Let’s all go Down the Strand

Let’s all go Down the Strand

“Let’s All Go Down the Strand” is a popular British music hall song of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, written by Harry Castling and C. W. Murphy. It was first performed by Castling and was published in 1909. It was inspired by the Strand, a street in Westminster, Central London, that in the late 19th century became a centre for theatres, hotels and music halls. [Wikipedia]

It’s also the song that has the famous interjection, ‘Have a banana!’ Or, as I say here in Greece, ‘Have a moussaka.’ The interjection, however, was a later addition and apparently came from the audience, not the writer’s. The point of bringing this up is to introduce you to the setting for book three of my new Delamere Files series of Victorian, MM romantic mysteries. What happened to books one and two, you may ask?

Delamere Series

Book one, ‘Finding a Way’ is already out on Amazon, and is doing very well. Book two, ‘A Fall from Grace’ should be available before the end of October. While that is being proofed, and while I wait for the illustration and cover, I have begun research and plotting for book three, currently titled, ‘Silence and Limelight.’

Silence and Limelight

Silence and Limelight was the title of a musical I wrote for an amateur theatre company donkey’s years ago, but this story is completely different. I always liked the title for its paradox (I think that’s what it is), and it fitted well with the story I have in mind for Delamere three. The story takes as its background the London Music Hall, a form of entertainment which rose during the 19th century and lasted into the 20th century when it became more commonly known as Variety (Vaudeville in America). From there, it can be said, we saw the rise of the stage musical which has now, tragically, become a vaguely creative retelling of Disney stories or biographies of musicians with the core stitched together using unoriginal songs. Don’t get me started on that! Instead, let me start with a few words by a chap called F. Anstey, written in 1891, the year before ‘Silence and Limelight’ is set. The piece I am quoting from is titled ‘London Musci Halls’ and it is his experience of viewing such theatrical establishments, not all of which he approved or enjoyed.

London Music Halls

Ansty starts with this:

LONDON music halls might be roughly grouped into four classes—first, the aristocratic variety theatre of the West End, chiefly found in the immediate neighbourhood of Leicester Square; then the smaller and less aristocratic West End halls; next, the large bourgeois music halls of the less fashionable parts and in the suburbs; last, the minor music halls of the poor and squalid districts. The audiences, as might be expected, correspond to the social scale of the particular place of entertainment, but the differences in the performances provided by the four classes of music halls are far less strongly marked.

You have to understand the Victorian zeitgeist and not be offended by words such as ‘poor and squalid.’ If you are offended by such historical descriptions, you shouldn’t be reading about history. Only, you should, because without all the triumphs and horrors of history, we would not learn how to emulate or prevent them in our future. But don’t get me started on attempts to erase history and make everything ‘woke’ either!

Ansty then tells us about a first-class music hall venue and it sounds terribly smart and very you, and he approves. He even approves of the clog dancer and the ‘serpent man’ (a contortionist) perhaps because squeezed between the two was a young lady reciting Tennyson and other poets.

However, then he comes to the next tier of music hall venues, the smaller and less aristocratic West End halls of which he says:

It is unnecessary to describe the second class of music halls, in which neither audience nor entertainment presents any characteristic features.

Right, so that’s that then! What’s interesting to note is that he is as interested in the audience as he is in the entertainment.

The third tier of London’s music halls, he introduces thus:

Both externally and internally the bourgeois and suburban music hall differs considerably from its more fashionable rival. For one thing, it is generally dingier and gaudier of appearance; the entrance is covered with huge posters and adorned with tea-garden plaster statues bearing coloured lamps; the walls are lined with tarnished looking-glass, gilded trellis-work, or virgin cork. Sometimes there is a skittle-alley or a shooting-gallery in the “Grand Lounge.”

The Roman Road music hall, preserved.

Then we come to the world of Jack Merrit’s father, that well-known (for all the wrong reasons) and not much lauded music hall entertainer, Samson Merrit, who famously died on stage in March 1891, and, according to the press, died while singing with Marie Lloyd.

As my first draft of my first paragraph of Silence and Limelight reads:

When, on the night of the thirteenth of March 1891, Samson Merrit dropped dead on stage, the only person in the Griffin Music Hall who knew it wasn’t part of his act was Mr Merrit himself.

