The Veterans’ Club was on King Street: a clean, respectable façade set between other clean, respectable façades; a narrow alley slipped in on one side, lancing into the dark inner workings between it and its neighbour. The front doors were tall, solid oak, with great brass knockers which had never been lifted since the day they were installed; tall windows flanked it, three on each side, their height making them seem narrower than they actually were. Before the doors was the portico, with limestone steps descending to the street on one side. A brass plaque on the wall proclaimed the establishment’s identity in letters too small and too ornate to be made out from street-level. No-one had paid that plaque much attention in decades: if you had to stop to check the address, you were clearly in the wrong place.
Eric Peterkin had been a member of the Veterans’ Club--or the "Vet", as he’d learnt to call it--for five years now. Walking up to it along King Street from St. James’s Street, he barely even noticed the façade anymore; and if he ever bothered to look down the alley, it was with only the slightest twinge of guilty memory.
Back in the summer of 1919, when he first found the club, his father, Colonel Berkeley Peterkin, in turn found him wrestling a club attendant in that alley.
"I heard a cry for help," Eric gasped, struggling to hold down the other man, "and I saw this fellow come tearing down the way. You’d better go and look, Dad: someone down the alley needs assistance."
Colonel Peterkin didn’t move. "There’s no-one there, Eric."
"Behind those dustbins! I swear I heard--"
"I know what you heard. There’s no-one there. You want to let go of our friend, who’s very new, and as unfamiliar with the rather odd echoes you get around here as you are. And you want to apologise."
Eric sheepishly got to his feet and helped the attendant up. He brushed the attendant down, and the attendant did the same for him. Colonel Peterkin waited for them to be done, then pointed to an open window overlooking the alley from the second floor. "One of the members is taking an afternoon nap in a room upstairs," he said, "and he isn’t known for his restful sleep." Then he turned and led the way back into Vet by the front doors, and Eric followed.
Eric was here because his father insisted he join the Vet, now that he’d seen his share of warfare. He’d just been demobbed, and he was still in his uniform: a small, wiry fellow with the very erect posture many such men affect in an effort to seem taller. He had the heavy Peterkin eyebrows, a different moustache every month, and, right now, an uncomfortable sense of having made a bad impression. His father the Colonel was fair-haired and much taller, with eyebrows augmented by several years of no longer caring to trim the damned things back; but otherwise, the family resemblance was remarkable.
Having signed Eric in at the front desk and handed off Eric’s duffel bag to the attendant, the Colonel marched down a side corridor to what was apparently the club secretary’s office: a homely little place, a little overcome with pictures of tortoises, with the lived-in feel that comes with extended occupancy by the same person. Hands were shaken all around; the Colonel introduced the club secretary as a Mr. Jacob Bradshaw: a white-bearded gentleman with an open, genial manner, rather a bit like Father Christmas. Eric half expected the older man to pat him on the head and ask if he’d been a good boy this year.
"Of course, it’s only a formality," Bradshaw told the Colonel. "I can’t think that any of the others would object. I’ve spoken to a couple of them already, as a matter of fact, and they told me that anyone you want to sponsor, they’ll be happy to accept."
"I suppose the club is very exclusive," Eric commented, a little doubtfully.
"Oh, we’re getting an enormous influx of new members," Bradshaw said, producing an application form. "The War, you know; suddenly, half the country qualifies for membership, and a lot of them decide they want it. The officers have had their hands full. I’d have simply let everyone in who wanted to be in, but of course that wouldn’t do for some people."
Eric looked down at the space provided for him to state the details of his service, and was suddenly conscious of a distinct lack of any service details that might bear mentioning. He said: "Have there been people applying, who hadn’t actually been in the War?"
"You do need someone to sponsor you, you know, as your father is doing now. Usually the sponsors don’t recommend anyone who doesn’t qualify; but one new member--Oscar Mainwaring, Colonel, you remember him? Heavy, lugubrious sort of fellow--tried to bring in his brother, who’d been judged medically unfit to serve. The board put their foot down quite heavily, I can tell you."
"It was you who encouraged the fellow to try, I’m guessing," the Colonel replied. Bradshaw spread his hands and smiled sheepishly. "Guilty as charged. I knew both Oscar and William Mainwaring from Chichester--splendid chaps, and it really wasn’t poor William’s fault he couldn’t go. I don’t see why we need to be so exclusive."
From the Colonel’s expression, Eric guessed that his father didn’t quite agree. Bradshaw must have seen it too, because he added: "It’s easy for you, I suppose: there’s no real question for you or yours. After all, there have always been Peterkins at the Vet."
