BOOK PREVIEW –
A War Around The Corner
Alfie was enjoying life, although things had deteriorated at home. His dad was no longer working due to illness brought on by drinking, but he continued to drink. With both Fred and Jack now living away from Cromwell Street, the intense pressure regarding food and hunger had eased a little. Alfie also had a part-time job down the Dog as a cellarman, where he had been working fifteen hours a week for the past three and a half years. Some of the money he earned he gave to his mum, and the remainder he saved.
Out of those savings Alfie bought himself a pushbike, which made the journey down to boxing training with Jack much easier. Alfie began to appreciate his brother’s knowledge and skills, and not just in the ring. Jack had been made foreman down the docks where he worked and was the youngest foreman the Royal Docks had ever seen. Alfie could see his brother was a natural leader and had an ability to get the best out of men by talking with them, listening to their ideas, and working on those ideas. His men warmed to him; they liked him a great deal, and more than that, they respected him.
The manner in which he raised money during the devastating London dock strike of 1911, which affected some 120,000 men, still reverberated with his men to this day. Jack led a delegation of foremen to a number of charitable institutions, giving their side of the story. All dockers were still earning sixpence an hour, which was a paltry sum; a fifty-hour week paid each docker two and a half quid, if they managed to work the fifty hours. Most men dabbed or were not picked in a gang for the total of fifty hours, reducing their pay significantly. The money raised by Jack and his cohorts kept food on the table during the six-week strike. He would long be remembered for this deed of kindness and his drive for a fair pay for a fair day’s work. The result of the strike was a doubling of the weekly wage, but it took its toll on many – not too many, though, thanks to Jack.
Alfie was proud of his brother and valued how Jack’s men respected him. This was a trait that Alfie himself vowed to work on in his life.
Alfie loved the time he spent on his bicycle, as it was good thinking time – time to reflect on himself, away from noise and chatter. Alfie knew the British Empire was going through the richest and most powerful time in its history, and disliked the industrialists and men in the city who became obscenely wealthy at the expense of the working man, women and children. Unions had been formed to support the workers throughout the country, but things were very slow to change. Alfie believed the politicians had self-interest issues; the philanthropists were kept extremely busy helping the poor and disaffected, of which there were many.
This world, a world filled with inequality, led by men of extreme selfishness and a political system that supported these interests… This was the world in which Alfie grew up, and he promised himself that his life would be very different to the lives of his contemporaries. One day soon he would be the most smartly dressed man, known for his generosity to those less fortunate. He would be a man respected because he would never take a backward step from any man, and if he had to fight, he would win every single time, by any and all means necessary.
Alfie was preparing himself for his future. Every day he focussed on the small things he could accomplish that would lead towards his goals. He was now going on fourteen years of age and already built bigger than his brother Fred, who was six years his senior. This was due to the boxing and self-defence tuition he had received from Jack, as well as the work lifting crates and moving barrels of beer at the Dog, where he had worked since his tenth birthday. Alfie was a shrewd and intelligent young man with little education, a bright mind and big dreams that he had no doubt would reach fruition.
Jack recognised in his younger brother a determination to make something of himself and became Alfie’s mentor in many of the ways of life.
“There is a war just around the corner, Alfie, and I reckon this brings both agony and opportunity,” he said one day. “I certainly ain’t gonna fight for our glorious King and his self-centred politicians. I will not go to fight someone else’s war. I’ll register in the docks to be retained. The bosses know my value. The opportunity is to continue and grow my pilfering so as in a few years I can give my family so much more than we ever’ad.”
“What family, Jack? You ain’t been playin’ up and got a young lady in the puddin’ club?” Alfie said, smirking.
“You’ll be the first to know, my lad, the very first,” Jack replied, cuffing Alfie around his ears, which made them both chuckle.
“I have a little idea that can be profitable for both of us. I can knock off a case of good brandy each week quite easily, when no one is looking. Do you reckon your landlord can shift the gear for a profit of sixty percent more than he gets now? Could you ’ave a little word in his ear, suss him out? It’s a commitment of a case every single week. There’s a fiver in it for both of us and the landlord gets a case of the finest for less than half the going price.”
Two days later the brothers met up for a cup of tea down the wharf where Jack worked.
“I spoke wiv Mister Bradley from the Dog and he’s well happy,” said Alfie. “He asked if we could get him two cases each and every week.”
“Good work, Alfie. When does he want to start?”
“As soon as you can,” said Alfie, “and you are taking the risks here, so we split our twenty quid seventy-five to twenty-five. I’m more than pleased with a fiver – and you have that family to think of,” he teased.
