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Mending Wall

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Thomas Shelby never really considered himself the neighborly sort. Growing up, Small Heath was more an exercise in shared misery than a convivial network of friends and family. When you were toiling 15 hours a day in a factory, there wasn’t much time left over for making nice with the family next door. The same went for toiling in the mud and dark of a French tunnel. And more of the same for dragging your own family kicking and screaming from Small Heath all the way to a grand house in the country. Simply no time for neighbors.

            In his first years at Arrow House, Tommy didn’t spare a single thought for his neighbors, few as they were in the unfamiliar surrounding countryside. A dead wife, an infant son, a family in and out of prison, and any number of murderous Italians, duplicitous Russian nobles, and belligerent Camden Town Jews didn’t leave him in the mood for pleasantries with the locals. He didn’t think he had once even spared a wave on the rare occasions a car passed down the tree-lined lane in front of his house.

            He knew there was another home—a sprawling pile of bricks similar to his own—perhaps a mile past the stables. Beyond what he could judge from a cursory glance when he rode one of his horses out through the long grass of the fields, he knew nothing of the house or its inhabitants. In any case, the place always seemed buttoned up tight, shutters closed and windows dark, season after season.

            So, nearly three years passed before Tommy spoke a single word to his neighbors. In the end, it turned out that Arthur got the first word—or shout, as it were.

 

            One mid-morning in early May, Tommy was elbow-deep in a pile of ledgers at his desk in Arrow House, eyes already strained from alternating between Lizzie’s tidy hand and Polly’s rushed scrawl, when he heard Arthur yelling somewhere outside. His brother had been down from Birmingham for a few days, eager to hunt in the first of spring’s warm mornings. Arthur had been mad for hunting since John died. Tommy supposed it was a better distraction than booze, or snow, or beating in the face of every man who looked at him wrong in The Garrison, but the population of pheasants and deer around Arrow House was dwindling. Peering out the window, he couldn’t see anyone on the lawn, so he trotted down the stairs and out the back door. Knowing Arthur’s moods, the man was likely cursing a hare that had evaded his shotgun, but enough years in a business like the Blinders had given Tommy more than his fair share of prudence.

            Cresting a rise, Tommy was surprised to see Arthur standing on one side of the tumbledown stone wall that marked the end of the close-cropped lawn and the start of the rough fields beyond. (Those walls, piled carefully by crofters in generations past, were a common feature here. Something else unfamiliar about country life.) A rider on a tall horse stood on the other side of the wall, and Arthur was braying across—something moderately incoherent about trespass and property laws—with his hunting gun slung menacingly on his shoulder. As Tommy got closer, two things caught him by surprise: the rider was a woman, and she looked more bemused than afraid in the face of Arthur’s tirade.

            “Arthur!” Tommy quickened his strides across the lawn until he had reached the unlikely duo. “May I ask what”—he refrained from adding ‘the fuck’ in the presence of the woman—“is going on here.”

            “She’s fuckin’ trespassing on your property, Tommy, and I’m telling her to pack it off, is what’s going on here,” Arthur barked.

            He waved the shotgun on his shoulder in the general direction of the woman and the field beyond. Tommy frowned at his brother and turned his eyes upward to the woman on the horse. Her face was shaded by the brim of her velvet cap, so only a few stray strands of shiny, dark brown hair showed her gender. She was wearing an oversized tweed jacket with sprung elbows, but he surmised its shabbiness was more out of affectation than need. The expensive leather of her tack and boots gave that away—never mind the horse itself, a big-boned bay that would easily fetch a few thousand pounds at auction. Just what they needed at a time when the Shelby family was finally becoming truly legitimate, the daughter of some toff riding home to tell her father about how the pair of Brummie men at Arrow House had threatened her with guns. Before he could think of what to say, the woman spoke.

            “If I’ve trespassed, you have my sincerest apologies. But I’d rather appreciate it if your man would put down the gun. He sprang up from behind the wall like a flushed grouse and started waving it around like a lunatic.”

            She looked from Tommy to Arthur then back again.

            “Arthur,” Tommy said softly.

            He pressed his lips together and nodded at the gun. Arthur’s mouth quirked as though he was about to speak, but a second, more pointed nod from Tommy saw that the shotgun made its way to the grass. His brother stuffed his hands into his pockets in annoyance.        

