James was dozing on a sofa when I entered the small salon, his head propped up against his fist.
Thunder sounded again, but not as close as a few hours ago. The heavy, green damask curtains had been drawn and the lamps turned up, creating a close, almost home-like atmosphere.
A few men were gathered around a table playing cards. Others sat well way from the windows, chatting quietly, or were also dozing on sofas, too. I crossed the room, only attracting slight attention, and sat down carefully next to James, as I didn't want to startle him.
"How is the work in the herb greenhouses agreeing with you?" I asked, quietly.
James twitched slightly at the sound of my voice, but his eyes didn't open. He still looked thin and drawn, but there was more colour on this cheeks and he didn't look nearly as ill as he had done only a week previously. Regular meals and a warm, safe place to sleep were working wonders, as they often did.
I waited for what seemed like several minutes. Perhaps he was asleep and not simply dozing, as I'd first thought. If that was the case, I decided I'd best leave him in peace and occupy myself upstairs.
He spoke just as I was about to rise.
I sighed. "That's not an answer, James. I want to know if you feel you can do that sort of work, or if we need to put you somewhere else."
"Have you noticed you never ask how anyone is? It's always straight to business." He opened his eyes and turned to look at me. "How was your disaster of a day? Over yet?"
"Disastrous, and apparently it isn't over yet, judging by your tone. The truth is, if you ask how another person is, you must be prepared to listen to a lot of drivel about stubbed toes and backaches. I'll thankfully leave that to nurses and vicars. I have organisational matters to attend to."
A smile ghosted across his face again.
We were sitting close enough that I could feel the heat from his body, and had to fight down an urge to reach out and stroke his face until the smile lurking below rose to surface where I could plainly see it.
Smile James, just once. You told me a joke, why not smile, as well?
But he wasn't about to do that, was he?
"Organisational matters, right," he said. "And the matter at hand is finding out if I'm suited to ripping out weeds and watering seedlings?" He ran the hand that had been supporting his head over his face and scratched his chin. "Well, Captain, I'm finding I can manage quite well, thank you. And lucky me has even provided with a chair to make it extra cushy. Once this splint comes off, there'll be no stopping me, sir."
He held up his damaged finger. The bandage was stained a dirty brown and reminded me of something dug out of an archaeological pit.
"I've been told there's a position waiting for me in hard candy, if I want it," he continued. "Might make a fascinating change of scenery."
"Oh, that's one of Sykes' jokes." I assured him. "You won't be doing that, don't worry."
"Why not?" There was a undercurrent of petulance in his voice, as if he were waiting for me to tell him he was a useless cripple. Or worse.
"Pulling candy is very hard labour. It takes quite a lot of strength to kneed the heavy hot mass of sugar into form on the hook, and you must be standing and moving your arms the whole fifteen minutes it takes the sugar to cool. No, no hard candy for you."
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...