Today, as promised, you have the second part of the first chapter of ‘Finding a Way’ that was cut and replaced with the first chapter as you have it now… Confused? Don’t be.
Last Saturday we had part one, and today part two, so you can always go back to last week’s post to start from the beginning. This chapter (and the one I will post next week), constituted the original opening for the book. I later decided they were more about me telling myself the backstory, and I ditched them, using only the salient parts in the final draft.
Just to remind you, this is 1st draft material and has not been properly proofread.
Will was more than Jack’s best friend and brother; he was also his responsibility and had been since he was born. On the outside, his younger brother was as fit and able as any twenty-year-old, as bonny as any other young man who lived on a diet of whatever Grandma Ida could find for the few shillings remaining after Reggie’s cab week, and although narrow of body, he was not underfed and never looked starved. It was inside that his problem lay, a problem no doctor had yet been able to name or treat.
Whatever the name for his strangeness, Will was not an imbecile. Jack had taught him to read and write, their grandmother had taught him to sew and wash clothes, but no employer would entertain him on account of his mannerisms; the way chairs had to be square-on to the table, the cutlery perpendicular, the plates washed twice, and the bedding turned down just so. There were never complaints or tantrums if these things were not done to Will’s satisfaction, he would merely move the furniture he thought out of place, or brush the dust from the blanket, turn the pot on the stove to the correct angle, or untie Jack’s boot laces when left by the door, and set them straight. To the family, this was just how Will was, but to anyone else, they were signs of inherent madness, and to strangers, that made him untrustworthy.
When his brother was twelve, Jack persuaded his foreman to give Will a day ticket to work. He wanted to prove to himself and the family that his brother could do more than read books, or stare at the embroidery hanging over the mantelpiece until, driven by frustration, he took it down, unpicked every strand, and sewed it back together because one stitch had been incorrect. Jack had faith in him, and Will was keen to show he could be useful.
The foreman was not impressed. Charged with stacking the sacks Jack was unloading from a clipper, Will was set to work in a warehouse where older, gruffer men swore and whistled as they hauled and handled. Having delivered his first load, and shown Will what to do, Jack returned to the ship to take on a second wagon-full and drove the cart back to the stores. There, to his dismay, he found Will had set the sacks in a line, opened them, and was transferring grain from one to the other so that each was exactly the same level. They were discovered before Jack could put things right, and Will was dismissed on the spot. Had Jack not spent years in the docks lifting and carrying, tending horses, and making himself invaluable, he too would have been out of work, but he was strong, reliable and never complained. The foreman docked him two day’s pay, and told him to ‘Get that idiot out of my stores,’ and he never tried the experiment again.
Will was not an idiot, and neither was Jack. It was clear to see that without two incomes, the family would soon be homeless. The rooms were not big enough to take in lodgers, although apartments with ten in two rooms was not uncommon in their street, but Ida had standards, and they were to be kept no matter the pain in the stomach or the chill in the air. It was bad enough for four of them to sleep in one room, live and eat in the other, and share the privy with four families, so renting out space was not an option. Nor was increasing his hours at the docks, because the company didn’t allow that, and neither would it have been possible for him to find night work and labour twenty-four hours a day.
There was only one way Jack could think of to earn enough to support everyone, and it involved a walk, a lot of thinking and a risk. If the first stage of his barely thought-out plan was a success, several months of hard work would follow, and that would have to be done while he continued to work his docker’s ticket. At some point, there would be a test, and he would need a license, but he was a fast learner, and already knew the layout of the East End. Learning the rest would take time, but it was not an impossible task and, thanks to Reggie’s years on the rank, he had contacts.
One of them was exactly where Jack knew he would be, smoking his pipe outside Limehouse railway station, chatting to another cabman, and complaining about the weather. On seeing Jack, the old man removed his cap and waved it towards his hansom while throwing up his arms.
‘Reggie can’t work,’ Jack called ahead. ‘Had a fit.’
‘Had a fit,’ he repeated when he arrived, hot but not out of breath after the long walk. ‘Can’t work no more.’
‘Why, you be pulling a me leg, ain’t you, Skip?’
