I bought Hush one of those new life-blogging collars about a month ago. It’s the version with a GPS and wifi transmitter and takes a picture every half-a-second of whatever happens to be in front of him. I thought it would be something to remind me of the day going on outside my studio. I’d get to watch Hush as he toured his domain. Maybe I’d even find some new places to draw in.
Hush and I moved here a few months ago, after the Olympics had died down and rentals in Hackney Wick had dropped a bit. We were in Shoreditch, but the software companies were gentrifying the place and driving up the rents. Haven’t you heard? Hackney Wick is the new artists’ commune. Even an organised band of anarchists have moved in to a warehouse in Maverton Road. Always stringing up new wifi transmitters, which is why I thought the collar might work.
I always wanted to move to Hackney Wick as my family has a bit of a dark connection to the place. My great grandfather, Henry Muller, was the nephew of Franz Muller, England’s first railway murderer. The murder took place here. Quite the family secret, but I’ll get to that later.
Hush started it and now he’s lying there, stretched out discretely on my desk in the sunbeam coming down from the skylight. His fur is grey, almost dusky, and silky. He’s looking at me, his grey-green eyes glowing. His fur almost matches the old wooden beams making up the desk.
Jason made the desk. He’s my – um – landlord. Blushes slightly, twists hair. Yeah, I’m not that self-conscious. But he is cute and I do like to stand at the top of the stairs and watch him as he works on the floor of the warehouse where he welds and does metalwork for the sculptures he makes. You might have seen some of his stuff around Hackney? I love the head-standing elephant.
I design characters for mobile phone games. Frog March, where you have to keep rows of marching frogs out of trouble. I drew those. I did Rabbit Surprise; the surprise being anyone played it. Tolstoy’s Lament, which was a bit high-brow. It pays the rent and gives me time to find old buildings and let the ghosts out. I love drawing on the walls in abandoned spaces, finding the people that passed there.
I spent most of the first morning Hush went out with the collar watching the pictures coming up one-by-one on my computer screen as the glowing dot on the map traced him as he went. It almost gave me vertigo the way he would leap up a wall and stride out on narrow ledges high above the warehouses. I could see all the ancient brickwork, moss and plants growing in the cracks, and old pools of water.
Hush passed through a narrow gap in a broken window into Genric’s place. He’s this tall Swedish glassblower. Looks like a Viking.
I could see Genric working. His kiln was red-hot and he was stripped to the waist, sweat pouring off his chest as he held out the metal pipe he blows into inspecting a lump of glowing glass at the end.
Hush didn’t stay. He ran along the metal I-beam holding up the roof and out through a gap in the bricks at the end. Down the wall, up the drain-pipe on the other side, through studios and work-spaces. It felt voyeuristic spying on my neighbours, but also beautiful and intimate seeing all these creative people deep in the process of making art.
Hush worked his way along the roof-tops and warehouses parallel and between Wick Lane and the river. I would catch flashes of the Orbit Tower, red against the grey sky, over the river in the Olympic park. He crossed Iceland Road and headed towards the river before finding a narrow alley hidden by overgrown weeds. That was where he found the old abandoned rooms, bricks showing through blasted masonry. I marked that on the map so I could go look at it later.
Then I had to get back to work.
And that was how it went for a few days. Hush would investigate, meet other cats, chase a few pigeons and run around on the rooftops. I visited some of the places he found. In the first, I drew an old man working on a blacksmith’s anvil in charcoal. In the second, I drew a woman baking bread in an old clay oven.
Jason would come and visit me and watch for a while. I liked his closeness. Hush ran past the blacksmith picture, stopping to stare at it, the first time Jason visited. I blushed a bit but Jason just smiled.
Then that day happened.
I was watching Hush as he headed over the rooftops along Beachy Road when I heard Jason coming in. He had brought two cups of coffee from Counter Café and I could smell the rich flavour across the warehouse.
Jason came up the stairs, meeting me at the top and gently gave me a cup. “I know you love their coffee, Jan,” he said, a little bashfully. Yeah, that’s my name, January. My parents planned my birth down to the day, and then I went and got born on 1 February. Confuses everyone.
It was the first coffee he’d ever bought me. My heart was pounding a bit. We ambled over to the computer, standing closely but not quite touching and watched as Hush went about his way.
He was crouched over dark space. Weeds growing all over the show and I mentally marked off the spot. Then he dropped to the floor, landing on an old chair which immediately collapsed beneath him.
Old pro, Hush, he followed it down and leapt neatly onto the floor. It was difficult to see anything in the darkness but we could make out what looked like an old apartment with a small grated fireplace.
