Hampstead Blues


By Thom L. Jones

The bar to the right of the main entrance is the smaller of the two. It has carpet laid to deaden the sound. The walls are covered in pale oak panelling and there's a period fireplace, sofas in the corner and knockabout furniture scattered about. On the window-sills, and the mantel place, sit blue medicine bottles and little ceramic dogs. There's a central bar access at the back that serves this room as well as the large saloon next door, past the staircase that leads up to the dining room.

To-day, this smaller bar is empty, except for a couple sitting near the window, looking out through the leaded windows onto South Hill Park.

It's April, and the trees outside are moving slowly in the stiff, afternoon breeze, gusting up the hill from the railway lines.

"Ruth Ellis shot her boyfriend, here. Just outside the front door. You knew that?" The young man asking the question is leaning back in a chair, his hands laced over his belly. He's smiling because he knows his girlfriend has no idea what he's talking about.

"Who's Ruth Ellis?" she asks. She's sitting across from him, bundled up in a heavy duffle-coat, it's toggles all locked in place, a wool scarf wrapped around her neck. Even though there's a fire burning away, it's not that warm in this empty bar. It smells of stale beer and memories best forgotten.

"She was what they called in those days, 'a hostess.'"

"What days are we talking about?"

"Well, she plugged him early April, the week-end of Easter, in 1955."

"1955," she's exasperated by this. "Hell's bells, that's over fifty years ago, my parents weren't even born then, let alone me. How the hell would I know something like that?"

"She was waiting for him to come out of the main bar next door. He'd gone for a few and was carrying a couple of jugs of beer, to take back to a party he'd been invited to up the road at a friend's house. She chased him around his car, banging away, with this big, clunky Smith & Wesson .38. Got him four times. Down he goes in a big pool of beer and broken glass, not to say blood. There used to be a plaque on the wall, just to the right of the main door commemorating it. It's funny but they got the date wrong, had 1954 on it."

"I never noticed that," she says.

"No, well you wouldn't, 'cause someone nicked it about three years ago."

He pauses and goes for a cigarette, lighting it and then sipping on his glass of lager.

"There you go," she says.

"She was just such a small woman. About five inches down on you, only weighed about seven stone. Tiny you know, a Paris Hilton type, all skin and bones. Apparently her left hand was atrophied as a result of rheumatic fever she gotten as a young girl. How the hell she hoists this big, frigging six inch barrel revolver and fires off all the shots, one handed, beyond me. I doubt you could do it, and look how tough and sexy you are."

She leans across the small table and biffs him on the shoulder.

"Watch the mouth there, smart-arse."

He laughs, and keeps it going. "Blakely, that's the guy’s name. David Blakely. You know that little church at Penn in Bucks that you like so much?" She nods, anxious now to keep him in the gear.

"He's buried there, believe it or not. His grave stone's a bit worn and tatty, but you can still read the inscription. He was down on the footpath, out there, according to witnesses, when she leaned over and finished him off. One in the head. The Mafia kiss. I'll show you where he's buried next time we go to the village."

She's interested now, but doesn't want to seem too eager, so she hits her pack and lights up, sipping on her lager, taking it slow and casual. She's a good looking woman, five seven, lithe build, from plenty of gym work, lots of hair, dark, almost black, framing a face that's full-on beautiful. Clever with it all, a fund manager in private equity in the City. Loaded, smart and beautiful. He cannot believe his luck that she has the hots for him. He's in I.T. and just as smart, but earns nowhere near the money she does. They've had this thing going now for about a year, although he's never been good at maintaining a long-term relationship with any woman he's known.

"So why did she kill him?" she finally asks.

"Ah, now there's a story. It's long and complicated, that's for sure."

"How do you know so much about it then?" she wants to know.

"I was doing some work on web development for a company that posts info and stories on true-crime and I happened to log onto this feature they were creating on women criminals. She's famous not so much for shooting this guy, but more for the fact that she was the last woman ever hanged in this country. For shooting this guy. Albert Pierpoint the hangman, dropped her. I don't suppose you know about him either?"

She shook her head. "We came here to-day for a drink, so you could dazzle me with all this knowledge on crime and punishment?' she asks. ‘You a regular fucking Fyodor Dostoevsky, or something?”

He loves it when she goes the foul mouth way. Turns him on.

