The Song of the Butcher Bird | 4 Gilroy’s No.24 Bus
The man in the dented hat
Halfway through his first circuit of the day, Charlie was sitting on the central driving seat of the No. 24 bus, staring morosely over the heads of his two horses at the logjam of stationary vehicles that was blocking his route along Aldgate.
He couldn’t see the cause of the delay. It could be anything. A pedestrian caught between two vehicles or kicked by a horse, a fight over damages and blame between two carters, a horse down or hopping lame, one of the hated motor buses broken down and stranded in the middle of the road, or just the sheer volume of traffic battling its way into the bottleneck of a narrowing and overcrowded thoroughfare.
“Fuckin’ell,” he muttered. In every possible respect, his life seemed to be falling to pieces. His wife was heading for the nut-house, he was going to get an earful or worse when Ted Gilroy heard what he’d done to his shitty little nephew that morning, and at this rate he was going to be sodding well late at every bloody stop all the way round his route this god-damned morning. “Fuck it.”
If there was one thing that really browned him off, it was running late. No, he thought, every bloody thing browns me off these days. But this was a proper pain in the arse. It threw the whole day out of kilter. It riled the stable staff who would have to scramble to change the horses, it meant he might not get home until nigh on ten o’clock, and he and his conductor would have to spend the whole day apologising to angry passengers complaining about something that was not their bloody fault. Worst of all, he might get clocked late by one of the city inspectors and Ted Gilroy would be landed with another fine he couldn’t afford.
Every day nowadays the traffic snarled itself to a standstill somewhere in the city. It was the motor buses that caused the problem, of course, barging into the orderly, organised processions of horse-drawn buses and wagons, honking and backfiring, upsetting the horses, and then breaking down every ten minutes and bringing the whole system to a grinding halt. He was ten minutes late already, and he still had to negotiate the crowded warren of the city’s financial district, weaving his way down past Fenchurch Street and Mincing Lane, hurrying the horses to make time up Eastcheap onto the final stretch of King William Street to London Bridge. He had to stop every few hundred yards, too, dropping his cargo of clerks and book-keepers in twos and threes, and watching them scurrying away to their wormholed desks in the thousands of faceless office buildings that lined these greedy streets.
He would be running at least twenty minutes late by the time he swung Samson and Delilah into Gilroy’s yard at the end of this run. He’d be bursting for a gypsie’s and Mick the Tick would be bellyaching about drivers not being wot they wos and how it used to run like clockwork in the good old days, stumping about and making a song and dance about unhitching the first stage horses and backing the new pair up to the bus. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about the harnessing being done properly. Mick had been harnessing horses for nearly forty years, and though his hands were crabbed with rheumatics and his fingers bent you could bet your life that every link would be hooked correctly, every buckle safely secured and every strap tidy in its keeper. But there’d be no time for a cuppa and a smoke, just a hurried turnaround and straight back out again into the bustle, fretting to make up time on the next stage. And he would be ploughing his way through this traffic three more times during the day. And the same the next day. Four routes a day, six days a week, and three on every other Sunday.
Charlie pushed his bowler up on his forehead and massaged the skin where the stiff rim rubbed. Above the red mark left by his hat, the skin showed dead white against the dark summer tan of his face. It was a coachman’s tan – deeply weathered hands and face, boiled egg white everywhere else – and he’d been conscious of it even in the darkness when he first took his clothes off in front of his new wife, but it was the mark of a man who worked long hours outside in all weathers, and not some soft-fingered pen-pusher like these clerks, fidgeting behind him at the delay. He pulled the hat down again and ran a forefinger along the edge of his moustache. It had thickened out nicely now after several years of embarrassing sparsity. He ran the finger surreptitiously under his nose to make sure there were no dewdrops to offend the travelling public. Or the stationery public in this case.
“Good-day.” The voice was so close to his ear that he jumped, and he swung round angrily ready to give this upstart passenger a piece of his mind. The middle-aged man leaning over the rail at the front of the open top deck behind Charlie obviously wasn’t a clerk complaining about the delay, or any of the other usual fares he carried into the City on a normal day. He sported a fashionable King Teddy torpedo beard, but in every other respect he was clearly out of the ordinary run of omnibus fares. He was wearing a well-cut, expensive new tweed overcoat, and a wide-brimmed hat with a large dent in one side of the crown that you didn’t see in fashionable London. But it was the strange accent that caught Charlie’s attention. A colonial cove, and a wealthy one by the look of his togs.
“Good-day son,” said the man again cheerfully. “Sorry if I gave you a turn there.”
The man smiled at Charlie and nodded at the crowded thoroughfare. “Not getting along too smartly here, are we?”
As a statement of the obvious it might have hit Charlie on a nerve on this day of all days, but the man’s good humour was infectious, and Charlie found himself smiling ruefully in reply. “No, sir, we’re not.” The ‘sir’ came automatically and surprised him. He made a point of never giving his passengers anything other than the most grudging courtesy. The respect, his father had always told him, should come the other way. Today’s unusual passenger was regarding him as this thought crossed his mind, dark, deep-set eyes watching him with a friendly intensity from under the brim of his unusual hat. Normally it wasn’t permitted for passengers to talk to the driver, and normally Charlie would have told the man to return to his seat sharpish, but there was something about this stranger that made him hesitate.
“Hard on the horses,” said the man, “all this stopping and starting.” He leaned forwards almost directly over Charlie’s shoulder to make himself heard above the shattering din that had resumed as the vehicles in front of them began moving. After the relative quiet of the standstill, the street was suddenly filled with a crescendo of noise as the carts and carriages, buses and pantechnicons lurched forward, axles squeaking, trace chains jingling, wheels rumbling. It was the cacophony of an army on the move, an artillery barrage of steel-shod hooves on the asphalt and cobbled street, punctuated by the high-pitched descant of competing newspaper boys and street sellers and the mechanical coughing and pointless horn-honking of motor traffic; a storm of sound crashing and ricocheting between the buildings that crowded both sides of the street.
