A Lark Ascending
London’s East End 1921
He landed with a thud in the alley. A cat shrieked under foot; its complaint shredded adolescent nerves that were already on edge. If the beast hadn’t cried out, the boy might have escaped detection.
The cat took off, scampering like a rat in the dark warren of London’s East End. It probably felt threatened—Malcolm Roberts certainly did. As he righted himself and slid through a narrow passage, something grabbed his shirt. Fear flashed hot through his body. Then the material ripped, releasing him. He hurried between buildings while a sharp pain awakened at the top of his shoulder. Must’ve been a nail; must’ve sliced my skin.
Boots scraping against brick and grunting expletives told him the bullies were scaling the wall in pursuit.
Malcolm came out onto White Horse Road and realized he had the choice of returning to his home in Stepney or hightailing it to the Limehouse riverfront. Which should he choose?
His earlier decision had caused this mess. Unable to ignore his curiosity, he’d followed the group of ne’er-do-wells. He’d been proud of his ability to shadow suspects almost as well as his penny-dreadful hero, Detective Phoenix. Their mission was just about completed when he sneezed.
Malcolm cursed his sneeze—and his curiosity.
His life depended on making the right choice now. Such thugs were as intent as disturbed bees. Although street noise swallowed up their racing footfalls behind him, Malcolm knew he had to keep on. Should he run to his father or friend?
If Joe Hasani the waterman was docked at his berth, Malcolm could escape across the Thames, putting real distance between him and the hoodlums.
Malcolm headed for Joe, running like a thieving urchin.
Along White Horse, he wove and jostled his way against the throng, aware that the crowd would likely thin out should the workers be heading to their homes or favorite pubs.
He ducked into another alley and moved with caution along its blackness. The pounding pulse in his ears complicated all efforts to listen for trouble. Unseen bits of rubbish squished and crackled beneath his shoes. A wave of stench rose like a gloved hand intent on smothering. Water dripped from rotting rooftops. Slowly, he realized he was approaching a human form. It was a woman, standing with hands on hips. He knew the type and continued onward.
“A heavy breather, I see.” She reached out and her fingers danced along his arm, an affront as unwelcome as her rank odor. “What a handsome young man you are.” He sprinted out and across the next street.
He darted this way then that, sure that the boys had split up in their search. Needing to keep apace toward the river, he rounded a corner. Panic surged at the sound of his own footfalls, echoing up from the brick pavement, bouncing off walls, betraying his presence along Lambert’s warehouse.
“There ’e is!” The voice ricocheted off brick and water, distorting its distance and direction.
As the scene ahead appeared, Malcolm broke out in a profuse sweat. There were no shipments coming or going along the immediate stretch. And he was in plain sight.
“I’ll go round and head him off.”
“Oi’ll get ’im first!”
The docks loomed ever closer. One way or another, the chase would end. He prayed Joe would be there. His chest and throat burned raw. His lower limbs, pumping along the pavement, begged for relief with alarming hints of wobble. Dampness glistened on the cobbles. He darted for a clearing near the docks then lost his footing. His head hit the ground. He tried to get up but instead flopped like a stunned fish. Urgency then broke through his muddled thoughts. He shot up, poised to sprint.
Footfalls and heavy breathing were closing in.
He dashed around some crates. “Joe, Joe! Are you there?” Empty carts and wagons blocked his view of the waterman’s post.
“Got me knife ready. I’ll slash him first!”
“Oi’ll have ’im dead long before you get ’im.”
“Oh, please be there, Joe,” Malcolm cried to himself.
He rounded a parked lorry—the boat was gone. Malcolm gazed desperately over the Thames. Then he spotted Joe, out on the water, bobbing toward him, rowing hard.
The thugs gained more and more ground.
“Joe, I’m coming! Help me!” Malcolm ran down the pier. If he slipped, he’d be caught and flayed alive. He knew it.
Malcolm kept running. Just before reaching the end, and with surprising strength, he dove into the river. The cold water shocked his limbs and they almost failed him. Just then, his attempts to tread water took purchase but waves washed over his face, repeatedly blocking sight of Joe.
The ferryman heaved and heaved in his direction. Malcolm hoped Joe had heard him, hoped he wouldn’t row right over him.
Jeering cries cackled from the end of the pier, but no sounds of anyone diving in followed. Malcolm thanked Heaven as he struggled to keep above water.
Joe’s boat angled toward him.
A wave slapped Malcolm’s face and he swallowed a mouthful of foul river. A coughing fit sapped his strength. Water closed over his head. Though his arms were moving, he sank. He felt a nudge, then another. Some bloated thing bumped his arm; its slimy flesh sidled next to him. The horror of a nuzzling corpse galvanized Malcolm’s limbs. His weary legs thrust again. Surfacing, with water dripping before his eyes, he saw an oar.
“Grab it! Come on, boy. Grab it.”
Malcolm stretched for the oar. He grasped it. Flutters of relief somehow made him buoyant, but he had never climbed into a boat from the water before. Joe pulled him up to the side.
“Can you get yer foot up, boy?”
Gripping the gunwhale, he tried to kick into position. The bloated body seemed intent on sticking to him. “Augh!”
“The bloody Thames,” Joe cried. “Come on, boy.”
Malcolm’s next attempt failed and his legs went under the boat’s bottom.
With greater force, he swung his right leg out and up. He almost hooked his heel over when the slimy corpse slid along his back, distracting him. “Augh!”
He swung again and was up, up and over. The moment’s exhilaration crashed when knees and hands struck the rocking wooden hull.
“Can you sit up? There you go. Here’s a blanket; it’s a wee bit damp but a helluva lot dryer than you be.”
Malcolm got situated, balancing his position, despite light-headedness, pain and burning lungs. His gaze shifted to the corpse bobbing off and away. He swallowed down a swell of nausea.
