Brooks was leaning against the bonnet of the car smoking when we arrived. Watching the look on his face change as James and I approached from across the square was like an entertaining afternoon at the pictures.
At first, suspicion that I was being followed by a beggar gave way to the realization that no, the beggar was accompanying me to the car. That widened his eyes enough to plainly read what, another one? in them even from as far away as I was. From that, his features seamlessly settled into an expression only those who have been in service for years can muster: Whatever you say Ma'am, even if I think you're mad as a hare.
Yes, I'm sorry, Brooks. I am mad as a hare. Do forgive me and help me get this man into the car.
When we came within polite calling distance, I said, "Lieutenant Davis is a former guest of ours and shall be coming back with us."
"Yes, Ma'am," said Brooks, straightening up, grinding out his gasper and scratching his head under the grey uniform cap. "Strapped to the roof or chucked in the boot?"
I laughed and was about to quip back, when James stiffened and began to turn away.
"Oh, no you don't!" I grabbed him by the arm and held on for dear life. "He's only making a joke. Calm down and have some sense! He's on your side. Don't take it so dashedly personally, lieutenant."
James glared at me and then at Brooks, and the two sized each other up as only men used to dealing with other, potentially dangerous men do. Serene on the outside and yet prepared for sudden, aggressive violence at any moment. Just how much had James changed? The man I remembered would have seen that for the joke it was meant to be. Had I made the mistake of thinking I knew him, when another had completely settled in his place?
After a few moments, Brooks must have been convinced of James' sincerity, as he nodded and unlatched the door to the backseat of the car. It was a tad tricky, but they both eventually manoeuvred the entire length of James and his crutch into the car, and got the door shut.
I climbed into the front, if only to save my nose.
"Back home, Ma'am?" Brooks asked as we lurched out into traffic, windows cranked half-way down. I had to hold onto my hat not to lose it in the cross-breeze as we went along.
It was too late to send a letter to Charlotte and cancel our lunch as the second post would have already gone out. I looked at my wristlet and saw with horror that it was fast approaching noon.
"No, we shall keep to schedule. What little is left of it, anyway. I'm due at Charlotte Wynthorpe's for lunch and it is to Charlotte Wynthorpe's we shall go."
Brooks nodded. "And what about the cargo?"
That was a very good question.
"I shall leave that up to your ever-impressive ingenuity, Brooks. I know you shall come up with something." That was no real solution, but it was the best I had at the moment.
For a few minutes, Brooks was silent as he negotiated our way through the chaos of London traffic, applying the klaxon and occasionally shouting insults out the window at brazen cabbies and errand boys who senselessly darted out in front of us. We rattled past the advertising billboards of Piccadilly and gained speed as we neared the calmer stretch at Green Park.
"Was he really one of our. . .guests? Or did he pluck at your sleeve and claim he was?" Brooks asked cautiously, eyes affixed to the street ahead. "Word gets around, you know."
Good old Brooks. Always looking out for my welfare. His concern was simply natural, I supposed, as after father passed away, he was the oldest man at Cloud Hill. And he'd had known me from the hour of my birth, as he was never tired of reminding me. But I wasn't nearly as famous as he seemed to think I was, or as naive. Former Tommies didn't constantly approach me, and I was only occasionally recognised at parties or society functions. Those I found the time to attend, at least.
I shot a glance back at James, who had rested his head against the glass of the side window and was staring blankly out at the passing city scenery.
"I do remember him. He really is one of ours."
Brooks shook his head. "Well then, there's no help for it. It's another one for the Hutch Programme!"
"Most likely, yes. We'll see."
Depends entirely on if I can keep him contained at home long enough.
The rest of the drive was punctuated only by the klaxon and the occasional gasp of fright from myself as yet another car or omnibus veered sharply within inches of our own, making me think we'd be involved in an immanent collision.
However, despite all danger to life and limb, I was able to breath a sigh of relief some minutes later when we arrived in Charlotte's street in Belgravia safe and sound.
And reasonably on time.
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...