45. Dressing Down

Liz kisses her father goodbye, then she and Craig walk back along the dirty corridors and through the dismal lounge to the front desk. The guy in the oversized white coat mumbles, “Goodbye, Miss Brooks.” They walk along more grimy corridors, down the long creaky stairs to the entrance hall, out into the chilly sunshine to the gate. Craig leans against its brick pillar and Liz keeps on going. He waits until she’s small in the distance and then pushes off the pillar and heads back to the entrance. Up the steps, through the door, up the stairs again. The fourth floor. He crosses the hallway. Steps up to the hallway counter, a hissing bubble of boiling rage under his skin.

“Who’s in charge here?”

The slouched orderly in the oversized doctor’s coat shrugs. “I am, I guess. I’m the shift supervisor for this ward.”

Craig looks him over. “How many patients here?”

“Seventeen,” the guy mutters.

“Who are they?”

“Just patients, man. Whatever they send us.”

“You run this place according to a manual?”

“Sure. It’s a bureaucracy, like everywhere.”

“You got a copy of the manual around?”

The guy shrugs. “Somewhere.”

“You want to show me the part that says it’s okay to keep the rooms dirty and leave mouse shit in the corridors?”

The guy blinks and swallows. “There’s no point cleaning, mate. They wouldn’t know – how could they? This here’s the vegetable patch.”

Craig goes very, very still.

And very, very quiet.

“Is that what you call it?”

“It’s what it is.”

“Wrong answer,” Craig growls. “This isn’t the vegetable patch. This is a veterans’ clinic. And you’re a pathetic piece of shit.”

The orderly bristles. “Hey, lighten up, pal. What’s it to you?”

“James Brooks is my brother.”

“Really?”

“All veterans are my brothers.”

“He’s brain dead.”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“D’you want to be?”

No. Christ, no.”

“Then listen up. And listen very carefully. A person less fortunate than yourself deserves the best you can give. Because of duty, and honour, and respect, and service. You understand those words? You should do your job right, and you should do it well, simply because you can, without looking for notice or reward. The people here deserve your best, and I’m damn sure their families deserve it too.”

The orderly frowns. “Who are you anyway?”

“I’m a concerned citizen,” Craig shrugs. “With a number of options. I could embarrass your parents, I could call the newspapers or the police, I could come in here with an undercover reporter, I could get you sacked. Lot of fuss. But I don’t do stuff like that. Not my style. I offer personal choices instead, real simple, face-to-face.’’

He leans closer.

‘‘Want to know what your choice is?”

“What?”

“Do what I tell you, with a cheery smile.”

“Or?”

“Become patient number eighteen.”

The orderly turns pale. The warden glances his way, then steps forward glaring at Craig, aiming for menacing. Adorable. Craig’s fingers itch for violence. It would be joyfully simple to rip the cudgel from his fat waist and beat him into a bloody pulp on the grimy tiles. Very tempting.

But cracking civilians’ skulls is mission-noncompliant.

Screaming at civilians is mission-noncompliant.

RELUCTANT CONFIRM

Yeah, whatever. Gross.

Frightening civilians with a hard glare and icy words is entirely acceptable. Craig crushes the warden with a vacant blank-eyed stare, like he had a fifth of a second to decide whether to leave him limping for a week, or crippled in a wheelchair for the rest of his sorry life.

The warden blinks, gulps, then backs away into the corner.

Nice.

Craig looms over the orderly. “Stand up.”

“What?”

“On your feet. Now.”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll make sure you never stand up again.”

The guy pauses a beat and gets to his feet.

“At attention,” Craig says. “Feet together, shoulders back, head up, gaze level, arms straight, hands by your sides, thumbs lined up with your trouser pockets. Do it now.” Calm patient voice, huge threatening physique. Worked great against a cowering mob boss; should be no trouble for a greasy runt in a coat with dangling sleeves. Works a treat. The orderly is swallowing hard, blinking, sweating, and standing in a rough parody of parade-ground stiffness. To the side, the warden is pressed back into the wall like he wants to melt away into the flaky plaster.

Craig turns up his glare. “Your patients are not just whatever they send you. Your patients are fathers. Sons. Brothers. Uncles. Nephews. They’re soldiers and warriors, leaders and heroes. Braver than you’ll ever be. They served their country with honour and courage. All over the world. Under fire, in the face of extreme danger. They deserve your utmost care and respect.” His voice rings out like a blade hacking ice, crackling with boiling rage. For the men who fought like demons for their regimental colours, who bled for their friends beside them, who suffered for a country who would never remember them, and died so innocent women and children could sleep safely in their beds. For all the comrades buried in unmarked graves on a dozen dusty battlefields and a dozen frozen mountain passes. For the thousands of grieving widows, heartbroken mothers and devastated children left crying in the night for men who would never return home. For a brotherhood of warriors-in-arms left broken, mangled and withered at the hands of idiot bastards like this who would never understand.

The orderly wilts before him. You insulted me, you slimeball sonofabitch, Craig’s lizard brain growls. You insulted my friend, and the crippled man under her tender care. Let this be a lesson to you worthless bastard. Lend a hand. New century, new rules. In this country, in this new age that’s what we do for each other. We lend a hand.

Craig continues, “This place is a disgrace. It’s filthy and a complete damn mess. So listen up. You’re going to get off your skinny arse and get it all cleaned up. Starting right now. I’m going to come back, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next month, and if I can’t see my face in that floor I’m going to turn you upside down and scrub you like a mop. Then I’m going to kick your arse so hard you’ll be spitting shit for a week. Are we clear?”

The guy shuffles feet. Gulps, blinks, then mumbles, “okay.”

“With a cheery smile,” Craig adds.

The guy forces a smile.

“Bigger.’’

Dry lips peel back from dry teeth.

“That’s good,” Craig nods. “And you’re going to get a haircut, and every day you’re going to wash, and every time Miss Brooks comes by you’re going to stand up and welcome her warmly and personally escort her to her dad’s room, and her dad’s room is going to be clean, and her dad’s going to be freshly shaved, and the window’s going to be sparkling, and the room’s going to be full of fresh air and sunbeams, and the hallway’s going to be spotless, and the floor’s going to be so shiny Miss Brooks is going to be in serious danger of slipping on it and hurting herself. Are we clear?”

“…Okay.”

“Are we clear?”

“Yes.”

“Completely?”

“Yes.”

“Crystal?”

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Yes. Sir.”

Craig gives him a bright, cheerful smile. Full of teeth. “You’ve got sixty seconds to get started, or I’ll break your arm.”

The guy blinks, gulps and turns towards the telephone on the wall.

Then he stops. Looks beyond Craig’s shoulder. His eyes widen.

Craig looks around.

Liz is standing at the end of the hallway, gaping at him in slack-jawed astonishment.

Dammit. The point was for her to wait outside.

‘‘You heard all that?’’

She nods mutely. Stares at him.

Well, okay then.

‘‘Good.’’ He turns back to the orderly. ‘‘Now I’ve got a second witness.’’ Looks back at Liz. ‘‘Best if you wait outside. I’ll be down shortly.’’

She nods again and lurches unsteadily down the stairs out of view.

The guy is still gaping at him. Craig nods at the slow, ponderous clock on the wall.

He smiles. Thinks about knives.

‘‘You’ve got thirty seconds left, pal. Hop to it.’’

The guy blinks, gulps, then wobbles over to pick up the telephone crank on the wall. Dials. Mumbles. Twenty seconds later the old stairwell creaks and three more guys slouch into the hallway. Grey overalls, dull expressions. They haul buckets and mops out of a janitor’s closet and soon after the buckets are full of water and all four guys are casting about aimlessly, as if facing an immense daunting task. Craig leaves them to it. Walks back down to the entrance and looks for Liz.

He catches up with her a hundred yards down the road. She’s sitting on a low brick wall, gazing out at the shivering trees. White puffy clouds high above. She slides into step beside him and he walks on, slowly retracing their route through the quiet cobbled streets and narrow alleys. No rush. All the time in the world. After two more minutes, Liz slides her arm around his waist.

There’s no reason for increased pulse.

There’s no reason for it, Sergeant.

‘‘Hey,’’ she whispers.

‘‘Hey yourself,’’ he murmurs. She hums, shuffles closer. Stretches up and kisses his cheek.

‘‘Now I guess I owe you,’’ she smiles.

‘‘My pleasure,’’ Craig smiles back. ‘‘Pulled knives on each other first time we met, remember?’’

She bumps his shoulder. ‘‘Guess this makes us even. Thank you for coming.’’

‘‘No problem.’’

‘‘You know why I wanted you to?’’

‘‘Yes.’’

‘‘Tell me.’’

‘‘You wanted someone to understand why you live like you do. Why it’s okay.’’

‘‘And?’’

‘‘You wanted someone to understand what you’re going to do next.’’

‘‘Which is what?’’

‘‘Whatever you want. Entirely up to you. And either way’s good with me.’’

Liz rests her head on his shoulder. ‘‘Why’re you doing all this?’’

‘‘Doing what?’’

‘‘Caring, I s’pose. About what’s happening in East London. Your neighbours. Ellie. Meg. Us. Bad stuff happens everywhere, all the time.’’ She sighs. ‘‘But you’re still…still giving so damn much. Defending those who can’t defend themselves. Suppose someone tells you: hey, the world’s always cold and dark, cruel and uncaring. Supposing they say: you won’t make any difference. Only a fool thinks he can fix all the world’s problems.’’

He’s quiet for a long, long moment.

Then he shrugs. ‘‘Sure…but you’ve gotta try, don’t you?’’

She slips her hand into his. Squeezes gently. He glances sideways at her. She’s gazing straight ahead.

But she’s smiling.

Aww. Such a great lass, ain’t she?

Oi, back off, Ryan. I saw her first.

* *

And somehow he’s not at all surprised when Liz drags him out to the White Lion later that evening to down an alarming amount of rum. He’s touched that she does so freely in his presence, instead of waiting for the safe privacy of her own room. She knocks back glass after glass until she begins drunkenly reciting poetry at him. This is fine during Invictus and the Lake Isle of Innisfree, but once she stumbles into the Lays of Ancient Rome, the situation is critical: she will dismantle his kneecaps if he allows her to show emotion in public. Besides, it’s a proven fact that no-one can recite all seventy verses of Horatius without openly weeping.

