Boldness Be My Friend (600 words)

deringer

He’ll be twenty-seven in just two weeks, but he won’t live to see his birthday.

He doesn’t plan to.

The thick Turkish carpets muffle his footsteps as he walks, his polished spurs glinting under the hissing gas lamps. A few dawdlers glance his way; the gentlemen smile or nod, the ladies simper and giggle behind their fans. His dark ensemble might raise a few eyebrows — hardly appropriate evening-wear for a night like this — but none challenge him. Why should they? Tall and slim with brown curly hair, he cuts a dapper figure tonight in a smart black suit, frock coat and knee-high cavalry boots. Besides, he’s familiar here. Night after night he struts and frets his hour upon the stage, serenaded with rapturous applause and roses flung by adoring ladies. His audience love him. Some even revere him. Nobody suspects a thing.

Fools.

Up the stairs, along the corridor. A faint smattering of applause, ripples of laughter; somewhere in Act III? Mustn’t dawdle. Time’s ticking on.

He slips his hand into his pocket, fingers curling around smooth walnut and cold metal. His snug little Derringer. Only one shot.

One is enough.

Fathers. Sons. Brothers. Cousins. An entire generation snatched into oblivion by steel, shrapnel and cannon-fire, swallowed up by the endless crushing tide of Union blue. Thousands of lost souls clamouring for retribution, their ghosts sighing among the sweltering bayous of Louisiana and the cotton fields of Alabama, white as new-fallen snow. Never again would they tramp over the rolling meadows of Georgia, nor reap the golden cornfields of Tennessee.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.

Ah, here we are. Last door on the left. He pauses to compose himself, the Bowie knife heavy on his left hip. Things could turn ugly. He hopes not.

But: plan for the worst.

Three. Two. One.

Weapons drawn, he slips inside.

Four places occupied. Furthest to his right, a heavyset uniformed man reclines on the settee with his fiancée, his epaulettes and brass buttons gleaming under the stage lights. Beside them, closer, a stout woman in bonnet and evening gown eases back in her chair with a creak.

And nearest the door, barely two paces away in a plush red rocking chair…

He shivers. Abraham Africanus the First, in the flesh. The unmistakable sideburns and beard, a full head and shoulders taller than his high-backed chair. Over a month since he last stood behind the tyrant, under a chilly March sky facing a sea of thousands with his reedy voice echoing over the crowd. ‘Malice toward none, with charity for all…’ Tell that to the mothers, widows and orphans left crying in the dark. Richmond swallowed in hellfire, night sky torn asunder as the shells screamed down. Limbless cripples pleading for quarters in the gutter. A shroud of grief over every Memphis street. The curtains drawn, the mourning wreaths on every door, the widows veiled in black crepe. All their boys in grey who marched away singing, and never came home again.

A ripple of laughter through the crowd, echoed by a comedic blast from the brass section. Unheard in the hubbub, he clicks back the hammer.

All or nothing. He walked in tonight, head high. He won’t be walking back out.

But: hope for the best.

Below, a man dressed in drag prowls across the stage. ‘…Guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap!’

The tyrant rocks forward, convulsed with laughter as his guests guffaw beside him.

Behind them in the gloom, a silent shadow steps forward.

‘For the South,’ John Wilkes Booth thinks, and raises his pistol.

© 2021 | Tom Burton


Boldness be my friend! Arm me, audacity, from head to foot!
Cymbeline, Act 1 Scene 6 (William Shakespeare)
Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.
George R.R. Martin

All The Devils Are Here (1900 words)

Warning: Mentions of human cannibalism

‘The men will have their say, of course.’

Lieutenant Little’s voice is a dry, rasping croak. His throat is scratchy and raw; for weeks he hasn’t spoken more than five words stringed together. Now the words have begun, they’re spilling forth from his rotten mouth like a dam crumbling.

‘The weakest will have first choice; whichever cut suits each man best. I don’t know who’s taken over cooking, but they’ll fend for themselves. I will take whatever scraps are left. No deference to rank here. No pecking order. Not anymore.’

He gazes from his tent flap out over the limestone shale where it blends into the dreary grey sky. The sunlight is blinding, and he squints to better glimpse the men who shuffle aimlessly from hovel to sledge to fire pit. They barely acknowledge one another as they wander around the bleak camp. There are so few left now, and each have been whittled down to pathetic desiccated shells, hollow ghosts of their former selves.

Little attempts to swallow. His bloated tongue clogs his mouth, and he fights back a cough.

