Thank you very much to soliloquy for her kind impromptu beta. I've corrected the mistakes and reposted the chapters as well as editing some things to make the writing tighter.
Sorry it took so long to post chapters 5 and 6. I've been distracted with some other projects over Christmas holiday. Same world, different people, earlier time, based off the antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James. It's called The Cornish Manuscripts, and I might post it later after I post the next few chapters of this story. It will make much more sense that way.
The train hadn't come yet, but Charles and his uncle were rushing anyway because for all that London-Aldwych trains were models of technological progress, they seldom came when they were meant to. A pasties vendor had set up a stand near the hallway to the stairs, and the smell made Charles's stomach roil. The fish and chips had been fantastically good but too much just after lunch. His uncle had pressed him to eat the whole plate; he had no idea how close he had been to bringing about Charles's untimely death by stomach rupture.
"Come to Manchester to visit us," Magnus offered, pulling on his gloves. "Marjorie hasn't seen you for years."
He elbowed down to the end of the platform where the crowd was somewhat thinner. Charles followed him awkwardly, carrying his suitcase with both hands. His uncle flapped a hand at it.
"I'll carry it. You'll damage your bandage-"
"No no," Charles interrupted. "I can manage."
He gritted his teeth. The cut on his hand was pulsing uncomfortably, and he thought he might have reopened one of the scabs, but he didn't let go of the suitcase. He liked the feeling of seeing his uncle to the station; it made him feel much like the other Londonite families at the platform bidding their loved ones goodbye. He supposed he did have family on the 'outside,' as his uncle called it, but it was scattered, unconnected. Many of them didn't know each other because they had been removed from the family at vastly different times. If Charles had lived at the family's central house in Aldwych rather than lingering at their summer home in Derbyshire for a few years more, he might not have known his uncle at all.
Magnus finally stopped, and Charles put down the suitcase with a sigh. He flexed his bandaged hand discreetly and shoved it in his pocket when his uncle turned back around. For the first time, Magnus looked grave.
"I have been meaning to ask you," Magnus said softly. "How is Richard?"
Charles sucked in a breath. "Last I heard Richard was doing well- Charlotte and the children too. I don't go back to Mondales or keep in contact with him, but Mousie sometimes sends me letters."
He never replied to any of those letters; there was no need to give his brother some kind of false encouragement that he was coming back to them. He, the prodigal son and they, the forgiving welcoming parents. No, that would never happen if he had anything to say about it.
His uncle chuckled. "You still call him that?"
Charles grinned back self-consciously. "I suppose I just never got out of the habit."
When Charles had been born, his brother had said he looked like a little mouse wrapped up in swaddling blankets with his small red face peeking out. So his brother had called him Mousie because his real name was too difficult for him at the time. Young Charles had picked up on the word and to the family's amusement, had turned the tables on his brother and started calling him Mousie, most likely because it was the only word he could properly understand. The nickname had only grown more ironic as his brother had grown older and inherited their father's height.
"I suppose you miss him," his uncle said.
"I suppose you miss Richard," Charles replied back.
They both smiled at each other and didn't say anything. Charles actually wasn't quite sure if he missed his brother anymore, and he was even less sure his uncle missed his estranged only son. But to say that aloud would have been wrong somehow, as if maintaining the illusion of familial bond was important.
"And how is Anne?" his uncle continued, unknowingly hitting a deep nerve. "Still quite shaken up with your father's passing, I should think. Marjorie thinks about him every day, for all that they were only cousins."
"Mother stopped wearing black two years ago," Charles replied, resisting the urge to huff out a breath.
"Ah yes. Strong woman, your mother."
"Mm," Charles replied noncommittally. Objectively he admired her, of course. But he wondered if his life would have been different if she'd had a bit less steel, if she'd been warmer or less prone to making carefully impersonal decisions. He wondered if he would have still been living in Mondales with everyone else. "Why do you suppose we were thrown out?"
"I would use the word liberated, but as you will," his uncle replied. He pursed his mouth and thought. "They're very precise, you understand," he said finally. "I remember before Anne married Frederick, they had to go through the whole two year engagement. I had to do a bit of that formality to marry Marjorie, of course, but Anne married quite...highly. She had to do all sorts of..." he gestured uncertainly. "Legal documents, contracts. She said it was all business."
"I'm sure she enjoyed that," Charles muttered.
"Oh no," his uncle replied. "She thought it was silly, if you can believe that. But now...perhaps in her efforts to fit in with them, she's become too much like them. They always surrounded her too much when she was a young impressionable wife, I thought.