As another aside, H. Chance Newton, writing in 1902, says of the Griffin, by then under a new name and management:

Round the corner in Shoreditch is the London Music-Hall, wherein the stranger who pays his first visit will undoubtedly fancy for the nonce that he has lost his way and has by accident strayed into one of the best West- End halls.

(In those days, for the nonce meant for the one purpose, and only meant what we now know it to mean in slang.)

Meanwhile, back to Mr Ansty. Having described various acts and venues of his first three tiers of the music hall, he comes to the lowest of the low (in his opinion), and the kind of music hall my character Samson Merrit appeared at. Mr Ansty says:

Music halls of the fourth and lowest class are perhaps the most characteristic, and certainly not the least entertaining, although a visit to one of them makes a stronger demand upon one’s powers of physical endurance.

He follows this with an often-amusing description of what he saw and heard while his nose was upturned, but also praises the place for its honesty and lack of pretention. Of the audience, he says:

They rock with laughter, the whole pit swaying like a field of wheat in a breeze. Those who assert that the London poor are a joyless class, incapable of merriment, should see this crowd when genuinely amused, and consider whether there is not some exaggeration in descriptions of their hopeless gloom.

Marie lloyd

This is all fodder for my research canon, and I am very much enjoying reading such articles. I am also reading a biography of Marie Lloyd, one of the most famous stars of the time, and awaiting an out-of-date copy of a book about the Gaiety Theatre in Aldwych, London, as more background reading.

Meanwhile, I have made a basic plot outline of ‘Silence and Limelight’, mapping not only the mystery but also the relationship between Jack Merrit and his attraction to men, Larkin Chase in particular. If you have read ‘Finding a Way’, you will be pleased to know that what was left hanging at the end is cut down and dissected in ‘A Fall from Grace.’

That’s all I am saying about book two, except: Its background world is a British public school, and I will write more about it on my blog on Wednesday as I continue to work on book three.

Dictionary of Victorian London

The above quotes are taken from Dictionary of Victorian London, a massively researched collection of all things Victorian in print, created by Lee Jackson, and launched in 2001. It is one of my main resources for writing of the time.

Lee Jackson has published many books about Victorian London, and you can find them on his Amazon Page.

The online resource quoted here can be found in Dictionary of Victorian London.

On a Deadline for a Title

The work-in-progress news this week is that ‘A Fall from Grace’ is finally out of my system and complete. Almost. I will be sending it away to be proofread at the end of the week, the author’s notes are done, and so is the draft blurb. The cover is in process with Andjela, and all I am doing now is popping back to the full MS to correct anything that pops into my mind at three in the morning. As the days pass, these alterations become less frequent.

One thing remains outstanding, however, and that is the very last line, after where it says, The story continues in book three…’

The title? I have lots of ideas and yet no idea, and I want it there before I publish. I know in what part of Victorian London the story will be set, what the start of the mystery is, the emotional complications that will ensue, and roughly where we will end up, but what I don’t have is a title I can put at the end of book two to draw readers towards book three.

Something to do with Musical Halls, and work in the theatres, missing links of a family history chain, temptations, drama, love…

Hey ho! I have a few titles that might inspire future Delamere stories, titles including Where There’s a Will, and I have a preliminary title for book three, You Can’t Trust These Specials because it’s a quote from a music hall song (Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way), but the story I have I mind doesn’t concern policemen or the ‘old time specials’ of the lyrics.

Leave it with me, set your alarm clocks for mid-October and prepare to look out for the Delamere Files book two, ‘A Fall from Grace’ in a few weeks’ time.

Background inspiration for ‘A Fall from Grace.’

Looking for a Great Historical Mystery?

If you’ve come here looking for a great historical mystery to read, I’ve again got the perfect thing for you. Not only my own books, which you can find on my Clearwater Mysteries page, and not only The Larkspur Mysteries which continue in the Clearwater world with new characters taking centre stage and established characters supporting, but also Finding a Way, the first in the new Delamere Files series.

Plus, all the books currently available in Kindle Unlimited in this excellent Book Funnel promotion:

K. C. Sivils, A. H. Wang, Y. G. Knight, and authors without initials, such as Rose Donovan and Nadya Frank, all have titles on offer here, along with my series starters, Deviant Desire (Clearwater), Guardians of the Poor (Larkspur), and Finding a Way (Delamere).

