It was a fine day in the city. Great buildings of grey stone and brown brick loomed above; their legions of gargoyles leering from corners and crevices. Carriages scuttled by on spindle legs of wood and brass. They clicked along the cobblestone roads, keeping beat with a brass band playing somewhere in the park. The city breathed and sighed around Burt, and he was happy to be a small part of its greater being.
Autumn had turned the leaves of the roadside trees gold, but today summer took a last gasp, and the air was warm. Burt watched dust motes rumble along the cobblestones. He could feel the rumble of the tube train beneath the streets. Burt nodded absently, and took in the music of the city. He had a good feeling about today.
Burt took his spot in front of Ted’s old bookstore, and spread his chalk out meticulously. The past few days had seen no rain, which in itself was a blessing for this time of year. Normally, Burt would have found another way to make a few coppers by now, but the weather had been nice, and being a screever was Burt’s favourite job.
Burt was most certainly in position to have a favourite job. He’d done nearly everything in his time. Burt had worked the docks, loading and unloading ships. He’d worked on the dirigibles that flew overhead. He’d shovelled coal and watched the furnaces in the tube trains. Burt had served food in the restaurants, and customers in the shops. He’d cleaned and painted houses, swept chimneys, and mended furniture. Once, for nearly a week, he’d even been a military man. None of these jobs made him as happy as Screeving did though.
Screeving is the art of chalk drawing, usually on pavement. It was an old practice, with a fine and noble background. Burt was very good at it. He was not one to blow his own horn, but he could recognize his work to be rather nice to look upon.
Not that it was always an easy time. Burt was a bit of a perfectionist, when it came to his work at least. His most recent work was not what he would call perfect. He called it Starry Night Over the Park. If the coppers in his hat were to be trusted, it was a fine piece, but Burt couldn’t help feel that something was missing from it.
It’s easy to get distracted when you are concentrating on an art. You can lose yourself to a thought, or let your mind wander deep into a note. In Burt’s case, he was mentally in that Starry Night; staring up from his drawn park, trying to figure out what was missing from his sky. It’s forgivable, and completely understood by any who have ever taken up a pen, brush, or chalk. Burt didn’t see the girl running towards him. In all fairness, there was likely little he could have done to avoid what came next, even were he to see it coming.
There was little in the way of collision, that should be made clear. This girl did not trip over Burt fully, though she did stumble. Burt was not tossed aside in surprise, though he did scramble to get his hands out from beneath a surprise pair of boots. Both did need a moment to recover. Burt’s workspace took the brunt of the accident, leaving both him and the girl with minimal fuss.
Burt shook his head, and looked at the scattered chalks. The girl had broken a yellow stick under her boot, and had sprayed dust along Burt’s Starry Night Over the Park.
“Oh, I am terribly sorry,” the girl stated. “I was in a bit of a hurry. I didn’t see.” She tilted her head at the drawing. “Oh, I am sorry,” she repeated. “It was coming along so nicely too.”
“Quite alright,” Burt suggested. “It’s a bit of a regular occurrence to be sure, what drawing on the sidewalk. In fact…” He picked up the recoverable half of the yellow chalk, and looked at the damage. He sucked on his bottom lip as he did some repairs; turning the boot print into a milky way sort of design. “And there we are. Seems you’ve helped with what was missing,” Burt said. He looked up with a smile, but let it slide away as he looked the girl over.
The girl was about Burt’s age, possibly a year or so older, though Burt was far too polite to ask. Her dark hair was pulled into a tight bun. It escaped in small wisps, and was plastered down by the sweat along her forehead. Her skin was pale, and Burt felt that alabaster was the only proper descriptive, despite never having used the word before. She wore a white blouse under a blue corset, and a long flowing skirt with a tear along the side. Her heeled boots had buttons along the side, and were not built for running in.
The girl glanced at Burt. “It is most impolite to stare,” she noted sharply.
“Oh, begging your pardon ma’am.” Burt tipped his hat politely, and looked away. “It’s just that you seemed in distress is all.”
“I do not distress,” she retorted. “I am never in distress.”
“Well,” Burt replied slowly, “it’s just that you’ve been running.”
“Yes, well.” The girl gave a half smile. “It is a lovely day for a run though, isn’t it? One must stay fit.”
“And you lost your jacket,” Burt continued. “I suppose it is warm for one, but such a nice jacket shouldn’t just be tossed aside.”
The girl blinked at Burt. “How did you know I had a jacket?”
“It’s a blue one right? Powder blue, with silver buttons?” He pointed down the street. Two men held out the coat, and pointed towards them.
The man holding the coat was lanky, and tall. His mutton chops were thick and near white. His partner was a short stout man, with long unkempt red hair, and thick spectacles. Both men wore fine black suits, and expensive bowler hats. “Your friends have it. It is your coat, right?” Burt shifted, and made to walk away. He knew money when he saw it, and knew that normally, a girl would not like to be seen talking to a ne’er do well such as himself.
The girl followed Burt’s gaze. She gasped slightly, and grabbed his hand. “They are not my friends Burt, quite the opposite I fear.” She turned, and began to run again, Burt in tow.
Burt scooped up his hat as they passed it, but otherwise he didn’t resist her lead. He kept pace with the girl, though for him it was more of a light jog. “Spot of trouble then miss?”
“You could say that I suppose,” the girl replied. “Those gentlemen wish to discuss things with me that I would rather not discuss.”
Burt spared a glance back at the well dressed men. They were walking casually, and yet seemed to be keeping pace with the running pair. “I know the type ma’am, think to lead a lady in conversation.” He shook his head. “Always think they know best, those type. We could find a constable,” Burt suggested. “Men like them tend to fade away when the cops are involved.”
The girl shook her head. “No, the police can’t help,” she said. She struggled to keep a good pace. Behind them, the men, still walking in stride, seemed to be gaining. “Bother these boots,” she cursed. The girl looked suddenly abashed at Burt, and covered her mouth with her free hand for a moment. “I am sorry,” she insisted.
“No, it’s quite understandable under the circumstances.” Burt glanced down a side street, and smiled. “If I may be so bold miss, perhaps you should let me lead.” He didn’t wait for a response, and tugged the girl along as he turned down the side roads. She didn’t put up any resistance as he turned again, this time into a thin alley.
“Know these streets like the back of my hand, I do,” Burt bragged. “Meaning no offence of course, but running along the main road like that only does one good if they hope for outside help, which as you say,”
“Will be of no help,” the girl interrupted. “Oh, I am sorry to drag you into this unfortunate mess Burt.”
“Quite alright,” Burt replied. “Sometimes, it can’t be avoided. This way,” he led, “I know a bit of a twist that will lose them for sure.”