"All right, now? Can we let you up?" Through the great coat, I could feel that the rage had boiled out of James' muscles and given way to limp passivity. He moved his head in what I assumed was a nod.
Slowly, both Brooks and I released our hold on him, giving him enough room to sit up.
The two men were still watching from beside the steps, waiting to be needed or sent away. I gestured to them to come and help James onto his feet.
Morris, our friendly Home Counties lad, collected James' crutch and helped him rise. Broad-shouldered, ruddy complexioned Hammond set himself to one side, making sure James wouldn't topple over -- or lunge at Brooks again.
"All right, there? Got your balance?" Morris asked.
James simply nodded and set the crutch under his arm. I saw him hesitate as his eye caught on Morris' missing left forearm. He stayed silent, however, averting his eyes. I wondered how much he was used to being around other amputees. What kind of support had he had after the war ended? Whatever it had been, it had obviously failed. Like so much else.
After James had been escorted into the house, Brooks exhaled loudly and set about vigorously brushing pebbles and bits of leaves from his uniform.
"Any damage?" I asked.
"A bruise or two, maybe, but I've been subjected to worse. What do you reckon provoked that outburst?"
Brooks knew as well as I did that, generally speaking, veterans weren't violent or problematic out of base personality, but were incited by specific irritations they had learnt to fear. Some were obvious: loud noises, injured horses, the smell of kerosene or burning petrol. Others, however, were as much a puzzle to the men themselves as to the rest of us.
"Hard to say. I'll talk to him, but it might be one we'll have to figure out."
Brooks grunted his agreement. "Sounds like fun," he said, and left to drive the car back to its home in the stables.
I didn't trust James with a razor, not after his episode at the car, and I told Agatha that I would take on the task of shaving him and cutting his hair.
"Wouldn't it be better to have one of the men do it?" she asked me as she rummaged around in the linens closet for towels and an extra set of clothing that might fit James' stature. "One athletic exercise a day is quite enough, don't you think? And McCrory is just as adept at shearing humans as he is at shearing sheep."
Yes, thank you, Agatha. I know. But I want to talk to James alone where we won't be disturbed, if you don't mind.
"You're right, of course," I sighed. "But it might be more calming for him to have a woman to do it." Even to my own ears that sounded insufficient and vapid, but I couldn't think of anything better on the spur of the moment. I was exhausted and famished, and if I didn't get a cup of tea soon I was going to turn into a horrid, bug-eyed dragon that was of no use to anyone. Dragon included.
Agatha didn't say anything, but she didn't need to. The set of her back as she left to oversee matters spoke for her.
Did she remember him? Or did she merely suspect that lonely, celibate Olivia had taken a fancy to a flea-bitten stray one afternoon and dragged him home for a cuddle? I couldn't hold it against her if she did.
I went back through to the large, open kitchen and pulled some cold meat and cheese out of the side larder simply to have something in my stomach. Sykes, a former regimental sergeant insistent on tending a moustache that didn't suit him, was pumping water for the bath and Hammond set about pulling the tall-backed, tin bath tub out of the corner. It made a deafening racket as it screeched across the floor tiles, leaving me no choice but to clap my hands over both ears.
If there was one thing the army had taught the men, it was orderliness and the value of being clean. Cloud Hill had bathrooms, but to avoid clogged drains and the mess of clean-up, the men used the old tin tub when one of them needed a proper soaking. I supposed the smell and grime had made the choice of cleaning facility for our new resident an easy one.
"O-Olivia! I saw B-B-Brooks putting the car away. Do you have-have t-time to look over my sums? I'm finish-shed with the ones f-f-for this m-month." It was Pritchard, standing in the doorway, unruly hair standing up like a tawny halo around his head. Shell-shocked to the moon and back, poor lad, and missing half his right foot, but with rags stuffed in his shoe it wasn't noticeable.
I quickly swallowed the bit of cheese in my mouth and nodded to him. "I'll come to the office in a few moments, but I'm afraid we've got no new ledgers. Something else came up."
"New man, I've heard. A s-s-stick donkey." A "stick donkey" was what the men at Cloud Hill called someone who'd lost one leg. A "basket toad" on the other hand, was an unfortunate who had lost both. These names sounded cruelly humorous, but the men fully accepted them and seemed to wear them proudly.
"He certainly is!" roared Hammond, "And a lively one, as well! Miss Olivia had to wallop 'im to the ground, and he weren't even out the car proper yet! Me an' Morris saw the whole show, so we did!"
Both Sykes and Pritchard looked at me and grinned. They'd seen me tackle, punch, kick, choke and sit on men before and knew I was no cancelled stamp, despite the clothes and family name. I had the faint notion they were rather proud of me for it, in some fashion.
"I trust that all of you will help Davis to your utmost abilities. He's had a rough time of it and needs his peace and rest."
"Yes, Miss," they all said, more or less in chorus and then got about their business. I went upstairs to change.
And then got about mine.
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...