“We’ll leave that floater be. I’ll get you away from that lot at the docks. No need to report the matter. The police’ll be of little use. You know how I feel ’bout them, and ’bout one in particular.” Joe’s voice softened. “Lessee, I’m headin’ for Wapping Old Stairs, I am, where I’ll set you down before a nice fire. Town of Ramsgate, me favorite pub. Some brandy in yer tea’ll help get you straight and ready to go home.”
Joe Hasani had come to London’s East End from the Balkans at such a young age that he spoke like a reg’lar, like the average worker along the Docks. Malcolm didn’t fully understand the bond they enjoyed, but he suspected it came from a pain neither had ever revealed. Perhaps they each in their own way felt like a foreigner.
“Thank you, Bess darlin’,” Joe said. “I had to fish ’im out of the river. Had a fright, he did.” Joe slid Malcolm a side glance and winked, his meaning clear—an agreement to reveal as little of the matter as possible.
Malcolm managed a weak smile against his chattering teeth.
When they’d walked in, Malcolm had wanted to take off his river-sodden clothes, imagining bits of corpse flesh stuck to them. But he couldn’t yet, of course. The barmaid, Bess, shooed away those nearest the fire. After the two settled in its warm glow, she returned from the back and draped a fresh blanket over him, handing the damp one to Joe.
“I’ll be back wiv some special tea for you, lad.” She winked at Joe.
Before she left, Joe turned to him. “Bread and cheese, boy, or a bit o’ cake?”
Malcolm imagined a waterman might not be able to afford more and was torn between embarrassment and gratitude. He wanted to say tea would be enough but with all the panicky sensations subsiding, he felt extremely hungry.
“Owh, ’e should ’ave some of me stew,” Bess insisted. “Somethin’ hot and hearty is wot ’e needs. It’ll be on me, luv.” Bess touched Joe’s shoulder and left.
As she maneuvered her bountiful curves through the crowd and toward the kitchen, looking less motherly than before, Malcolm considered old Joe in a new light.
Lightning flashed behind heavy draperies. The answering thunder shook Malcolm’s upholstered chair, threatening to snuff out the small glimmerings of comfort he felt after his hot bath. Though sitting near the steady flame at home, he shivered and pulled a blanket around his shoulders.
“I’m proud of you, son.” Captain Roberts settled into the wing chair across from him, holding what Malcolm counted as his father’s third brandy since Joe dropped him home.
“But I ran.”
“There’s nothing wrong with retreat when you’re outnumbered. You showed daring and resourcefulness, swimming out to Joe like that. Thirteen years old and you can think like a reconnaissance man behind enemy lines. Intelligent beyond your years. Here, here.” The captain raised his glass.
“But what if he hadn’t been out there?” Malcolm asked, frustrated at hearing the quiver in his voice. “I would’ve been caught and filleted on the docks.”
Malcolm wanted something more from his father. If his near-death experience didn’t rattle the captain from distraction, what could?
Staring at his brandy, the captain said, “You might have chosen to borrow some moored boat…or dive in the river, as you had done, but swim parallel, say, to Duke Shore stairs.” The former military man pulled a slow draught of the liquor.
Malcolm fiddled with the edge of the blanket, saddened by another conversation with hope set against vexation.
“I reckon you’re right, sir.”
“You’ve proven my theory correct, Malcolm. By allowing you the freedom to explore where you wish, you are, I see, developing manly traits—those necessary for the day you become a soldier.”
The ‘freedom’ was his father’s, free of a parent’s responsibility. And Malcolm had no interest in the military. In his mind, ‘soldier’ meant ‘cannon fodder’ after hearing of nothing but death and shell shock while growing up during the Great War. But he would earn his father’s praise—his time and attention—or die trying.
“It was highly fortunate that Joe was there for you, I’ll admit. I can’t understand why he continues his ferry business. It’s not as if we don’t have bridges. His Majesty just opened Southwark.”
“People still need to go up or down the river, Father. Not just across.”
“Well, he can’t be making much of a living. At least not from legal custom.”
Malcolm frowned at hearing anything against Joe. A spark popped and alighted on the edge of the hearth. Malcolm watched as its pulsating life ebbed away.
Another flash of lightning conjured up an image of himself in the water—this time, bobbing in the Thames as a ripped-open corpse.
“Did any of those ruffians get a look at your face?”
“I don’t see how they could have. Not really.” His mind grappled for details. Had any of the cries or footfalls come from the side? Had anyone been close enough to have noted his profile? He couldn’t even recall whether he had run beneath street lamps along the way.
His father fought down a belch and added, “Before they realized you were there, you surely noticed something about them, something to recognize.”
“Only the solicitor, Mr. Crocker.” Malcolm placed his cold hands in the folds of the blanket. “The rest had their backs to me. Wait a tick! One of the lads was taller. His back was huge and hunched. He might have been rusty-haired, but he wasn’t standing too close to the light, and he had his cap on.”
“And, what did you actually see them doing beforehand?”
He watched his father take another savoring sip, then replied, “Um, I started trailing them when they turned into the alley from Burgess Street. Something about them didn’t look right. Two of them kept looking around, and . . . well, I began wondering. So, I hung back and then followed. They’d pushed their barrow up behind Crocker’s solicitors’ office. The crates were marked on their sides, with bold letters, five, I think. And when Crocker pried one open, he called them cricket balls—”
The captain jerked, sloshing half the contents of his glass down his shirt.
“Uh,” Malcolm continued, “they didn’t look like any cricket balls I’d ever seen.”
“They were made of metal.”
“Right. How did you know?”
“Explosives. Grenades. Must have been stolen government goods.”
“That makes sense because of the way they were talking. I couldn’t make out most of the words, but—well, it sounded like they were up to no good.”
The captain’s hands quivered, and with concentrated effort, he set his glass down. It pained Malcolm to see angst settle upon his father’s features; it pained him even more that his father evidently read his thoughts and noticed the pity in Malcolm’s eyes. Gathering what dignity he could, the man squared his shoulders and cleared his throat.