            “I’m sorry for the rough welcome. And he’s my brother, unfortunately for me. I’m Thomas Shelby, and this is Arthur.”

            Tommy considered offering his hand, but the woman was over the wall and high up on the horse so he settled for a nod. She pushed back her cap and he could see her face clearly for the first time. Young, with fair skin and a long nose that gave her a solemn air.

            “Edith Hughes. I prefer Edie, though, if you don’t mind.” A smile brightened the seriousness of her face. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Shelby. I’m terribly sorry if I’ve caused any trouble. My family owns Langely House, just over the hill.” She shifted in her saddle and gestured back across the field. “I used to ride on this land when Lord Ainsworth owned the property and didn’t think a thing of it this morning. Our house has been closed for quite some time, and I was so pleased to be here again that I forgot Arrow House had changed hands.”           

            “We’re a cautious family, you might say.” Arthur’s voice was gruff and displeased.   

            What my brother means to say is that we’re not accustomed to unnanounced visitors,” Tommy cut in. Veiled threats were little better than waved guns, in his experience with the upper classes. “But I’m a horseman myself and a beast like that deserves to stretch his legs on open land.” 

            Edie glanced down at the horse, patting his muscled shoulder with one gloved hand.

            “He’s called Pilot,” she said, punctuating her words with another pat. “Grand, isn’t he?”

            Arthur, perhaps regretful of his outburst or perhaps to appease Tommy, stepped forward and rubbed the horse’s nose with his fingertips, murmuring, “There’s a good lad.”

            “He’s very fine,” Tommy said. “The two of you are welcome to ride as you like here. Anywhere in the fields beyond this wall.”

            He wanted to step forward and appraise the horse more closely, run his hands down its legs and examine its teeth, but he kept his place on the lawn. From the sound of her accent, Edith Hughes was a London lady, born and bred. No sense in giving her anything to gossip about with her family back in Langely House. It was in the interest of all the Shelbys to keep a low profile out here in the country. A place they could retreat if things got too hot in Birmingham or down south.

            “Thank you, Mr. Shelby.” Edie turned her smile from the horse to him. “Beyond the wall only—you can have my word that I won’t trample your lawn.”

            “Good morning to you, Miss Hughes.”

            If Tommy had been wearing a hat he would have tipped it. Arthur was, so he touched his brim and started back across the lawn with shotgun in hand. Tommy could tell he was still bristling a bit. He started to turn and follow his brother, but Edith’s voice called out behind him.

            “Mr. Shelby!”

            He turned back, hands folded across his waistcoat in anticipation.

            “You said you were a horseman—would you care to ride with me tomorrow? I’ve come up early for the summer and no one else has joined me at the house yet. I’d be glad for a companion, and so would Pilot.”

            Tommy looked at her, wondering if he’d managed at all to mask his surprise. Was it possible that this woman—this girl, really, if he was judging by the smooth skin of her face—truly had no idea who he was? If she did, was she foolish enough to invite a known gangster for a trot around the countryside? Or was she another May Carleton, looking for a fuck to dull the boredom of her big, empty house? No matter the answer to those questions, the best thing he could do was dismiss her as quickly as possible. If she didn’t know who he was, she didn’t need to find out. And if she did, he didn’t need some posh bitch nosing into his business when he had one foot in Parliament and one on the steps to the gallows at any given moment.

            “I’m afraid my work keeps me busy, Miss Hughes. Good morning.”

            He turned away again, more quickly this time, but heard her voice once more.

            “Nonsense, a morning ride does everyone good. I’ll call tomorrow at eight, all right?” The brusqueness of her voice, the assuredness of getting her way, reminded him jarringly of May once again. “Bring a fast horse if you have one, Pilot loves a race.”

           Before he could say no, she had reined her horse around, urging him into a trot toward Langely House. Tommy looked back toward his own house and found Arthur standing in the middle of the lawn, quirking an eyebrow at him.

            “What’ll you do if she turns up on that horse tomorrow, eh?”   

            Tommy gave his brother a sour look.

            “Send her back to fucking Langely House. I’ve got work to do, Arthur.”