Astute readers might notice that my series titles are the names of three of Lord Clearwater’s homes; Clearwater House, London, Larkspur Hall, Cornwall, and Delamere House, the next-door, sister property to Clearwater House in Knightsbridge. Why? I don’t know, it just seemed like the sensible thing to do. When I first came up with the property names, I never thought I would be creating three series around them, but that’s what happened, and I’m glad it did. When writing the Larkspur Mysteries, and bringing in Lady Marshall’s country home, I thought carefully about the name of the place, having in mind the idea I may set another series there in the future. That’s why I came up with Stoneridge Castle. I was thinking of something spookier, still mysterious, maybe steampunk-ish, and based around Hope & Hyde from the Larkspur Academy. If I ever do, you will be the first to know. Meanwhile, back to this Book Funnel promo and all the delights that go with it: Self-pub mysteries with an historical background, all available in KU, so you can easily add them to your library, also available in other formats if you aren’t in KU and want to buy and all at discounted or very reasonable prices.

There. That should set you up for a few weeks. Meanwhile, I am currently editing and rewriting the final chapters of ‘A Fall from Grace’, the Delamere Files book two, and have it booked in with Anne Atwood, my long-suffering and rather excellent proofreader for the first days of October. This weekend, I must start thinking about the cover so that, in a couple of weeks, I can let you know when this next book will be ready for you.

Have a good weekend, check in on Wednesday for the regular work-in-progress update, and above all, keep reading!

Guardians of the Poor and a Book Funnel Offer

If you are looking for a great Historical mystery to read, you might want to check out this list of titles on this Book Funnel promo. They are all in KU, so won’t cost anything, but even if you’re not in KU, a click on a cover will take you to the cover and blurb and on to that book’s Kindle or print-version page so you can order a copy.

As you can see, Guardians of the Poor is on the list (along with the other two series starters, Deviant Desire and Finding a Way.) I was really pleased to see Guardians has already picked up over 70 interactions on Amazon, has a review score average of 4.6 there and on Goodreads (not that I have much faith in these things), and the reviews continue to be favourable. This, I hope, bodes well for the success of the Delamere series.

I am still editing book two, and today will contact my proofreader to find a suitable date to start proofing. I must then turn my mind to a cover idea and get in touch with Andjela. After that, the process will rumble on until sometime in October when the second in the Delamere series will be released. In the meantime, head over to the promo and pick up some other historical mysteries from some very talented authors.

Book Funnel Promo: Historical Mystery and Mystery & Suspense Books

Today sees the start of another excellent Book Funnel promo: Mystery & Suspense / Historical Mystery and Mystery & Suspense / Thriller all on Kindle Unlimited.

The theme of the promo is historical mystery, and the required theme is: The plot must centre around historical events and locations AND have a mystery or crime involved.

Well, as soon as I saw that, I thought of everything from Deviant Desire to Guardians of the Poor and beyond.

The Clearwater Mysteries

These stories start in 1888, with Deviant Desire centred around the Ripper murders of 1888, and continuing into Twisted Tracks. Then comes, the Royal Opera House season of the same year in Unspeakable Acts, and as the series continues, we have all manner of historical events and locations, including, the Lyceum Theatre (1889) and the Cleveland Street Scandal, not to mention the characters, Henry Irving, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Sullivan and others of the time.

The Larkspur Mysteries

The follow-on series does the same, starting with life in the Hackney workhouse, and various real-life locations from 1890 onwards, the standing stones of Cornwall, historic inventions and science, the railways, and various real-life trials and scandals.

The Delamere Mysteries

Beginning in 1892, this series is separate from the Larkspur Mysteries, but continues from the same time in the same world, with some of the same characters making appearances, but it focuses on three new MCs who will drive the future stories forward. There’s certainly a mystery and some thrills in ‘Finding a Way’, and also a lot of historical accuracy, particularly around the life of Jack Merrit, a London cabbie.

The Promo

As you’ll see if you head to the promo page, there are mysteries and thrillers set in various times throughout history. There are novels by Olivia Le Roux, K C Sivils, and Joni Swift among others including myself, with stories set in various time periods with the 1930s in particular being popular.

All titles are available on KU, so if you’re already subscribed to Kindle Unlimited, they won’t cost you a penny. If not, you can still get them at prices ranging from $0.99 to $3.99 ($9.99 for the box sets).

