“Cor, it’s a bleedin’ fortune!”
Albert Briggs gazed, open-mouthed, at the money in his hand. The empty purse, which had contained the coins only a few moments before, lay on the ground by his side.
“Put it back, Bertie,” Florrie Smith said fearfully.
“Why should I? We found it, dint we? Lost, ain’t it?”
“But it must belong to somebody.”
“You’re dead right it does. To us. Finders keepers, that’s the law.”
“I don’t think it is, Bertie. Maybe we should hand it to a policeman.”
Albert looked pained. “Come off it, Florrie. Give all this lot to a rozzer? Not on your life!”
He began to carefully count the money, no easy task for an 11 year-old boy with little interest in the scant education he had received at the local Board School.
Albert was of average height with a cheeky face set beneath a mop of unruly dark hair, though his head was presently topped by a worn cloth cap. It may have looked the worse for wear, but nevertheless the cap was the best part of his outfit. Over a jersey, which was in urgent need of repair, was a roughly-made jacket on which four of the six buttons were missing. His trousers, which came only slightly below the knees, bore evidence of the owner frequently crawling on the ground and there was a large hole in each leg. As for shoes and socks, they defied description because they were non-existent. His feet were remarkably clean for being unshod.
Now, eightpence ha’penny, less than 5p in today’s currency, may not seem like a fortune, but in 1906, for an 11 year-old boy from a poor family, it was more money than he’d held in his hand before. He gazed at the copper coins with undisguised joy.
“What are you goin’ ter do with it, Bertie? Florrie anxiously asked.
“Buy somethin', of course. What d’yer think?”
“You could take it home to yer ma.”
“Naw. Dad’ll get hold of it, then nobody will see anythin' of it except the landlord of the Ring o’ Bells.”
“You ought not ter talk abaht yer pa like that, Bertie.”
“Why not? It’s the truth.” He snapped his fingers closed over the coins in the palm of his hand and held them tight. “How d’yer fancy an eel an’ meat pie?”
“Will yer buy me one?”
“Yeah, of course. We could have two each, if yer like, an’ still have a ha’penny fer some liquorice.”
“No, Bertie,” the girl said gravely. “One pie is enough.”
“Come on then.”
He pulled Florrie to her feet and hurried along the street towards the pie shop.
“Please, Bertie, don’t go so fast.”
“Last one there’s a sissy!”
Panting for breath and red-faced, Florrie gave up the struggle and began to walk. A few months younger than her companion, she was a pretty girl with large, sad eyes. She wore a simple grey dress which did nothing to enhance her appearance, but at least had the virtue of being clean and freshly mended.
She and Albert had known each other all their lives, for they lived in adjoining houses in one of the poorer streets of Whitechapel. If it ever annoyed or embarrassed him to have a girl constantly trailing at his heels, he never showed it; he was always one of the boys, up to any mischief he could find.
By the time Florrie reached the pie-shop, Bertie had already completed the purchase and held a little package in each hand.
“Here y’are.” He thrust one of the packages at Florrie.
“Thank you, Bertie,” she gratefully said.
They walked along the street in silence, each contentedly eating their pie. They had finished the feast when their gentle stroll took them onto a main thoroughfare which was a hive of activity. A large group of men were busy digging up the road, watched by an even greater number of people.
Modernisation and improvements were coming in the shape of trams that would shortly rattle their way along newly-laid tracks from the heart of the metropolis. But for the moment everything was in chaos and the noise was deafening. The two youngsters joined the throng and gazed in awe at the gleaming bars which were gradually snaking up the street. After a few minutes they moved away from the noise and walked down a side street.
“What are you goin’ ter do, Bertie?” Florrie asked.
“Fer a job.”
“Dunno.” He kicked a stone along the pavement. “Be a tram driver.”
“What makes yer think I wasn’t bein’ serious?”
“You never are.”
“No point, is there? You’ve got ter laugh ter keep goin’. Least, that’s what me ma says.”
“I’m goin’ inter domestic service,” Florrie told him with a hint of regret in her voice. “I start school next month.”
“But you’ve already bin ter school.”
“No - domestic school, I mean. We learn all abaht cleanin’ an’ washin’ an’ ironin’ an’ stuff like that.”
“You want that?”
“It’s better’n nothing’.”
