The Face of a Stranger


Chapter 1

He opened his eyes and saw nothing but a pale grayness above him, uniform, like a winter sky, threatening and heavy. He blinked and looked again. He was lying flat on his back; the grayness was a ceiling, dirty with the grime and trapped fumes of years.

He moved slightly. The bed he was lying on was hard and short. He made an effort to sit up and found it acutely painful. Inside his chest a fierce pain stabbed him, and his left arm was heavily bandaged and aching. As soon as he was half up his head thumped as if his pulse were a hammer behind his eyes.

There was another wooden cot just like his own a few feet away, and a pasty-faced man lay on it, moving restlessly, gray blanket mangled and sweat staining his shirt. Beyond him was another, blood-soaked bandages swathing the legs; and beyond that another, and so on down the great room to the black-bellied stove at the far end and the smoke-scored ceiling above it.

Panic exploded inside him, hot prickling through his skin. He was in a workhouse! God in heaven, how had he come to this?

But it was broad daylight! Awkwardly, shifting his position, he stared around the room. There were people in all the cots; they lined the walls, and every last one was occupied. No workhouse in the country allowed that! They should be up and laboring, for the good of their souls, if not for the workhouse purse. Not even children were granted the sin of idleness.

Of course; it was a hospital. It must be! Very carefully he lay down again, relief overwhelming him as his head touched the bran pillow. He had no recollection of how he had come to be in such a place, no memory of having hurt himself-and yet he was undoubtedly injured, his arm was stiff and clumsy, he was aware now of a deep ache in the bone. And his chest hurt him sharply every time he breathed in. There was a thunderstorm raging inside his head. What had happened to him? It must have been a major accident: a collapsing wall, a violent throw from a horse, a fall from a height? But no impression came back, not even a memory of fear.

He was still struggling to recall something when a grinning face appeared above him and a voice spoke cheerfully.

"Now then, you awake again, are you?"

He stared upwards, focusing on the moon face. It was broad and blunt with a chapped skin and a smile that stretched wide over broken teeth.

He tried to clear his head.

"Again?" he said confusedly. The past lay behind him in dreamless sleep like a white corridor without a beginning.

"You're a right one, you are." The voice sighed good-humoredly. "You dunno nuffin' from one day ter the next, do yer? It wouldn't surprise me none if yer didn't remember yer own name! 'Ow are yer then? 'Ow's yer arm?"

"My name?" There was nothing there, nothing at all.

"Yeah." The voice was cheerful and patient. "Wot's yer name, then?"

He must know his name. Of course he must! It was... Blank seconds ticked by.

"Well then?" the voice pressed.

He struggled. Nothing came except a white panic, like a snowstorm in the brain, whirling and dangerous, and without focus.

"Yer've fergot!" The voice was stoic and resigned. "I thought so. Well the Peelers was 'ere, day afore yesterday; an' they said as you was 'Monk'-'William Monk.' Now wot 'a you gorn an' done that the Peelers is after yer?" He pushed helpfully at the pillow with enormous hands and then straightened the blanket. "You like a nice 'ot drink then, or suffink? Proper parky it is, even in 'ere. July-an it feels like ruddy November! I'll get yer a nice 'ot drink o' gruel, 'ow's that then? Raining a flood outside, it is. Ye're best off in 'ere."

"William Monk?" he repeated the name.

"That's right, leastways that's wot the Peelers says. Feller called Runcorn, 'e was; Mr. Runcorn, a hinspec-tor, no less!" He raised scruffy eyebrows. "Wot yer done, then? You one o' them Swell Mob wot goes around pin chin' gennelmen's wallets and gold watches?" There was no criticism in his round, benign eyes. "That's wot yer looked like when they brought yer in 'ere, proper natty dressed yer was, hunderneath the mud and torn-up stuff, like, and all that blood."

Monk said nothing. His head reeled, pounding in an effort to perceive anything in the mists, even one clear, tangible memory. But even