‘We still eat,’ he mumbles, turning his gaze once again to the salt-crusted greatcoat in his hands. He clenches his fist around it, bunching the material until his fingers quake. There’s a speck of yellow vomit near his thumb by the woollen collar. ‘We still eat. The butchering takes more from me than the relief I get from the meal. But still we eat. It’s something to do. Passes the time.’ He stops. ‘Who made that first decision? When we ate Young. Was it you? Did make that command? Did we have them vote?’

He turns his bleary gaze to Hodge, who lies unmoving in his bedroll staring unseeingly at the ragged tarp canvas above. No answer; Little clears his throat, fighting another cough.

‘It’s been long enough that … I no longer remember.’ He rubs at the vomit marring the coat, nose wrinkling from the unpleasant odour. Though it’s no worse than the stench emanating from his own rancid body, his filthy clothes, or the acrid aroma wafting from Hodge, from the stain seeping into his bedclothes and draining onto the rocky ground beneath him.

Snarls from outside. A fight breaks out at the fire pit; two ragged wretches are nose to nose, their voices loud and discordant. They exchange a few flailing blows, clawing at each other’s grimy shirts; but before Little can rise, can even croak a warning at them, they slump bone-weary against each other. They’re panting hard, heads drooped to their chests, arms dangling limp as their friends separate them.

‘No, I don’t remember,’ Little murmurs, watching the men resettle, huddled around the fire as though there weren’t a fight barely moments ago. ‘Don’t suppose it matters anymore. What good’s a vote now, anyway?’

*

He keeps the head. He props it against the crate.

There is a fascinating – if disgusting – irony that Hodge should watch Little as he eats raw slivers sawed from his thigh, his bones scraped clean of meat with a blunt boat knife and now bleaching in the wind. Some perverse, twisted justice. Little doesn’t eat much. His stomach has shrunken to a withered husk, and he cannot bear more than a few meagre chews. He covers the plate with a cloth, saving the meat for later, and wraps his threadbare blanket around his shoulders to watch the brief sunset.

‘Do you think the captain still lives? I hope he doesn’t, if I’m honest. Not now, anyway. If living’s like this—’ He pauses, unsure if he should explain what he means, but he assumes Hodge understands. The dead always do. ‘It’s hardly living. Surviving. Scraping the earth. This is hell.’

In a couple hours’ time, the sun will rise again, and the men in the camp will continue their mindless shuffle over the limestone. And the corpses will remain frozen hard into their sleeping-bag shrouds, contorted into the terrible clawing visages of their final death throes. They haven’t broken camp in over a week. Even the men that trudge the perimeter in a mockery of sentry watch only do so to stem the hunger pangs at bay, to keep their leaden legs limber.

Yet they are still Englishmen. They will survive, as is their duty. Live for …. no. Not live. Endure. For England. For God and country.

As any man must.

‘What do you think the Admiralty’s doing?’ It’s a dangerous thought, but Little feels a sudden flare of desperate energy, manic fervour gripping him as the hope smothers him in an iron stranglehold. ‘Are they searching for us? Do they know we yet live?’

He lapses into glum silence, watching the sky darken; not enough for stars to glimmer but enough that the air loses some of its dreary glow, shadows deepening inside the tent until the chill bites into Little’s bones. But the thought of rescue sustains him as he daydreams how they might be discovered, how a ship of whalers might find them on this barren coastline of King William Land, this desolate rocky wasteland where nothing walks or grows or lives. Perhaps by some great miracle they would have found Captain Crozier alive and well. The men would convalesce on ship as they returned home to England, never to sail in these icy Arctic waters again.

The sunrise pricks his eyes, and the dream shrivels away. Little sighs. He leans back against the crate, wraps the blanket tighter around himself, and closes his eyes.

‘Do you think our families miss us?’ he mutters, unsure from what hidden well of grief inside him that question comes. ‘Did you have sisters? Brothers? I can’t … I can’t even remember what my own mother looks like.’ He chokes down a sob. ‘Her hair. The colour of her eyes. I can’t remember …’

He is suddenly grateful that he sleeps alone in this tent, alone except for Hodge’s head, that no man living should see him weep into his hands, repeating I can’t remember. He marshals himself; he will not bemoan his grievances anymore for Hodge. No. No more sulking like a spoiled child.

He lets the memories die inside his mouth instead. Crumbling to ash on his tongue.

