Clk clk clk.
Three sharp raps at the door.
Johanna rolls over in her sleep, a quiet gurgle in the back of her throat, eyes flickering beneath their dainty lids. I walk over to her crib, and run a hand down her short golden curls.
Clk clk clk.
She stirs a little, delicate mouth turning down into a sulky frown.
Clk clk clk.
Her eyelids open, revealing big blue eyes. They look up at me, then fill with tears. Lips parted, a mewling cry creeps out, then crescendos to a wail.
"Hush, darling, hush little Johanna." I murmur, picking her up and cradling her against my chest. I walk over to the window to see who is knocking, though I know who will be standing there.
A figure dressed in dismal black, pale ginger hair tufting from beneath his hat. He raises his walking stick, and hits the door again.
Clk clk clk clk clk.
I glance down at my daughter, then plant a kiss on her porcelain forehead, before laying her gently down in her crib. She stares up at me curiously, wondering whether to cry again.
"Mummy will be back in a moment." I tell her, then draw my shawl more tightly about my shoulders. With small steps, I make my way down the narrow stairs to the front door. Black eyes are staring through the peephole at me.
The beady black eyes of Beadle Bamford.
Nervously, I reach for the latch and allow the door to swing inwards.
"Mrs. Barker. Good evening. I am here as an emissary for Judge Turpin. He would have me give you his most sincere condolences for your dreadful position." he begins, giving me no time to greet him. "He blames himself entirely for this awful incident - but the law is the law, and he considers it his supreme to duty to enforce it."
"My husband has done nothing wrong-" I begin, but he carries on as if he has not heard me.
"So remorseful is he, in fact, that he asks you come to his home immediately, so that he may give you his full sympathy in person. I am here to escort you."
I am speechless for a moment.
"Please tell Judge Turpin that I am most grateful for his concern, but I really cannot leave at the moment."
"Please, madam, I insist!" he wheedles. "His Honour is consumed with guilt. If you will not come to hear his apologies, then come to ease his conscience?"
A second of hesitation is all it takes for him to answer for me.
"So you will come! Permit me to take your arm - there we go - and shall I close the door? Yes, I shall. May I say you - look truly lovely this evening, Mrs. Barker."
No, you mayn't is what I think, but I can hardly say that. He is pulling on my arm, and I can hardly resist without looking rude. I decide to remain quiet, to accept Turpin's apologies then leave immediately. Johanna will probably be asleep already, she will not miss me.
We follow the cobbled streets up to the grand front door of the judge's home. The windows are alight behind their rich velvet curtains, and as we enter I hear the babble and laughter of many conversations.
We enter the ballroom, and it is filled with people dressed in their most extravagant suits. Ornate masks conceal the faces of all the ladies and gentlemen; even the faces of the servants were obscured by half-masks.
I turn to ask the beadle where Turpin is, but he has melted into the crowd.
I am alone.
Someone presses a goblet into my hand, and fills it with wine. I drink it politely, only for it to be refilled again. Several times this happens, until the room sways as I walk and I put down the cup.
I ask many people the same question: "Excuse me, do you know where Judge Turpin is?" "Apologies, madam, but have you seen Judge Turpin?" "I don't suppose you know where Judge Turpin is?" but no one can answer me.
It is only as I near the couch in the centre of the room that I spot him. He pulls his mask away from his face, discarding it at his side.
I go to call a greeting, but something about his face stops me. He is leering, eyes blazing with some strange passion, yet cold at the same time. The words die on my lips.
"S-sir?" I mumble uncertainly as he gets closer, finding coherent speech surprisingly difficult. Just how much did I drink? No more than three small goblets, surely?
His smile grows wider, like a cat about to pounce on a quivering mouse. I begin to feel a little frightened as he draws his scarlet cloak wide and falls on me.
And then he has me, trapped beneath him. There is nothing I can do but scream my protests, and scream I do. I can see Beadle Bamford watching me. No, not me.
There is something in his eyes - the same thing there had been in Turpin's. Suddenly I understand.
What is this strange perversion of nature? What is this freakish creature that lusts more for it's own kind than the other? It is wrong, and against everything godly.
What kind of house am I in?
This confusing new discovery only adds to my fear, and I long even more for the familiar warmth of my husband. Is this why he was exiled? So that the judge could do this to me? So the beadle could watch and enjoy his memory privately in his own chambers?
There are screams, and I know they are mine still, but they feel detached from me. Numbness spreads through my body, but I can sense the melting pot of trauma bubbling just beneath the surface.
And then he is finishing, and I am lying there on the couch alone. The masked people watching are laughing, mouths gaping and contorting to make the shrieks of feral beasts. I am afraid of these predators, but I can barely hold onto consciousness. Whatever was in my drink is dragging me down into the dark, and I cannot resist.
The last thing that enters my mind before it consumes me is this: this body is no longer mine. It is his.
I tip the yellow powder into the cup, stirring it carefully into the cheap ale. My hands are shaking, as they have done since that night, but I do not spill a drop.
Johannah is watching me, with questions in her eyes. She is unusually quiet, beautiful face grave. It is like she knows what I am about to do.
I cannot go on with this, not with her watching me. I stride to the cot, pick her up and take her downstairs. Carefully, I arrange a nest of cushions of the floor and set her on them. Then, after checking there is nothing dangerous in the room, I leave and close the door behind me.
It takes a matter of minutes to write the letter, and to slip next door, pushing it through the neighbours' letter box. I kept it short, to the point, because I couldn't stop my hand shaking enough to keep the pen steady. Please, look after Johanna. She is in the parlour. There is no need to knock. No one will answer. Thank you. - Lucy Barker.
Now I really have no choice.
I go back to the little room upstairs, cup sitting ominously on the desk. Who knew such a small object could cause such fear in me.
The numbness that had been in me that night was gone, in it's place only shock and fear. I felt as if someone had thrown me into a cesspit, contaminated with him. No amount of scrubbing was enough - my skin was pink and raw from the fervent scraping with cakes of soap and bristly scrubbing brushes, yet still his touch lingered there.
There is only one escape route.
I went for arsenic - plenty in rat poison, and only a penny a bottle. Not too suspicious either, at the time. Of course, it will be obvious once they find me. But they cannot hurt me. Nothing can hurt me, never again. I'll belong to myself again.
I reach for the cup and lift it to my lips. Inhale. Exhale. I tilt the cup, and the pungent taste fills my mouth. And then-