Historical Fiction Competition - Winner

Kerriann Speers

The Muse and the Murderer
Historical Fiction Competition


Kerriann Speers is a writer and poet, previously published in Writing Magazine and Bangor Literary Journal. In 2020, Kerriann was shortlisted for the TU Dublin short story competition and published poems in anthologies, North Star and We Are Not Shadows. A member of Flowerfield Writers Group, Portstewart and Women Aloud NI, Kerriann lives on the the north coast of Ireland and can be found on all the usual social media outlets as @kerriannwrites.

The Muse and the Murderer By Kerriann Speers

The hangman wore his Sunday best - a black as sin frock coat. His pocket watch caught the glint of the morning sun as a nearby clock chimed eight. Upon first sighting of the damned man, the front of the crowd jeered. The rest joined in so a wave of shouts washed over the horde. As latecomers pressed themselves into the enclosure, Lizzie’s father lifted her onto his broad shoulders.
Mr Greenacre was how she remembered him. Lizzie thought he would be thinner, perhaps even skeletal with the guilt which should have eaten him up from the inside. He was not. Although pale, at his fate or his reception from the crowd, Greenacre had lost none of his swagger. He strode on to the platform as confident as the first day Lizzie spoke to him on the Old Kent Road.
Stood on the kerb, Lizzie looked at her shoes - small, brown and shining. Carriages rolled past at a speed through a gully of blood and waste which ran down from the tannery. Southwark had never been the type of place anyone would want to wear a new pair of shoes.
‘Can I help you, young Siddall?’ A warm, deep voice said. ‘Elizabeth, isn’t it? You know me, don’t you?’
The man grinned, softening his dark features. Lizzie nodded.
‘You are the man what comes for money off Pa.’
‘I am his landlord, yes. Don’t say “what comes”. Your mother wouldn’t like it.
Perhaps if I introduce myself, I could assist you. My name is Mr Greenacre,’ he stretched out his hand.
‘Elizabeth Siddall,’ she shook it.
 ‘What troubles you today, Miss Siddall?’
‘It’s my shoes,’ she whispered.
‘Do they pinch?’ Mr Greenacre looked down.
‘No, it’s just I have never had new shoes before,’ she flushed. ‘Not of my own. My
shoes usually come from my sisters, when they are done with them. It is my first day wearing them out and I fear I will ruin them. Ma- Mother has sent me for butter and eggs and I daren’t cross the street in case I soil them.’
Tears flowed forth from Lizzie as steady as the stream of excrement ran along the gully.
‘One of the many disadvantages of living so close to a tannery. Might I be permitted to help you cross the road? Do children still play hopscotch?’
Lizzie nodded, still sobbing. Mr Greenacre handed the child his stark white, square of cotton and lace.
‘Well let’s treat this like a big game of hopscotch. I’ll hold on to your waist and help you leap the puddles. How does that sound?’ Mr Greenacre placed his hands around the young girl’s waist and bent low. ‘Ready?’
Before the girl responded, the giant of a man lifted her up into the air. Bringing her up over the gully, bouncing her down for a moment on to the road. Again her skirts flew, her arms outstretched so her basket slid down her arm and, again, she landed on the ground. One last leap upwards, upwards until she felt as tall as the man who held her. Her copper hair splayed like slices of sunlight.

 ‘And home!’ Mr Greenacre said. ‘Now! Miss Siddall, you are safe. Run to the shop and back. If you are back here afore eleven, I can escort you back the way you came. Run, girl!’
Lizzie took off at a rate, but she did not see Mr Greenacre the rest of the day. Humming a pretty tune, she hid the gentleman’s handkerchief amongst her clothes. She didn’t see the landlord for a few months until he called with her father the week before Christmas. Lizzie felt his presence as soon as she entered the front door. Mr Greenacre brought with him a change in atmosphere. A silence fell over the Siddall house which never occupied it for a moment when the landlord was not there. Even Harry, in his crib, knew to stay quiet. The rest of the children scattered like dandelion seeds in the wind.
She flew at once to her bedroom to retrieve the handkerchief she had so tenderly cared for. Father always conducted his business with Greenacre in the parlour. Lizzie waited by the door, afraid to knock. The door was only open a crack, enough to see the figures of her father and the dark man around her mother’s table.
‘I am not saying I do not have it,’ Father paused, ‘I am only saying I do not have it all.’
‘Then we have a problem,’ the voice was not the warm tone Lizzie had remembered. It was low, gruff, guttural.
‘Mr Greenacre, you are a fortnight earlier than usual. I was not expecting you. Not until after Christmas.’
‘I am to marry next week and I don’t have time to be chasing after rent,’ Greenacre leaned across the table, his finger pointing into Father’s face. ‘You and your