‘Hopeless,’ he whispers. ‘Fucking hopeless.’

*

A Netsilik family strays near their squalid camp next sunrise. They pause at the crest of the hill, wary of the white men’s camp. Little watches from his tent as two emaciated seamen approach the family. He hears nothing of the conversation, but it’s short. The men trudge back to camp, dejected in spite of the fresh seal meat gifted to them. It’s not enough to share; Little half expects the men hunched around the fire to begin tearing into each other like rabid dogs, fighting over pitiful handfuls of meat.

But the two men hoard it amongst themselves. They cram the slimy meat into their pockets, greedily hide it from their crewmates, perhaps waiting for a chance when they may eat in private and luxuriate in the taste of something other than raw flesh or the rancid clumps of tasteless sludge spooned from rusty tins into broken mouths. Or the rock-hard mouldy lumps crawling with weevils that the Admiralty had the nerve to call ‘biscuits’.

The next morning, both bodies lie dead by the lifeboat, stripped naked in preparation for butchering.

Little knows not who killed them, but he assumes — with a cautious glance to Hodge’s sunken gaze — that someone must have been eavesdropping. Caught wind of it. Divine retribution for selfish rogues? Hardly. Balancing Hell’s dripping red ledger, more like.

They don’t belong here. They never did. He still hears dead sailors’ whispers in the cold wind, the creaking groan of ice grinding against the splintered hull of a dying ship, the feeble hiss of oil lamps struggling to fight off the cold. Men reduced to savage beasts sucking the flesh from each other’s bones.

First Young. Then Gibson. Then Armitage, and Rogers, and … once they started, they couldn’t stop themselves. Gnawing away like starving rats.

‘Will we ever be forgiven? For all … this?’

He worries the gold chain between his fingertips where he keeps it stashed deep in his pocket, where the warmth of his body keeps the metal tolerable.

‘Does God even know we’re here?’ He glances at Hodge. The head is tilted to one side, his silver hair matted with dirt, one eyelid drooping where the eye is rotted. Little turns away with a grumble, ‘What would you know? I’d ask Crozier, were he here.’ His throat grows tight, thinking of Francis. He turns his angry glare back to Hodge. ‘Who the hell are you to me? Another brother officer? A crewmate? A friend?’ He spits the word like filth. ‘No, you pompous selfish bastard, Francis was my friend. James was my friend.’ His voice catches. ‘Thomas was my friend. Crozier, Fitzjames, Jopson … None of them are here now. Only me and you … and this goddamned fucking Arctic!’ His voice raises enough that he hears the despondent echo rattle through the camp. No one bothers them, numbed now to Little’s furious tirades, his mutterings to ghosts long gone, long dead. ‘No one’s coming. We’re already dead, Henry. The captains are dead. Sir John is dead. You’re dead. I’m dead. We’ve already been damned to hell. Forevermore.’

He scrambles up, seething, and kicks the head away. Watches it scrape and tumble over the shale until it rests a few feet off.

He feels wetness on his cheeks. Tastes salt in his beard. He takes his hand from his pocket and covers his face, sobbing like a blubbering child. He crawls on all fours to Hodge’s head, gentle as he picks it up, cradles it. Uses his sleeve to wipe dust from Hodge’s cheeks, runs his fingers through the ash-grey hair so it flops with a familiar curl over his forehead. The nose is broken — from what and when, Little cannot say — but he leaves it alone. He props the head against the crate and huddles away from it.

He shakes his head. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry. It isn’t your fault.’ He slips his hand back into his pocket, stroking the gold chain with his fingertips. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’

Distantly he feels his stomach seize from hunger, and pulls the plate toward him. The meat is darkening, discoloured at the edges, already fading to grey. He cannot remember how long it has stewed there on the plate, but he raises a ragged morsel to his lips, chewing through leathery toughness.

He can no longer taste, he realises, and swallows with difficulty.

He looks to the heavens, imagining for a moment that the sky is more blue than grey, that the sun moves more than a lazy half-circle above their cursed heads.

‘Do you think any leads will open up in spring?’ he asks Hodge beside him. ‘That we might sail further west? Find the Passage?’ The head doesn’t answer, just a vacant one-eyed stare of I know something you don’t know. Little takes another bite of flavourless meat. It does not nourish him. Never will. ‘We are close, I think. Very close.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Artwork: Man Proposes, God Disposes
(Edwin Landseer, oil painting, 1864)

‘Pocketful of Time’ coming soon!