"Not really," he says,” the Magdela is a nice old pub. There a dying breed in England. Look what they've done to Jack Straws for Christ sake. One of the best pubs in England, just up the hill, and some developer's bought it and converting it into apartments. Makes you want to cry into your beer." He smiles at the thought. Crying into his beer, not Jack Straws Castle going to the knacker's yard. Always wanted to use that expression, but never found the opportunity until now.

"I used to come here a lot when I was at varsity. Week-ends, a group of us would pub crawl, hitting different areas of London. Hampstead was always one of my favourites. Especially in the autumn, with the leaves changing colour. Lots of trees up here, not just on the heath, but along the footpaths, in the gardens. For some reason, we always finished up at the Magdela, but next door of course, in the main bar. Shit, that's ten years ago. Where has the time gone?"

The woman looked out of the window. "It's like autumn out there to-day, and it's spring-time. Bloody weather in this country. How can you ever plan anything around it?"

She stubbed her cigarette out in the ash tray. "Okay, Computer Man, let's have the story?"

"Hold on a sec, I'll get us some refills."

He goes over to the bar in the corner and orders. She watches him, tall and thin, lots of ash-blonde hair, casual in jeans and a black leather bomber-jacket. She suddenly has the feeling for him, wants to grab him, and pull his clothes off, climb on top of him, and go on that wonderful journey. She's really getting to like him a lot, more than any other man she's been out with. He's amazingly good in bed, sends her places she's never visited. Maybe he's the one, she thinks as he comes back juggling the two pints of beer and packets of crisps.

They light up again and get their glasses sorted, and he starts.

"Ruth Ellis was about 29 when it all happened. She'd been going out with David Blakely off and on for a couple of years or so. He was about your age, twenty-five. He was the stepson of a wealthy businessman, who lived with David's mother in Penn. David was apparently never short of money, although he didn't seem to hold down any kind of real job. He was motor-racing crazy, just lived for the track and a fast car. He had his own little pet project, developing a racer he called the Emperor-king of the race track. He comes across as a shifty, self-indulged twit, a chinless wonder type. He had relationships with other women while he was knocking about with Ruth. She had grown up in a poor and dysfunctional family, got herself pregnant at seventeen to a Canadian soldier during the war, had a little boy, then married another loser, a dentist, and had a baby girl to him. This guy Ellis, the dentist, was an alcoholic, and a violent one at that. They met when Ruth was 'hostessing' at one of the clubs she worked.

About two years before she killed him, she met Blakely, again at one of these clubs. He was another hard drinker and violent with it; seemed Ruth was just attracted to these kinds of men. They had, to say the least, an on and off turbulent relationship. They lived together in a flat she had with her job in a club in Knightsbridge, in the Brompton Road, just up from Harrods. During one of these ‘off’ periods, she started another affair with a man called Desmond Cussen. He became number three in their ménage à trois, although at first, she was seeing both men, without the other knowing about it. By the time that Easter week-end came along, Ruth was a total mess. She was taking drugs, and had spent two straight days drinking absinthe, trying, I guess, to summon up the courage to have a showdown with her number one boyfriend who she was certain was having an affair with a woman employed by his best friends, as a nanny. This was the guy he was drinking with next door that Easter Sunday night.

You know, one of the great ironies of the Ruth Ellis story is that she psych-ed herself up to kill her prat of a boyfriend for cheating on her, and in fact, on this occasion, he actually wasn't."

"What was she like?" the woman asks.

"What do you mean, look like, or type of person?"

"Both, I guess. I'm trying to form a mental image, make her more than just a statistic."

"There don't seem to be too many photos of her around. Almost all, show a woman with obviously bleached silver or blonde hair, 'cause they are all black and white. I've never seen one of her in colour. Longish face, fairly beaky kind of nose, her mother was Jewish, I think. Not unpleasant, but no bombshell either. Small in stature, very slim. It's hard to evaluate the kind of person she was. A bit ditzy I guess, something of a schemer, undoubtedly promiscuous, what to-day we'd call a bit of a slag. Maybe even a lager ladette, you know? Then again, a peroxide tart. Take your pick. You've heard of the old movie star Diana Dors?"

She nods.

"Not unlike her in a way to look at, without the big tits. You know another strange thing. She once appeared as an extra in a 1951 movie with Diana Dors. All these degrees of separation stuff. Makes you wonder. "

The girlfriend nibbles on some crisps and sips at the beer.

