes, Irish navvies, coloureds, army deserters. And then came the V-weapons, almost putting the whole lot out of its misery.
Most of that particular terrace was just about clinging on; which is to say that although a good portion of it was awaiting demolition, there was at that time only one house-sized space,
marked off by a piece of rusting corrugated iron that guarded access to a bare stretch of emptiness, sparing passers-by one of those startling glimpses of the horizon, so unsettling to Londoners which, since the War, had become a common hazard of going out. We had come to refer to these vacant spaces as “bomb-sites”; this one, like all the others, was utterly devoid of life, history and anything else of value, with the exception of one unremarkable London plane. This tree was now all that stood between the street and the precipitous gully of the London and North Eastern Railway, since the Jerries, in aiming for the railway, had obliterated instead a cramped row of soot-blackened houses which had overlooked the track for the best part of a century. The bomb-site was now entirely at the mercy of regular wet suffusions of acridity; and every time a train shrieked along the tracks to and from King's Cross, the shattered houses on either side of it shuddered, silently relinquishing fragments of masonry.
A gang of kiddies spotted the leg sticking out from behind the plane tree. Through the smut-laden steamy shimmer, the heat of a midsummer morning, there was a woman’s leg, stockinged and dressed in a high-heeled shoe, extending from a just-glimpsed skirt hem. The kiddies assumed it belonged to a shop-window dummy, dumped along with the pram skeleton, the chipped and overturned lavatory, the rubber johnnies and the lipstick-stained cigarette ends. They were going to throw stones at it when they realised that the leg belonged to the body of a woman. You could see nearly all of her chest. Her wide-open eyes stared past the plane tree leaves to the sky beyond. Her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth, swollen like a lump of raw liver. The blue and red stripes around her neck told at a glance how life had been wrung out of her by a pair of human hands.
Nobody–not even the kiddies–was all that surprised to find
her there. These things happened: more and more these days. Holloway was a dump, peace not yet a way of life, and the war had laid waste to everything, leaving common decencies bereft and clinging on for dear life, shrapnel-pocked, shuddering in the aftermath of the great prolonged shriek as they let go of the old certainties.