(Excerpt from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, by Alan M. Clark)
Around age twelve, Annie cut her right hand while helping her mother slice bread for an evening meal. Over the ensuing muggy summer days, the wound became red and hot. The hand swelled and the wound began to suppurate.
Early evening of one of those days, when their room above the cobbler shop had grown unbearably stuffy, she lay miserable and wet from sweat in bed, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her right hand, and an increasing need to get up and use the chamber pot.
“You must get better so we can play Old Maid,” Emily seemed to say to the doll cradled in her lap, though clearly she meant the words for Annie. The two sisters didn’t get along most of the time, possibly because Emily knew Dadda looked upon Annie as his favorite. Still, she sat in a chair beside the bed and held Annie’s left hand. “I’m no good alone, and Mum’s too busy to play.”
Their father came clomping up the stairs. Annie heard him hop over the two rotten treads beneath the roof leak and the room shook a bit. She ceased to moan and writhe for fear of disappointing him. Mum, preparing supper, greeted Dadda, then he moved to the bed to have a look at Annie. Over top the odors of old leather and shoe black, he smelled most strongly of drink.
“If it worsens,” he said, turning toward Mum, “she’ll lose the hand.”
“No, Dadda!” Annie cried as he turned back to her.
Emily made a face and climbed down from the chair. She dropped the doll as she backed away toward Mum.
Hot tears poured from Annie’s eyes. She shifted uncomfortably in the bed and the rough straw inside the mattress bit into her painfully. Her bladder let go and she urinated there in the bed. He would discover the urine later, but she could not worry about that yet.
“Should they take your hand,” Dadda said, “they’ll give it to the cat’s meat man. You don’t want that, do you?”
Emily buried her face in her mother’s skirts.
“He’s teasing you,” Mum said. “Don’t believe your father.”
Busy, her defense of her daughter was weak and did not prevent the girl’s imagination from providing further torment. Annie saw the cat’s meat man, Mr Stewart, in his broad, brightly colored neckerchief, selling her severed fingers, dyed green and stabbed onto wooden skewers, to Mrs. Salter, who lived in the building next door. The woman kept a dog and a cat, and bought meat regularly from Mr. Stewart to feed her animals.
Thinking that one hand might satisfy the takers as well as the other, Annie frantically tried to pull herself together enough to say, “Tell them to take the other one, Dadda. It doesn’t work as well.” Sobs came out instead, drowning in the salty fluids of her mouth and nose.
“Cease your blubbering, girl,” Dadda said. “I’m trying to make you fight for that hand. We would not give it to the cat’s meat man.” Then he smiled with mischief. “Yet if you don’t fight to keep it, he may come in the night for it all the same. I’ll leave the padlock off the door to make it easier.”
“You are a drunken lout, George Smith,” Mum said, “terrorizing your own young the way you do.” She threw a wooden spoon. The implement smacked into Dadda’s head with a loud knock and bounced off. Unfazed, his mischievous smile remained.
Too late, Mum moved to settle Annie’s fears and calm her.
Although the wound healed and she kept her hand, afterward she knew she wasn’t up to the hardships life would throw at her. As she grew, Annie found her squeamish and fearful response to the world an increasing source of distress. She would have to become someone else if she wanted to survive.
The cat’s meat man seemed to follow her around and pop up in her imagination when Annie felt vulnerable.
(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, written by Alan M. Clark, is part of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series.)