"Load of crap is how I see that. You said she came from a dysfunctional family. In what way?"

"Her parents were pretty much losers I guess. The old man was an alcoholic and child abuser, interfering with Ruth and her older sister Muriel when they were kids. Her mother committed suicide in a mental hospital. Ruth's husband, the dentist, strangled himself to death on a bed, somewhere in the Channel Islands. I tell you it just goes on and on. In the years after her death, it didn't get any better. Her son committed suicide and her daughter died at 50 from cancer, after going through three marriages and producing six children. There are people who go through life destined to bear a stigmata, not on their hands or side, but on their souls. Ruth Ellis was definitely one of them."

He pauses and takes a long drink on his beer.

"You know there is something else. It's really, really weird. Across the street here, and just a few doors up, at number 11 South Hill Park, in 1954, lived a family of Greeks from Cyprus. The matriarch, a woman in her early fifties, called Styllou Christofi, battered her daughter-in-law to death, and burned her body in the back garden. She was hanged in December of that year. Ruth went for her long drop seven months later. So here we have the last two women to be hanged in Britain, committing their crimes in the same street. What's the odds on that then?"

"Bigger than Lotto I would guess," she says. "What about the other one, Cussen?"

"The more you dig into this story, the more this guy seems implicated. He's not around either. Another alky, he ended up in Australia, living in a retirement village in Perth, drinking himself to death forty years later, on home-brew. Everything you read about this guy, it seems he was a kind of Svengali, manipulating poor old Ruthy into that corner she couldn't find her way out of. It's possible he gave her the revolver, showed her how to shoot. Took her into the woods at Epping. Probably saw it as a good way to get the ménage à trois down to deux."

They sit, quietly, sipping on their drinks, smoking, listening to the soft hum of the conversations and the activities taking place in the next door bar.

"Love's a funny thing," she says. "Everyone craves to be loved, and yet so few of us ever really get to feel how good it is. We seek love for all sorts of reason, don't we?"

He nods, wondering where this is headed.

"I mean I'm not talking about sex, fucking that sort of stuff. That's not love, just a way to get release, short-term satisfaction, unload a few hormones, whatever. I'm on about that deep, full commitment thing that happens sometimes between two people, when nothing is too much trouble and life is overflowing with wonder and joy and the knowledge that each and every day is better than the one before because you're sharing it with someone who fills you with so much happiness you feel you will burst at the seams. I wonder if Ruth Ellis ever felt like that. Somehow, I doubt it."

"How do you feel about us?" he asks.

She leans across the table and holds his hand. Her fingers are long, well shaped, the lunula deep, the nails discreetly polished in some opaque finish.

"I'm not really sure, but I'd like to think maybe we could go down that path eventually," she says.

He leans over and kisses her. Her face is cold, but her mouth is soft and warm.

"We'll work on that," he says.

By the end of summer, she knows it's not working out. They'd had a hectic few months since that afternoon in the pub at Hampstead, but now like the season changing, it seemed to her there was a different order of things; a subtle, but nevertheless definite shift, in their relationship. They both worked long hours, yet still managed to find time to go out for dinner some nights, during the week, and fill their week-ends with more than enough to occupy the time between their passionate embrace on the Friday evening and their long and lingering goodbye, early on the Monday morning.

She adores him with a passion that frightened her at times. Their lovemaking is exemplary in its shared creativity, and she often found that just being there with him, sitting over a cappuccino at The French Cafe in Knightsbridge, or wandering through the markets at Camden Town was enough to satisfy her appetite. They holidayed in the Maldives, revelling in the achingly blue waters of the Indian Ocean, scuba-diving, boating or just lazing around on their island, soaking in the sun, and blistering on the white, sandy beaches, before dining on dishes that were so delicious, their taste buds became drunk with the experience.

A long week-end in Venice left her pleasantly exhausted by the sights and sounds of perhaps the most romantic city on earth. They stayed in the oldest hotel there, the Luna Baglioni, a few yards from the Piazza San Marco, the square which isn't a square, in shape at least, and which Napoleon once referred to as 'the drawing room of Europe.'

