This house was his pride and enjoy. Every day Karl came from work to his house, closed the front door behind himself and caught his breath, he’d congratulate himself on finally having a home all to himself, and a home he so enjoyed living in.
The moment the estate agent had showed him the house Karl knew he wanted to live there, because, most of all, he could afford it; though he decided to play it cool and casual under the beady eye of that estate agent. He’d never thought he could afford a house on his own, but this house was the same price as many of the flats he’d been looking at in West London.
It was a little, East End, two-up-two-down Victorian terraced house. Built from red brinks, some of which formed the arched patterns over the front door and front windows. The rooms inside were equally matched, the two ground floor rooms of the same size, with two equally sized bedrooms filling the upstairs (the only odd shaped room was the bathroom squeezed into the oblong extension at the rear of the house). It had looked like so many other back-to-back houses that still populated so much of the East End, with a front door that opened straight onto the street and a ting patch of walled garden at the rear.
The problem was the house had not been modernised for decades, which was why Karl had been able to buy it so cheaply. The list of things that needed doing seemed endless, Karl had his work cut out just bringing the house up into a state that was comfortable and liveable. He’d had to start his DIY renovations the week he moved into there. The renovations would fill all his free time, outside of work, but Karl didn’t mind. His new home was all his own, and he didn’t have much else to fill his free time, he didn’t have a boyfriend and had always found making friends difficult.
To his surprise, he found his neighbours were actually interested in talking to him (In the rented flat where he’d lived in West London, he’d barely knew what his neighbours looked like, let alone their names). To one side was the Wisniewski family, a Polish plumber, his wife and two young sons (though Karl mainly spoke with Olga, the wife, who’s English wasn’t halting and heavily accented). On the other side lived Jeannie, a single woman in her mid-sixties, who’d lived there since the early nineteen-seventies, and seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of local history.
He’d been living there well over a year before he turned his attention to house’s tiny garden. So much of his time had been spent with making the interior of the house the way he wanted, improving it up to his standards, making it comfortable and modern. Sometime in the past the tiny garden had been covered over with dull, grey paving stones. Every time he walked over it, he thought how boring it was. He knew he could turn it back into a real garden, so many of his neighbours had done so.
Finally, on a bright spring Saturday afternoon, Karl tackled his garden. At first, he’d considered taking up all the flagstones but soon that seemed too big a task. It had taken him so long just to loosen and lift one of the flagstones. Someone had fixed them with a lot of concrete. Instead he’d decided to just lift a few flagstones to create two islands of greenery in his paved garden.
That Saturday, with a crowbar, he lifted four flagstones. He had to take a pick-axe to the concrete underneath, once through that he then started to dig over the soil there. He had barely dug a few feet when he found it. At first, he’d thought it was just a buried piece of pottery, it was only after he dug it out that he saw what it really was. It was a human skull, with its jaw still attached.
For a long moment he just sat there, on the flagstones, staring at the skull. He’d never seen any human bones before, certainly not a skull, and he found himself fascinated by it. It didn’t have the white colour he’d associated with bones, this skull was a dirty brown, almost the same colour as the soil around it. Clumps of soil clung to its surface and completely filled its interior, wisps of short, dirty brown hair still clung to the base of it. This had once been the centre of a human being, Karl told himself, even with its dirt filled eye stocks and lack of facial features.
Eventually Karl stood up and carried the skull into his kitchen, there he started gently cleaning it. He placed it in a bowl of warm soapy water and very carefully washed it. The soil easily washed off under massaging by his fingers but no matter how hard he washed the skull it still remained that dull brown colour. Once he’d dried it Karl place the skull in an empty cupboard in his kitchen.
Karl had been too preoccupied with the skull to tell anyone else about it, just handling it fascinated him. It was only after he’d finished washing the skull that he thought about it any further. Someone had not just buried it, they had hidden it under all that concrete. He should have called the police as soon as he’d found it, but he hadn’t. He’d already washed the skull, washed away all the evidence from it, before that he’d removed it from the ground, he’d destroyed whatever crime scene there had been there. Someone, for whatever reason, had hidden that skull in the garden, a long time ago now, what was the point of dragging that all up again? Everyone involved was probably dead by now, he reasoned. So Karl told himself that no-one else knew about the skull, why should he go telling other people about it?
Later that afternoon he finished off digging over the plot of earth he’d exposed in his garden, finally turning it into his new flowerbed. Then he planted it with the plants and shrubs he’d bought. He didn’t find any other bones in the ground here.
Over the next day his fascinated with the skull grew to an almost fever pitch. He couldn’t pass the cupboard, were he’d placed the skull, without stopping to look at it. He’d find himself staring at it, staring into those empty eye sockets. What kind of man had this skull belonged to? How had he come to be buried in Karl’s garden? What had been this man’s life? How had he died? Who was this man? Karl wasn’t repulsed by the sight of the skull, but he was fascinated by it, once it had been at the centre of another man’s life.
