What's Your Favourite Type of Pie?

Submitted into Contest #222 in response to: Start your story with a student on their first day of apprenticeship.... view prompt

17 comments

Coming of Age Drama Historical Fiction

“How long have you been doing this?”


“Twenty-five years, sir.”


“Remember your first, do you?”


He did.


*


The air was so cold that the thick skin of clean white gloss that covered the room of steel and brick could have been ice.


“Now, Albert, remember everything we talked about. We’re here to do a job. Simple as that. I’m the lead, you’re assisting. Easy money for you today, you’re here as a witness more than anything else. I’ll see to his bindings. Nothing for you to worry about.”


“Yes, Uncle Tom.” As they waited Albert found that his main concern was whether it was proper that he had carried his satchel into to room with him. His mother had prepared ham and pease pudding sandwiches for them. Two rounds each, thick sliced, to give him strength on his first job. They sat there now, heavy in the satchel, wrapped in greasy paper, one good stride from the trapdoor. Albert’s stomach rumbled.


“Mr Pierrepoint, not Uncle Tom. I’m Mr Pierrepoint in here, and so are you. Not that anyone should be talking to you. And there’s no need for you to be talking to anyone. Just pay attention to everything.” As Tom spoke he was checking the rope, testing that it passed smoothly through the metal eye to make the slipping loop. As calm as if he was fixing a puncture on his bike. He had taught Albert to do that too. 


“What if he talks to me?”


“They sometimes speak to the guards, sometimes God, occasionally me, but nowt that requires a response. If he speaks to you, say nowt. Alright?”


“Yes, uncle… Mr Pierrepoint.”


“Good lad. When it’s time the guards will come, we’ll go out into the corridor and then into the cell together. I’ll bind him, we’ll come into here through the adjoining door there,” Tom pointed to a white steel door only a few feet from where they stood in the small windowless room. “I’ll put him on the spot, put the cap on him, fit the rope and then it’s the lever.”


Albert saw the chest-high lever, clean and oiled like something a railwayman might use to change the points. Uncle Tom had tested it the day before when one confident pull had made an eleven and a half stone sack disappear through the banging trapdoor. Albert had apologised in his prayers that night for allowing his thoughts to drift to a memory of a music hall illusionist’s trick. In the chamber there had been no climactic fanfare, only the bang of the swinging trapdoor as the heavy sack vanished and the rope snapped bow-string tight. Albert hoped the banging would disguise any other noise. As a butcher’s boy he’d heard the pop and crackle of many a neck, but not one belonging to a being that read the newspapers, or smoked a pipe, or mended his bike.


“Do they just let you do it, Uncle Tom?”


“They do, lad. They do. They usually come to us ready. But we must be swift. Whole thing should take seconds. He’s in, into position, bag, rope, lever. No time for questions, no time for suffering.”


“What if we get our measurements wrong?”



“We don’t, lad. Never. That’s what yesterday was about.”


They had viewed the man through the Judas hole in a cell door that, it seemed to Albert, could have held back an ocean, let alone a slim young man, pale in the grey light of a high, barred window. Albert wondered what the staring boy had done to find himself alone and so close to the end of a life that should just be beginning. Uncle Tom knew, and had decided not to say. If Uncle Tom had decided not to tell Albert, then it was right that Albert did not know, and he should not ask. It was hard to believe that the slight body perched on the edge of the low prison bed was eleven and a half stone in weight. Uncle Tom had known the drop length from memory. Albert had consulted his official Home Office table to check. Uncle Tom had been right, of course. Six foot two and a half inches.


“But what if he does…”


“There was only once that one spoke to me if that’s what you’re still worried about. Your dad told me a good trick for dealing with it. This prisoner was panicking. The guards had had enough of him. There were three of them instead of the usual two. They were expecting bother. He was ranting, appealing to me, trying to make out that what happened next was up to me and that I could save him. Clock was ticking, it was only getting worse for him. When he started on about his kids I used your dad’s trick. I said, “What’s your favourite type of pie, lad?” Stopped him. He couldn’t help but think about what I’d said for a second. It was only a second, but long enough that the bag was on and he was gone. The human mind is prone to easy distraction, Albert, and it’s a very powerful thing.”


“But what happens if something goes wrong? What if he fights?”


“What’s the drop length for a nine stone chap, Albert?”


Albert pulled his new printed table from his jacket pocket and read off the number. And then several others as Tom fired body weights at him. It was as he was returning to the chamber from taking his satchel to the guard’s room on his uncle’s stern orders that he noticed how peaceful the corridor was. His steps clicked in a monastic silence. The violent purpose of the place was neutralised by hospital cleanliness. Albert preferred it to the chop and chatter of his usual work in the butcher’s shop.