He himself could probably only struggle through to fifteen. Probably.

Better not risk it.

Craig pays the tab before she can order yet another round (a lot of shillings – Ellie is beaming) and walks back with her to the flat so slowly and carefully that even the Olds could’ve kept up with them. She totters along the pavement hanging onto his right arm for balance.

‘‘Had enough for one night?’’ he grins fondly.

‘‘Nnnnnope,’’ Liz slurs. ‘‘I’zzzz n’t drunk.’’ She pokes his arm. Blinks owlishly. Pouts. ‘‘I’zzzz j’sss…verrrrrry sleeeepyyyy.’’

By the time they turn into Stainsby Road, Liz is resting her head on his shoulder. One arm wrapped around his waist.

Her giggling is hilarious.

GOOD JOB

Hey, thanks.

Unfortunately, she’s still drunk when they return home. Fortunately Owen is awake, so Craig feels no compunction whatsoever about transferring custody.

‘‘I don’t even want to know,’’ Owen rolls his eyes, grinning.

‘‘I loves rum foreeeverrr,’’ Liz sing-songs, one arm slung over Owen’s shoulder.

‘‘Look at you, Mister Smooth!’’ Freya crows, Luke chuckling from the staircase. ‘‘Careful, Liz, he’s gonna sweep you off your feet!’’

‘‘Jusss what I always wanted,’’ Liz slurs, fluttering her eyelashes. She giggles. ‘‘Actually, I can’t stand on me own two feet.’’ She pouts at Craig. ‘‘Be a good boy an’ tuck your poor soused grandma into bed, won’tcha luv?’’ She hiccups, giggles, then winks and sneers her best snob voice. ‘‘Then prep some cookies, peasant, ‘fore I smite thee!’’

‘‘Yes ma’am, whatever you say ma’am,’’ Craig deadpans, throwing a floppy salute.

‘‘Ma’am!’’ Liz cackles, and sinks to the carpet. Owen is laughing so hard he has to lean against the wall.

Two floors upstairs in the communal room, Rob is (somehow) fast asleep on the sofa, a creased paperback of Three Men In A Boat tented on his chest. Polly is curled up next to him, head pillowed on Rob’s thigh as she snores. Amy perches on the arm of the sofa, slowly carding her fingers through Rob’s hair and humming softly. Rusty snoozes on the carpet in front of them, ears twitching in slumber. Soft feet patter from the floor below. A muffled thump, a burst of tittering giggles.

A warm wave of affection surges through him. It’s all terribly domestic.

AWWW

Confirm.

The next morning, Craig is very careful to get bacon sizzling first before he knocks gently on Liz’s bedroom door. Like any considerate bellboy in a fine prestigious hotel. Your wake-up call, ma’am. Rise and shine.

‘‘I hate you forever,’’ he hears her groan from within.

Craig could waltz in, draw back the curtains and start singing lustily, but he would prefer to keep all his kneecaps intact.

He bakes her a second batch of cookies instead. Seems only fair.


© 2017 Tom Burton

This is the final chapter of my debut novel I was going to release online – we’ve reached the end of Part 2, so hopefully it keeps readers eager to know how the story wraps up in Part 3! I’m drawing a line under this story for now but I’ll still be publishing short stories on a weekly basis – plenty more coming on Friday! 🙂

44. Empty Husk

James Brooks’ room is a cold twelve-foot cube, pale cream tile walls and a small grimy window facing the door. A pale green metal footlocker open in the corner holds a rumpled pair of grey pyjamas. The green metal cabinet beside it is stacked with file folders and tattered brown envelopes.

A narrow hospital cot with a tented sheet dominates the room. Resting on rumpled pillows is a limp, unmoving man. A breathing tube curls into his slack mouth. He’s maybe five-ten, maybe a hundred and fifty pounds. White stubble on his cheeks. A hooked nose and wrinkles carved deep into his pale face, his jaw and brow bound with a linen bandage. His eyes are blue, half-open and vacant, staring at a spot a thousand miles beyond the ceiling.

His arm drapes out from under the bedsheet. It’s a gnarled mess of puckered scar tissue, pink and twisted.

Burn scars.

“Hello, Dad,” Liz whispers.

No response from the man in the bed. Just hissing rasping sucking noises with a slow, regular rhythm. A dusty clock on the wall ticks ponderously on.

Liz murmurs, “Dad, I brought a friend to see you.”

No response. And there never would be, Craig guesses. The guy in the bed is completely inert. Not asleep, not awake. Not anything. The room reeks of carbolic soap.

Tick. Tick.

Liz bends low and kisses her father gently on the forehead. Then she steps over to the cabinet and tugs a creased brown envelope out of the pile. It’s marked Brooks, J. (Lieutenant) in faded black ink. Clearly been handled many times. Liz pulls a sheet of paper out of the envelope and holds it up to the window. It’s a mess of scribbles.

“Blast trauma,” she recites in a listless, defeated tone. “Severe brain damage. Twisting, shearing, tearing, penetration by shrapnel. Dad got it all. His skull was shattered, and they cut the worst of it away. That was supposed to be a good thing. It relieves the pressure. They give patients a metal plate and splints later, when the swelling goes down. But his never did.”

She put the sheet back in the envelope, and shuffles the envelope back into the pile. Blinks hard several times. Looks at her shoes. Glances up at him. ‘‘He saved his platoon at Ladysmith. They were pinned down by artillery in the field hospital. He carried two men out himself and got the stretcher-bearers safely under cover. He was running back in for the last guy, then…’’ she swallows hard, ‘‘…a shell hit the ammo hut.’’ She reaches into her satchel, pulls out a faded silver medal. Dark crimson ribbon. Navy blue stripe.

Liz looks down at the medal, then her father. ‘‘For exceptional bravery in the field.’’

The Distinguished Conduct Medal. Second only in merit to the Victoria Cross.

For outstanding courage in the face of the enemy.

The clock ticks on. The slack mouth hisses and gulps.

“What was his day job?”

Liz frowns. “He was a mechanic. For farm equipment, mostly. Then he wanted to join up. See the world. Make a difference.”

The clock ticks on, relentless.

Craig looks at James. Then at Liz. “What did the doctors say?”

Liz sighs. “At first it was reasonable. They thought he’d be confused and a bit slow, you know, and perhaps a little unstable and aggressive, but with us all the same.”

Her fists clench.

‘‘But he never woke up,’’ Craig murmurs.

Her face falls, and she nods. “I wanted to be ready. But he never woke up from that. The swelling never went away. He’s like a brain-damaged lizard, as simple as a goldfish. He can’t move. Can’t see. Can’t hear. He can’t even think.”

Her eyes glisten with tears.

Craig says nothing.

Tick. Tick.

Liz places a hand on her sternum, breathes deep. “Battlefield surgery’s much better now. He was stabilised on an ambulance train and in Durban within five hours. Put on a ship home two days later. In the Crimean mud or the Indian jungles he would’ve died at the scene, no question.”

She moves alongside her father, lays a tender hand on his cheek. “We think his spinal cord was severed too. But that…doesn’t really matter now, does it?”

The clock ticks on, the slack mouth rasps and then Liz looks up. ‘‘Was it worth it?’’

‘‘No,’’ Craig says softly. ‘‘Not really. Hasn’t been worth it for a long time.’’

‘‘How long?’’

‘‘Since about eighteen fifteen.’’

She pauses, unsure. Then she smiles. ‘‘Waterloo. The last great war to save Europe.’’

Craig nods. ‘‘We had a purpose, back then. A real drive. To beat a madman who wanted to conquer all of Europe. And now, with the Empire…’’ he shrugs. ‘‘Window-dressing. Everywhere we’ve been in the last hundred years, quelling civil unrest, stamping out rebellions, crushing uprisings for the British crown. Different perceptions, I guess. Not easy with the locals. They thought they were getting their countries back, and we thought we’d bought a large army base with servants.’’

‘‘Did Dad know that?’’

‘‘Yeah,’’ Craig nods. ‘‘He knew. I know soldiers. There’s nothing more realistic than grunts in the field. You can try, but you can’t bullshit a soldier. Not even for a minute.’’

Liz’s eyes soften. ‘‘And yet you served. You followed every order the army gave you, and they kicked you in the teeth.’’

He nods again. ‘‘I liked the army. It was a job worth doing, that’s all.’’ He shrugs. ‘‘James knew that too. We took pride in doing it well, but we laughed at the preachers and politicians who thought it was a noble calling. The pen-pushers safely back home, while good men were dying in the sand. They never understood. They never understood why we did it. Nobody fights for the army, okay? It’s not about the army. You fight for the guy who’s fighting next to you…and that’s it. That’s all it ever is. Not for Queen or country, not for God or glory. The foxhole brotherhood, that’s what it was. You watch your mates, and they watch your back.’’

Liz smiles. ‘‘No one gets left behind.’’

‘‘Exactly. Not for patriotism. Or defending the country. Or public service.’’

‘‘Yet you still did your duty.’’

He shrugs. ‘‘Duty’s a house of cards. I went where they told me, sure. I did everything they asked, plenty of things I’m not proud of, and I watched ten thousand other guys do the same. And we were happy to, deep down. I mean, we bitched and moaned and pissed about, like soldiers always do. But we bought the deal. Because duty’s an unspoken transaction. It’s a two-way street. We owe them, they owe us. And what they owe us is a solemn promise to risk our lives and limbs if, and only if, there’s a damn good reason. Most of the time they’re wrong anyway, but we liked to feel some kind of good faith somewhere. At least a little bit. And now that’s all gone. We risked our lives and did terrible things. Unspeakable things. Then we came home and…’’ he makes a dismissive, shooing gesture, ‘‘…nothing. It meant nothing, when we came home from war. They spent years training an army and then abandoned it on the streets. They grind people up and spit them out. Now it’s all broken bodies and shattered lives. That’s all. And guys know that. Soldiers just know. You can try, but you can’t bullshit a soldier.’’

Liz blinks and swallows. ‘‘Why? Why are the hospitals so fuckin’ bad?’’

Something wild in her voice.