Jack smiled at his cheeky brother. Little did Alfie know that he was part of the family to whom Jack referred.
Alfie began to build a nice little pile of money from working at the Dog and the brandy lark. He began to worry about someone breaking into the flat and finding his stash in the chocolate tin under the bed. This worry became a nagging concern, and he shared his problem with Jack.
“I’ll look after it,” Jack offered. “I have a nice little hiding hole where all the family money goes. No one will ever find it and no one will ever touch it. Give it to me and whenever you want all of it or some of it, just give me twenty-four hours’ notice.”
“Thanks, Jack. It’ll take a load off my mind. If I can give you money as it comes in to me, then I won’t worry at all.”
Alfies Dad died quicker than most thought, passing one night in Summer dying in his sleep. Alfie was pleased the old bastard was dead and he wouldn’t miss him at all.
Over dinner one wintery night in early December, 1914, the family was assembled and practically drooling at the glorious food laid out on the table. There was a steak-and-kidney pudding that emanated deliciousness, a big bowl of mashed spuds with a dob of butter gently melting in the heart of the bowl, and a dish of freshly shucked peas and carrots. Finally, as a centrepiece, there was a small glass pitcher of gravy. Just the smell made them all salivate like a litter of hungry puppies – and it was all courtesy of Jack and Alfie’s little business venture with the landlord of the Dog. The brothers also committed to providing Christmas dinner, something the family had never really experienced. Elsie and the twins said they would cook a meal good enough for Jesus himself, should he turn up.
Once they had tucked into to the glorious food, Elsie gave a cough and said, “Right, you lot, I ’ave something to tell ya.”
Oh, Christ, she’s got some ’orrible disease, thought Alfie, swallowing hard.
“I’ve met a man and I am quite taken by him,” Elsie continued.
The room exploded in questions and disbelief until Jack quietened the family down.
“Shh, you lot, keep quiet, give Mum her time to tell the story. Go on, Mum.”
“Well, his name is Tommy Smith. He has no children and his wife passed away about ten years ago. I met him at the match factory and we have been friendly for some time. I like him and he likes me and I’ve invited him to ’ave Christmas with us all. What d’ya fink?”
Again, the table erupted in opinions and questions, with no one listening to anyone else. Jack was just as noisy as the others at this declaration. Once the din died down, Elsie spoke again.
“Right, you lot, bloody well hear me and hear me good. I have spent twenty-two years giving birth to you kids, wiping your arses, wiping your noses; feeding you, sometimes even I don’t know how; washing your clothes, making your beds, loving you in every possible way. Now I want a little love, and Tommy Smith offers me that. He is coming over ’ere at Christmas and by Christ, I expect you all to welcome him with open arms – particularly you, Fred. And try not to get too pissed on the day, please.”
“Well, Mum, I for one am well pleased for you,” said Alfie. “Will he be staying the night?”
Spontaneous laughter spilled around the room. Elsie couldn’t help but smile.
“No, my gentlemen friend won’t be staying, as we are going back to his flat to sleep.”
“Ooh, Mum, how exciting for you! Do you remember how to do it?” giggled Lily.
“’Cause when you find out, can you tell Lily? She needs all the help she can get,” replied Rose.
By this time the room was full of laughter and leg-pulling. Jack stood up, tapped his beer glass with his teaspoon, and said, “Mum, you deserve all the happiness in the world and then some. So, speaking for us all, but particularly for me, we welcome Tommy Smith into our house and will take the piss out of the pair of you for most of the day.”
“Hear, hear” was the cry from the table. Only Fred looked less than enthused by the concept. He downed his beer in one draught and left the table to refill his glass from the dark bottle on the sideboard.
There was more laughter, then more questions about Elsie’s relationship with Tommy. Everyone seemed happy about it except Fred.
“’Scuse me, everyone.” Fred jumped up from his chair, looking nervous. “I have a little somefing to tell you all, too.”
“Don’t tell me you’re in the family way?” chided Alfie.
Fred scowled. “No, little bruvver, I ain’t up the duff. But…” He took what seemed like minutes to say, “I… I… I’ve signed up with the army and am off to training camp next week.”
After more silence, a rare commodity in the Norrington house, Elsie spoke through the tears welling up in her eyes.
“Well, I’ll be. My luverly is going to war to fight for King and country.” She got up from the table and wrapped her whole body around her second-born. “May God take care of you and bring you ’ome to your family when this ’orrible war is over, my brave, brave boy.”
