It was not quite six o’clock in the morning on a Thursday in early September and Sid Kidman was completely lost.
He was the biggest private landowner in the world, and if he’d been set down blindfold anywhere in the fifty thousand square miles of the Australian bush that he owned or controlled at the time, he could have told you within seconds exactly where he was and found his way a thousand miles home.
But here in a shadowy maze of filthy alleyways in the East End of London he was as lost as he’d never been before in his life.
He was in fact only four hundred yards from the broad open spaces of the Mile End Road that he was trying to find, but in the unlit, evil-smelling labyrinth of back streets that he’d hoped would offer him a shortcut through Whitechapel he had lost his way and his sense of direction for the first time since he was a lad.
At this crack-of-dawn hour in the morning there were people about, but they were a rough, unfriendly lot and he was aware that he had strayed into an area where the quality of his clothes might invite unwanted attention.
Of the three pedestrians he had passed most recently, two were clearly women of a certain calling who looked at him speculatively as he strode along a grim passage called, ironically, Flower Street. The other was a drunken man supported between them who had snarled something meaningless at Sid as he’d been half-carried by.
The Australian hadn’t felt that it would be diplomatic to ask any of them to show him the way.
Then the boys started to appear, materialising out of the walls and around invisible corners, street urchins even filthier than the streets themselves, in rags and tatters, several with bare feet, gathering around him in a growing crowd.
Kidman automatically took a stockman’s head-count and came up with a tally of fifteen. ‘Hello lads,’ he said. ‘You’re up early. Could you point me towards Stepney Green?’
There was no answer for a moment or two.
All eyes turned to one of the bigger boys who was lighting the squashed stump of a cigar held on a rusty pin.
He puffed hard, blew out a plume of smoke and squinted up at the tall stranger.
‘Gizza shillin’ and we’ll show ya,’ he said hoarsely. ‘Half a guinea an’ we’ll carry ya.’
His acolytes erupted in shrieks of laughter, and some of the smaller boys started hooting and punching each other on the arm. The bigger boys closed in on Kidman from all sides.
‘Where ya from mister?’
‘What ya doing ‘ere then?’
‘You rich mister?’
‘Gizza a penny.’
‘Gizza tanner mister.’
‘Gorn mister gizza narf a crown.’
Sid put his hands in his overcoat pockets and looked around over the boys’ heads for some sort of adult help.
The older boy flipped his cigar end away and moved a step closer. Age and leadership gave him the right to wear a pair of broken, cast-off boots and a man’s old cloth cap, which he pushed up on his forehead.
‘What’s wrong with yer titfer?’ he asked, pointing suddenly at Kidman’s wide-brimmed hat.
‘My what?’ said Sid.
‘Yer titfer tat, yer ‘at,’ shouted the urchin as though Kidman’s head had burst into flames, and Sid fell for it.
He pulled his hand out of his coat pocket and raised it to his head, then whipped it back smartly enough to grab the small paw sliding into his pocket from behind.
There was a shrill yell of alarm from the would-be pickpocket and an outburst of appalling abuse from the swarm of juvenile delinquents now surrounding him.
‘Get yer ‘ands off our Tommy ya foreign fucker.’
‘Who d’ya fuckin think ya fuckin are ya fucka?’
Sid Kidman made a point of never swearing himself, but he had worked all his life in the outback among stockmen and drovers and goldrush miners who cursed as often and worse than this. But to hear it coming from these undergrown panhandlers made him blink. Some of the boys looked as though they were barely big enough to walk.
He let the small hand go and turned at bay to find the gang leader close enough to poke the tall Australian hard in the diaphragm with his forefinger.
‘That’s assault that is mister. You one of them queers wot likes boys mister? We know the law mister. You better pay up now before we get the law on ya.’
There was another high-pitched roar of approval and abuse from a now wildly over-excited crowd of urchins, a hyena outcry of pack bloodlust that was cut off instantly and completely by an ear-splitting screech from the far end of the street.
For a second the urchins were frozen where they stood, and then like a shoal of minnows flickering away from a pike they vanished, melting into the soot-encrusted brickwork and the shadows as suddenly and completely as they had appeared.
