Dragons and Coal Cinders
Copyright© 2016 by Myrtle Lane
After our otherwise, uneventful stroll around the insides of the hospital, Alfred left me to use the facilities. Looking into my closet, I found the replacement uniforms. Touching mine, I ran my hand over the wool, my mind drifted to Ann Crannach’s deep copper hair and blue-green eyes. Thinking about Ann’s dimples and expressive smile, when a flush had spread across her neck and cheeks while in the hallway, caused me to think of her less as a nurse and more as a woman. “Since she is married, I really shouldn’t be considering her full package of natural curves. Yet, I like padded figures and she had an honest face that warms my heart,” I thought, feeling conflicted, again daydreaming about the slightly older woman.
“Might as well try the clothes on, Jack,” Alfred teased, having silently slipped in behind me. “If we put them on we can walk out the front door without anyone noticing.”
Not waiting for an answer, Alfred took his uniform, and then closed the room’s door, giving us some privacy. We both undressed without a word and attacked the uniforms, each racing the other to get the pants and shirt on. I looked around for socks and Alfred patted his jacket’s pocket.
“We could take a cab down to the dock, I know a sailor’s pub that serves cheap ale,” Alfred boasted. “Well, at least Mr. Hall said we should try it sometime. We won’t run into anyone we know there.”
“Not that I’d remember anyone we knew,” I answered, sadly.
“I was thinking about the hospital staff that might have a day off. Mr. Hall said there is a pub close to the hospital that he and his mates use sometimes for lunch. Wouldn’t want them to recognize us and tell the staff here,” he reasoned. “This particular hospital is full of young English nurses and they tend to stay together when they go out.”
“Right,” I said, finishing with my socks. “Hope the boots fit.”
“They should, they’re our spare pairs,” he explained, finished with putting his jacket on. “Don’t muck them up like you normally do. We don’t have a batman to shine the boots here. However, I bet if we paid Mr. Hall he’d do it.”
I stamped my leather boots on the floor to ensure a snug fit. Alfred helped me with my jacket, eager to get us out of the building before we were caught. He fussed with my collar and then the leather belt around my waist.
“Good enough,” he commented, throwing me my service hat. “Follow my lead.”
Alfred popped his head out the door before placing his officer’s hat on. He looked both ways, looking for any staff members. Waving, he ushered me out of the room. We quickly walked down the hall with no one the wiser to our escape. We darted out the side door to the lawn by the kitchen. Outside large bushes blocked anyone’s view from the patio. No one wanted to see the kitchen staff and hired help coming and going, so the sidewalk provided the perfect egress away from the patients and their attentive nurses.
Once we made it to the front of the building we put our backs to the main entrance, walking down the driveway to the street as though we owned the place. Alfred causally pointed at the stone wall running along the property line. “We get out of sight, then hail a steam cab, just don’t look back until we are out of view of the hospital. If anyone asks later we went for a long walk to build up our constitution for the general’s arrival. Today’s got the making of a warm spring day and we just had to see it.”
“Well, when we are asked I can answer that truthfully. I don’t like the noises from the ward at night, and getting out for a walk is necessary for my sanity.”
“Now, you are sounding like your right-old-self,” Alfred answered, giving me a friendly pat on the back.
“It’s hard to know if I had anything in common with Jack Green,” I thought. “I still can’t get over being William Needham in Jack Green’s body.”
The cobblestone street was in great shape, it looked like it had recently been fixed up. Parts of the street had sections of new reddish-brown stones, where the older sections were a dirty brown that had black, rounded edging from wear and coal cinders. The narrow street dipped down the hill that pointed us at the heart of the coastal town. Children in dull-colored clothes that reminded me of photos from the Great Depression, ran about with careless ease, playing with one another. Across the street, a row of nice houses with small, walled gardens at the front, had a few mothers outside. The women were half-keeping an eye on the children and half-talking over the low garden wall to their neighbor. It was too early for flowers, so the gardens looked bare, with just a touch of green color. The Victorian styled houses had gray-stone walls, blackened from chimney soot and road traffic. Seagulls floated on the air, moving overhead, calling each other.
