A Taste of AT THE DYING OF THE YEAR

Coming in hardback at the end of February.

 

Richard Nottingham exhaled slowly as his boot heels clattered over Timble Bridge, feeling the wool of his breeches rasp against his thighs as he moved. Partway across he stopped to rest for a moment, leaning heavily on the silver-topped stick and listening to the birds singing for the dawn. His breath bloomed in the November air and he pulled the greatcoat collar higher.

            Five months had passed since he’d last walked this way to work. Five months since the knife sliced into his belly. For a week he’d drifted in and out of the world, living in a place made of furious heat and bitter chills, the pain always there, powerful enough to fill every thought, every moment. Few believed he’d survive.

            Finally the fever burned out of his system and he woke, the daylight so bright it hurt his eyes, his wife Mary sitting by the bed, holding his hand. He’d live, the apothecary announced after examining him, although the healing would take a long time.

            The summer of 1733 was warm, sticky, full of the drowsy scent of wildflowers in the fields as he began to walk again, shuffling like an old man. At first he could only manage a few yards before he was exhausted, forced to stop, frustrated by his body and its weakness. Strength returned gradually, at its own dismal pace. He went further, first to the bridge, then into the city, a little more distance each day.

            And now he was back to work.  Richard Nottingham was Constable of the City of Leeds once more.

 

                                                **********************

He was still looking for the place when he heard a shout and turned. A man was running quickly towards him, stripped to shirt and breeches, his face and hands covered in dirt, the bright light of fear in his eyes.

            ‘You the lad who works with the Constable?’ he asked. Rob nodded. ‘You’d better come, then. It’s the bell pits.’ The man jerked his thumb vaguely in the direction of the White Cloth Hall then moved away, his stride fast and jerky.

            Lister was pushed to keep pace with the man as they headed along Low Back Passage. ‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What’s in the pit?’

            But the man just shook his head. ‘Tha’ll see soon enough.’

            Rob knew about the bell pits; everyone in Leeds did. They were holes that extended just a few feet into the ground, opening into chambers ten or twelve feet across and shaped liked the bells that gave them their names; places where folk gathered scraps of coal for their fires. They’d existed for generations, all over the city, for so long that no one really knew who’d first dug them. He’d never been in one, although the schoolboys often dared each other to go down into the dry warmth. Three of them lay close together, no more than twenty feet apart, each separate from the other, along the path that led from Kirkgate to the White Cloth Hall, mounds of dark earth next to each one. A group of workmen were passing a flagon of ale around, all of them silent, their faces serious.

            ‘Down there.’ The man pointed at one of the pits, where a ladder protruded above the lip. Rob glanced at him questioningly, but the man looked away, unwilling to meet his eyes. He gazed at the other men, but none of them would offer him more than a sad stare.

            Curious, he placed his boots on the wooden rungs, testing the weight, and began to climb down. He’d barely descended a yard before he stopped, swallowing hard as he smelled it. Something was dead down here, the thick, cloying smell of decay heavy in the heat all around him. He drew a breath through his mouth and went deeper into the pit.

            At the bottom, no more than ten feet below the surface, he felt the rough, dry earth under his soles. He was already sweating from the still heat. A thin tunnel of light came down the hole, spilling into a small circle on the ground, deep shadows and pitch darkness reaching beyond. He retched hard, unable to keep the bile down, pulled a handkerchief from his breeches and clamped it over his face and mouth.

            It didn’t help. He bent over, vomiting again and coughing until there was only a thin trickle of spittle trailing from his lips. The stench of death was so strong he felt he could touch it.

Just at the edge of the gloom he could make out the shape of feet. Six of them, bare, dirty soles showing, three different sizes. He moved two paces closer, his eyes watering. The legs were small, thin. They were children.Image

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