Tom stood at the bus stop on the main road adjoining the street where the Turners now lived. Tom was pleased with his morning's work. Over a cup of Typhoo tea and a lemon puff, Edward Patrick Turner's christening had been meticulously arranged. Most of the morning, however, had been taken up by a fully-committed Angela giving the young clergyman an extensive tour of her new house - much to Shelagh Turner's obvious discomfort. There was some embarrassment on both sides as Angela refused to leave out an inch of her new kingdom. He just hoped Timothy Turner would never become privy to the knowledge that the curate had once been in his bedroom.
Tom tightened his scratchy Woolworth's scarf around his neck and pulled his overcoat collar up. Mrs Turner had been right to keep the little girl indoors, even it did result in a hint of petulance from the child. The back garden may be Angela Turner's favourite thing about her new house, but she was definitely better off inside the new centrally-heated, detached new build.
Suddenly, a streak of blue whizzed past his eyes and then pulled up sharply. An all too familiar voice shrieked back at him.
"Hello Tom! Where are you off too?"
It apparently wasn't as cold as he and Mrs Turner had thought, looking at Trixie Franklin waving to him from the passenger seat of an open topped sports car.
"The London, Trixie. Mr. Samuelson." Tom explained.
"Oh, that dear man," Trixie's exuberance dampened momentarily. "Why don't you try and squeeze in, we will drop you off. Won't we Sweetie?" Trixie smiled, that smile at the driver.
Christopher Dockerill and the curate exchanged a glance and a more reserved smile. Tom assured Trixie, that the No.52 was due any minute. He guessed the dentist was on his dinner break and didn't want to share any of that precious time with anyone but his lunch date.
Trixie gave Tom an apologetic smile as she waved goodbye and soon became a blue blur in the distance. Tom smiled. If Trixie had married him she would be stood at this bus stop with him or maybe one like it in Newcastle. Instead she was speeding through Poplar in a sports car. She looked amazing, she looked happy, she looked the part.
Tom was still musing over the differing paths his old love and he had taken as he mounted the stairs of the dirty, red London bus. A familiar voice shook him from his reverie,
"How do, Reverend. Where are you off too then?" Tom looked up to see Fred's cheery face beaming from the seat behind the stairwell.
Tom told Fred about his proposed visit. Fred closed the newspaper he had been reading and sighed, "Poor old Sammy eh! Too bad, known him all my life, since I was nipper. Grand bloke."
Tom felt he may have given too much away about his concerns for his parishioner and changed the subject.
"Catching up with the news, Fred?"
"Na, not me it's all gloom 'n' doom. If you ask me this country is going to the dogs. I just get it to see how many the 'ammers got beat by and to have a look at the gee-gees." Fred wafted the well-thumbed copy of last night's Evening Standard at Tom.
His voice lowered. "Between you 'n' me Reverend, there is a good thing in the 2:35 at Aintree today. Never been beat, class against muck. Handicapper has let one fly, if you know what I mean?" Tom hadn't the faintest idea what Fred meant, it was like he was speaking another language.
"I will just say this young man, with the help of this little beauty, my Violet can expect something special in her Christmas stocking. If you catch my drift?"
If Tom could have pushed the next sentence that left his lips back into his mouth, he would have. "Fred, I am sure Mrs. Buckle would be pleased with any gift you can afford. Safe in the knowledge you aren't risking your hard earned wages on gambling."
"You weren't so high and mighty about a little flutter on your stag do, was you Reverend. Weren't so proud when it got your girl that big fancy carousel?"
Tom was horrified he had not meant to sound so preachy and Fred was a friend, a good friend. He had been given a stag night to remember, well some of it he remembered. It had all been because of this kind and thoughtful man.
"So what you got the missus for Christmas then, bit hard to top your own personal fairground, ain't it? Set of dodgems, is it?"
Fred stood up and pulled the cord to ring the bell for his stop. He saw the clergy's crestfallen face and wondered if he had been a bit harsh? He liked Mr. Hereward a lot.
"Never you mind vicar about presents, newly-weds can make their own funfair at Christmas." He winked at the curate, trying to ease the tension between the two.
Tom's visit to the London turned out better than he expected. Mr. Samuelson looked so much better than he had on Tom's last visit to his home. The old man confessed to the curate that he was hoping he would be in hospital over Christmas, surrounded by wonderful caring nurses, who reminded him of his late wife Mabel and a grumpy matron, who reminded him of his old Sergeant Major.