“Yes. Crocker opened another crate. This time I could clearly see that its sides were marked “Books”. But it was full of truncheons. I bet they were stolen from the police.” He hoped for his father’s smile, for acknowledgement of his deduction, but the man’s gaze trained on something beyond Malcolm, beyond the room.
The fire hissed. Malcolm picked at a loose thread on the blanket before venturing to look up. His father’s face had blanched to the color of stone. The familiar reaction made Malcolm’s insides twist to the point of suffocation. The captain regained his focus and opened his mouth to speak.
“Excuse me, sir,” Annie their only remaining servant said, slicing the air between father and son. With her usual wary eyes and shallow breaths in the presence of the captain, she stood by the parlor door and added, “Will you be needin’ anethin’ else before I go, sir?”
Captain Roberts stood and offered a quick bow. “No, thank you, Miss Annie. Good night.” He bowed again. Malcolm had almost gotten accustomed to such odd behavior—bowing to maids as if they were ladies. It wasn’t done. But no one visited them anymore. No one knew but Annie and him.
Annie stumbled a half-curtsy, never quite sure what to make of this formal business. “Good night, then.” She turned and headed for the back door.
The familiar ache intensified in Malcolm’s chest. A full household of servants had fled soon after his father returned from the war. After his mum died of influenza, even Cook left, leaving the two to fend for themselves, which they had done, pitifully, until Annie had mysteriously shown up on their back step.
Music ceased to fill the house. His mother had adored symphonic works and her Victrola. Though commanded not to touch it, Malcolm had once done so, but painful memories kept him from it thereafter.
Malcolm had been six when his da first crossed to France and ten years old when the war ended. It had taken hardly any time for him to realize Captain Roberts had returned a different man.
The embers glowed hot. Malcolm wrapped himself up tighter in the blanket. He’d had a hard enough day. He hoped to heaven he’d get through the night without incident.
Under a gray Sunday morning sky, Malcolm skipped his way through the mews and out onto Bishopsgate. A few drops of rain tickled his brow but as soon as he turned onto Brushfield Street, the rain gave up.
Wariness from last night’s chase gave his local amblings a different feel. He slowed down and found himself checking his environs. Once he entered the hubbub of Spitalfields Market, however, its numerous and familiar distractions lifted his spirits.
“Well hullo, Mr. Phipps. I thought you stayed at your farm on Sundays.”
“Aye, Malcolm, but I have so many root vegetables to sell, and with the hols on their way, I thought I better make good use of me time.” The farmer’s stall displayed bushels of beets, parsnips, carrots and such. “Business always picks up in December. Me purse loves the happy hols, it does.”
“I will tell Annie to make sure she stops here.”
“Oh, she does, thank you, my boy. She does.” Mr. Phipps leaned toward him and said, “I think you and your da are in for a lovely shepherd’s pie today.”
Malcolm smiled his reply, as much to please the kindly vendor as in appreciation for one of his favorite meals.
“Enjoy your ride back to East Horsley this afternoon, then. Oh, where’s Mimi?”
“She’s being brushed and spoiled by a young Chinese lad. Those two get on keen, they do. That ol’ mare’ll be good and fresh for our little journey.”
“Right. Goodbye, Mr. Phipps.”
“Be careful, lad.”
Malcolm tipped his flat cap and meandered off.
Why would Mr. Phipps tell him to be careful? He couldn’t know of last night’s brush with death. Malcolm shrugged off the question. Life in London had enough at hand to warrant daily be-carefuls.
In fact, he spotted one such at the next corner. Constable Hawkins stood watching the crowd with one hand on his hip, the other gripping the handle of his Metropolitan police issue truncheon, as if ready to pull it from its holster at the slightest provocation. What was he doing here? His beat was Limehouse.
The policeman’s gaze slid right and fixated on Malcolm, generating immediate breathlessness. If Hawkins had somehow witnessed last night’s chase, he would have had to realize that Malcolm was the victim. The bullies were crying out their intent to slash him. But if Hawkins had been in the shadows, why didn’t he blow his whistle and rush to help?
No, the man’s gaze had nothing to do with last night. Malcolm crossed to the far side of the street and rounded the corner in the other direction.
Last summer, an urchin from the Docklands had inadvertently made himself an enemy of Hawkins. Malcolm didn’t know Jiggs well, but he knew enough to understand that the problem was the policeman. Malcolm distanced himself as briskly as he could.
He had hardly covered any ground at all when he saw them; two large lads walked furtively along a cross street. Something in the hunch of the larger one raised chills along Malcolm’s arms and neck. If they were part of Crocker’s gang, they might recognize him today. He was wearing different clothing, of course; and he judged that he carried no unique mannerisms. Could they have seen his face in while in pursuit?
“Don’t look their way,” he told himself. “Behave naturally; they won’t notice.” His peripheral vision stayed alert, however.
He couldn’t hear their words, but the tones of their conversation carried more urgency than was commonplace. A tingling sensation rose up his spine as he strained to listen.
Just then, two ladies came out of a shop, talking excitedly about some new moving picture show. The cloche-topped females carried on, talking at the same time and vexing Malcolm as their noise dominated all sound.
Next, he passed a Chinese laundry with its door propped wide open. Someone inside was being berated, judging by the sharpness of that language and its speaker. He hurried on.
Sudden movement flashed across the street. Feet ran his way. “There he is. Get him!”
Malcolm took off, darting round cumbersome old ladies and a blemish-faced girl who screamed louder than was called for, then past a dark, scampering dog. He nearly knocked over a pram. He kept running. As he turned his head to look back, he collided with something large, stationary and cushioned by tweed, which knocked the wind from him. Before he could push around the person, the black dog ran past, panting.
“Get him, Jack. Here, Pickles, here, boy!” The two lads ran past, intent on their pursuit.
