Turns out, cashing a cheque for five hundred pounds is entirely uneventful. The bank shows no particular excitement about forking over five hundred quid in mixed banknotes. The elderly teller treats it like a completely routine part of his day. Just counts the money out three times before dropping each rubber-banded brick into Craig’s burlap sack. Three paper bricks of ten tenners, four bricks of ten fivers. No hassle, no fuss, no drama.
No customers in the White Lion this morning. Jamie and Susan are behind the bar counter, Ellie and Jane sitting together at a table.
‘‘Hi,’’ Craig grins. He steps up to the bar through the hushed stillness. Spills the money out onto the countertop. ‘‘They changed their minds. Decided to pay up, after all.’’
Five hundred pounds in a burlap sack has an effect like he’d never seen before. It’s literally a gift of life. The four of them silently gather around, wide-eyed and disbelieving, staring at the money like it’s a stunning reversal of fortune.
Then an ear-piercing shriek and the breath is crushed from his lungs. Ellie dances wildly as she hugs him tight. ‘‘You did it, Craig! You did it!’’ Jane flings her arms around him and kisses his cheek. Then Jamie wraps him in a bear hug so hard his ribs creak.
He gently disengages himself, dazed. The girls are hugging each other, wild with excitement. Susan stares at the heap of money, awestruck. ‘‘Y’know what this means? We can get the telephone reconnected. Pay back all the friends we borrowed from. Settle all our debts.’’ She’s brimming with happiness, voice choked with emotion. ‘‘We can fix up the horse ‘n’ cart again, drive down to the market twice a week. Bring all-new furniture in, clean this place up real nice.’’
She trails off as it dawns on her. ‘‘We can get two whole deliveries in before the month’s out.’’
The others go quiet. Relief emanating from them like a glowing fire. All their dreadful fears of the future fading away like morning mist.
‘‘It’s a fortune,’’ Jamie breathes.
‘‘You’ve earned it,’’ Craig shrugs. ‘‘You deserve it. Don’t you think?’’
Jane stares at him. ‘‘How the hell d’you get all this?’’
‘‘Just went ‘n’ asked the guy for it. Worked a treat.’’
Her mouth twists, a rueful little grimace. ‘‘Still…it’s mob money. It’s dirty.’’
Craig rolls his eyes. ‘‘It’ll spend just the same. Trust me.’’
Susan brushes his arm. ‘‘You deserve some too. D’you want any?’’
He shakes his head. ‘‘I have enough to get by. Don’t need more.’’
Ellie moves close, wraps her arms around him. Lays her head on his chest. He smoothes an errant curl behind her ear, just the way she likes.
‘‘Thank you,’’ she smiles. Her eyes glisten with joyful tears.
‘‘See a problem, solve a problem,’’ he smiles back. ‘‘That’s my rule.’’
It’s not only Rob who joins him downstairs later that morning. Liz waves at him from the window. Owen salutes from the corner. A sharp-eyed man with a brawler’s physique, a shaved head and three-day stubble strides forward, hand outstretched. ‘‘Luke. Greenjackets. Good to meet ya, mate.’’ Polly grins over a brown paper bag of sugared nuts. Smells delicious.
She doesn’t share.
Bright morning sunlight streams in through the window, bathing the communal room in warm gold. Makes the clutter look distinctly less imposing.
Still a problem, though.
Correct, mission. Let’s get to it.
Then they set to work clearing the cluttered mess of detritus strewn over the floor. Craig sorts through the half-broken boxes, the others crouched close beside him. He picks up a box that makes clinking noises and sits by the window, rummaging. It’s fiddly work, and he breaks a light sweat even sitting in the shade. The box turns out to contain a jumble of stuff, mostly battered children’s toys rendered horrifying and otherworldly by months of wear and slow decay.
Ten minutes later, plaintive meowing echoes from the hallway. Ollie shuffles into the doorway with a toothy smile. Suki winds between his ankles and scrambles under the sofa, yowling.
‘‘Don’t worry, Craig,’’ Ollie reassures him, ‘‘she just needs a few minutes to adjust. All these new folks.’’ He grins fondly at his five new neighbours crouched in the scattered mess. Owen waves back. Luke grins. Polly blushes and bobs a curtsey. Rob snaps a crisp salute. Liz winks.
More muffled yowling from under the sofa. Craig has prepared for her discomfort. He sets down a tinsel ball, two wool mice, three fragments of cracker and a ball of twine on the floor in front of the sofa. A peace offering. Hopefully.
‘‘You spoil that beast rotten.’’
Ollie’s one to talk. Craig bought a whole jar of tomato-stuffed olives from the grocer’s just for him. Cost him a whole two shillings and ninepence too.
