A Lot To Learn
The rain lashed down, bouncing off the pavements of Baker Street and flooding the gutters. Passers-by, their shoulders hunched against the elements, hurried about their business, cursing the sudden storm that had appeared out of a blue sky to drench them.
"Come on, Ginger!" exhorted the tall, fair gentleman as the small boy at his side struggled to keep up with him. "We're nearly there!"
The lad was 15 but small for his age. He almost had to run to keep up with the long strides of his companion. Both of them were soaked to the skin by the unexpected downpour.
"London weather!" scoffed the boy with a lilting Northumbrian accent. "I thought it would be better down here!"
Algy laughed as he turned up the steps to the front door of his apartment.
"The weather's no better and the streets aren't paved with gold, either," he teased his companion as he put the key in the lock.
The front door swung open and they hurried inside, glad to get out of the driving rain. Moisture dripped from their hair and ran down their faces. Ginger shivered.
Algy looked at him critically. "Get those wet clothes off before you catch your death," he advised the lad. "I'll run you a hot bath; you'll feel better if you warm up before you change into something dry."
He bustled off to the bathroom and Ginger, alone in the hall, heard the water running. He went to the guest room that had been his since Biggles had decided he could stay with them. As he crossed to the wardrobe he was reminded just how much his life had changed for the better in such a short space of time. A spare suit of clothes hung waiting for him to change into. Ginger fingered the material for a moment before he took the suit from the hangers. He still felt as though it was something of a dream and he would wake up hungry having spent the night in any shelter he could find. Just a few weeks ago, he mused, he had run away from home with only the rags he stood up in. Now, after some of the most exciting adventures imaginable, he was staying in a fashionable part of London with two suits of clothes and money in a bank account! Alright, he admitted to himself, it was Biggles who was in charge of it, but still, it was for his education. The best part, he told himself happily, was that he was going to learn to fly! Biggles had promised that he would arrange lessons as soon as he became old enough. He pinched himself to make sure he was not dreaming.
"Hurry up!" Algy's voice broke into his reflections, "the water's getting cold!"
Ginger grabbed his dry clothes and hurried to the bathroom. Algy was just turning off the taps. Seeing Ginger, he tested the temperature of the water again and said casually, "There you are, laddie! Strip off and hop in. I'm just going to get out of my wet togs. I'll be back in a minute or two to soap your back."
With that he disappeared along the corridor in the direction of his room, leaving Ginger alone next to the bathtub.
The boy hesitated a moment, but the clammy embrace of his wet clothes clinging to his skin made up his mind. Quickly, he flung off the sodden garments and slipped into the warm, scented water. He relaxed and slid down until only his head remained above the surface, marvelling at the luxury of it. No wonder Biggles and Algy were so fond of washing, he mused. It's so easy when you just have to turn on a tap and you can have as much water as you like! As he lay there, enjoying the warm, wet embrace, he could not help contrasting this experience with his former life. What a difference from a tin bath tub in front of the kitchen range and waiting your turn for the bathwater!
Algy returned, whistling, with a pile of fluffy towels which he put on the chair. He was wearing his dressing gown.
"Sit up, laddie and I'll scrub your back for you," he announced cheerfully. He took hold of a sponge and began to lather it vigorously, but Ginger did not move.
"Come on," urged Algy, puzzled by the lad's unwillingness. "Biggles will be round shortly and we don't want to be late for dinner."
Reluctantly, Ginger sat up, drawing his knees up to his chin, but he did not turn his back towards Algy.
"I can't get your back clean if you don't let me near it," observed Algy good-naturedly as he took hold of the boy's shoulder with his left hand, ready to apply the sponge. He stopped dead when he saw the scars that criss-crossed Ginger's skin.
"Good grief!" ejaculated Algy. "What …? Who on earth …?" For a moment he seemed incapable of formulating a complete sentence.
The fine thin lines of scar tissue were jagged, as though the flesh had been laid open with a rough point. Most of them were white and obviously old, but the boy's shoulder bore a recent pink mark, barely healed. Algy felt sickened.
Gently, he touched Ginger's shoulder blade and in a chastened tone, asked, "who did this to you?"
"Me Da'," muttered Ginger, ashamed and embarrassed. He was scarlet to the roots of his hair. The blush contrasted sharply with the whiteness of his chest and shoulders.
"Does Biggles know about this?" queried Algy, but Ginger shook his head. "I think you ought to tell him. It's not something you should keep secret, you know, Ginger," he advised compassionately.
The boy turned bewildered eyes on Algy's face and asked plaintively, "how do I tell him, Algy? I mean," he continued, "it's not the sort of thing I can just slip into conversation now, is it? 'Oh, and by the bye, when me Da' gets roaring drunk of a Friday night, he takes his belt to me if he can catch me, just because. Would you like to see me scars?'"
The boy sounded bitter and Algy could feel the hurt in the lad's slender frame that went deeper than the mere physical pain. He said nothing because, despite his war record, he felt inadequate to deal with such casual brutality.
When Algy did not comment, Ginger continued, "it's all over now, anyway," he asserted. "I'm nivver, I mean never," he corrected himself, "going back, whatever happens. It's best forgotten."