Craig gently places a hand on her shoulder. ‘‘Because deep down, to the army a wounded soldier who can’t fight anymore is garbage. Waste of resources, waste of medicine. They don’t care. So we depend on civilians for help, and civilians don’t understand. So they don’t care either.’’

‘‘Rob cares. The network cares. I care.’’

‘‘You’re different.’’

‘‘Different how?’’

‘‘…Good different.’’

She leans into his touch.

The slack mouth hisses. The clock ticks on. Then Liz straightens up. “You don’t shave very often, do you?”

“Sometimes.”

“But you know how?”

“I learned at my dad’s knee.”

“Will you shave Dad?”

“Don’t the orderlies do that?”

“They should, but they don’t. And I like him looking decent. Seems the least I can do.” She unpacks a small canvas bag out of the green metal cabinet. Shaving soap, a blunted razor, a whetstone and a washcloth. Craig finds a dingy bathroom across the hall and steps back and forth with the wet cloth, soaping the guy’s face, rinsing it, wetting it again. He lathers soap over James’s chin and cheeks, then strops the razor on the whetstone and gets to work. Pretty tricky. Especially on a third party completely motionless with a breathing tube in his mouth.

While he works diligently with the razor, Liz sets about cleaning the room. She pulls out a second drawstring bag from the cabinet that holds cloths and a dustpan and brush. She ducks out into the corridor to the bathroom and comes back with dripping damp cloths and stretches high and bends low and goes through the whole twelve-foot cube very thoroughly. Her father stares vacantly on at a point miles beyond the ceiling and his slack mouth hisses and rasps. Craig mops James’s chin with a clean cloth and Liz stands back and looks.

“Good work,” she nods.

“You too. But you shouldn’t have to do all that yourself.”

“I know.”

Craig glances at Liz. “How often do you visit?”

“Not very often,” she admits. “It’s a selfish thing, really. If I visit and he doesn’t know I’ve visited, have I really visited at all? It’s self-indulgent to come here just to make myself feel like a good daughter. So I prefer to visit him in my memory. He’s much more real there.” A twitch of a smile, rueful and sad.

Tick. Tick.

“Were you happy?”

Her mouth turns down. “Yes and no, like everyone.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Now?”

“Long term.”

She shrugs. “I don’t know. People say I should move on. And maybe I should. Maybe I should accept fate, like I can’t change the future. I feel like that, sometimes. But then I panic and get defensive. I feel, first they do this to him, and now I should just leave him? But he wouldn’t know anyway. So it’s back to the selfish thing. What d’you think I should do?”

“I think you should take a walk,” Craig straightens up. “Right now. Alone. Walking by yourself is always good. Get some fresh air. See some trees. Watch the birds. I’ll meet you down there in the hour.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Have a word with the staff.”

She looks doubtful. “They won’t help you.”

He shrugs. “We’ll see.”


© 2017 Tom Burton

Huge thank you to everyone who’s enjoyed my main story so far and left such encouraging feedback! Brand new short story on the way this Friday! Hope you enjoy it 😀

43. Lifeline

He’s carefully pouring bacon grease into a glass jar mid-afternoon when Liz clomps up and plonks her satchel down beside him. She shuts her eyes and hangs her head. Brushes a hand across her face.

Why is she not laughing. Liz not laughing means nothing good.

‘‘What’s wrong.’’

She blinks.

‘‘Rough day?’’

She frowns. ‘‘No, Craig. Why d’you think that?’’

‘‘You’re not laughing. You usually laugh, even if it’s just on the inside.’’

She pauses a beat, sighs and sits down. ‘‘I’m sorry, Craig. I’m just grumpy.’’ She glances at the floor. At the whispering trees. At him. ‘‘Family problems.’’

Oh.

‘‘Okay.’’

They sit for 75 more seconds. Craig looks over at Polly and Owen carefully picking all the mushrooms off the remaining hunks of flatbread, thereby obliterating any illusion that they are good or kindhearted people.

UGH

Liz drums her fingers on the tabletop. Taps a foot. Opens her mouth. Closes it. Grimaces.

‘‘It’s just…’’

He waits.

Liz exhales and looks at her feet. ‘‘My dad’s not been having a great week. Brain troubles.’’

Oh.

What is the correct response.

‘‘Sorry to hear that.’’

Her face softens. ‘‘Not your fault. Just…’’ A flicker of rueful sadness crosses her face. ‘‘Can be hard sometimes. Seeing him alone. Like this.’’

Craig brings her some more tea. They sit for 18 more seconds. Liz chews her lip. Clenches her right hand. Unclenches it. She glances at the shivering trees. Then at him. Seems to reach a decision.

‘‘I’d like you to be my plus-one.’’

Craig chokes on his tea.

‘‘It’s a big ask, I know. We can take a cab, if you want. Stay on the streets.’’ She waves her hands around. Looks fretful. ‘‘And of course you’re free to say no. But if you’re willing, I would really like you to be there.’’

‘‘Why?’’

‘‘Honestly? You’re the scariest-looking guy I know who fights for our side.’’

Is that a compliment.

CONFIRM

Huh. Okay, then.

‘‘Thanks.’’

Liz grins and stops flapping her arms. Good answer. Thanks, mission.

‘‘How long?’’

‘‘Hospital’s only two miles away. I figure we’d take a cab right in and out, to minimise your time away from here. Plenty of open space, fresh air. Shouldn’t take more than an hour, tops.’’

Take a cab, travel on a schedule to accommodate him.

They’ve done each other’s hair and babysat Rusty together enough times that he knows Liz will go teary-eyed with very little encouragement.

But this.

He doesn’t like this.

‘‘…You’re scared.’’

‘‘I hate to go,’’ she scowls, ‘‘they’re almost all completely awful people. The orderlies don’t give a shit about their rooms being kept clean. The wardens leer at me, all the time. Give me the willies. And some of ‘em are really handsy. But I’ve got to see him. No-one else can make it. And a lot of those same people hate dealing with a woman by herself. Say it ain’t natural.’’

Ah. A gathering of the International Society of Sexist Arseholes. What fun.

Except.

‘‘Why me and not your regular friends?’’

Her mouth twists into a mischievous grin. ‘‘Like I said. You’re way more terrifying. I’m definitely going for the scariest vibe possible. Wait ‘till you see my makeup.’’

He hasn’t practiced scary in a while. Might be fun.

‘‘Beside I could…’’ she blushes. ‘‘Honestly? I could do with the company.’’

She looks at her feet. Glances up at him.

‘‘Would you come with me to visit him? For…for me?’’

‘‘Okay.’’

Liz’s grin is a great look.

*

It doesn’t last.

A squat, foreboding building looms before them, flanked by black iron railings. High arched windows. All cream marble and grey slate. No warm terracotta. No cosy red brick. Cold. Imposing. Looks entirely uninviting. The slate at the entrance gate reads: Royal Herbert Hospital.

The cab clatters away down the street.

A crow flutters overhead with a harsh cark!

‘‘You okay with this?’’ Liz asks him. Her voice is hesitant. Why.

‘‘I’m fine with it.’’

‘‘Ready?’’ she asks.

‘‘For what?’’

She doesn’t answer. Just squares her shoulders and walks up the pavestone stairs towards the double doors. Resigned, yet undaunted.

Like a queen regally striding to the executioner’s block.

Three steps up, through the huge creaky double doors, onto the kind of mottled chessboard tile floor Craig had walked a thousand times before. The lobby is huge and airless and cold. The heavy smell of chlorine. A small huddle of visitors shuffle down the corridor to one side. The soft murmur of voices.

The smell of hospitals is terrible. Craig would prefer to be outside.

DENY

Confirm. Outside protection parameters. Also rude.

A muffled wail, somewhere high above. It dissolves into wretched sobbing.

He looks at Liz. Her face is drawn tight. Jaw clenched. ‘‘Upstairs.’’

With each floor up, it only gets worse. Feels more abandoned and run-down the higher they climb. The stairs are sloppily cleaned. Brown smears on the walls. A discarded mop and bucket bundled in one corner.

They reach the third floor. Turn into a stuffy corridor. In the corner, a burly guard in a stiff cap and grey tunic. Close-cropped hair. Thick neck. Sceptical eyes. A warden. Beyond him, an open-top counter on the right, where once an amicable, kindly medical clerk would’ve sat. Alert and poised and ready to help.

Once.

Now it’s occupied by a mess of what looks like cluttered medical case notes and a civilian slouching in a white overcoat two sizes too large. A thin sullen man of about forty. Unwashed black hair trailing over his ears. Shiny with grease.

Not promising.

Not promising at all.

A blackboard on the wall. TBI scrawled across it in white chalk.

The warden steps forward and grunts, ‘‘Help you?’’

Which in Craig’s experience are two words that can precede anything from genuine wholehearted cooperation to a bullet in the face.

Liz says. ‘‘Nurse Brooks. With a friend. We’re here to see James Brooks.’’

The warden narrows his eyes. Nods tersely. Looks at the orderly. The orderly reaches under his desk and pulls out a tattered file scrawled with writing. He gives it a cursory glance over. Mumbles, ‘‘Hello, Miss Brooks. Room Fifteen.’’ Nothing more. Neutral tone. No warmth in his voice. No enthusiasm.

Liz nods but doesn’t look at the guy or reply. She just walks past the counter to the back of the hall and turns into a large room that in olden days might once have been a waiting room, or a reception lounge, or an officers’ rehab club. Bandaged soldiers wheeled about by kindly matrons.

Once.

Now it’s dirty, shabby and badly maintained. Stained walls, dull floor, dust over everything. Cobwebs on the ceiling. Grime in the corners. It smells faintly of antiseptic and stale urine. It is completely empty, except for four figures. A haggard nurse in a grey smock and bonnet wheels a man past in a wheelchair. The man jabbers and grunts and flails at the air, jaws opening and snapping shut on wordless sounds. Two other men strapped into wheelchairs, close to the back wall. Both men are young, both entirely slack and still, empty gazes focussed a thousand miles in front of them.

Both have shaven heads, and misshapen skulls, and wicked scars.

Craig stands still.

Thinks back to the medical files.

He’s in a hospital.

He looks at the guys in the wheelchairs.

He’s in a clinic.