“You’re right quiet today.” Alfred interjected into my thoughts, as we came to a stop at the bottom of the street. Shrill noises came from behind a house that blocked our view of the intersection cross street. A couple of small, farm tractors hauling empty, flatbed wagons behind them, passed by us in a veritable cacophony of sound, drowning the rest of Alfred’s comments. Brass flywheels spun, driven by steam engines without any cowlings or covers. We could see the red machines were old and they had seen much use. Puffs of black smoke filled the air as the engines began to labor, going up the hill. The oddity of the machines glued my eyes to them, while marveling at the mechanical differences of seeing coal fired boilers driving tractors. Seeing them from an airplane that is fleeing a man eating monster is different than calmly inspecting a set of machines that looked like they were from some drug filled fantasy. The farmer engaged steel gears by his hand, adjusting the power somehow with brass levers, never once looking at what he was doing.
Alfred looked at me strangely, waiting for the tractors to motor far enough away, so he could be heard. “It’s not like you’ve never seen Red-Top tractors before.”
He must have seen the surprise on my face because he stopped teasing me. “Alfred, I really don’t remember them. Think of me as just being born into this world, because that is exactly how I feel.”
For a moment, I thought he was going to grab me by the elbow and direct us back to the hospital. I was sure he was considering it, looking at how he narrowed his brows and fought to say something. In the end, he shook his head. “Let’s get a drink.”
We walked another couple of blocks, any thought of using a steam cab had faded from Alfred’s mind. He was cheerful enough, but seemed lost in his own world, certainly wondering if sneaking us out had been a good idea. The closer we got to the waterfront, the older and smaller the houses looked. We moved among terraced houses that blocked the view of the sea. The appearance of military officers seemed to catch the attention of all the children and a few of the older men and women. The younger women were too busy hanging laundry to take any notice of us. It looked like a community washday, almost every house had white sheets flapping in the breeze that came in off the North Sea.
A little girl with no fear or concerns skipped across our path and stopped. “My name is Jessamine, what’s yours?”
Alfred stepped around her like she wasn’t there, still lost in his inner thoughts. He didn’t notice I’d stopped and knelt down.
“Miss Jessamine, a pleasure to meet you. I am called ... Jack Green.”
I wasn’t sure why she asked because she bolted back to an older woman holding the gate to their garden wall open. Jessamine immediately said something to the woman, who closed the wrought iron gate. I shrugged it off and ran to catch up with Alfred, not looking back. I noticed a couple of pre-teen boys copying Alfred’s marching step, trying to get his attention. When they saw I was watching them they grinned and saluted. I saluted back, which amused them more.
With his eyes forward, Alfred said, “Don’t encourage them, they’ll be asking for money next.” I didn’t think so; they seemed harmless enough.
We turned down the next narrow street, which looked like the last one, row-after-row of attached houses. The street didn’t have a single car on it. Children were running around the neighborhood, and from a multitude of clotheslines a sea of laundry fluttered in the wind. At the end of the street I noticed a dirigible, half hidden by the rooftops ahead of us. The cigar-shaped balloon was the same one that hadn’t been ready to aid our flight when we were ambushed by the wyvern clutch. A large Union Jack flapped from the front of the green balloon. We could see small, a square chimney on each side of the cigar-shaped craft. The sun reflected off its metal propellers that were attached to the long wooden basket that hung under the balloon. Alfred caught me looking at the aircraft and mumbled something to himself. His face darkened like a force of nature, a thunderhead about to discharge its bolts of lightning.
After we reached the harbor, Alfred pointed out a few interesting looking shops before drawing my attention to our destination, a pub with a red door. An empty, cobalt-colored steam cab, covered in coal dust, was parked outside the inn, which had prominent Scottish flags flying outside both of its second story windows. All the buildings around the harbor looked old, mostly constructed with gray stone or red brick.
I noticed most of the fishing fleet was out, only a few steamboats that were laid up for repairs remained. The harbor area wasn’t as busy as I’d expected. The people I did see were working on repairing nets. I don’t know why I expected the harbor to be busy, but my illusion was burst. With the fishermen gone there wasn’t a reason for people to hang around. It wasn’t until we were entering the pub that I noticed those two pre-teen boys had followed us like curious shadows. I waved to them and they waved back, and then they turned and ran back home.