By now they had turned into another busy street, only this one was free of road works, but full of carts and omnibuses pulled by horses. There were a few noisy, new-fangled motor cars adding to the general din and chaos.
Suddenly there was a shout and a scream from the middle of the swirling traffic. As if by magic everything opened up a clear path for a runaway horse drawing a hansom-cab. The driver did the first thing that came into his mind - he jumped off the wildly swaying vehicle! The screams were coming from inside the cab.
“Look out!” Albert shouted as he pushed Florrie into a doorway. At the same time he dashed into the path of the wildly racing horse, shouting and waving his arms in the air.
It seemed inevitable that Albert was going to end up under the hooves of the horse, but suddenly it reared up onto its back legs, frantically pawed the air with its front legs for a few moments, then crashed over onto its side. The cab went over with the horse, but it was almost like slow motion. There were cries and moans from inside.
A crowd quickly gathered round the accident. Three men held down the thrashing horse whilst others clambered onto the cab and wrenched open the door. Willing hands pulled out the unfortunate passengers. Quickly and easily they hauled up a young woman. She was slim, pertly attractive and about 18 or 19 years old. She was followed, with a great deal of huffing and puffing, by a much older man whose stomach protruded so far he could barely squeeze through the door.
“Thank you, thank you,” he panted and puffed as he clambered off the overturned cab.
“Are you all right, Father?” the young woman anxiously asked.
“No bones broken, just a few cuts and bruises - and a certain loss of dignity. How about you, my dear?”
“Not even a scratch,” she assured him.
“We’re lucky. No thanks to that blithering idiot of a driver.”
“Maybe not,” a bystander chipped in, “but you ought ter thank this young feller. If he hadn’t stepped out in front of the horse it’d have bolted right dahn ter the river.”
“Yes, indeed,” the portly gentleman boomed. “Allow me to shake your hand.”
Albert felt unusually awkward and ill-at-ease as his hand was pumped up and down. When the young lady lightly kissed his forehead his face blushed a beetroot red.
“I must thank you too,” she said.
There was a little round of applause from the onlookers and Albert wondered what all the fuss was about. He hadn’t done anything much. His movements had been automatic and almost unthinking. Now here he was, standing in the middle of a crowd being patted on the back - and kissed!
“By Jove, you can feel the excitement of the audience.” The rescued gentleman expansively waved his arms. “Wouldn’t this be a great scene in the theatre?”
“Not easy to stage,” his daughter pointed out.”
“Poo, nothing to it! We’ve had trains crashing and ships sinking, why shouldn’t we have horses racing out of control? Inside the cab is the beautiful heroine - that’s you, my dear - whose death will give a fortune to the villain - that’s me. And who should save her? A ragamuffin of a boy.”
He pointed dramatically at Albert.
“Here, what you on abaht?”
“How old are you, my dear fellow?”
“What’s it ter you?”
“Idle curiosity, nothing else. A friendly interest.”
“Eleven,” Albert muttered sulkily.
“How would you like to tread the boards, my boy?”
“To appear in a theatre - on the stage.”
“Like the Music Hall, yer mean?”
The gentleman looked pained. “No, dear boy, not like the Music Hall. That’s nothing more than a den of iniquity. No, I’m talking about the real theatre.” He stressed the ‘real’. “Where decent, moral and proper dramas are performed. Where the hero is a hero and his enemy a dyed-in-the-wool villain who finally gets his come-uppance. What do you say, young man?”
“Yer talks a lot, mister, but I’m not sure what yer sayin’.”
“Take me to your mother and father. I suppose you do have a mother and father?”
“Course I ‘ave,” Albert said, a shade indignantly.
Florrie tugged at his sleeve. “What’s happenin’, Bertie? Do they think yer’ve done something’ wrong?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Beats me, Florrie.”
With a sigh of resignation he led a motley procession to his poor and miserable dwelling. Naturally his mother feared the worst, for the portly gentleman was by far the most imperious person ever to visit her home. Her first reaction was fear, whilst her second was annoyance that she hadn’t known he was coming, so the house was not properly prepared.
She listened with awe and wonder to the tale of her son’s bravery, dramatically told with resounding voice and much gesture.
“Fancy that,” she kept repeating, unable to think of a more original comment.
When it came to the business of Albert going into the theatre a look of doubt crossed her face.