His renewed optimism regarding Mr. Samuelson didn't bolster the curate's spirits for long. He couldn't forget his earlier conversation with Fred. What was he going to get Barbara for Christmas? The wedding and simple honeymoon had practically cleaned Tom out. How was he going to top a carousel? When he couldn't even afford a sherbet lolly. He remembered Trixie waving to him from her new beau's status symbol. He knew Barbara would never expect or even want to go skiing for Christmas or be driven around in a sports car. The nearest they got to that was when she let him ride her bike and she had a croggy on the handlebars.
He thought about the scene of domestic bliss he had witnessed this morning. Barbara's and his children wouldn't have their own bedrooms. They wouldn't have a garden to play in. They would play out with all the other kids on the streets of Poplar. The clergy's children would play with the docker's kids. Would they survive? Would they be bullied? He thought of Timothy Turner, he grew up on the East End streets, no one picked on Tim, he was accepted. Playing violin and piano when the other kids were playing British Bulldogs. Going to Grammar School while his mates got jobs on the docks or in factories. You couldn't get a more well balanced happy teenager than Tim Turner, could you? Tom gave himself a shake. She had married a clergyman not a doctor or a dentist and if anyone knew what that meant, Barbara did. Yes, she deserved everything and more that her friends had, but she had chosen differently.
As Tom headed across Whitechapel Road he noticed a new addition to the line of shops near the station. Tom had read somewhere that since bookmaking had been made legal last May, that over 10,000 Betting Shops had arrived in High Streets across the UK. That did seem rather a lot. In his line of work he had seen many families ripped apart by gambling, just as he had by drinking. Yet he still enjoyed a pint of mild, when he had the chance and felt it in no way threatened his and Barbara's happiness or comfort. Everything in moderation his father had always said.
The same thing applied when he looked at Fred. Violet knew all about Fred's little flutters, of course she did and she didn't seem to mind. Then there was Dougie Roberts, renowned for not been able to pass up a bet. What was that expression about 2 boys and a wall? Well, that applied to Dougie. One look at his wife Ruby, told you she wanted for nothing. His two girls were always immaculately turned out and as for their boy, well it was widely acknowledged that nothing was too good for little Douglas.
The building was small and the windows blacked out making it look secretive, menacing almost. He was inside before he even realized what he was about to do. The smell of stale cigarette smoke hit him first. As his eyes adjusted to the artificial light, he glanced at his fellow occupants in the tiny room. No one looked at Tom. The curate made sure his scarf was wrapped tightly around his throat and the collar of his overcoat drawn together to hide his dog collar.
"Alright Darling, next race 2:35 at Aintree."
Tom turned and blinked at the young woman behind the small counter. "Ain't seen you in here before, I'd 'ave remembered. First time is it?" She winked at him.
The bleached blonde with the beehive flashed him a mischievous smile. Tom inwardly chastised himself for putting himself in this position, but before he could make a break for it. The cheeky blonde was beside him and had thrust a small piece of paper in his hand, along with a ridiculously small pencil. She was explaining that all the information he would need on runners and riders was pinned to the wall in front of him.
"Just put, the race time, horses name and how much you want to bet on there, sweetheart. I will do the rest." She flounced back to the counter leaving a scent of cheap perfume and polo mints behind her.
Tom knew he had to leave now. If only at this point the chirpy assistant hadn't turned up the volume on the solitary black and white television set, following a request from a punter. It spouted;
We will just take a look at the runners for our next race the 2:35 at Aintree. The commentator's voice startled Tom. No.1 is a big outsider, first time at Aintree for Glorious Gilbert..."
Tom heard no more, his heart missed a beat. Maybe this wasn't a mistake after all. Tom rushed to the pinned up papers, found what he needed. He scribbled on the tiny slip and presented it to his curious new ally behind the desk. Searching in his trouser pocket, he hesitated only for a second, as he took out a precious ten bob note and handed it over to its willing recipient. It took Tom a full minute to realize what he had done. He moved to a place where he could get a good view of the flickering set. He longed to unbutton his coat, but instead he pulled the collar tighter.
The small room was overheated, a fierce looking electric heater in the corner was whirring and spluttering. They were going down, the commentator informed him, in a few minutes it would all be over. No one would ever know how stupid he had been.
"Reverend! Well this is a right turn up for the books, twice in one day!" Tom froze as a large hand patted him on the back. The girl behind the counter started coughing uncontrollably after swallowing her Polo mint whole.
Rather weakly and somewhat defensively Tom retorted. "I could ask you the same question, Fred."
Fred didn't bat an eyelid. "I often does a bit of business on Whitechapel Market, just thought I'd pop in here for a warm."
"Friend of yours Fred?" the assistant had regained her composure.
