A Yellow Scrap of Paper
I first published this story in December 2022 as a Christmas gift for members of my Readers’ Club, though the most Christmassy thing about it is probably the cover. It’s a self-contained extract from my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson, and it tells the story of Albert Marsh, one of Chloe’s great great grandparents.
It’s Bermondsey, South London. 1920. Demobbed from the army, Bert has got himself a cushy job as a railway porter at London Bridge Station. He and his missus have their future all mapped out, but a little scrap of yellow paper could change all that forever...
A Yellow Scrap of Paper
(Chapter 9 of The Descent of Chloe Jackson)
Paul C. Mercer
Bert waited in the dark. The man next to him pulled on his fag, the tip glowing bright for a bit, then thrown to the ground and stamped out. London Bridge, third Christmas since the guns went quiet. But here he was, him and the lads, shuffling to keep warm, listening out for the whistle. Uniform buttons catching a bit of light in the gloom. Misty breath. Cold feet. And then, the signal. The low rumble in the distance getting louder. A flash, lighting up the pale faces around him. A sudden explosion of noise and metal, choking smoke, and the scramble of men and equipment, surging forward.
No wonder some of the lads flinched as the doors swung open, cracking back against the carriage sides, one after the other, like a burst of rifle fire. Just in front of Bert, Dick Harris ducked half an inch, like the machine-gunners had him in their sights again.
But they weren’t Krauts, tumbling from the train, filling the platform. They were your commercial travellers, your shift workers, your dazzling socialites off to their clubs, Ladies and Gents off the Continental. Dress cases, steamer trunks, bonnet cases, wicker baskets, Gladstones, Imperials, suitcases large and small. Tuppence a bag, if he was lucky.
Bert pushed his trolley forward. It was every man for himself out there, eyeing up the luggage, how many, how much, how posh? ‘This side. London Bridge. Everybody, this side. Mind your step.’ The old cove from First Class looked good for a bob or two. Smart coat. Topper. Diplomat back from Paris, most likely. No-one else had spotted him. No bags in sight, but he was casting around, waiting for someone to off-load the old canvas and leather. Someone like Bert. ‘Evening, Sir. Get you a cab?’
The gent in the topper turned, and nodded, stepping back from the carriage door to let Bert get at his bags, half a dozen beauties, all polished leather. They’d slip all over the place on the trolley, if he weren’t careful. But there was half a crown in it for sure.
‘Hey, you. Porter.’ Bert turned. It was the bloke from this morning. Commercial traveller. Brown Derby hat. In his fifties, probably. He’d given Bert a briefcase and a small portmanteau to be left at the cloak room, and tried arguing they counted as one piece, ‘cause he’d strapped them together. Here he was, striding down from Third Class, waving his yellow cloak room ticket.
Damn it. Topper wouldn’t stand for it if Bert took up Derby’s ticket ahead of him, and there was that half-crown to think of. But the yellow ticket was a “special”. If Bert didn’t deal with it, things could get tricky. He looked down the platform. Thankfully, all the lads were tied up with other passengers, so Derby had no-one else to turn to. Topper was adjusting his pocket watch off the station clock, and not paying attention, so Bert stepped a few yards back down the platform to meet Derby. ‘Sorry, Sir. I’m just dealing with this gentleman right now, but, if you’ll let me have your ticket, I’ll fetch your bags in just a moment.’ He reached out for the ticket.
But Derby was the fidgety type. ‘I don’t have time for that. Fetch one of your colleagues.’
‘There’s no-one else available, I’m afraid, Sir.’
Derby looked like he might have something to say about that, but, just then, Topper wandered over, looking amused. ‘I believe I have first claim on this man and his trolley.’
‘Yes, indeed, Sir. I can see that now.’ Derby backed away, but not even a silk top hat could shut him up completely. ‘It’s a disgrace, Sir, if you ask me. Never enough men to meet the train. You’d think there’d be plenty of young fellows glad enough of the chance to earn the odd ha’penny.’
Bert gave it one last shot. ‘Your ticket, Sir? I won’t be five ticks.’
‘No, no, I shall collect my own bag. And my ha’penny shall remain in my purse.’ He tucked the yellow ticket back in his breast pocket, and headed off at a brisk walk up the platform.
Bert winced, but there was nothing he could do about it.
Topper watched Derby go. ‘A ha’penny, eh?’ He seemed amused.
‘Not everyone’s as generous as they might be, Sir. As I’m sure you will be.’
It was worth a try, and Topper didn’t seem to mind. ‘Ha! We’ll see about that.’