Check out the promo through the following link, and add some more historical, mystery and thriller reading to your list.

Mystery & Suspense / Historical Mystery and Mystery & Suspense / Thriller and all on Kindle Unlimited.

Be back here on Wednesday for more news on the second Delamere Files book, ‘A Fall from Grace’ and catch up on progress.

Editing Continues

Hi. Just a short note today as I suddenly have a lot of work on, including editing a short story for a magazine, three hours of article writing, and a website review, plus the continued editing of ‘A Fall from Grace.’

Neil has started the beta read for me and already raised an issue that I had nagging at the back of my mind. It’s about the first four chapters of the book which include a lot of necessary backstory to the case to be investigated. I thought perhaps I’d put all of this is in too much detail, but, actually, I haven’t. The detail is fine, and the backstory makes for an interesting read on its own. What I have done, however, is put it in the wrong order, logically speaking. So, my job yesterday, and today, is to reorder the chapters. Easy? Not exactly.

It’s not a case of swapping chapter two for three etc. The info, dialogue and narration need to be chopped about and altered because of the new order of the story. To do that, I have all four chapters open, I copy a section I want from Chapt 3 and copy it to the clipboard, change the font colour of the original to red, so I know it’s been moved. Then, I paste it, in black, in Chpt 2, say, and take what I want from Chpt 2, highlight it, put it in red, and paste it in Chpt 1 in black. And so on, and so on. When all this alchemy is done, I then take out the red, read through, adjust the text, or simply rewrit the chapter as ‘they’ say it’s best not to fiddle with written text but simply to rewrite it, as you get better results. I do both. If it’s a short edit, i.e. a line or two, I’ll do it within the existing chapter. If it’s a case of telling the story in a different way, I’ll rewrite the whole thing.

So, the work is progressing, and once the beginning is sorted out, I’ll plough on through with the rest. We’re probably looking at October for a release date now, rather than the last few days of September, but tbh, that was probably always going to be the case.

Meanwhile, I found this photo of a young chap online and to me, it looked a little like the character Will Merrit (except his tie would be straighter). What do you think? (Just realised I posted this pic before. Well, I am in rather a hurry this morning…)

Finding a Way: Background Chapters – part four.

Before you settle into read this short excerpt, here’s a reminder about the Book Funnel Promo for LGBTQ+ Romantic Mysteries. Included in this list is ‘Guardians of the Poor’, the first of the Larkspur Series, plus many other titles that offer a mix of LGBTQ romance with a mystery plot or subplot. As you know, all of my Clearwater, Larkspur and now, Delamere novels/series are mysteries with romance, or romantic mysteries. I decided to put the first of each series into this promotion, as each series fits with the theme.

You’ll find many other established authors, and some who may be new to you, and there are great many ideas for new reading. Click the image to take a look at the list.

Finding a Way, unpublished chapter two (first draft)

Sleep, coloured by memories, and broken by Mary knocking up, looked forward to after one hour studying, twelve hours labouring, and five hours driving, was less welcome to Jack than it had been, because the date had been set for his test, and like a runaway horse, it came at him faster than he could control.

On the day, the rain held off, and he hired Charlie to take him to the examination office, expecting to sit at a table and fill out documents. Instead, he met with an official-looking man, who, rather than wish him a good morning, asked him to recite a route before the pair had shaken hands. Jack told him the information he wanted, and recited several others, making no mistakes.

‘How long have you been learning?’

‘A year, Sir.’

‘A year?’ The examiner’s face flushed red around his full beard. ‘Impossible. Come back in twelve months.’

‘I can’t, Sir. I need to start earning.’

‘Impossible, I say.’

‘Let me prove myself, Mr…?’

Mr Whoever—Jack never learnt his name—remonstrated, but Jack held his ground until the examiner gave in.

‘If you can tell me this, I’ll let you pass,’ he said through gritted teeth, and announced the start and finish locations for an imaginary but complicated journey.

Jack visualised his maps, saw the streets in his mind, thought of his brother, and the empty rent jar, and started at the beginning. Along the route, he added asides, contingencies against men working on the road, difficult traffic depending on the time of day, and highlighted his shortcuts, until his fare was safely delivered to the correct destination, where he gave the appropriate price.

The examiner’s face turned from red to pale.

