"Get up. C'mon, get up. This is no place for dossing. Let's go. Get up!"
I heard the trouble a few moments before I glimpsed it between the jackets and umbrellas of the other people walking briskly along the pavement. A man in a ragged army great coat lay slumped into a narrow alcove between two buildings. A constable stood over him, tapping his truncheon aggressively against the man's shoulder.
"Get moving, blast you! No dossing here! Get up and move along."
I looked discreetly away as I passed. Unfortunately, not quickly enough and I shook my head, attempting to ignore the pinch of guilt I felt.
There were hundreds of former soldiers like him in London alone. I couldn't save them all, even if I wanted to. I simply didn't have the means.
At the corner waiting to cross, an ugly thought popped into my mind: what if that man wasn't asleep? It wouldn't be the first time a homeless soldier had died in the night, unnoticed by scores of people walking past with their minds set on their errands, just as I had done.
I chewed indecisively on my lip. I hadn't seen enough to be sure if he were breathing or not, and I was sure that uncertainty would follow me for the rest of the day, tugging at my skirt and demanding my attention at inopportune times.
It really was none of my business. The constable would certainly take the necessary measures if the poor man had passed on. I would only be admonished to leave well enough alone. And I was already running twenty minutes behind schedule as it was. It really had nothing to do with me. And, honestly, --
The image of a man swaying gently from a noose lashed onto the wooden beams of the stable at Cloud Hill ghosted through my mind at that moment, casting its long, black shadow into the bustle of London at mid-day.
I turned abruptly, hurrying back as quickly as my shoes would allow on the wet pavement.
Olivia, your last name should be Parker, my father always said, because that's what you are, a Nosey Parker and a frightful busybody.
Well, if I want any peace of mind for the rest of the day, Father, I'm going to jolly well have to make it my business, aren't I?
The taps with the truncheon had become more violent, almost blows. I was about to raise my arm and address the constable when the soldier moved, grabbing the end of the club and shoving it up and away from himself in one quick, abrupt movement.
Caught off guard, the constable performed an awkward little foxtrot to save himself from falling, but quickly righted himself.
"Awake now, are we? Good! Get up and move along. No dossing here." A boot was added to the end of the statement as a full stop.
The man jerked his head up, scowling.
His face was thin and ashen, a week or two's growth of dark beard on his chin. He seemed to have trouble focusing, because he shook his head a time or two as if to clear it. Then, seeing that his tormenter was in uniform, he nodded vaguely and began to search around with one hand in the shadows of the alcove, pulling out a long, wooden object.
A crutch. The man was an amputee.
"Haven't got all day, have I? Be quick about it!"
"Constable! Can you not see this poor man is attempting to rise?" I called. "Why don't you give him a hand up if you haven't a moment to waste?"
Despite his moustache and pressed uniform, the officer could not have been more than twenty years old. He puffed out his chest with all the authority his score of years and peaked custodian helmet lent him.
"I'll thank you to keep out of this, Miss. We know how to handle this riff-raff."
The ex-soldier gained his footing, steadying himself against the wall despite his missing leg, which I could see now. He placed his crutch under his right arm and began to hobble off without a word or glance. He was surprisingly tall, at least a head taller than the constable. A reddish-brown scarf hung limply from his neck. It reminded me of the ones we'd knitted hundreds of during the war for the front-line lads. In fact, there was something oddly familiar about the whole man.
I opened my handbag and dug out a few pence.
"Wouldn't do that, Miss. It'll only go for drink. These types are nothing but trouble." The constable's voice was shot through with the same chiding tone I was so used to hearing. Doing one's bit during the war was one thing, asking one to take pity on the chewed-up refuse of the trenches a few years on was entirely another.
Ignoring the warning, I tugged at the man's dirty, wet sleeve. He hesitated, eyes fixed on the paving stones. The stench coming off of him was enough to make me feel slightly ill.
"Here. For you. Get yourself something hot to eat."
As if more on instinct than thought, the former soldier held out his hand and I dropped the coins into his cupped palm. His face he held averted so that I couldn't see it fully, and I didn't blame him. Accepting charity could be difficult for many of us, myself included.
"Thank you, ma'am. God bless," he whispered, his voice a hoarse rasp echoing from somewhere inside his chest. Jerking a nod, he began to hobble away with an odd sort of determination, as if he were fleeing the scene and not merely leaving it.
I sighed. At least I now knew the man was alive and I could put the incident out of my mind.
Resuming my path towards Leicester Square, I consulted my wristlet and saw that I was now hopeless late. I wouldn't be able to make up the lost time no matter what I cut out.
I only came into the city for one day every fortnight, and I had to make the most of every minute, cramming business meetings, shopping and social calls all into a few short hours. I still had some errands that needed attending to before Brooks was due to arrive with the car at eleven and those I couldn't put off. Charlotte was expecting me for lunch at her house in Belgravia and I so hated to keep her waiting.
Reaching Cranbourn Street a few short minutes later, I was making my way to E.D. Robinson's Pencils and Stationery when the thought of the former Tommy's eyes pushed its way between the thoughts of ledger books and cloth bolts taking up most of my mind.
Deep-set, pale eyes, that had flashed up at the constable like light glowing from behind a rain cloud. I'd seen eyes like that before, I was sure of it.
Where? Come on, Olivia, where? From the war?
Those eyes had smiled at me, and I had reached out my hand to --
I stopped dead in my tracks.
And was promptly run into by two chatting women. Mumbling an apology, I darted around them and dashed back up Cranbourn Street and onto Charing Cross Road.
If that solider was who I thought he was, I had to find him. And if I was mistaken. . . well, I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.
A/N Belgravia is the part of London directly next to Buckingham Palace and has been known traditionally for its wealthy inhabitants.
If any readers would like to know what I think the characters look like, a cast list has been added at the end of the story. There are also a lot of secondary male characters in this novel, so I've provided a list of the most important ones in the chapter "Dramatis Personae" to serve as a memory jog.
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England 1921. For fifty handicapped veterans left without home or job after WW1, the only person standing between them and utter destitution is Olivia Altringham. Lacking sufficient funds and a support network, Olivia has managed to keep her vetera...