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Edward looked up. The man standing by his table was tall and solidly put together, with a striking mop of jet-black hair, dark eyes and strong features. He was smiling broadly.


“Doc! Bloody hell!”

He got to his feet and offered his hand. Joseph Costello knocked it aside and drew him into a fierce hug. They disengaged and regarded each other. Joseph looked good; no, Edward corrected himself, he looked better than good, he looked remarkable. “What, this?” Edward said, taking in Joseph’s suit with an expansive gesture. “You didn’t get that in a Natty Gent’s Outfitters.”

“Had some luck on the horses,” he said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand.

Edward looked terrible in comparison, his backside half-hanging out of his trousers, and he knew it. “Well, you look like a millionaire playboy. I’m inclined to ask you about the seven-and-six you owe me for those beers in Calcutta.”

“Good God, man, you’ve got a memory like an elephant.” He pulled out the seat and sat down. “Why haven’t you called me?”

Edward smiled wryly. He still had the travel docket with the number scribbled on the back. It was on his dresser, weighed down under a handful of loose change. He had been meaning to call, but something had stayed his hand. He felt awkward about his circumstances, the way he looked, the fact that he could barely afford to buy a pint of milk, let alone a round of beer. “I’ve been meaning to,” he said. “There have been about a million things I’ve had to do.”

“How’s it been?”

“Oh, you know,” Edward said, putting on a brave front. “Takes some getting used to.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“What are you talking about? You look like you’ve fallen right on your feet.”

He grinned. “You’re right––I shouldn’t grumble. No, I’m doing alright. It’s the getting into a new routine that’s the tricky bit.”

“Are you working around here?”

“No,” he lied. “Out in the sticks.”

“Doing what?”

“Bit of this, bit of that.” He needed to change the subject. “What about you?”

“The same,” he said with the same vagueness.

Edward slid back easily into the persona he had constructed for himself in the Far East. His time away from home had allowed him the opportunity to build an idealised picture of who he was that he wanted others to see. It was impossible for him to tell the truth now, not without fear of the assiduously created illusion being dispelled. That would be embarrassing, perhaps even dangerous. He knew that a lie would lead to another lie, and then a whole series of lies that would spring from the first, and he was comfortable with that. He had been living that way for most of his life and he was good at it.

As he looked at Joseph and his evident good fortune, he wondered whether Joseph might present him with the opportunity he had been looking for.

“Are you living around here?”

“I’ve got a little place in Camden,” Edward lied. He did not want to admit that it was nearby in case Joseph suggested they go to see it. He could not stand the thought of that.

Edward was thankful as Joseph became a little distracted. “Look, Doc,” he said, “I can’t stay, much as I’d love to. I’m meeting a man about a spot of business. But what are you doing tomorrow?”

“I should think I’ll be working.”

“Can you slip out for a couple of hours in the afternoon?”

“Yes. Probably.”

“Terrific. I’m going to be at the gym. How’d you fancy a spot of sparring? We’ll see how well that foot of yours has healed.”

“Sparring. Haven’t done that for a while.”

“So now’s the time to get back into it. What do you say?”

“I’d love to. Where is it?”

“On the Hill.”

Edward said he didn’t know where that was.

“Little Italy. Clerkenwell. We call it The Hill.” Joseph wrote the address down on a napkin and pushed it across the table. “You can get the number thirty-eight bus. Two o’clock. Don’t be late.”

With that, he got to his feet, shook Edward’s hand for a second time, and left. Edward looked at the napkin in his hand, the ink blurring at the edges as it was absorbed into the material, and allowed himself a smile.


EDWARD WAS WORKING in the kitchen when Jimmy arrived with the first post. It was the usual dreary collection, invoices that they would gamely attempt to put off, paying only those suppliers they could not afford to do without or the ones who were threatening to sue. Jimmy filtered the stack, separating one envelope that didn’t fit the usual description. It was a luxurious cream colour and of weighty stock. It was addressed to Edward.

“What’s that then?” he cooed. “Look at that––stamped by the War Office. What have you been up to?”

“Haven’t got the faintest.”

Edward slid his finger inside the envelope and opened it.

“Well?” Jimmy persisted. “What is it?”

Edward realised that he was gawping. “I’m getting the Victoria Cross,” he said.

* * *

EDWARD SAT ON THE TOP DECK of the number thirty-eight omnibus, watching the city change as it passed through central London. Tramlines, winding at the bottom of Pentonville Hill, gleamed like silver. The bus passed across them and headed East. It was brown, rather than red, brought up from the coast by the operating company to replace vehicles that had been damaged during the Blitz. The windows were still fixed with cross-hatched lattices of tape to prevent the glass imploding in the event of a bomb detonating nearby. London looked dreary and battered, the view from the top deck disclosing glimpses across fenced-off bomb sites to the rubble, pools of brackish water and scorched walls beyond. The city had taken it very badly at the hands of the Luftwaffe.

He got off the bus at Holborn, turned off the main road and headed up Hatton Garden and into Little Italy. The mongrel district was to the north and south of Clerkenwell Road, hemmed in by Roseberry Avenue on the west and Farringdon Road on its east. To the south, it occupied the area around Saffron Hill, Leather Lane and Hatton Garden. Edward had lived in London all his life yet he had never been here before. The streets were ancient, a baffling maze of narrow and winding cobbled passages that crept between rickety houses and tenement blocks. A number of bombs had fallen and as he walked he passed half a dozen blasted gaps in the terraces where houses had taken direct hits. The evidence of slum clearance and the presence of mechanical machinery suggested Herr Göring had presented the local authorities with the chance to sweep away the old, cramped streets. A row of buildings had been levelled. Barriers had been erected at the end of the road. A sign reading CAUTION – UXB was fixed there. Bomb disposal officers were examining the old wreckage of a house. A hole had bored into the muddy ground, the bomb sunk somewhere at the bottom of it, undisturbed since the end of the war.

Locals passed on bicycles and in horse-drawn carts, thick-wristed men pushing brightly-decorated ice cream carts and mobile barrel organs. The day was warm and the street was busy with pedestrians, Irish and Italian accents merging amidst the clamour. Edward turned onto Saffron Hill and the cobbles became muddy, scattered with ordure from dogs, horses and mules. Small shops offered empty shelves and feral children congregated on corners, eyeing him greedily. The smells grew more pungent and, as he crossed Eyre Street Hill, he had to traverse a plank that had been placed on the stones so he could avoid sewage from blocked drains.

The gym was on Greville Street, situated in one corner of an old bathhouse. It had three full-size rings fitted somewhat haphazardly into the interior. The walls of the gym were covered in chipped, beige tiles plastered over with handbills from ancient fights. There were all sorts there, from bantams to heavies. In one corner, a group of boys were lifting weights, while in the main hall there was a confusion of punch bags and skipping ropes. In one of the rings, two heavily protected youngsters followed each other menacingly, firing out the odd jab and grunt. It was stifling hot and noisy, too: the machine-gun racket of speed bags, the slap of skipping ropes on the hardwood floor, leather gloves thumping into rib cages and sand-filled heavy bags.



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