Inside the dimly lit pub the colors of Scotland and various Clan Crests were displayed around the common area. I could see a couple of side rooms, at each end of the bar that were dark and empty. A few men were sitting on bar stools, talking with the bartender. An elderly man was sitting in a stuffed chair facing a crackling fireplace. Most of the tables in the room were empty. I saw two tables by the front window with large men our age who were playing cards together. The talk at the card tables stopped when we entered, as they looked to see who had come in. They seemed surprised and nervous by our presence. The gaslights behind their heads put a halo effect behind them, but they weren’t the image of any saints I’d seen in Sunday school.
Our reflection in the gilt edged mirror over the bar made me remember that it might be best if I limit my conversation here. English men weren’t completely welcomed by Scottish residents even in modern times, and this looked like a rough bar. It didn’t have that light, friendly feeling that makes you know you’re welcome. The faces of the men at the tables were weathered—tan from the sun. Men accustomed to demanding work, dangerous work; all of them had pints of ale or bitter close at hand. An older serving-woman with a full figure, wearing something like you’d see in a Bavarian beer garden, handed a dark ale to a customer at one of the tables. The blue uniformed man quickly stuck his face in the foaming pint and took a big swig. His attire reminded me of mechanic’s coveralls.
The barmaid said something to the drinking man and he put his arm around her waist. She laughed back at him, sliding out of his grip. She added another comment that put the whole table in an uproar. The woman straightened her black bodice and patted down her knee-high skirt, spun with a smile and she walked over to us. Her skirt and top were revealing compared to a nurse’s dress, but still tasteful and certainly proper to me. In this time period, I think her attire wouldn’t get her in a church. “Somehow I don’t think we’ll run into anyone from the hospital here” I thought.
The table next to us held two men, past conscription age, but still young enough to need to work. They regarded our presence with interest, speaking with an Irish brogue that was nearly impossible for me to interpret. Their vowels were exaggerated and their words ran together. Moreover, their faces didn’t exactly express a civilized warmth.
“Right, lads. What will you have?” The serving woman asked, matter-of-factly.
“A pint,” Alfred answered.
I raised my pointer finger to her, and she winked back.
“Two pints,” Alfred amended, understanding my order. “Jack, how about a sandwich too?”
“We have pigeon or fowl,” she answered.
“The game bird,” Alfred responded.
“Right.” She spun and gave a bit of a sway to her hips, retreating through a door beside the bar.
Ever since we’d walked through the low streets of Dundee, I’d had a feeling Alfred was on a mission. He wasn’t his normal cheery personality. Something was bothering him.
“So, what is the real reason you picked this place?” I asked, which got me his first smile since we’d entered the building.
“You know me too well.”
“I don’t know you at all,” I thought.
“Mr. Hall told me this was where the wyvern balloon men hang out,” Alfred whispered.
“Those in blue, I suspect?”
“Yes. We are going to give them a piece of our minds. I promised we would. With the War Office taking notice of us, I’m not sure how long we’ll be in Dundee,” he said, softly. “This is a long way from the aerodrome by car.”
The server returned with a few slices of bread and cheese on a plate. She quickly placed the plate between Alfred and me, and then left because someone called her away. Hungry I picked up a knife and buttered a piece of bread before eating it. Alfred didn’t seem interested in the offering, so I went after cheese and more bread without hesitation. I alternated between bites of cheese and the wheat bread.
“That’s a vigorous bit of eating,” the bartender said, having worked his way over to check us out.
I swallowed my last bite of food and looked him in the eye. “It’s nice to eat when I want to, the hospital keeps its own timetable.”
“Which hospital in town?” he asked deferentially, handing over our drinks.
“College,” Alfred answered.
“Aye, my sister works at the University College Hospital in the kitchen. They dinna normally put officers there, and we dinna see officers in here much either,” he stated, fishing for an explanation. His face told of a man who had years of heavy drinking under his belt, his broken blood vessels streaks of red.
“We must be a special case for the teaching hospital to want us. As to why your establishment? It was the only one on the harbor front,” I said, with a shrug. “We wanted a better look at the dock area and the green balloon hanging about. Alfred wanted a drink, so here we are.”
He didn’t respond, rather he went back to the bar and started talking to his mates who looked our way. A couple more men in blue uniform coveralls entered the pub and walked by us, not giving us any attention. They went to the table with the other men in the same coveralls and I noticed that they all had a hook symbol on their shoulders.