Where are the staff.

He looks over the dust and the dirt.

He’s in a dumping ground.

He thinks back to the initials scrawled on the blackboard.

TBI.

Traumatic Brain Injury.

Liz moves on into the next corridor. He catches up with her halfway along.

‘‘Your dad had an accident?’’

She clenches her jaw. ‘‘Not exactly.’’

‘‘Then what?’’

She glances at him, a look of deep, profound sorrow.

‘‘Figure it out.’’

He stops again.

Both men are young.

An old army building, mothballed for years and then reused.

The droning buzz of a million flies. Patients writhing under heavy linen sheets in the sweltering desert heat, broken men of England bellowing like steers as sweating surgeons sawed and sliced and swore.

‘‘War wounds,’’ he says softly. ‘‘Your dad’s military too. He went to fight overseas.’’

Liz nods and walks on, tight-lipped.

‘‘Gloucestershire Regiment,’’ she sighs. ‘‘His third tour. They extended his deployment to reinforce the garrison at Ladysmith. Didn’t ship him home until too late. A shell hit his platoon. His…most of his friends died instantly.’’

She looks at the floor. Swallows. Blinks back tears.

‘‘He didn’t.’’

She turns into another grimy corridor. Dirty floorboards. A mud-smeared rug. Dust balls have collected against the baseboards. Some are peppered with mouse droppings. The light bulbs are flickering and dim, to save money on electricity. Some are out and haven’t been changed, to save money on labour.

Craig gazes around in disbelief. ‘‘Is this a veterans’ facility?’’

Liz shakes her head. ‘‘Private contractor. Political connections. A sweetheart deal. Free real estate and big money.’’ She looks around bleakly, the dimly lit corridors, the shabby floors, the mouldy ceiling. ‘‘Been here since the Crimea. They just converted this into a trauma ward. Left everything else as it was. Old kit. Old rooms.’’

She stops at a dull green door. No doubt fifty years earlier it had been painted by a private soldier, in a colour and manner specified by a Home Office dossier, with materials drawn from a quartermaster’s stores. Then the private soldier’s workmanship had been inspected by an NCO, and the NCO’s approval had been validated by an officer’s. Since then the door had received no further attention whatsoever. It had dulled and faded and gotten battered and scratched and marked. Now it had a wax pencil scrawl on it: James L. Brooks, and a string of digits underneath that might have been his case number.

Liz breathes out. ‘‘Ready?’’ she asks.

‘‘When you are,’’ Craig murmurs.

Why does that make her look so sad.

‘‘I’m never ready.’’

She opens the door.


© 2017 Tom Burton

42. United We Stand

‘Everything okay?’ Polly settles down beside him.

‘Yeah.’ He watches Mark chop logs, Owen trimming stray branches off with a billhook. ‘Just workin’ some stuff out.’ Beyond them, Freya is giggling at one of Keith’s bawdy jokes, Jack hunched over a bubbling stewpot. The heavy thunk of firewood calms his hissing nerves. High above, a buzzard glides on the thermals, mewling like a frightened kitten.

Polly nudges his shoulder. ‘You knew, didn’t you? About his aunt?’

‘I do now.’ He watches Owen work with a dogged intensity, mouth clamped, eyes hard. The billhook slashes down. Again. Again. Good stress relief, physical labour. Polly’s eyes soften. ‘Poor guy.’ She gazes out across the camp. ‘Plenty of others with their own baggage. We’re real glad you came, Sarge.’

Craig’s ears feel warm. ‘Glad I could help.’

‘So we can trust you?’

‘Plenty of people have. I’m sure most of ’em would be happy to give me a character reference.’

‘And the others?’

He shrugs. ‘There’s no pleasing some folks.’

Polly snorts, nudges his shoulder. ‘Were you close? You ‘n’ your parents, I mean. What were they like?’

Heat washes over his face. Glowing metal sizzles, the salty brine stench sharp in his nose. ‘Where’s tha’ fookin’ slake-tub?’ A rough bark of laughter, a soot-smeared paw cuffing his head fondly. ‘See my liddle lad?’ A blacksmith’s brawny son reared on mutton and potatoes, raised from black crumbly Galway soil.

He blinks away the memories. ‘Good parents, really. Ma loved the farm life. Stubborn as hell, very obstinate, but always kind. Loved her stories too. Hobs, boggarts – you name it, she told it. Da never raised his voice at me, always ready for some rough ‘n’ tumble.’

Polly nods, eyes gentle. ‘You always been a fighter?’

The laugh stutters out of him. ‘Me? No – Christ. Da trained me up as a blacksmith. Herded sheep before that.’

Polly stares at him. ‘I thought you were a soldier.’

Rain sleeting into his eyes. Boots slipping in the mud, fist clenched into limp sodden wool. Gripping a staff with fear-frozen fingers, soaked and shivering against the howling wind. Throat scraped raw from screaming. Yellow eyes gleam from the darkness. Circling. Closer. Closer.

He shrugs. ‘That too.’ Fixes his gaze on a beetle trundling over a twig. Silently wills his hand to stop trembling.

The silence stretches. Polly doesn’t reply. Doesn’t move. She’s staring at something behind him.

Craig’s neck prickles. ‘What is it?’

‘Trouble,’ she mutters, rising to her feet. ‘Fuckin’ wops.’

Icy fear coils through Craig’s gut. He glances back. A large black carriage lurks at the pavement. Four burly figures shrouded in dark coachmen’s capes, two up front, two behind. Sharp grey suits. Silk ties. Shark eyes. A fifth on foot, peering into the crowd. Flame-red hair. Thick beard.

Redhead, like Ellie, Susan had said. Big bushy beard.

Shit.

Craig pulls Polly back behind the nearest caravan.

‘What is it?’ she hisses. ‘Lemme go!’

‘Quiet as mice,’ he hushes, pulling her down behind the wheel.

Maybe the last two would run, if it came to blows. Last two always run. Or else they’d back off, palms out, and stammer their way through some kind of pathetic not-our-idea plea excuse. Loyalty had its limits. Especially to promises of manpower to guys who beat up women and carved up people’s cheeks.

Some of Rob’s men are lounging in front of the smouldering campfire, watching the Italians. ‘You men!’ Redbeard barks. ‘You tramps or something?’

‘Might be,’ someone answers.

‘We’d rather join you boys,’ Max jokes, rubbing his gnarled palms. ‘Livin’ in fancy digs. Gets awful chilly out ‘ere under the stars.’

The leader swaggers forward, mouth twisted imperiously. The smirk that pig-ugly guys use when they think they’re handsome. ‘Who’s in charge of this rabble?’

Rob steps out of the shadows, scratching his tangled brown beard. ‘Help you boys with somethin’?’

Redbeard casts an scornful eye over him. His lip curls. ‘You in command here?’

Rob gazes back calmly. ‘You’re a long way from home.’

Redbeard bristles. ‘I asked you a question.’

Rob shrugs. ‘Aye, you did.’ His eyes harden. ‘You asked without manners. An’ I chose not to answer.’

‘I have a warrant for a certain man. One o’ these gutter rats with you – ‘

Rob nods, unimpressed. ‘Uh-huh. Who’s it wants this man?’

The Italians are scanning the gathering crowd.

‘Why’re we hiding again?’ Polly whispers.

‘It’s me they want,’ Craig whispers back. Her ear smells of soap. ‘Long story. I’ll explain later.’

‘Our boss wants him, old timer, not that it’s any concern o’ yours,’ Redbeard draws a crumpled paper from his belt. ‘Here, an official police warrant to search the area. He put five men in the hospital last night. Bring him in, and no-one else’ll be harmed.’

Rob glances down at it. Glances away. ‘Pretty,’ he shrugs. ‘Thing is, in case you ‘adn’t noticed, we’re in Greenwich Park now. Common land. Whatever this boy done back in the inner city don’t mean piss-all here. Plus,’ he waves a hand around at the ramshackle camp, ‘these Gypsy folk follow the stars and the Patrin. They go wherever the wind takes ’em. Puts ’em beyond the reach of fancy city boys like you.’

Redbeard’s eyes harden. ‘Cut the crap. Where is he?’

Rob doesn’t budge an inch. ‘At your mother’s house, I think. Goin’ in the back door.’

The Italians bristle and moving in. A flicker of rage in Redbeard’s eyes. He swallows it down. Barely. A thin knife-slash smile. ‘Or maybe he’s hiding with you an’ you think I’m stupid.’

Rob smirks. ‘Son, I could fill out a steamer trunk with the amount o’ stupid I think you are, but nope,’ he shrugs, ‘that’s where he went.’

‘Fuckin’ pikeys,’ a rat-faced grey suit mutters.

Rob’s eyes flash in anger. His hand drifts beltwards. ‘Might wanna keep a leash on yer dog there. Ain’t good manners.’

‘Our boss ain’t interested in your opinion, coglione, and neither are we,’ sneers a thickset lout with a broken nose. ‘Hand him over, or we’ll take him.’

‘You’ll have jackshit,’ Rob growls. ‘There’s laws on such things.’

It happens in an eye-blink: one second the leader reaches into his jacket, the next a pistol gleams in his hand. Like magic. A long-barrelled Mauser C96 in wicked gunmetal grey. Long pencil-thin barrel, ten-round magazine. Boxy and cumbersome, but a serious handgun. Gentle recoil, devastating power.

Aimed straight at Rob’s belly.

 Ice shivers through Craig’s veins.

Redbeard smiles. ‘Here’s your law.’

Rob glances at the pistol. Shrugs. ‘That’s no law, just a gun.’ His hand brushes his jacket aside, easy and casual, baring his holstered revolver. ‘Oops. Seems I got one too.’

Redbeard smirks. ‘Idiot. I have four men with me.’

Robb spits. ‘Seems I got thirty. Lucky me.’

The Italians snigger. ‘This sorry lot?’ Broken Nose jeers. ‘Heh, a few crusty bitches ‘n’ a handful of ragtags!’ He saunters forward, brandishing a wicked stiletto. ‘Who’s first, girlies?’

Mark rips the hatchet out of its tree stump. ‘I am.’

‘No, I am,’ growls Roger, drawing a hammer from his greasy leather apron.

‘Me.’ Luke springs upright, his skinning knife ready.

