The Home Office telegraphy department always smelled of tea. It was a mystery to all four operators. Or rather, three thought it was a mystery, and one pretended that it was. Nathaniel Steepleton kept a packet of Lipton’s at the very back of his desk drawer, tucked into his own cup. He felt guilty for not sharing, but although tea was cheap, tea for four people every day was not.
It was important to punctuate the late shift with something enjoyable. Between six and midnight, one operator stayed in the office to catch any urgent messages, but after working at Whitehall for three years, Thaniel had never seen anything come through after eight. Once, there had been a strange, meaningless percussion from the Foreign Office, but that had been an accident: somebody had sat on the machine at the other end of the wire. Sat and bounced, he supposed, but people did all kind of odd things when nobody was watching. So, in the absence of any other landmark in the long six hours, he had made it a ritual to creep down to the canteen at nine o’ clock and boil a kettle on one of the big ranges that were never quite cold.
It was November now. Thaniel curled his fingers round his cup to soak up the last of the heat. On the desk in front of him, his open watch ticked around to quarter past ten. The minute hand got stuck and wobbled urgently for a moment before falling down to half past. He set the cup aside and turned a page of yesterday’s Illustrated London News. He only read the news while he was on the late shift, and he had hoped for some kind of spectacular military cock-up, but instead there was only the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Croydon. Curling up in his chair, he hunched down into his coat tried to think of warmer places than Croydon. His breath steamed.
He jumped when one of the telegraphs came to life. There were twelve in all, each connected to a different Whitehall department, and when he looked, he expected to see the movement from the machine wired to the Foreign Office. But it wasn’t the Foreign Office; it was Great Scotland Yard. Thaniel leaned across to hold the edge of the transcript paper, which was in the habit of scrunching itself up after three inches, and felt uneasy.
Before the message started, there was a long, uncertain silence from the operator at the other end. Thaniel would have been willing to bet that he knew who it was. Superintendent Williamson coded in the same hesitant way in which he spoke. When the message finally did start, it was jerky and full of pauses.
Irish group Clan na Gael– has left me a note promising that– they will detonate bombs in all public buildings on– 30th May. Williamson.
Thaniel pulled the telegraph key toward him. He was a good telegraphist and he could type Morse code at forty five words per minute, but it felt far too slow now. Please confirm message.
There was another pause. Just found– note on my desk. Promises to blow me off my stool on 30th May. Signed Clan na Gael.
Thaniel sat still for a moment. Adolphus Williamson was the head of Special Irish Branch, and therefore a natural target for angry Fenians. He sent all his own telegrams, and when he knew he was speaking to a familiar operator, he signed himself Dolly, as if they were all part of the same gentlemen’s club. Thaniel couldn’t help feeling protective over somebody called Dolly. Are you all right?
Yes. A long silence. Must admit– a bit shaken. Going home.
While the sounder was still clicking out the superintendent’s last word, Thaniel picked up the transcript again and hurried through the dark corridor beyond the office to a door at the far end, under which firelight bled. He knocked, then opened it. Inside, the senior clerk looked up and scowled.
‘I’m not here. This had better be important.’
‘It’s from the Yard, sir.’
The senior clerk snatched the transcript. Having begun service as his office, the room now looked slept-in with its collection of books and blankets heaped on the floor. He claimed that he stayed because his wife snored, but Thaniel was starting to think that she must have forgotten about him by now and changed the locks. Once he had read the note, he nodded.
‘All right, Steepleton. You can go home. I’d better tell the Home Secretary.’
Thaniel left, quickly.
Home was a boarding house just north of Millbank Prison. It was a short walk from Whitehall. Under the gas lamps, a thin mist pawed at the windows of the closed shops, which became steadily shabbier nearer home. The air was biting, but he was glad to be outside. He couldn’t help reflecting that the Home Office was probably the largest public building in London. Others had already had the same thought. Last March, some Irishmen had tried to throw a bomb in through a ground floor window. They’d missed and managed only to blow up some bicycles in the street outside, but in the telegraphy office, the bang had knocked Thaniel’s teeth together. All public buildings sounded like the threat of a far more organised group than that.
As usual, a beggar was sleeping under the boarding house’s wide porch. He grunted when Thaniel went by.
‘Evening, George,’ Thaniel whispered.
‘Gngh,’ said George.
