‘I’ll put you on the waiting list.’
‘Patrick’ was a tempting cover name, but no one in this day and age calls themselves Patrick; all the rumblings across the Irish Sea have people worried; it would only take one slip of an employer’s tongue in the wrong company to bring the police and the King’s Men and god knows who else crashing down on the neighbourhood in search of a possible renegade Irishman in the heart of East London. He needs something invisible, untraceable. Something that doesn’t make his heart race and his head spin with random fragments of disjointed memory every time he hears it.
Still, his accent’s already a black mark against him.
He tries the shipyard, then the dry-dock, walking the quays from Billingsgate to Limehouse, then the Millwall scrap-metal yard, stopping at every forge and workshop with a notice.
‘Sorry, the job’s been filled.’
‘Look, I can see right there that your shop’s short a man.’
‘Sorry, but I’m afraid the vacancy’s already taken.’
The bottom line? Menial work. The sewers: deeply unpleasant. Male wardens in the workhouse, cowing the destitute and the distressed. Unacceptable. Long snaking queues outside building trades, casual labourers jostling and shoving for the daily ‘call-on’. No use. Fifty men pounce on every job opening. Navvies at the dockland cattle-pens with families to feed. No good competing against desperate breadwinners.
‘I’m not gonna lie, it’s a tough crowd we get ’round here. I gotta know my guys can handle themselves, kid, y’understand?’
He wasted hours weighing up his options and in the end it doesn’t even matter, because the balding little owner of Porky’s Gentleman’s Club is going to call him ‘kid’ for the entire rest of his life. And there’s bugger-all he can say about it if he wants the job. He’s already been turned away from four places who wanted formal documents before they’d even consider hiring him.
Callum Harris doesn’t have any papers. Callum Harris has only existed for about forty-five minutes, and he hasn’t had time yet to meet the contacts who could get him his official passport. That’s his excuse, anyway.
But the man whom he’s mentally christened Porky isn’t interested in paperwork. Besides, if the coppers ever raid a place like Porky’s, they’re going to have far bigger problems than one unregistered security guard. ‘Trust me,’ he insists, ‘I can handle the crowd you get here.’ He can handle a Boer commando squad, if one ever decides to attack the club – but it’s not like he can ever explain that to Porky.
Turns out job hunting’s pretty difficult when you’ve got no work experience you’re willing to freely admit to. Working in deniable operations in an ugly overseas war doesn’t exactly endear you to civilian employers, and he can’t bloody well beg his way into a menial job throwing drunks out of a music hall.
But he needs money. He needs to pay his way. And this, he can do.
‘Look, kid,’ says Porky, twisting his face into a condescending smirk. A copper tooth gleams. ‘You seem nice. You march right into my place an’ ask for what you want like a man, an’ I can respect that. But I run a solid business here, lotta moving parts, an’ I need people I can trust with my security. You’ve got no references, no one to vouch for you-’
Maybe begging’s the wrong approach. ‘What good’s a damn reference?’ He steers Porky by the arm towards the door. Porky makes a loud, piggish grunt of protest as Craig marches him outside. ‘C’mon, let me show you something…’
Outside the club’s battered door, the current security detail is standing with his feet planted and his brawny arms folded tight in front of his enormous torso. Like a silverback gorilla with a billy club. Charming.
‘Look at this guy,’ Craig says loudly. ‘He’s a little bastard. That’s what you’ve got guarding your club?’
Little Bastard rounds on him, eyes popping with fury. ‘What the fuck d’you just call me?’
The ensuing fight lasts…about two heartbeats. Craig feels kind of bad for the guy, but not as bad as for his own growling stomach. He plants his boot on Little Bastard’s neck and glares Porky dead in the eye. ‘I can do better,’ he growls.
Beads of sweat glisten on Porky’s receding hairline, but he puffs himself up like a blowfish before speaking. ‘You’re hired, kid,’ he gulps. ‘I’ve got a spare jacket an’ club downstairs. Can you start tonight?’
The memories come back in jagged fragments. He remembers safe houses, weapons caches, assets in the field who can get him just about anything he wants. They’re all useless now. They all lead straight back to the war.
But this…he likes this. He does. Getting paid for something most men would gladly do for free, sitting there all evening with a truncheon across his lap, looking tough and ensuring the music-hall stage girls don’t get hassled. Three shillings and sixpence at the end of each shift – not bad for six hours’ work and free tea on the side. Twenty-one shillings a week, all in return for keeping an eye on the dancing girls, roughing up any rowdy customers, and watching the door for troublemakers. Could be far worse. He’s not complaining.
Everyone at Porky’s has bought his story about his dishonourable discharge from the Navy. He collects his pay in cash – a small pouch clinking with coins – and nothing ever gets written down or signed. No one seems to find the arrangement strange. The other patrons all fall silent and hunch over their drinks whenever the police carriages clatter by. Everyone who works at Porky’s is on the run from something.
Yeah. He’ll fit right in.
© 2017 Tom Burton