At this the family surrounded Fred, the girls crying and the boys pumping his hands in manly shakes. They were too tough, or too well-rehearsed, to cry.
“Well, mate, I wish you all the very best. You know my views on the fucking war,” said Jack.
“Watch your language, Jack!”
“Sorry, Mum. But come ’ome quickly, Fred, and come ’ome complete in every way. Let’s toast our bruvver for his bravery and his courage.”
Once the shock wore off, many questions were fired towards Fred at the same time – mainly by Alfie, who was interested in the process of joining up.
“Alright, alright, alright,” Fred said. “I am joining the 1/17th London Battalion, known as the East End Regiment. Some of me mates have joined up as well, so I’ll ’ave familiar faces with me. We go down to Devizes for training – that’s in Wiltshire, wherever that is. I leave from Paddington station at eight o’clock on Fursday mornin’. I ain’t certain as to where I’ll be once the training is over – it takes twelve weeks. Me mates fink we’ll be in Flanders, as that’s where the Jerries are givin’ us a bit of a nosebleed, but I’ll write to Mum every week so she can let you all know what’s what.”
The shock of Fred’s impending departure for the Western Front got Alfie thinking. He had felt a burgeoning desire to protect his country. He knew this was a silly idea, as the age for volunteering was eighteen. Although he looked older than his years, he was still only fourteen. His birth certificate demonstrated that, and he had no other formal documents that may be easy to adapt to make him seem older. He pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind as the family gathered around Fred, hugging him, slapping him on the back, and in the case of the girls, crying uncontrollably.
Thursday morning came around too quickly. The family gathered in the Cromwell Street tenement to farewell Fred over a good English breakfast of fried eggs, sausages, bacon and fried bread.
“An army fights on its stomach,” said Elsie as she cooked up the breakfasts, two eggs at a time. Fred was first to be served.
“Thanks, Mum, it looks bloody luverly,” he said – a sentence that attracted a backhander.
“You might be in the army now, but swearing ain’t allowed in this house, so mind your tongue, my lad,” said Elsie.
“Sorry, Mum. I’ll miss those little slaps around my ears,” said Fred sarcastically.
“Oh, don’t worry, my luverly son. There’ll be plenty of those waiting for you when you return, and should you slip up, I won’t run out, you know.”
All around the table smiled, for they knew the ferocity in those slaps – and that Elsie would certainly never run out as long as she was vertical.
After breakfast Fred said, “Righto then, I’ll be off. I’ll get the bus from Mile End Road to Paddington. Should take about thirty-five minutes, so the timetable says.”
The whole family gathered around Fred, the girls crying again.
“You look after yourself, Fred,” said Lily.
“We will sort you out a luverly girlfriend for when you return,” said Rose.
“Thanks, Lily. Thanks, Rose. I will miss you both, but please write and tell me about your lives and the blokes you’re courting.”
“See ya, little man – or should I say big man? Look at the size of you!” said Fred. “Look after yerself and write whenever you can to let me know all the news from around these parts.”
“Yeah, bruv, no problems with that. Keep safe, mate, and keep well,” said Alfie through watery eyes as he hugged his brother. “You’ll be missed around here.”
“Alright, my turn,” said Jack. “Come ’ere, mate, gives us a hug. Now, you do everything possible to make sure that you come ’ome in one piece, and if you need anyfing, write to me and I’ll see what I can do. I’ll keep your job open down the docks, so you ain’t got to worry about nuffink. Take good care, bruvver.”
“Thanks, Jack,” Fred said. “I really appreciate it and I aim to come ’ome in one piece, so that job will come in right ’andy.”
The boys hugged, holding on to each other and their emotions tightly.
“Come ’ere, you luverly lump of lard,” said Elsie. “You’ve been the one that has caused me sleepless nights worrying about you and your antics, but look at you now. I am proud of you, Fred, as proud as any mum could ever be. You are off to war and you are breaking my heart.”
This statement created an outpouring of grief, both girls now weeping. Alfie and Jack rubbed their eyes as Elsie wailed like an injured animal, hugging her second son even closer. Fred buried his head in his mother’s chest, shoulders giving away the fact that he was crying heavily. Elsie rocked him slightly back and forth, just as she did when he was a baby.
After Jack suggested that Fred needed to leave for the bus stop, he peeled away from his mother’s love, picked up his kit and, without turning back, walked out the door on his first step to war – a war that would affect millions of people, and thousands of East End families for decades to come.