One evening in 1906 a chubby little boy of seven, son of a London greengrocer, is taken by his father to visit the local police station.
There he suddenly finds himself, inexplicably, locked up for a crime he hasn't committed – or has he? Blinking into sunlight, traumatisedby his overnight stay, he is told by his father the next morning: "Now you know what happens to naughty little boys!" But the incident is the catalyst for a series of events that will scar, and create, the world's leading Master of Terror in the century to come…
The boy is Alfred Hitchcock.
The story is the gripping and evocative new novella by Stephen Volk, writer of the highly-acclaimed novella Whitstable – which featured Peter Cushing as its central character and was published in 2013 (also by Spectral Press) to coincide with the centenary of the great actor's death.
Leytonstone – like Whitstable – elevates fact (in this case an anecdote the famous director told repeatedly throughout his life) into resonant and poignant fiction, lifting the veil on not only the innocent and troubled young "Fred" but his emotionally needy mother and a father constantly struggling to do the right thing. But what none of them knows is that, after that fateful night and its consequences, their lives will be changed forever…
For many readers, Stephen Volk's Whitstable was one of the books of 2013, a gripping, affectionate and moving portrayal of Peter Cushing's twilight years. Now Volk has written a spiritual sequel in Leytonstone, a novella about the early life of Alfred Hitchcock.
If you're reading this review simply to find out if Leytonstone is as good as Whitstable, then be assured: the answer is very much yes. Leytonstone is another triumph.– James Everington, This Is Horror
The child's perspective of a night spent in a cell is both heart-breaking and terrifying, not least because young Fred [Hitchcock], whilst clearly badly frightened, is nonetheless removed from much of the histrionics or more obvious sentiment which one might normally expect a child to feel. Because of this, the tension and horror of the situation is exacerbated rather than mollified or lessened, and this entire section of Leytonstone is a tour-de-force of tension and fear, even edging onto gothic horror, all while rooted far too uncomfortably in reality.– Kit Power, Ginger Nuts of Horror
Leytonstone is intensely vivid, handled with sensitivity and poise, and every bit as impeccably crafted as Whitstable was. Just like its forebear, it's a thoroughly compelling and elegant tale give that special something extra by the considered addition of its choice of protagonist. Volk likely has another award winner under his belt, here. And rightly so.– Dread Central
"Desirée. . . Maxine. . ."
Pigeons nod at crumbs on a pavement.
"Burly Rose. . . Royal Kidney. . ."
Water empties over the flagstones. The winged pests scatter with a grey fluttering.
"Kennebec. . . Avalanche. . ."
Dark legs stride in mirror-black shoes. A man scrubs the pavement with the stiffest of brooms.
"Belle de Fontenay. . . Pentland Javelin. . ."
Indoors, a small framed picture sits like a window on the Byzantine Lincrusta wallpaper. Francis of Assisi, eyes turned piously upwards, arms outstretched like Christ on the cross, birds perched along them, treating them like branches, and aloft, circling his head and halo.
"Sharp's Express. . . British Queen. . ."
In the greengrocer's at five hundred and seventeen The High Road it is evening, but this room behind the shop is dark even at noon. The fruit and veg are out front to catch the sun, but the spuds, like the family, are kept at the back, in the gloom for safe keeping.
"Northern Star. . ."
The boy sits with elbows up on a plain wooden table, frowning with deepest concentration, hands cupped round his eyes.
"Eightyfold. . ."
Fred is a chubby little dumpling with a cockscomb of hair on top. (Born 1899—last knockings of the old century, when Victoria was still on the throne—making him just under seven now.)
"Evergood. . ."
A woman's hand removes the potato from the table-cloth in front of him, replacing it in a flourish with another.
"Up To Date. . ."
"King Edward. . ."
Another—the last, and it's done.
"Red Duke of York. . ."
She shows him her empty palms. The silent, regal mime of applause that accompanies a miniscule tilt of the head is praise enough to make his cheeks burn. Sometimes it takes a lot to make his mother smile, he knows, but when she does it's like getting a gold medal from the Queen. A V.C. for gallantry. And she is the Queen. In this house, anyway. Prim and proper and elegant—so much more elegant than any of his schoolmates' mothers. A different class entirely. And dresses—oh, immaculately. Never seen outside without her white cotton gloves. Spotless. What are the others? Loud-mouthed fishwives, most of them, with brown baggy stockings and bruises where they've been on their knees all day.
"Onions!" he cries. "Test me on the onions now! Please, Mother! I know them all!"
"Back home they say onions are a great cure for The Baldness," she singsongs in her Irish brogue. "Rub the scalp with a spoonful of onion sap, it'd put hair on a duck's egg!"
