Craig slips out the door with the first rays of dawn. Almost trips over a heap of orange fur loafing in the hallway.
The cat loaf peers up at him, meows in its most demanding tone and rolls over, showing its belly.
It – no, she – is….kind of cute. Actually.
‘Aw baby girl, you want a belly rub, huh? Huh? Who’s a good little – OW! Motherfff – teeth! Teeth – fffff – god damn it! What the hell? You can’t just go around biting people. Don’t wiggle your belly at me if you don’t want me to pet it, the hell’s wrong with you? Holy mother of – they’re like razors. Agh. I’ve had stab wounds that hurt less. Jeez.’
‘Don’t purr at me, dammit, I’m mad at you. Sweet Mary ffff – shit’s sake. Yeah? Yeah, you gunna purr at me again? Jesus wept, that bloody hurts.’
She blinks at him, then rolls onto her back again. Her belly’s soft and fluffy and he’s such an idiot.
‘God – why did I even do that? Here, chew on the sleeve, I don’t give a damn anymore. Yeah, that’s right, dig in, there you go. Don’t pout at me, ugh, I don’t care how cute you are.’
He steps over her glaring form, and stomps off down the stairs.
At least the morning’s bright and clear. And glory hallelujah: there’s a key-cutting shop three streets away which also sells door locks. He ventures in to buy a sturdy deadbolt. And a screwdriver. Only cost four shillings.
The hallway is mercifully cat-free when he returns.
As he’s fitting the new lock on not-quite-his-yet door, the stairs creak behind him and a voice quavers,
‘Don’t tell me Vince sprang for a new lock. I thought that oaf was trying to rot us all out.’
He grips the screwdriver loosely and turns towards the threat.
It’s the old man with the cart from yesterday. He’s stooped over and only comes up to Craig’s chest. Threat assessment: low. Very low.
‘No,’ Craig says, ‘I bought it.’
‘Ah,’ the man squints up at him. ‘You related to Mrs. Hawthorne?’
Craig stares at him.
The man waves to the doorway. ‘Since you’re moving into her flat, I assume you must be related.’
Potential cover identity: accepted.
The man’s wrinkled brow furrows. ‘Nephew by marriage, I presume?’
Craig’s neck prickles. He raises the screwdriver an inch.
‘Given that Mrs. Hawthorne was a redhead. And her sister was blonde.’
Miscalculation. Threat level increased. Current shelter: compromised.
Eliminate security risk, silence threat, hide remains. Relocate gear. Regroup.
2.5m to target. Two paces at most. Side of the neck. Carotid artery. Eye socket.
Bug out now security compromised silence threat BUG OUT NOW
The man looks over him with a fearlessness that is (a) unfamiliar and (b) highly surprising in a person who might be knocked over by a heavy breath.
Pause. Reassess threat.
The man’s squinty eyes focus on his trembling right fist, at the screwdriver clenched tight. His shoulders relax.
‘You a veteran?’
The man frowns. ‘I’m sorry, son. I took you for a robber, or one o’ those opium idiots Vince lets in here every so often to hide from the cops and scare more of the honest tenants away.’
And your first thought was to go up to a complete stranger and just talk to him?!
See? Civilians. So terrible.
The man leans forward.
‘Rent-controlled, you know. Can’t sell until we’re all pushed out or dead.’
Oh great. A slumlord panting after rent money. More bullshit.
The man winks. ‘Good to see an honest man round here for once.’
Craig…nods uncertainly. Apparently right, because the man grins up at him.
‘Where’d you serve?’
Craig hesitates. Sees a sprawling river valley surrounded by scrubland and knows it for the Transvaal. He sees a bustling town of wooden walls and low buildings and smoky chimneys and knows it for Lydenburg. Sees a scene of great terror and blood and screaming children and burning settlements and knows it for the Boer village.
The images stop. He clears his throat.
‘Left part of yourself there, I see,’ the man nods at the tremors in his left hand.
Why is his voice so hoarse.
The man shrugs. ‘I was in India, myself. Never saw much action. Caught malaria after I’d been in the country about ten minutes. Damn swamps. Got shipped back here to build ships. Pretty lucky.’
The man looks over his civilian attire, his tense stance, the way Craig’s eyes never sit still. He sighs. ‘Guess you can leave war behind, but it never quite leaves you, does it?’
‘No, sir,’ Craig agrees quietly. He tucks the screwdriver away.
The man squints at him some more. Maybe it’s just natural.
‘Got the battle fatigue pretty bad?’
Pal, you don’t even know a tenth of it.
Craig looks at the new lock, then back at his neighbour.
The old man laughs, a rusty chuckle that echoes through the hallway.