Really excited to announce my second collection of short stories ‘Pocketful of Time’ is due to be published!

A world-weary cynic rediscovers his faith. A soldier is haunted by his duty to king and country. A prisoner faces her last night on earth . . .

These historical stories dive into the depths of humanity, exploring the darkest deeps of despair and mortality. Human history is often a grim legacy of bloodshed, misery and despair. Yet still there is hope, the triumph of the human spirit and enduring courage in the face of adversity.

From the muddy streets of Tudor England to the icy cells of wartime Germany, these tales capture the struggle for survival against the odds and ask: when Death smiles upon us, what else can we do but smile back?

Remedy (1200 words)

Three heavy knocks on the front door: boom, boom, boom.

Ann – and the cat she’s idly stroking – look up from the hearthrug. There it is again: boom, boom, boom. Loud and urgent. She rises and toddles over to open it. As light floods in, she shrieks and cringes back: on the doorstep is a horrifying monster, a ghastly creature vomited from a nightmare, from Hell, from Satan himself. It towers over her, cloaked all in black; where the face should be is a hideous pale mask, pointed like the beak of a gigantic rook.

‘No!’ she screams, ‘get away!’ She tries shutting the door but the creature’s gloved paw lunges out, pushing it back with horrible, impossible, relentless strength. ‘Go away!’ she sobs, pushing in vain. The monster will force its way inside, hurt her, hurt her mother, hurt everyone –

Then her grandmother Meg is stooped beside her, gently ushering her aside, murmuring soft sweet words of comfort, apologising to the monster, inviting it to please step inside and examine the patient in their spare bedroom. As if there were nothing out of the ordinary at all.

The spectre growls without a mouth, rumbling that he will not come inside, thank you miss, regrettably he cannot, and that they, Ann’s entire family, must all henceforth not go outside, nor wander the streets of Otterton, but must remain shut indoors until the pestilence has safely run its course.

Ann backs away, bumping into her mother who’s moving towards the window hatch. Judith ruffles her blonde curls. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ she smiles. ‘It’s only the physician.’ She leans out to examine this stranger.

‘The …?’ From the shelter of her mother’s legs Ann peeks out at him, still there on the doorstep talking to her grandmother Meg, his long shadow stretching across the floor. ‘But why’s he …?’ Ann waves a hand over her face.

Judith purses her lips. ‘He wears that mask because he believes it’ll protect him.’

‘From sickness?’

Judith nods.

‘And … will it?’

Judith grimaces, then shakes her head. ‘Don’t think so,’ she mutters. ‘But not venturing inside the house, refusing to see or examine a sick patient, might help him.’ Ann frowns, remembering the overripe stench of decay seeping into the hallway, her brother’s rasping breaths dribbling out under the closed door, drifting up into the thatch.

She slides her hand inside Judith’s long strong fingers, for the first time in months, as if her warm touch might anchor her, keep her safe. They watch the physician reach into his bag and hand her grandmother a brown wrapped parcel. From the wattle paddock outside, the old goat glowers at him.

‘Tie it to the boy’s stomach with linen,’ he intones gravely, accepting Meg’s vinegar-soaked coins into his gloved palm, ‘and leave it there for three full days. Then take an onion and soak it well in —’

‘What’s that?’ Judith interrupts, leaning out of her hatch and frowning.

The physician turns to her, his horrible pointed beak swinging towards them. Ann shrinks against her mother. She doesn’t want this man to look at her; she doesn’t want to fall under his baleful stare. To be noted and remembered by him, recorded by him, will be a terrible omen that some dreadful fate will befall them all. She wants to run upstairs, drag her mother away, seal shut the doors and bar the windows so that the man won’t get in, so that his eyeless gaze will not fall upon any of them.

But her mother isn’t frightened at all. The physician and Judith regard each other cooly, through the hatch from which Judith sells her wares. From the rafters hang sprigs of heather, posies of flowers, spears of lavender, chamomile blooms. Ann sees, with the cutting clarity of a girl creeping into maidenhood, that this man doesn’t like her mother. His chin rises, and – yes! – he’s glaring down his beak at her. Like a dog turd smeared on his boot. He resents her for her livelihood: she sells herbal cures, grows her own medicines, gathers leaves and bark, petals and juices from overgrown woodland.

