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The Gathering Place

by  BurntOutHack

Posted: Thursday, August 25, 2005
Word Count: 1162
Summary: Opening chapter of my book. The rest of the book is written. About to start seeking agents, late Aug 2005.

North London
February 1939

It lasted just a few moments, that struggle on the hill, but it gave her a sense of the killer she would become.
They hadn’t found her yet, those people who would teach Abigail Wilman the art of murder, and that morning her only preoccupation as she followed the path down Primrose Hill was that her new shoes had torn a stocking heel.
The view across the city was obscured by a heavy smog and the few people who passed her did so like ghosts, their faces hidden behind umbrellas and scarves.
She was almost upon the man before she saw him. A hulking figure with a pinstripe jacket held around him like a shawl. Trousers kept up with string. He was slouching against the column of a gas lamp that bathed him in a sickly yellow light.
“Good morning, miss,” he began. “You haven’t seen a little bulldog up there, have you?”
“No, I’m sorry. I haven’t.”
Abby moved to pass on the left but with unexpected speed the stranger peeled himself away from the column and blocked her path.
Abby halted. She saw herself through his eyes: a gangling nineteen-year-old alone in a park. There was still twenty feet between them. She could go round him but the grass was frosty. She pictured herself slipping, how he’d offer his hand...
“Excuse me,” she said. “May I pass?”
“You’re not giving us the cold shoulder, are you, sweetheart? I hate that.”
In the silence, his booming laugh was like an act of violence. He started to make some remark about wanting to see her legs but the phrase died in his throat when she began walking straight at him. At the last moment she darted to the right but he lunged and grabbed her around the cuff. Abby twisted her hand and with the flat edge pushed down against his wrist and felt an ecstatic rush as he released her and thudded to his knees, barking in pain.
She could still hear him shouting obscenities in his razor-blade voice when she reached the street. The feint and the hand chop had been instinctive – how was that possible? Her friends would have been in tears back there but Abby had just found it, well, exhilarating. They always said she was a hard one – “cold” was a word that had been used – but she thought the problem was more that they were over-sensitive.
She could think about that later. A more pressing concern was that both heels had now been torn in the scuffle and were bleeding profusely.
It was eight minutes to ten. There was just enough time to make a detour to the nearest ladies outfitters. She pushed the pain to the back of her mind and sped up.


Abby approached the white stucco house in Chalcot Square as a distant clock struck the hour. Deftly, she ran her fingers down the seams of her new stockings to check they were straight, and pressed the top bell. After a long wait, the door was opened by a pale man in his early thirties who introduced himself as Tom Havelock.
“This way, please, Miss Wilman,” he said, tucking his shirt in and ushering her into a dark hallway. “So you found us all right. You’ve come from – the lightbulb’s just gone so take care on the – Clapham? Streatham, rather.”
“Balham,” she said.
Havelock maintained his nervous banter as they wound their way to his flat on the top floor. In the study, Abby was offered a seat, which she first had to clear of music scores, newspapers, back copies of The Affairs magazine and a scowling tabby.
For the next half an hour, Havelock (“Oh God, call me Tom”) attempted to make two cups of tea while summing up what The Affairs was all about. He was the “editor, proprietor, what have you” of this monthly journal for left-leaning writers, artists and thinkers. It was a hotch-potch of reviews, poems, criticism, a lot of letters and not a lot of advertising, although he was doing his best to change that.
The operation was a small one, just him and the new secretary’s post she was applying for. His wife Caroline helped with proof reading when she was able but she was a portrait artist and spent her days flitting between her studio and a gallery she managed in the West End.
“I can get in a bit of a state, I’m afraid, Abigail,” Tom said, finally handing her the tea and settling down with her letter of application.
“Yes. A bit flustered, Abby, when things pile up. You should know that about me.”
At the sound of a car pulling up, a look of panic crossed Tom’s face and he darted to the windows. Whatever he saw – or didn’t see – instantly brightened his mood.
“Working here won’t exactly be like…” His eyes flicked down to the letter. “Garwood’s?”
“They’re a food importers on The Strand. It’s a good place but I want to learn about the world and there’s not much of it there.”
“I can imagine. And you say you’re fluent in French? I suppose that’s obvious from your accent. But a lot of our articles come from France and I need a good translator more than anything.”
“Yes, I’m fluent. My parents were both dead by the time I was six and I went to live with my aunt and uncle in France. My uncle worked for the Paris office of an English bank. I lived there until I was fourteen. My aunt divorced and came back to England. I did my last two years at a grammar school and then went to secretarial college. Garwood’s is my first job.”
Tom detailed holiday entitlement and salary and promised to let her know within the week whether she had been successful. Abby was on the stairs when he asked his final question.
“Oh, one final thing. It says in your letter that you were expelled from your last school.”
“St Margaret’s in Epsom, yes.”
“And why was that, I-I-I was wondering… It’s not important, of course.”
Abby stopped on the turn. She was getting tired of Tom Havelock’s prevarications. He needed to learn to just say things.
“In that case,” she said, “I look forward to hearing from you.”
“Well, I mean, it would be nice to know.”
“It was nothing to be ashamed of. That’s why I mentioned it in the letter.”
“And so what happened?”
“A younger girl was being bullied.”
“I see. And you...?”
Abby took the next step down. “I stopped it,” she said.
Tom noticed her bloodied heels. And then she was gone.
Later, as he sat in the dying light with a tumbler of Scotch, Tom Havelock thought about those heels, and how much pain the girl must have been in, and how she hadn’t shown it for a single moment.