Charles Kimberley Bittersweet (named for the diamonds discovered in the Orange Free State) had lied about his age to join the Loamshires. Despite the need to get men to the front he had fallen in with two others and learned how to first bribe, then blackmail the Battalion Clerk so that time and again when the increasingly foreshortened training cadres shipped out he and his mates were on courses, or once victims of camel fever. When the Clerk had been discovered fiddling the rum the nose of an especially unlikely provost called Cromwell had led to Charlie being just in time and overly qualified for the British Expeditionary Force sent to Russia. So it was he had been made, wriggling and chancing everyone’s hand but his own, as a signaller in Arkhangelsk sent to do what the-then Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill had described as ‘striking at the birth of Bolshevism’. He could still remember the anger of bloody Major Bulldog when the field telephone failing to work and he, courses never actually attended but listed as passing nonetheless, had been able to do nothing about it.
So it was that Corporal Bittersweet had found himself in the mess about Koikori, a scrap so bad that the officers dead the company had refused to fight. Later the details had come out and an act of Parliament saw the sentences commuted to hard labour, and that not long enough to matter. In Archangel the stores and weapons sent by the yanks had piled up in the harbour and that had been Charlie’s war.
He had done better in the second bloody-arse. Crime in the Blitz was still not talked about even today. And today Charlie Bittersweet read the Daily Express in a deck-chair out the front of his arches. He had knotted his kerchief to protect his head from the sun but he still wore a muffler over his string vest because more than fifty years after Koikori and Archangel it was still never warm enough.
Later and his boy would come round. Already and Charlie’s little helpers, his stepsons as they were still known, had knocked off. They started early because Charlie started early. Nothing was worth doing in the markets by the time it was light. But if Charlie was a night hawk then here he sat with eyes closed to soak up the sun where by late afternoon it cut for one happy hour between the train-tracks above and the yards on the arches other side. Charlie was a man that found things, and if a customer had not strictly speaking lost what he wanted himself, then that could be arranged too. In a bucket two bottles of Burton pale ale kept warm nicely. You would have had to have a gun on Charlie to make him drink anything cold, and then you had better be bloody willing to use it.
“I hear you’re the very man,” said a pair of brogues.
“That’d be my cock then,” said Charlie without opening his eyes above the shoes.
Mr Brogues laughed. It was high, affected, something from the radio.
The hour was wasting. “Fuck off,” said Charlie.
Mr Brogues did not. “I was rather wanting a little information. Henry mentioned your name?”
“Henry Cooper? Hooray Henry? King bloody Henry the VIII?”
“Henry Lord Rockingham.”
“Don’t know him. You’d be surprised how few peers of the realm come by Oil Drum Lane.”
Brogues said nothing at first, then after what might have seemed a suitable pause suggested, “It will be worth your while?”
Charlie doubted that very much. He didn’t need money. He had tins full of it. Less now since his boy had put so much of it in the bank, the smarty-pants. Besides which Charlie had his bus-pass and for Charlie trains, the underground, taxis, even once a passing Austin Cambridge worked with it, much to the startled disbelief of the padre that had been driving. But Charlie wanted Brogues gone so he looked up to see an unshaven slob in freshly laundered clothes. It was like one of those flip-books, he thought. One where you turned the pages to put heads, middles and bottoms together. Someone needed to turn to the next page. “What does old Charlie call you then, squire?”
“And what does Ludovic want to know?”
“Ludovic wants to know where to find Mme Roux.”
“Right,” said Charlie. “When exactly?” he laughed. The plate on his working-teeth worked lose and he swore as he mangled putting it back. “Hang about,” he showed Ludovic the shocking state of his dentures. Holding up a hand in apology he rose, stretched and scratched his bum before vanishing into the dark hole of the nearest railway arch. He returned with a double-barrelled Purdey. “You remember,” he said, “when I told you to fuck off?”
“Is the turn of phrase confusing you?”
“Now look, as it happens it won’t do you any good.”
Charlie thumbed back both hammers. “It’s a nice day, and you’re spoiling it. Let’s just say for the sake of argument it won’t do any good. But it’ll knock you through the fence. And when my boy comes round he’ll find you hanging from the arch by your feet. And there are ways.”
“I believe you would call me a ‘dago-type’?” said Ludovic.
“That’s nice. We’ll just lock you up then. And you won’t die but you’ll get fucking thirsty until at last they knock down the house whose bowels we’ll brick you up in.”
Ludovic frowned, then nodded. “I’ll be fucking off then.”