‘Me an’ him.’ Jack strolls forward, hand resting on his revolver.

‘I call dibs!’ Max cracks his knuckles.

‘Count me in,’ Keith saunters into view, shovel draped over his shoulders like a water yoke.

‘Mess with one of us, you mess with all of us,’ Freya calls, snatching up her hardwood quarterstaff.

Ratface scoffs. ‘Quite a batch o’ strays.’

Owen steps around the caravan, arms full of dry branches. Drops everything but his billhook. ‘We havin’ a fight?’ he grins.

‘I guess,’ Kate tosses a rock from hand to hand.

Craig stares, amazed. They barely know him. Only met half of them today. Why risk themselves all for him?

Overhead, the buzzard circles.

The leader’s lip curls. ‘You Gypsies…you’re godless filth. Thievin’ scum, the lot of ya.’

Rob gazes back coolly. ‘And you’re trespassin’ where you ain’t wanted.’

Redbeard scoffs. ‘Whatcha gonna do – call the police? They won’t help ya.’ His eyes slither over the grimy camp, the roughshod figures converging on him with makeshift weapons. ‘You beggars are unchristened ‘n’ unregistered; the coppers’ll soon as drop you in an unmarked grave as find a gravestone.’ The front two Italians creep forward, fanning out, drawing wicked black pistols. Circling Rob in a lethal crossfire.

Rob gazes steadily at both thugs in turn, confident and completely calm even as they flank him. ‘Now there’s no need for violence, lads. I’m more’n happy to resolve this peacefully.’

They spread out, chuckling. ‘Yeah?’ Scarface sneers. ‘You ‘n’ whose army?’

Rob gives him a pitying smile: Oh please. He whistles sharply.

Click.

Bushes rustle. Dave melts out of the undergrowth alongside, his sawn-off shotgun levelled. The perfect deadly enfilade. Redbeard freezes, blindsided.

A faint scuffle. Ratface crumples to his knees, whimpering. Sam has his gun-arm twisted behind him, his knife kissing Ratface’s bared carotid artery. ‘Hi there,’ Sam grins.

Broken Nose squeaks. He’s frozen in a painful armlock, pistol pointing harmlessly aside as Liz smirks behind him. ‘Mornin’, luv,’ she purrs, her razor-sharp blade tickling his inner thigh.

Rob spreads his arms. ‘This army,’ he smirks. The five intruders are outflanked. Outnumbered. Outgunned. Outwitted. Like a gang of hyenas suddenly ambushed by a pride of lions.

Overhead, the buzzard circles.

‘Let’s all stay ice-cool, gents,’ Dave sing-songs, the same lilting Welsh vowels. ‘Don’t give me a reason.’ His twelve-bore sweeps lazily over the intruders. A brutal close-quarters weapon unleashing devastating firepower, twin barrels that blast a wide murderous spray of lead. Famed from dusty Wild West frontier legends, used by Texas Rangers to enforce the peace, used by surly coachmen for carriage defence against marauding bandits, used by grouchy gamekeepers as a clear-off-my-estate deterrent. At point-blank range, they’ll rip a man in half. Even the brass-plated stock can crack skulls like eggshells, fell a man as surely as buckshot.

Great choice, Corporal, Craig’s lizard brain growls.

Redbeard shrinks away. Pale and shocked, squirming, bracing for the hissing hail of buckshot that would tear his head off.

A massive surge of movement. Before Craig even blinks, every figure before him has risen to face the Italians, men and women standing as one, cold steel emerging everywhere; shotguns unslung from under coats, revolvers drawn from underarm holsters and apron pockets, knives unsheathed from belts and sleeves. A ring of gleaming steel surrounds the intruders; even the urchins brandish wicked shivs.

Redbeard shrinks back, pleading and wheedling. ‘C’mon now, mate. I’m from up north, too. Y’wouldn’t hurt a fellow Northerner, would ya?’

Rob grins. ‘Depends, mate. Where’re you from…Wankershire?’

Liz smirks into Broken Nose’s ear. ‘I sharpened this blade before breakfast, luv. I could shave a spider’s arse if I wanted. Or,’ she pricks harder, earning her a whimper, ‘I could nick this ‘ere femoral artery o’ yours. An’ once it’s nicked…’ she strokes his cheek, ‘…there’s no one around here who knows how to un-nick it.’

The five guys are trapped. Encircled on three sides by cold glinting steel. No escape.

Overhead, the buzzard circles.

‘Y’see?’ Rob waves a hand around at his crew. ‘Teamwork. Handy in a pinch.’ His voice hardens. ‘You ain’t got enough bullets for all of us, mate. Once your gun runs dry, you’ll be ripped to shreds before you’ve reloaded.’ 

Redbeard’s eyes dart around. ‘This ain’t funny no more! We just want the guy! Hand ‘im over!’

‘Lemme think about that…’ Rob strokes his chin mockingly. Wrinkles his nose. ‘Nah.’

Overhead, the buzzard circles.

The pistol trembles in Redbeard’s hand. ‘Look, I-I was in Malakand, yeah? Out there, they called me ‘‘Mad Dog’’, so you just – you watch your, uh…’

Rob steps closer. ‘D’you miss it? The cold, the rain, the mist in the hills. D’you miss that?’

No one breathes. Rob grimaces. ‘It’s this quiet I can’t stand, this…silent spring. Creeps me the fuck out.’ Then he smiles, bright and jarring. His eyes don’t. ‘Did you work the nights?’

Redbeard blanches. ‘The…what?’

‘‘‘Send in the Brummie,’’ they’d say.’ Rob’s voice is low, calm, conversational. ‘Who cares about booby traps? About tripwires? About snipers? Give Robbie a knife and send him up into the black echo. Moving through the dark like a rat, killing off Ghazi, taking their ears.’

‘…Ears?’ Redbeard rasps.

Rob shrugs. ‘You gotta push their faces down into the dirt. Slit their throats so they don’t scream ‘n’ wake the others.’

Something shifts in Rob’s face, and for a brilliant moment Craig suddenly sees him as the elite professional soldier he’d implied but never outright admitted to being. He’d have to have been extraordinary, more than just a leader of men, one of a kind with nerves of steel; or else he wouldn’t have crawled over frosty mountaintops armed with a knife, led a broken battalion to victory against cavalry, or be casually facing five hostile intruders like he’s commenting on the weather. Craig couldn’t see it this morning, not with Rob baby-talking to Rusty and cooing over the scones.

He can see it now.

No one breathes. The last two followers shuffle backward, palms raised, patting the air. Surrendering. Aw-shucks sheepish grins. Retreating. Distancing themselves. Making a point.

Not our idea.

Overhead, the buzzard circles.

‘You’re a dead man,’ the leader snarls, inching backward.

‘How’s that, mate? You got any more guys with you? They hiding under the cushions in there?’

No answer. Rob grins. ‘Didn’t think so. You really wanna start trouble when you’re outnumbered six to one?’

No answer. Rob’s grin widens. ‘Didn’t think so.’ He leans forward. ‘Maybe the guy’s with us. Maybe he isn’t. But either way…you ain’t gettin’ shit. Not your lucky day, is it?’

Ratface fumes in Sam’s grip. ‘That porcotesta di cazzo…he’ll rain down destruction on you an’ your crew. He’s an albatross, stronzo. Seven years bad luck to you!’

Rob shrugs. ‘Way I remember, an albatross was a ship’s lucky charm ’til some idiot shot it.’

‘This ain’t over!’ The leader jabs a finger at the surrounding crowd bristling with weapons. ‘You’ll regret this!’

Tzzing.

In an eyeblink his arm is wrenched upward. Pistol pointing harmlessly skyward, throat bared. A curved knife dances over his throbbing carotid. Razor-edged steel, rocksteady. He gulps and sweats, tears beading in his piggy eyes.

No warm sardonic grin on Rob’s face, no twinkle behind his soft eyes. Cold fury etched into every line of his face, a frozen mask of utter rage, eyes blazing as he leans close. The leader shrivels before him, wilting, shrinking away, as a withered tree bows before the swirling onslaught of a roaring hurricane.

No one breathes.

Rob strokes his cheek with the blade, voice deathly-calm. ‘Seems you fellas have a choice. You can all be wormfood out here, pushing up daisies a long way from home. Not the first fire we’ve lit in the woods to take meat. Or you can go back to yer fancy neighbourhood and tell yer masters you didn’t find what you were lookin’ for.’ His voice hardens to an icy growl. ‘If I were you, I’d best drop that whizzbanger, haul my sorry arse back into that cab, an’ crawl home to Starrick.’

He presses harder with the blade. ‘Now.’

No one breathes.

Overhead, the buzzard circles.

Redbeard’s fingers uncurl. His Mauser clatters into the dirt.

‘And yer boys,’ Dave rumbles. ‘Drop ’em.’

Four pistols hit the ground.

Five prisoners taken and disarmed, all without a shot being fired. Outstanding.

‘Wallets too,’ Liz sing-songs.

Five leather billfolds thump to the earth.

‘Ta very much,’ Rob shoves the leader towards the carriage. Picks up his Mauser. ‘We’ll just keep that. Good steel’s always welcome to ex-soldiers. Next time I catch you, I might just put this to good use. Run along now.’

A long, tense pause. Then Redbeard clambers back into his carriage. Humiliated. Defeated. His four goons climb aboard, shrunken and miserable. No longer top dogs. Safely behind black-lacquered wood, the leader turns to spit venomously. ‘Yer makin’ a mistake! Starrick’s put a bounty on this Paddy’s head – fifty gold sovereigns! Anyone who turns ‘im over, you’ll be rich!’

Rob sheathes his blade, face impassive. ‘Heard something similar, long while ago. Well-known story; you might know it. A bloke sold his mate out for thirty silvers. We don’t do that shit here. So you can take those fifty sovereigns, and shove ’em up your arse.’ His fingers curl over the grip of his revolver. ‘You tell Starrick: if he wants this guy so bad…come see me.’

‘You think you’re untouchable?’ Redbeard snarls. ‘We’re coming for him! We’ll tell every criminal who he is!’

‘Go ahead.’ Rob smirks. ‘Tell everyone. Tell your friends at Pentonville all about it. Five of you against one man…and you never stood a chance. It’ll be like blood in the water.’