“What is this all about, young man?” the towering tweed-suited man said, now holding onto Malcolm’s shoulder.
The flood of relief quickly turned to fear. “Oh, um.” He tried to catch his breath. “Huh…huh, I’m sorry, sir.” He breathed in deeply and exhaled. “Huh, I shouldn’t’ve been running. My fault. Did I hurt you?”
The man bent closer and his features warmed. “I got in the way of your chase, as you were trying to catch your friends’ dog, apparently.”
“Oh, uh, yeah. I mean, it was my fault. Sorry, sir.”
The man turned, looking down the street. “I hope they catch him. Now, on with you, lad, but watch where you’re going.” The man smiled.
“Thank you, sir. I will.”
Ignoring a few stares, Malcolm continued his way to Heneage Street, his feet trotting to leave his embarrassment behind. The fresh upheaval blurred his focus. He tried to clear his head by taking more deep breaths as he walked. He was just passing the Poltava Synagogue when he spotted his mate.
Sid Shapiro turned from the window of Lever’s book shop, saluted him, and headed Malcolm’s way.
“What’s wrong? You look a bit rough this morning.” Sid gently slapped him on the back and fell in step, though Malcolm had no real destination now that he’d found his friend.
“I had a bit more adventure than I care for last night. But all’s well today.”
“Your da again?”
“No, no.” He dug his hands into his pockets. “Say, here. How ’bout if I buy you a coffee? I’ve got something to tell you.” Sitting at Jade’s coffeehouse always improved a day. There were no disapproving side glances upon their friendship from Jew or Gentile at the congenial place.
“I’m with you, mate. Thanks.”
Coming toward them from the end of the block, Mr. Lever pushed his barrow along.
“Books for sale. Half price.”
The man’s bandy-legs had the shopkeeper’s lean frame swaying from side to side, his waddle being more pronounced whenever he pushed or carried anything heavy.
“Fine literature at half the price!”
Mr. Lever was an entrepreneur with gumption. It was his practice to have his plump wife mind their shop as he periodically got out among the people. He did so whenever he could, except on a Saturday, of course. The Jewish inhabitants of Whitechapel strictly observed their Sabbath.
“Ah, my two scholars,” he said as he neared the boys.
“I happen to have Cashel Byron’s Profession among my morning’s gems. I’m sure you two would enjoy reading about a prizefighter.” He lifted the book from his barrow and held it with pride. “Are you old enough to take on some George Bernard Shaw?” The man’s gaze endeavored to bore through Malcolm, as if hypnotizing him to comply. Malcolm could easily ignore the hawker’s stare and his you’re-no-longer-little-boys-now, are you? challenge. Lever was a kindly man but his shopkeeper’s tone conveyed the assumption that a customer would be silly to pass up such a deal.
“I’ve only got enough for our coffee this morning, Mr. Lever. I’ll stop by another time and take a look.”
“I always enjoy seeing our youth delight in the treasures of the printed page. Until then, lads.” He nodded and careened back toward his shop.
“Well, now,” Sid said, his eyes bright. “Off to Jade’s we go.” He danced around the parked lorry at the curb and led the way across Spellman Street and in the direction of Whitechapel’s best coffeehouse. Sid was near the same age as Malcolm but smaller. Their disparate sizes gave the impression of a handful of years between them. Malcolm shoulders were broad like an athlete’s. Sid’s sunken chest almost gave him a consumptive appearance but he was lithe and able to outrun his friend.
They turned down an alley, an oft used shortcut, and Sid began whistling away with attempts at Jolson’s tune about a red robin.
The entrance to Jade’s hid down an alley off Old Montague Street; one in which the ancient bricks were swept clean. There was no sign announcing the business, not even any lettering on the two windows that looked out over Old Montague. The heady aroma was enough for the community to know of its existence, providing a visceral temptation Malcolm never resisted when he was in Whitechapel. The captain was not wealthy, but Malcolm was regularly provided with a penny and thruppence or more for things like coffee and books.
He and Sid entered.
The grayish glare from the two front windows made the long, narrow room darker. Malcolm carefully led the way to the small booth situated below the staircase. As his eyes adjusted, the familiar smells of musk and mold, which rode faintly below that of the roasted coffee beans, assured him that all was dependably the same.
“I’m tired of Houdini’s feats.” The voice, which belonged to a man he’d never seen before, grabbed Malcolm’s attention. The man’s head and mane were oversized for his stature. His shirt and bow tie looked fresh while his brown suit sagged from textile exhaustion. The two gents were sitting at a table in the middle of the coffeehouse, close enough for Malcolm to note the seriousness in the eyes of the speaker.
The man’s companion shrugged and said, “I’d give my eye teeth to write about all the jolly things to see in the West End. I could watch Lillian Gish all day long.”
“You can have her—and Charlie Chaplin and Billy Belcher—”
“I know. That’s me being funny.” The bow tie moved up and down as he talked.
“Oh, ha, ha.”
“But I mean it. I want to write about life, real life.”
Malcolm whispered, “Ever seen those chaps before?”
Sid nodded, a smile of self-satisfaction brightening his features.
Young Billy came to take their orders. Malcolm ordered a piece of sticky toffee pudding for them both to share with their coffees. Watching the boy’s back retreat to Jade’s counter, he missed what Sid had just whispered. He gestured for a repeat.
“Those men are from The Daily Telegraph.”
The idea of writing for the public fascinated Malcolm. He thought he heard them discussing a yellow parasol, which seemed unlikely, as their tone was serious.
Large Head continued, “Yes, the Yellow Peril. Now that’s real life stuff. ‘Community invasion’, intolerance, tension. I’m going to ask Mister Peters if I could—”
“Oh, Thaddeus Smith! How nice to run into you again.” A woman with a ridiculous plume sticking out of her cloche approached the men. She had one of those high-pitched nasal voices that could send a person packing. Her attentions were solely on Large Head—Thaddeus Smith.
