How creative a fertile imagination, given the opportunity!
Some time ago I wrote about Moon, the chef in the Chinese restaurant where I worked as a student, and how I was convinced that he had it in him to be a latter-day Jack the Ripper.
The summer when Moon and I worked together preceded the so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ era, though there is some evidence that Peter Sutcliffe may already have begun his attacks by then. By the time that I was married and living in a semi-detached house in Leeds, at least twenty women had been injured or murdered by what was believed to be a single perpetrator, and the Ripper investigation was in full swing. During the last few years before Sutcliffe was caught, some of his victims were no longer prostitutes and all women living in Yorkshire were warned not to be out alone in the streets during the evening or in the early hours of the morning. We were even advised not to take the rubbish out after dark. Naturally, this both terrified us and had a substantial effect on the way that we organised our lives. For example, my husband drove me fourteen miles to work every day and came to pick me up in the evening so that I should not have to linger at bus stops or railway stations by myself.
After ‘Wearside Jack’ had played his silly pranks (He sent tapes to the police claiming to be the Ripper, speaking in a strong Geordie accent; it was not until 2006 that he was finally brought to justice.), members of the public were advised to be especially vigilant if they saw anyone acting suspiciously who also spoke Geordie. Our next-door neighbour worked for the Ministry of Defence at Barnbow in Leeds. He was a very shy man in early middle age who hardly ever spoke. He had a large family, but seemed to spend very little time with them. Most evenings and weekends he would hide himself away in a large shed that had been erected between his house and ours. And, when he did speak, it was with a Geordie accent.
My husband and I, who, like almost everyone else we knew, were obsessed with the Ripper case, discussed this neighbour energetically on several occasions and, before too long, had convinced ourselves that he was a likely Ripper candidate. We dithered about what to do about this: after all, we had no evidence to go on besides his accent and his general shiftiness. The police would probably laugh at us and, in any case, we didn’t want to cause trouble for him if he was innocent. Consequently – and fortunately, as it turned out – we had taken no action at all when Sutcliffe was finally apprehended. (Despite having ourselves read and listened to all the Ripper news bulletins for years, it was a friend who lived in King’s Lynn and had seen it on the TV news who rang to tell us that he had been caught.)
Our neighbour continued with his mysterious shed-based life. One day, after our son was old enough to play outside, he was invited into the shed. He told us that the neighbour had built an elaborate radio station in there and was in touch with people all over the world. He had let our son listen to some conversations that he’d had with his contacts in Russia and China.
He was still living next door, still devoting himself to life in the shed, when we moved away from the area. Obviously he turned out not to have been the Yorkshire Ripper. Nevertheless, with hindsight and perhaps a touch of imagination, I wonder if he was just an innocent radio ham, or whether his ‘hobby’ concealed a more sinister purpose. He was, after all, an MOD engineer…