It turned out Topper had served in the War. Staff, of course, old cove like that. But he was a decent sort, and very amiable when Bert had to stop a couple of times for a breather. ‘A touch of gas, Sir. Wipers. But I’ll be alright in a moment.’ It was true, an’ all, even if it did come on worse when it was convenient. That was half a crown in his pocket, half a sack of coal to keep the fire burning through Christmas, and no-one could say he didn’t earn it.
He wheeled his trolley back to the platform, and parked it up. That was him done for the night. Hardly anyone around now, but Sarge was doing the rounds like he always did, checking up on ‘em all, tapping the lamps, scuffing up the whitewash on the platform edge with his boot and tutting to himself.
Bert left him to it, jingling the coins in his pocket and whistling something he’d heard Susie singing. A shout from Sarge put a stop to that, but it didn’t stop him humming under his breath. There was nothing wrong with whistling. A fellow should whistle if he felt like it, and Bert did, especially when the tips had been good, and he was on his way home to Susie and the little ‘un. But soldiers didn’t whistle, not if they didn’t want a German bullet in their head. Sarge didn’t have the stripes on his shoulder no more, but he didn’t abide no-one whistling. Not on his watch.
Bert hummed his way over to the cloak room. Ronnie always liked a chat at the end of the day, and sometimes they’d walk part way home together, down along the river. But Ronnie wasn’t done yet. Bert stuck his head through the door, and there was a gentleman standing at the counter giving Ronnie an earful. It was Derby.
Ronnie looked up and caught Bert’s eye. He was never a cheerful bloke at the best of times, what with his health and everything, but he was backed up in a corner now with nowhere to run. Bert hesitated. It was probably nothing. Maybe Ronnie tried to charge double, for the two bags, like he was meant to. And that would be Bert’s fault, ‘cause he couldn’t be bothered to argue first time round. He’d taken them as one piece, and given them one label. But Ronnie wouldn’t argue either. He wasn’t the type. So, maybe this was something else, something best steered clear of.
Bert stepped inside the room. ‘Evening, Sir. Evening, Ronnie.’
Derby turned, and looked relieved. ‘Just the man. He’ll back me up.’
‘How can I help?’ All smiles and bonhomie. ‘Cause everyone liked Bert when he smiled or gave them a wink.
‘Mr Morgan thinks there’s something wrong with his ticket.’ Ronnie’s eyebrows were working overtime, signalling some kind of desperate message.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the ticket. The problem lies with your receipt book.’
‘This man,’ Derby – Mr Morgan, that is – was looking at Bert now, ‘he took my bags this morning.’
‘It was just the one item, I think you’ll find…’ Bert tried a knowing smile. Sometimes it worked.
‘Two bags. One item.’ Morgan wasn’t going to be put off. ‘You took my bags just before I boarded the six-fifteen. You booked them in with the clerk, here, and brought me back my ticket. That ticket.’ The yellow scrap of paper sat on the counter, alongside Morgan’s two bags, still strapped together, the ticket’s matching yellow label still attached. ‘Is that correct?’
Hard to say no. Ronnie looked scared.
‘Six-fifteen, this morning. But here, in the book…’ Morgan stabbed his finger at the yellow counterfoil in Ronnie’s receipt book. ‘Here, where you ask me to sign for their return, it says that I deposited them here yesterday, at twenty past eight. Yesterday.’
‘Probably just a mistake, Sir. It gets very busy in here, and you didn’t drop these items off personally…’
‘No. I gave them to you. Which explains why I didn’t sign the book when I left them. But somebody signed for them.’ Morgan turned the book round, and pushed it across the counter at Ronnie. ‘That is your signature, is it not?’
Bert lifted Morgan’s bags off the counter and held them out. ‘The main thing is you got your bags. Two for the price of one, if you ask me. You got yourself a bargain, Sir.’
Morgan didn’t budge, his eyes still on Ronnie, ‘Your signature, or not your signature?’
‘I do sometimes sign the book, when bags get dropped off by one of the porters, if it’s a bit busy.’
‘And do you add the time and date yourself, as well?’
Ronnie’s beaten, and Morgan knows it. ‘I will see your Senior, now, if you please.’
There was nothing Bert could do. There was the receipt book on the counter, the torn ticket next to it, and the label on the portmanteau, strapped to the briefcase. Numbers matching. Tuppence paid, and all Hell to break loose. Damn it. If he hadn’t taken Topper’s bags, he’d have picked up Morgan’s, and no-one any the wiser. Bert drew Morgan to one side. ‘I wonder, Sir, if you could see your way to overlooking an honest mistake?’
‘“An honest mistake”? The man’s re-issuing used cloak room tickets, and appropriating the proceeds.’
‘I’m sure that’s not right, Sir. I mean, look at him. There’s an honest face if ever I saw one.’
