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© Jean Jardine Miller 2008.

Johnnie Kentson crawled through the bushes until he was as close as he could get to the parade ground without somebody seeing him and chasing him away. Ever since the Royal Artillery had come back from Crimea in the winter, he'd been coming up to the Barracks, as often as he could, to watch them drill the horses or practise shooting and throwing shells on the common. This afternoon horses were being drilled and he lay down flat on his stomach and watched as the soldiers lined up their mounts. Maybe they were practising for when the Queen came – a man in the beer-shop had said she was coming to Woolwich again, to see the Sebastapol bells this time. She'd come to greet the troops as soon as they'd been brought ashore from the ship in February. Half the town had turned out to watch. All the local lightermen had been hired to bring them to shore in their barges. Johnnie wasn't quite sure why the soldiers were being unloaded to lighters as if they were cargo – maybe because of all the kit. Anyway, it was good as far as he was concerned because his pa had let him come on the lighter and he’d been right there in the stern, with Pa and Eddie Jones, with the soldiers sitting on the straw bales he'd helped Pa put down for them to sit on. They'd kidded him, telling him he'd better make sure his pa didn't drown them all when they were so close to home, after sailing all the way home from the Crimea. One had asked him if he was going to be a lighterman like his pa when he grew up and that was when he decided he was joining the cavalry as soon as he was old enough. Pa, of course, had told them that all the men in their family were lightermen working mostly up at the London Docks and around the Pool, but he was down here to handle transporting vegetables to the city and hops to the breweries. He even went on to tell them that he didn't work the boat so much in the winter, because of his bad chest, and mostly hired it out to jobbers like Eddie who didn't have barges of their own. But he took this job, of course, because he wasn't going to deny his son the opportunity to witness history and help transport the troops home from the war. Then, one of the soldiers had given Johnnie the button off a dead Russian soldier's tunic that was now one of his prized possessions, displayed on the little shelf over his bedstead, along with his flint arrowhead, lucky rabbit's foot and the spent shells and cartridges he'd collected on the Common where the Artillery drilled.

"You ain't 'alf goin' to cop it, Johnnie Kentson."

The voice behind him broke his reverie and Johnnie turned his head. "Not as much as you are, Sam," he said indignantly. "Whatcha following me around for, anyway?"

"Saw you when I come out the playground, din't I? You was crossing over Wellington Street an' I shouted to you, but you didn't 'ear me. So I run after you."

"But you'll get Phoebe into trouble with your ma again."

"I keep telling them that I don't need Phoebe to meet me. I can walk 'ome by meself."

"Maybe, but it's not fair getting your sister into trouble. Come on, let's go back and see if we can catch up with her before she 'as to go home without you."

"But I want to watch the soldiers."

"You'll 'ave us thrown out, anyway, if you don't shut your gob," Johnnie said, rising to his feet. He pulled Sam up and turned him in the direction of the road. "Come on – race you to the alley."

By the time the two boys reached the infants' school, there was not a soul in sight. Johnnie sighed. He agreed that Sam was old enough to walk home from school by himself. Nevertheless, Sam's mother didn't think so and his sister, Phoebe, was supposed to walk up from the girls' school to fetch him. Johnnie's own sister, Emma, who was Phoebe's bosom friend, usually went with her. He and Emma had gone to the infants' school together because their ma had decided, since she had to look after the beer-shop when Pa was away on the river and couldn't walk Emma to school, she could wait until Johnnie was old enough for the two of them to walk there and back together. Poor Phoebe hadn't even gone to the infants' school because her ma thought she was more useful at home helping to look after her little brothers, but the authorities had got them to send her to the girls' school when the family was tested to decide what they should pay for Sam to go to the infants' school when he was five. Phoebe was often kept at home, though, when there was only enough money to pay for Sam to go to school or, sometimes, to look after Will and the baby, Georgie, when her ma had a lot of stitching to do for the slop tailor she worked for. When that happened Phoebe would have to go back and forth four times a day with Sam, trundling Will and Georgie in the little wooden cart their pa had made when she and Sam were babies. Emma would walk up from the girls' school, or meet them along the High Street, and tell Phoebe what they'd been doing at school. Today, Emma and Phoebe would have walked up from the girls' school to meet Sam and, finding no Sam, would be on their way home without him and, if he didn't get Sam to them before Phoebe gave up trying to find him, she'd get clouted once again by her mother, who always blamed Phoebe, rather than Sam, when things went wrong, because she was the eldest.

"Come on, Sam," Johnnie said, "if we run all the way, we'll catch up with them. You know it's not fair to let Phoebe get into trouble, again when it's all your fault."

"Only if we can stop on the bridge and watch the train."

"Only if we've caught up with the girls first."

They ran through the narrow streets, found the train had already gone by and ran across the road from the bridge, then down Union Street to Gouge Yard and across to the alley that led into the High Street beside The New Packet, the beer-shop kept by Johnnie's ma and pa. At last, Johnnie sighted the girls on the other side of the road. Emma must be going all the way home with Phoebe, he thought, or she'd have been indoors getting their tea ready. He glanced into the open door of the beer-shop and saw his ma handing a filled jug to old Mrs. Wiggins's, a regular at this time of the day. There were no customers at the bar, aside from her, but he couldn't see if there were any sitting at the tables likely to keep Ma's attention away from the open door. He turned away and looked across the street.

"Emma! Phoebe!" he shouted. "I've got 'im. 'Ere 'e is."

"You don't 'ave to make it sound like I'm a parcel or sumfink," muttered Sam, crossly. "I'll be bloody glad when I turn seven and go to the boys' school with you. Then, maybe, you'll all stop treatin' me like a baby."

The two girls turned around and ran back across the road towards them.

"We can stop running now and get our breath," said Johnnie.

"Good, 'cos I got the stitch, ain't I?"

Sam bent over, trying ease the cramp as Emma and Phoebe ran up to them.

"'Ow many times d'you 'ave to be told, Sam Walkerston?" said Phoebe. "You wait in the playground for me and Emma to get there." She turned to Johnnie. "An' you, Johnnie Kentson, wot d'you fink you're up to?"

"Ain't nuffink to do with Johnnie," said Sam, straightening up. "Leastways not wot 'e could 'elp. 'E just made me run all the way 'ere so you wouldn't get into trouble."

"You know Johnnie would never do anything to get you into trouble, Phoebe," put in Emma. "That wasn't fair of you."

"Sorry, Johnnie," Phoebe said. "Thanks for gettin' 'im for us before I 'ad to go 'ome without 'im. Emma was coming with me so's Ma'd just tell us to go and look for me stupid bruvver 'stead of giving me a clip round the ear. I'm glad you two are me friends."

"That's okay, Phoebe," Johnnie said, giving a short wave to Mrs. Wiggins, who had come out of the beer-shop carrying her jug of stout porter – something she told people she drank for her health – and turned towards her husband's shoe shop a few doors along. "Me an' Em had better get in before our ma comes out after us. She prob'ly saw me an' Sam come round the corner 'cos the door's open."

"Yes, I think we'd better. Ma said I could go but, if she knows Sam's found, she'll want me to get the tea ready," Emma said. "I'll be round later, Phoebe."

"'Bye, Em. Thanks, Johnnie," Phoebe said, shoving Sam ahead of her. "Come on, Sam, before we both really cop it."

"'Bye, Phoebe. 'Bye, Sam."

"'Bye," Johnnie shouted, turning to follow Emma into the beer-shop.

Jardine Miller