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 Today, you have the first half of the original, unpublished second chapter.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.
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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?’
‘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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