"But it isn't just that." Magnus paused and frowned. "I remember," Then in a rush, as if he had to get it all out before the thought disappeared again, "I remember once we received news that one member of the extended family up north had just received twins. And it should have been happy news, but there was a flurry about destroying birth records and naming certificates.
"I thought it very odd at the time, so I asked Anne about it. From what I understand, there has always been squabbling in our ranks about succession, and there are quite a few influential positions that we stand poised to inherit. I believe they don't want the political intrigue of everyone knowing who is next in line or having someone undesirable securing the position. If you look at your official birth record, I believe it says you are at least a few years older than you really are. So maybe someone displaced Marjorie. Maybe someone displaced you."
"That's ridiculous," Charles protested, but at the same time he was remembering how he had gone to technical school while his brother had left to study politics.
"That's cold logic," his uncle replied. "And this is the Scientific Age."
Charles frowned, because there were a thousand ways that was wrong, but there was no way he could phrase that as a coherent question.
"Nothing to be worried about, of course," his uncle continued comfortingly. "No one is going to ask questions- there won't be any trouble with papers when you get married."
"Oh," Charles said blandly. "Good."
"Are you saving up?" his uncle asked. "Because Marjorie worries, you know. It was alright for me- I had enough money through my family to marry her. But I know it's more difficult for you. You should start saving money now instead of having a nasty shock later."
Charles bit his lip and then decided to charge ahead. "What if I won't get married?"
His uncle smiled widely and patted his arm. "Oh, Charlie. All young men think it will never happen to them. Chin up- you'll meet the right girl eventually. What about that assistant of yours?"
Charles almost swallowed his tongue trying not to laugh. "She's ah...otherwise engaged."
"Mm." His uncle gave him a sympathetic look and then brightened. "Ah, here. I nearly forgot. This might cheer you up. From Marjorie."
He dug out a square paper-wrapped loaf from his suitcase. Charles accepted it with two hands, suspecting it was his aunt's famous fruit and brandy pudding and knowing it would be dense and heavy as anything. He weighed it in his hands and then smelled it and wasn't disappointed.
"You and your brother used to go through those by the loaf when you were younger," his uncle said, smiling into his beard. "I hope that hasn't changed."
"Oh, certainly not," Charles replied, knowing he would have to keep the pudding somewhere out of mind or he would finish it by dinner.
"And from me," Magnus finished, fishing a folder out of his suitcase.
Charles held up a hand. "Oh no, Uncle James."
"Hush," his uncle said. "I live in Manchester, for God's sake. I never get to spoil anybody." He pressed the folder into Charles's hands. "Found another one for you. You might not have it."
Charles smiled and clutched it. "You remembered!"
"No," his uncle replied, looking pleased. "You've just never stopped collecting them."
There was a shrill cry in the distance, and suddenly the train was chugging by, all heavy metal and smoke. Charles felt the cool rush of air stir his hair and lift it off his sweaty forehead. Then the station attendant threw open the train doors, and a crush of people began pouring out. "All aboard!" he shouted above them. "West London to Greater Manchester! West London to Greater Manchester!"
People on the platform began cramming into the train. Magnus managed to linger and get a place by the doors.
"Uncle James- your suitcase!" Charles shouted, heaving it forward.
"Ah yes," his uncle said vaguely and accepted it. As Charles was leaning forward, he felt his uncle slide something into his handkerchief pocket. "Here, take it. I know cigarettes are much more popular here, and you have to kill man for some decent tobacco."
Charles pulled out the cigar and smoothed back the Merchant's Queen wrapper with his thumb. "I stopped smoking after college, Uncle James." He had stopped smoking after moving to London-Aldwych. Even though cigarettes were relatively cheap, they were still an astoundingly expensive habit for his income.
"Have that sometime and think of your poor old uncle and aunt up in Manchester waiting for you to visit them," his uncle continued without even hearing him. He clapped a hand on Charles's shoulder. "Take care, Charlie."
"Well," Charles said dryly. "Now that I know I've been taken out of the political race, I suppose I'll do well enough."
"I wouldn't be sure," his uncle said. "You remember the twins I was telling you about? They kept the girl close, sent the boy away to live with another removed part of the family. Those of us who lived in Mondales didn't hear about him for years. That boy? That's your cousin Victor. He was just appointed the new Minister of Defence."
Before Charles could reply, the bell above the platform rang loudly, and the train doors closed. Charles banged on them in farewell as the train started to move away. His uncle raised a hand back and then was gone in a hissing blur of iron and glass.
