Victor: London’s Cotswald Orphanage
Regent Street was busier than usual that afternoon. The London sun shimmered above, yet the buildings were bleak and dominated the skyline. The curved pavement was claustrophobic and full of people walking with pace and purpose. These were the initial thoughts of a lost man that had just walked up the steps from the Piccadilly Circus underground tube station.
As he stood there examining the street in front of him, a young paperboy was waving about a copy of The Daily Mail and shouting,
“Raids to continue throughout May!”
Londoners walked past this boy as if he were invisible. The lost man however stepped towards him and said,
“Excuse me young man.”
“Yes?” replied the paperboy.
“You wouldn't happen to know how to get to Cotswald orphanage, would you?”
“No idea. Ask someone else,” replied the paperboy before bellowing “The Blitz death toll reaches over forty thousand this month as the War goes on! Read all about it here!”
The lost man walked down Regent Street a little further and asked a kind, old lady at a bus stop the same question. She replied, “Cotswald orphanage is the building opposite the cafe on Vigo Street. I can almost see it from here.”
The lost man thanked her kindly and proceeded to the orphanage. As he crossed the road he drew many curious glances due to his appearance. He was tall, quite muscular and with a fierce and heavily scarred face. His hair and beard were auburn but slowly growing grey. He wore the most unusual outfit of a long green cloak with rows of labelled pockets that stretched to the ground much like a common military vest. Most pockets were buttoned tight and stitched with labels revealing their contents. But there were few that had their contents spilled out for everyone to see. There was one pocket holding a small book and the clasp that held the pocket shut had been lost long ago. Flasks containing thin, golden liquid peaked out of the pocket below. Beside that was a pocket storing a fine selection of brightly coloured feathers and tied to a piece of string was a sack of coins and keys that dangled freely as the man walked. On his feet were old, muddy brown buckled boots that stretched to his knee.
The man’s busy cloak waved flamboyantly in the air as he turned the corner onto the quieter Vigo street. At once he saw a dreary square building surrounded by high railings. The man gazed at the Orphanage as he walked through a tall set of wrought iron gates and into a bare courtyard. He slowly climbed the short steps that led up to the front door and knocked once. A minute or so later the door was swung open by a young, red faced woman wearing a grey dress.
“Yes, how can I help you?” she asked hastily, taking long and deep breaths.
“You seemed flushed Miss,” replied the man. “Is everything alright?”
“I’m fine,” said the mystified woman, talking in the man’s unconventional appearance. “There’s been some bullying upstairs I’ve had to deal with.”
“Well, hopefully I won’t take up too much of your time,” said the man, stepping forwards. “My name is Victor Terrace and I have an appointment with a Mrs. Sylvia Tret. Who might you be?”
“Uh, Jane,” said the woman, giving Victor a bewildered stare.
“Good evening Jane,” said Victor. “This appointment concerns one of your orphans. Is Mrs Tret available?”
Jane looked over her shoulder, turned back and quietly said, “Mrs Tret isn’t fond of meetings you see. She normally has me doing all the talking.”
“I won’t be long I can assure you,” said Victor. “I’ve got a train to catch in a few hours.”
Jane, deciding that Victor wasn’t an hallucination opened the front door and invited him in.
The pair had stepped into a hallway with dark marble floors and white walls. The doors were glossy black and numbered with silver digits. In the forefront was a black desk and an empty brown leather armchair.
“I must say London is a wonderful city,” said Victor as the door behind them closed. “It’s very different to what I’m used to.”
Jane replied with a gentle smile, walked to the last door in a long corridor and knocked twice.
“Mrs. Trent,” she called, and Victor heard a distant voice shout something in response.
“She’s on her way,” replied Jane on her return. “Prepare yourself. Mrs Tret isn’t overly fond of visitors.”
A minute or so later, a short and overweight woman appeared at the end of the hallway. As she walked menacingly towards the front door, her appearance came into view. Her unkind face was light pink and without a neck. She had watery eyes that were dark blue and pointy like a gecko. Under a black sweater she wore a clean white shirt that accompanied a rather expensive brown skirt. Fresh, white socks reached her chubby knees and on her feet were dark brown slippers. Her thick, brown hair with growing streaks of grey was stuffed into a tight bun.
“Victor, this is Mrs. Tret,” said Jane.
Before Victor could introduce himself, Mrs. Tret had a few things to say.
“Jane, for heaven's sake, could you please clean at Sarah Hearts bed sheets on the third floor. She’s had another accident and you know how I feel about bodily fluids,” began Mrs Tret. “Also, Peter just upstairs has had another rough night with the Fulham bullies and has been asking for you so get to it. And where are those cakes I ordered from Knightsbridge. You know I’ve got a sweet tooth on the weekends. I want you to write up a formal complaint to the bakery; I won’t stand for this service again! And also. . .”