Mr Hart had called Jack that name since he could remember. Skip Jacks were the boys of nag dealers, employed to ride them during sales, and Jack was good with horses.
‘Ain’t, Mr Hart. Grandad got a shock and fell down. Doctor says there’s no getting him right.’
Jack told him what had happened, and Hart passed on the news to his fellow cabmen, all of whom offered their sympathies and promised to visit when they could.
‘Yeah, well, he don’t need sympathy and hellos,’ Jack said, filling his pipe as the men returned to their groups and fares. ‘He needs a favour, Mr Hart. Rather, I do, and I was hoping you’d help me out with it.’
‘I’ll do what I can, son, but I’m guessing you’re heading for the lend of money, and I can’t ask the Mission to help you with that.’
‘That’s not it. I got my six days a week at West India. It won’t keep us for long, and I ain’t got none put by, none of has, but I got a plan, and I need your help with it.’
‘Not following you, Skip,’ Mr Hart said, holding a match to the bowl of Jack’s pipe.
‘Knowledge, Mr Hart, that’s what I want. Can you help me with it?’
‘Now you’re thinking I’m some schoolteacher? You sure it ain’t you what’s had a fit?’
‘No. I need to learn the streets.’
One of the first things Jack remembered about his grandfather’s oldest friend was the way his eyebrows met in the middle when he pulled a face. He was sure he’d done it to him as a baby, because behind him in the distant vision, were Reggie and Ida, laughing, and Jack could recall stretching out a hand and touching the strange man’s side whiskers. They had been black then, but now they were as white as a new sheet, as were his eyebrows which met, not to cause laughter, but in confusion.
‘How long will it take me? I know most of Whitechapel and Limehouse, Millwall of course, and far up as Mile End, but…’
‘Now hang on, Skip. What you saying? You want to take over Reggie’s cab?’
‘That’s the measure of it.’
‘You can’t just do that. ’Ere!’ Hart called to another on the rank. ‘Skip thinks he can get up there and nick our job quick as you like. Wants to learn the knowledge.’
‘Let him,’ one of the others called down from his seat before snapping his whip and clattering into traffic.
‘Yer, get started now, Skip, and you might be driving come Christmas,’ another encouraged. ‘You understand the nags, you only got a learn the rest.’
‘Christmas next year at least,’ Mr Hart said. ‘You can’t just get in a cab and off you go, Son. You got a learn…’
‘The streets. I know, and you know them, and you know what’s the easiest way for me to remember them. Will you learn me?’
‘What, just like that?’ Hart flicked away the match and laughed. ‘Getting the test’ll take you two years, and you never stop learning. They keep putting in new roads, new buildings going up, even new bloody bridges, which, I admit, are easier to find. You got a know not only your patch, but anywhere from Enfield to Epsom, what theatres chuck out what time, what master’s yard offers decent rates, and none of them do, not no more. Then there’s your charges. How you going to start if you ain’t got nothing put by? No, Son, you want to step into Reggie’s shoes, then get yourself better docking. You’re built for that, so stick to it. You’ve always been good at lifting and carting, you don’t want a be sitting up there in all weathers freezing your Tommy’s off, and getting the rheumatism from the wind. You’ll turn to drink when you’re bored, and there’s never a guarantee you’re going to make any more than the East India pays you.’
Jack had expected this and, on his way, had made his calculations.
‘I see it this way, Mr Hart. I get twenty-four shillings a week from the docks. If Grandma Ida can get some poor relief on the rent for a couple of months, my pay’ll cover all else, with some put aside. Hold on…’ Pointing his pipe prevented the old man from interrupting. ‘I know what you’re going to say. Reggie was putting out over a hundred and fifty pounds a year to rent the hansom and horse, right? It’s twelve shillings a week for winter, up to nineteen ’round Derby and Ascot weeks, but at that time, I can make three quid on each ride to the races, and it’s back to eleven a week come August. To pay the hire, yard and boy, I got to make ten shillings a day, six days a week to keep even, but there’s more than five million potential fares a day out there, so I reckon there’s room for me. I got the costs in me head, and I know what I’ll need to pay for the house and Will on top. You know Will can’t work much on account of his strangeness, but he’s been taking in some sewing, and now we’re going to need medicines for Reggie, and Ida’s getting along towards seventy, though she takes in a bit of washing. I thought it through, Mr Hart. I just need to know how to learn the streets, and how to get me licence. I’ll rent from Harris on me own badge same as you and Reggie. Now then, you’ve been Reggie’s best man since before me dad was born—Oh, he died last night, by the way, but none of us is bothered. So, I reckon, if you want to help your oldest mate, right now dribbling down his chin cos one half of him’s not working, the least you can do is point me in the right direction.’