“Well, I don’t know. ‘is father will ‘ave ter decide. But we need ‘im ter go aht ter work an’ bring home some money.”
“My dear lady - “ Mrs Briggs blushed at the ‘dear’ and preened at the ‘lady’. Nobody had ever called her that before. What a pity none of her neighbours were there to hear it. “Acting is a job.”
“What! Yer mean our Albert’ll get money fer bein’ in the theatre?”
“But of course.”
“Well, I should think that’ll put a new complexion on the matter.”
And it did. Before he knew where he was, Albert had wrapped a newspaper round a few clothes and left home.
Mr George Appleton was one of the theatre world’s lesser luminaries, who constantly spent his time touring the length and breadth of the country with popular melodramas. He also wrote some of them and his new production, featuring Albert, was hastily scribbled out in two days and put onto the stage in a week. It was entitled ‘The Daring Deed’ or ‘Saved By a Humble Boy’.
The impresario’s one ambition was to achieve sufficient fame - and money - to attempt the London theatre, which was then, as now, the very centre of theatrical activity. Alas, he was doomed to failure.
Year after year he traversed the highways and byways and, more particularly, the railways of England. He also ventured occasionally, and with much temerity, across the border to Scotland. But there the audiences generally found his style not to their taste. He could still feel the sting of a well-aimed tomato which was hurled from the gallery of a Glasgow theatre.
His daughter, Lucinda, was pretty and, on the whole, empty-headed. True, she was able to learn and remember her parts, but she played them with scant thought and no imagination. She could also be more than a little temperamental and Albert soon found it prudent to stay out of her way as much as possible. Whenever their paths did cross he always gave way to whatever demands she may have to make.
The years rolled by quite agreeably for Albert. He had a quick and natural instinct for acting which was never sufficient to make him great, but he was more than good enough for the George Appleton Dramatic Players.
After six years he had graduated to being the grown-up hero with an overwhelming love for the heroine, Miss Lucinda, though naturally, it was expressed in the most delicate way. In the course of that time Albert had lost touch with his family. They had never been very close and he was a poor letter writer. He was rarely in London and on those few occasions chose to stay on the west side in slightly more salubrious surroundings than his home.
He had also lost touch with Florrie. Her family had moved to Islington a year after his departure, but he wasn’t to know that.
By 1912 Florrie had grown into a quiet, rather solemn, but very attractive young woman. At 17 she was old enough to catch the eye of many desirable - and not so desirable - men. She was in service in a large house in Chelsea and was being courted by the milkman and coalman.
She had no difficulty in choosing between them. Actually, there was no choice, for neither suited her. The first was too flighty and believed himself to be God’s gift to women, whilst the second was too gruff and overweight. They were also too old as far as Florrie was concerned.
Anyway, she was in no rush to get married. She was still young and she enjoyed her job, even though the work was hard. Her wage of £18 a year was certainly far from being a fortune, but she had few expenses as all her food was provided and so was her uniform.
On her half day she took great delight in walking down to the bank where she made a deposit of four shillings every week. She was not sure what she was saving for, but felt that money in the bank would one day make her a lady. Her one ambition was to better herself.
After several months of visiting the bank, the teller who most frequently attended to her politely asked if he might see her after work. Florrie explained that she was in domestic service and had no nights off, only this one half day.
“I shall be finished by six,” the teller informed her. “Perhaps I might meet you then?”
“Well….” Florrie hesitated, trying to find a reason to refuse. Nothing occurred to her. “Where?” she asked.
“On the corner?” he suggested.
“Um. All right,” she agreed uncertainly.
So began her romance with Frank Potter. She wasn’t quite sure how or when the subject of marriage came up, but when it did she was ready to agree
"I want to be able to rent a decent house," Frank said one evening.
"We'll need furniture," Florrie added. "Good solid furniture, like they have in the big house."
Frank looked doubtful. "I don't think we'll be able to afford anything like that."
"We might get it second hand."
"Um - maybe. I've been doing some calculations and I think it'll be about three years before we'll have enough money to marry."
"Three years!" Florrie was taken aback.
"We want to make a proper job of this, dear," Frank explained. "In three years I should have been promoted and, of course, we'll have been saving as hard as possible in all that time."
"I suppose so," she grudgingly conceded.
