“Old Harry? Yes, he was a soldier in the Great War, wasn’t he? He never said, but by his bearing and manners, I’d always had him pegged as an officer, but it was hard to tell, he being a down and out and all that.”
It turned out upon investigation, that Old Harry wasn’t quite so old after all, having died on his fortieth birthday, slumped behind the dustbins in the service alleyway between Cork and Old Burlington Streets, just on the edge of Mayfair, on the more exclusive side of London’s West End.
Harry was something of a mystery. In early middle-age he may have been, but he could easily have passed for a man twenty-five or even thirty years older, hence the nickname.
Of course, war will do that to you, especially if you have spent biggest part of four years in a variety of trenches, up to your knees in mud and corruption while you and the boys traded death and damnation with the Boches. More to the point though, no-one could quite remember when Harry first started spending his days marching determinedly up and down the Burlington Arcade, one of those covered and gated Regency thoroughfares lined with odd little shops which cater to the taste for expensive fripperies of those members of the aristocracy and nouveau-riches with more money than sense. You know the sort of place: no prices displayed, because if you have to ask, you can’t afford to shop there.
Nobody knew Harry’s surname, but if he’d died at the age of forty, then he must have been thirty when the Armistice was called ten years ago. That age, together with his bearing and general demeanour clearly suggested a man of officer class and clearly of some education and -at one time at least – money. Old Harry seemed to have been there forever, although patently he had not. Ask anyone who worked or frequented the arcade and they would tell you that Harry was a fixture, and one who seemed to belong. Despite his obvious poverty and reduced state, it never seemed to occur to anyone to object to his presence, nor to the constabulary to move him on.
No. Harry, in his scuffed boots and clean but threadbare army greatcoat, with its empty left sleeve neatly folded and pinned to his chest by a campaign medal was always let be. Harry, who marched solidly, all day, every day counting out the numbers as he did so and who was unfailingly polite when spoken to attracted so little attention as to blend into the background.
At worst he was local colour.
Old Harry was obsessed by one thing, and he would tell you his secret for three pence, the price of a cup of tea and a slice of cherry cake. Burlington Arcade is exactly one-hundred and sixty yards long. No more, no less. Old Harry had measured this precisely by borrowing a tailor’s pole from one of the shops (how he persuaded them no-one knows, it was just Harry). He had confirmed his measurement by measuring the tiles that lined the arcade floor, and counting them.
One hundred and sixty yards precisely. Not one inch more, not one inch less.
And yet it seemed that Old Harry had found a conundrum he could not answer, and it tasked him. For Harry was a tall man, and as stated, of military bearing. His marching pace involved steps of one yard. Indeed, being the thorough man he was, Old Harry had measured his pace, too to be on the safe side. He was convinced and could likewise convince anyone who cared to listen that this was the case. His marching pace was precisely one yard from heel of his one foot to toe of the other.
In and of it self this fact is nothing remarkable. What is remarkable, was Old Harry’s assertion that the arcade was precisely 160 paces long in a northerly direction, but only 158 in a southerly.
This is of course madness and he was frequently told so.
But now and then, he would find someone with both the requisite curiosity and leisure time and demonstrate. And always the result was the same, no matter how the measure was started, or with which foot the march commenced, 160 paces northwards, 158 south. One-hundred-and-sixty yards measured. Always and invariably the same.
Of course, many people dismissed it as some kind of trick, even if they paced it out themselves, and willingly gave Harry his three pence for his tea and cherry cake. Sometimes a little more, counting the entertainment a good trade for the charity.
But it was no trick and it tasked Harry, and now Harry’s dead.
“They say that when they found Harry, he was wearing a fusilier captain’s uniform, 1916 issue. They say he had a holster with his service revolver in it, and his muster whistle in his mouth. He was covered in mud and it looked as though he had just lost his left arm to a shell. They say his eyes were wide in shock. A thousand yard stare…”
There’s a mistake somewhere. Something obvious that I’m missing. I’ve walked the arcade and it is countably shorter in one direction than it is in the other. I’ll bloody crack this if it kills me.