Charlie had opened his mouth to reply at the precise moment the tangle of vehicles and people unravelled itself and began moving again west along Aldgate. He checked briefly that the newsboys and street urchins who had been bobbing like sparrows among the stationary vehicles had fled to the pavement, then took his foot off the brake pedal and shook the reins to move the horses forward and join the flow. “Gets worse every day.” He had to shout over his shoulder to make himself heard as they picked up speed again. Speed being a relative term. The bus was now moving at the same pace as the pedestrians heading the same way on the pavement beside them.
Fifty yards ahead of them they could see the vehicles nearest the pavement pulling out around an obstruction directly in front of them, and Charlie began edging his team away from the curb into the flow of traffic in the centre of the street. He tugged on the offside reins, flexing his wrist gently, and Samson’s offside ear flicked briefly in acknowledgement. ‘On you go Samson,’ Charlie called to him, tapping him gently with the long whip to urge his team into a trot. The horses recognised his voice above the noise, and both of them flicked their ears in response. Charlie could feel the strength of the big bay leaning into his collar.
As they drew closer to the obstruction, Charlie could see a horse lying at the side of the road, a huddle of chestnut coat and one white fetlock visible through the small crowd of curious onlookers and ragged urchins that always congregated round street-side tragedies like this. It was a cab horse, still attached to the battered Hansom that was tipped sideways over the shapeless body in the gutter, one wheel revolving slowly in the air. He could see the cab horse’s head now as they drew alongside, and at a glance Charlie could see that the dead horse was old and underfed, its coat in poor condition and the harness dull and dirty.
He shook his head. “Bloody pirates.”
Strictly speaking it was unlicensed bus operators with their rickety old second-hand vehicles and cut-throat fares that the legitimate busmen referred to as pirates. But fag-end cabmen like this were just as bad, flogging their half-starved old crocks into a roadside grave. The jobbing contractors who leased out these screws on a daily basis to the pirates were worse still, buying up worn-out horses in the big dispersal sales, bloating them out with chaff and working them all hours until the poor sods dropped in their harness like this one. And they’d walk away and leave the corpse to rot where it lay in the gutter, too, thought Charlie, if they could get away with it. “Hang the bastards,” he said out loud. He realised his passenger was still close enough to hear him, and coughed apologetically, but when he glanced over his shoulder the man was looking down on the scene, not with the kind of horrified pity or prim disgust that female passengers and fastidious clerks tended to display, but with a knowledgeable curiosity.
The man turned back towards the street, caught Charlie’s eye, and raised an eyebrow. “Heart most like? Must happen a lot in a city this size?”
Charlie nodded. “My boss says something like forty or fifty horses a week in London. Used to be a helluva lot more.” It was another point of pride at the White Horse Stables that Gilroy’s had lost just one horse in their last ten years of service from Stepney. “Pick good horses and good men to look after ’em. That’s what Mr Gilroy says.” Much good it was doing him now.
The passenger clapped a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and leaned down again. “Your boss is right, son. Always employ the best. That’s my motto. You tell him I said so.” They began to pick up pace as they passed the body, and Charlie had the satisfaction of seeing the large blue form of a peeler with a formidable walrus moustache pushing his way through the crowd towards the cabman, pulling a notebook out of his silver-buttoned breast pocket.
He was about as tough as a sponge cake when it came to horses, his dad used to say, but anyone with half a heart would agree they deserved a damn sight better than that, he thought, and he lowered the tip of his long coachwhip and brushed it lightly on Samson’s shining back. Both ears flickered enquiringly at that, one-two, and Charlie grinned. “Good lad Samson.”
“Do you like your work, son?” The stranger had been watching him. It occurred to Charlie that he had the look of a wide-awake codger who wouldn’t miss much.
He turned his head slightly to reply, keeping his eyes on the street ahead as the traffic thickened and slowed again, easing the reins in towards his body. “Used to when I started,” he called over his shoulder, shaking his head. “Not any more. Too much traffic. Too many motors. Pardon me. There’s another stop coming up.”
Charlie guided the bus back towards the pavement and the small faded yellow square fixed to a telegraph pole that served as a Gilroy stop sign, matching the chipped yellow paintwork of the dwindling Gilroy fleet. “London Bridge,” he heard his conductor shouting over the din. “London Bridge.” There was a busy knot of people waiting anxiously for him under the sign, ready to complain about the bus being late, and he cast his eye over them to check for any sign of an inspector noting the delay, and for the pick-pockets who fought each other for the easy dibbings of a jostling queue like this one.
The top deck passengers disembarking at this stop were rising from their seats and making their way to the curved steps at the rear as his gentle pressure on the brake pedal and the reins eased the bus to a standstill. The man in the hat was evidently leaving here too, but he took a step back towards Charlie and held out a small pasteboard calling card. “Is this your regular route, son?”
Charlie nodded, and the man smiled and patted him on the shoulder again. “First time I’ve been in this neck of the woods. I have to go and see a man about a dog in Bark Shire tomorrow, but I’ll be back here next week. I like the way you handle your horses. I’ll see you again.”
Charlie watched the tall figure in the distinctive, dented hat join the throng hurrying north up Fenchurch Street, and wondered who it was that had made him feel so much better about the day. He looked down at the card while the new influx of passengers climbed the stairs and settled themselves in their seats. Sidney Kidman Esq said the name in heavy bold type. Underneath the name was printed c/o The Langley Hotel, Regent Street, London, and under that in brackets (Kidman & Co Pastoral Company, Eringa, Kapunda, South Australia).