It was a frightened face. Pale and more than a bit sweaty.
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘I didn’t like to say. He don’t like talking about it.’
‘What do you mean?’
Bert lowered his voice, going for the confidential approach. ‘Mustard gas, Sir. Burnt out half his lungs.’ In Ronnie’s case, Bert didn’t have to exaggerate. It’s what brought them together when no-one else thought Ronnie worth talking to. Two gas survivors. Bert with his cough, and Ronnie with a death sentence.
Morgan hummed and hawed. He had the look non-combatants got when someone showed them what they’d missed out on. Guilt, mainly.
‘Shall I carry your bags, Sir? No charge.’
But Morgan was more weasel than you’d credit. ‘I admire your loyalty to an old comrade-in-arms. Really, I do. But it is simply not acceptable for a man in a position of trust. How do I know he hasn’t rifled through my belongings? Now, call your senior. Right away.’
Sarge wasn’t in his room. Still out, walking his lines. Securing the perimeter. Old habits die hard. He was at the far end of Platform B now, checking the lamps. Bert took his time, on the off chance that Morgan would get bored and go home.
He should steer clear. Tell Sarge a customer wanted to see him, and clear off home. Susie’s always telling him to keep his nose clean. Ronnie knew the risk he was taking. No need to put his own job on the line. Best keep out of it.
Except, it was Ronnie. And, honest? That job – nice and warm, out of the smoke from the engines, away from the smog off the river – it was the only thing keeping him alive. You wouldn’t give him six months outside.
Bert had mates. Course, he did. Most of them joined the South Eastern just like he did, straight off demob. Swapped one uniform for another. Army, mostly, with a few Jack Tars. Good lads, all of ‘em. But Ronnie was different. Kept himself to himself. Didn’t have a choice, really.
You could have your arm off at the elbow, or your eye out, and you’d have a story to tell. A tucked sleeve or an eye-patch, and you’re everyone’s hero. Even a leg, so long as it’s just the one, and you can hobble along alright, with a game smile for the ladies. But there’s some as came home you just didn’t want to see. Stumps at the knee. Faces ripped open. Minds lost. They didn’t get out much. Definitely didn’t work for the South Eastern, even if they could push a trolley.
And then there was Ronnie. He looked alright from the outside. A bit twitchy maybe. A bit backwards coming forwards. But he had all his parts. Just another one of the lads, except for the cough. And the wheezing every time he lifted a parcel or a bag over his head to put it on a shelf. And then you knew. If you’d been there, you knew. And that little cough, like a frog in his throat that was always there, it got to you. A missing arm might catch your eye, but a man with his lungs burnt out from the inside, that was different.
Bert liked him. He’d had a whiff of gas himself, so there was that. That’s how they got started, trading stories. Where were you? Where’d they take you? What about that nurse at Netley? But the best thing about Ronnie was he never complained. He had everything to complain about, and he never did. You had to respect that. And he was a laugh, once you got to know him. First time they met, Bert told him about how Sarge got a bit prickly if you mentioned his job was done by a woman while he was at The Front, and they started laughing. And then Sarge turned up, wanting to know what was so funny. Ronnie started coughing, and Bert did too. They couldn’t stop. Laughing, crying, and Ronnie near choking to death. Hilarious.
Sarge was watching him now, waiting at the end of the platform. Looking grim, but then he always did. ‘Was that you whistling, boy?’
‘Yes, Sarge. Sorry, Sarge.’ And a grin, ‘cause that’s who he was.
Sarge harrumphed, but there was a smile there too. ‘Cause he liked Bert. Everyone liked Bert. ‘How’s that pretty little wife of yours?’ He liked Susie, too. She’d made sure of that, treating him like a favourite uncle. He probably wanted more, but he wasn’t going to get it.
‘She’s keeping well. Six months now.’
‘What are you doing, hanging around here, then? It’s well past your shift. Get yourself home, and you can tell her she’s got what she wants.’ He was pleased with himself now. Got something to share. Feeling like he was the big man. ‘My missus has bent my ears long enough – you and your bad chest – what a sob story! Still, a bit of country air’ll do you all some good, I’m sure.’
It was too good to be true. All Susie’s wrangling and sweet-talking, and now this. ‘You’re having a laugh.’
‘It’s done. All sorted. I’ve got you a training spot in the New Year. If you don’t fuck it up, you’ll get your first posting sometime in the Spring. Maybe that baby of yours’ll be born in the Garden of England.’ He was beaming now, like he was Father Christmas, which he was, really, considering what this meant.
‘Thank you, Sarge. I won’t forget this. Me and Susie, we’re very grateful for everything you’ve done for us.’ Ladle it on, why not?