Billy brought the boys’ coffees. Mr. Smith introduced Plume Head to his companion, after which the journalist maneuvered an escape as fanciful as any of those done by The Great Houdini.
Malcolm walked Sid home before luncheon.
After Mrs. Shapiro scuttled Sid into the house, Malcolm turned and headed for the Tube. He would spend the afternoon with his mum.
The shadow of Colonel Basil Green’s mausoleum encroached on Malcolm’s sunshine. A slight chill settled on his ankles, but late-day light continued to warm the rest of him.
His attention trained on a large spider off to his right. Its dexterity was as impressive as the tightrope walker he’d seen last summer at the Bristol Fair. The spider was ‘knitting’ some mittens over the fingers of a familiar stone lady.
The lady was his paternal great grandmother, Hermione Lily Roberts. The sculptor had captured her spirit and legacy, reportedly at the wish of Malcolm’s relatives. Malcolm preferred the artist’s rendering more than a fashionable likeness. A simple robe, similar to that of the Roman goddess Libertas, draped to her feet. The hand undergoing the spider’s attention stretched low, palm down, as if to rest on the head of a child. Her other hand held a book to her breast. This frozen-in-time gesture pictured her life’s work, he’d been told.
She had been a proponent for improving the welfare and education of children in London’s rookeries. In her day, long before the Great War, she had taken advantage of the only avenue a lady in Society had, that of capitalizing on social engagements. He’d twice overheard his aunt speak of her with admiration. The discussions had never included him. As a boy, he could only listen during the family’s Boxing Day dinner conversations. It had been one of the few topics that had captured his imagination. Malcolm would love to have been alive back in the day, to have witnessed Great Grandmama’s discreet and sometimes not-so-ethical means of influencing men in government on behalf of London’s disadvantaged children.
Now and then, an old question niggled at him: Could you dream yourself back in time? He knew better and had been younger when the idea had occurred to him—only months after his mother had died. Nonetheless, the question returned like bad pennies and unwanted attentions. Each time, he would let his thoughts dally and reconsider ways in which he might have saved his mum.
A breeze tinged with chill reined him back. Though it carried smells of warm earth and decaying leaves, it hinted at winter’s arrival.
He checked again on the spider’s work. Taut strands of its web glistened between her fingers in the sunlight. It was as if this creature was getting the lady ready for winter.
Malcolm’s muscles relaxed. The sensation made him aware of his physical soundness, how he had escaped harm in Limehouse. The only damage he had to show for the misadventure was a bruise where his head had hit the pavement. Bruises and head wounds were not new to him. He recalled with vividness when, years younger, he’d realized, and marveled at, the body’s capacity to heal, that in time bruises disappeared altogether.
If only painful memories would.
He looked around and let his gaze linger on the lichen’s velvet touch upon the grand tombstones of Abney Park. Leaning against the smooth stone of his mother’s mausoleum offered comfort, a safe feeling. It was illogical, Malcolm knew, but he accepted it every time.
The Limehouse bullies would not be this far north. Nonetheless, he kept watch on the streets beyond the cemetery’s gates. Those troublemakers knew neither his home nor this haven. Had any of them seen his face? Not likely, but the question would fester till this episode ran its course, till he knew he was completely safe from them.
What was up with Crocker and those hoodlums? The only other person who might be as interested in solving the mystery was that newspaperman named Smith. The idea of investigation both excited and worried Malcolm. The risk of failure, of disappointing his father, elicited quick, shallow breaths.
He checked the gates again. For now, Malcolm needed solace.
Though the tomb rose tall at his back, he envisioned the scene within the bolted wood and glass door: his mother’s casket set in its berth, the film of dust on the floor, the absolute stillness in there, as if it were an exhibition of some antiquity at the British Museum. He also visualized the empty berth awaiting his father. There were, in fact, another two berths, one for him and one for symmetry.
Flashing motion high above the gates drew his attention. A seagull glided with ease. Its caw mocked a laugh before it veered back toward the river basin. Thoughts of Joe manning his boat ensued. In listening to the waterman’s insight, he’d learned that education had little to do with wisdom. Snippets of their interchanges came like wisps, each bit blurred together, forming something whole, like the silky strands forming on his great grandmother’s hand.
Malcolm decided that he would soon take Sid to meet Joe.
Walk to Paradise Garden
1915 – Flanders
“My father is a butcher in Chicago,” John Armitage informed the lorry driver. The man ground the gears and grunted, his yellowed teeth threatening to sever the stub of a rank cigar.
John shrugged and gazed out over the desolate Belgian landscape. The overcast sky offered nothing but monotonous gray, save for two dark buzzards circling over a dip. Even the muddy crossroad before them lacked a signpost, as if no one could possibly want to know what lay ahead.
The gears shifted with a lurch. Albert, the driver and John’s only companion, sniffed. “Well, no disrespect, young man, but I can see and hear you’re a nob through and through. Lemme just tell you what ol’ Albert saw back there.” He turned toward his window and spat the butt through the opening. “When you tried to get in the transport wagon, you looked right indignant when they blocked yer way an’ was tellin’ you as it was full up. And you and I both knows it weren’t that full. They’d read you as a toff, same as I did.”
“Your perception is admirable.”
“Prob’ly thought you was a surgeon or sumfink, if not a proper toff,” Albert added with relish, his tone affable.
“Ha! Far from it.”
“Now, don’t you take it personal. Them boys are out of sorts. Scared, they is, ’bout goin’ to the Front, and they prob’ly just wanted to go this last stretch wiv their own company o’ mates. But that’s not all I ‘eard outta you. No sir. Thing is, you don’t talk like any butcher’s son I ever met. Me ear tells me there’s more than Yank in you. I detect a bit o’ West End—Mayfair or maybe up by ‘ighgate.” Albert pointed a gnarled and grimy finger his way. “And yer hands is soft.”