Charles went to go bother Mr. Church for a striker before going back into his flat. He left the wrapped up pudding on his bed and went over to his bookcase with the folder.
He was glad Mrs. Taylor didn't think it was appropriate to nose into her male tenants' rooms or she would have gone into hysterics. The entire back corner of his room beside his clothes bookcase was covered with neat rows of posters carefully tacked to the wall.
Mechanics Will Win the War said one and had a man hefting a large spanner the size of his leg over his shoulder while looking at a ship across the bay.
Gear up. Do Your Part, said another and had a series of coloured pictures. One had a man putting the finishes on his military uniform. The second had him with a rifled musket slung across his back and a Lancaster heat pistol at his hip. In the final panel he was accepting a box of mechanic's tools from an unidentified hand.
But Charles's favourite was the one that said Your Tools- England's Glory. It had a blood red background against a sea of black silhouettes standing at attention with one of the silhouettes serving as a standard-bearer for the Union Jack. They were surrounding two white figures locked in combat- one of them armed with a screwdriver the size of a sword with the distinctive curve of English tool handles serving as the pommel, grip, and guard.
The Crimean war had begun just before Charles left for university and ended before he graduated, but he was quite willing to say it had been the factor that had kept him in Titus Salt for the full four years. Suddenly his interest in mechanics became 'patriotic' and his studies a part of his 'duty to Mother England.' It was the one time he'd been favoured over Mousie, who had gone off to study diplomacy in Morganshire Palace with the rest of the gentry's fresh-nosed sons.
Charles sliced open the folder and slid out the poster his uncle had given him.
Pro Matria, Pro Fraternitas, it said boldly at the top and then Pro Scientia, in larger glowing letters at the bottom. It must have been by the same artist that did Gear Up, because the art style and rosy tinting were quite similar. There were two figures in mechanic's coveralls holding a toolbox between them, and behind them the artist had outlined all the glowing pastures and green hills that no one in London-Aldwych certainly ever saw heads or tails of. Charles ignored all that and looked for a long moment at the two mechanics' hands close together clasping the toolbox handle.
Then he shook his head and began tacking it up next to the England's Glory poster. He sat back on his bed to admire the effect. He reached over for some of his aunt's pudding and popped a broken off piece into his mouth.
He suspected the poster had come from one of the outer towns, because he'd never seen anything like it except for the Gear Up poster, which he'd found in a rubbish bin in Derbyshire. After the war the propaganda posters had been left nailed up on posts and signboards until rain and wind had withered them away. The Mechanics Club had stolen one as a joke, but Charles had kept it and suddenly started finding interesting posters lying abandoned everywhere.
"You're like a magpie. Or a rat," Hall had commented, but he and Prosser had dutifully brought him back the most interesting posters from their own towns after holidays.
That was the one Prosser had given him, Charles thought as he looked up at the more wrinkled posters in the upper rows. And the faded one from Beecher and the one with half its corner missing because Ridley had torn it while taking it down from the tall signpost next to the pub.
Charles stopped and realised he had been eating his aunt's pudding bit by bit the whole time, and a rather sizeable chunk of its top corner had already vanished.
"Damn it, Aunt Margie," Charles muttered and covered the pudding tightly in the paper before sliding the whole thing onto one of the shelves of his bookcase. He piled some boring papers about improvements in galvanised nails in front of the pudding just in case.
He yawned and scratched his hair before unbuttoning his shirt and folding it haphazardly on the shirts shelf of his bookcase. It would be Sunday tomorrow, and like all good pious Londonites, Charles would be getting up early. Except instead of going to Westminster or St. Andrews he would be going to his own church, which also happened to be called the Finley Scrap Yard. Finley's always got the best bits on weekends, and Sunday morning was usually the best time to go when the spoils were fresh, the day wasn't so hot, and other little bastards weren't trying to take his scraps.
Charles admitted he got...rather possessive.
He had missed last weekend but knew Finley himself quite well, so he usually got first pick on anything interesting that passed through. To be fair, he did give them a lot of his business- the piles on top of his workbench attested to that. He would just have to see if they'd found anything last weekend they'd thought worth keeping for him.
Charles suddenly decided to put the cigar and striker away in one of the drawers of his workbench, because he was tired from his day with his uncle and it didn't do to smoke on the high holy days when he might find new parts for the Disassembler or the rare five gauge cooling tube he needed for one of his abandoned side projects mouldering in the corner of the bench.
The gods of machinery were stingy after all, to say nothing of Thomas Finley.