Mrs Tret’s words escaped her and she was forced to stop dead in her tracks as her eyes fells onto Victor. She looked judgingly at his appearance as if he was wearing a clown costume.
“Who’s this?” she asked in her shrill voice.
“Victor here says he has an appointment with you,” said Jane, her face now very pale.
“An appointment?” sneered Mrs Tret. “But I wasn't expecting anybody today?”
“Victor has told me. . .”
“I don’t care what’s he’s said!” shouted Mrs Tret. “I know what my schedule is and a letter from some strange looking bloke wasn’t in my diary.”
Then Mrs Tret directed her attention to Victor for the first time.
“So!” she barked. “Where are you from then?”
“Uh, Scotland,” answered Victor, holding out his hand.
“My goodness you do look strange,” remarked Mrs Tret, eyeing Victor’s cloak.
Victor forced his face into a painful smile.
“Don’t you smirk at me mate!” boomed Mrs Tret. “What are doing here anyways? Shouldn’t you be in France fighting the Jerry’s?”
Before Victor could answer, Mrs Tret went on.
“I won’t stand for this war any longer! Too many British lives lost already, my cousin and all!”
“We’re helping,” said Victor, with half a glance at Jane.
“Right Jane, why don’t you get on with what I’ve asked you to do,” Mrs Tret ordered before turning solely to Victor. “I’ll deal with this one on my own.”
Jane looked apologetically at Victor as she disappeared down the hallway.
“Follow me to my room,” said Mrs Tret, rolling her eyes.
Victor was led into a small room that seemed part bedroom, part office. The furniture was old and mismatched. In the corner was a springy bed and bookshelf of food and medical supplies. A painting of Big Ben rested neatly above an empty fireplace. Mrs Tret pulled up a tiny wooden chair for Victor to sit on and seated herself behind a cluttered desk, eyeing him suspiciously.
Then suddenly, Mrs Tret witnessed something she could never have imagined. Victor unbuttoned his cloak to reveal a thick, brown leather waist belt strapped to his body. Dangling on his right thigh was a short wooden staff with a small green gemstone in the shape of a triangle resting neatly on the tip. With it drawn he gently flicked it at the empty fireplace beside him. Mrs Tret’s eyes followed silent red sparks fly across the room, past the brass hearth and into the fireplace. The wood-fire, now blazing cheerily in the ample fireplace lit the room. Mrs Tret quickly found herself overwhelmed in pleasant warmth, but she had no explanation for it.
“I just thought we’d get it out the way,” said Victor casually, taking a seat.
Mrs Tret was as white as chalk. Her eyes and mouth were frozen wide open in an expression of stunned surprise. She glanced nervously at the fire and asked, “What are you?”
“That’s not important,” said Victor. “I want you to tell me about one of your orphans.”
Mrs Tret could hear Jane talking to a group of orphans in the next room. She had an urge to scream for help but couldn’t.
“Which orphan?” she asked as she trembled in her chair.
“Peter Norrington,” said Victor, who removed a thin flask containing golden liquid from his cloak. He uncapped it and poured it down a small bottle of brandy resting on Mrs Tret’s desk.
“What are you doing now?” wondered Mrs Tret, scooting her chair back slightly.
Victor poured a generous glass of brandy and stretched out his arm.
“Never!” spat Mrs Tret, shaking her head profusely.
“Either you drink it, or I can force it down you. You decide,” said Victor, his eyes fixed on Mrs Tret.
“Fine. Have it your way,” she said, snatching the glass and downing its contents in one. “What the hell did I just drink?”
“Just a concoction of mine that forces you to tell the truth,” replied Victor, leaning back comfortably. “Now, tell me about Peter. How is his life here?”
The modified brandy had instant effect on Mrs Tret, who’s heart was now racing. Adrenaline had flooded her system and she was suddenly in a pleasant and talkative mood.
“Peter’s life isn’t the best I’m afraid Victor,” Mrs Tret began. “You see, he’s had issues with the other kids for a number of years now. It all started when a few boys from Fulham joined us two years ago. They exclude him from the others, call him names, it’s what we usually see here unfortunately.”
“But as a person, how is he?” Victor asked with interest.
“Oh, Peter’s as kind as a butterfly!” replied Mrs Tret. “He never, ever fights back; even when I tell him to. He knows if he does, the boys will just tease him for longer. He’s extremely clever for a boy of thirteen.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Victor. “And tell me, what is his history? When exactly did he arrive at Cotswald Orphanage?”
“Well it really is the strangest story,” said Mrs Tret, helping herself to more brandy. “I remember it as clear as anything, because I’d just started working here myself. It was in the summer of twenty-nine, and it was on a Monday. I remember it being extremely late but still light outside. I was sitting on the front steps, doing some knitting and enjoying the warm weather when this man opened the gates and walked up to me. He couldn’t have been much older than me, so I say he was only around twenty-five or so at time. Much like you he was an odd-looking man, big long cloak with tall boots. He had a baby wrapped in a white blanket in his arms.”