‘Just don’t make me look stupid for putting you forward.’
‘I won’t. I’ll do you proud, Sarge.’
‘Pleased to hear it. I was going to tell you tomorrow, but seeing as you’re still here…’ And then he looked suspicious. ‘Why are you still here?’
Oh, yeah. That.
‘It’s Ronnie, Sarge. Got himself in a bit of a pickle.’
It was getting late. All the cabs would be gone by now. Maybe Morgan would have decided he couldn’t wait. Bert followed Sarge across the concourse and into the cloak room.
Morgan was still there. Him and Ronnie either side of the counter. Didn’t look like they’d said a word to each other the whole time Bert was gone. But Morgan made up for that now. Sarge got the whole story. How Morgan had dropped off his bags this morning. How he’d been given his ticket. ‘This ticket, here.’ How he’d been off to Ramsgate all day on business, and how he’d got back on the last train. How he’d come to collect his bags, and how Ronnie had looked shifty.
Of course, Ronnie had looked shifty. The ticket was a “special”, with the corner torn off, just so. So, you knew it was a special. And you didn’t expect customers to collect the specials themselves. That was the point. What they didn’t see didn’t do ‘em no harm.
‘I knew he was up to something. He attempted to palm me off without my signature on the receipt. When I insisted, he tried to cover the rest of the receipt with his finger while I signed.’
Oh, Ronnie. He couldn’t fleece a child.
‘And that’s when I noticed. If you’ll observe, the dropping-off time and date, above the man’s signature, here. Yesterday.’ He was so pleased with himself.
Sarge was never the brightest button in the box, and he didn’t quite follow.
Morgan laid it out for him, ‘It’s yesterday’s ticket. From a previous transaction. Your man, here, has retained an old ticket and label which were issued for an item left and retrieved yesterday. Whoever retrieved that item failed to sign for it, enabling this man to re-issue the ticket to me this morning, and place my tuppence in his own pocket.’
Well, that was clear enough, even for Sarge. Even if it wasn’t the whole story. The question was, what would Sarge do about it.
Ronnie didn’t say a word. What could he say? He was caught, bang to rights. His eyes flickered between Sarge and Morgan, and then to Bert. Not pleading, or anything. Just lost. Like he was back in the gas again. Without a mask.
It had taken Bert just a few seconds to get his mask on. The thump of the canister hitting the ground behind him, the yells of “Gas!”, the frantic fumbling to unstrap your mask, and pull it over your head, holding your breath all the while, the taste of it in the back of your throat. Pulling your shirt and jacket up over your neck, hands deep into your pockets, protecting your skin. The yellow, swirling cloud dim through the glass. Your breathing, heavy in your ears. More thumps. More yells, and screaming. Thinking your number’s up. Watching a mate down in the mud, drowning. Helping him with his mask. Susie, at home, waiting, widowed, marrying someone else. Please, God, not that little bugger, Tommy Todd.
‘Well, that does seem all very serious.’ Sarge was taking it slow. ‘What have you got to say for yourself, Wilson?’
‘Actually, Sarge.’ Bert had to say something before Ronnie did. ‘I think it might have been my fault.’
‘You don’t have to defend him, Marsh.’
‘But it weren’t his fault. You can’t blame Ronnie.’
Sarge looked from Bert to Ronnie, and back again. He didn’t like it. His Golden Boy, mixed up with that wheezing streak of piss, taking the fall for him.
Morgan was all ears. Loving it.
Ronnie looked ill.
‘The thing is, Sarge. Mr Morgan, Sir. When a gentleman, such as your good self, entrusts me with a parcel or a piece of luggage, as it may be, to bring it here, there’s not always the time to do things proper. Mr Wilson, here, he’s always telling me to do it by the book, but sometimes, specially of a morning when time’s tight, sometimes he’s tied up with a gentleman or two or three.’
Ronnie was watching him. Like he didn’t know where this was going. He wasn’t the only one.
‘So, what I do, is I give him a hand. I tear a ticket and a label out of the book, glue the label on, secure the item, whatever it might be, and bring the ticket back to my gentleman.’
‘What about the signature, and the date and time?’ Morgan was a right pain in the arse.
‘I was just coming to that, Sir. I don’t sign the receipt book. That wouldn’t be proper. It should always be the customer’s signature, or the Clerk’s. But I do fill in the time and the date if Mr Wilson, here, is otherwise engaged.’
‘You completed the receipt?’
‘Yes, Sir. And Mr Wilson signed it when he found the time.’
Sarge struggled to keep up. ‘Is that right, Wilson?’