“I can see, Albert, that you’re a real Sherlock Holmes,” John said stiffly, slightly annoyed at being read correctly. Nonetheless, he was thankful for the opportunity for some banter. It would help dispel, at least for the moment, his mounting anxiety as they drew closer to the battle zone.
“Ta very much. That means you credit me my intelligence. Yep, Ol’ Albert can read well enough, both books and folks. But now, don’t go takin’ any offence. I’m happy to see an American cross the high seas and volunteer to help our boys. Lord knows as they needs all the help they can get.” Albert dropped his voice to a low whisper. His playfulness evaporated as quickly as would laughter at the crack of close gunfire. “It’s Hell out there, I’m sorry to say. You, my friend, are in for the shock of yer life.”
John frowned, surprised at his companion’s sudden change of demeanor. He turned and scanned the disheartening view again. Dismal fields stretched in all directions. The few trees dotting the land looked as if they had died of despair.
A dark shape on the other side of the road caught his eye, materializing as a lone boy. The dejected figure trudged southward, bent under a bag he’d slung over his shoulder. Albert paid scant attention to the lad despite the fact that the young face watched them. The driver’s attention was elsewhere. For a long moment, the boy’s sad gaze locked with John’s, twisting and weighing down his heart. An orphan? His family and home destroyed by war? Heading for Calais or some other city to live off the streets?
John checked Albert’s expression and wondered why the man still wouldn’t look the boy’s way. It was deliberate, he could tell. John considered saying something, then thought better of it. If some personal pain forced his companion’s gaze straight ahead, better to let it be.
A pent-up breath escaped John’s lips. Everything about this war upset him. He silently fumed, feeling helpless. All he could do was wish the insanity throughout Europe would end. He was about to set into a tirade over the pompous old fools who had allowed, if not jumped into, this whole mess, those who had weakly chosen violence over diplomacy. But the tension still emanating from Albert convinced him to swallow his complaints.
“Gottaways tur go yet,” Albert said with a hollow lift to his voice. An effort, possibly, to compensate for ignoring the boy.
They’d jolted over the lonely stretch for some time before a Red Cross wagon pulled by two dray horses approached, most likely heading back to Calais. Perhaps they would encounter the child along the road and offer him a lift to town. As the two vehicles passed, each going their own way along the pitiful road, the drivers traded somber waves.
“There goes some lucky lads. Goin’ for a Blighty. Tha’ means a bit o’ rest at home. O’ course, ‘lucky’ means they’re less a limb or two. I heard abaht one poor boy went back without ’is face. Got mostly blown off from an explosion. Woulda been more merciful had he died.”
John’s skin felt suddenly cold and clammy and he swallowed down nausea. The relentless jostling in a truck that reeked of petrol and sweat was bad enough. Now, with images of irreversible injuries and ruined lives floating through his mind, he had to summon up control with a concerted effort. He wiped damp hands on his breeches and tried to think of something else.
But he couldn’t. And he craved conversation. “Uh,” John said, clearing his throat. “I can only guess morale must be pretty low these days.”
“Sumfink turrble, it is. But the boys love their homeland. Just let anyone talk against what they’re fightin’ for and the bloke’s in fer a beatin.”
“Right,” John said, his mind filling with frightening scenarios. He didn’t subscribe to blind patriotism, and in John’s experience, speaking his mind often got him into scrapes.
For a second, John was back to that cold day, standing on his soapbox in front of Northwestern’s Lunt Library. Incensed at hearing of Roosevelt’s intention to run a third-term campaign, John had begun his own. He was now speaking out against reneged promises. Many in the gathering crowd were his fellow footballers, and the tension was palpable. Edwina had done all she could to doctor his cuts and bruises after that rigmarole.
John had always been determined to be his own man. His mother would have pampered him into a feckless fop, had it not been for his British nanny, and later his governess, Edwina Pitt, who had emigrated to live with the family in Illinois. Edwina had the gonads of a Royal Navy admiral. While his father neglected him, Edwina went out on the Lake Forest estate grounds in her skirts and kicked the soccer ball around with him on numerous occasions. The spry woman had guided his masculine development and fostered not a few of his ideals.
John could never imagine himself killing anyone, but he was no coward. His decision to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps came in steps. After leaving the Midwest in a huff, he’d taken a steamer from New York to England. With rumors flying about German U-boats on the prowl, that had proven to be a brave step. He’d preferred not to stay at his mother’s Mayfair house, because his cousin Basil was staying there. John found the man insufferable. Instead, he rented rooms in modest Lambeth and considered his next move.
One dreary day as he was crossing Cavendish Road, a Red Cross poster had caught his eye. It read Ease Pain; Save Lives; Join the Red Cross. Soon after, John saw a recruiting station for the Royal Army Medical Corps, advertising their need for stretcher bearers. He marched directly in and volunteered.
He’d considered this kind of field service before, after he’d read an article about the fate of the wounded on a battlefield in Solferino, Italy, some fifty years before. The article had been presented in his European history class and it told of 40,000 injured soldiers who had been abandoned on a mountainside without any help.
“… smell your own flesh rotting.” John jolted straight. Had he said that out loud?
“Aye. That’s a problem in the trenches,” Albert replied. “Trench Foot, mostly.”
“Oh, no. I … I was thinking back to something I’d read about injured soldiers in Italy. There was no Red Cross or RAMC there. I’ve often imagined what it must’ve been like for the wounded left behind, smelling the gangrene before sinking into death.”
Albert shot him a sideways glance. “That’s pretty morbid for a lad just startin’ out his duty.”
“Uh, sorry. That’s why I volunteered. To help, I mean.”
Albert grunted his reply.
In hindsight, John admitted his decision to volunteer came in part from the unattractive wish to spite his father. He also conceded that he yearned for adventure. But something else had niggled at the back of his mind, and he now saw clearly what it was. By doing this, for the first time in his life, John felt needed.