“What happened next?” Victor asked urgently, leaning forward in his seat with widened eyes.
“Well naturally I asked him what he was doing here, and he told me that he was dropping off his son. He said his first name was to be Peter, but he didn’t give me his second.”
“He didn’t say. What he did say was that it was extremely important that the orphanage never try to find out who his parents were. Then he told me that I would never see him again.”
“Interesting,” muttered Victor, more to himself than to her, and his eyes glazed over as he fell into a deep trance.
“Yes, Mrs Norrington seemed to think so,” said Mrs Tret, who nodded impressively and took another generous gulp of brandy.
“Mrs Norrington?” said Victor.
“She was the head of Cotswald that year and the person I answered to,” replied Mrs Tret. “She gave young Peter her last name and raised him as best as she could. Sadly, she died a few years ago which is why I was chosen to lead the orphanage. This is her old bedroom believe it or not.”
Mrs Tret could see Victor whispering to himself and running his hand through his hair in frustration.
“That night Peter arrived at the orphanage, was there something else with him. An object; anything left by the father?” he asked.
“Now, as it happens, there was,” said Mrs Tret, who was suddenly starting to drift off. Her words had turned sluggish and she was finding it difficult to prevent her eyelids from closing. “Why do I feel so tired?”
“It’s the potion I gave you,” said Victor, who proceeded to snap his fingers.
A sudden loud ringing exploded in Mrs Tret’s head. The hairs on the back of her neck shot straight up. Her face was red again as she was forced out of her drowsy state.
“A crystal ball of some sorts,” said Mrs Tret rapidly. “No, the father said it was an Orb. Yes, that’s right, an Orb, like the King of England’s. The father gave it to me when I had little baby Peter inside the building. He said the Orb was to stay with his son.”
“And where is it now?” said Victor.
Mrs Tret looked at Victor and crinkled a tiny smile. She seemed to be rather enjoying having an eager audience for her every word.
“Truthfully, I don’t know,” said Mrs Tret. “But I think Mrs Norrington kept it in that cupboard.”
Victor swung around and faced an old, crack cupboard door in the corner of the room. As he approached it, he caught glimpse of a red double decker bus through the window that reminded him where he was. He placed his hand on the brass handlebar and turned it until he felt a click. When the cupboard was open he could see that it was full of Mrs Tret’s winter coats, scarfs, hats and umbrellas. But there, resting behind a pair of walking boots was a tiny blue box with a lock on it. Victor removed his staff at once and pointed it at the lock.
“Good luck opening it,” said Mrs Tret. “Mrs Norrington never figured out that bloody lock.”
Victor smiled and whispered the word, “Resare.”
The lock began to glow like a tiny piece of gold. Then, as if it had a mind of its own, the lock unhooked itself and fell to the floor. Victor picked up the blue box and composed himself. With immense concentration, he lifted the lid and looked inside. A sharp, piercing blue light began to stream out of the cupboard. Victor grasped the Orb and held it up to his chest. It was perfectly round and smooth, about the size of an orange and had a luxuriant light blue glow.
“If the people of this world only knew what this was,” said Victor, whose eyes had become glazed with a glassy layer of tears.
The suddenly, there was a knock on the door which prompted Victor to place the Orb back inside its box and return to his seat.
“Hello!” he said loudly.
“Mrs Tret, I’ve got Sarah Hearts dirty bed sheets,” said Jane.
“Put them in the washing Jane. My goodness, can I not rely on anyone around here?” said Mrs Tret. “Now, did you get everything you wanted Victor?”
“Not yet,” replied Victor, removing a perfectly blank piece of folded paper from his cloak.
“Here,” he said, waving his staff once has he unfolded the paper and passed it to Mrs Tret across the table. “This should make everything clear.”
Mrs Tret’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed closely at the blank paper for a moment as if it were full of influential facts, figures and references.
“This sounds excellent,” she said calmly as her and Victor exchanged smiles. “I completely understand why Peter needs to leave Cotswald Orphanage. London simply isn’t safe anymore for young children. He’s much better off with your institute in the highlands. I suppose you’d like to see him?”
Mrs Tret got to her feet and had another sip of whisky.
“Certainly,” said Victor, rising too.
Holding tight onto the blue box, Victor followed Mrs Tret out of her office and down the corridor. She called out instructions and admonitions to children and helpers as she passed. For the first time Victor caught sight of the orphans of Cotswald. They were all wearing white shirts, black ties and trousers. They looked well dressed and cared-for, but there was no denying that this place was a dull place in which to grow up.