For a moment it looked like Ronnie would buckle, but Bert fixed him in the eye, and he nodded. ‘Yes, Sarge. That is what happens sometimes, when we’re busy. The porters sometimes give me a hand.’
‘What with his lungs, and all. It just speeds things up.’
It was going to work. Sarge could work with that.
But Morgan was still kicking. ‘That still doesn’t explain why this ticket was issued yesterday.’
‘My fault, Sir. I’m terrible with dates, and days of the week. Forget my own birthday, sometimes. First thing in the morning, I do struggle. Probably got the time a bit wrong as well, I dare say.’
It was enough as far as Sarge was concerned. ‘Well, that seems to settle that.’ He turned to Morgan, ‘Thank you, Sir, for bringing this matter to my attention.’ Morgan was being dismissed. ‘No harm done, I’m sure.’ It would have taken a braver man than Morgan to face him down. He muttered, though, as he took his bags, and he turned down Bert’s offer to find him a cab. He’d be sorry about that, at this time of night. Serve him right.
Sarge wasn’t done, though. He had a look in his eye, and it wasn’t what you’d call benevolent. And it wasn’t Ronnie he was looking at, it was Bert. The Golden Boy. Sarge breathed in through his teeth. ‘I ain’t sure as how I like the idea of a young fellah who can’t tell what day it is, nor what time it is, running a South Eastern signal box. You’d best get yourself home, while I think on it.’ Not good. And it got worse, ‘Meantime, me and Mr Wilson are going to give his receipt book what you might call a ”forensic examination”.’
Bert followed the smell of the biscuit factory home, down Tooley Street and then cutting up towards the river. There was dirty snow in the gutters, and ice on the pavements. The narrow alleys between the warehouses were mostly empty at this time of night, and the likes of Bert didn’t get gas or electric to show ‘em the way home. He stopped at Fountain Dock, where the warehouses opened up and, in the daytime, you’d get a glimpse of the Thames rolling in or out with the tide. It was just a black strip now, below the pale lights of Wapping Basin and the docks behind.
She’d be waiting for him, sitting up, wrapped in her mum’s old blanket as the fire burnt low, a bit of something kept warm in a dish for him on the range. Kettle on the boil. One gas lamp, turned down low so Bert’s mum didn’t complain at the expense. It weren’t what some would call homely, but he wouldn’t be without it. More than some had. More than Ronnie.
Best not tell her. Sarge’d come round in the morning, probably wouldn’t even remember what he’d said, unless Ronnie’s receipt book got them into even more trouble. Bert left the dock, cut back down Bevington Street, past the timber yard and through into Alma Street. Susie’s hop wreath hanging on the front door pulled him up short for a bit. Should be a Christmas wreath, of course, it being the season for it, but Susie kept the hops all year round. It was bigger than normal this year. Her friend, Liddy, got carried away and made it so big Susie ended up wearing it like a horse collar all the way home from Kent on the train. The flowers still had a bit of green in ‘em. You could smell the hop fields if you rubbed a petal between your fingers, which Susie did every time she passed it. She’d kill him if her plans all came to nothing.
He stepped inside. His mum used to call this room her front parlour, but the truth was they couldn’t afford to keep it warm, and it was always full of junk. Now it was his and Susie’s, their little world, and he’d come in the front door like a toff, but quiet like, ‘cause little Joe was sleeping in his cot. Susie was sat by the range, wrapped up warm, her knitting dropped onto that beautiful baby-bump, her head lolling backwards, mouth open, snoring like a good‘un. He crept forward, and gave the fire a bit of a poke, stirring it back to life for a few seconds.
‘You put tomorrow’s coal on that fire, and we’ll be having words.’ She opened her eyes, and gave him a lazy smile. Truth was, he’d been tempted. Just a few lumps to keep the ice off the windows in the morning. Just a bit to keep her warm and cosy, her and Joe and the little one to come.
She was sitting up now, much as she could with the bump in the way, watching him, dying to tell him something.
He sat down in his chair, and grinned back at her ‘What is it, then? You look like the cat what’s got the cream.’
‘Lady Bountiful called.’
Bugger it. “Lady Bountiful” was what she called Mrs Hopkins, Sarge’s missus. She had no reason to find herself in this part of the world. ‘What do you mean? “She called”?’
‘She turned up, on the doorstep, this afternoon. Came in, and sat herself down right where you’re sitting now.’
Bert looked around their little room. Susie kept it neat and tidy, but it weren’t no drawing room. ‘What did she want?’ Like he didn’t know.
‘She’s only gone and done it. Mr Hopkins has got you promoted.’
‘Yeah. He told me.’
‘Well, don’t look so happy about it. Signalman!’