‘One year?’ he muttered. ‘Never seen it before.’

‘But have you seen it now, Sir?’

‘I have, I’ll be damned. You made not one error, and you gave an accurate price. How old are you?’

‘Recently turned twenty-five. Is that important?’

‘It means you’ve at least another fifty years ahead, if you live that long, and it means you’ll do better than older men in the cold weather. Do you drink?’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Why not? No money?’

‘That is one reason, I admit, but even when I am in pocket, I use my earnings to pay for my brother’s care.’

‘What’s wrong with him?’

‘No-one knows. As my grandfather Reggie Merrit said, my brother is special.’

‘Reggie Merrit? Of Limehouse?’

‘Yes, Sir. My grandfather. Died last year.’

The examiner’s mouth dropped, and for a second, Jack thought he saw sadness cross the colourful face.

‘We started on the same day,’ the examiner said, reaching for a sheet of paper. ‘Didn’t know he’d died. Bob Hart still living?’

‘Yes, Sir, and working. He and the others who work from Limehouse have been teaching me.’

‘Tell him he owes me three shillings from ten years ago.’

‘I shall, Sir. May I know your name?’

‘Old Reggie had a son, didn’t he?’

‘Samson Merrit. Died last year…’

‘Right before me eyes. Best thing about the turn, if you ask me. Never like that Marie Lloyd woman.’

‘You were at the music hall?’

‘Aye. Seems our paths are intertwined, Mr Merrit. I can see you got your knowledge and tenacity from Reggie, and your looks from your father. You’ll be popular on the ranks.’

Jack’s heart picked up its pace as the man began to write, but not wishing to pre-empt what he hoped would be good news, he said nothing.

‘I’ll put you out a green card. Present it whenever a policeman asks for it, be careful who you hire your rig from, never take a grey horse, and stay sober. That’s me advice to the grandson of the fairest cabman I knew. Sorry to hear about Reggie, but remember to tell Hart about the three shillings.’ The examiner thrust a piece of paper, and Jack took it before he changed his mind. ‘Present that at the desk, and come back to pick up your card and number when they say. After that, you’re on your own, Mr Merrit. Except you’re obviously not. One year? Out of Limehouse? Who’d-a-thought it? Go.’

Jack had entered the office as nervous as a bag of kittens being held over a river and left it a confident cabman with a new career. All that remained to be done was to save for his initial rig hire, which, Will had calculated, would take him only a couple of weeks. After that, to rent Reggie’s old rig from Mr Harris at the yard, and give up the dock work. Then, he could follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and start earning decent money.

He had accomplished the first part of his plan, the next would take more time; to keep his promise to Will, and find the family decent lodgings further west, away from the soot, and the stink of the sugar refinery. That done, he would find someone willing to offer Will employment, and Ida a decent retirement.

Some of what he hoped for would come true before the year was out, but it would not come without heartache and a whole heap of trouble.

You can discover what that trouble turned out to be in ‘Finding a Way’, and while you are doing that, I continue to work on part two, ‘A Fall from Grace.’ There will be more news in my Wednesday blog.

A Fall from Grace: Update

Hello, and welcome to your update on ‘A Fall from Grace’, the Delamere Files book two.

The first draft is finished! I’ve been through the story and transferred it from my head to my typowriter, but I am still surrounded by notes stuck to my writing station, and my notebook overfloweth with more.

Now, I begin the task of editing the story before going back to edit the text. There are many fine details in this story which, although the reader doesn’t need to remember them, need to add up and tie in for the overall picture to accurately emerge. Not only am I developing three characters I only created in the last novel, and developing some of those we met in previous series, but I am also introducing a couple of new ones, for the purpose of this story alone. Each character must be themselves, and that’s easy to do with my quirky, eccentric folk, but not so easy with a protagonist and antagonist neither of whom are onstage for long.

As for those quirky characters who have a scene here and there (or in this case, only here as they only appear once), they are fun to write. You will meet mad Mrs Hogg and her famous hat, and the decrepit chairman of the Old Sinfordians who suffers from a, then, undiagnosed condition we, today, would call something else. A bit like Will who has OCD, but which, in 1892, wasn’t called that but probably considered some kind of mental deformity which it isn’t. In Will’s case, he calls it his ‘preciseness’, which is a far more appealing term than compulsive or obsessive and I don’t consider it a disorder either… But, let’s not get into all of that…

I found this chap online and wondered if it might be Will Merrit.