After another minute, Suki slinks out from under the sofa. She nibbles at a cracker then bats tentatively at a wool mouse before hopping up on the armrest to daintily clean her paws. Her ears are perked up now – a good sign.
Craig strokes her head. ‘‘Hi, missy.’’ She squeaks and nuzzles into his hand, purring. Feels lovely.
Luke jerks his hand back with a long stream of swearing. ‘‘I found some glass,’’ he sighs. His hand is bleeding freely, dark spots dotting the dusty floor.
‘‘Oh, dammit,’’ Liz grimaces. ‘‘That looks deep – best go upstairs and get it looked at. No, put pressure on it – fuck. Pol, go with him and make sure he doesn’t bleed too much. Everyone, please be careful grabbin’ things, watch yerselves, alright?’’
‘‘I pricked my finger,’’ Owen pouts dolefully. ‘‘I need to go lie down.’’
‘‘Dropped something heavy on my foot,’’ Rob groans, picking up on the game.
‘‘This bag,’’ grunts Craig seriously, ‘‘is full of spiders. Oh no.’’
‘‘None o’ youse is gettin’ grub tonight,’’ Liz mutters. ‘‘The thanks I get for trying to get you to stop choppin’ your fingers off.’’
‘‘Aw nooo, Liz,’’ Owen wails, grinning broadly. ‘‘All that poor gruel goin’ to waste!’’ He flings a hand across his forehead, melodramatic little shite. ‘‘Anything but that!’’ He makes a fake gagging noise. Ducks the moth-eaten doll Liz throws at him.
‘‘These people,’’ Craig mutters to Suki, who is winding around his ankles and snuffling at the cluttered toys, ‘‘are almost as funny as Rob.’’
Suki apparently understands Gaelic, because she chirps at him in reply.
The floor clutter has been successfully cleared when the others reappear in the doorway, Luke’s hand bandaged.
‘‘Oh my,’’ Polly gasps at the blankets and cushions everywhere. ‘‘This really is big enough for the lot of us.’’
‘‘And my chessboard!’’ Luke grins.
‘‘Gentlemen? Ladies?’’ Esther calls through the door, ‘‘I brought some tea.’’ Owen pulls open the door to reveal Esther on the threshold, beaming and radiant. She holds a wobbly tray packed full of fine bone china, with a heaped plate of –
‘‘Scones!’’ Owen grins.
‘‘Least I could do for my toiling slaves,’’ Esther sets down the plate and surveys the room, a gentle smile dancing on her lips. ‘‘My my, you were busy.’’ Suki entwines herself around Esther’s ankles and purrs up at her.
‘‘Ooh, Battenberg!’’ Luke coos.
‘‘Thank you,’’ Craig grins at Esther. ‘‘These look delicious.’’
Esther winks at him. ‘‘Enjoy the tea, folks.’’ Then she scoops up Suki and sweeps out the door with a mewling armful of cat.
It further distracts them to balance tiny teacups and china plates, pour out tea, and pick through miniature sandwiches.
Rob takes over pouring the tea, wearing a slight smile as he does so. Luke rubs his hands gleefully. ‘‘Looks fantastic.’’ Owen catches his eye, and grins.
‘‘Hang on,’’ Rob holds up a hand. They pause.
He clasps his hands together. Bows his head. The others follow suit.
‘‘May this meal bring us strength and good health,’’ Rob murmurs. ‘‘We’re thankful for those who made it possible, and those with whom we are about to share it. Let us eat together, let us be together. Forever and always. Amen.’’
Does this mean…Rob considers him a mission assist?
Liz squeezes his knee. Owen pats him on the back.
Gladness blooms in Craig’s chest, warm and comforting. Rob claps his hands, grinning. ‘‘Dig in, everyone.’’
It’s hilarious to watch Luke delicately sip tea out of a flower-covered cup a quarter the size of his hand. Little pinky extended, even. Owen nudges him in the ribs. ‘‘Very genteel.’’
Luke lowers the cup, grinning. ‘‘Shut up, mate. I’m from high society, y’know. Very civilised, me.’’
Polly’s giggle is a wonderful sound.
Positive discoveries: smoked salmon sandwiches drizzled with lemon, Esther’s French toast sprinkled with sugar, and warm scones packed with currants. Neat.
Turns out: happiness is a huge scone laden with a double spoonful of cream atop strawberry jam.
Confirm. Tastes amazing.
Luke scowls for some reason. ‘‘You philistine.’’
‘‘He’s from Exeter,’’ Rob grins, as if that explains anything.
The scone is so good. Even if it crumbles like a wet sandcastle between his fingers.
‘‘This is…nice,’’ he smiles. The others grin back and raise their teacups to him.