If there was a touch of bitterness in Bradshaw’s voice, the Colonel appeared not to notice. He replied, with a touch of humour: "I should offer to sponsor old Rowland Cathcart’s eldest girl. See what the board says about that. There’ve always been Cathcarts at the Vet, too."
"Oh, believe you me, I’d be happy to have her; you know my views. But I don’t think the rest of the board would agree, any more than they agreed to William Mainwaring. They’d say it defeats the purpose of being a gentlemen’s club."
To Eric’s inquiring gaze, the Colonel explained: "Martha Cathcart was a nurse on the Front, and a damned fine one. Brave, you know: got the Military Medal. I hope you’ll get a chance to meet her, some day. In the meantime, there’s your application to make. Just a formality, as Bradshaw says."
Eric hesitated, but obediently signed the application as his father and Mr. Bradshaw looked on; and in less than no time at all, he was a fully paid-up member, with an invitation to try out for the upcoming cricket match against the Army and Navy Club; and then they were upstairs in the reading room, past the "members only" sign, and Colonel Peterkin was settling back into his armchair for his afternoon nap. A limping attendant ("Second Boer War: crawled seven miles across the Transvaal with a bullet to the knee, and was invalided out.") appeared, at the Colonel’s behest, to deposit a congratulatory gin-and-tonic in Eric’s hand.
The Colonel gave a contented sigh. The Peterkin men tended to lean, athletic builds, and the Colonel was no exception; but, settled into an armchair by the window, he nevertheless contrived to look like a walrus basking in the sun.
"Congratulations," he told his son. "And welcome to the club. I think you’ll find we’ve a looser definition of ’gentleman’ than most, but you youngsters do seem to go in for egalitarianism, don’t you? Membership’s open to any man who’s served the Empire in active military duty at some time of need: any man at all, not just commissioned officers. Bradshaw, for instance, was a Warrant Officer--Company Sergeant Major at a training camp near Chichester, in Sussex--and we’re glad to have him. Chap gets things done, you know. Couldn’t have won the War without him. Could say the same about any man here, really. Excellent fellows, all of them."
Eric was uncomfortable. "Yes. About that, Dad...."
The truth was, Eric was not entirely sure he belonged at the Vet. He was only a schoolboy when the Great War broke out in the summer of 1914; back then, he’d been incredibly anxious to get out to the Front. Most soldiers were, at the time, not knowing what the War would bring. And Eric had a romantic dream of bounding over the parapets with a sword held aloft, heading a triumphant charge against the enemy. He knew it wasn’t exactly realistic, even then, but as a boy he had greatly admired bravery and heroics; that hadn’t changed now he was a man.
It was a shame that he hadn’t been able to prove himself either brave or heroic on the Front; at least, not to his own satisfaction.
"I don’t really belong here," he burst out, after a quick glance around to ensure that they were alone. "Maybe if I’d managed to get out there sooner...."
"Nonsense," the Colonel snorted.
"I could have lied about my age, as Great-Grandfather did to get into the Napoleonic Wars."
"Nonsense," the Colonel repeated brusquely. "And I hope you don’t plan on blaming me for that. I didn’t teach you to lie, and I wouldn’t have had you start then. Or now, come to that." When the Great War broke out, the Colonel had personally informed young Eric that every recruitment officer from Cornwall to Calcutta knew who he was, and would not allow him to slip by in such a fashion.
Eric sighed. He’d waited until he was of age before signing up, in accordance with his father’s wishes. This put him among the last batches of recruits trained for the Western Front, and then Officer training swallowed up more precious months. By the time he arrived in Flanders, the War was all but over. He had little to do but listen to his NCOs recount the horrors of the past four years while waiting for ceasefire to turn into peace, and then to return to the hero’s welcome that the rank-and-file beneath him had earned. Membership at the Vet was really just more of the same thing; but membership at the Vet was as much a tradition with the Peterkins as a career in the Army.
"I was in Flanders for hardly any time at all," Eric said, doggedly pursuing the matter. "I can’t imagine that it counts. Meanwhile, there’s that attendant with an actual war wound, and there’s that nurse, Sister Cathcart, with the Military Medal. They’re not members, so why am I?"
The Colonel puffed through his moustache irritably. "Eric," he said, "you seem to have got some tomfool notion into your head that the Vet exists to honour the heroes of the Empire. That’s not it at all. The Vet is a place where men may gather for a bit of leisure and to rub elbows with other like-minded men. Miss Cathcart may be a war hero, but she’s not a ’like-minded man’ by virtue of not being a man at all, and therefore doesn’t qualify; that attendant is more than welcome to join as a member if he wants, but perhaps he would prefer to be paid for his services instead. The Vet does have a policy of favouring old soldiers when it comes to hiring, which if you ask me is a damned sight more important than any medal."