What you came here for is to learn that draft one is finished and topped off at 104,000 words, with about 95% of them correctly spelt. The first editing job will take me a week or so, and the second, a little longer. Meanwhile, I must turn my attention to blurbs and covers and saving to pay the proofreader and layout designers and all that jazz, while being aware that if I want any clues laid down in ‘A Fall from Grace’ that impact book three, I need to get them in there now.

So, back to work for me, and don’t forget to tune into Saturday’s blog when you can read more of the original, unpublished, opening of ‘Finding a Way.’

Also, don’t forget the Book Funnel promotion and the wealth of LGTBQ+ romantic mysteries on offers from a wide range of authors. Here’s the link to click:



Finding a Way: Background Chapters – part three

Over the last two Saturdays, I’ve shown you the original first chapter of ‘Finding a Way.’ Today, you have the first half of the original, unpublished second chapter. If you’ve read the book, you’ll notice that some of what is in here made it into the final draft. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the story that I realised a couple of events in this cut chapter were needed after all, so I took the sections from here and reworked them into a later chapter. That’s how it goes!

The second part will be up next Saturday. On Wednesday, I will tell you the latest news about ‘A Fall from Grace’, the Delamere Files series part two.

I also have a promotion running, or rather, am part of one. You should have received a newsletter email about this (if you’re not on the list, the link is at the top of the page in the menu). If you want, you can head straight to the Book Funnel page and see what LGBTQ+ Romantic Mystery novels are currently on offer.

Here’s the first half of the original second chapter of Finding a Way:



The cabmen kept their word, and Jack kept his. Rising at five each day to study maps by lantern light, he followed Uncle Bob’s instructions, and learnt the street names one square at a time. The younger cabbie, Charlie Flex, who Jack took to instantly, gave him the tricks of linking streets in his mind, remembering patterns, and told him what to listen for.

‘A list of names ain’t no good no no-one when the fog’s in, you can’t see a dog’s dick’s length ahead, and you’re travelling blind,’ Charlie told him on their fourth night out. ‘It’s then you need to know how the roads sound.’


‘Yer. Listen to the wheels and the nag’s hooves. We’re on Kingsland Road, see? Pits, knocks, gravel here and there, get it?’


‘Now, turn next left by the Dodgy George, and we’ll be in Harman Street, and how do I know that?’

‘’Cos Pearson Street’s on the right going north.’

‘Good man. Listen how the sound changes. Getting towards poorer parts here, see? Dreadful road. Not flat. What’s next?’

‘Straight on and we’ll cross Hoxton Road.’

‘Good man. So, what if I want Ivy?’

‘Street or Lane, Sir?’

Charlie had told Jack to treat him as a customer, and to be polite no matter how drunk, obnoxious or hostile his fares were, and had worked with him on previous nights to better his language.

‘I want the Lane, but wait a minute. Close your eyes. It’s alright, Blister knows what she’s about. Go on, and you’ll know when you’re in Ivy Lane.’

Jack did as he was told, and with the ribbons slack in his hands, allowed the horse to lead. When he felt a jolt, he thought his companion had unbalanced the hansom, but it was the cab dipping, twice, and then the only sound came from Blister’s horseshoes.

‘Double drain beside the Turkish bathhouse,’ Charlie said, as Jack looked behind. ‘A good marker on a dark and foggy night, and there’s loads more to get to know. Now, let’s say I want to get to De Beauvoir.’

‘Square, Crescent or Road, Sir?’

‘Square. How will you get me there?’

‘Easy, Sir. Quickest is back to Kingsland, north, over the canal…’ A while later, Jack continued his commentary. ‘Next right’s Hertford, but it’s a dead end, and I ain’t leaving my fare to walk, not if he’s rich enough to live in De Beauvoir. Two right turns on is De Beauvoir Road, but before that, there’s Mortimer, and that leads straight into the square where I’ll ask him which side.’

‘Well done,’ Charlie said, and gave him a matey hug before letting go to tighten his coat against the night.