“It’s only sensible.”
Florrie pulled a face. “Somehow sense and love seem to be the opposite of each other.”
“Too often they are and that’s when people get into financial difficulties. I see it happen all the time. No, believe me, three years at least.”
“It’s such a long time,” Florrie said. “Anything could happen.”
And happen it did. Just over two years after that conversation, the biggest conflagration the world had ever seen broke out.
"YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!"
Posters bearing the picture of Lord Kitchener were to be seen everywhere.
We don't want to lose you,
But we think you ought to go.
The song was sung in the music halls by attractive girls, whilst Vesta Tilly even went to the recruiting centres.
We shall cheer you, thank you, bless you
When you come home again.
It was a sentiment that seemed to be echoed by most of the women in the country; most, but not all.
"Yer can't go, Frank!" Florrie cried.
"I've got to."
"We're at war. The country is in danger; the Empire might fall," Frank argued.
"Now, Florrie, you don't know anything about it." Frank was being infuriatingly patronising.
"I know that a lot of men are going to be killed."
"Mostly Huns - just as they deserve"
"Why do they?" Florrie clung to Frank's arm.
"Just take it from me that they do." It was obvious he had no idea why himself, but he wasn't going to admit it. "Now, promise me there'll be no tears."
"I can't. I love yer and I don't want yer to go."
"There's no need to worry. It'll be over in no time and I'll be back - a conquering hero."
But he wasn't. He fell, along with thousands of others, at Ypres in April 1915.
The war changed the lives of most people, and there were few unaffected by it. For the first time whole nations were involved in the fighting, which was no longer confined to professional armies.
The role of women also became different. For many years Mrs Pankhurst and her band of suffragettes had been trying to obtain better rights and conditions for their sex. Pitted against an implacable government and indifferent public, they had so far failed in their aims; but now bigger forces were at work.
Many women became actively involved in the war effort and Florrie was one of them. Domestic service no longer seemed to be worthwhile. There were better things to do, a greater contribution to make in the struggle that was at hand.
Shortly after she learned of Frank's death, Florrie started training as a nurse. As the casualties swiftly rose the need for nurses became ever more urgent and it seemed no time before she was being told she was ready for duty.
"I'm not sure I can even put a bandage on right," she said to a colleague. "Still, if they say I'm ready, I suppose I must be."
What she certainly wasn't ready for was the steady flow of wounded men with lost limbs, unseeing eyes, and blank minds. At first she would cry herself to sleep every night and was haunted by visions of those poor shattered bodies. But after a few weeks the tears and the nightmares ceased. There was too much horror and the only way to stay sane was to become cold and detached. Florrie hated herself for her new attitude, but realised it was the only way she could carry on with her nursing duties.
So she pushed her emotions away to the deepest recesses of her mind and got on with the job. As one patient followed another they all became the same; a case with a number.
One such case was brought into the ward in the spring of 1918. His head was bandaged and his right side was paralysed. During the course of the next few days he was subjected to numerous examinations by a wide variety of doctors. Their diagnosis was finally made and they were all in agreement; well - nearly.
"The patient will recover the use of his limbs," one doctor predicted with confidence.
"Mostly," another agreed. "But I wouldn't like to say it will be a full recovery."
"Yes, well, I take it we all agree about his eyes?"
"Aye, the poor man will never be able to see again. His optical nerves are shattered."
"Should we tell him?"
"Later. When he's feeling stronger."
Florrie stood by and impassively listened to the doctors' verdict. There was nothing new about a man being made permanently blind. She had seen it all too frequently. Some of the men, when they had been told, openly wept and begged to be put out of their misery. They had no wish to live in a grey, unseen world.
For the next few days she went through her usual routine looking after her patients, including the one who would be blind. Most of the time he was heavily sedated, but gradually, as his strength began to return, he became more conscious.
One day, when Florrie was tidying his bed, he grasped hold of her hand.
"Are you pretty?" he asked.
"No," she promptly replied.
"I bet you are," the soldier insisted, in a voice almost devoid of an accent. "All nurses are pretty It's compulsory."
"I must be the exception."
"You can say what you like. I'll never be able to contradict you." It was a flat statement, said without bitterness.
"Have they told yer?" Florrie asked softly.
