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I pondered on the fact that had my own late father, who tragically perished in the last cholera epidemic, made this same journey at my age it would have taken him the best part of two days by stagecoach. Now, with the advance of the railways this same journey could be achieved in a matter of just a few hours.

Looking out of my carriage window I could see our great capital city slowly coming into view, this place of my birth, which with each year that passed expanded like a rose achieving full bloom. And although my analogy to beauty and colour may sound like the embellished words of a romantic, I was fully aware of those dark undercurrents which watered this abundant flower. For the chimney stacks and factories still blew their sooty excretions into the cold, pewter grey winter sky, the laments of the poor and undernourished often went unheard by those affluent enough to fill their bellies with the gluttony of indifference, and injustice still stalked the alleyways of an administration which continued to turn a blind eye to everyday suffering.

As we sped ever closer towards our destination, vast blankets of snow-covered fields held much of England in a soporific embrace. Here too, distinct patches of woodland broke the landscape, the mighty oak and majestic beech, only recently stripped of foliage, now hung festoons of winter crystals from their laden branches as if suggesting to the world that as end of year approached the slate of our broken resolutions might be wiped clean. 

Suddenly the view from my carriage window began to alter, rural farmsteads and the distant spire of a village church gradually giving way to brick and mortar, and straining my eyesight I could just make out the distant dome of St Paul’s on the horizon, sitting astride Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London. I was coming home, or rather to the place of my birth, for home. My real home nowadays was where Mary and the children would be spending this holiday time on their own, due to circumstances which had necessitated my recent departure.

In brief, I had received a letter informing me of the closing days of a dear friend’s own life and a request to visit this very sick old gentleman before it was too late; this friend to whom I owed everything, for he was both “uncle” and benefactor, a rich citizen who had paid for me to enter Law school and set me up in legal practice in the city of York, just a stone’s throw away from the magnificent minster.

When we arrived at King’s Cross station a porter helped me with my luggage and hailed me a cab, for despite two operations in recent years to correct the physical deformity I had carried around since birth, I was still in need of a stout walking stick and a raised sole to one boot to aid everyday movement.

I tipped the chap a shilling and he with a flourish of his cap wished me a merry Christmas, for I have been amiss in explaining to you dear reader that the eve of His birthday was now upon us and the twilight of a late afternoon in December heralded the possibility of more snow to come.

As we set off and turned into Gray’s Inn Road, I couldn’t help but reflect that this would have been the main route my late father would have taken on his daily walk from our humble abode in Camden Town to the counting house where he’d once found employment. But London has changed so much since my childhood. Impressive red brick homes had sprung up to house the middle classes, replacing some, but not all of the former slums. However, small shops still abounded and the streets teemed with the congestion of ever more horse-drawn traffic.

As we approached Chancery Lane I watched the countless citizens of our Empire’s capital go about their business on these crowded pavements; the overworked housewife emerging from the butchers with whatever her meagre resources could afford, while hanging on display the goose and turkey tempted those whose families would enjoy a more substantial festive dinner; the subaltern back on leave from the subcontinent, his black side whiskers and bronzed features in direct contrast to the loved one hanging on his arm, her complexion as translucent as the icicles hanging from the nearest lamppost; and the grumpy hot chestnut vendor, ever vigilante of the street urchins ready to deprive him of those little treats sizzling away on his barrow. This moving tableau brought everything back to me, to a time when the fate of my own future had once hung in the balance.

And then before I realized it, we’d arrived at my destination; the Olde Bell public house in Fleet Street.

Escaping from the freezing cold it was a relief to bask in the roaring blaze from an open fire, to feel the warm-hearted camaraderie of festive drinkers which like a furnace of good humour spilled over and wrapped me in its genial embrace. Removing my hat and gloves I approached the bar and attracted the attention of the landlord.

“We’ve been expecting you,” he told me while rubbing his florid features and staring at my obvious impediment. “There’s an empty chair by the fire, sit down and rest awhile and I’ll bring you something hot to drink while I inform them of your arrival.”

True to his word, within a few moments he brought to table a glass of warm punch and a plate of victuals, for it was quite a few hours since I had partaken of lunch and though time was of the essence, I just needed a moment or two to compose my thoughts and pull myself together. And there, for two minutes short of one quarter hour, I sat thawing out, extending my hands towards the orange flames which crackled and sent floating spirits of Yuletide dreams towards the hidden blackened brickwork of our own imaginations.