BONK! A pebble thumps off the carriage door. Redbeard flinches away, vanishing into shadow.

‘Eat shit!’ Beth hollers from the woodpile.

They watch the carriage rattle off down the road. ‘Yeah, that’s right, dipshits!’ Owen hoots. ‘You better run!’

Craig straightens up. Eyes Liz warily as she saunters forwards.

‘Do I even want to know how you…?’

Liz expertly twirls the knife between her fingers. ‘Seven years as a nurse at St. Bart’s, Sarge.’ She sheathes it with a wink. ‘You pick up a few things.’

Sophia hobbles up alongside him, leaning heavily on her blackthorn stick. Her dark sunken eyes gleam after the retreating carriage. ‘Don’t worry, Sarge. We take care of our friends. Anyone tries to come for you…they gotta go through us first. The Lees ‘n’ the Boswells will put up a fair fight.’ She nods to Sam, who strides over to the nearest crate and wrenches off the lid.

Guns. Lots of guns. Revolvers packed from side to side.

Craig swallows. ‘No need to bleed your folks. Not for me. I’m just one guy.’

Sophia pats his arm, grinning. ‘Sometimes, one man makes all the difference.’

Fear uncoils in his gut. ‘It’s me they want. This doesn’t have to be your fight; they’ll come after you too.’

‘And do what? Force us underground?’ Jack chuckles. ‘We’re Gypsies ‘n’ beggars, mate. We’re already underground.’

Dave steps forward, shotgun over his shoulder. ‘We all wore the uniform, Sarge. Once a soldier, always a soldier.’ He thumps his chest. ‘And soldiers stick together, no matter what.’

Craig stares at his boots, ears warm. ‘ ‘M not worth it. I’m not…good.’ Guilt crawls through his chest. ‘Just take their money, an’ I’ll go. I’ve put you in danger, I don’t deserve all this -’

‘Oh, fuck that,’ Rob snaps. Craig looks up, startled. Rob’s eyes are fierce, jaw clenched. ‘Fuck that. Y’know why? ‘Cause of Kate. ‘Cause you asked her fuckin’ name, pal. You gave her food when she needed it and asked her name before she left. You didn’t have to do that. You coulda kept the cash, run off with it ‘n’ high-tailed it to wherever, but you didn’t. You sat in that pub with her and you helped her out. Just because you could. And then you get blankets, medicine and sewing supplies for all our folks sleeping rough over at St Anne’s, people you didn’t even know. And then you got the money those jerks stole and you took it all back to Ellie’s place. Every pound. Every shilling. Every goddamn penny. And then you take on five wops all by yourself and absolutely wreck those guys. All of ’em. To keep your neighbours safe. To help your friends. You calmed Meg down when she was scared and alone. Because she needed help, and you could give it.’ He swats Craig’s arm. ‘You’re a decent, honourable man who helps people. You look out for the little guys. Above ‘n’ beyond the call of duty. You’re a protector, Craig. It’s in your blood.’ He pokes Craig in the chest. ‘So don’t you ever tell me you’re a bad person, mate, or I will fuckin’ cut you. Good ain’t something you are. It’s something you do. It’s what you earn. And believe me, Sarge – you’ve earned it.’

Craig stares, open-mouthed.

Rob sighs heavily, then glares. ‘Look,’ he growls, ‘you’ve had some pretty shitty stuff happen to you, and I know from shitty lives, okay?’ He’s furious, Craig realises, indignant and angry at something nebulous between them. ‘Okay? I know. I got lucky, fell in with the right people, and because they’ve had shitty lives too, there’s two rules with our crew. The first is: if you’re crew, you’re family, and the second is nobody gets left behind. You can up and die, or you can leave your own self, your choice, but you don’t get left. Okay? Ever.’

‘I was a farmer before joining up,’ Mark folds his arms. Nods to the surrounding crowd of grinning onlookers. ‘Two rat-catchers, three gamekeepers and an old trapper here. We know how to handle vermin, trust me.’

Something in his voice. Some kind of lethal steely determination. Craig looks at him, then at Luke, who stares mulishly back. ‘They hurt my mate. Threatened my friends. They try that shit again, I’ll burn their house to the fuckin’ ground. You got a problem with that?’

Craig swallows. ‘No. None at all. I’m just…not used to finding people on the same page as me.’

Luke pats his shoulder. ‘Better get used to it, Sarge.’

‘I owe you.’

‘Forget it,’ Mark waves him off. ‘Be the best you can be, an’ all that shit.’

‘Besides, you helped us first,’ Liz squeezes his arm. ‘Now we’re square.’

He glances at Sophia, to see if she wanted to be included or figured that ignorance was bliss. Sophia shrugs, as if to say in for a penny, in for a pound. ‘Takes more ‘n a few fancy city boys to mess with us, Sarge. We ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

Mark cracks a crisp salute, one that would make a Drill Sergeant weep with joy. ‘Glad to have you in our corner, ma’am.’

‘Friends!’ Rob’s voice rings out, all eyes now on him. ‘You heard what those wops said. About the man they’re after, and the handsome bounty on his head. Well here’s the truth to squash all gossip.’ He turns to Craig. ‘This here’s Sergeant Harper. He’s being hunted by Starrick’s and Rossetti’s scumbags, and there’s a reward of fifty sovereigns for handing him over to ’em.’

Craig’s ears redden. He glances at Liz for reassurance, who smiles back encouragingly as Rob continues: ‘Now, most of you won’t know Harper. Well, he served his country with honour, he’s my friend, he’s in our care, and there he’s goin’ to stay. Anyone tempted by those fifty sovereigns for easy money had better find a deep hidey-hole far under God’s green earth. He’s one of us, and we ain’t givin’ him up.’ He gazes around, eyes shining. ‘Right, mates?’

A moment’s pause; then a full-throated roar fills the air like a thunderclap. Hands are clapped, fists pumped skyward, weapons brandished triumphantly, voices raised in excited cheer. From their nests a dozen crows shiver the treetops, cawing wildly at the thunderous cheers.

AYE!’

Mission, these guys.

CONFIRM

Awestruck, Craig gazes around at them all, a lump in his throat. Good people, all of them. Hard as nails. Steadfast. Loyal. Mission Assists, every one. Steely resolve etched into every weathered face. Kate hugs his waist. Liz squeezes his shoulder.

‘Thank you,’ he manages, a deep surge of gratitude through his chest. ‘It…thank you.’

Jack pats his back. ‘We ain’t clever like you city folk. When we say we’ll do something,’ he tips his cap, ‘we do it.’


© 2017 Tom Burton

Huge thank you to everyone who’s kept up with my story so far ❤ Brand new flash fiction on the way this Friday! Hope you enjoy it 😀

 

41. Safe Haven

     Kerry is still hanging on – barely – when Craig finds them. Lewis and Ryan are hunkered alongside him, heads bowed; the rest of the platoon clustered respectfully behind the broken wall. Craig approaches over gravel and sharp rocks. He can smell coppery blood on his face. Ignores the whispering behind him.
   ‘‘How is he?’’ he asks. Like he can’t see the smear of blood where they dragged the corporal behind cover. Kerry’s belly is a shiny mess of shredded meat; his guts have been tucked back inside his body with far more respect than care. It’s incredible that he’s still alive, yet his dimmed eyes are clear and moving, despite what must be immeasurable, excruciating pain.
    ‘‘Waitin’ on you,’’ Kerry croaks through blood-flecked lips. ‘‘P-Protocol. Only team leader can make the call.’’ Ryan shifts over to give him more room.
     ‘‘So you’ve been – oh, fuck that.’’ Craig kneels at Kerry’s side, taking his hand. ‘‘That’s a stupid fuckin’ rule, Arthur, I’m changing it when we get back to camp.’’
     ‘‘Oh.’’ Kerry coughs wetly. Blood spatters his chin. ‘‘Well, good.’’
   Craig draws his revolver. And his sharpest knife. ‘‘You got a preference? I’d offer morphine, but getting meds all the way out here’s going to be a bitch. Sorry.’’
   ‘‘Oh, fuck,’’ one of the lads curses behind them. Someone else shushes him. Rustling fabric, crunchy footsteps; Craig can’t tell if they’re moving away for privacy or coming closer to watch in morbid fascination.
     ‘‘Whatever’s surest,’’ Kerry rasps.
   Craig sheathes the knife and rests the barrel of his Webley beneath Kerry’s chin, angled just right. Clicks back the hammer. ‘‘Right through the brain. You won’t feel a thing. Promise.’’
     Kerry closes his eyes. ‘‘See you on the other side, Sarge.’’
     ‘‘Meet me at the bar. I’m buying.’’
     Bloody fingers squeeze Craig’s hand.
   ‘‘Three second warning,’’ he murmurs, more for the benefit of the surrounding crowd than Kerry, whose face slackens into the dreamy peace of a man who knows his pain’s almost over.
    He pulls the trigger.
   Ryan sighs. Sean crosses himself. Lewis sniffs and dabs at his eyes. Behind them, the wet splatter as someone throws up.

*

Craig catapults out of the blackness of sleep, wrenched from a yawning void of dark whispers. His knife out and ready fight-stab-flee-KILL-

Nothing. Just drowsy snores buzzing through his ears. A roomful of sleeping people all around.

No enemies.

No danger.

No threats.

Sweating, disorientated, he fights down a wave of nausea and clenches his hand tight around the hilt of his knife, curled up until his heart stops hammering and his breathing evens out. Then he shoulders his backpack, ignoring the shiver that sparks down his back like icy water, and sheathes his knife.

Around him, the earthen room of bunks is packed full of people, sleeping, snoring, snuffling in their cots. Men, women, children. A faint glow from the doorway illuminates the huddled outlines all around the chamber. No one’s dared to sleep in the hammock above him. Craig uncurls carefully from under it, getting silently to his feet. He watches the dorm of sleeping people for a moment, blindsided by a brief bloom of affection for this roomful of humanity all curled up together in neat peaceful rows, breathing, snuffling, warm, cosy, rank, noisy; then Craig nods to them in a silent farewell, and slips out the door –

– only to stop dead, blinking dumbly. Owen is sitting outside, the lantern at his feet splashing dim golden light across the corridor.