Sid stood in the middle of the cobbled street and patted his pockets under his greatcoat to check that nothing was missing, and then turned towards the source of the screech. The two women he had passed just minutes before were coming back down the alley, minus their drunken cargo, sashaying towards him arm in arm. They stopped far too close to the big Australian for his liking, and both of them fluttered their eyelashes at him in a parody of coy allure.
The smaller of the two cocked her head speculatively and put her unattached hand on her hip.
Sid thought that on balance it might have been easier dealing with the boys.
‘Well now Gloriana, what ‘ave we ‘ere?’
She turned her head in mock enquiry to her friend, who put a finger to her chin. ‘I do believe it’s our posh gent agin, Theadora. What can he be a-doing of in these parts at this time of the mornin’? D’you think he’s looking for something we can help him find?’
The smaller woman puckered her carmine-red lips and made a thoughtful kissing sound.
‘Ay’m sure Ay don’t know, Gloriana, my dear. Ay think we should arst him.’ She placed the backs of her hands under her cleavage and pushed upwards. ‘What do you think, mister? Bit early in the day for a bit of how’s yer father?’
Kidman took a half step backwards and put his own hands up in a gesture of surrender. He’d seen far worse sights in the goldmining camps of Kalgoorlie where the ladies of the night provided a twenty-four-hour, more or less open air service and didn’t bother doing up their corsets between customers. He’d gained a reputation even as a young drover for refusing the temptations of the bottle and the brothel, but he was off his patch here in the depths of the East End of London, and he wasn’t sure how to handle this situation.
As it usually did, his sense of humour came to his rescue. For a big bushman he had a surprisingly gentle and disarming laugh, and he laughed now and raised his hat.
‘Ladies, I owe you. Those jolly beggars had me tree’d and I reckon they’d have skinned me if you hadn’t rescued me there. I’m very much obliged to you both.’
The women stared at Kidman for a moment, then looked at each other and burst out laughing. ‘Listen to ‘im Edie! What’d he say? Get away with ya.’
They looked back at Kidman with more friendly curiosity, all the pantomime seduction forgotten. ‘You’re a foreign toff, ain’t yer? Where you from then? What you doing in this shit-hole in yer fancy togs this time of the morning? You’ll get yourself done like a kipper larkin’ about on yer todd in this neck of the woods.’
Kidman understood the gist of this if not the detail, scratched his beard and laughed again ruefully. ‘Ladies, I’m in the wrong place and I hope you’ll be good enough to show me the track out. I like to get around early like this before the place wakes up, so I’ve walked up from the hotel to try and find a place called Stepney Green, but I’m good and lost and I’m in your hands entirely. Is this Stepney?’
At almost exactly the time that Sid Kidman was running into difficulties with the Whitechapel street-urchins, half a mile up the Mile End Road Charlie Foulds pulled his coat collar gloomily up around his ears and headed down the Mile towards Gilroy’s omnibus stables on White Horse Lane.
There were blurred figures moving in the glow of gaslight behind the steamed-up windows of the bakery on the corner of Cambridge Road, and in the chill of the September dawn the fleeting gust of warm, fresh bread that enveloped him as he passed lifted his spirits for a moment.
At most times of the day or night on this stretch of the Mile End, the big Anchor Brewery and the Scottish Laundry next to it filled the air with a powerful but wholesome mixture of hops and carbolic soap, but the pervading smell of a London morning was the sulphurous acridity of coal burning in a million fireplaces and forges, stoves and steam engines, boilers, bread-ovens and kitchen ranges all over the biggest city in the world.
Looking down towards the Thames from the height of Stepney Green, Charlie could see thousands of tendrils of dark smoke already rising above the city, spreading into the still air like a canopy of dirty foliage above a forest of chimneys. On a foggy autumn day the early-morning mist might thicken this into a full-blown London Particular, a proper pea-souper smog, but today there was a promise that the late summer sunshine England had been enjoying was going to continue.
Charlie pinched the last quarter inch of his Woodbine carefully between his finger and thumbnail, drew on it until the red glow stung his fingertips, and pitched the remaining fragment into the gutter.
At this time just after dawn he was one of the earlier birds on the streets of the waking city, but there were many others up and under way. Postmen and milkmen already halfway through their rounds. Dowdy servant girls in drab maid’s uniforms, wrapped in threadbare shawls, hurrying to another thankless day of drudgery in dreary basement kitchens. Sales clerks with their breakfast in their hands, half-running along the pavement to beat the clock to the shop or the warehouse door. Housekeepers with enormous wicker baskets hotfooting it to the early morning markets.
