Evil in my Midst
Into all this perpetual grey and gloom a ray of light did shine. A light in the shape of my auntie. Beloved, wonderful, warm, funny, pretty auntie Audrey. Mum’s sister would come and visit any time she possibly could. Her ring on the doorbell would have us tearing down the stairs in a race to get there before she opened the door, my parents having thrown down the key into the street. We would meet in the hall and fall into her arms, kissing and cuddling, all the while eyeing her heavy bag.
Joyfully, she never came empty-handed, always managing, even under the restraints of rationing, to produce two ounces of sweets, a packet of hair slides, magic colouring pictures (just dip your paintbrush in water and apply to the image – hey presto everything turns magically to mauve!) some crayons or plasticine. We totally adored her and she in return loved us with her whole heart. She was pure joy and spoiled us as much as was humanly possible.
I was a particularly stunning child. It was universally agreed! My mother would often say that I could bring traffic to a halt in Trafalgar Square. True a taxi driver, pulling up at some lights, had wound down his window and called out what a doll! but really, I don’t remember any more than that. But I did stop people in their tracks on the Portobello Road. They would stare incredulously. After all, dressed in my white buckskin furs with a Cossack hat perched atop of my blonde, tumbling curls I did warrant a second glance, I suppose. Hidden there in amongst the turnips and leeks I must have looked like I had beamed down from planet ‘Glob’.
So it was with that auntie Audrey was taking me to her office to ‘show me off’ to her incredulous work colleagues. With this in mind, she took extra care, one morning, with my apparel. Of course, my white buckskin fur coat, Cossack hat, muff and boots came out for another airing, even though, perhaps the weather didn’t call for such an ensemble. My hair had been tightly curled the night before in Woolworth Dinkie curlers, advertised as ‘the curler you can sleep in’ and among every woman’s hair accoutrements. I had slept in them as suggested on the packet; all night long, in fact, for the preparation of the morrow. The result was outstanding, to say the least. A mop full of tight corkscrews! Oh, my goodness I could hardly take my eyes off of them. At this memory, I must take a moment to give deeper insight into the “Dinkie” curler. They were so amazing, easy to use and cheap. Quite apart from anything else, they gave the user a curl which lasted and lasted; nothing, short of being caught in a thunderous downpour, could prevent their passage of beauty. Trust me here ladies when I say, forget your hairdryers, cast aside the curling irons, donate your Dyson to the desperate, the curl wand to charity; throw the hot airbrush, the clips, the Velcro rollers, in the bin. Cancel your salon appointments and save yourself a pile of cash. You see, quite simply, if you washed your hair on a Friday night, rolled it up in these Dinkie curlers and slept in them overnight, the whole coiffeur paraphernalia of the week to come would be banished. Forgotten for the rest of the week, your brushes and combs would be left to sulk in the drawer. A rake through with open fingers was all that was required with Dinkie curlers. So tight were the curls that they remained stock still on the head. However, that would be on Saturday and Sunday only. By Monday and Tuesday, the locks would have loosened slightly to a sort of ‘jumbo’ version of the above mentioned. Wednesday would be delicious waves and, by Friday, a cascade of soft, relaxed tendrils. Oh, they were wonderful. If only one could purchase them today and enjoy the thrill of a ‘different’ style every day, going from so tight your hair looked like a short-curled bob to long, romantic waves, and all in the course of the week.
With my hair bursting out of my scalp, ringlets left, right and centre and a tiny whisper of rouge (surreptitiously applied by auntie) I resembled a sort of startled doll in a box and was more than ready to be presented at court. Seeing auntie so very happy added to my confidence and we set off to her office with a definite spring in our step.
The reaction on entering The Post Office Savings Bank did not disappoint. Thank goodness for it, as auntie had a lot at stake. She had, so many times, regaled her long-suffering workmates with the beauty of her little Czech niece and her remarkable likeness to Shirley Temple, an American child star of the time. She had shown endless photos of me, given chapter and verse on my every development… what if she had set herself up for a fall? What if I fell short of the hyped expectations? Maybe she had overdone it, just a bit? On that particular day, my paleness had caused consternation. Here I take a moment to explain that is in no way my self homage, or vanity driven: like many a beautiful child before or since, adolescence sorted that out once and for good, rendering me tall skinny, spotty and mousy… quite unremarkable. However, at that moment in time, it was the truth and I was exceptional.
A united noise of gleeful adulation rose into the air. Every girl seemed to jump up, as in a Mexican wave, letting out cries of ooohs and ahhhs; I was immediately surrounded in a clamour of hugging and kissing. They were wonderfully kind to me and said I was lovelier than they thought possible. Many little gifts had been bought and even some sweets. I was in heaven once again, lapping up the atmosphere.