He climbed the wooden stairs as quietly as he could. Inside, the boarding house was not as bleak as it looked; the damp and the fog had streaked the outer walls with mildew, but the rooms inside were plain and neat, each with a bed, a stove, and a plumbed sink. By rule of the landlady, the fifteen boarders were all single men, and given a bed and one meal a day for the flat annual cost of fifty pounds. Very much the same as the inmates of the prison next door. Thaniel felt angry about that sometimes, but less toward the government than toward himself. He had meant to do better in life than a prisoner.
At the top the steps, his door was already ajar.
He stopped breathing. Everything seemed silent, but somebody else could have been holding his breath inside too. After standing for what felt like hours, Thaniel pushed the door open with his fingertips and stood sharply back. No one came out. Leaving the door open for the light, he snatched a match from the dresser and struck it against the wall, his fingertips unsteady from a mixture of fear and of sudden resentment toward the landlady, who refused to put in gas lights. While he held the match to the lamp wick, the back of his neck pricked and burned with the certainty that somebody was about to shove past him. The lamp caught with a sigh.
The room looked as it always did.
His back against the wall, Thaniel stood holding the burned-down match. The charred head crumbled off and hit the linoleum with a tap, leaving a smudge of black dust. He had to work up some nerve to look under the fold-down bed and in the narrow wardrobe, but they were empty too. Feeling calmer, he checked the savings he kept under the loose floorboard for his sister, who lived off an army pension. Undisturbed. It took him a little while to notice that the kettle was steaming. After crossing the room in five steps he put his fingertips against the side of it. It was hot, not warm, and when he opened the stove door, the coals glowed.
The crockery on the worktop was gone. He paused. It took a desperate burglar to steal unwashed dishes. Thaniel’s relationship with washing up with similar to his relationship with his sister: dutiful but unwilling, with direct contact reduced to a biannual basis. He opened the cupboard to see if they had taken the cutlery too, and blinked when he found the missing plates and bowls stacked inside. They were still warm to touch. He left them and searched everything again. Nobody would break into a flat on the third floor merely in order to do his washing up. But it seemed that they had. Perplexed, he went back downstairs. The cold outside felt sharper than it had a few minutes ago.
‘George! George,’ he said, giving the beggar a shake. The smell of sweat rose from his clothes. ‘My flat’s been burgled. Was it you?’
‘You haven’t got anything worth stealing,’ George growled.
‘Did you see anyone?’
‘I might have done.’
‘I…’ Thaniel went through his pockets. ‘I’ve got four pence and an elastic band.’
George sighed and sat up in his nest of blankets and newspapers. ‘I didn’t properly see, did I? I was asleep. Or I was trying.’
‘So you saw…’
‘Pair of boots,’ he said, and took the coins.
‘I see,’ said Thaniel, doing his best not to sound annoyed. George looked like he had been middle aged when time began, and however annoying he was, Thaniel’s thoughts rebelled at the idea of snapping at an old man. But lots of people live here, how do you know it wasn’t one of them?’
George shot him an irritable look. ‘If you spent all day begging down here on the ground, you’d know everyone’s boots. None of you have got brown ones.’
Thaniel had not met all of his neighbours, but he was inclined to believe George. As far as he understood, they were all clerks of some kind, all members of the crowd of grey coats and black hats that swamped London for half an hour every morning and evening around office work hours. Without meaning to, he looked down at his own black shoes, where a thick layer of polish hid the scuff marks.
‘Anything else? Anything at all?’ he said.
‘Christ, what’d he take that was so important?’
George looked exasperated. ‘What do you care, then? It’s late, some of us want to get some sleep before the constable turfs us out at the crack of dawn.’
‘Mystery man breaks into my flat, does the washing up and takes nothing, I’d like to know why!’
‘Sure it wasn’t your mum?’
George sighed. ‘Small brown boots. Maybe a boy.’
‘I want my four pence back.’
‘Bugger off,’ George yawned, and lay back down again.
Thaniel went out onto the empty street with a half-formed hope of seeing a boy in brown boots vanishing around the corner, but there was nobody. Unwillingly, he turned back inside. Taken twice in a row, the three flights of steps made his thighs ache.
Back in his room, he flicked open the door of the stove again to let the heat out and sat down on the edge of the bed, his hands held out toward the coals. It was only then that he saw the velvet box on his pillow. It had been tied with a white ribbon, from which hung a label that said ‘To Mr Steepleton’. He pulled off the ribbon and tilted the box open. Inside was a pocket watch.
He lifted it out. It wouldn’t open when he pressed the catch. Puzzled, he held it to his ear, but the clockwork was dead and the spindle wouldn’t wind. His fingertips caught over an engraving on the back.
For the 30th of May, 1884.