That evening Karl decided he had to know more about that skull, his fascination and just not knowing about it was driving him to distraction. He sat himself down at his computer and started a Google search on his address. At first, all that came up were websites offering to sell his house, then he found a website about London mysteries. The page he found was about two men, who were living in his house in 1957, when one night they simply disappeared, they left all their possessions behind. No bodies were ever found. Their names were James Reid and John Lavery.
All a further Google search throw up was that James Reid had been arrested, three days before they disappeared, for cottaging, in Hermit Road Park.
The skull obviously belonged to either James or John, Karl quickly reasoned. The skull was old, no flesh to it, and it was dis-coloured from being in the ground for decades. The next question for him was, did the skull belong to James or John?
The next day, at work, Karl found his mind repeatedly returning to James and John. There had been a picture of them, on the first website, but it had been small and grainy. It showed two white men, somewhere between twenty and thirty, dressed in matching dark suits, with matching short-back-and-sides haircuts, and staring straight into the camera. Karl could barely make out the men’s features but he could see they were handsome.
When he got home, that evening, he met Jeanie returning home at the same time. Stood on their respective doorsteps they exchanged greetings. As they did so, the idea leapt into his mind. Jeannie knew so much about the local area, maybe she knew about James and John.
“Do you know about the two men who lived in my house, in the late 1950s?” he asked her.
“Bit before my time. That’s when my Nan lived here. She left me the house, when she died in seventy-one,” Jeannie replied.
“It was just a thought,” Karl said.
“Wait a moment,” Jeanie added. “You mean Jimmy and Johnny; my Nan was always talking about them and how they just disappeared. Nan always said they’d run away; but I’d always thought it strange them just up and vanished in the middle of the night and leaving all their things behind.”
“Did your grandmother say anything else about them?”
“She said loads. She knew they were lovers, even though back then it was illegal. They told everyone they were cousins, but she knew better. She’d worked as a Wardrobe Mistress in the theatre for years, she knew when two men were lovers. Course they probably fled because they got themselves exposed. Some copper with nothing better to do nicked Jimmy in the park, up the road... It was a shame, my Nan always said... Why do you want you know about them?”
“I did a Google search, on my address, and found out about them. I was wondering if you knew anything, because I couldn’t find anything else,” he told her.
“Don’t worry though, no one around here will drive you out of your home.”
“Thanks,” he replied, as he opened his own front door.
With Jeannie’s information, Karl’s imagination started to fill in the blanks, yet to him the blanks were easy to fill in.
John was deeply in love with James but keeping it only as their secret. James though had big problems with monogamy. Regularly he would go cottaging, causing resulting arguments with John. One evening, in November 1957, James was arrested in a cottage, in Hermit Road Park by that overzealous policeman.
John had been left crazy with worry. At that time the police were running a witch-hunt against gay men, arresting them everywhere they found them. When they caught one gay man, they wound put pressure on him to betray all the other gay men he knew (Karl had read enough accounts of that time to know what was going on, to know how so many gay men were living in fear). John knew James would crack easily under any pressure. It would only be a matter of time before the police came hammering at their front door to arrest John as well.
James was held by the police for nearly two days, when he finally returned home, early in the evening, he found John had hung himself, his dead body hanging from the banisters. The terror of not knowing had finally driven John over the edge.
Drowning in remorse, James had cut down John’s body and under cover of night buried him under the flagstones, in the garden. He then returned to the house and drank himself unconscious. The next day, again under the cover of darkness, James had just abandoned the house he shared with John.
In the 1950’s Britain it was easy to obtain a new identity but for James it didn’t last very long. He would die from drinking, only a few years later, a broken man.
Over the next few days, Karl dwelt over and over on this story. He decided that finding the skull was his chance to make amends to John, to show his life hadn’t been in vain. At least John had found the love of his life and made that relationship work, even if it was only for a few years. At thirty-one, Karl had yet to find a relationship that lasted more than a few months (The romantic ideal of James and John’s love deeply appealed to him, even with its tragic end).
Karl bought a red, velvet pillow and placed the skull on it. He then started to research, online, how to clean it to get it back to its original pearly white colour. Unfortunately, this he found involved either bleach or boiling the skull in hot water for a long time. Karl couldn’t bring himself to do that to John, not after all he’d been through in life.
The following Saturday, in the early afternoon, there came a knock at Karl’s front door. He found a little old man, scruffy and unshaven, on his doorstep. The man was short and dishevelled; the dark grey over-coat he wore was tattered from age and neglect, a dirty West Ham scarf knotted at his neck, and he wore equally dirty black trousers. His round, red face had small features, grouped together in the centre of it. His domed, bald head had only a narrow strip of short-cut grey stubble running around almost the base of his skull. What was most shocking about this old man was how small he was, his head was almost level with Karl’s chest.
“Can I come in son?” The old man asked, his voice had a deep East End accent.
“Why?” Karl said, who was this man? Karl had never seen him before.
“I used to live there and I think you found something of mine,” the man said.
A stab of shock shot into Karl’s mind, was this ugly, little old man what had become of the handsome James.
