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.”
“All veterans are my brothers.”
“He’s brain dead.”
“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?”
“Do what I tell you, with a cheery smile.”
“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.
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.
Craig looms over the orderly. “Stand up.”
“On your feet. Now.”
“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.
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?”
“Are we clear?”
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.’’
‘‘You know why I wanted you to?’’
‘‘You wanted someone to understand why you live like you do. Why it’s okay.’’
‘‘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?’’
‘‘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.
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.
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! 🙂