Christmas Eve, 1901
A wet farthing slipped through Red’s fingers as he handed the customer his change for the toffee apple. The coin tinkled on the cobbles behind the hot chestnut stall and rolled under Angharad’s skirt. Red sighed, almost didn’t want to disturb her. How small and frail she looked huddled over that hot barrel, her tatty, lopsided shawl draped over her right side, hiding a missing arm and a gouge the size of a horseshoe inches above her hip—war wounds from her aeronaut days in the Angolan conflict. Like him, she was a veteran fallen on hard times, charitably employed to tend the emporium’s stalls over Christmas.
“Well, what ya waitin’ for, old timer? Bleedin’ thing ain’t gonna sprout wings.” The idiot waiting for his change rocked on his heels, thumbs in pockets.
“Won’t be a moment, sir.” Red fingered the side of his brass kneecap, feeling for the gear lever to unlock his mechanical limb from its rigid posture. “Damn thing is frozen stiff. Doesn’t do the joint much good, me standing about all day.”
The young man peered over the counter and stuck out his bottom lip as though he hadn’t realized Red was handicapped. His hair was as black and spiked as a sweep’s brush, and he also had a chipped front tooth. He retrieved a pocket watch, began whistling tunelessly.
“Ah, there she goes.” Red shifted his weight to his left leg as the gear ratcheted into position in his right knee joint, starting the mechanism with a stutter that tickled through him. He crooked the limb himself while he bent to retrieve the coin. But the cobblestone was slick—his left boot slid. He twisted.
The brass leg straightened itself prematurely, hooking Angharad’s petticoats.
“Oi, what do you think you’re—”
Red scrambled to right himself but his balance was gone—as he wheeled back, the leg hiked her skirt up to her shoulders and knocked her forward into the barrel. Hot chestnuts spilled everywhere. The poor woman rolled onto her back, soundless, and gazed up at the giant Norway spruce Christmas tree that lorded over the emporium.
Red dragged himself beside her. “Angharad, dear! Are you hurt? I’m so sorry. I—”
The gentlest, warmest fingers he’d felt in years slid into his cold mitt. She pulled him down next to her. “A rare old view, ain’t it?”
’Twas indeed. The dawn of the twentieth century.
Watching the brass and iron steam-powered exhibits work overtime on their tinsel-decorated podiums, hearing hisses strike up like a chorus of cobras all around, and the indefatigable chug-chug of machinery binding the whole exhibition together, sank him into a snug feeling of forward motion. An uncommon feeling. The world did not wait around for those who couldn’t catch up on their own. The likes of him and Angharad and Joe DiStepano were already forgotten—“heroes” reluctantly given alms in place of lost limbs or the prideful retirement they’d earned by risking their lives protecting the empire.
They were the smashed baubles under the great Christmas tree. The fallen nutcrackers. Eyesores and smithereens. Under everyone’s feet.
A middle-aged mother and her two sons helped Angharad up. Steam and smoke stuck like a gigantic, wet miner’s rag to the glass channel bisecting the roof, before it leaked out through half-clogged vents. The emporium had been a major airship hangar once. Its copper pipes and riveted beams were decades old, stained green by condensation and relentless industry. Red shook his head. Who would have imagined it would become an overgrown toyshop, a magical Yuletide grotto for the kids, with more colour than a kaleidoscope?
Bitter sweetness on his tongue spread like an ache, then gushed straight to his heart.
For the kids?
“All right, I’ve got you, Red.” Joe DiStepano hooked the long, black fingers of his one hand under Red’s mechanical knee.
Hedy Durante, a matronly florist with only one eye, grabbed his other leg, while Red slung his arms over their shoulders.
Hedy said, “One, two, three...oops-a-daisy,” and they lifted him to his feet, propped him up while he set his knee-joint to its regular walking gear.
“Thank you.” He quickly scanned the scavengers gathering hot chestnuts from the filthy cobbles. “Where’s Angharad?”
“Here.” She was behind him, helping herself to a toffee apple. A willowy yet brash woman with strawberry-red hair, in her mid-thirties—a similar age to his wife when she’d passed, not quite a lifetime ago. “Might as well salvage something.” She munched with her mouth half-open.
Red grinned, nodded at the strewn chestnuts. “You figured I owed you, eh?”
“Um, you owe yourself, Red, darling. ’T weren’t no gentleman you got down on your hands and knees for.” Angharad clamped the apple between her teeth and shook his empty money box, then spat the apple into it. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed—’cause some bleeder went and nicked it for firewood. Have yourself a sherry and a very merry Christmas. That bugger will, whoever he is.”
“I ask you! Why do we bother at all?” Hedy scrubbed her tired face with plump hands.