Two years earlier, when he first started driving the No. 4 horse bus on Gilroy’s Stepney to Oxford Circus route, this brisk walk to the stables and the camaraderie of the dawn workforce had put a skip in Charlie’s step. It made him feel like a soldier in the unseen army that kept the wheels of the great city turning around the clock, and it was reassuring to see how many of those wheels bowling along the Mile were still horse-drawn.
Even at this time of the day when the traffic on the Mile End road was as light as it would ever be, he could see a convoy of towering wagons drawn by enormous Shire horses rumbling in from the countryside close by to the east, heading for the Whitechapel Haymarket just down the Mile with forage for thousands of hungry horses waiting patiently in barracks and depots and mews and jobbing stables across the city.
There were three of the country carts from the market gardens to the north and east, their single ponies plodding homewards up the Mile past the brewery from Spitalfields market. A big, two-horse rail company carrier clattered past on its way to catch a goods train raising steam at Kings Cross or Liverpool Street. And a couple of hackney cabs were trotting down the Mile from Bow on their way to pick up the first fares of a long and weary day.
It was still the horse that kept London supplied and on the move, and Charlie had been a horseman body and soul from the moment on his third birthday when his father had hoisted him onto the broad, warm back of a grey bus horse that had seemed to him then to be as gigantic and as mythical as an elephant.
But this morning the sight of horses and the sound of hooves on the Mile made Charlie feel even more downcast than he had been when he had left his young wife weeping in their lodgings ten minutes earlier.
Just two months back, Ted Gilroy had told him that the London General Omnibus Company had made an offer for Gilroy’s one remaining route, and although the old man had shaken his head dismissively and patted Charlie on the back, the knowledge had cast a shadow of unease over the young driver that he hadn’t been able to shake off since. And then as if on cue to spite him, round the corner of Globe Road came one of the new London General motor buses, chuffing and spluttering past him down the Mile towards the city.
Charlie and his fellow horse bus drivers ridiculed these ungainly red monstrosities, but they could carry half a dozen more passengers than an old-fashioned two-horse ‘bus and charge them less, and the LGOC was systematically squeezing the few remaining small operators off the streets and out of existence.
He would scoff at the motorbuses with the other drivers, but deep down Charlie knew that the horse buses he drove were fighting a battle for survival, and the internal combustion engine was winning.
The motorbus left in its wake an alien stink of petroleum fumes that stayed in his nostrils all the way to the stables.
In the good old days when his grandfather drove a mail coach, the outside passengers could smell London ten miles before they saw the first signs of its eastern sprawl, downwind on the Ipswich Road. That was the proper, natural smell of old London, Charlie boy, his dad had told him. Soot and shit. Coal smoke, human and horse shit and, on hot summer days, the eye-watering sewage stench of the Thames.
Charlie turned onto White Horse Lane, head down towards the stables a hundred yards away, and walked quickly across the road and through the big double gates under their once imposing wooden archway.
Gilroy s Municipal Omnibus Service said the name on the arch. It was a flaking sign of the times, its missing apostrophe a recent symbol of the company’s decline.
Charlie walked across the big cobbled stableyard to a scuffed green door in the corner nearest the road, and stepped into the low, dingy brick building that housed Ted Gilroy’s office. It also served as a cloak room and informal clubhouse for his dwindling team of drivers and conductors, and it greeted Charlie this morning with the reassuring fug of stale tobacco, damp gabardine overcoats, human and horse sweat and leather that he had associated with the horse bus business ever since he could remember.
There was a small fire burning in the grate, and a single gaslight cast a dim glow over the familiar, diminished ranks of assorted old wooden chairs that lined the walls on either side of the fireplace. Fifteen years ago there had been forty drivers in Gilroy’s service. Today there were twelve, but here in the sanctuary of this snug Gilroy’s drivers could still tell each other that they were the old guard, the immoveables, and although the golden days were badly tarnished, on their own turf they were still the lords of the White Horse stables.
Over the past six months since the baby had died the busmen’s room had become a bolthole for Charlie, but as if his day couldn’t get any gloomier, the first object he clapped eyes on when he pushed open the door was the smirking face of Gilroy’s teenage nephew and apprentice groom, the crow turd, Thomas Crawfurd…