She was shocked at the prices, but it was all worthwhile when they sat down for breakfast in what she thought was the most beautiful dining room in the world. She'd read that the Knight Templars had stayed here on their way to Jerusalem in the twelfth century, and she was so entranced by the mystery and the romance of it all she almost wet herself. She couldn't imagine staying in another hotel if she ever came to this city again. The three days they spent here were so wonderful and complete she felt as though there had been a death in her family when they had to leave. She has never experienced such a prolonged period of intense, pure unadulterated passion, lust and satisfaction as those seventy-two hours in Venice. She knew as they flew back to England, that this was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

It wasn't to be.

Gradually, over the weeks following their return from Italy, she noticed a change in him. Nothing dramatic at first. Cancelling a dinner appointment at the last moment, showing up late for drinks at their local pub, spending a week-end away, on business, or so he claimed. Bits and pieces that at first meant nothing, but gradually started to assume the dimensions and form of a more sinister jigsaw. He is still warm and loving, and their sex is filled with no less passion, but there is something missing, and then one morning, while he's in the shower, his mobile went off in the pocket of his jacket, draped over a chair in her bedroom. It chirped away insistently and in frustration she pulled it free and flipped it open. The message window said: 'Angie calling.' She closes it and slides it back. It could have been nothing. Maybe someone from his office, although she has met the women who worked there, at a staff party once, and none were called Angela. Perhaps a customer, or even a relative. Somehow, it didn't feel right. She doesn't mention it to him, and after he dresses, he gives her a big kiss and a hug and leaves.

She sits by the bedroom window, still naked, except for a dressing gown she'd thrown around herself, and looks at her notebook in which she'd jotted down the name and the number that had shown on his phone's Caller ID screen.

Later in the day, in her office, she rings a close friend who knows about these sorts of things, and asks him to check on this number for her. He calls her back and gives her the full name and address of the number: Angela Bertoni; lives in Kensington. She checks the 'phone directory for inner London, and there she is, at an address in Pembroke Gardens.

"Who is this woman?" she thinks.

Two days later, she's standing on the corner of Old Compton and Frith Street, looking across at his office. It's after six in the evening, the streets of Soho crowded with commuters and shoppers, the daylight fading, street lights and shop windows blinking their iridescent shadows out onto the footpaths. She smokes a cigarette, waiting for him to leave the building. There's a woman standing outside the entrance, tall, blonde and stunningly beautiful. She looks like a model, a muse waiting for her inspiration. When he arrives, the woman across the street sees that it's her boyfriend. The two embrace, kissing each other, passionately, and then arm and arm, move away, walking down the street and turn right into Wardour Street. They are in no hurry, and the waiting woman follows them at a safe distance. They dog-leg into Peter Street and up to Berwick, finally into Broadwick Street, arriving at Yauatcha, one of the trendiest Chinese restaurants in London. She checks her watch. She has been here before, with him actually, and knows there is a strict 90 minute slot for diners. They will be out no later than eight-thirty.

She walks down the street to the pub on the corner. It's called The John Snow and commemorates the doctor who tracked down the source of the famous 1850s cholera epidemic that ravaged this part of London. It's relatively quite to-night, and she orders a vodka-tonic and finds a seat close to the door. She smokes and drinks and wonders.

She's standing outside, just down from the restaurant when they come out. There are two cabs waiting there and they take the first. She hops into the second. The driver slides back the window.

"Where to luv?" he asks.

"You aren't going to believe this," she says: "but follow that cab."

He pulls away, talking to her back over his shoulder.

"What if it's headed for Glasgow then?" the cab driver asks.

"Well," she says, "you're in for one big fare. But I'm pretty sure that it's making for Kensington."

Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, the first cab pulls up in front of an apartment building in Pembroke Gardens. Her boy friend and the blonde leave their cab and enter the front door.

"You going or staying?" the cab driver asks her.

"Just take me home," she says, and tells the driver where to go.

And this is how it plays out over the next month. They get together from time to time and do all the usual things, and she follows him across London at other times, watching his new affair develop, getting to know his new girlfriend, at least from a distance, cataloguing her clothes as they change from meeting to meeting, the way she varies her accessories, even her different hair styles. She's never know a woman to change her hair so often.

She eventually makes up her mind to end it all. She is distraught and bewildered at how things have changed, how he has deceived and cheated her. She wonders at the best way to do it. A telephone call, a note, a bunch of dead flowers, and then she realizes there is really only one option available to her.

