After months of pandemic, a three-week holiday, a 14-day period of self-isolation and now a Bank Holiday weekend, I have finally managed to concentrate for long enough to write what may turn out to be the first scene of “Plank 7”. No promises and all that, but I’m pleased to have at last written something. As this comes right at the beginning, I am trying to introduce the characters: there might be readers who come to this book without having read any of the previous ones, so I have to explain who everyone is and what they do. It’s far from perfect, I know, but it’s an almighty relief to be off the starting blocks. (Apologies for the lack of formatting: WordPress has changed its editor and I can’t work out how to do anything at all!)
There are some men who pursue change: as soon as they master a skill or see a spectacle, they are keen to move on to the next. And there are those of us who treasure the familiar. It’s not that I wish to return to the past –far from it, as anyone who has escaped the fish-stinking alleys of Wapping will agree. And I am certainly not against improving myself; I read as widely as I can, and keep my ears open when I am with men who can teach me. But I do not seek novelty for its own sake – a steadfastness for which my wife Martha might be a little more grateful. Sometimes, however, the world thrusts change upon all of us, and we must make our peace with it. Next year – God willing – I shall mark my half-century. And since I was sixteen I have been a constable. I once told Martha that I wanted to be buried in my uniform, which she said was in poor taste. With Mr Peel’s innovations, I may no longer have the right.
William Wilson glanced at me as we paused to cross Oxford Street.
“Are you unwell, sir?” he asked.
“Unwell?” I repeated.
“You sighed,” he explained.
“Perhaps at the prospect of being asked ridiculous questions,” I said, and immediately regretted my bad temper. Ever since Wilson had told me that he had decided to join the Metropolitan Police at the first opportunity I had been short with him – even though I had been the one encouraging him to think to his future and throw in his lot with the new force. As Martha had observed after seeing me snap at the poor lad, just because the head wants something, it does not mean that the heart has to like it.
There was a small gap between the carts heading eastwards and we stepped into the road. There was less traffic going west but we still had to wait for a neat little carriage to bowl past us, the coachman calling out a halloo of warning. The shade cast by the shuttered theatre in Blenheim Street came as a relief; although it was not yet nine o’clock, the day was warm.
“Forgive me,” I said. “I am out of sorts. The heat does not agree with me – I have not been sleeping.” Wilson said nothing but nodded tightly. He would be quiet for perhaps ten minutes, I knew, but there has never been anyone less capable of bearing a grudge or staying angry. “And how is young master George sleeping these days?” I asked.
Wilson’s face broke into a smile as he thought of his baby son. “We’ve given up on clothes,” he said. “When he’s asleep, he looks like one of those fat little angels you see in church.”
“Cherubs,” I said as we climbed the steps of the Great Marlborough Street police office.
“Less angelic when he’s awake,” continued Wilson. “His favourite game now is giving and taking, which he can play for hours – handing something back and forth. Me, I’m not so keen on it – everything he gives you comes with a generous coating of spit.”
“Talking about one of our visitors, are you, sir?” asked Tom Neale. Our office-keeper was making an annotation in his ledger; I’ll wager that the records kept at the Old Bailey are less thorough than those in that ledger.
“Constable Wilson was regaling me with the perils of fatherhood,” I said.
“And how is Mrs Wilson’s latest project coming along?” asked Tom. “Is she still troubled by the vomiting? I remember Mrs Neale suffering terribly.”
“My mother tells me it should reduce,” confided Wilson, “now that we are past the early months.”
Tom nodded sagely.
“When you have quite finished with your discussions, gentlemen,” I said, leaning over the counter and tapping a forefinger on the ledger, “I wonder whether there is some work to be done.”