Have you heard the story of Jack, John and Jimmy Mastern? I suppose not; there are not many willing to speak of it, for fear of who may hear. But should you chance upon someone who will – an old woman, her tongue loosened by firelight and brandy; a hooded man in the darkened safety of a doorway – you will hear a story of men with monstrous faces, midnight screams on London Bridge, and deep red footprints found on Tooley Street at dawn.
Whilst sunlight jumps across the shimmering water of the River Thames, dancing off boats and from the polished shoes of the men and women rushing to and fro, beneath the cobbled streets London's underbelly breathes still. Names, hushed but not forgotten, are uttered in fearful whispers: Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, The Mastern Brothers.
Rumour has it that the Mastern Brothers are living still, hidden deep in the stomach of the city, seeking refuge in the cold, dank vaults of the London Tombs.
The three brothers, without a past, without a history, with only the clothes upon their back and their claim to the Mastern name, arrived on the streets of Southwark many years ago. The time was midwinter and they arrived with the snow, advancing up Tower Bridge Road like sooty ghosts amid a blizzard. Those that passed them as they approached the bridge gave them little heed; no more than the nod of a head or a murmured greeting to these three figures obscured by the thick white. It was only when the snowfall ceased, turned into a brown and soiled blanket underfoot, that their faces were seen, in a shock of caught breath and widening eyes.
The faces of the three brothers, illuminated by the cold winter light, were disfigured and strange. As if made of clay that unkind fingers had pressed and moulded into inhuman forms, the bones beneath the flesh were buckled and misshapen, and the skin stretched over was lacerated with scars. Those that set eyes upon the Mastern Brothers gasped and turned away, as though whatever afflicted these warped gargoyles was a disease that could be caught.
I have heard many stories about the brothers, and how they came to their disfiguration. Rumours spread like sewage across the city, seeping from mouth to mouth. Some say that they were the consequence of cross-breeding, that their mother was a giant rat that gave birth to three sons half man, half beast; and they, fuelled by their ugliness and their animal blood, clawed and tore at the skin on their faces. Others say that they came straight from the devil, belched up from hell onto the streets of London, demons of the night. Still others say that they were born beautiful, but that their father, maddened by rage and drink, took to his sons one night with fists or with a gouging blade.
As men and women do who are met with something strange and ugly, people avoided the Mastern Brothers, placing them out of sight and out of mind. Those who came across them in the street kept their eyes carefully trained to the pavement; the fruit vendor at Borough Market smiled gratefully at the hand that proffered the money, keeping his gaze averted from the face that bit the fruit. There was no cruelty shown to the brothers, but people recoiled from them, kept them always at a distance, and treated them with a mixture of caution, revulsion, and a sense of fear.
It was a dark, moonless night and winter was approaching. Men shrugged coats about their shoulders and hurried home, their breath rising in frosty wreaths as they went. From a steamy pub on the southern bank of the Thames four men spilled into the street, stumbling slightly under the weight of beer. Shielding themselves from the cold, they moved along the riverbank towards London Bridge, laughing. From a few streets along came the swelling sound of a raucous Christmas carol, words and melody jumbled and vague. The men turned onto London Bridge and began to cross. The water below was ink-black, and it moved with a heavy, lapping sound as if it were thick as oil. Across the water, the twin shapes of Tower Bridge stood murky and colossal like sentinels upon the river. London Bridge was empty, except for the four men, and three figures who approached them, crossing in the opposite direction.
These two groups passed each other in the centre of the Bridge. It would have been an uneventful passing, except that as the dull glow of a streetlight lit the faces of the three unknown figures, one of the four men looked up, straight into the face of Jack Mastern.
It was with the heat of whisky upon his tongue that the man, passing Jack Mastern, threw over his shoulder the first insult.
A man on Southwark Bridge at that time states that he heard shouts across the water and that, peering as much as possible in the night, he could make out the shape of silhouettes on London Bridge. A wrinkled woman with shaking hands who haunts the pubs along the bank of the Thames insists the fires of hell burnt in the Master brothers' eyes and that they tore the men to pieces with their teeth, but how she knows this she will not say. Many people say that they heard a single, bloodcurdling scream that echoed across the water, turning dreams to nightmares and sending dogs barking at the sky. Others say that they heard a wolfish howl and the sounds of whimpers.
Whatever happened upon that bridge, as the sun rose the next day, thick trails of blood were found leading to Tooley Street, and four women across the city, babies in arm, woke alone, wondering what had kept their husbands away the night through. And the Mastern Brothers were not seen again.
Rumour has it that they are living still, hidden deep in the stomach of the city. It is heard that that night they fled, dragging behind them the carcasses of their massacre, to the London Tombs. It is said that they can yet be seen, in caves whose walls are marked with blood, in the vaults beneath London Bridge. It is believed that they have struck a deal with the London Bridge Experience, who let them remain in the old plague pit of the city. It is whispered, in fearful tones with flashing eyes, that they may murder again, these three brothers, these monsters of the catacombs.