 wife think you are so far above me, but I am the one with the noose around your neck and don’t you forget it.’
A chair scraped across the floor and the door opened. Lizzie stood, open mouthed. Mr Greenacre reached across his leather gloved hand. Resting his finger below her chin, he closed her gaping mouth.
‘How beautiful you look today, Elizabeth,’ Mr Greenacre smiled at Father. ‘I tell you, if your daughter was ten years older and I ten years younger, I might choose to marry her next week instead of my betrothed.’
Lizzie held the handkerchief tight in her hands behind her back, as the older man stroked her chin. A tingle ran down the back of her neck. The kind of feeling that made her mother say someone had walked over her grave.
‘I may be in need of a girl,’ Greenacre said, smiling.
‘Lizzie is soon to start work with her aunt,’ Father stuttered, ‘as is the rest of her sisters.’
‘Shame. Elizabeth, you are growing into a most beautiful woman,’ Greenacre bent down low to her level, his breath smelled of stale beer and decay. ‘I am rarely wrong about women.’
‘Mr Greenacre,’ Lizzie began, ‘here is your handkerchief. I forgot to return it to you and perhaps you will need it for your wedding day.’
‘I shall cherish it all the more for you having held on to it. Goodbye, Mr Siddall. I shall see you soon.’

 When Greenacre left, Father leaned against the door with one hand on his breast. For a moment, the silence of the house continued on until Father turned and looked Lizzie up and down.
‘Where did you get that handkerchief?’
Lizzie explained to her father about the shoes, the puddles and the handkerchief as she best remembered it. Leaving out how Mr Greenacre had held her by the waist and how her skirts had flown up. Lizzie felt silly. Silly thinking that this man, who was probably older than her father, was her Galahad. Her knight. And for mistaking a scrap of cloth for a love token.
‘You are a pup, lass,’ her father sighed. ‘You don’t know what men like him might do to you. If he’s coming down the road again, you cross over it. Never worry about spoiling shoes. Men like him spoil a great deal more than shoes.’
Lizzie was queasy the whole way to the execution. She, along with the rest of England, had read all the details of Hannah Brown’s murder in the newspapers. She pictured Mr Greenacre on the omnibus with that poor woman’s head on his lap. Disposing of a life as someone would toss away a rotten apple into a canal. He held on to his handkerchief though. She wondered whether the scrap of cloth held some importance to him.
‘Penny a sandwich. Get yer Greenacre tarts ‘ere.’ The piemen wandered through the crowd, shouting their wares.
‘Brown pies,’ chuckled one, ‘brownest pies in London.’

 Gravy wafted through the air, making Lizzie’s stomach turn. An old woman bit in a pie, juices dribbling down her chin. Lizzie thought she might never eat again.
The hangman, Calcraft, played his part well. Through the thick, white beard, Lizzie could tell he was frowning. He spoke some words to the murderer, but his eyes were not on Greenacre. Instead, he raised his voice, his gaze turning skyward. Lizzie followed Calcraft’s stare to see the more genteel spectators lean over balconies to look upon the notorious sinner. The hangman waved his hand to the mob below as though to silence them. A few listened at the front, but it was impossible to subdue all the congregation.
Across a sea of faces, Lizzie half expected to see someone she knew. She could not guess at the number there. When she read the number exceeded twenty thousand in the newspaper the next day, she was not able to fathom that number either. She supposed the whole world had turned up to judge this man. A man who could kill a woman with little thought, wrap her head in paper and lace to carry on the omnibus as one might carry a new hat. Lizzie strained to hear a gallows confession but only caught one word - ghouls - the rest were lost to the wind.
Calcraft nodded and pulled the lever, the floor fell from under Greenacre and he dropped. The people were truly silent for the first time. A crunch of a noise as the body twitched, kicking and scraping at the air below him. The jerking stopped after what seemed like an eternity. Lizzie knew Greenacre had gone.
Her father bowed his head for a moment. The rest of the faces were locked on the still body on the scaffold. No one dared make a noise, no one dared breathe. Some faces winced in mock pain, some grinned. Lizzie wondered who among them were the real sinners. Calcraft stepped towards the body to check for signs of life. He wielded his arm to the rabble again. Not to silence them, to signal celebration. A roar came from the crowd. A roar of relief and triumph. A victory. A victory over one man, one monster.

Judges Comments

Dramatising a real-life event as the basis for her winning historical fiction short story The Muse and the Murderer, Kerriann Speers' turns the childhood encounter between Elizabeth Siddall, who before her premature death became an artist in her own right as well as one of the best-known models for the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and her family's landlord James Edward Greenacre, into a compelling story that foreshadows Lizzie's tragic later life.

Fittingly for a dark story of a shadow cast over a young life, it opens at Greenacre's hanging, evocatively captured in a way that draws attention to the atmosphere of the period details without overstressing them and detracting from the story. Impressions effectively built, and an older Lizzie created, Kerriann moves efficiently into the telling flashback sequence that details Lizzie's first encounter with Greenace.

The child's view perspective is well handled, allowing the adult reader to interpret the unfolding events in the light of the sinister foreknowledge that Greenacre is the man on the gallows at the beginning of the story. The knowledge that he's committed a crime that he's being hung for casts a shadow over the way we read the back story. It's an atmospheric story that's very effectively done, packed with sinister undercurrents and forebodings, inviting readers to interpret a detailed, textured picture of a world where where a man carries a woman's head on the omnibus, a young woman who later became famous as an artist's muse through the male gaze rather than as a artist in her own right recalls how that same man sized her up, and crowds flock to watch his execution and eat 'Brown pies, the best in London.'