Early in October, she telephones and arranges to meet him. She tells him she has to go to Hampstead to visit a client on a Saturday morning and why don't they meet for lunch at the funny old pub, the Magdela. He's arranged to go out that night with his new blonde, but thinks he can manage the afternoon with this woman he's been cheating on for the last three months. It's in his nature to be sexually monogamous; in his genes. He doesn't so much think it's immoral, as inevitable, like thunder after lightning. He's happy to confirm that he will meet her at the pub at one o'clock.

She catches the Northern Line, the busiest underground route in the metropolitan area, and suffers in a packed carriage until it reaches Hampstead Heath. There is a closer Underground stop to her final destination, but she wants walk awhile, savouring the moment. As this is such a special day, she has paid extra attention to how she is dressed: A pure silk, charcoal gray blouse over a pair of Chip and Pepper black, bootleg jeans. Bally full shaft boots in soft calfskin leather and a Dolce and Gabbana three quarter length overcoat in virgin, black wool. The one with the deep pockets.

Leaving the underground station, she turns left and strolls down Hampstead High Street. She has about a mile or so to go. The whole area is heaving with week-end shoppers, and the cafes and restaurants are crammed with people taking a break from their busy morning. It's cold, but there is a weak sun shining across the roof-tops, and the trees are turning colour or loosing their leaves. She walks through them, drifting down, falling to earth, just like her hopes and dreams have done. She is completely at ease with herself, enjoying the anticipation of what is to come.

As she walks down the road towards Rosslyn Hill, her mind is as clear and sharp as the air in the Swiss Alps. She turns left into Pond Street, the Royal Free Hospital looming on her right side, and then left again, at South End Road. As she crosses the bridge over the railways line she can see across to her right the trees through which is South Hill Park off Parliament Hill, and the Magdela, the old Victorian public house standing on the leafy, gentle slope.

He is waiting here for her, standing outside the main door, smoking, watching the people and cars go by. She walks up to him, and he leans forward and kisses her on the cheek.

"My, you do look smart," he says, eyeing her up and down.

"I thought I would look my best," she says, "it's a special occasion."

"So what's up to-day then?" he asks.

"To-day we finish." Just like that.

"You're kidding me, right?" he asks, wondering what's on.

"No. It's just that I've had enough of you, cheating and lying and fucking that Angie woman. If that's who you really want, I'm better off without you."

His face has gone blank, as though someone has washed across him with a blackboard eraser.

"You're kidding me?" Again, as though he can't believe his ears.

"No one's kidding, kiddo," she says. "I know about you and the fancy blonde, and the expensive meals in expensive restaurants and her little hide-away in Kensington."

"You've me following me?" He can't believe any of this.

"Just enough to confirm what a total fucking dip-stick you are."

They've kept their voices pretty level until now and the people passing by have hardly noticed them. He raises it a notch.

"You've a nerve, spying on me. Following me. Who gives you the right to do something like that?"

"There doesn't have to be a right. Only a wrong. And you're the expert in that department. It's all over fuck-face." Her voice is rising. People are starting to pause, to watch the display. It's only going to get better.

She puts her hand into one of the big pockets in her coat and pulls out a pistol. Black and chunky with plastic grips, looks like a Glock or a Sig-Sauer. She points it at him, and he stumbles back, holding his hands out.

"For Christ sake, be serious, put that down, don't point that at me, I'm sorry, I'm sorry if I've hurt you. You weren't suppose to find out, please don't please don't!" He backs away until he is against the wall of the building, right where the plaque used to be, sliding down, hunkering, holding his arms over his head, terrified, a dark stain coursing down the front of his jeans as he loses control of his bladder. People around them have stopped, frozen by the tableau. She steps over until she is close to him.

"Look at me you prick, at least have the guts to face me when it's time."

He looks up at her, his eyes glazed with terror, his mouth moving although no sounds are coming out, and she starts to shoot, pulling the trigger, again and again, the water squirting into his face and across the front of his shirt, running down to mix with the other liquid coursing out of his body.

When she is done, she throws the water pistol at him. It bounces off his chest and lands on the footpath, between his legs. Some of the people who have stopped, suddenly realize this is more a comedy than a tragedy and start to laugh. Some of the women applaud as Rosie Edwards stands there, thinking:

I'm gonna be the last woman in England cheated on by Don Baker. Then again,
maybe not.

© Thom L. Jones 2010

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