10. The Rabbit Hutch

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Pritchard smiled and picked up the next order form. "New c-customer. D.P. Marshall. Recommended by Epson's of Towbridge. A tea room, apparently. Opening in a few m-m-months. Order for nine tables, custom. S-sketch and instructions included with order. And twenty-eight chair-chairs, also number 3. That's going to have the l-lads sweating!"

"Ah, yes...certainly. How many in difference does that make?"

"Between s--s-stock and order? Thirty-one."

Morning found me leaning against a file cabinet in the Rabbit Hutch, the collection of enterprises that kept forty-seven ex-Tommies fed, clothed and given a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Forty-seven ex-Tommies and one woman. 

"Goodness," I said. "Yes, that will have them sweating, won't it? Any more orders for good old number 3?"

"Not this week."

I sipped my tea and nodded. Thirty-one chairs was an excellent order. 

Rapt attention is what I should have been paying to Pritchard as he read off the week's orders for our carpentry workshop, but I couldn't stop my eyes from roving back to the window. From where I was standing, I had a perfect view across the long back lawn to where a modern low-slung, utilitarian building lay stretched out at length against the trees like a white caterpillar basking in the sun.

The Infirmary. 

During the war, that's where the injured had been housed and treated. Hundreds of Tommies had lain out there to convalesce and the majority of the men still slept there now, preferring communal living to shared rooms in the main house. James had been taken after supper the night before and given one of the last available beds.

I couldn't see any movement through the large, glass windows, but that didn't mean anything. The men were probably all out seeing to their work.

"That's all for carpentry. Sw-sw-sweets next." Pritchard put aside the small stack of orders and reached for a new folder.

"Excellent. How much government sugar will we be able to count on for next month?"  I smiled and willed myself to focus on business, but quickly lost the thread of what Pritchard was saying again. I turned myself completely away from the window and forced myself to look around the interior of the room to avoid staring across the lawn to catch a glimpse of James like a giddy school girl. 

Cullen, FitzRoy and Rhys-Jones all sat at their own small desks, scratching in ledgers or on bits of paper. Thank goodness no one was using the typewriter. I didn't think I could take the clatter.  

The pleasant cornflower blue walls, the 18th-century hearth and the dark paintings in heavy, gold frames that hung scattered about on the walls didn't immediately remind one of an office, but it was the largest room on the ground floor of Cloud Hill. That made it the most accessible space for the wheelchairs of the men who ran the Hutch, and presented no obstacles for any other man with business here, either.  It was a stylistic abomination, of course -- Regency tables and Georgian figurines next to modern filing cabinets and a Comptometer adding machine -- but one had to make due. 

As Prichard sorted through his documents and continued reading off the production numbers and distribution statistics of Field Rabbit Hard Candy, I felt my head turning and my eyes scrambling back towards the window and the Infirmary. 

I was sure James'd been envisioning row upon row of bed-ridden cripples wheezing their last, not active farm hands, gardeners, workshop labourers, production managers or salesmen when he'd agreed to come back. 

Field Rabbit. What an industrious, sprightly name!  It not only referenced the fields of Cloud Hill but also Flanders, and gave the feeling of a Tommy darting quickly to-and-fro on important business. The men were terribly proud of it. 

And that was the catch.  Unfortunately. 

The men were so proud of it, and so thankful to have a place where they were needed and their oddities understood that hardly any of them wished to move on to an independent life beyond the fields and lawns of Cloud Hill. Many of the Rabbit Hutch men seemed utterly disinterested in ever finding an outside job, a wife, starting a family, or mere living a normal life. It was just too comfortable here.

That wasn't the point of the programme, of course. Not in the least. Cloud Hill and the Rabbit Hutch were meant to give injured veterans a place to recover and gain needed skills in order to reintegrate them back into  society at some point. They were to come, recover and leave so that more might come to recover. 

And that wasn't what was happening. 

I took another sip of tea, tapping a fingernail against the porcelain of the cup. 

I hadn't told anyone, but I'd received a letter from Elizabeth Boyd-Scathby, an old friend of father's, asking me about available places at the Hutch. Apparently, the Boyd-Scathby properties in Hertfordshire were being  positively over-run by wandering ex-Tommies begging at the kitchen door and dossing under the hedge rows. 

I seriously doubted that over-run was anything other than an exaggeration, but it must have been enough of a bother for her to put pen to paper. Our capacity was fifty. With James, we were now at forty-eight. What was I going to tell Elizabeth? If I told her the truth, she might think I was deliberately refusing to help her. On the other hand, could we feasibly run at over-capacity?

No wonder Brooks and Agatha were worried. They both hoped to see me at the altar before they died, and at this rate, I would most likely disappoint them.  If the men refused to budge, then what could be done? I might be taking care of them for the rest of my life, with a steady stream of more and more constantly being added on top if nothing happened to stem the flow. And what would be left over for me?

A vague sense of hopelessness settled onto my shoulders like a light, winter-grey shawl.

"Miss? Miss?" It was Walker, his long horse-like face appearing in front of me, begging for attention. 

"Hello, Walker. What is it?" 

"Message from Agatha, Miss. The doctor has been ordered for this afternoon. To take a gander at the new man. He'll be staying for tea. Tea will be served promptly at 4:15 in the Red Sitting Room. That's what she asked me to tell you." All of that he said while staring at the wall behind me as if reading off words printed there. Then he went over to Fitz-Roy and delivered the rest of his messages before sprinting out the door. 

Agatha's subtle authority was only to be admired. I had no option now but to appear promptly at 4:15 to hear that James was about to expire from wandering whizz-bangs and kettle-lumps while I ate scones and jam like the lady of the manor.  

Prichard seemed to have stopped speaking, and so I simply nodded and smiled at him. He returned the nod and began to put away his files. I crossed my fingers that I hadn't missed anything important.

"Miss?" said Cullen, clearing his throat. "The new man, Davis. He was still asleep when I left for breakfast. McCrory said to leave him be. Let him sleep as long as he liked. Thought you might like to know." 

"Sensible," I replied cooly, fearing my staring out the window towards the Infirmary hadn't gone entirely unnoticed.

"Is it true, he was here before? During the war, I mean?" piped in Rhys-Jones, as he put down his pen and leaned forward expectantly. "He said he was. And he knew where everything was. Didn't need a bit of explaining to or nothing."

I told them it was true. He'd been Blighty wounded badly enough for a longer stay and had been here for a good number of months.

"Is that when he lost his leg, then?" asked Cullen. 

"No. He had both when he was here last."

"Poor bugger. Sorry, Miss!" said Cullen, quickly. 

No, Cullen. That is the proper word, wouldn't you know? 

For all of us.

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