“That’s interesting,” said Jason. “That fireplace design is about 200 years old. Georgian era, probably worth about £4,000 to a collector.” Then he said the fateful words, “Tell you what, it’s abandoned, let’s go haul it out and I’ll split whatever money we make.”
I felt like a conspirator. It felt erotic with him so close and the smell of him all around me. “Yes,” I grinned.
We collected a crow-bar, a spade, two flashlights and a wagon he uses for moving metal. We walked up Wick Lane, into Smead and followed the road until we found the spot where Hush had been. I heard a soft purr and he dropped down from a roof and curled about my legs, very pleased to see me. I knelt down to pick him up and scratch his head.
“I can’t see where he went in,” said Jason. It took us about an hour of hunting before we spotted the small gap in the paving stones in an alley between two warehouses. The room Hush had found was beneath the ground. No wonder there was so little light.
Jason kicked at the dank and mossy soil with his boots. “Here,” he said, finding the edge of an old trapdoor. He dug around it with his spade and then wedged the crowbar under it. I thought he would yank it open right away, but he looked up at me, a sparkle in his eyes, nodded his head and grinned. Then he yanked.
The door came up slowly and we could see stairs leading down. “Better prop this open,” he said, leaning a wooden stave he’d found up against it. He handed me a flashlight and down we went.
The life that filled that tiny space felt small and sad to me. I wouldn’t be able to draw here. It looked like part of a basement for one of the warehouses nearby. The wall had probably been filled in and the space rented out cheaply. An old wooden table with the chair Hush had broken next to it. A pile of what looked like rotted blankets against one wall making a space that was probably for sleeping. A shelf with what might once have been clothes. A few papers on the table.
“There’s nothing worth saving here,” said Jason, softly. I nodded, feeling very uncomfortable. The ghosts in the walls were so sad and small.
Jason shone his light on the fireplace, studying how best to remove it while I went to the table. There wasn’t much room for the two of us. I couldn’t imagine how unpleasant it would be to live here in the dark, under the pavement.
I shone my light on the papers. The top one was a faded blue. I could clearly see the words “Packet Ship” across the top and a date written boldly below, “1 August 1864”.
Jason was busy levering out the fireplace now and I stood further back, against the wall. Then I saw the name of the passenger, “Gustav Schapps”.
“We have to leave!” I said.
“Just a second,” heaved Jason. I could see the fireplace was almost out.
Jason heard the terror in my voice. “What?” he asked. Then the fireplace fell out of the wall.
Our eyes leapt to it, and mine to the space behind. There was a sack there hanging from a hook. Jason slowly reached in and drew it out. It was heavy and the hessian gave way, scattering the contents.
In the light we could make out gold pocket watches, brooches and jewellery bouncing across the tiny floor. The noise seemed overwhelming; then it was silent.
We brought it all home, along with the fireplace, and I told Jason the story as we sat in the Hackney Pearl having lunch.
Franz Muller was a distant relative who wanted to emigrate to America. He couldn’t afford the ticket, or to live on the other side, so he started stealing. He’d follow people on the trains who looked wealthy and then rob them. Sometimes he would murder them too. One of those robberies went wrong. Thomas Briggs was the man he killed on the train to Hackney. Briggs was quite a strong man and he’d become suspicious of the way Franz had been eyeing him on the train. They fought, but Franz was brutal and stabbed him repeatedly. He fled as soon as they got to the station at Hackney Wick.
There he made to the hide-out he shared with his accomplice. That was Gustav Schapps. They intended to travel to America together and both had tickets for the same boat.
Franz sold the watch and chain he’d stolen from Briggs to a jeweller in Cheapside. Franz had also left his hat behind in the carriage with Briggs. The police were soon looking for him and he needed to hide before his ship left.
The part of the story that is public is that the police got to New York first and arrested Franz, brought him back to England and hanged him. Only my family knows the rest of the story. That Gustav and Franz quarrelled and that Franz killed him. Franz only realised afterwards that he didn’t know where Gustav had hidden the valuables they intended taking with them. Franz travelled alone and was never linked to any of the other crimes.
I wasn’t sure how Jason would take all this. It wasn’t like I had anything to do with the murders but, even 150 years later, there was blood on these things. He wasn’t troubled.
“Seems like no-one owns these anymore. Even the ghosts are sleeping. My offer still stands. Will you share the value of these with me?” And he smiled, his eyes warm.
I smiled back, “Of course.”
So we did. We sold them on eBay. Made quite a fortune for them and we’re living happily together.
As for Hush, the only other witness, well, he’s terribly discrete.