“Steam winch mechanics,” Alfred explained. “They’d be from the guard balloon unit, men who work on the landing tower,” which didn’t mean much to me.
For the next twenty minutes I distracted Alfred, getting him to talk about his family in West Yorkshire. He was the eldest son of a successful merchant who processed wool and lambskin, and sold the finished goods to the government. One of their family’s successes was selling horse blankets to highbrow aristocrats, which led to them becoming the primary supplier of their superior product to various Horse Guard Regiments. All these connections pushed his father into social circles that allowed for trading of important favors and influence. By becoming wealthy, like a few other middle-class families, Alfred’s family had become of local importance around Bradford and Leeds. This is how Alfred and his father had been able to foster their love of horse flesh and the races.
The arrival of our meal pulled Alfred back to our environment. We both noticed a few more people, men and women, had entered the pub. The dirigible crewmen seemed deep in their pints, and a bit more boisterous. Alfred’s purpose for coming resurfaced, because his face shifted to ugly frowns and tight brows when he looked upon the blue uniformed men who watched us. Again, I successfully distracted Alfred. We ate and talked about our meal, laughing at the comparison to hospital food, enjoying the fresh game bird. The serving woman had asked if we wanted more to drink but I halted Alfred, mid-order, reminding him we had escaped the hospital and would need to return with our wits.
She immediately returned to the bartender, whispering what she had learned. The patrons at the bar were clearly interested in who we were, because this bar wasn’t a typical haunt of “gentlemen.” A few rough looking women had joined the men at the bar, and they in particular were openly watching our table. I wasn’t so sure that they weren’t working girls that lived more desperate lives, serving a purpose that was as old as mankind. We weren’t the police, so I wondered if the women were just trying to call attention to themselves or perhaps I was wrong and they were the wives of the men at the bar. “Perhaps they were both,” I thought.
“I know you’re single, but don’t encourage those women. You can get a better class than that, Jack,” Alfred chided me, believing my steady gaze on the bar was a bad idea.
“Don’t worry, I rather fancy a few nurses back at the hospital,” I bantered.
He didn’t immediately respond, I’d taken my eyes off the bar and that seemed to have put a pair of shoes in motion. “Now you’ve done it, Jack.”
A middle-aged woman who’d seen better days, but dressed similar to our barmaid, gracefully worked around chairs and tables to close the gap with us. Her heavy bosom visibly swayed without any support from her attire. As she got closer, I wasn’t sure she was as old as I thought. Her weathered skin was rather tan as though the harsh sun was a constant in her life. She had a baby-pouched stomach under her belly button, which marked her as a mother. Her ample arms wanted to burst out of her blue dress, which seemed tight on her, making me think it was a hand-me down. It was the muscles on her arms that stretched the dress, so it wasn’t like it was hers originally. Upon seeing her approach, Alfred had turned his chair and looked out the front window. Since the balloon guys were in that direction, he could keep an eye on them. I knew they were still watching us too. “What is going through their minds,” I wondered.
The stern looking woman stood in front of me, I got up and gave her a courteous bow, which surprised her. “Madam, how can I help you?” I asked.
The woman had lost her train of thought, which seemed out of place, given her direct and confident approach to our table. I’d watched my fair share of movie classics, so I humored myself by taking her hand and kissing it. “I am at your service,” I added.
I’d always wanted to be the hero in the action movies that stole a woman’s breath away. Now she wasn’t a young Judy Garland or Olivia De Havilland but I got the cheeky smile out of the stranger I wanted.
Her eyes twinkled at me, unconcerned that Alfred hadn’t acknowledged her presence. He remained intent on making a stern face at the winch mechanics. Remembering why she was with me, she said, “Lieutenant, we haven’t had airmen in here before; you’re a long way from an aerodrome. I wanted to forewarn you that the local guard balloon crew and tower men consider this establishment their ... club. We don’t want any trouble. My name is Annabelle by the way.”
My natural inquisitiveness for new experiences like this pub fled with her strong hint. When Alfred said we were going for a change of scenery, this wasn’t what I had in mind.
“Surely, all the branches of military service can get along in a civil environment like this?” I asked, not believing in my words.