“You’d better come in,” Karl said, stepping aside to let the old man into his home.
Karl showed the man into his kitchen. The man sat at the kitchen table, while Karl remained standing, leaning against the fridge.
“I still keep in touch with Margie, who lives at the back to you, and the other day she told me you’ve been digging up the paving stones out there, in the garden,” the man said.
“I laid them. Did you find anything under them?” The old man looked up at him with a nervous expression across his face.
“Like what?” Karl asked. Even if this man was James, he couldn’t warm to him.
“I... I buried something under those paving stones.”
Looking at the old man, Karl knew that they’d only bounce this back and forth, the old man wasn’t going to say it, and so Karl had to force him.
He pushed himself away from the fridge and in three strides was in front of the row of cupboards on the adjacent wall.
“You mean this?” Karl said, as he opened the cupboard with the skull inside it.
“My Una!” The old man broke down when he saw it, and as he did the words tumbled out of his dry lips.
“I lived here, in this house, back in the seventies. We rented it from this fat, old Greek,” the old man said, drops of spittle appearing at the corner of his lips as he spoke. “I moved in here with my new wife, Una. Her mother had funny ideas that’s how she got her name.
“We were only kids, she was twenty and I was twenty-five. We’d only been married a month. We didn’t have much money and we both needed to work to make ends meet. Una’s mother thought it was wrong her having to work, she thought Una should stay at home and have babies, but there wasn’t the money for that.
“I worked labouring on local building sites, I wasn’t trained to do anything else. Una got a job as a cleaner, up the road at the Whitechapel Hospital. She got better money because she worked nights. One week of nights and the next week on days...”
The old man paused here. He looked away from Karl, his eyes falling onto the table next to him, and with the back of his hand wiped the spittle off his lips. He then took a deep breath, drawing the air in through his nostrils with a slight whistle, before continuing his story.
“Before I was married, I used to go down and use the whores around Whitechapel. They were cheap and they’d let you do almost anything. I should have stopped when I married Una but I couldn’t. I loved her but she wasn’t that interested in sex, she’d only let me have it in bed with the lights off, and she wouldn’t even take her nighty off. It wasn’t enough for me. I soon went back to the whores at Whitechapel. We didn’t have much money but those whores were cheap.
“It was easy to do and Una should never have known about it. I’d only go down Whitechapel when Una was on nights. I’d go down there once or twice a week, I won’t do it that much and it made things better at home.
“Then one of Una’s nosy bastard friends told her they’d seen me going with them Whitechapel whores. Una believed her. She went and pretended to go to work that Friday, but she really followed me.
“I went down Whitechapel and saw one of my regular whores. When I got back here, I found Una waiting. God, she was angry. She wouldn’t let me explain or anything. She physically went for me. She attacked me. I had to fight her off.”
Again the old man paused in his story. He was shaking now, his hands held tightly together in his lap, the drops of spittle on his lips now ignored. He’d seemed to have physically shrunk down inside his shabby, old coat.
“I had to get her off me,” the old man continued. “I had to grab her around the throat. She was going for my eyes. Then she was kicking at me and I had to squeeze her throat just to stop her. Then she was dead on the floor there... I hadn’t meant to do it, I’d only wanted to shut her up and stop her hitting me... I’d killed my Una.
“That weekend was this nightmare. I had to hide her body. So I put her in the bath and with a hacksaw I cut her up, my God that wasn’t easy. In the middle of the night I buried her out in the back garden. I put her to rest in six places out there. The next day I nicked three bags of cement from the building site I was working on. I covered the ground in cement and then I laid the paving slabs over it.
“I had to hide her, I couldn’t go to jail. I’m not that hard and they’d kill me in jail. Lads I went to school with ended up in jail and they told me how hard it was. I’d never have made it through all that. I had to hide her body.
“I told the neighbours that Una had left me and they believed me. No one asked me about her. But I couldn’t stay here, I couldn’t make enough to cover the rent. The fat Greek throw me out on the street.
“My life’s been shit since then. I’ve never stayed in any job long and I’ve moved from place to place, I can’t stay anywhere long. I’ve been terrified for years that someone would find Una and they’d arrest me. I can’t go to jail, I can’t...”
The old man broke down there, his words turning into slow sobs. Tears slowly running down his checks and disappearing into the grey stubble on his chin. Low, blubbing noises coming from his spit-soaked lips.
Karl felt disgusted, the sharp taste of bile rising in the back of his throat. This dirty, little old man had stolen away the beautiful story of John and James. Their story had been so romantic and inspiring. He dreamed of finding a love as strong and passionate as theirs, even though their story had such a tragic ending (that only went to show how deep their love was).
Now, this dirty, little old bastard had robbed him of all that. This old man had turned his beautiful story into a common and sordid story of prostitutes, wife murder, and a pathetic man afraid of prison. This man disguised him and Karl wanted rid of him now.
Moving fast with anger, Karl leapt forward, snatched his hammer off the kitchen table and smashed it down hard onto the back of the old man’s head.