Limehouse Nights, by Thomas Burke


TOM THE TINKER came off the lighter in mid-stream near Limehouse Hole, and was taken to the landing-stage in an absurdly small rowing-boat. His face was cold and grey, his clothes damp and disordered. He had been on a job. Under the uncommunicative Limehouse night the river ran like a stream of molten lead. Stately cargoes pranced here and there. Fussy little tugs champed up-stream. Sirens wailed their unhappy song. Slothful barges rolled and drifted, seeming without home or haven. Cranes creaked and blocks rattled, and far-away Eastern voices were usually expressive in chanties. But Tom the Tinker saw and heard nothing of this. He had not that queer faculty, indispensable to the really successful cracksman, of paying rapt attention to six things at once. He could only concentrate on one thing at a time, and, while that faculty may serve in commerce and office business, it will not serve in the finer, larger spheres of activity. Here are wanted the swift veins, the clear touch, imagination in directed play; every tissue straining at the leash, ready to be off in whatsoever direction the quarry may turn.

Tom the Tinker, I say, saw only one thing at a time, and on this occasion he was concerned with the nice arrangement of the Bethnal Green jewellery rampage. He did not, therefore, on arriving home, observe the distracted manner of his wife.

When he entered the kitchen of his house in Pekin Street, Poplar, he noted that she was there; and that was all. The merest babe, though preoccupied with burglary preparations, would have noted more. He kissed her, perfunctorily. She wound both arms about him, also perfunctorily.

“Ding–Dong been here?” he asked.

She said: “Yes, Ding–Dong’s been.”

“Anything to say?”

“Nope,” she replied, and continued to puff her cigarette.

He sat down, lifted a smoke from her store, and lit it. His eyes fell to the floor; his hands sought his pockets. His wife looked swiftly at him. He might have been asleep.

She was a woman who had passed the flush of girlhood, but was not yet old; twenty-nine, maybe; old enough in those parts, though. Still, there were some who had looked upon her and found her not altogether to be despised. There was, for example, Ding–Dong. Somehow, her mouth always tightened when she thought of Ding–Dong; tightened, not in vexation or as a mouth tightens when about to speak hard words, but as a mouth tightens when about to receive and return a kiss. As she sat staring upon her lawful mate, Tom the Tinker, she recalled a certain amiable night when Tom had been giving his undivided ttention to a small job — he only worked the small jobs — in Commercial Road, which had long needed his services.

Do you remember that little four-ale bar, the Blue Lantern, in Limehouse, and the times we used to have there with that dear drunken devil, Jumbo Brentano? Well, it was there, amid the spiced atmosphere of the Orient and under that pallid speck of blue flame, that Jumbo Brentano introduced Ding–Dong to Tom the Tinker as a likely apprentice. His recommendation had taken the form that young Ding–Dong was one of the blasted best; that he’d give his last penny away to a pal; that he’d got the pluck of the devil, where danger was concerned; the guts of a man, where enterprise was concerned; and the heart of a woman, where fidelity and tenderness were concerned. (This last comparison by a well-meaning seeker after truth who knew nothing about Woman.) Moreover, he’d been “in” five times for small jobs, and had thoroughly fleshed his teeth in the more pedestrian paths of his profession.

It is curious to note that although Jumbo was hopelessly drunk when he effected this introduction in such happy prose-poetry, he spoke little more than the truth. Can you wonder, then, that when a full-blooded girl like Myra, wife of Tom the Tinker, met a boy so alive, so full of these warm virtues, her heart should turn aside from her man, who possessed only the cold, negative virtues, and go out, naked and unashamed, to Ding–Dong?

You can’t wonder. That is precisely what Myra did. She loved Ding–Dong. She loved him for his superb animal body, and also for his clear honesty, strength and absurdly beautiful ideas of playing the game. She hoped she had cured him of those ideas on the night upon which she now let her memory stretch itself. On that night Ding–Dong had come to the little lurking cottage near the raucous water-side, and found her alone; and, he being full of beer and the intent glee of the moment, had tried to kiss Myra. She had repulsed him with a push in the mouth that had made him angry, and he returned to the assault. His large, neat hand had caught the collar of her blouse and ripped it fully open. His free arm had slipped her waist and twisted her off her feet. Then he flew at her as a hawk at its prey. A beast leapt within him and devoured all reason. He crushed her against him, and, as their bodies met in contact, she gasped, resisted his embraces with a brief and futile violence, and, the next moment, he found himself holding a limp and surrendered body.

“Let me go, Ding–Dong,” she had cried.

“No; I’ll be damned if I do!”

“I’d just hate for you to be damned, Ding–Dong,” she had said, nestling to him with an expression at once shy and wild. Then wonder awoke within their hearts, wonder of themselves and of one another and of the world, till, very suddenly, the beer went out of him and he flung her aside, and bowed his head, and turned to the door.