‘To begin with. What’s the matter with you? This is what we wanted.’
‘Not while Mr Page has the job.’
‘It don’t matter. Somewhere on the Ashford line, then, ‘til he retires. Our own little cottage, a vegetable garden. Fresh air, Bert. You can fill your lungs without half choking to death.’
She was so excited, sitting up in the chair, the light from the fire burning on her cheeks. She’d worked her magic on Sarge and Mrs Hopkins, charmed ‘em, what with their own boy never marrying, and never coming back from the Somme. She’d turned Bert in into something he never was. And all for this. And now what?
It must have showed on his face. ‘Talk to me, Albert Marsh. What’ve you done?’
‘It’s nothing to do with Ronnie.’
‘He’s been caught. The ticket scam.’
‘Sarge is going through the book. I mean, he might not work it out, but it ain’t looking good.’
She slumped back down in her chair. Ronnie was like family. He could see her, working out what it meant, seeing what would happen to Ronnie if he lost his job.
‘Has he split on you?’ That’s what she was worried about. Not Ronnie, at all.
‘Course he hasn’t? He wouldn’t do that. But I can’t let him take the rap.’
‘You have to.’
‘How can I?’
‘Mr Hopkins can still change his mind. If you get caught up with what Ronnie’s been up to…’
‘I’m not giving this up. I’ve sweet-talked his Missus, and I’ve flirted with him, more than enough. He likes me. He likes you, and he trusts you.’
‘Exactly. That’s the point. If I tell him it’s all my fault, a stupid mistake, he’ll believe me.’
‘And he’ll sack you.’
‘He won’t. He’d sack Ronnie, but he won’t sack me. Mrs Hopkins wouldn’t let him.’
He was right, and she knew it. She was quiet for a bit, but not long, ‘cause there was something else. ‘He might not sack you, but he sure as Hell won’t put you up for a signalman.’ And she was right, too.
They’d argued about it for ages, til the fire went out, til little Joe woke up from their shouting, and she’d had to feed him back to sleep. And they argued again in the morning as he put his jacket on. Didn’t he love her? And what about Joe, growing up in a dump like this?
She was so bloody infuriating sometimes. Bloody Harnham fixed in her head, like Bermondsey was the pits of Hell. ‘What is so wrong with staying here? It ain’t that bad. We’ve got somewhere to live, we’ve got Mum and Dad, your Mum, your family. We go to Kent, we don’t know no-one.’
‘We know loads of people in Harnham.’
‘We’re not going to Harnham.’ It was the wrong thing to say. Soon as it came out of his mouth, she backed off, wouldn’t look at him.
‘Sweetheart, there’s hundreds of stops in Kent. I could be posted anywhere in the county. All I’m saying is it ain’t so bad where we are. I pick up three pound five bob a week, plus tips. That was three quid last week, even without the deal with Ronnie. I won’t earn that in a signal box, not for years.’
‘It ain’t nothing to do with the money. When you married me, you promised.’
Oh, here we go.
‘Yeah, I did. But things change.’
‘Nothing’s changed. And it never will, not if you don’t do something about it.’
He had to go, or he’d be late, and the last thing he needed right now was being late on parade for Sarge. She softened a bit, but not much. ‘Look at this place. It’s tight enough with three of us, what’s it going to be like when the baby comes along? And it ain’t just me and the kids I’m thinking of. I hear you wheezing when the smog’s all thick and greasy. You got to think about your chest for once, not just poor old Ronnie’s. He ain’t got long anyway.’
‘It’s true, ain’t it? I’m not having you go the same way.’
‘So, I just let him take the blame.’
‘If it comes to that. He’d do the same for you.’
Well, maybe it wouldn’t come to that.
‘You’ve got to stop seeing him. Stop hanging around with him. If Sarge thinks it’s just Ronnie, you don’t want him getting other ideas.’
‘And what about Christmas?’
‘He can’t come. Not no more. It ain’t worth the risk.’ She was a harsh woman sometimes. ‘You’ll have to tell him.’
‘Alright. I’ll tell him.’ There weren’t no point arguing with her. ‘Seems a bit rich, that’s all, since the whole ticket thing was your idea.’
The smog was weaving its way in off the river, cutting in between the wharfs, hugging the streets like poison gas. He hacked and coughed his way to work, stamping through a fresh layer of snow, his scarf wrapped tight up round his throat. Susie wasn’t wrong. This place would kill him, sooner or later.