It was only a touch, but it meant something. The pair were snuggled in close on the bench. Built only for one, the space was cramped, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. In fact, there was something reassuring about being forced close to Charlie, a married man in his thirties, a supporter of the temperance movement and a nonconformist churchgoer. However, it wasn’t the thought of Charlie’s abstinence or piety that thrilled Jack and made his heart skip, nor was it the praise he gave when Jack made the turns with accuracy. Nor was it the friendship shown to him by Uncle Bob and his colleagues, and particularly by Charlie, who had encouraged and praised him the most. There was something else; something undefinable caused by the brief hug. It was only a show of manly support, and as affectionate as anyone had been with him, but because it came from a man and not doting old Ida nor daft young Will, it brought a sensation that chilled as much as it thrilled. If Charlie knew what reaction his touch had caused, he’d likely throw him from the bench and drive the hansom over him, church-going or not, because that was how men were taught to react to the abnormal interests of other men, an interest that had been stirring within Jack for some years now. Always denied, never expressed, but impossible to ignore, the thought that he was somehow different to normal men plagued his mind when he allowed it to, and although he kept the thought as deeply covered as he could, it rose to the surface in moments such as the one that had just passed.

To send it back to the depths, he remained silent and listened to the wheels and hooves.

‘Smoother road,’ he said. ‘And here’s the square, Sir.’

‘Good. Now, you got the Hackney map in your head?’

‘I have.’

‘Then, cabbie, I want to go first to Haggerston Park, then on to Limehouse. We’ll finish there. Quickest route, if you will, it’s damn freezing.’

The weather became colder as the weeks passed, but no matter if the night was marred by rain or was clear of cloud, and no matter if there was fog or snow, Jack took up his place with one of the cabmen, and drove. His days became a routine of learning maps, walking to the docks, doing his duties there, returning home, putting pennies in the food jar, and shillings in the rent pot, spending an hour with Will, and walking to Limedock station to start his five hours learning the knowledge. Ida was successful in claiming a little from the church to see them through Reggie’s illness, and Will took in some sewing, using what little he earnt to pay doctors. A stream of learned men came to the dwelling, each one poking this and asking that, but all any could say was that Reggie’s condition would never change. In fact, he would deteriorate, one said, and Ida should be saving for a funeral in the spring.

When it came, spring brought no change in Jack’s routine, though, by then, the long days had begun to take their toll. Sleep was the only break from the grind, and it came quicker and deeper. If it weren’t for Mary the knocker-up, he’d not have seen the mornings, and if it wasn’t for Will’s meticulousness in preparing Jack’s clothing and meal pack for work, he’d not have eaten. When he caught influenza, Will and Ida rallied around, forced him to stay abed for three whole days, while, despite his lame leg, Johnny Clarke from next door took Jack’s place at the docks, so he wouldn’t lose his job. Johnny took the wages for those days, of course, but his mother, Elsie, had a good run on her straw bonnet making, and was able to lend the family the shillings Jack had lost. There were no rides out during those nights. Instead, Jack studied his maps and had Will test him, even though his head thumped, his stomach was weak, and he could hardly speak.

‘Essex Street to Trafalgar Square,’ Will challenged.

‘Essex Street, Temple?’

‘Yes, from that Essex Street.’

The image of several squares flashed across Jack’s internal vision, black and grey lines, blocks, typeface and symbols, quickly replaced by the actual image of the streets, and Charlie beside him for the first part, Albert Cranny for the second.

‘It’s a dead end, so I’d turn her north, up to Saint Clement Danes, left into the Strand and straight down to Trafalgar. Try something harder.’

‘I will when you get that one right.’

‘I did. Ain’t no easier way.’

‘Ah, but there is a faster way,’ Will said, mopping Jack’s brow. ‘You could have turned left into Little Essex Street, right at the printworks on Milford Lane, and reached the Strand without having to wait for the traffic coming out of Temple Bar. You’d have saved a couple of minutes.’

Jack wasn’t surprised he’d missed a cut-through, he was surprised that Will had given him the correction without looking at the map.

‘You been learning these with me?’ he croaked.

‘Of course,’ Will replied, seemingly just as surprised that Jack needed to ask.

The influenza still had a grip on Jack when he returned to work, but he sweated it out, as Elsie Clarke said he should, and he returned to his routine of study, labouring, driving and learning, until one day in April, when, on returning from the docks, he found Uncle Bob, Albert and Charlie gathered at Reggie’s bedside. Ida was crying in the kitchen room, and Will was pacing the few steps from the sink to the window agitated, and counting seconds.