"Don't need to be told. I played the hero once too often, and here I am - flat on my back with no eyes."
"You'll soon be walking around."
"But without eyes, eh?"
"Yer won't be able to see," Florrie quietly agreed.
"Well, at least I got them before they got me."
"Are yer really a hero?"
"Too true! Rushed up to a machine-gun post without thought or heed of my own safety. Of course, I've been doing that sort of thing for years. Being a hero, I mean."
"Really?" Florroe sounded slightly sarcastic.
"Only on the stage, I hasten to add."
"You were an actor?"
"Of sorts. I don't think I was ever very good. Mind you, I was a real hero once. Stopped a runaway horse pulling a hansom-cab." Florrie paused in mid-action. "Saved the passengers, or so they said. The bloke turned out to be an actor manager - not a very good one, as I soon found out. Anyway, he whisked me off to his company to re-create the drama. I stayed on with him till this little lot started."
"What's....." The question stuck in Florrie's throat for she already knew the answer "What's yer name?"
"You're my nurse and you don't know?"
"I try to be impersonal. You're just a case number."
"Blimey! That is being impersonal. If that's the way you want it, let's just leave it like that." He turned his face with the unseeing eyes away from her.
Florrie tried to stifle a sob, but could only hold it long enough to get out of the room. Then she burst into a flood of tears and it seemed as if she would never stop.
Albert made a steady improvement as the weeks went by. Florrie's first instinct, upon learning the identity of her patient, was to ask to be taken off the case. But then she realised it would be a cowardly action and, anyway, he didn't know who she was.
"What'll happen to me?" Albert asked one day.
"What do yer mean?"
"I'll soon be getting out of here, won't I?"
"So where does a man go when he's blind and turned out of hospital?"
"Home, I suppose."
"Home?" Albert gave a short laugh. "What home? Before the war I did nothing but travel from one boarding house to another."
"What about yer parents?"
"I haven't seen them since I was eleven."
"I suppose it must seem so to you. But it was easy to grow away from them. I entered a new world when George Appleton took me into his company. I don't think the same way; I don't even talk as I used to when I was a barefoot kid roaming the streets of Whitechapel. I grew away from someone else too."
"More's the pity," Albert added.
"Was it...." Florrie cleared her throat nervously. "Was it a girl?"
"Um. Always hanging around me like a lost dog. A lost dog with great big appealing eyes. I've often thought of her. Wondered what happened to her."
"P'rhaps she wondered about you too."
"I'd like to think so. It was all so long ago. Two kids roaming the streets together. Now we're grown up and probably wouldn't recognise each other." He gave a hollow laugh. "No chance for me, anyway."
"Oh, Albert." Florrie took hold of his hand.
"I thought you didn't know my name. I'm just a case number."
"I - I broke me rule."
"I didn't want to sound self-pitying. I intended to play the hero to the end, but I've had time to think about being blind for the rest of my life, and that takes real courage."
"You'll be all right. Yer always were very independent."
"Well - I should so think so, from what yer've told me. Now I must go. I've got other patients to look after."
Florrie patted his hand and walked away from the bedside.
"It's a long time since I had eel and meat pie."
Albert's voice stopped Florrie in her tracks. She turned towards his bed. His sightless eyes were staring up at the ceiling.
"What did yer say?"
"Have you had one recently, Nurse Smith?"
"Yer know," Florrie whispered.
"I do now."
"Instinct. Little things you said. Pauses. An intake of breath. Your name."
"Smith is common enough."
"Oh yes, by itself it meant nothing, but put it with all the other things.....I wish I could see you again."
"At the moment I'm glad yer can't."
"Me face is red with crying."
"What is there to cry about? Two childhood friends meet, exchange greetings and information, and go their separate ways."
"Do they?" Florrie quietly asked.
"I've no right to ask anything."
"When we was children yer always looked after me and shared everything with me. Now it's my turn."
"Not out of pity." Albert spoke sharply.
Florrie smiled. "No, silly. Out of love. The love I gave yer when we was kids, only you didn't realise."
"Perhaps I did. But everything's different now. We're grown up; we've been apart for years and there's a war that's made a few changes."
"What it did, my dearest, was to bring us together again."
"Yes it did." Albert grinned. "Here, Florrie, can you get eel and meat pie around this place?"
They both laughed and held each other close.