‘‘You okay, pal?’’

‘‘…I’m alright,’’ he manages. ‘‘Just…can I…’’

Owen nods gently. ‘‘Want to head back?’’

Relief floods through him. ‘‘Please.’’

Owen smiles. ‘‘Any time, Sarge. My aunt Meg, we fixed her up a place with the Boswells. You wanna join me? If that’s okay.’’

‘‘…Sure.’’

The same gloomy tunnels. Twisting corridors. Flickering braziers splashing warm light across the rough earth walls. Then through a dank vaulted chamber, shadows lurching from Owen’s lantern. A flicker of leathery wings. A dark shape peels off the ceiling and vanishes through the skylight.

‘You okay?’ Owen asks.

Craig gazes around. Dark. Musty. Damp. But fresh air. Space. It is…not so bad.

‘Good to go.’

The distant murmur of voices up ahead. The faint rhythmic thunk of an axe chopping wood. Metal clanks. A distant giggle of laughter.

‘I should tell you,’ Owen says after eighteen more paces, because immediately following an upsetting hour underground with more bad news is a terrific idea. Craig’s guts clench.

‘Meg has…episodes.’

Craig frowns. ‘What d’you mean?’

‘She gets…’ Owen wrings his hands. Avoids Craig’s eyes. ‘…Forgetful. Gaps in her memory. Doesn’t always remember where she is. What year it is.’

Oh is that all. Can’t be any worse than battle flashbacks, surely.

Craig nods. ‘…Okay.’

Owen looks confused. ‘Okay?’

Craig shrugs. ‘Sounds pretty normal to me.’

Owen sighs heavily and turns away to the wall, hand over his eyes. ‘Sorry, Craig. Stupid of me. I didn’t think.’

‘Said it’s okay.’

Owen still looks unconvinced.

They emerge blinking into the sunlight. A bustling camp of lavishly decorated gypsy caravans sprawl before them. Heavyset horses grazing alongside a huddle of tents. Rough heathland scattered with cooking fires. Bustling figures in roughshod aprons carrying hampers of washing. Hard leather-faced men in ragged homespun and bowler hats patrol the woody perimeter with a watchful eye, fowling shotguns slung over their shoulders.

‘Greenwich Park,’ Owen grins proudly. They move through the tents. Giggling urchins flit past, many of them grinning at Craig.

‘Eyyy! Look who the storm blew in!’

‘Craig! Great to see ya, mate!’

‘Guys! The Sarge is back!’

Three of the burly sentries clap him on the back. Two of the urchin girls squeal and hug his legs. It is. Really weird.

Behind the next caravan Craig spends twelve long seconds bent over, hand splayed on the wall, counting his breaths.

In. Out.

‘That seemed to stress you out, Sarge,’ Owen frowns.

Fair point. Stress is logical for new unfamiliar experiences. Even if they’re enjoyable.

He nods. ‘I’m good.’

A little of Owen’s tension washes off his face. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yes.’

STAY STRONG.

Yeah, yeah.

They meander through the extravagant domed caravans. Craig glimpses Rob in amiable conversation with two chuckling washerwomen. Mark stooped over a nearby tree stump, splitting logs with a hatchet. Liz laughing with Max over a blackened kettle. Roger in a greasy apron, turning a brace of pheasants on a roasting spit. Beside him, Luke patiently skins a rabbit with a slim long-bladed knife. Kate dashes giggling between the tents, Beth and two more urchins close behind.

Warmth curls through Craig’s chest. His crew. Good friends, all of them. Safe. For the moment.

Gypsies eye him warily from shadowy doorways and behind tents. A stooped figure shuffles through the crowd of wary onlookers, leaning heavily on her blackthorn stick. Her tangled black mane streaked with silver, a shawl festooned with prayer beads. Grizzled with age like an old raven, yet a keen fire still gleams in her dark eyes. She squints up at Owen with a wizened grin. ‘Been a while, Owen.’

Owen stiffens to attention. ‘Yeah, Mum. Sorry.’ He chuckles as she swats his arm. ‘Here’s Sergeant Harper. Our guardian angel. Thought he’d like to meet Meg. Craig, this is Sophia. Our matriarch.’

One of the thickset sentries steps forward, glowering at Craig under the brim of his cap. ‘Who’s this bloke?’ Faded plum waistcoat beneath a tan brown blazer. His fingers drum on the revolver at his hip.

Sophia holds up a hand. ‘Peace, Jack. Owen trusts him; that’s good enough fer me.’ A pregnant hush, then the sentry steps back with a curt nod. ‘Yes, ma’am.’

Craig tenses as she turns to him with narrowed eyes. ‘You’re the one gave us that cash?’ He nods. Tries not to flinch. She pokes a bony wrinkled finger into his chest, her seamed face splits into a wide craggy smile. ‘Cheers, soldier.’

He nods. ‘Thank you, ma’am.’

A solitary figure guards the steps to the next caravan. He half-rises towards them, shoulders squared, hand straying to his hip with a soldier’s instinct. A taut wariness in his shrewd dark eyes. Tough and competent.

‘‘At ease, Keith,’’ Owen soothes, palms up and open. ‘‘Just bought a visitor.’’

The hardscrabble man settles back down with a grunt, a flicker of a smile across his weathered face. ‘‘Hey, Corporal.’’ Stubble a black shadow across the bony hollow of his cheeks. Cropped brown hair. He glances at Craig. ‘‘Miss Meg’s having a good day today.’’

Owen smiles. It almost reaches his eyes. ‘‘Keith, this is a friend of mine.’’

Aw hell, is there going to be talking now.

‘‘Craig Harper, Connaught Rangers. South Africa.’’

Well, shit.

The sentry clasps his hand firmly. ‘‘Keith Jones, mate. Yorkshires. Colenso.’’

Craig’s eyebrows rise. ‘‘Yeah? Through that shitstorm?’’

The guy shrugs. ‘‘I’ve had nicer mornings, mate.’’

Probe him. Details only an insider would know. Better safe than sorry.

‘‘Did you stay in the trees on the downhill stretch?’’

Keith’s brow furrows. Then he grins knowingly. ‘‘There weren’t any. And anyway, it was uphill once we crossed the river. No cover at all.’’

Craig winces in remembrance. A black day for the British Army. Eight hundred yards over open ground, across a raging river into a hail of bullets. Like sprinting into a wasp’s nest.

‘‘When did backup get there?’’

Keith frowns for a moment. ‘‘They didn’t. Only got out when Kitchener ordered a full retreat.’’

‘‘Yeah? That idle short-arse in charge?’’ Trick question, only a true-blue soldier would catch it.

Keith’s eyes twinkle. ‘‘Yup, he’s still around. Still six foot two, last I saw.’’ He grins. ‘‘You want me to recall what was for dinner that night, too? Gruel, bully beef and hardtack. We fancied roast pork, fois grois and blancmange, but the cooks wouldn’t take requests.’’

Craig chuckles. ‘‘Okay, okay. You pass the test. Better safe than sorry.’’

They bump fists, Keith smirking. ‘‘My turn. What’s your favourite colour?’’

‘‘Oh, now you’ve gone too far.’’

Keith steps aside, sniggering. ‘‘Have a nice time, you two.’’

Meg’s room looks homely in a roughshod kind of way. Brightly painted yellow walls, high arched ceiling. Golden inlay decorations, a half-dozen shiny brass pots in a neat row. Dried lavender on the windowsill, plush red curtains, fresh flowers in a vase. An elderly woman waves feebly at them beneath quilted blankets. Craig hangs back in the doorway as Owen moves to her bedside.

Wispy silver hair. Thin wrinkled fingers. Her pale eyes brim with tears.

”Owen,” she murmurs, and reaches out. Owen slips into the chair beside her.

”Hi, Aunt Meg.”

He kisses her forehead tenderly, then rests his forehead against hers, eyes closed. Her paper-thin fingers cup his cheek, both of them smiling fondly.

When they pull apart, Meg squeezes Owen’s hand, eyes twinkling. ‘‘Now, young man, tell me all about your week. You keeping well? Plenty of rest? Eating enough?’’

Owen chuckles. ‘‘Meg, really. It’s fine. I’m okay. I’ve brought someone for you to meet.’’

He beckons to Craig, who hesitates on the threshold. Surely she can’t hurt him – a sick, elderly woman. She loves Owen, that much is clear. She trusts him. Deeply.

They have that in common.

CONFIRM

‘‘Come on,’’ Owen murmurs. ‘‘It’s okay.’’

Craig steps forward, and Meg’s eyes widen.

‘‘What, a visitor?’’ she asks.

‘‘Hello,’’ he smiles.

‘‘This is Sergeant Harper,’’ Owen introduces him. ‘‘A friend.’’

Meg glances between the two of them. Her eyes crease up. ‘‘Another stray of yours, Owen?’’ She pats Craig’s arm, beaming. ‘‘Well…don’t you clean up nicely.’’

Oh no, he’s blushing. Oh no.

‘‘He helped us out,’’ Owen grins. Craig’s ears feel warm.

‘‘Fellow vet,’’ he nods, ‘‘courtesy of her Majesty’s armed forces.’’

Her eyes grow wet again. For him. Another kindness. She reaches out for his hand. Acceptable. He takes it. Her slender fingers are cold.

‘‘Oh, you sweet boy,’’ she murmurs, ‘‘I’m so sorry. How long did they have you?’’

‘‘Seven years. South Africa.’’

She squeezes his fingers. ‘‘Put you to work, did they? Made you do things that weren’t good?’’

What is it in his face that people can see – Ollie, Esther, Rob, Owen. And now Meg.

‘‘Enough bad things for a lifetime, ma’am,’’ he nods. ‘‘Trying to do…better now.’’

‘‘You’re doing great now, mate.’’

Aw, Owen. Such melodrama. Craig rolls his eyes at Meg and finds her gazing back with the same dry expression: can you believe this guy?

Yeah. He likes her already.

‘‘Seems like you’ve already met my nephew, Sergeant.’’ She squeezes Owen’s hand. ‘‘Loyal. Honest. Tough, dependable, brave and true.’’