Awkward questions, but they establish a cover. If one neighbour accepts his presence, others might too. If he can tread carefully and not excite too much curiosity or endanger the mission.
His neighbours know shell-shock when they see it. So: use war vet status as cover story for civilian identity.
‘Right,’ the man nods, ‘welcome to the rat trap. Be sure to use plenty of hot water – gas and hot water are on Vince.’
He holds out his wizened right hand. Craig knows this: shaking. Civilians do this all the time. It’s like saluting, except standing way too close and allowing transfer of contact poisons.
He shakes the man’s hand.
Two-part name required.
Other than that one.
No, that’s –
Sweet Mary and Joseph.
Oh come on.
CONTACT MAINTAIN COVER ESTABLISH CONTACT
For shit’s sake.
The man’s eyebrow arches, and the handshake has gone on for too long that Craig’s hand is damp. Two-part name still required. He takes a deep breath.
‘Good to meet you, Sergeant.’
The name almost makes him grimace. Harper. Sounds like a child’s name. Not a great choice. But it’s a cover. Tactical flexibility, Sergeant.
Ugh. That was exhausting.
The storm blows in that afternoon. Sheets of ice-cold drizzle sweeping through the streets. Ugh. The spitting rain drums against his hood as he trudges home from the White Lion. Terrific.
After he shuffles up the staircase and is wearily opening his door, the old lady from 3A sticks her head out into the gloomy hallway.
He almost glances behind him, but she’s looking straight at him, beckoning.
‘Young man, come here please. I don’t want Suki to get out.’
Interacting with neighbours. On the one hand: improved alibis to maintain cover identity. On the other: unwanted conversation with strangers. Ugh.
He moves into her doorway, squeezing through the narrow gap while the marmalade cat tries to escape through his legs.
‘Drat you, Suki,’ the woman scowls. ‘She always wants to get out, even though she never goes any further than the landing.’
The cat is winding around his ankles and purring as if he were an old familiar friend. Only met her twice. Got clawed the second time. How is this happening.
‘She likes you.’
What does one do to a cat.
‘…Should I pet her?’
‘Well, feel free, but there’s no obligation.’
The cat sits and yawns, showing all those needle-teeth again.
Yeah. Better leave it be.
‘Come in, we’ll have a talk.’
Oh great, it’s gonna be one of those conversations.
She grips his elbow with her small hand and steers him onto her front room sofa. ‘Sit there.’ Then disappears into her kitchen.
Amid the clatter and bustle, Suki jumps up onto his knee. He presses back into the squashy sofa, and stares down at the creature. Estimated weight 3 kg. Currently shedding hairs (orange-gold with brown tips) onto his trousers. She blinks her pale green eyes at him and nudges his thigh, purring.
Does he call for the old lady. Cat Suki has already demonstrated that her claws are scalpel sharp, and those TEETH.
The purring could be a trap. But his sleeve-covered arm ought to be safe enough.
He reaches out with his left hand to tentatively stroke the cat’s head. She stretches her neck and purrs harder, a rhythmic thrum against his thigh. He scratches behind her ear, and she arches her spine and squeaks.
‘She doesn’t usually take to people,’ the old woman says from the doorway.
She’s carrying a tray loaded with mugs and a heaped plate of cookies on it. Looks heavy. An ancient urge rises to get up and take the weighty tray from her, but the risk of severe puncture wounds is too great if he moves. Even an inch.
‘Suki’s a tough customer. You must be high quality.’
Assessment: gutter-fighter and highly trained killer. Cats are apex predators. Maybe cats are attracted to the tough and deadly. He scratches harder, and Suki purrs, pads over his thighs and snuggles down in his lap.
She’s right on top of all his tender parts, and oh great, that’s where all her claws are.
The old lady hands him a chipped mug of tea.‘I made it with milk and sugar, just the way I like it. Is that all right?’
Why is she asking him. She made it.
‘So,’ the old woman settles into the armchair she was sleeping in, ‘you and Suki are friends for life. I’m Esther.’
‘…Sergeant Harper, ma’am.’
She reaches over to pat his arm. ‘So Ollie tells me. I know you’ve settled up in 3C along the corridor. I was hoping to let it out at some point. And I must say, so far you’re a very quiet neighbour. Very considerate of you. I’m guessing you saw the advert out front?’
He nods. Esther grins and hands over the plate of cookies. He takes one. Chocolate, cinnamon, cherry. It’s very good.
‘Listen,’ Esther says after a comfortable pause, ‘what I’m about to tell you is not exactly legal.’
He briefly stops scratching Suki. The cat purrs and pricks a neat set of holes in the fold at the top of his thigh. He resumes his labours.