Birdsong outside. Craig swats Owen’s hand when he reaches for another one.
‘‘Paws off, Corporal. These are for everyone.’’
Owen pulls back his hand. Pouting looks considerably less effective when his right cheek is bulging with food.
‘‘You got told, Owen!’’ Polly crows, and hands Craig a sugared almond.
‘‘Is there any chance I could convince you to let me nab two o’ these and some cream and go sit in a quiet corner?’’ Luke asks, eyes glowing.
Luke hasn’t so far been a member of Team Olds. Craig would like to say yes.
‘‘Only if you think Liz won’t mind.’’
Luke and Owen sag dramatically.
‘‘Dammit,’’ Luke groans at the ceiling, ‘‘Liz’s always inspiring us all to be better people. It’s so unfair.’’
‘‘Did I hear someone take my name in vain?’’ Liz pipes up, beaming.
Luke hands her a scone. She spreads strawberry jam on first before topping it with cream, because she is classy and has superior taste. Luke’s pouting is beautiful.
Liz’s eyes flutter as she chews, and she moans a little ‘omm’ of bliss. ‘‘What even is this?’’
‘‘Scones from some little bakery down the street that I guess is about to get a huge influx of cash,’’ Owen grins.
It’s easy to sit quietly at one corner and listen with a half-ear to the conversations flowing around him. There are loud conflicting arguments over the merits of strawberry jam (good), raspberry (not good), plum (surprisingly nice), cherry preserve (very sweet, too runny) and marmalade (weird but okay). The dividing line on the order of cream/jam scone toppings is clear, Owen, Polly and Luke all firmly on the wrong side.
French toast with nutmeg batter is delicious. Craig even gets to eat plenty of it, because Rob is busy demolishing the salmon sandwiches.
‘‘He’ll be over later,’’ Owen hovers near the table, busy eyeing the last forlorn slice of Battenberg on the crumb-flecked plate.
‘‘What, he doesn’t like cake?’’ Luke is at the other end of the table, also eyeing off the plate.
Owen is going to have to fight Luke over it. Won’t that be a sight to see.
‘‘He’s back at the Den. Fussing over his horses, most likely.’’ Owen chuckles fondly.
To save any prospect of imminent violence over the last slice, Craig takes a third option, splits it in two and offers half to Rob. Rob grins and pats his arm, chewing smugly.
What’s worse than an ex-soldier pouting? An ex-soldier and a mammoth-sized street brawler both pouting. Looks magnificent.
Afterwards, Craig opens the door wide, bright sunshine streaming through the open curtains. One of Ollie’s large kilner jars now holds court on the windowsill, brimming with sunflowers – a splash of vivid gold and green, perfect for cheering somebody up on a dull day. The room is still a little dusty, but looks cosy in the golden morning light, warmth soaking into his bones. The others wander the first floor rooms, commenting with approval over the size of the closets and each room’s privacy. Craig feels easier when he sees Rob in the downstairs kitchen, running his hand over the countertops, a soft smile dancing on his lips. He feels almost certain when he sees Polly with her arms outstretched, stepping across the living room like a ballerina, measuring.
He knows for sure when Luke and Owen haul in the battered armchair from upstairs and set it up before the large west-facing window, bathed in sunlight. Liz snorts.
‘‘All right, Sarge,’’ she grins, ‘‘you’ve managed us very nicely. We’ll behave and do as we’re told.’’
‘‘Huh?’’ Luke pouts.
‘‘Hush yerself, Luke Davies,’’ Polly nudges him in the ribs. ‘‘These folks are being unbelievably generous to us poor sods. You’ll move in here so that cough’ll clear up and your chilblains go away, and you. Will. Like. It.’’
For three scary seconds it appears that Luke might decide to be stubborn about it, but he’s standing in a blazing sunbeam in his thick tattered coat, and his glowing comfort is obvious.
‘‘Oh, fine,’’ he accedes, grinning. ‘‘All right, it’s really wonderful. Thank you.’’
Then the others tramp in together. Bright eyes. Warm smiles.
Time for some ground rules.
‘‘No feet on the furniture,’’ Craig smirks. ‘‘Elbows off the table, kids.’’
Liz rolls her eyes. ‘‘Whatever you say, Muuum.’’
Success. Which calls for more tea. And banter. And eventually more French toast. By the time Craig has to go turn over the golden-brown slices sizzling in the frying pan, he’s lost all his kitchen helpers to measuring tapes next door.
He doesn’t mind.
© 2017 Tom Burton
Massive thank you to everyone who’s enjoying my main story so far and left such constructive feedback! You know I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Brand new short story this Friday – Part 3 of my fox series dedicated to the fantastic April Duncan, author of A Woman Is A Poem! Hope you enjoy it 😀