“Where are you going, Ding–Dong?”

“‘Eh? Oh, home. I’m sorry. I fergot. I was a bit on, I think. I been a beast.”

“No, you ‘aven’t.”

“But I should ‘ave been, if I ‘adn’t remembered. P’r’aps you’ll fergive me later on. Bye-bye.”

“But you ain’t really going?”


“But — here — going?”


“Well . . . ” She looked at him, then lifted a delicate finger and pulled his ear. “Well . . . you damn fool!”

And somehow he felt that he was.

He felt it so keenly that it seemed to be up to him to repudiate the soft impeachment. So, whenever Tom the Tinker was professionally busy, Ding–Dong, blond and beautiful and strong as some jungle animal, would come to the cottage, and many delirious hours would be passed in the company of the lonely, lovable Myra.

He began to be happy. He began to feel that he really was a man. He was asserting himself. He had stolen another man’s wife — sure cachet of masculinity. At the same time he had done nothing dirty, since the man in question didn’t want her; had, indeed, often said so in casual asides, uttered in the intervals of driving steel drills through the walls of iron safes.

Yes, Ding–Dong had shown that he was a real man all right; one who could throw himself about with the best. Morally, he swaggered. He thought of the maidens he had loved: poor stuff. He thought of his pals who either were married or did not love at all: poor stuff entirely. It was himself and those like him who were the men. Masculinity, virility only arrived with intrigue.

Myra learned to love him furiously, idiotically. She would have died for him. She knew by the very beat of her pulses when he stood a little away from her that this was her man; this and no other. Come what might of dismay and disaster, this was the man ordained for her. And he . . . did he love her? I wonder. In his own naïve, cleanly simple way he centred his existence on her, but it was rather because she was to him Adventure; fire and salt and all swiftly flavoured things.

Tom the Tinker told her none of his secrets or business affairs. He had the cheapest opinion of women, except for hygienic purposes, and did not believe in letting them know anything about business affairs when they stood in the relationship of The Wife. But from Ding–Dong, in whom Tom did confide, Myra learnt all she wanted to know. It was from him that she had learnt of the Bethnal Green jewellery rampage, which was to come off that night; and if, as has been said, Tom had been able to give his mind to more than one thing at a time, he would have noted the evident disturbance which now held her, and have speculated upon its cause. Its cause happened to be an inspiration which had come to her the moment Ding–Dong, resting in her plaintive arms under the cool order of her autumn-tinted hair, had let drop the plans for that night.

Since the appearance of Ding–Dong in her musty life she had come to hate Tom. She hated him because he had drawn her into the bonds of matrimony, and then had shown her that he regarded her as only a physical necessity. She hated him for his mistrust of her, for his reticence and for the sorry figure he cut against the vibrant Ding–Dong. She was ripe to do him an injury, but, by his silence about his affairs, he gave her no chance. And now Ding–Dong had, all innocently, placed in her hands the weapon by which she could strike him and force him to suffer something of what she had suffered as a matrimonial prisoner. He should have a taste of the same stuff. She knew that once he was nabbed a good stretch was awaiting him — five years at least — since he had long been wanted by the local police. She might, of course, have surrendered him at any time, but that would have meant an appearance in the witness box, and she did not wish to play the rôle of the treacherous wife; much better to let the blow descend from out of the void.

Half-past twelve was the time fixed for the meeting between Ding–Dong and Tom, and it was now ten o’clock. Tom still sprawled by the fire, staring cataleptically at the carpet, and presently Myra languidly stretched herself and got up.

“Got no beer in the house,” she said, addressing the kitchen at large. “I’ll just pop round to Lizzie’s and borrow a couple of bottles.”

She swung out of the kitchen, sped swiftly upstairs, found a hat and cloak, and slipped from the house. But she did not go towards Lizzie’s. She went into East India Dock

Road and across to a narrow courtyard. Leaning against a post at its entrance was a youth of about eighteen, a frayed Woodbine drooping from his lips.

“That you, Monico?” she asked, peering through the gloom.

“You’ve clicked.”

“D’you know where Wiggy is? Go’n find ’im for me.”

The youth departed, and presently a greasy figure shuffled out of the courtyard; a figure known and hated and feared in that district; Wiggy, the copper’s nark. He looked up at the woman, who had drawn a purple veil across her face. “Wodyeh want?”

She told him. For three minutes she held him in talk. Then she disappeared as swiftly as she had come, disappeared in the direction of Pennyfields. At the corner of Pennyfields is a fried-fish bar. She entered.

“D’you know a boy called Ding–Dong — comes in here every night? Big, fair-haired.”

