Yellow Mama Archives

Sarah Hilary
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Waiting, Wandsworth 1879


Sarah Hilary



The gaoler puts a match to the wick and lifts the lantern by its bail handle, high. Three more who’ve paid to see the death cell. Old women, always old women, because it was one of them Kate killed.


It isn’t cruelty brings them here. They don’t come to gloat. She sees their faces, guttering and tallow in the lamplight and hears the stiff brush of their skirts on the stone floor. It’s superstition. They look in the hope of reducing her.


She is monstrous, hunkered here.


A tiny crucifix wavers around one woman’s neck. That’s the size they’d like her. Fear in small measure can be succour.


She takes up too much room in the cell. They don’t like the meaty smell of her. That’s nothing—she sees the jam saucepan brimming full, the struggle she had fitting the lid over Julia’s face.


She struck a match, put fire under the first pot.


Father McEnrey fetches the final flame. It scuttles inside the cell; he cannot hold it still. He prays for her but even a priest has a mother and fright informs his muttering. Kate imagines Mrs McEnrey, arthritic, bent over by her faith.


Slowly, she stretches to her full length in the cell.


The drop, tomorrow. The shed. The chalk mark. There will be a hood, white, over her head. She makes one now from her fingers, drawing it down to cover her face.


Through the thick weave of her fingers, the flame watches her wait.





"Waiting, Wandsworth 1879" was inspired by the fate of Kate Webster, the last woman hanged at Wandsworth Gaol in London.


Fall River, August 1892


Sarah Hilary



          It was such a very hot day, the air flapping like a thick cloth in her face. She escaped the chores in the house, wandered into the yard.


          The prosecution said she didn’t visit the barn; the dust hadn’t been disturbed, they said, but Lizzie remembered the baking heat of the place, so parched a stray spark might’ve set it alight. The whole day was like that, tinder-dry, ready to go up.


          Abby was feather-dusting the furniture, fat slapping above her elbows, sweat wetting the armpits of her dress. Bridget was washing windows; you could hear the sloppy sound of the water from the back end of the yard.


          The sky was stretched like the skin on a drum, the sun beating there in a fury. Lizzie turned a fretful circle in the yard. She longed for lightning to slice the sky wide open, for the kiss of rain on her sun-battered skin.


          She went indoors before Father returned from work. She wore the cotton calico, sky-blue. Later, she put on heavy silk, winter bengaline they called it, navy-blue with pale flowers printed on the skirt. Too much dress for such a warm day. She was glad when the police took it away.


          Abby saw her coming, tried to run. Whack, whack, whack. Her head wouldn’t leave her shoulders, not quite, too many rubbery rolls of flesh in the way.


          Father was weary, propping his cheek on a cushion like a little boy. One whack and he was gone. Red pearls beaded the wall behind his head.


          Lizzie rolled paper and lit the stove. The hot day sucked up the smoke and turned the wood to white. She thrust the axe in.


          Ash leapt and clung to the ruddy head of the blade, flying up from the hearth like feathers.






“Fall River, August 1892” was inspired by the story of Lizzie Borden and originally appeared in the Fish Anthology 2008, as the Winner of the Fish Historical Crime Award.




The Hair of a Girl Who Killed Herself


Sarah Hilary



Saffron, dark saffron and glassy to the touch, it keeps growing. There is no gray, yet. Held against the light, the follicles fizz with static, climbing away from my hand and curling back around it, needling my palm. I keep it in a slim rope, slip-knotted.




It is simple economics. Supply and demand. Collecting true crime is no different to collecting Snoopy or Cabbage Patch Dolls. There’ll always be someone out there saying, “What the fuck d’you want that for?”


Floor boards from 25 Cromwell Road, Gloucester. Harold Shipman’s last prescription. Charles Manson’s charcoal sketches. Dirt from John Wayne Gacy’s crawl space and baking soda from Jeffrey Dahmer’s ‘fridge.


All I’m saying is, money will change hands. Money makes money and people take notice of stuff like that.


They sold lengths of the hangman’s noose in Tyburn, back in the day. It was meant to keep you safe from the same fate. People will believe anything. Now there’s eBay, and it’s gone global, out of control.


Sick people want keepsakes and scared people want a talisman. The wise and rich want an investment. Gacy does paintings of clowns, the freak. Like all art, it goes to the highest bidder and who the hell really knows how good or bad it is? A man kills someone—we can judge him. A man paints something and we stutter and abase before the canvas waiting to be told what the experts think.


“But is it Art. . .?”


The hair of a girl who killed herself might not fetch much on the open market but give her provenance, make her a victim and drive her underground—


I’m going to clean up, you wait and see. Posthumous notoriety has a ring to it. Better than being a nobody in the here and now.


I never liked my hair anyhow.





Sarah is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, The Fish Anthology 2008, Prick of the Spindle, The Best of Every Day Fiction, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, MO: Crimes of Practice. A column about the wartime experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in the Spring 09 edition of Foto8 Magazine.

Issue 25 of Foto8 Magazine carries her column, A Perspex Crucifix,

Her short story, Two Minute Silence, was shortlisted by Wigleaf for their Top 50 Stories of 2008,

Catch her blog,

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