Didn’t make it right, though. Ronnie wouldn’t be in this mess if Susie hadn’t gone through Bert’s waistcoat pockets and found them tickets. She’d asked him why he always had pairs of old cloak room tickets at the end of the day, and he’d told her how it worked sometimes, how some passengers asked a porter to fetch and carry from the cloak room, and how he ended up with both the ticket and the label in his pocket. She’d kept asking questions about how it worked, and whether he signed the receipt book, and how much got charged for every bag. And she’d worked it all out.
Ronnie hadn’t been keen on the idea. Bet explained how he didn’t have to do anything, really. Just look the other way when Bert brought in a bag, and stuck one of his old used labels on it, instead of getting a new one from Ronnie out of the receipt book. Bert would look out for the same passengers when they came back to collect their bags, so no-one’d be any the wiser. And if he missed anyone, well Ronnie would know to be careful ‘cause Bert would always mark the “specials” by tearing off the top left corner. Ronnie’d get a ha’penny out of every tuppence Bert collected, and everyone’s happy.
And Ronnie went along with it. He still weren’t happy, but he knew how much Bert and Susie needed the extra. He’d have done it for a farthing a bag, or for nothing, just to give little Joe a bit of a chance. But Bert had insisted. Fair’s fair, an’ all.
Ronnie weren’t in his room. Dick Harris was stuck behind the counter, making a right hash of the business. He couldn’t tell his ticket from his label, and he’d torn out half the counterfoils and didn’t know what to do with ‘em. He was gluing ‘em on the bags alongside the label, and handing out the tickets with his sticky fingers.
His customers were queuing up out onto the concourse, all of ‘em fretting about trains they was going to miss. And not a sign of Ronnie nowhere.
Bert went round the counter, and shifted a few bags up onto the shelves to give Dick a bit of room. Then he showed him how to work the tickets, wiped the glue off the countertop, and found a laugh and a smile for the customers so they all left happy. And when the room was clear, and Dick got his breath back, he asked where Ronnie’d got to.
‘Sorry, Bert. I was meant to tell you. If I saw you, that is. He’s in with Sarge. Don’t look good, if you know what I mean. You’re to go and see Sarge, soon as you get in.’
Bert didn’t have a choice. Whatever was going to happen next, it was going to happen in Sarge’s office, and the sooner he got there, the sooner he’d know. He stepped lively, weaving through the passengers, turning down a few bags with a ‘Begging your pardon, Sir, but I’m called elsewhere,’ and running up to the door marked “Head Porter”. He knocked, and waited.
It was a cosy room. Busy, but cosy, and Sarge had a small fire going all through winter. Sometimes it was worth a dressing down just to stand in front of that fire for a few minutes. But not today. Sarge was there, looking grimmer than normal. And Ronnie, in his civvies, dammit.
And damn Susie. Enough was enough. He had to say something.
And he would’ve, but Sarge got in first. He was serious. Disappointed. And he had his little speech all prepared. ‘I went through the receipt book last night with Mr Wilson, and it was clear to me that a regular and deliberate fraud was being committed against the offices of the South Eastern Railway. Mr Wilson was discharged with immediate effect.’
‘Sarge, you can’t’
‘I can, and I did. And I can tell you now that it was my intention to do the same for you this morning, feeling, as I did, that you were more than likely the brains of the operation. I dare say you can imagine how Mrs Hopkins felt when I was obliged to inform her last night. “Distressed” don’t come near. Howsoever…’
Bert had been about to protest, but Ronnie gave a quick shake of the head, even before Sarge put out a hand to shut him up.
‘Howsoever, when I arrived here this morning, Mr Wilson was waiting to see me. I don’t generally put much store in the words of a proven thief and liar, but Mr Wilson has made a complete and honest account of the entire operation. He’s spoken like a soldier. I won’t take his hand, but I don’t wish him no harm neither. The long and the short of it is he says you had nothing to do with it, and I believe him.’
No, he didn’t. Not even Sarge was that gullible. But Ronnie’d given him a way out. And they was both watching to see if he was going to let Sarge take it.
Ronnie obviously didn’t trust him to keep his trap shut. He got in first. ‘I’m sorry, Bert. I never meant to get you into trouble. I hope you’ll forgive me. And I hope you and your Missus will be very happy down in Kent. Sergeant Hopkins tells me you’ve got yourself a promotion. I’m very happy for you.’
What was he supposed to say to that, with Sarge standing in the room, watching and listening.
Ronnie went to offer up his hand, and then pulled it back. ‘Goodbye, then. Thank you for your honest friendship. It meant a lot to me, and I’m sorry I let you down.’
And he walked out.
It took Bert a moment. He made a move towards the door, but Sarge stopped him, ‘You let him be.’
‘But he’s got nothing. He’s got nowhere to go.’
‘He should have thought of that when he bit the hand what fed him.’