He was told that as a stretcher-bearer, he’d be facing almost as much danger as those in combat. But helping the wounded was how he’d chosen to serve. He couldn’t help the dead, but sometimes even dragging their bodies out of No Man’s Land seemed of some value.
“Can ya smell it? O’ course ya can,” Albert said, speaking not of his truck nor of death in Italy, but to introduce the conditions into which John would soon be submerged. The stench from the Front at the Ypres Salient carried for miles on the stale breezes. It caught in John’s throat as they approached Vlamertinghe, the small village west of Ypres that would serve as his base. And the stench was undeniably getting stronger.
“Ye’ll get used to it, mate.”
Though he tried not to, John burst into a coughing fit, trying not to give in to the waves of nausea threatening from lower down. As he gained command of himself, the truck pulled up in front of what looked like a warehouse. Albert ground the gears and floored the brakes, and the lorry stopped with a lurch.
“That’d be your barracks, sir.”
John scrambled out, grabbed his suitcase, then stood at mock attention, albeit a bit stiffly after the long ride. With a sincere grin, he ceremoniously saluted his driver.
“Thank you, sir,” John barked in friendly mimic.
Albert pointed across the street. “The pub fare is better at that Signee Nory.”
As the lorry pulled away, the engine backfired and chugged so loudly John could only wave and nod appreciatively for the advice. He looked down the lane, hunting for the suggested tavern. “Oh, Le Cygne Noir. The Black Swan,” John said to himself. He chuckled, reflecting both on Albert’s pronunciation and on his company. In a way, he was almost grateful there’d been ‘no room’ for him in the transport wagon back in Calais.
Turning toward his destination, John considered the building that would house him when he wasn’t risking his life near the Front. For a utilitarian commercial building, it looked quite smart, with its symmetry and large windows. The brickwork offered a smattering of ornamentation. The RAMC signage announcing the structure’s new official purpose did all it could to dress the building down.
He was just about to enter when a powerful shoulder struck him from behind, shoving him against the doorframe. A British soldier, a bear of a man, towered over him. “Are you a bloody journalist, come to write lies?”
Reining in his anger, John straightened. “No. I’m here with the RAMC to help get you boys patched up.”
“Then you’re a bloody conchie.” The man’s breath was nasty.
John enunciated as if to a dim child. “I am an American, offering to carry a carcass like yours off the battlefields.”
“Hmph. Well, you best watch where you’re goin’, man. There’s one thing I can’t abide and that’s a conscientious objector.” The soldier spat to the side and walked around him—a victory in itself—then lumbered down the street.
Pleased to note his hands weren’t shaking, John took a deep breath of relatively fresh air and entered the barracks. He reported in and was subsequently deposited in a second-floor wing. There he washed, put on fresh clothing, and tried to settle his nerves. Tomorrow would begin his baptism by fire. Shaking off a chill that ran the length of his body, he sat on his bunk to unwind, propping his feet up, pressing his shoulder blades against the cool brick wall. The air in the large room was heavy with the scent of a recently washed wood floor, mixed with a muskiness which clung to the blankets and folded clothing of other men. More than a dozen bunks lined the walls of his section, all unoccupied at the moment, except for one in which a young man snored.
Some distance outside the village, rumblings and cracklings of artillery fire echoed over the flatlands. How many lives had been snuffed out just then? John closed his eyes and sighed, doubting himself. How would his heart survive observing firsthand, repeated tragedy?
A more immediate confrontation broke out just below his window. John got up and peered out, then realized it was just boisterous bantering. A handful of British soldiers were walking with a nurse, each man jockeying for her attention, all of them juddering past like chickens in a yard. John reached for his satchel and pulled out a book, but after several minutes of effort even Plutarch failed to calm him. With a vague sense of relief, he got up, checked his reflection in the mirror and that of an unknown roommate, and left the building.
As old taverns go, Le Cygne Noir was unexceptional from the outside. John just reached the other side of the lane when a man dressed like a local stumbled out of the place, offered a slurred salutation and bowed to him in jest. John nodded, determined to be one of the fellows, and then stepped into a warm welcome of lantern light and laughter.
Closing the door with the back of his heel, he stood for a moment on the plank floor, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the smoky room. Along the far wall he spied Eddie Thompson, whom he’d met back at the Lambeth office. John had been told before crossing the Channel that he and Eddie would likely be partnered as stretcher bearers. He didn’t know how long they might work together, peons in the RAMC, but he found it slightly amusing that he again had an Eddie in his life. He doubted, however, that many men could match the spirit of the formidable Edwina Pitt.
As he meandered between tables, John was almost hit in the gut by a drunken Belgian, flailing his arms as he made fun of something. The soldier apologized, looking somewhat sheepish, but John patted him on the back and continued navigating his way toward Eddie’s table. He pulled out a chair. “Mind if I join you?”
“I’d be ’onored.” Eddie’s tone and expression were welcoming. The young man had told him he’d been a cobbler in Wapping before he’d signed up. Like John, he was just twenty. Unlike John, he looked as if he were fifteen, a lanky youth with tousled sandy hair. John angled a chair so that as he sat he could lean against the wall, his right elbow on the table.
“They’re outta whisky, I’m sorry to tell ya,” Eddie drawled. “I ’elped them with tha’, which I’m not sorry to tell ya. The wine’s not bad, though.”
Eddie signaled to the older couple tending the bar and the woman came over promptly, setting a sparkling clean glass before John. “For Monsieur.” Her posture told him she was proud of her well-kept establishment, neat and efficient when everything around them was in war-torn shambles. Her expression, however, expressed concern, as if she realized she had yet another young man to worry about.
John stood and made a quick bow. She giggled at this special treatment and returned to the bar, still smiling. Eddie poured, filling both glasses.
Lifting his by the stem, John gazed through the red liquid. “I don’t know how I’m going to get any sleep tonight with all that rumbling from the Front. It must be maddening to realize each volley brings misery and bloodshed.” He took a sip, swallowed hard, and grimaced. The wine was a touch too bright, carrying an essence of vinegar, but it was drinkable. He was glad to have it.