‘But this building is neither fancy nor organised. You may have noticed.’
‘Have another cookie. Anyway. Since Gloria died, I know there’s no heat over in your place. I wanted to say, once you get that worked out, I don’t mind if you share my plumbing, as long as you pay a share.’
Share her plumbing. Is that a euphemism?
‘For the hot water.’
Oh. Oh good.
‘Don’t need a fireplace,’ he says, ‘but I could try mending those radiators.’
The woman grins. ‘Deal! Better to pay me than those conniving plumber bastards.’
‘I’m not out to cheat you, sonny. I’ll keep this month’s bill for comparison and you can look at the bills going forward. Pay the difference, plus say…ten shillings for my troubles?’
It’s going to be fifteen, lady, but we can have that argument when the bill comes in.
He nods. ‘Sure. Thank you.’
‘Have another cookie. Now, is there anything you’d like to know about the neighbourhood? And please feel free to tell me absolutely everything you’ve ever thought, said, or done. I’ve been stuck indoors for ages with only this damn cat for company, and I sure could use someone new to talk to.’
Suki purrs in agreement.
‘Have another cookie.’
He slowly replays the entire paragraph in his head while he chews. Swallows.
‘…Where can I do laundry?’
She fixes him with a flat unimpressed look. ‘Oh, please don’t tell me you’re going to be boring.’
She leans forward in her chair and glares at him.
‘Young man. Are you shy?’
Is ‘shy’ going to make you stop pestering me.
‘Oh well, no matter. I’ll pry it all out of you eventually. I have a washer here that you’re welcome to use for the price of eating occasional baked goods and fixing a few small household things around here. There’s a Chinese laundry place just over in Limehouse, too. But it’s pricey – about,’ she counts up on her fingers, ‘two and sixpence per wash.’
‘Just knock any time. As you can tell, Suki will be happy to see you. Have another cookie, you look half-starved. Does your stove work over there?’
She peers at him over the top of her spectacles. It strikes a deep ancient fear in him, the sudden physical urge to clasp his hands behind his back, lower his voice, and solemnly promise to be good.
Pretty sure the Sergeant never got glared at by tiny old ladies. Absolutely sure no one ever gave the Sergeant homemade cookies. Score one for Craig Harper.
He blinks, and finds that he’s sitting ramrod straight with his shoulders squared.
Then her gaze softens.
‘Okay, so your stove works. But do you use it?’ she asks.
‘Don’t know how to cook.’
Esther sighs at the ceiling.
‘Do young people these days learn anything useful? Sure, youngsters can protest all they want about jobs and affordable housing, but can you sew on a button? Can you feed yourself?’
He has a list of all the useful skills he possesses, most of which would probably send this slightly bonkers old lady out the door screaming in terror.
‘I can sew a button. Mended a tear in these trousers.’
She tsks. ‘Well at least that’s something. But you can’t cook.’
RATION PACKS SUB-OPTIMAL
‘What do you live off, may I ask?’
‘…Tea and grilled sandwiches.’
Her scowl is terrifying. ‘Young man, that’s not a balanced diet! There’s not even a vegetable in there!’
‘They put vegetables on grilled cheese now.’
She actually rolls her eyes. ‘Oh DO they. Splendid. How marvellous for the modern age.’
Note: never introduce this woman to the redhead.
‘You’ll come for dinner tomorrow,’ she says sternly, ‘five o’clock. I’ll teach you how to make proper grilled cheese.’
He shakes his head. ‘Can’t commit to the time. I have things I need to do. My schedule’s different every day.’
Esther purses her lips and glares again. The conversation is now so alarming that he leans back, which makes cat Suki dig her front claws into his hip again.
‘Very well,’ Esther says, ‘I won’t be a stickler on the time. But you will show up.’
He almost salutes. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
She beams at him, satisfied. ‘Now I’ll trade you cat for plate.’
Suki protests for a really scary moment, but Esther successfully detaches her from his lap. Then she steers him out into the hallway with the plate of cookies.
‘See you next time, young man.’
Wait. There will be a next time?
‘I know you’ll be back. You have to return the plate,’ Esther winks, and shuts the door.
The cracked clock on the wall reads 1835 by the time he slips out the front door into the gathering dusk. Upstairs, Rusty is snoozing in the corner, catching the last warm rays of sunset.
He’s no kind of social animal, but right then the prospect of a dingy flat with nothing else immediate to do makes him frown. He wants a warm quiet space with people to watch.
Sit-rep: He’s met the neighbours, the cat doesn’t hate him, and his dog’s safe.
Hit the town?
Hit the town.
© 2017 Tom Burton