‘Not another word. You’ve had a narrow escape, my son. Think on that. You focus on what I’ve done for you. And don’t make me regret it.’
Bert dropped down onto the shingle by the end of London Bridge. You took your life in your hands up on the wharf, what with the stevedores, and the cranes and the trucks, and the boxes and crates and sacks coming off the barges. But down on the little patch of mud and stones and old bricks next to the water it was quiet. Low tide, with a bit of a cold breeze, and the smog just lifting. Icicles hanging off the bridge over his head.
Ronnie was standing with his hands in his pockets to keep warm, facing the water. It’s where they used to come, for a chat, or a moan. The other lads would go to the pub, but Bert and Ronnie had both signed the pledge, so what was the point? Anyhow, one breath of cigarette smoke, and they were both done for. Ronnie had shown him this place. He used to come here as a nipper, apparently, turning over the rocks, digging in the mud looking for treasure. “Mudlarking”, he called it. Said he found a gold watch once. It didn’t work, but gold’s gold, and it got him half a crown in Hatton Garden. Bert reckoned he’d been robbed.
Bert picked up a lump of old tile and lobbed it over Ronnie’s head so it landed in the mud in front of him with a squelch.
Ronnie hardly moved, but he turned his head and saw Bert. ‘Shouldn’t you be carrying some toff’s suitcase?’
‘Fuck ‘im. And his suitcase.’ Bert trudged out along the ridges of broken rock and brick, avoiding the thick green mud. ‘What’ve you gone and done, Ronnie?’
Ronnie just stuck his hands deeper in his pockets, and went back to watching the river.
It was bloody cold, and the water was seeping in through the stitching on Bert’s boots. They couldn’t hang around here all day. ‘You can’t leave. They’ve put Dick Harris in the Cloak room, and all Hell’s breaking loose.’
‘Not in a month of Sundays. You’ve got to come back.’
‘How am I going to do that?’
‘I’ll speak to Sarge’
‘No. I took the blame, and it’s over. No point getting you in trouble too.’
‘He’ll listen to me.’
‘Maybe. And then what? Maybe it would all get brushed over. But he wouldn’t let me back in the cloak room, and I can’t push a trolley. You know that. More to the point, you’d never get that signalman’s job, would you?’
The barges rolled against each other, banging up against the wharf as the tide threatened to turn. Bert stooped, and grabbed a lump of old stone up out of the mud. It was worked on one side. Might have come from old London Bridge, maybe. Or older. Ronnie reckoned the bits of tile were Roman. Bert hefted it in his hand, the wet mud running down his wrist and dirtying his cuffs. He lobbed it out over the water, and watched the splash get sucked back into the flowing river. ‘You sound like my Susie.’
‘She’s a smart girl.’
‘She says you can’t come over for Christmas.’
Ronnie sucked in a bit of cold air, and coughed. ‘Like I say. Smart girl.’ He stamped his feet to keep warm, and turned back to Bert with a proper grin on his face. ‘You wait. You wait til you’re down in Kent, and you’ll see how smart she is. Just think about it, you and her and all your kids, ‘cause you’re going to have loads of kids. Your own cottage, by the railway. A bit of garden. You in your signal box. Stationmaster one day, I shouldn’t wonder. Do you want to throw all that away?’
‘What about you, Ronnie? While I’m living this cosy life in my little cottage.’
‘Oh, I’ll get by. I’ve not got long anyway.’
Bert shoved him by the shoulder, ‘Shut up, will you?’
‘It is what it is. Never thought I’d get out of France, and here I am. Still fighting. Don’t you worry about me. I’ve got a bit put aside. Maybe I’ll do a bit of mudlarkin’. I fancy this mud’s got a few bits and pieces left for me.’ He put a hand on Bert’s shoulder. ‘You do what you’ve got to do.’
He would. He had to, but he didn’t have to like it.
The river swirled round the nearest pier of the bridge, the water not sure which way to go ‘til the tide turned proper, then there’d be no stopping it.
‘I’ll tell you one thing, Ronnie. You’re coming to ours for your Christmas dinner, and if Susie don’t like it, she can lump it.’
Thank you so much for sticking with Bert and his dilemma right through to the end. I hope you enjoyed it.
Bert’s story is just one of thirty such stories in my Work-in-Progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson. Members of my Readers’ Club can read a few more right now.
One day, it’ll all come together and look something like this…
In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep reading the newsletters and stay in touch. It’s a long and laborious journey ahead of me, and it’d be nice to have friends come along for the ride.
I’d love to share these stories with as many people as possible, so please do encourage all your like-minded, book-reading, story-loving friends to take a look at my website, and join the Readers’ Club.