“Yerss, I know ’im.”

“Has he been in yet?”

“‘Nit. I’m expectin’ ’im, though. ‘As supper ’ere every night ‘bout this time.”

“That’s right. Well, when he comes, will you tell him — and say it’s most particular — that they’ve changed the time. It was to be half-past twelve, but they’ve changed it to one o’clock. Just tell ’im that, will you? He’ll understand. One o’clock ‘stead of half-past twelve. See?”

“Right-o. I’ll see ‘e gets it.”

“Thanks.” And homeward she went, calling on the way for the two bottles of beer which had been the ostensible purpose of her errand.

Tom still sat where she had left him, and refused any supper. He was going out, he said, and would have supper with some friends. She needn’t sit up for him. So she took the two bottles up to her bedroom and sat in a hammock chair, drinking stout, which she found very comforting, and waiting anxiously for the hour when Tom would depart.

At five minutes to twelve she heard the door slam, and she knew that revenge was very near. Punishment would now swiftly fall upon the hated Tom the Tinker, and freedom would be hers and the joy of Ding–Dong’s continual presence. She opened the second bottle and drank to her new life. Oh, she was a smart girl, she knew; she was the wily one; she had ’em all beaten. Life was just beginning for her, and, under the influence of the stout, she dreamed a hazy dream of rejuvenation; how she would blossom into new strength and beauty under the admiring eyes and the careful ministrations of her Ding–Dong. Farewell the dingy little back kitchen. Farewell the life of slavery and contempt. Farewell the wretched folk among whom she had been forced to live while Tom pursued his dirty work. Hail to the new world and the new life!

Her head nodded, and for a few minutes she dozed. She was awakened by the sound of a creaking window. Then footsteps — stealthy, stuttering steps. They came up the stairway.

Ding–Dong! She knew his step. Her plan had come off. Tom had been nabbed by the cops; Ding–Dong had arrived half-an-hour after the appointed time; had waited for Tom; found that he had not arrived, and so had come to his place to make inquiries. Oh, joy! Now that Tom was taken, nothing that anyone could do could save him; so that it would be left to them only to enjoy the blessed gift that the gods had given to them; and by the time Tom came out again she would have won Ding–Dong entirely for herself, and he would have taken her to Australia or America.

The step stopped at her door, the handle was turned and in walked the intruder. She stared at him for a moment, then a low, nondescript cry burst from her throat: the cry of a cornered animal.

Tom the Tinker came into her bedroom. He was more agitated than she had ever known him to be. He showed no surprise at finding her out of bed. On his shirt, just where his tie failed to cover it, were spots of blood. He sank into a chair.

“Myra, old woman, I’m done. There’s been some rough stuff. I ‘ad a job on, at Bethnal Green. With Ding–Dong. On’y ‘e was late. ‘Alf-an-hour late. If ‘e’d bin on time we could ‘a’ done it and fixed our getaway. But ‘e was late. And the cops must have ‘ad the office. I didn’t wait. I went in alone, and when I ‘eard the jerry I up and off over the wall at the back, where it was clear. But just as I up and off, old Ding–Dong, ‘earing the schlemozzle, come running up, and they copped ’im fair. I slipped round to see, and he lashed out and sent a cop down with a jemmy. Then they drew their whackers and smashed him on the ‘ead. He fell kinder sideways, and come with ‘is ‘ead crack on the kerb. ‘E’s dead now. Dead. I ‘eard it from Paris Pete, who followed ’em up to the station. Dead, ‘e is. ‘E was a blasted good feller. . . . Well, I levanted, but I reckon they got me taped somehow. I ‘it one of the cops — ‘it ’im ‘ard. And now I got to lie under a bit, till it’s blown over. I’m all right, I think; they don’t know me. I bin too careful alwis. They don’t know I b’long ’ere. So I’m all right, if you’ll stand in, old woman. You won’t let on, will yeh? Nobody knows about it but you and Ding–Dong. And ‘e’s dead. They’ll never git me unless you go back on me. You’ll ‘ave to play up a bit, cos I sha’n’t be able to git about at all for a bit. You’ll ‘elp us out, old woman, won’t yeh? I bin a good ‘usban’ to yeh, ain’t I? I ain’t never let yeh want for nothing, ‘ave I?” She seemed to catch a sob in his throat. “Ol’ Ding–Dong . . . ” he stammered. “Blasted good feller. . . . Dead, ‘e is. Yeh won’t go back on me, will yeh?”

She flung herself back in the hammock and laughed, a high, hollow, staccato laugh, in which was weariness and bitterness.

“Oh . . . that’s all right, Tom. Yerss . . . I’ll . . . I’ll stand in. Oh, but it’s dam funny . . . ” And she went off into peals of muffled laughter.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51