‘That was quite a speech,’ someone said after a moment’s silence. ‘The lad’s thought about it.’
Other cabbies had come to listen, because there was never much to do at that time of day in Limehouse, and the next train wasn’t due in for ten minutes.
‘Yeah. Thought about it for the half hour it took him to walk over,’ Mr Hart said, studying Jack with his yellowing eyes and sympathetic frown. ‘Your dad died?’
‘Yeah. Fell down at the feet of Marie Lloyd halfway through the gallery song. Dead as a donkey. Probably got the biggest applause of his career, but I ain’t bothered about him. Now, what d’you say?’
‘I say it’s a pretty rubbish song in any case, Skip.’
Mr Hart stared at him and shook his head in resignation. ‘Two year at least,’ he warned. ‘That’s what it’ll take you. You got over two hundred miles of streets, more than twenty thousand street names, the routes, cut-throughs, tolls, the way the police watch you, and how things work. That’s without trying to make ten bob a day. Think you can do it?’
‘I don’t need you to put me off, Uncle Bob, I need you to help me out, and help out Reggie and Ida, but mainly, I need you to help me help Will. What d’you say?’
Maybe it was because he’d called him Uncle Bob, and been familiar rather than polite, but the old man’s eyes narrowed as he sucked on his dead pipe, and he glanced at his colleagues gathered to the side, his white eyebrows asking the question on his behalf.
‘If he’s got the stamina and the brains,’ a cabman said.
‘He’s got them alright,’ Hart muttered as if jealous. ‘But the time?’
‘I can put in five or six hours a night, and all day Sundays,’ Jack said. ‘That’d still give me time to sleep.’
‘The nipper’s got it all planned, Bob. No changing his mind.’
‘But I got to sleep an’all, Skip.’
‘Ah, you’re getting old,’ another cabman laughed. ‘The way I see it, young Jack, is this. Us men what wait and drive, drive and wait, we look after our own, and Reggie’s one of us, so that makes you family an’all. I’d be happy to take you out a couple of hours one night a week.’
‘Yeah, and me on Sundays,’ said another. ‘Least, a few times.’
‘Scottie’s the best for the cut-throughs,’ another said. ‘He’ll do it, won’t you?’
‘Who’ll pay me?’
‘Keep your bible out of it, Stan,’ someone laughed. ‘The lad’s keen, he’s quick, and most of all, he’s Reggie’s boy. I’ll learn him the West End.’
Charlie, a younger cabbie, volunteered to teach Jack south of the river and the bridges, while others offered their time here and there, but only because he was Reggie Merrit’s grandson, and cabmen were a fraternity, and before Jack had a chance to thank them, or take in the enormity of what he’d started, even Mr Hart agreed to teach him one night each week, although they all decided Jack would have to pay part of the cab hire because they would be working longer hours.
‘Study hard, Jack, and you’ll get your badge,’ Hart said. ‘I’ll have a word with Harris, he’s slippery, but the easiest to hire from, and he’s got a lad at the stables who’ll teach you the tack and traces.’
‘I’m ahead of you there, Uncle Bob. Been carting nearly ten years, ain’t I?’
‘True enough, but it’s different.’
‘When can I start?’
‘You can start right now,’ the younger driver said. ‘You can ride with me. Me nag ain’t called Blister for nothing, she’ll pull the extra weight.’
Mr Hart gave a final sigh of defeat. ‘Alright, Skip. There’s more than seven thousand of us on the stands, another won’t make a difference.’
You can find ‘Finding a Way’ on Amazon, paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.
Chapter two, part one will be posted next Saturday.