‘What is it?’ Jack said, throwing down his lunch pale, instantly knowing something was wrong.

‘Saying goodbye. Sixty. Twelfth minute, one, two…’

‘The doctor just left,’ Ida sniffed. ‘You best go in.’

Reggie was dying, Uncle Bob said, and seeing Jack’s consternation, laid a hand on his shoulder and told him he’d not got long.

‘You’re nearly there, Skip. You’ll get your licence in a week or so. Believe me.’

‘Believe in yourself,’ Charlie said as he also prepared to leave. ‘I’ll miss our time on the bench, Jack, but if you ever want to ride out, just to be alone, you can call on me, yeah?’

It was a troubled moment. On the one hand, Jack’s eyes were fixed on Reggie’s white face, and his drooping, sunken eyes, while all he could hear was Charlie offering to be alone and giving a strange message as if in code.

‘Just to talk,’ Charlie said, and left Jack wondering if he’d read his thoughts.

Alone with his grandfather, Jack sat beside him and took his limp hand, while in the background came sobs and numbers.

‘You going, Reggie?’ he whispered.

Reggie’s reply was a mumble, and a gasp, but the head made a tiny nodding movement, and his face screwed up as he concentrated.

‘You… Willie…’ the words were more than faltering, but Jack listened with patience. ‘Take care… My… Ida. Your… Brother…’ A sucking-in of saliva, a faint gasp. ‘Need you.’

‘I’ll look after your Ida, Granddad, don’t you worry.’ Determined to be the man, Jack held back tears. ‘I’ve nearly got it. I’ll have your old hansom back on the streets right soon.’

‘Promise you’ll… remember… Willie… is… Special.’

‘I know. He’s very special to me.’

‘Not stupid. Special.’

‘Shush, granddad. Rest.’

‘No… Point. Will… Special’

Ida and Will joined them, standing by the death bed, their sadness wrapped by acceptance, and with Will now silently mouthing his numbers as he counted the time from the doctor’s diagnosis to the moment Reggie Merrit drew his last breath.

‘Sixteen minutes, twenty-two seconds,’ he said, as Ida closed her husband’s eyelids, and lay her head on his chest.

Jack stared at the scene, hollow, exhausted, and frightened for what he now had to take on, but trepidation vanished when Will, his counting concluded, took him in his arms, and hugged him tighter than he’d ever done.

‘We’ll manage,’ he said. ‘I got my brother, you got yours. I love you, Jack.’

Jack filled his lungs, gripped his brother, and swallowed.

‘Love you too.’

‘Was it the enemas?’

Jack found it hard not to chuckle. His brother was one moment sincere, the next, innocent, but always, as Reggie had said with his last breath, special.

‘No, it wasn’t that.’

‘He’s with God now.’ Ida stood, and straightened her apron as if they’d just finished a meal and the table had to be cleared. ‘I best get the neighbours in. Willie, put water to boil for washing him, and fetch the towels from the drawer. He picked out his suit and his cabbie’s tie. Bob will tell the others at the rank, Jack, so you find the vicar. We’ll bury him proper at Tower Hamlets. I’ve been saving. The men’ll want to follow in their cabs, tell the vicar that, and say we only need a short service by the grave. It’s in a decent spot and there’s a place for me alongside.’


‘No time to grieve, son. We’ve work to do.’

As Ida predicted and wanted, Reggie was escorted to his grave by a line of hansom cabs, with Jack driving behind the funeral cart supervised by Uncle Bob, and Reggie’s other friends following. The service was simple and silent, save for the vicar’s words, but the gathering at the Waterman’s Arms afterwards was a boisterous celebration of one man’s long life.

That done, and the black crepe removed from the kitchen mirror, Jack’s life returned to what it had been as if the man who’d brought him up hadn’t existed. The only reminder was a photograph of Reggie in his coffin, donated by his cabbie colleagues as a memorial, and placed above the bedroom mantelpiece by Ida.

‘You boys will soon have this room to yourself,’ she said, looking at it with fondness. ‘I can’t leave him to his own devices for long.’

‘Don’t say that, Grandma,’ Will complained.

‘A bed to yourself, Willie. Look forward to it,’ she replied. ‘No, you won’t have to wait long.’

Continued next Saturday.

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