Dacre Lawrence was getting impatient. He’d allocated half an hour for his visit to Lillian McFry, and he saw, by a swift glance at his watch, that his time was almost up. He was worried that she knew more about the value of those medals of hers than had at first appeared. He shifted in his chair, leaning forward towards the woman in an attempt to give the impression of candidness:
“Mrs McFry, I am not sure whether you know, but I am a member of the board of governors of the North of England Museum of Labour History.” He paused, for reaction, but could discern none.
“Last month,” he continued, “I was approached by a dealer in antiques who mentioned to me that he had recently been invited by yourself to inspect Thomas’ medals, and to offer you a view on their value.”
Lillian, of course, knew this. She had reached that point in her life when she felt her allotted years were about to run out. She sometimes felt a strange sense of wonder that, after over a century, she was still very much alive, and living independently to boot - even if she also knew that being a centenarian didn’t have the social cachet it might once have had. Why, it seemed almost anyone could reach a hundred these days, with a little application. Hers, though, must have been an accidental achievement, since she hadn’t particularly aimed for it, nor had she modified her lifestyle much in its winning. It was only last year, after all, that she had stopped smoking the ten cigarettes a day that had been her habit for almost ninety years. But she had to face it: the odds were very much stacked against her seeing her 103rd birthday. So, when she had started the process of tidying up her affairs, the question had naturally arisen as to what should happen to the three medals she stored at the back of her sideboard. She had found the address of a local auction house in the telephone directory, and had arranged for the medals to be inspected by one of their experts, who had made the trip to her small bungalow at her behest. He had been a particularly odious individual, she remembered, and probably not at all the ‘expert’ he had claimed to be. He had laid them out on the small dining table in the corner of Lillian’s lounge, and fingered them without the respect Lillian thought was their due. “These would be of some interest to a collector, Mrs McFry,” he had told her, “but not, I’m afraid, of any great monetary value. If we were to take these to auction, I expect we might raise a couple of hundred pounds each. More, as a set.” He had paused to await her reaction. When there was none, he went on: “Of course, you would incur our standard fees for our sale.” He had turned to look again at the three medals on the table, and seemed mesmerised for a minute.
Lillian McFry was disappointed, although she masked it well. In all her long years, she had never once played poker, but anyone who knew what she was thinking at that point and could match it to her expression would have marked her out as a player with which to contend.
“And the certificate?” she asked. He looked up at her. “I’m afraid I …” he said, meaning to ask her what she meant, but even as he did so he caught sight of the edge of a yellowing piece of paper half-hidden beneath the tissue paper in the box. Carefully, he pulled it out from the base of the cardboard box, unfolded it gingerly and began to read it. He had read barely a paragraph before he felt himself flush. His hands developed a perceptible tremor as his heart began to race, and he could feel the first beads of sweat breaking out on his brow.
Harry’s trip to the airport started with the familiar walk across the gardens of Hamilton Square, towards the red-bricked tower with its strident, Edwardian advertisement for ‘Frequent Electric Trains’ that marked the tube station. He had managed to avoid Mrs Shipman again on his descent to the street, but he knew it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out. He’d have to find that rent money from somewhere, or Harry McFry, GPI would soon be plain old Harry McFry.
As he crossed the square, the elegant facades of the buildings around him washed out in the slow drizzle of rain, he saw that the shop on the corner near the station was open. Good – there was a chance that at least one piece of this jigsaw was about to slot into place.
As he pushed open the door to the ‘Birkenhead Military Emporium’, a bell rang above his head, alerting the owner to come to the counter from a doorway near the back. Harry brushed a few drops from his coat as the proprietor caught his eye.
“Well, if it ain’t old Harry McFry!” His voice was casual and welcoming.
“How are you, Stan? Still flogging those Nazi helmets?” Stan Redfearn smiled back at Harry. It was a long-standing bone of contention with Harry that his old friend had chosen to make his living from selling memorabilia from the war. All about the shop were cabinets displaying cap badges, medals and other items from military uniforms, and here and there a shop dummy stood, incongruously, wearing a full outfit. They reminded Harry of outsized versions of the Action Man figures he’d played with as a child.
“It pays the bills, Harry. And a little bird tells me that’s more than some people are doing!” Stan hadn’t meant this to be as wounding as a casual observer might have thought – if he’d known exactly how precarious his friend’s position really was, he may have chosen his words more carefully.
Harry shrugged off the comment, and pulled up a chair near the glass cabinet counter where an old cash register sat. “Sit down, Stan – I’ve got something I need your help with”. Stan dragged another chair from the wall, and they were sat facing each other when Harry took the medals from out of his pocket. “What do you make of these?”
His companion took one look at them, shook his head from side to side slightly, and said only “If those are what I think they are, Harry, then old ma Shipman’s going to be getting her rent on time this month – and for a few more months after that, as well!”