For the next four weeks, I’m going to post the first two chapters of ‘Finding a Way’, the first of the Delamere Files series. These are not the first two chapters you will read in the published book, they are chapters I cut from the final book.
This was how I started writing the story. However, I soon realised that this was all backstory and didn’t make for a very punchy opening, and I was writing it to secure Jack Merrit’s history in my mind. This is why I cut them from the final draft.
Rather than post each 3,000-word chapter in one go, I have cut them in half to make it easier to read online. Remember, this is first draft material, so it’s not been honed or proofed or even worked on very much. It might, though, give you some background to how Jack became a cabbie, and it will tell you a little more about him and his brother Will. These first two chapters don’t give anything away, so reading them won’t spoil the book for you, though some of what’s in them, I later put into the final draft of ‘Finding a Way’ because it was necessary to do so.
Here is the first half of the original Chapter One of ‘Finding a Way.’
Jack Merrit’s grandfather began work as a cabman on the day that Brunell launched the SS Great Eastern at Millwall in eighteen fifty-eight. Some said it was an unlucky ship, because a previous launch attempt had caused two fatalities, and the great steamship, the largest ever built at that time, had become wedged on the ramp. This, however, did not deter the civil engineer, and nor did it discourage the then forty-year-old Reggie Merrit from attending the second launch, having arrived there with his first fare-paying passengers in his hired hansom. The birth of the massive ship marked the beginning of his thirty-year career on the London streets, sitting high above his cab, transporting the good, the wealthy and the misbehaved from one location to another.
Reggie had been married for twenty tears by then, and working as a labourer on the very ship he watched clank and grate into the river that January morning. With the ticket to labour concluded, however, and with no other prospect of dock work, he’d used his savings to learn the trade of a cabman and secure a vehicle rental from a dispatch office.
‘It’ll be far better money,’ he told his wife, Ida, as he left to collect his hansom on his first day. ‘We’ll have something to give the young’un for his marrying, and soon be out of Limehouse and somewhere further west. You’ll see.’
When their only son, Samson, married the following year, they were still living in the rented tenement by the Isle of Dogs, where the stink of the river choked, and the walls ran black with factory soot. Four years later, their first grandson, John Anthony Merrit, screamed into life on the parlour floor, delivered by Ida and a midwife who offered nothing more than rebuke for not pushing harder and a mug of gin for the pain.
The smell of the river and a new sugar factory were still tainting the washing two years later, when Samson’s wife gave birth to a stillborn, and two years after that, when the second grandson, William, came. His arrival was quieter than his brother’s, and he was slower to arrive, but at least he was breathing.
The factory whistles continued to slice into the family’s life even when Samson found good work in the theatres and became a popular artiste in the music halls. Although well paid and highly thought of, much written about in the newspapers and lauded for his ability to entertain, Samson Merrit did not entertain the idea of being a father. With Reggie and Ida bringing up two children he hadn’t wanted, and with his wife vanished as soon as she’d dumped the second boy on him, he moved himself to digs in Clapton, and ultimately, to a finer part of Hackney. There, the only way his parents or children heard of him was from the variety newspapers and bill posters, and, when Jack was twenty-four, via a messenger from Shoreditch who brought news of a tragedy.
Samson Merrit suffered an untimely but entertaining death on the stage of the Shoreditch Music Hall early in ninety-one. He left behind his two sons, a shocked audience, and an even more shocked Marie Lloyd, with whom he had been performing a duet version of ‘The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery.’ The coroner said the cause of death was heart failure and had nothing to do with his fellow performer. Ida Merrit said he’d had it coming and good riddance, but on hearing the news, Reggie suffered apoplexy that brought an end to his cabbing career the moment he staggered backwards into his chair and collapsed.
Thirty-three years after promising his wife he would better their lives, and despite his son’s success, Reggie had continued to work his cab, and Ida never reminded him of his promise, but kept their rooms as best she could, while caring for two grandsons she had nurtured into men. Working at the docks like his grandfather had, Jack’s income helped the four survive, but there was never a chance William would work and contribute. When Samson died, there was no will, and even if there had been, and even if he had mentioned in it his children, it would have amounted to nothing, because all he owned were debts.
Thus, on the day his grandfather became immobile, while the doctor advised Reggie to take plenty of enemas and drink dark ale, Jack stood thinking and knew something had to be done. His wages as a carter and shifter at the Millwall docks barely covered his contributions for food and left nothing for the care of his brother. With Grandfather Reggie unable to work, his grandmother now nearing seventy, and Will being unemployable, he had, in the stroke of Reggie’s apoplexy, become the breadwinner, and he needed a better job.
His mind worked as fast as his eyes as he scanned the cramped parlour, the shared bedroom through the torn curtain, the stone sink and pot-bellied stove until they came to rest on his brother, sitting vacant in the corner, staring, as he always did, at the pages of a book. The only indication young Will understood their predicament came in the flow of a solitary tear, possibly for a father he’d never known, but more likely for his grandfather. It trickled over his pale cheek, and dropped onto his once-white shirt, while he blinked as though trying to understand what was happening around him, and failing.
Jack’s gaze next fell on the pantry shelf and the half loaf of bread and two wrinkled potatoes, and thence beyond the curtain to the bed, where his once cheerful and lively grandfather, the man who had cared for him, educated him, and paid for Will’s doctors, now lay incapable of doing anything but wait for death.
‘I’m going out,’ Jack told his grandmother. ‘I won’t be long.’
‘Where to? Your father’s to be buried, your grandad’s not far from it, and you’re off down the Waterman’s Arms?’
‘No, to see Bob Hart.’
‘What for? The Cabmen’s Mission won’t give us no charity. They only give out God, and what use is that?’
‘I’m not looking for either, Grandma. I’ll be back before dark.’
Turning to Will, and taking his hands as he crouched, Jack made the same promise to his brother as Reggie had once made to Ida.
‘I’m going to find good work, Will. One day I’ll get us both out of this place. You stay and look after Grandma. You’ll behave, won’t you?’
Will gave one of his common smiles; a sideways twist of the mouth that suggested acquiescence, but usually meant mischief. It was not what anyone would expect of a twenty-year-old, but then, Will was only that age in body; he was much older in mind.
‘Promise me, Will?’
‘Yeah, alright. Where you going?’
‘You’ll see soon enough.’
‘Can I come?’
‘But where you going?’
‘Will granddad die?’
‘Samson was our dad, yeah?’
‘Yes, Will. Now, look after grandma.’
‘What’s an enema?’
Jack took his brother’s cheeks in his hands and turned his face away from the bed.
‘You’re my best mate, remember?’
‘Yes, Jack. I always remember.’
You can find ‘Finding a Way’ on Amazon, paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.
Chapter one, part two will be posted next Saturday.