"Alright, Thelma love?" tactfully leaving the enquiry unanswered.
Tom was grateful realizing Fred must have just popped in for a lot of 'warms' recently. Fred led Tom away from listening ears and asked him why the last person he was expecting to meet in a Whitechapel Betting Shop was stood next to him. Tom could have said he was looking for a parishioner or putting on a bet for old Mr. Samuelson. Tom knew he was a fool, but he also knew he wasn't a liar. Tom handed his friend the slip he had been clutching so tightly. Fred just asked him why?
"For Barbara," was all he could reply. Fred pulled off his woolly hat, scratched his head and looked bewildered at the curate. "I was pulling your leg, winding you up, you silly sod."
Fred felt bereft he had maybe had some part in the choices Tom had made that afternoon. He looked so uncomfortable, so out of place. "Gambling is a mug's game. I know I am a mug."
Tom protested, "What about Walthamstow, what about Galilee Lad...?" Fred interrupted, "Dogs is dogs. A good dog can beat another good dog any day of the week. Now your thoroughbred, that's a different animal. You've got to know your oats. So to speak."
Tom felt sick and hot and stupid. Fred looked at Tom's slip and shook his head. "66/1, it's a maiden!" Fred couldn't hide his exasperation.
All Tom could offer was that he thought it was a stallion. Fred snorted. "Yes, It is a bloke. A maiden just means it's never won a race. You know, like a maiden's never..."
"Yes, I get the picture Fred, thank you." The simple question why? came again from Fred's face of pity. "For Barbara." Came back the reply.
Fred explained he had popped in for another "warm" earlier and had put on an accumulative bet called a Round Robin. The favourite in this race was Mr. Minty and if he came in for Fred, it was happy days. Tom wondered if a Round Robin was a special type of wager just for the festive season, but didn't ask.
Thelma turned the volume on the television up another notch. As the race announcer declared, And they're off!
"That's yours in the red and white stripes," she nodded at Tom. The curate looked bewildered at the black and white picture. Fred grinned, winked at him and shook his head.
Even with Tom's untrained eye, he could see Mr Minty looked like a different class from the rest of the field.
"Jumps like a stag!" Fred beamed with pride.
"You mean there are fences!" Tom cried.
"It's winter Mr. Hereward, the National Hunt season."
Not for the first time Tom wondered why no-one was speaking English today. The 6 horses seemed to take each fence in their stride. Mr Minty led from the off and literally flew over every obstacle. Emerald Eyes fell at the 6th. Tom offered up a silent prayer for the horse and jockey. Remarkably both bounced back up on to their feet. Emerald Eyes, now rider-less, soon caught up to her competitors. Welsh Wonder refused to jump at the 7th and was pulled up. Bobby's Girl unseated her jockey at the 9th. Gorgeous Gilbert was last of the 3 remaining runners, it was no threat to Mr Minty, but seemed quite happy to plod on behind and appeared to relish the jumps.
"Your nag has stopped to eat some grass." Fred mocked. Tom realized he no longer cared. As long as horse and jockey got home safety, that was all that mattered now.
"One more jump and we are home and dry, go on my son!" a very excited Fred Buckle yelled. Mr Minty took off for the final time and so did his jockey. He took off from his saddle and somersaulted over Mr Minty's head. The jockey landed unceremoniously on his behind on the turf. Mr Minty didn't miss a step and galloped home triumphantly.
Fred swore. Apologised to Tom and then cursed again. Tom and Fred's gaze returned to the screen, while the cameras had been focused on the fate of the unfortunate favourite. Tom's horse had made up ground on the second. Blonde Bombshell was coming to the last now, as the unexpected favourite. She jumped the fence cleanly, but stumbled on landing. Her jockey pulling hard to maintain his balance. Gorgeous Gilbert jumped beautifully and was now just a length behind the tiring leader.
Fred suddenly became animated, he grabbed Tom's sleeve, "You're in with a chance here Reverend."
Tom was perspiring, feeling sick and dizzy due to the heat, the confinement of the small shop and the overpowering cigarette stench compounded by his confusion at his own actions. Fred was now jumping up and down shaking Tom's arm. "Come on you beauty, come on for Mrs H!" He screamed.
The enthusiasm of his friend did not go unnoticed by Tom, Fred had shaken off the disappointment of his own loss and was right behind Tom's fortunes. The broadcaster continued his quick-fire commentary.
It's a long run in here at Aintree, Blonde Bombshell is tiring, she is losing ground. Gorgeous Gilbert is gaining on her. Here he comes. There is just a neck in it now. They coming up to the line. He has done it! The outsider has pulled off a shock today here at Aintree, Glorious Gilbert the winner at 66/1.