Ann doesn’t understand. Why does her mother deserve his scorn? Her homemade potions cure anything – people come from all over Otterton, all over Devon and beyond, to speak with her mother through the window hatch, bemoaning their symptoms, telling her what they suffer – whether their soul is restive or hankering, festering and rotting. They whisper about bleeding, not bleeding, dreams, portents, a black cat across their path, a bird inside their house, a numb limb, an itchy rash, phlegmy coughs, fevers, swelling sores, earache, heartache. Some – mostly women – she invites in, seating them by the fire while she holds their hands or grinds some roots, plant leaves, a sprinkling of petals in a mortar. They leave with a cloth parcel or a tiny bottle plugged with beeswax, their faces relaxed, their steps lighter. They swallow the tinctures she spoons out for them, wincing at its bitterness but swallowing all the same. They shiver as she slathers cold poultices onto burn scars, grimacing at the sting but enduring nonetheless. Because she knows how to help people, this wild-haired dame in cap and apron who can sense the slow crawl of disease through their veins.

And they trust her. They accept her. But this masked man, they never will.

This stranger, Ann suddenly realises with icy clarity, wishes her mother ill. She steals his patients, trespasses on his revenue, impedes his grim weekly rounds, leaches away his livelihood.

How baffling the adult world seems to Ann at this moment, how complex and slippery. How can she ever navigate her way through it, walk the dusty road between these thatched cottages out into the wide unknown world beyond? However will she manage?

The physician inclines his beak then turns back to Meg, as if Judith hadn’t even spoken.

‘Is that a dried toad?’ Judith calls in a clear, cutting sneer. ‘Because if it is, we don’t want it. Take your quack remedies elsewhere.’

Ann wraps her arms around her mother’s waist; she wants to end this conversation right now, to get as far away from this scary freak as she can. Judith’s hand lowers to squeeze her wrist gently, as if saying, I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere, I won’t leave you alone with him.

The physician’s cruel beak swings towards them. ‘Madam,’ he rumbles, voice hardening to flint, ‘rest assured I know far more of these matters than you. If applied to the abdomen for several days, a dried toad has proven most effective in cases like this. But if your son is indeed afflicted with pestilence, unfortunately there’s very little that I can —’

BANG. The rest of his speech is cut off, lost, muffled, because Judith has slammed the hatch shut in his face. Ann watches her fingers fumble to ram the deadbolts home. Her face is flushed and furious. She’s muttering something, but Ann catches odd words: ‘man’, ‘dare’, ‘bloody fool’. She watches as her fuming mother stamps across the room, restlessly straightening a chair, picking up a bowl and putting it down again. She sighs heavily, takes the dried toad from Meg’s wizened hands, steps over to the fireplace and tosses it onto the glowing coals.

‘Quack, quack, quack,’ Meg cackles. The cat curls around her ankles, hungry for attention. Ann watches wide-eyed as the parcel hisses and smokes, warty skin fizzling and shrivelling.

‘A toad, indeed,’ her mother scoffs. ‘Well, honestly.’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Horse’s Mouth (1000 words)

‘Any sign of civilisation, Benson?’

‘It seems not, Sir.’

Alfred scowled out at the miserable grey drizzle. Typical misfortune. First the car spluttered out its death throes in the middle of the wilderness. Then slogging through an ankle-deep mire to this crumbling barn with its leaky roof, already drenched to the bone. Darkness falling. The rain showed no signs of abating. And now his stomach was rumbling. Marvellous.

Beside him, Benson rummaged through their travel bags. He paused.

‘Pardon me, Sir, but…this article appears to have found its way into our luggage.’

He held up a fox-fur coat. Alfred scoffed. ‘Very funny, Benson. That’s brand new!’

Benson’s arched eyebrow was the only crack in his deadpan mask of politeness. ‘Hm. I assumed it’d gotten into your wardrobe by mistake, Sir…or else been maliciously placed there by your enemies.’

Alfred flushed. ‘I’ll have you know that I bought this in Cannes!’

Benson’s face was blank beneath his bowler. ‘…And wore it, Sir?’

‘Every night at the casino! As I passed by, all eyes turned.’

‘And I daresay, quite a few stomachs.’ Benson refolded a pair of trousers and tucked them away with meticulous care. ‘I can only hope the poor animal died a peaceful death, Sir.’ He paused again. ‘You’ll pardon me for mentioning it, Sir, but…’ he lifted out a straw boater with the delicately strained grimace of someone handling a bag of dog faeces. ‘I can only assume a tradesman left this behind.’

