In the previous chapter we met the members of the Sewing Circle and discovered that their happy retirement was marred by the presence on one particularly disruptive family on the estate. https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/smorgasbord-short-stories-the-sewing-club-part-one-by-sally-cronin/
THE SEWING CIRCLE – PART TWO
One Wednesday evening Flo Miles won over £500 on the bingo. She was ecstatic and could not wait to share her news with her closest friends in the sewing circle. One of her bingo pals owned a mobile phone and with great delight, Flo called Betty to tell her the news. What she didn’t know was that Sharon Jackson and her sister were sitting right behind her and had made note of the substantial win.
Betty suggested that her friend come round for a sherry to celebrate and Flo decided to call it a night and get a taxi back to the estate straight away. She left the bingo hall and looked up and down the street for one of the cabs that normally parked outside. Unfortunately, there was still two hours to go of the evening bingo session and the usual line of cars was not to be seen.
Flo was so elated by her win that she decided she wouldn’t hang about any longer and would walk the short distance home, something she had done many times. She was blissfully unaware that at precisely the same time Sharon Jackson was on her own mobile phone nor did she know that the woman was setting her up for another surprise tonight.
Despite being on probation, Sharon’s eldest son Darren had made little effort to control his violent and anti-social behaviour. When his mother had rung him, he was hanging out on one of the stairwells with two of his mates from his previous address. They had been drinking vodka and smoking shoplifted cigarettes as they sat on the steps leading to the top landing and they were fired up and ready for trouble.
Darren snapped shut his mobile phone and looked at his mates. “Mum says some old bitch has just won over five big ones at the bingo and is on her way home.” He smiled evilly showing brown discoloured teeth. “She says I can have half if I get the cash without being seen! Anyone fancy a laugh?”
With his two mates in tow, Darren scurried rat-like down the darkened stairs to the parking area below. Flo was just entering the estate from the main road, trying to move as quickly as possible in and out of the shadows that stretched outside the reach of the street lamps. She was looking warily around her but she held her head up high and marched determinedly in the direction of the flats.
As she approached the entrance to Betty’s block, she had to pass some dumpsters on her left and failed to notice the movement in the darkened recesses between the bins. Suddenly a hand was clamped over her mouth and her bag, which was held tightly under her arm, was ripped away. She struggled as she fought for breath and she found herself on the ground feeling the jagged gravel through her clothing. Her eyes widened as she put her hands up to try and pry loose the hand around her mouth, and they looked pleadingly up into the hard eyes of her attacker who she recognised immediately.
Darren knew that the old bitch had made him and he had a decision to make. Should he do a runner with his mates, with the bag, and wait for the coppers to catch up with him? He was on probation now but this would certainly get him inside some juvenile detention centre. On the other hand, he could finish the job here and now. He held his hand tightly cupped over Flo’s nose and mouth and pressed down steadily as her struggles weakened and finally stopped. Satisfied that he had eliminated his victim and witness to his crime, he slid back into the shadows where his friends waited in breathless admiration.
Betty laid out the sherry glasses and some special crisps that she had bought for the next sewing circle meeting. After half an hour, she became worried that Flo had still not appeared and crossed to her lounge window overlooking the parking lot. At first, she saw little but as her eyes adjusted to the dark outside, she noticed a heap of what appeared to be clothing lying by the dumpsters. For some reason a feeling of dread passed through her and she rushed to the phone to call Big Sal who lived two floors up from her.
“Sal, can you come down, I think something has happened to Flo and I don’t want to go outside alone.”
Within minutes Sal was at the door and the two elderly women walked hand in hand towards the dark shape lying motionless on the ground. As they got closer they saw a hand, palm up stretched pleadingly in their direction. Hearts beating rapidly they drew closer and looked down at the frail face of their beloved friend. Betty immediately knelt down and touched Flo’s face.
“She’s still breathing Sal. Quickly, go and call an ambulance from my flat while I stay with her.” She handed her keys to Sal who hesitated for a moment tears pouring down her face. “Hurry Sal, don’t worry I will be fine.”
As Sal hurried inside, Betty cradled Flo’s head in her lap and leaned as close as she could to her motionless friend. As she bent forward, she thought she heard a whisper coming from the bruised lips.
“Flo, it’s me Betty, what is it love?” She gently stroked Flo’s forehead.
“Jackson……boy…..” With that, Flo breathed softly and for the last time.
By the time the police and ambulance arrived on the scene, Darren Jackson was on the back of his cousin’s motorbike and halfway to his aunt’s house on the edge of Epping Forest. He was celebrating his elevation to hardened criminal by replaying the incident repeatedly as he clasped his cousin around his waist. Little did he realise that like his father before him, he had botched a job.
The Jackson family were well known by the police and it was not long before Sharon’s sister found a number of coppers on her doorstep with a warrant. They found a newly scrubbed Darren wearing his cousin’s clothes and smirking as his alibi was established by his extended family — and a few of their mates for good measure. Without forensic evidence and with their only witness lying in the mortuary at a South London hospital the investigation stalled.