“That’s why.” Angharad blew a few strands of ginger hair away from her face and waved her toffee apple at several carriages full of beaming children. Their pint-sized train wound its way around the emporium’s layered perimeter, higher and higher until it reached Father Christmas’s log cabin at the top. The children then had a choice of descending either by slide or steps, while the next group, having climbed the steps, got to ride the train down backwards.
“When I was that age,” she said, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. And we get to be a part of the magic, if only for a few days. Well worth a few tumbles, I reckon.”
“When did you get to be so chipper?” Joe flashed his still-impressive-for-his-age white teeth between thick lips. “Next thing you’ll be telling us where you hid them diamonds.”
“Yeah. Not on your life, bluecoat. I’m savin’ those for my big engagement.”
“Oh? And who’s the lucky man?” Red watched her eyes light up, then narrow to bitter, cornflower slits.
“Right now? Whoever can make me something like that.” She pointed to Red’s mechanical limb—the maker of which he’d refused to identify. He shrugged, smiled at her playful squint. Whatever happened, only he must know that little secret. More than his emporium job and this camaraderie he shared with the veterans was at stake—his very life depended on it. No, the authorities must not learn any more about why he was in London than he’d already divulged to the navy harbourmaster. He’d selected a few vague details of his past to share: engine man on a Gannet ship in West Africa, the one Englishman in an all-African crew. Seasoned combat veteran. Honourably discharged after suffering severe injuries in a disastrous uncoupling during a typhoon.
They’ll know what they need to know. Nothing more.
“Well, we’d best be getting back to our posts.” Joe pulled his blue tunic straight, raked a few spots of mud out of his grey beard. The most senior officer among them—a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Fusiliers, formerly the 7thRegiment of Foot—he had spent the best part of a decade fighting with the British-sponsored “bluecoat” militia against Spanish guerrillas in the Para district of Amazonian Brazil, where, he often boasted, not even the hellish tropical conditions had robbed him of the pride he took in maintaining a clean uniform. “A prickly old stickler,” Angharad liked to call him. “The sort who’d prop a dead man up and inspect him if he was ordered to.” But they were all fond of old Joe. He refused to bow to circumstance, and carried their collective glory days with undying loyalty in his breast.
“We still on for drinks later—under the tree?” Angharad eyed each of them in turn, nodding at their assent. She turned to Red.
“How about it, Mulqueen? You up for a few gins and some good old Yuletide misbehavin’?”
“Count me in.” He craned his neck to see the old Admiralty clock over the exit, but his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be. Mm, still good enough to appreciate the pale, shapely Snow Queen clad in fur and satin atop her winter sleigh in front of the steam-powered moving pictures exhibition. She blew glitter over the men and boys fawning at her feet. Dainty, yet a complete tease—how much she reminded him of—
No, don’t let her haunt you forever. Things change. Change with them, damn it.
“You’re not half distracted today, Red, love.” Angharad patted his shoulder, whispered, “Best snap to, deary—you’ve got a customer waitin’.”
“Huh? Oh, right.” He reached into his tunic pocket for his spectacles, but found only glass shards and wire. “Bugger,” he muttered. “Hey, do you me a favour, Angharad? Read me the time. My spec—”
“Ten minutes to ten.” She turned away and began sweeping up the spilled chestnuts, the broom nestled awkwardly under her one arm.
“Shout for Bertie or one of the others,” he said. “Someone needs to watch my stall for a while.”
“Why? You have some kind of royal engagement we don’t know about?”
“Not exactly royal, but...I’ll explain later. Have to fly. Sorry.” From behind the crate of fresh apples under the counter he snatched the pile of letters he’d written over the past few nights. He counted them—all there. He checked to make sure no one was watching, then he slid the letters into his leather belt pouch, fastened the stud, and patted it for good luck.
The bemused father of three waiting to be served tipped his bowler as Red limped out from behind the counter, the clank, click-click, clank of the mechanical leg an object of fascination for the toddlers. Red marched with as much spring as he could manage, ignoring the gasps from passers-by—expensive clockwork limbs like his were rarely seen outside high society. A steam organ’s soft, nasal rendition of Land of Hope and Glory trailed him all the way to the exit. It recalled warmer days tinged with patriotism, the naive, blissful kind that swelled an Englishman’s heart. A feeling he’d lost long ago.
He glanced around to make sure he wasn’t being followed. A Leviacrum agent might be anywhere or anyone these days, scouring for hints of sedition. He sucked in a wintry breath and sighed. These people were so impressed by all this steam power and modern science. How little they knew about what was really underway in London and Angola, the true power set to be unleashed. And soon, very soon, he would have to return to the fighting.
After Christmas, damn it. I’ve at least earned that much.