Owen blushes and pats her shoulder. ‘‘Always such a flatterer, Meg.’’

She swats his arm. ‘‘Shush, pookie, we both know I don’t mean a word of it.’’ She grins at Craig. ‘‘He’s descended from royalty, y’know. Mother’s a gypsy queen. Still the most pesky sister a girl could ‘ave.’’

Owen blushes. ‘‘Meg.’’ She chuckles and settles back against the cushions, beaming at them. ‘Now tell me all about how you two met…’

*

Turns out, Meg is a great listener to Owen’s story. Owen tells her the bare bones of his side of Craig’s mission: getting the shillings from Kate, the drinks by firelight, hints and glimpses of East London. Joyful reunions with thermos, etc., blah blah. Sadly, this happens to be the boring side of the story, without any decent cookies in it or cat Suki. Owen also leaves out approximately 85% of the punching. But they both smile at him, and Meg squeezes his hand during the important parts. At one point, she cups his jaw gently, leans in close and stares deep into his face.

‘‘I think he’s a good one, Owen,’’ she nods.

‘‘Trying, ma’am,’’ Craig shrugs.

She grins at him. Her face has brightened. Her eyes gleam. Her grip is stronger now. She’s frail and elderly, yes. But she also looks like the type who would happily take up her walking stick and knock a guy over.

‘‘Always so thrilled hearing someone stick it to those-’’ her face scrunches up, ‘‘-how did I describe them, Owen? I said something rather good yesterday over breakfast.’’

Owen’s face goes blank for a moment, then he grins. ‘‘A ludicrous mess of drivelling galoots, motherless pox-ridden pickle-brained goat scrotums.’’ He nods courteously. ‘‘Ma’am.’’

Meg pats his arm, looking smug. Her eyes twinkle. ‘‘There y’go…poetry.’’

Owen lifts her hand to tenderly kiss her knuckles. ‘‘I can hardly believe it,’’ he smiles at Craig. ‘‘All the help you’ve given us. All this time.’’

Meg beams at him too. ‘‘I’m so glad,’’ she murmurs, ‘‘Craig. I’m so glad. No one ever took such good care of us as you have.’’

What, me?

‘‘No one,’’ Owen says hoarsely.

‘‘I’m so glad,’’ Meg repeats, ‘‘so glad.’’

Her voice trails off, and her eyes drift closed. But her willowy grasp on his hand doesn’t slacken. Owen smiles at him again. His eyes are glistening.

‘‘Hi, Craig.’’

Not sure why we’re doing greetings again, pal, but okay.

‘‘Hi Owen.’’

Owen stares at him for long enough that Craig’s neck prickles. Then Owen rises. Steps over to the doorway. Craig is stuck – Meg continues to grip his hand in her sleep. Her expression is peaceful. Her chest rises and falls with each faint breath. Her papery-thin skin is cold. He shouldn’t disturb her.

Owen stares out into the rustling trees for several long moments. Fists clenched, shoulders hunched with tension, mouth turned down. What is going on?

Meg wakens abruptly. Her eyes widen and she gasps, pulling her hand away from his.

‘‘George?’’

Meg shrinks back into her pillows, staring at him. ‘‘George, where’ve you been? We thought you were dead. Owen’s missing. It’s in dispatches. We have to find him.’’

Oh.

Oh.

This is what Owen meant. She’s lost her place in time. She is stuck in a bubble of the past, thinking he is someone else. Confused. Anxious. Scared.

‘‘Okay, Meg,’’ he soothes, his voice clear and firm. ‘‘We will find Owen.’’

She glares at him with a ferocious determined expression. ‘‘You must find him, George. We thought you were dead, you’re late. You have to look for him.’’

‘‘I will,’’ he nods.

‘‘Promise me you won’t ever stop looking.’’

‘‘I promise.’’

‘‘No,’’ she protests, and tries to rise from her pillows. Eyes darting around fearfully. Craig places his hand on her shoulder. She stops struggling, but her fingers pluck desperately at the bedcovers. She shakes her head. Tears beading in her eyes. A frantic plea in her voice.

‘‘No, George. No. Don’t you stop until you find him. You bring Owen home again. You promise me.’’

It is frightening to be stuck in the past. Craig knows this from his own flashbacks. Doubly so to be so physically helpless. The end of Meg’s life is rushing towards her; she is trapped at the devastating pivot point when her world came crashing down around her.

She doesn’t deserve to be afraid. She has been Owen’s beloved family long ago, before Craig himself was even born. She doesn’t deserve to be scared.

He can do this. For her.

Craig leans forward. ‘‘I promise, Meg,’’ he murmurs. ‘‘I promise to find Owen. I’ll bring him home and keep him safe. For you. Always.’’

She settles back into her pillows. Her eyes soften. Her shoulders relax. ‘‘I trust you, George. You’ll keep Owen safe for me.’’

‘‘I will.’’

Her eyes close. Craig touches her hand. Her willow-thin fingers are cold. Her expression is peaceful. She shares his mission, and her brain is not reliable. A kindred spirit.

He squeezes her fingers. ‘‘I promise, Meg Richards.’’

CONFIRM

Yes.

He looks up; Owen is leaning against the doorframe as if his legs don’t work. His eyes blurred with tears.

‘‘Who was –’’

‘‘My brother,’’ Owen chokes out. ‘‘Royal West Kents. Got…got stabbed in Sudan. Bayonet. You…’’ Owen scrubs a hand across his eyes, ‘‘…you remind her, of. Of him. It’s,’’ he swallows. ‘‘It’s your eyes.’’ He’s breathing hard, ragged gasps like the walls are closing in.

ASSIST

Craig walks over and grasps Owen’s arm firmly, to give him a focus point.

‘‘Hey, pal.’’

Owen exhales raggedly. ‘‘Craig, my god, I just –’’

‘‘Come on, Owen. Let’s get you outside.’’

Owen stoops to gently kiss Meg’s cheek, then they walk back out into the sunshine, Owen leaning heavily against him.

At the next caravan, Owen pulls away to slump against the sideboard. ‘‘Sorry, just…give me a sec.’’

He is rigid with tension. Staring hard at the floor, hands balled into fists on his knees. Takes a shaky breath.

Craig shifts a step closer. ‘‘Hey.’’

Owen looks up. His eyes are glistening.

‘‘It’s okay, Owen.’’

Owen is trying to be so good, bless him. He clenches and unclenches his fists. He shudders and breathes raggedly, fighting to stem the tears leaking from his eyes.

ASSIST

Craig is ready to help, but he’s waiting for Owen to give him an invitation first. It’s important to respect boundaries and maintain safe spaces.

Owen sniffs wetly, then beckons him closer. ‘‘Could you. Just…please?’’

Craig has had a successful day, several nights of good deep sleep, positive interactions with others, and a mug and a half of tea. He has reserves. He can exert effort and bear some discomfort for the mission. All is calm inside his head. Owen grasps his shoulder, and it’s okay. It’s okay, acceptable touching.

‘‘C’mere, pal.’’

He reaches out, and slides both arms around Owen’s shoulders. Owen breathes sharply, and then something in him just…breaks. His arms are wrapped tight around Craig’s waist, his hands fisting into Craig’s jacket. His shoulders shake and shake, his breath stutters and hitches, and Craig feels his own shoulder is wet.

In. Out.

Craig focuses on his breathing, and lets Owen clutch his jacket and bury his face into his shoulder. It’s safe here. It is. He’s with a trusted mission assist and the camp is quiet and no-one’s tried to kill him in the past twelve hours. The close proximity doesn’t make his teeth chatter. He can do this, can hold Owen close and rub slow gentle circles across his back until his shoulders stop trembling. It’s difficult; he sweats a little, and his teeth grind, but mostly it’s okay to allow Owen to hold onto him and just…let. Some shit. Go. His whole right shoulder is already a mess of facial fluids anyhow, so what’s a little cold sweat mixed in there.

The air is calm and quiet, as Owen sobs in his arms. He keeps one eye on the perimeter. Just in case.

Eventually, Owen’s shudders stop and the tension in his shoulders ebbs away. They pull apart, Craig taking out his handkerchief. ‘‘Here.’’

‘‘I’m such a sap sometimes,’’ Owen sniffles. ‘‘S’rry for gettin’ all emotional on ya.’’

‘‘Oh no,’’ Craig deadpans. ‘‘Not emotions. Eww. How terrible.’’

Owen huffs a watery chuckle. Bumps his arm. But he’s grinning. He scrubs a hand across his eyes, sighing heavily. ‘‘Well, um, we’d best…get going.’’

‘‘Gonna make me walk through the underground again, huh?’’

Owen blinks rapidly several times. ‘‘No, you’re right, um. It’s fine, I –’’

Craig digs him in the ribs. ‘‘Shut up, champ. We can wait.’’

There’s Owen’s watery chuckle again. Relief washes through him, like gentle summer rain.

GOOD JOB

Hey, thanks.

Owen leans into the wall for five slow breaths, then they set off. It feels good to wrap his arm around Owen’s waist for several minutes as they circle the camp. Owen’s arm looped around his shoulder. The touch is. Not so bad. The fresh air feels good. A chill breeze washes over his face, but the sunlight soaks into his bones. Most of the bushes are laden with flowers. The rustling leaves soothe his jangled nerves.

It takes a while, but Owen’s breathing gradually steadies. His eyes are clearer.

‘‘Y’know, um,’’ Craig clears his throat. ‘‘With Meg. How…’’ he swallows. ‘‘How often? Does she get stuck in the past?’’

‘‘It’s not regular,’’ Owen looks glum. ‘‘Think it depends on stress, mostly. And it gets worse as time goes by. She spends more ‘n’ more time in the past.’’

‘‘She’s very frail.’’

‘‘Yeah.’’

‘‘But she’s a fighter.’’

A shimmer of hazy affection crosses Owen’s face. ‘‘Yeah, she is.’’

‘‘It was good for me to see her. Thank you.’’

Owen stops and looks at him with that hugging expression.

Ugh, fine, you had a big day too, pal.

‘‘Me too, Craig,’’ Owen mumbles into his shoulder. ‘‘What you…what you said to her at the end…’’

‘‘Was true.’’

‘‘Yeah, I know.’’


© 2017 Tom Burton