Fred chuckles, but at the sound of the latch the moment between them is lost, and so is the chortle in his throat.
His father comes in, taking off the flat cap which confers him a degree of status to those he employs, and hangs it on a peg. Unties the knot of his tan apron at the small of his back and dips his fingers in the font, quickly genuflecting to Our Lady before hanging up the apron on the hook behind the door.
"The sailor home from the sea," Fred's mother says, as if some joke is being shared between her and her son. Fred twitches a smile, but just as swiftly it is gone and he lowers his eyes.
His father washes the earth off his hands under the tap at the Belfast sink. Water runs black down the plug hole. The soap is an unforgiving brick. A disinfectant smell bites at the air. There is no mirror, but while his face is still wet he flattens his moustache and eyebrows with several strokes of a forefinger and thumb.
"Father, I've been learning how to—"
"Is he ready?"
The stiff tap turns off with a harsh twist leaving a stain of grime where the man's thumbs went. He dries his hands briskly in a tea towel. "Now, Bill," his wife says. "Just a little longer. . ."
"No." For once he gives her no quarter. He is adamant. "If it's to be done, let's have it done."
"Name o' God, let him have his tea first."
"Name o' God nothing." He returns the tea towel to its nail and rolls down his sleeves, folding over his cuffs and prodding in the links which he keeps next to his shaving paraphernalia on the shelf. "Fred, put your coat on, son."
Fred's mother rises and lifts the small tweed jacket from the back of Fred's chair and the child puts it on. It matches his shorts exactly. It's a suit like that of a grown man. She crouches in front of him, buttons it up, tucks his shirt tail in at the back, adjusts the knot of his little tie. Fred notices her smile is still there, yes—but it is not the same smile as was there before.
"Where are we going?"
"You're going with your father."
She wraps a woolly scarf around his neck. Knots it. There."Don't mollycoddle him, Em. Leave him."
His father takes a black jacket from its hanger, flicks off dust with his fingers and slips his arms into the sleeves. He takes a different hat—a black bowler this time—from the peg next to the flat cap.
"Come here," says Fred's mother to her child. She gives him a hug—a swift hug, but a tight one, then a kiss on the cheek so hard it almost hurts. She rubs the red stain from her lips off with a licked thumb. Then kisses him a second time, even harder. He tries not to wince. "I'm going to make a great big steak and kidney pie. That's your favourite—a nice big steak and kidney pie, isn't it?"
Fred nods enthusiastically then turns at the sound of a cough.
His father cocks his head for Fred to follow him. Which the boy does, smiling and obedient as ever and smiling because his mother is smiling, after all.
They walk through the shop, the boy behind the man, smelling the sweetness of carrots and parsnips and the cloying heaviness of soil and sacks and straw and the boy does not see his mother sit back at the table, her knees suddenly weak.
When she hears the front door open and close, the shop bell tinkle, she clutches her rosary beads, closes her eyes tightly and for several minutes thereafter silently prays into her white-knuckled hand to Mary, the mother of her God.
As they emerge from the dark interior, his father flexes his hand without looking down. Fred takes it. His own hand is warm and soft but his father's hard and ice-cold from the water. They walk away from the shop side by side. Sheaves of brown paper bags are strung up on butcher's hooks and so are pineapples. Nets full of golden-skinned baby onions sit beside wooden crates full of bananas. The trays of Granny Smiths are being carried inside at the tail-end of the working day. One of the assistants, one he likes, flashes Fred a grin and a wink while a different one with a waistcoat over his apron climbs up a ladder carrying the bucket with which he washed the pavement earlier. At the top of the ladder, whistling "After the Ball is Over" with jaunty vigour, he wipes a wet cloth over the mirrored sign above the windows.
"Where are we going, Father? Are we going to the sweet shop? Are we?"
Pigeons flee in the path of the two pairs of feet. Fred's grey school socks. His father's hobnail boots. Walking near enough in step past a horse and cart. The animal, barely a pony, is shorn half-way up. It has an unattended beard, but it has a horizon. And the name on the cart is the same as the one above the shop.
"Can I have some toffee? A big bit? The sort you break with a hammer? The sort grown-ups get?"
Fred looks up at his father eagerly.
Fred is level with his father's watch chain when he pauses before crossing the road, a dangling 'U' between his waistcoat pocket and his button-hole. His father takes his timepiece out, flips it open and looks at the face then tucks it away again.