“You’ll get used to the noise. Daown’t take too long. I’ve been ’ere for over a week now, almost two. Sleep like a baby most times, when I gets to.” Eddie held up his glass. “Here’s to ya,” he said, and tossed back a gulp.
They talked about the cobbler business then went on to discuss eel pies, which were sold on the occasional London street corner. It was a delicacy on which they disagreed; John was not a fan of eel pies.
Eddie’s face suddenly lit and he nodded toward the door. “Ah, look at what just came in, will ya? Two nice lookin’ nurses. One fer you and one fer me.”
John smiled appreciatively at the ladies, letting his gaze linger. They glanced his way only briefly before sitting at a table closer to the bar. “I don’t think they’re quite taken with us, old man.”
“Don’t underestimate our charms.” Eddie shook his head and stifled a belch. “They’re T.F.N.S., if I heard c’rectly.”
John closed his eyes, grappling to come up with words for what that meant. British officialdom’s acronyms were fast becoming annoying.
“It stands for Tuff Nurses.” Eddie barked out a laugh, sounding pleased with himself. John hoped the ladies hadn’t overheard them and forced himself not to look their way. Eddie sat straighter. “Sometimes they assist at the Casualty Clearing Stations. So, we, my good gentleman, might just get to ride out there in their company.”
John frowned at this revelation. “They have ladies near the Front?”
“Only the trained and the brave. A special lot, them.” With his elbow propped on the table, head in his hand, the cobbler beamed a dreamy gaze at the women.
“That brown-haired lass sits right like a toff. Back straight. Lovely. Now there’s a match fer ya. Me, I like ‘em plump, like blondie there. I’ve seen ‘er around but haven’t yet had the pleasure.”
John slapped the table as the meaning finally came to him and Eddie jumped, almost knocking over his glass. “Territorial Field Nursing Services. Ha!”
The wine bottle before Eddie was empty, so John got up to get another, keeping his eyes casually on the brunette as he negotiated his way around tables. There was something about her that pulled at him, as if there were a new energy in the room, a tension which heightened his senses. It couldn’t be from the wine; he’d only had a few sips. When he reached the bar, John tried to shrug off the uncomfortable sensation that the entire place was watching him. He gave a quick glance around, but no one was paying the least attention.
The older publican behind the bar leaned closer and smiled, ears pricked, as if ready to decipher something other than French or Flemish. The woman beside him, wiping glasses with a white towel, glanced over her shoulder and gave John a familiar smile.
John spoke in formal French. “It’s my first evening here and I’m grateful to find such a pleasant establishment so handy.”
“Merci, monsieur. I am Jacques, and this here’s my wife, Amelie. Welcome to Le Cygne Noir. This is my family’s business.”
Letting his eyes wander, John admired the crafted detail of the cabinetry. “How old is the building?”
“Oh, more than two hundred years. I hope it survives.” A shadow of doubt crossed the man’s amiable features, then disappeared beneath his ready smile.
Amelie came to stand by her husband. “I hope you survive, too, young man. So many nice boys we meet and never see again.”
As fascinating as it was to get the pulse of the area through these folks, John was still distracted by the lingering sensation of being watched. The assessing gaze bored into his back, and he imagined—hoped—it was from the women behind him. Leaning his right elbow on the bar, he casually turned as if admiring the room while still conversing. He hoped he was placing the right words in the right order as he stole a quick glance at the ladies. The brunette remained attentive to her companion’s conversation. John couldn’t help thinking that were her profile minted on a gold coin, it would be more than appropriate. The blonde’s eyes shifted, catching his. She winked.
He turned back, his pulse internally audible. Smiling at Jacques and Amelie, he felt sure they could read him. Without missing a beat, however, he added, “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you to see the surrounding area ruined as it is.”
“It’s hardly recognizable,” Jacques agreed, his voice resigned.
Amelie clucked her tongue and looked away. Her hazel eyes might have held a sparkle once, but not now. She began wiping down the bar, despite its already pristine finish. John bought a bottle of the only red they had left, a claret. Returning to the table, he filled Eddie’s glass and settled back in.
Eddie’s one-sided conversation ran on, contentedly detailing life in Wapping and the East End in general. It was obvious the young man was homesick. John nodded and grunted in response as needed, but his attention shifted back to the T.F.N.S. ladies. The blonde, evidently dominating the conversation, was taking care of what looked like a bottle of Pernod. An ambitious project for one. The brunette held a teacup and listened politely. Her rich, dark hair was pulled up in a neat topknot bun, accentuating her elegant neck. She was slender with delicate features, the epitome of femininity, and yet here she was, in a war. He considered the courage and compassion it took for her to volunteer and was attracted to the suggested depth of her character.
The next thing John knew, Eddie’s conversation had ceased. The young cobbler’s head had lowered to the table and he had begun to snore.
Recognizing opportunity, John rose and approached the ladies. With a slight bow he asked, “Mind if I join you ladies for a bit?”
“Owh, we don’t mind at all, do we, Evie?” the blonde said, puffing out a breathy perfume of anise liquor.
“Please do,” the brunette said.
A slight smile spread across her face, hinting at amusement. John pulled a chair to their table, noticing how large her exquisite brown eyes were. These, too, revealed humor, as if there were something comical about his joining them. He wondered fleetingly if the blonde had made some kind of bet about his doing so.
“Oi’m Liz and this here’s Evie. Her real name’s Evelyne, but she lets me call ’er Evie. Can’t say if she’ll be as nice to you.” Liz licked her lips and looked him up and down. “But I reckon she might. Go ahead and sit. You just get in, did ya?”
He slid into his chair. “First day on the job’s tomorrow. Stretcher-bearer. I’m nervous, of course.” He looked at Evelyne. “How about you?”