I am often absorbed by obsessions. I believe that our obsessions help to drive and direct our writing so I give them free rein to see where they will take me. For example, I have precision timing and so am often obsessed with time and hate being late. I currently have a character with a similar characteristic and have had great fun playing around with it.
A few years ago I was on an Arvon course with Melvyn Burgess and Malorie Blackman - a great week. Melvyn had brought out Nicholas Dane, an extraordinary story of child abuse with a character called Jonesy, who mirrored Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. When I spoke to Melvyn about his book he said, “ Was Bill Sykes an abused child?” I must admit that sent my mind whirling.
The killing of Nancy by Sykes has haunted me from childhood. I was terrified of Bill Sykes both when I read the Oliver Twist as a child and when I saw the striking, black and white, David Lean film version. For me, it has always been one of the most horrific murders in literature. When Dickens read out that passage, grown men would faint.
But I realised, after reading Nicholas Dane and talking to Melvyn, that the real horror in that murder for me is the fact that Sykes (and Melvyn does the same with Jonesy) covers his face in the final blows which kill Nancy. Does this show he is unable to totally separate himself from his innate humanity, cannot look upon his dreadful deed?
If Sykes was an abused child then that could explain his terrifying and bullying nature, while demonstrating childhood abuse had not killed every tiny bit of humanity in him. For me, this intensifies the horror of the deed.
When I went back to the original text I realised that after killing Nancy, Sykes walked a long way out of London. Like a man in shock he ‘turned down to Highgate Hill, unsteady of purpose, uncertain where to go..... then wandering up and down in fields, and lying on ditches’ brinks to rest, starting up to make for some other spot, and do the same, and ramble on again.’ He carries on, unable to stop anywhere to eat and drink, until finally he settles in the tap-room of some village pub where, ‘...he sat down in the farthest corner and ate and drank alone...’
My fascination turned into a poem in the voice of Sykes in shock and so the phrasing is deliberately awkward and intense.
‘Foulest and most cruel’
The killing of Nancy : ‘ Oliver Twist’ Dickens
Unspeakable, oh shut the dog!
Take the sun and block it out
But not the gun, a blasted sound
If she cries out, if they hear,
So beat down hard and hide your eyes
Beat down hard, club the head
Smash and grab and hide your face
Too dreadful, God, to look upon
The coward way, the bloodied bone
The pitted skull, the crumpled eye
Oh shut the dog, its scrabbled paws
This not her face beneath the rug.
© Miriam Halahmy