The sun is sinking and the pigeons go where pigeons go when darkness falls. Fred mentally ticks off the manufacturers' names of cars as they pass. Panhard-Levassor, Humberette. Napier. An omnibus creeps by and he memorizes the number. Next stop, the ice rink. The bus behind it, Walthamstow. He knows the routes by heart. His father has said nothing for fifteen minutes, but then he's a man of few words. That's what his mother calls him sometimes: "Here he is—Man of Few Words." But the remark never made him more conversationally-inclined, possibly the reverse.
They cross the road to a red-brick building. Fred trails the fingers of his free hand along iron railings. Fixed to the bars is a shallow glass box and in the box he sees posters with faces on them. One shows a "heathen"—his mother's word, used ubiquitously—with staring eyes and a beard so stringy it looks as if it was combed with a knife. The one beside it displays a thick-necked lout with a V-shaped scar across his cheek. Next to it a woman with broken teeth, both pathetic and frighteningly aggressive, stares out at him. All three gone in a flash, but he has time to register the word "WANTED" above each of them.
He accompanies his father up a flight of stone steps in through a swing door under a blue lamp.
Inside, his father sits him on a plain wooden bench and Fred watches as he walks to a large desk behind which stands a policeman with a sergeant's triple chevrons on the sleeves of his black uniform. As if in competition, the policeman has an even bigger and darker moustache than his father's—"black as sin" his mother would say—and a razor-sharp centre parting that matches his ramrod-straight back and military bearing. It takes Fred a moment to pin it down, but he reminds him of illustrations in the Pictorial of Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum at the Rawalpindi Parade when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited India.
Fred watches as the two men's heads bend closer and they whisper to each other. He cannot hear what they say. He sees only the back of his father's head, the stubble the barber shaves with a razor up to the level of his ears. As he listens, the policeman looks over at Fred with glassy, unblinking eyes.Fred looks sharply down at his own dangling feet, and is reluctant to look up again. He sees a game of OXO written in ink on his knee during Arithmetic. He sucks his index finger and uses it to rub it off.
He is aware somebody is sitting on the bench directly opposite him because he can see shoes a bit like his mother wears sometimes, but scuffed and worn as if somebody has walked a lot in them. He can smell perfume too, or perhaps slightly stale talcum powder covering up another smell which might be beer. The woman's coat is long and he can see splits in the seams and a worn hem trailing on the floor. Her legs are crossed but they're lumpy and he can see the veins without even trying. She has a large nose for a woman and a cleft in her chin. Her head sways and her eyes struggle to stay open. Her face is white with pink blobs on her cheeks. As Fred stares—he can't help it—he can see the dots of whiskers sticking up through the white pan-stick. And the thick-knuckled hand that lifts a cheap cigarette to her lips has long black hairs on the back of it.
Fred looks down, then over at the desk.
Both his father and the policeman are looking at him, then his father beckons him with a single crooked finger.
Fred walks obediently over.The policeman finishes what he is writing with a sharp dot.
"This is him, is it?"
He comes round the desk. The handcuffs on his belt with the snake-shaped buckle are level with Fred's face. He extends a big flat of the hand, thumb curled up like a hook. Thrusts it towards Fred.
Fred retreats a step and sways unsteadily, looking up at his father.
His father nods.
Thus reassured, Fred takes the policeman's hand and shakes it, as he's been taught to do. He's been taught manners. He thinks the policeman is being friendly, and he thinks he is being friendly back. But the policeman doesn't let go. He just keeps shaking Fred's hand until Fred thinks it's time he let go of it, please. But the policeman doesn't.
Fred looks at his father but his father doesn't say anything. Perhaps he doesn't know anything is wrong. Is anything wrong?
The policeman walks away but to Fred's surprise he still hasn't let go of his hand yet. He is taking his hand with him. He is taking Fred with him.
Fred is confused. The policeman leads him towards a corridor of the police station.
Looking back over one shoulder then the other, Fred expects to see that his father is following them. But he isn't.
His father is just standing there. Arms hung straight at his sides. Bowler hat in one hand. Then he places it on his head.
Fred tries to use the soles of his shoes for brakes, to no avail, as he enters a corridor lined with heavy doors.
He tries to prise his fingers out of the policeman's big hand, but it's impossible. The man's grip is like iron—it has to be like iron, for handling criminals. That's obvious. But he isn't handling a criminal. He's handling a boy. A boy who is making little squeaky noises now. Who doesn't want to, but can't help it. Who starts to struggle and squirm but the policeman doesn't even look down at him.
Craning over his left shoulder then his right, Fred looks back down the corridor—which smells of wee—but there's no-one there any more, back standing by the big desk, and this draws out his voice, echoing from the tiles.