Everyone knew however, who had murdered their beloved Flo and even families on the Redgrave who had never spoken to the old lady, stopped at Betty’s flat with shop-bought cakes and sympathy. The other members of the sewing circle sat in vigil with their distraught friend as she repeatedly relived finding Flo in that crumpled heap in the dark.
The police officer in charge of the investigation came from the area and knew both the Redgrave and the Jacksons well. He could only promise that he would not close the case but would watch and wait for Darren to return to his mother’s flat and get back with his little gang again. The detective was convinced that Darren would be unable to keep his mouth shut and would end up boasting about his first major excursion into his father’s violent world. When he did, the detective was sure that his informants in the area would find out and they would get Darren eventually.
The members of the sewing circle were united in their grief and spent the next week together in Betty’s flat, from early morning until late at night. The funeral was eventually arranged by Flo’s extended family and her close friends were all included at every stage. On the afternoon of the service, the sun shone in defiance and the five friends left Betty’s flat together walking proudly towards the waiting black cab that Flo’s family had laid on. They were all smartly dressed, wearing their best hats in honour of the occasion. The service was lovely and the five elderly women held hands as they watched the hearse taking Flo to the crematorium glide sedately pass them outside the church.
After the tea at a local pub, Flo’s eldest son took them home personally in his people carrier and walked them to the door of Betty’s flat.
“My mum would have wanted you to have first pick of her special things, so why don’t I come back tomorrow morning and you can come up with me and choose something to remember her by.” With a hug for them all, he left and the five filed into Betty’s kitchen to drink more tea and to reminisce into the night about their lost friend.
The next afternoon, instead of sitting around completing sewing projects, the women sat quietly as each held a memento in their laps. The objects were neither expensive nor necessarily attractive but they all reminded the women of some different aspect of Flo’s personality. Big Sal cradled a little ceramic dog that had obviously been lovingly handled over the years.
“Flo bought this when her little Yorkie died,” she wiped a tear from her cheek. “She was a feisty one that Flo and I bet if she was here she would have a thing or two to say about those bastard Jacksons.”
Sylvia examined her manicured nails and then looked up at the rest of the circle.
“I know if it had been one of us Flo would have marched up to that Sharon Jackson and given her one over the head with her brolly.”
The thought of the tiny Flo giving slovenly Sharon a good slapping made her friends laugh and within minutes they started to throw in other suggestions of what evil might befall the Jackson clan. As the proposed retribution became more and more virulent, the laughter died away and slowly the five women began to look at each other in silence.
Big Sal picked up her copious black handbag and extracted a pencil and a piece of paper. On the back of an old shopping list she jotted down some of the ideas already mentioned and sat hand poised to record any more.
Maggie Baxter, who was proudly conversant with the entire Bible, clapped her hands and grabbed everyone’s attention.
“Then will I also walk contrary unto you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins.” Maggie smiled at them all. “That book of Leviticus was sure clear about making those poor Israelites pay and I guess what was good enough for them is good enough for those Jackson’s”
Mary Jones who was the frailest of the group looked worriedly at her friends.
“But what can we do, we are only a few old ladies and those Jacksons have a big family and they are all thugs and thieves.”
Big Sal reached over and patted her hand gently.
“Don’t worry love; I think we can bank on a few recruits from the other residents and what we don’t have in brawn we will make up for in brains.”
Sylvia sat silently, wiping the odd tear from her heavily made up face. What the other members of the sewing circle did not know was that Flo and Sylvia shared a secret from the past that made this violent loss even more poignant.
In her twenties, Sylvia had been vibrantly attractive and had met and married Davy Ross, a minor name in the East End. He had worked for Mike Mitchell who ran an extensive extortion and prostitution racket in the fifties and sixties and Davy was known for his temper and his ability to collect money with menaces.
Unfortunately, for Sylvia, Davy liked to take his work home with him and she spent quite a bit of time in the casualty department of the local hospital having ‘bumped into’ fixed objects in her home. Friends tried to persuade her to leave him but Sylvia knew that he would find her and kill her if she left.
A job had been planned at a large high street bank and at the last minute, a member of the gang got nicked and a replacement had to be found. Mike Mitchell who had masterminded the job recruited Davy into the team, a little reluctantly bearing in mind his unpredictable temper. He was right to be concerned as the night watchman at the bank ended up getting more of a hiding than he might have done with the original set up. Unfortunately for Davy, the guard survived and was able to give the police an accurate description of his assailant. Davy knew the score and accepted his ten years inside without grassing up either the other members of the gang or his boss, who honoured the unspoken code of the East End by making sure Sylvia was taken care of.
Sylvia knew that with good behaviour, her violent husband might be out in five or six years but she hoped that his own basic nature would guarantee that he would not be able to keep his fists to himself for that long. She had originally trained as a hairdresser and she opened a little shop close to her home and began to live a new life.