Algy frowned. "Let me tell him," he offered. "I'll find a way." He rubbed the sponge lightly over Ginger's maltreated skin as though fearful of re-opening the wounds. The lad shivered as he was tickled.
Algy apologised and put more effort into his scrubbing. He felt Ginger relax slightly under his ministrations, but the lad tensed again as Biggles' voice floated up the stairs, calling their names.
"In the bathroom," shouted Algy, "just giving Ginger a scrub!"
Biggles appeared in the doorway. He had shed his overcoat and was just unbuttoning the jacket of his suit.
"Glad to see you're developing clean habits," he greeted his protégé.
Ginger had half turned to greet his mentor, but the slight pressure of Algy's hand on his shoulder halted him. In response to Algy's gentle guidance he turned his back towards the door.
"There's something you should see .." began Algy.
For a moment, as he approached, Biggles' eyes were on his cousin. Following Algy's gaze, he caught sight of the damage to Ginger's skin and Algy clearly saw him blench. Biggles' jaw tightened. He half-hesitated in his stride before continuing, his mouth set in a grim line. Algy could not recall seeing his cousin so shocked.
Biggles sat on the edge of the bath and ran his hand tenderly over Ginger's scars. When he spoke, his voice was gentle, but with a touch of steel behind it. "Who did this to you, laddie?" he demanded.
Ginger mumbled an explanation and Biggles' eyes glittered. "By thunder!" he vowed, "it's just as well I didn't know about this when I arranged for you to live with us, or I'd have given him a taste of his own medicine!"
He stood up abruptly. "Finish your bath, Ginger," he told the lad. "Then join us in the drawing room. Algy," he addressed his cousin curtly, "I'd like a word." He turned on his heel and Algy heard him clatter swiftly downstairs.
"Don't be long, Ginger," urged Algy as he turned to follow. "I want to have a bath before I get changed, too."
Leaving Ginger to dry himself and get dressed, Algy followed his cousin downstairs. When he entered the drawing room, he was astonished to see Biggles had poured himself a whisky. Since the end of the war, Biggles had rarely touched spirits.
Biggles gestured to the decanter, inviting Algy to join him. To his surprise, Algy saw that Biggles was trembling slightly, although whether from anger or shock, he was unsure. Perhaps it was a combination of the two, Algy surmised. He had felt pretty shaken by the discovery himself. Whatever the cause, reflected Algy, Ginger must have touched a chord in Biggles during their short acquaintance for his cousin to be so affected.
Algy helped himself to a whisky and splashed soda into the glass as he eyed Biggles curiously.
Biggles grimaced as he sipped the peaty spirit, the taste transporting him back to another time, another world, where men drank to kill the demons and suppress what they had seen. He shook his head. "How could anybody have done that?" he wondered. "It's sickening. What could the boy possibly have done to deserve that sort of treatment?"
"I felt the same way," acknowledged Algy. "I couldn't believe it when I saw it. Once, maybe, for something particularly wicked, but that was systematic. What that kid must have gone through! It doesn't bear thinking about. No wonder …" He broke off as Ginger's small figure appeared in the doorway.
Biggles swung round. "Come in, laddie," he invited. "Sit down. I have something to tell you."
Ginger sat on the edge of the armchair, feeling apprehensive.
Biggles took a cigarette from his case and lit it before enlightening his protégé. Ginger stifled a cough.
"I met an old friend of mine in the Royal Aero Club," announced Biggles eventually. "He runs a flying school at Brooklands." He paused to blow smoke at the ceiling while Ginger waited with bated breath for Biggles to continue.
"Pim – ahem, that is, Captain Carthorne," Biggles corrected himself hastily, "has agreed to take you on as a pupil as soon as you reach 16."
Ginger's face lit up. "Say," he drawled in his best American accent, "that's swell!"
Biggles winced. "Provided," he admonished the lad with a frown, "that you speak properly! No self-respecting English aeroplane will let you anywhere near her with that drawl!"
Ginger looked abashed. "Sorry, chief," he apologised. "I'll do my best," he promised fervently.
"See that you do!" enjoined Biggles, his lips twitching. "In the meantime, I expect Algy will be quite happy to give you some air experience."
When Algy nodded, Ginger grinned happily.
Algy stood up. "Well, I'm off to bathe and change," he announced. "I'm ready to tear a steak!"
"The water's still warm," Ginger told him innocently. "It was good of you to let me go first."
There was a moment of stunned silence. Algy's jaw dropped, but before he could say anything, Biggles caught his eye and laughed.
Ginger looked puzzled. "Have I said something funny?" he wanted to know.
"There's no need to share bathwater any more," Biggles told the youngster with a smile. "You've left all that behind you now."
Ginger felt his cheeks burn as he went crimson with mortification. "I've got a lot to learn," he admitted shyly.
"Yes, you certainly have," acknowledged Biggles sternly, before he added, "but I'm sure you'll meet the standard in time."
Ginger's cheeks burned again, but this time it was pride that lit the fire. For the first time in his life, he felt as though he really did have a home.