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Grandpa Beckett's Compass (part 1)

London 1880

Grandpa Beckett’s Compass

Billy Boy Beckett’s Dad flailed a drunken backhand at his fourteen year-old son. The lad darted past him, feeling the hand’s passing part his hair as he flew out of the back door, elbows and knees pumping. He dashed the length of the dark and dread passageway to the dubious safety of Mutton Street. Over the rain-slicked cobbles he skidded through a maze of streets, heedless of the icy drizzle stinging tears from his eyes.

He came to the main thoroughfare of the Mile End Road and stopped to catch his breath. The early evening traffic rolled heavy and tidal. He stood, a tiny bedraggled figure, lost amidst the clang of hooves striking cobblestones, the grinding rumble of carriage wheels, the cries and curses of drivers. The foggy air was heavy with the sharp smell of horse piss and dung. He weaved his way through the crowded flow of passers-by with practiced ease. For a while he tagged along with a small gang of urchins, as they ran beside a paper boat that braved the gutter’s rapids. Eventually, the boat was sucked into a drain and an angelic, grime-encrusted face turned and told him,

“Piss orft aht of it.”

Billy Boy rejoined the flow of pedestrians, dodging flashing canes and swirling capes. He was tall for his age and already his head was on a level with the shoulders of most of the hurrying gents. When he reached Whitechapel he stopped for a while to breath the air around the roast chestnut vendor’s cart. His stomach growled and as he turned away his eyes fell upon the ragged fluttering edge of a huge poster pasted high on the poorhouse wall.

“The Empire Needs Men” it read in foot high letters, “Enlist Now!”

Suddenly his head reeled with the juvenile possibilities of adventures deep in the kingdom of the Zulu or grappling with the wicked Boer, or any other heathen who would defy Her Gracious Majesty’s Glorious Empire. A hand fell upon his shoulder gripping it fiercely and he was jerked back to the East End, to the cold that gnawed at his bones, to the hunger, an all too familiar companion.

“Would you ....?” the voice attached to the vice-like hand boomed, “I say again, would you, young shaver, haspire hay soldier to be?”

Billy Boy turned his head to peer up at the first and last kind expression he would ever see on the face of one of Her Britannic Majesty’s Sergeant Majors.