1. Over to Britain… - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Charlie waved a hospitable hand toward the tumbler of whisky and soda.
“Bring it with you,” he said, as he struggled to his feet from the depths of the fireside chair. Joe, caught unawares, was nonetheless on his feet before his host had completed the movement. Ignoring any awkwardness, Charlie gestured towards the door with the hand that was not currently supporting his weight.
“Always take a turn down to the stables about this time of day,” he said. “Doesn’t do to let the staff know you aren’t still taking an interest. Besides: fresh air. Blows the cobwebs away. Do us both the world of good.”
Joe glanced through the window. Beyond the rain-streaked panes the melancholy laburnums of the shrubbery could dimly be glimpsed, moulting yellow leaves to mulch into the sodden ground in the gathering dimness of an autumn evening in the English shires. He reflected, a trifle mordantly, that it was as well he’d had previous experience of the English moneyed classes at home; otherwise he’d have been inclined to suspect that what his former comrade-in-arms had suffered at Shanghai and in its aftermath had turned his brain as well as shattered that athletic body.
He was, by now, an expert at not letting his face betray his thoughts. His lips assumed a ready, assenting smile.
“Of course,” he said.
The last time he had been here the dozen or so loose-boxes had all been full; liquid-eyed, mobile heads hanging over into the yard, wuffling and blowing clouds of hay-scented breath into the winter night. Joe didn’t care for horses, especially. No power on earth was going to make him trust his neck to a piece of equipment with a mind of its own, and no maintenance logs he could summon for inspection, but he missed their warm, interested presence more than he could say. The green paint on the box fronts was peeling in spots, and grass was beginning to poke through the previously immaculate cobbles.
They said hello and fed apple pieces to the two chunky cobs and an aging Fell pony who now, it seemed, had fallen heir to the real estate properly occupied by generations of steeplechasers, matched carriage horses, hunters and show hacks.
“Well,” Charlie said brightly, almost as if daring Joe to comment on the contrast, “should we go through to the tack-room? Rhys generally has a brew going round about now.”
It was better in the tack-room. The rows of silver cups had been kept burnished, and the pinned-up rosettes, although starting to fade, were still a brave mass of colour, like a hot-house flowerbed. While Charlie stumped to the back door and shouted for the missing groom, Joe took advantage of the pause to try to steady his mind, which was still in a whirl following his frantic, storm-battered flight over the turbulent Atlantic, and the yet-to-be absorbed shocks of this essential, unlooked-for reunion.
You’re here for information. Anything else is secondary.
Determinedly, he feigned interest in the numerous examples of the saddler’s art, deployed on pegs and hooks around the tack-room’s whitewashed walls.
“Rhys doesn’t seem to be -“
Charlie’s return caught him in contemplation of an elegantly crafted side-saddle, hanging on a new set of pegs. The gloss of the new leather among so much venerable and time-smoothed tack had caught his eye, before the incongruity. But then the mystery caught and held him. Charlie’s mother had scandalised the County by riding to hounds astride before the fall of the first Bonar Law administration. And Charlie’s sisters had moved on from ponies to mechanised transport as soon as technology had caught up with their quicksilver forward charge against the universe.
And then it hit him.
So there’s a spanking new, hand-made woman’s saddle doing on this wall now? Oh God. I see. How do you earn a nickname like “360 degrees Joe” and still miss a clue like than by a ten yard margin?
Charlie, seeing the direction of his glance, gulped and came to a sudden stop.
To break the awkwardness Joe assumed a light, bantering tone.
“Why haven’t you broken the news earlier, Charlie? Well? Give. Who is she? And is it serious? Do I congratulate you? Am I to be best man?”
Charlie flushed; a slow deep purplish red that spread inevitably upwards from his collar like the unstoppable advance of an army of puppets led by a fanatic. Part of Joe’s mind noted that his clipped tone had never sounded more like his sister’s as he said,
“As a matter of fact, it’s mine. It’s the only one I use, these days.”
While Joe was still fumbling through a wall of shock Charlie added, his voice seeming to come from a long distance away,
“After all; how else is a man with a cork peg going to ride to hounds, eh? Ever really considered about what it might be like not to be able to bend your knee, Joe? You’d be surprised what it stops you doing. Or, at least, how much imagination and adjustment it takes? No, I thought not.”
Joe was still trying to respond through a whirl of confusion and resentment - know? Yes of course I know. Not how you adjust to being crippled in body - though when that Jap guard hovered over me with the bolt-croppers, and my fingers were spread over the Adjutant’s looted desk I thought - but being crippled in spirit? Charlie, you think you can score points on me there? - when the warm rumble of Rhys’s voice broke in.
“You’ll find, sir, there’s a number of gentlemen ride side hereabouts. What with one thing and the other. Once they get used to how to shift their weight, it doesn’t stop them being in the front flight at the kill. And, to my mind, sir, it’s easier on the hosses.”
He emerged from some remote back region of the stables bearing a loaded tray with steaming brown earthenware teapot, milk, a bowl of coarse sugar that seemed to be coagulating in the damp and a selection of Bath Oliver biscuits.
“After all,” he added as he plonked the tray down on the tack-room table, “I didn’t notice no-one telling the Brigadier which way he ought to be riding at the end of the last 12 mile point when they ended the wrong side of Sutton Cheney.”
Joe raised his eyebrows. “The Brigadier?” he hazarded. It seemed easier than any other line of communication. Charlie looked relieved, too. He waved an explanatory arm.
“My nearest neighbour. The VC. Lost his right leg at Vimy Ridge.” He made a face. “You’d be seeing him for dinner this evening, but I’m rationing his company in order to save what’s left of my sanity. There are only so many times I can listen to a superannuated fifty-eight-year old infantry officer tell me how he proposed to Franky when she was seventeen and at her Coming-Out dance, and how much more sensible it’d have been all round if she’d accepted him.”
Despite himself, he felt his eyebrows rise in shock. “This old guy proposed to Franky?”
Charlie pursed his lips in an expression which might have been amusement, might have been disgust. Joe couldn’t tell.
“And you’re telling me you didn’t?”
“Well, not marriage, at any event.”
The words were out before Joe could stop them. He bit his lip. However far he and Charlie went back, Charlie had been - was, dammit - RAF, not some bob-tail irregular. And Joe had learnt the RAF had - Codes - for this sort of thing.
Don’t mention a lady’s name at mess. Don’t talk that way about my sister.
Even when your sister happens to be the Old Lady of the most formidable vessel the Royal Navy has ever commissioned to date, and is popularly rumoured round the Fleet (a rumour Joe knew to be untrue, for two incontrovertible reasons - not that he was proposing to discuss those with her brother, either, come to think of it) to have a double row of aces’ insignia hand-embroidered on the left leg of her silk cami-knickers.
Time paused. Charlie gulped. And then, pouring tea for them all as though nothing had happened at all he said,
“So, Joe. What brings you to Warwickshire after so long?”
And now the moment had come, the one that had caused his guts to churn in anticipation the whole way across the Atlantic, so at times he had almost hoped that the buffeting winds would flip his plane and send her to an unmarked resting place in the raging waters far below.
He gulped, and took a sip of the warm, syrupy, stewed tea before responding.
“Charlie; where in this country might Franky have hidden Dex if she wanted to?”