Fred was now kissing a very dazed Tom. The feel of Fred's stubble on his cheek jolted Tom back to reality. Fred pushed Tom towards a grinning Thelma.
"Where you taking me tonight then, Handsome? Now you've cleaned me out."
Fred gave Thelma a stern stare and the assistant took out a wad of notes and began counting out Tom's winnings. "What do you fancy in the next then?"
Tom shaking with the money in his hand replied, "I don't know. I will have a look."
A large hand grabbed Tom's arm and before he knew it, Tom was finally outside. His lungs shuddered with relief at the cold fresh air. Fred had him by both shoulders and was staring Tom right in the eyes. Tom felt faint with the sudden environmental change and the smell of tea, jellied eels, and sweat.
"Now you listen to me Tom! You got lucky, you were given a break. Betting is a mug's game, I know cos I am a mug see. Apart from the day I stepped up at Nonnatus House and the day I married my girls mother and of course my Vi."
Tom was getting his bearings and Fred had his full attention. "I know how you feel mate. Of course I does, your missus earns more than you do. You can't get her the things you'd like too. You don't want her feeling second best. You don't want people thinking you're not a real man because your wife works, or it looks like you can't provide for her. Well none of that matters. They'll soon change their minds, when they want a baby delivering or christening, when they want marrying or burying. They'll soon remember then, how important you and that young lass are to Poplar. When they're in trouble, when they have need of you. They will remember and so should you!"
Fred finally let go of Tom and the smaller man swayed slightly. "Now keep that stash, safe in your pocket and go and find a nice present for Mrs H, that's what all this is about. Ain't it? He smiled at Tom and added, "Let that be the end of it."
"The end of what, Fred?"
The last question didn't come from Tom's soft brogue but from a higher pitched voice, a feminine voice and one that held a hint of anxiety. Fred knew he couldn't answer Mrs Hereward's question and made his swift goodbyes and was lost in Whitechapel Market in a heartbeat.
Tom stared at his wife in disbelief, a feeling mirrored by Barbara. After accompanying a patient to the London for admission, she had not expected as she crossed the Whitechapel Road, to see her husband and the Nonnatus handyman coming out of a betting shop.
Barbara repeated her question, this time to Tom. Tom knew he was a fool, but he was not a liar. His confession poured from his heart. How he resented not being able to give Barbara the lifestyle she deserved. How she should have the sort of things her friends were quickly becoming accustomed too. It broke his heart to see Trixie swanning off skiing, when he hadn't been able to give Barbara a proper honeymoon. He wanted their children to have a room of their own and a garden with a swing and a slide. He hadn't even been able to buy his love an engagement ring. He hadn't been able to bear the thought of their first Christmas as man and wife exchanging some worthless trumpery from the market.
Tears welled up in Barbara's eyes, she held both his hands in hers. "Do you know me so little, that you think I would envy a skiing trip or a ride in a sports car? Do you think I give a damn about the latest fashions or hair styles? For one moment do you think I would swap our cosy little flat in the centre of our bustling, vibrant world for a big house on a faceless new estate somewhere, where we know no-one. Where we would have to cycle or get the bus every time we wanted to see our friends. Tom I would live with you in a bus shelter and would not care if we never stepped out of Poplar again, as long as I was with you."
Tom was struggling to hold back the tears now. Barbara had not finished.
"You are so incredibly dear to me, Tom. I feel I am the luckiest girl in the world. On Sunday morning, I feel this when I hear you preach with understanding and compassion, not judgment and prejudice. I feel blessed beyond belief, when I watch you hold a dying man's hand, comfort a widow, help those in need find a way or just make a child feel important. I burst with pride every time someone calls me Mrs or Nurse Hereward, because that means that out of the whole world the best man I have ever met, chose me."
Tom pulled her close into a soft salty tear stained kiss. He didn't care if anyone noticed his dog collar now. He promised to never be so foolish again.
"Just tell me Tom, how much did you lose?"
"I didn't lose anything Barbara, I won. I won over 30 quid!" Barbara blinked and then gasped in disbelief.
She wouldn't tell Tom just yet, but the pensioners Christmas dinner and the children's party were definitely going to be remembered this year. Their first year as the curate and his wife. As Mr and Mrs Hereward.
"I guess I beat the odds when I married you, Barbara," Tom continued.
"Never mind about that Mr Hereward, I have just finished my shift and if you come with me. It's a dead cert, that you are on a sure thing."
Barbara had pulled Tom onto the No.52 bus before he realized what she meant. Not for the first time today he realized he had backed a winner.