Alfred snatched it from Benson and jammed it on his head. ‘This is known among the fashionable elite as a 42nd Street Skimmer, Benson. I told the boys at Bates it was essential, and they delivered the goods.’

Benson’s eyebrows rose. ‘So no mention was made of a carnival, or…fancy dress occasion, Sir?’

Alfred rolled his eyes. ‘Benson, it’s perfectly good headwear!’

Benson sighed. ‘Gentlemen do not wear straw hats in the metropolis, Sir.’

‘Nonsense, Benson!’ Alfred trudged to the entrance, gazing out into the miserable haze. ‘Stiff upper lip, then? Carry on regardless?’

‘Indeed, Sir.’

‘Come, Benson!’ Alfred strained his eyes, squinting into the gloomy distance. ‘I think…yes! I see a light!’

‘It’s merely the rain playing tricks, Sir.’

‘Pish-posh. I’d bet my hat that’s a cottage, well supplied with tea, ham sandwiches and a roaring fire.’

Benson turned his head, eyed the boater with a spark of barely-suppressed glee. ‘Bet your hat, Sir?’

‘Not really, Benson!’ Alfred jammed the hat down firmly, hoping to prevent the wind – or overeager valets – whisking it away. ‘It’s rather essential in the current conditions.’

Benson inclined his head; water poured off his bowler in a graceful waterfall. ‘That, I am willing to concede, Sir.’

‘A truce, then!’ Alfred grinned, scrambling over a drystone wall towards the hoped-for light. ‘Between you and my hat, at least until we can get out of this bally rain.’

Benson vaulted the wall with his usual grace as Alfred surveyed the boggy field he was sinking to the knees into. A twisted tree close by, with a rather menacing brown horse sheltering beneath it. Alfred shivered with apprehension – one thing to admire the equine species hurtling around a track when yours truly safely placed bets behind a sturdy fence, quite another for a face-to-face encounter in a dark muddy field.

‘We will walk past him, Sir,’ Benson soothed. ‘He will not bother us.’

‘I don’t know, Benson. He looks rather…morose.’

‘I am sure that he is simply wet and cold, much like ourselves, Sir.’

The horse barely looked up as they picked their way through the mud to the middle of the field. It was only as they drew level with the tree that the creature caught an unfamiliar whiff and trotted over sharply. Alfred screwed his eyes shut, bracing himself for the inevitable trampling.

‘…Benson?’

‘He is not threatening us, Sir.’

A reassuring touch to his arm encouraged him to open his eyes, but then a blast of warm, horsy breath on his face, and the lids were firmly shut once more. ‘What does the dashed beast want, then?’

‘I think he may be a trifle hungry, Sir. Perhaps we could- oh dear.’

Alfred paled. ‘What?’ Benson’s voice had risen a few octaves – Benson scarcely ever pronounced the words ‘oh dear’ without good cause. At the same moment, Alfred became aware of the cold patter of rain on his all-too-bare head. ‘Benson?’

‘I am afraid that…he has eaten your hat, Sir.’

The blighter had, with no way of getting it back – once the boater vanished into the equine maw, even Benson seemed uneasy about trying to extract it. An alarming number of large chomping yellow teeth, the shredded remains of straw rapidly vanishing between them.

‘Come, Sir,’ Benson tugged on his arm, Alfred staring in dismay as the last scraps of the boater were devoured. ‘I believe you were right – there is a light after all.’

He squinted, and…Yes! There was a twinkling glow at the end of the field, shining like an warm welcoming beacon.

‘I did like that hat,’ Alfred sulked as Benson steered him towards the far gate. His hair was now soaked through. ‘And even if you didn’t, Benson, you have to admit it did a bally good job of keeping the rain off.’

As he approached the wall and prepared to throw a leg over it, he felt something settle on his head. The rain stopped.

‘You may borrow my bowler, Sir. We are nearly there.’

Benson’s bowler was far too big for him – his head not nearly the same measure as the brainy Bensonian cranium – but it kept the rain off as well as the boater. Of course, the top of Benson’s head was now as soaked as the rest of him, whilst Alfred’s own hair was still soggy underneath the bowler. But it was the thought that counted, and offered the young master a new reserve of comfort as they attacked the last hundred metres of mire together.

‘Thank you, Benson.’

He couldn’t make out Benson’s face out through the rain, but Alfred knew that he’d be allowing himself a small smile, most especially because he knew Alfred couldn’t see it. A valet has to keep up appearances after all.

‘Not at all, Sir.’

© 2020 | Tom Burton