When I was rested, I was led upstairs to my friend’s room, for despite now living above an establishment he had once shunned as the frivolous pastime of the lower orders, in recent years his benevolence and selfless philanthropy had ironically centred around places where the surplus population liked to gather. For in recent years his many good works, of a charitable nature, had helped fund orphanages for abandoned children, mission houses for retired seamen, refuges for those unfortunate women who sold themselves for a nip of mother’s ruin. In fact, Queen Victoria had said of my friend at his investiture that “second chances were often better chances”. And Amen to that I say.

When I entered his bedroom a man of my own age with dark hair and the mesmeric eyes of a preacher was bent over “uncle” as he lay propped up in bed, listening intently to what he had to say. 

And then he noticed me.

I rushed to his bedside, picked up one of his fragile hands and held it to my lips.

He had aged even since last summer when he had paid my family a brief visit while on a tour of inspection of those satanic mills of West Yorkshire and Lancashire with some social reformist friends of his. His grey hair now hung in wispy strands and the pink baldness of his skull showed through. His watery blue eyes had sunk into a pair of dark bruised caverns of pain and constant suffering and gone too was that spark of unalterable determination and clear objective which had invigorated his entire personality over the last two decades. A persistent cough wracked his weak, emaciated body, and I knew, without the corroboration of any medical diagnosis, that the purpose of my mission today was only just in time.  

“I want you to meet William Booth,” he murmured, mustering strength which in reality was almost beyond him. “We’ve become good friends. And when I’m gone much of my wealth will pass to his organization.”

I shook hands over the counterpane with the dark-haired gentleman, this forceful preacher with a growing reputation for social reform. Even up North his fame was beginning to spread.

“Blood and fire,” my benefactor muttered before giving vent to a prolonged fit of coughing.

Booth raised a smile and brushed a strand of hair from out of the dying man’s eyes. ‘Blood and fire my brother,’ he repeated and squeezed one of his thin hands. “That shall be our motto, I promise you.”

Booth withdrew from the room and left us alone while I pulled up a chair and made “Uncle” take a glass of cordial, wiping his parched lips and then gently dabbing at his damp forehead with a cloth. 

His physician entered the room and gave him a brief examination before whispering into my ear to prepare myself for the end. 

In that small set of rooms, he had in recent years come to know as home, where the fire, which would once have gone hungry, now threw off bright red sparks and the gas jets hissed and threw their flickering yellow light across the patterned wallpaper, where the glittering gold toothing on rows of leather bound volumes spoke of a man only lately called to the halls of world literature, where silver framed photographs of loved ones crowded themselves onto a small rosewood side table and the mantel clock moved the minutes on towards his final destiny, I sat and held his hand and watched him gradually slip away. My “uncle”, my friend, my benefactor.

Like a fire that continues unchecked the news of his death moved swiftly from house to house, shop to shop, street to street, until looking from the window of this room I beheld a hundred people or more beginning to congregate outside this public house to pay their respects.

After a while I composed myself and ventured outside, to stand on the pavement surrounded by this ever-growing tide of mourners, with the crisp firm snow underfoot and my breath expelling vapours of grief into the cold evening air. From nearby a congregation of singers began a much-loved carol, the beauty of their voices a melodious incantation, a lament for one taken from us, a man who had touched each and every one of their own lives, for the embroidery of his good works had eventually produced a tapestry from which countless numbers of ordinary people had profited.

“My sincere condolences, Mr Cratchit,” I heard a voice behind me say.

I turned and looked into the face of the world’s most famous author.

He briefly removed his top hat in greeting and held out his hand, his curly hair and wispy door knocker beard bespeaking of a man who looked older than his years.

Looking at the multitude now crowding the street, and the many voices singing along with the choir he moved closer and said into my ear: “Your friend’s life didn’t turn out so badly after all. Some say the pen is mightier than the sword but, in the end, only good deeds can achieve that which the printed word suggests.” 

And then snow began to fall, thousands upon thousands of tiny pieces of cold confetti which was now celebrating another type of union other than of the matrimonial persuasion; namely that of a recently departed soul and its ascent to a place of judgement where the scales of His benevolence will not be found wanting.

Treasurer of the award winning Harlow Writers' Workshop. Recently shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition with a story titled Books by Bike.



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