Flo was one of her regular customers and being from the area was fully aware of Sylvia’s past troubles, although they were never mentioned. Neither was the increasingly frequent visits to the shop by Mike Mitchell, who was crossing the bounds of the accepted code of behaviour by fancying the wife of one of his own men, who was serving time for one of his jobs.
Sylvia was wary at first, as she knew the man’s reputation, but he was good looking and charming and began to show her a life that she did not know existed. Fancy restaurants and weekends in the country — away from the prying eyes of the East End, and Mike’s wife — definitely clouded her judgement and she found herself falling in love with the mobster.
Their affair lasted two years and in that time, Sylvia neither wrote nor visited Davy in prison despite his constant demands. Unfortunately, nature stepped in and Sylvia found herself telling Mike that he was going to be a father in seven months’ time. This fact did not overly please him as he already had four children and a wife who would take him to the cleaners if she found out. Despite being a hard man, Mike loved his family and had to convince Sylvia that if she kept the child it would have to remain a secret. Not only that, but Davy was not going to be happy about finding out, which would be very dangerous for both Sylvia and the child.
This proved to be the case when a woman who lived in Sylvia’s street decided to inform her husband on a prison visit of the local gossip and the possibility that Sylvia was expecting. The man got a broken jaw for his trouble when he passed the information onto Davy and within days, a message was passed to the outside.
Sylvia was locking up her hairdressers for the night when two men grabbed her from behind and dragged her into a nearby alley. Two hours later Flo was passing on her way to the Bingo hall when she heard what she thought sounded like a frightened kitten in the narrow gap between the buildings. She ventured a little way into the darkness and saw an arm protruding from behind a heap of rubbish bags. She rushed forward, completely oblivious to her own safety and found Sylvia curled up holding her stomach with one arm as she bled across the dirty cobblestones.
Flo rushed back into the street and got a man to go to the nearest phone box and call for the police and ambulance before returning to cradle Sylvia’s head in her lap while they waited for help. She went with her to the hospital and was by her bedside when she regained consciousness after her operation. Sylvia suffered a broken nose and arm, crushed pelvis, fractured skull – and had lost her baby. As she looked down into the bruised and battered face, Flo knew that this was not the end. That Davy was not going to let it rest and would no doubt finish the job when he finally got out of prison.
Mike Mitchell was also aware that this beating was just an instalment and it was really no surprise to anyone that a week later Davy Ross unfortunately slipped on some soap in the shower and banged his head. He was dead when the guards found him. Sylvia was notified as she lay in her hospital bed coming to terms with not only the loss of her baby but also the fact that Mike Mitchell could now never come near her again in case he was implicated in her husband’s death.
Flo understood, being the mother of so many children herself and having lost one or two in early pregnancy, how Sylvia must be feeling and she was with her when the doctors told her that due to the beating she had received she would never be able to have any more children in the future. Over the next few years, Flo and Sylvia became close friends but the events surrounding the beating and death of Davy were never discussed again.
Even the other members of the sewing circle were unaware of the shared past of two of their closest friends and although they knew that Flo and Sylvia went back a long way they were taken by surprise at the level of grief that Sylvia experienced. She had cried for two days, refusing to leave her flat or even get dressed in one of her elegant but out-dated suits. She finally appeared at Betty’s flat and sat silently as mourners came and went with their offerings. Eventually her friends gave up trying to get her to talk but took it in turns to sit holding her hand and leaning in so that she could feel their comfort.
As a memento of her beloved friend, Sylvia had chosen a pale yellow silk scarf that Flo had worn often. She now ran the scarf through her fingers time after time before looking around at the others as they sat quietly remembering their friend.
“It would be lovely to see the Jacksons brought down and all sorts of evil things done to them but we have to be realistic about what we can do ourselves.” She sighed wearily as her friends listened intently.
“The younger kids are not to blame but they should not be with that mother of theirs, they deserve a chance to live a decent life.” She paused and looked down at the scarf wound through her fingers.
“Sharon Jackson and that son of hers deserve everything they get and we need to make sure that they never do this to anyone else again.” She gave a tight smile.
“We have to get to Archie Jackson inside and feed him a story about Sharon and he will take care of her for us.” Her friends listened in fascination as Sylvia displayed a side of her they had never even imagined before. “After that he needs taking care off so that he can have nothing more to do with his kids as they grow up.”
“As for that Darren, he is past redeeming and needs to be got rid of like any other vermin on the estate and we have to get him to do the job on himself.”
The others looked at each other and realised that if they were to undertake this revenge on the Jacksons they were reverting to the old life that they had known as teenagers and young women living in the East End. They knew that if they didn’t do something then the Jacksons would continue to terrorise this estate and any others they moved to. The key was to cut the head off the clan in the form of Sharon Jackson. Without her around, and Archie taken care of in prison, the younger members of the family would be put into care and unlikely though it seemed, that might give them a chance of a better life than remaining with their mother and father. Darren however had to go, as they knew, without any doubt, that he had cold bloodedly killed Flo. He now had power and he would use it against people for the rest of his life.
©SallyCronin The Sewing Circle 2004