But, in the middle of this, a sort of long shadow cast its ugly darkness and it felt like there was a parting of biblical waves. There was a sudden hush. From behind, I felt the presence of someone. Turning around, a man with thick black glasses, a high forehead and balding pate towered above me. He had in his hands a Brownie box camera and, bending down, asked me if I would like my photograph taken. This was quite understandable to me and I was about to give him my sweetest smile when auntie yanked me aside saying it was about time we left. Apparently, my moment in the limelight was over!
The very next weekend, when walking through the Portobello market, there was a tap on a window. I heard auntie sigh and let out a long ‘Oh no’ between gritted teeth. Too late. Before we could dodge behind a fruit and veg stall, the person behind the tapping window was out on the pavement. It was the same bespectacled man from auntie Audrey’s office, and he was inviting us to join him for a cup of tea in the shabby little cafe where he had spied us from his seat. It would have been an outright snub to say no to his smiling request and he was after all a work colleague of long acquaintance. We did go in although I knew auntie Audrey didn’t want to. I remember him pulling me on to his lap and unbuttoning my coat and removing my hat. He then poured some tea from his cup into a saucer and raising it to my lips bade me drink it in baby fashion. I did not want to by any means but being a child, I complied and got a little squeeze in acknowledgement.
He invited us back to his home saying he would like to take some proper photos of me and at the same time meet his wife. He knew alright that the thought of photographing me would appeal to my auntie, but an inner sense caused her to decline and she made our exit as quickly as she could. “What’s his name?” I asked in Czech. She knew what I had said and replied, “Oh it’s just that man from the office, Mr Christie.”
And so it was. I had recognised him already by his impossibly high forehead and heavy spectacles. That man from the office was none other than John Reginald Christie the prolific murderer of the time. A devious and brutal murderer. A murderer who would sell his victims clothes to an unsuspecting Mr Kasmir in the second-hand clothing shop beneath our flat. I was to see John Reginald Christie several times after that, usually carrying a big bag [presumably full of another victim’s clothing] on his way to Kasmir’s place; or, even more startlingly, in the back sewing room of the premises having a cup of tea and exchanging pleasantries. On witnessing this, animal instinct made me dodge back and run upstairs. Although nobody knew anything then of his ghastly activities, I was, nevertheless, properly scared of him and worried that he would have, by now, worked out that I lived here and that he would creep up one night to take those promised photos of me. Looking back, I think it was my leggy auntie he really had his eye on; I was just the lure. On mentioning my fears to her and adding that I had actually seen her bespectacled work colleague in the back of the Kasmirs’ shop she immediately warned my parents.
“Don’t let the girls play downstairs,” she cautioned “That horrid Mr Christie goes to Mr Kasmir to buy his suits, I think. He’s disliked by all the girls at work. There’s something that’s not right about him. He’s always trying to take photos of us. He’s not one to be trusted.”
Nobody at that time had the least idea that he was a prolific murderer of women, including his wife, and was well-used to plastering over their bodies inside a recess by his kitchen fireplace. And it was all happening very close by indeed – just around the corner at 10 Rillington Place.
Poor, innocent, Timothy Evans would later be hung for those murders before he, Christie, the true culprit, was brought to justice. The mother of Timothy Evans never ever recovered from the trauma of her innocent son going to the gallows. She would waylay people in the Portobello Road constantly saying It wasn’t my Timothy what done it!
It wasn’t her Timothy. Frighteningly, there were even occasions when, being off sick from school, I would remain alone in the back bedroom in our top floor flat, sometimes for hours on end and whilst Mrs Brogg from downstairs would, from time to time, check on me and periodically appear with cups of tea and biscuits. I dare not sleep for fear that Mr Christie would silently put his ugly high forehead around the door. Of course, it was not poor Timothy Evans ‘what done it’ at all. It was John Reginald Christie all along. Finally, he was found guilty of many murders including Timothy Evans’ young wife and baby and was brought to justice. The public was baying for blood after reading the accounts of his atrocities, for horrendous they indeed were. They wanted him dead. ‘How did he die?’ I asked dad when the deed had been done ‘They hung him,’ answered dad. I digested this then ventured, ‘How? How did they hang him?’. A slight pause, and then, ‘With a thick rope around his neck, hands tied behind his back and through a trap door opened beneath him. He dropped down into the void. It broke his neck, you see’.
For nights afterwards, even the mug of stolen, sweetened milk didn’t send me to sleep, tired as I was. The visions of the thick rope around his neck, the high forehead, the trap door. Dropping down and down into a deep hole, when a story about Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole would have been far more appropriate and definitely a better aide to relaxation.