Properly chastised, Eric sat down and finished his gin-and-tonic.
At length, in a gentler tone, the Colonel told him: "You’ll be glad to have your club membership, you’ll see. I know you, and you’ll be wanting a base of operations for when you’re in London: somewhere to lay your head, and a gymnasium to keep up your physical training; there’s also a vault, if you have anything sensitive or valuable for safekeeping while you go about your business. Home is close enough to London for the occasional day trip, but it would be dashed inconvenient to have to run back and forth every day."
Eric perked up at the mention of the gymnasium. He and his father were both fond of fencing, and frequently sparred together. The dream of bounding over the parapets, sword held aloft, flared briefly in his imagination.
"And don’t worry too much about how your service compares to anyone else’s," the Colonel continued. "A week, a month, or a year, doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you were there at all. And you will be going into the Army after you’re done with Oxford, of course?"
An hour ago, Eric might have answered in the affirmative without a second thought. But now he gave the question some serious consideration, and finally shook his head.
"I’m not sure I want to, any more. It’ll only be this all over again, but worse because it’ll really matter then. Everyone will have expectations and I’m going to have to start everything with a reputation I don’t deserve. And anyway, everyone says this was the war to end all wars. No-one wants any of it to happen again."
Fond as he was of all the romantic imagery of wartime heroism, Eric had seen enough to know that the reality was a very different animal. He’d be the first to go if a need to go appeared, of course, but the Great War had taught everyone that only a fool hungered for it. Perhaps it was this dissonance between the fantasy and the reality, rather than any sense of shame, that contributed the most to his reluctance.
The Colonel gave his response the same consideration, then shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said. Eric had expected anger: after all, he was turning his back on an old family tradition. It appeared, however, that his father was inclined to take a philosophical view of the matter. "You’ll have three years at Oxford to think about it, assuming you don’t get sent down. We’ll see what’s what after that. And, Eric?" The Colonel looked up suddenly, piercing blue eyes meeting Eric’s own grey eyes from under a cover of shaggy white brows. "If you do choose not to go into the Army.... Well, the money your grandparents left you will be yours to do with as you like when you turn twenty-one, but it’s not going to be enough to keep you going for long. You’ll want some other way of earning your bread. And I think, if you find some sort of employment in the city, you’ll be glad of a club in the evenings."
There were other clubs in London, of course, but Eric was not the sort to change his allegiance easily. Doubtless, the Colonel was counting on this and playing his cards accordingly.
Eric emerged from Oxford with a third in classics, a deeply entrenched familiarity with the Vet and its amenities, and an even deeper conviction that an Army career was not for him. London, for him, was an undiscovered country, waiting to be explored; he was a young man who liked to dine out once in a while, perhaps catch a show at a music hall, or down a pint or two with some friends at a pub. His inheritance would keep him from starving, but it wouldn’t afford him any of the pleasures that made life in London in the blooming, blossoming, roaring 1920s worth living.
The Colonel, for his part, seemed to have resigned himself to Eric’s decision. He was a man who knew how to lose gracefully; or perhaps he was too sleepy to really care. "And now I suppose you’ll be wanting some sort of employment in London too. I could put a good word in for you somewhere."
And the Colonel was true to his word--he’d impressed on Eric from an early age the importance of being true to one’s word. It wasn’t long before Eric found himself up to his elbows in unpublished manuscripts: a friend of the family, who ran a small publishing house, was expanding the business and needed an extra pair of eyes now to review those manuscripts submitted for publication, and evaluate them on their potential.
Eric would have preferred an occupation involving a little more regular contact with other human beings, or perhaps a little more physical activity. Still, as far as employment went, he could not complain. He had the freedom to evaluate his assigned manuscripts from the comfort of an armchair in the Veterans’ Club lounge, with attendants ready to salve his brain with brandy if the reading got really bad, and this was a considerable advantage. There was no question but that he had to maintain his membership now. Quite aside from the joys of a comfortable working environment, it was almost certain that his dear, sleepy old father would suffer the most phlegmatic coronary known to man if Eric were to let his membership lapse.
Besides, the cricket team needed him.
By October 1924, Eric Peterkin had become something of a permanent fixture at the Vet: a small, wiry man curled up in an oversized armchair, dark head bent over some manuscript or other. His was a comfortable, enviable life, but a young man brought up on dreams of battlefield glory soon grows bored of being settled, and experiments with facial hair soon begin to pall. Eric was, to put it bluntly, dissatisfied. He was dreaming again of bounding over the parapets with a sword held aloft: he was Sir Pellinore without his Questing Beast ... Don Quixote without even a windmill.
And the alleyway beside the Vet continued to prove singularly and disappointingly devoid of villainy.