Uncle Tom and two guards were already waiting for him outside the cell door. As soon as he joined the group of older men they moved, speechless and solemn through the door and into the cell where their group became five without question or pause. Then into the cold chamber where the lever reduced the group once more to four. Twelve seconds, cell door to trapdoor, his Uncle Tom informed him later. He had done well. Next time he would have more of a job to do.


Albert had walked with the two guards back to their room to retrieve his satchel and wait for his uncle, who had stayed in the chamber to complete the work with the assistance of unseen helpers in the room below. When Tom joined him in the guards’ room they ate their sandwiches, which tasted better than any Albert had ever eaten.


*


“Twenty-five years of murder! You don’t have to do this do you?”


The guards took half a step closer.


“No good man could do this!”


Albert reached into his jacket pocket and touched his old dog-eared Home Office drop table, where physics and biology conspired to do the law’s bidding.


“You don’t have to do this. Please, for God’s sake!”


Albert took the man by the arm and asked him very calmly, “What’s your favourite type of pie, lad?”


November 01, 2023 21:41

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17 comments

A.B. Writer
22:52 Nov 19, 2023

I love this story! I'm not one for the darker stuff, but this story hits me just right! I hope to read more of your pieces, and I hope that you would read mine! If you do, please like and comment so that I know who read. Thanks for writing!

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Chris Miller
23:00 Nov 19, 2023

Thank you, Avery. I will take a look. Thanks for reading.

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Ferris Shaw
23:01 Nov 14, 2023

I find the murderer's accusing the executioner of murder to be ironic in the extreme. Of course a good man could do what the executioner does; his job, while grim, is morally good. But the murderer, set to die, cannot or will not see that.

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Shirley Medhurst
17:39 Nov 08, 2023

What a powerful punch this story packs! Really well written - you build up the tension ever so subtly with the realistic-sounding dialogue between uncle and nephew. Bravo!

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Chris Miller
18:08 Nov 08, 2023

Thank you very much, Shirley. Pleased you enjoyed it.

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Kailani B.
17:47 Nov 07, 2023

I've heard that hangings are a very precise thing to calculate, but this puts that reality into sharper focus. Well done.

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Chris Miller
18:18 Nov 07, 2023

Thanks for reading, Kailani.

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Luciano Cortese
23:38 Nov 06, 2023

This is unapologetically dark and I love it. We’re rooting for Albert to see the light but we know it’s not going to happen. A really cool depiction of executioners, though I couldn’t quite get a read on when exactly this historical fiction takes place. Makes sense that Albert used to be a butcher’s apprentice, he’s probably already desensitized to animal death, and that’s the first step to becoming desensitized to human death.

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Chris Miller
08:03 Nov 07, 2023

Thanks Luciano. It's set in the '50s, but there isn't much to give the time away unless you already knew a little bit about Albert Pierrepoint. Maybe a line about his post war work would have helped fix it. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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Tom Skye
12:02 Nov 06, 2023

Great stuff Chris. I actually felt a little gut punch as soon as I realized what the subject matter of the story was. Possibly because of the contrast with the title. Very clever telling of this process, which was driven expertly by anticipated drama rather than actual drama. The pie distraction was a beautiful idea and perfect ending. It juxtaposed the concepts of guilt and death with something wholesome and safe. Something an inmate would even have early memories of. Maybe a pie cooked by a parent or partner. It is a simple aspect of lif...

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Chris Miller
13:56 Nov 06, 2023

Thanks very much, Tom. Your comment has made my day.

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Trevor Berndt
11:07 Nov 05, 2023

This is very well-written! I love the juxtaposing between the dirty work and the clean halls, intaking facts and figures as a way of coping with killing a human being. When something so dark becomes so practiced there's tips of the trade.

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Chris Miller
14:47 Nov 05, 2023

Thank you, Trevor. Pleased you enjoyed it.

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Michał Przywara
22:37 Nov 02, 2023

Great contrasts in this story - right form the title, which is such a silly, friendly question. A huge counterpoint to the business they do. No wonder it's so disarming. "What’s the drop length for a nine stone chap, Albert?" The distraction in practice :) Real life show-don't-tell. Albert doesn't even realize it, and probably won't for many years. There's a lot of ritual hinted at. The numbers, the exact measurements, the timings - all of this occupies the minds of the executioners. It keeps them focused, and perhaps keeps their minds f...

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Chris Miller
06:52 Nov 03, 2023

Thanks Michal. It's a very grim, but fascinating thing to think about. I had a bit about how the process was mechanised/industrialised linked to him being a butcher and equipment like the guillotine and electric chair, but it was all getting a bit flabby. It makes more sense if he doesn't think too deeply about it.

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Mary Bendickson
19:24 Nov 02, 2023

Chilling tale. You tell so well. Thanks for liking my Hometown Boy

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Chris Miller
19:41 Nov 02, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary.

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