My heart was pounding as I jog-trotted, as lady-like as is possible in such a situation, back the way I'd come, dodging pedestrians, omnibuses and carriers' carts as I crossed the road.
I was worried of slipping and falling, but more of losing James in the crowds. Had it even been James? Or some other ex-soldier who resembled him?
Keep your shirt on, Olivia. Find him first.
As I skipped over puddles and wove my way around office clerks, salesmen and some women with their children in tow, I started to think that what I was doing was absurd. How ever did I think I would find him? He could have disappeared into any number of alleyways or side streets by that time.
Besides that, what if someone I knew saw me skittering down the road like I was? All I could do about that was cross my fingers and wish on a hobby-horse that I was surrounded by utter strangers who knew nothing of me or my family.
At the level of Litchfield Street, a greengrocer's assistant was just restacking the fruit crates outside his shop. That gave me an idea.
"May I?" I said and grabbed one of the sturdier looking ones from the pile and placed it on the ground. The assistant's eyes widened in surprise as I hitched my skirt and mounted the crate.
I could now see down as far as the intersection with Shaftsbury Avenue and somewhat beyond where Charing Cross Road continued. No army coat in sight, just a sea of colourful hats and pale faces.
"'Ere, Miss. Who's you lookin' for?" asked the assistant, who I noticed was not trying too terribly hard to keep his eyes off my exposed stockings.
"An ex-soldier on a crutch. Quite tall. Dark hair. Stinks like the Devil."
"What'd want with 'im for, when you could 'ave me?"
I looked down at him and smiled exactly how Agatha, my mother's lady servant, had taught me to smile at cheeky young men.
He grinned back, showing off all his molars. Older lad, probably hadn't been fit for service. My thoughts raced forward again to James. He couldn't have got far.
"Which way did he go?"
No answer, just the big grin and more serendipitous glances at my stockings. For the second time that morning I opened my handbag and groped for a penny.
"Here, for your kindness. Which way?"
"Turned 'ere on the corner, didn't 'e?" He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. "Litchfield Street, direction of Monmouth Street. Not too long ago."
Litchfield Street was a short, narrow lane lined on both sides with sooty, brickstone houses. A few children were playing on the pavement, but otherwise the street was empty and dark.
"Excuse me, have any of you seen a soldier on a crutch just pass by? Just a few minutes ago?" The children left off playing and looked at me with glassy-eyed stares. After what seemed like a very long moment indeed, the oldest girl slowly lifted her hand and pointed further down the road.
"Thank you," I said, and continued on, breathing a sigh of relief that the assistant hadn't been lying. A point in the cheeky lad's favour and a penny well spent, I thought.
Now that I'd had a little bit of time to think about it, a creeping sense of nervous apprehension was making my palms sweat and my mouth go dry at the idea of seeing James again after all these years. What should I say to him if I caught up to him? What could I say?
I've missed you?
I'm so very glad you're still alive?
Rounding the gentle bend where Litchfield becomes West Street, I caught sight of a figure in a great coat at the end of the road. My heart leaped straight into my throat.
A shopkeeper stopped his broom in mid-sweep to watch me rush past. I veered around a delivery man unloading boxes from his cart.
I was nearly upon him now. Yes, it was the same man! Muddy boot, stained puttee. But he didn't stop or seem to hesitate. Perhaps it wasn't him after all? Had my memory been playing tricks on me and I was chasing a stranger?
"Lieutenant Davis!" I shouted in my best military tone.
The man hesitated.
I flew around him, blocking his further progress. Thank goodness he had not reached the corner yet; I didn't want too many witnesses if I had to stutter an apology and awkwardly take my leave.
He had aged and looked sickly, but yes, it was the same man I'd known five years ago. The same eyes, the same curve of the face, the same wide mouth. I searched for the small scar over his left eye, and found it.
His eyes flicked left and right, and he'd pressed his lips so tightly together that they were practically invisible, like an animal run to ground and desperately calculating its chances for escape.
I was relieved-- and horrified-- at the same time.
What happened to you?
We both stood in silence until I whispered, "It is you, isn't it? It is you, James."
YOU ARE READING
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...