Last time I put up the beginning of a Victorian novel I’m working on. Here – hopefully for your pleasure – is a bit more. The last I’ll be putting online, because a) I’m still writing the book, and b) because I want some to publish it, which won’t happen if I give it all away here. So, please, let me know what you think:
In the end he was five minutes late, dashing along Boar Lane, past Holy Trinity Church to meet her in front of the Grand Pygmalion. Sergeant Tollman had wanted a quick word that stretched out to ten minutes, then a detective constable needed a piece of advice until he’d been forced to run the whole way.
“I’m sorry,” he said, gasping for breath. She stood with her back to one of the grand glass windows, the shade od a wide hat hiding her expression.
“I don’t know, it could mean the engagement’s off. I can’t have a man who’s never on time.” He looked up quickly. But Annabelle Atkinson was smiling, her eyes playful. “You’re going to have to do better than this, Tom Harper.”
“I…” he began, and she laughed.
“Oh give over, you daft ha’porth. It took me six months to get you to propose. I’m used to you being late, I’m not doing to drop you now.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “If you want to make yourself useful you can carry these.”
“Six packages?” Harper asked. “What have you been doing, buying half of Leeds?”
“Just things a girl needs when she’s going to be wed. I could have waited for you before I started shopping, if you’d rather.”
“No,” he replied hastily. “It’s fine.” He’d been in the Pygmalion when it opened. Four floors of draperies, parasols and sailor suits, and more assistants than he could shake a stick at. Nothing to interest him at all.
“Come on, then, we’d better get a move on. It’s Saturday and I said I’d help out tonight. We’ll be packed and I want a bite of something first.” She waited until he had all the packages and set off along the street, her arm through his.
He saw men glancing at her. She had that kind of face. Not beautiful, no Jenny Lind or Lily Langtry, but she possessed a quality that drew the eyes. The first time he’d seen her he’d been like that himself, staring for a second before turning away, then looking again and again until she’d stopped in front of him and boldly asked if he liked what he saw.
She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up. At first he thought she must be a serving girl with a brass mouth. Then, as he sat and watched her over another pint, he noticed the rest of the staff defer to the woman. He’d still been there when she poured herself a glass of gin and sat down next to him.
“I’m surprised those eyes of yours haven’t popped out on stalks yet,” she told him. “You’ve been looking that hard you must have seen through to me garters.” She leaned close enough for him to smell her perfume and whispered. “They’re blue, by the way.”
For the first time in years, Tom Harper blushed. She laughed.
“Aye, I thought that’d shut you up. I’m Annabelle. Mrs. Atkinson.” She extended a hand and he shook it, feeling the calluses of hard work on her palms. But no ring. “He’s dead, love,” she explained. “Three year back. Left me this place.”
She’d started as a servant when she was fifteen, after a spell in the mills. The landlord had taken a shine to her, and she’d liked him. One thing had led to another and they’d married. She’d been eighteen, he was fifty. After eight years together, he’d died.
“Woke up and he were cold,” she said, toying with the empty glass. “Heart gave out in the night, they said. And before you ask, I were happy with him. Everyone thought I’d sell up once he was gone but I couldn’t see the sense. We were making money. So I took it over. Not bad for a lass who grew up on the Bank, is it?” She gave him a quick smile.
“I’m impressed,” he said.
“So what brings a bobby in here?” Annabelle asked bluntly. “Something I should worry about?”
“How did you know?”
She gave him a withering look.
“If I can’t spot a policeman by now I might as well give up the keys. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?”
“I’m a detective. Inspector.”
“That’s posh. Got a name?”
“Tom. Tom Harper.”
He’d come back the next night, then the next, and soon they’d started walking out together. Shows at Swan’s and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he’d learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road near the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. Now she employed people to do all the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four every morning to take care of everything herself.
“You’re off with the fairies again,” she said, nudging against him.
“You’re always thinking.” She smiled and shook her head. “Be careful, you’ll wear out your brain.”
They were strolling out along North Street, through the Leylands, the sun pleasant. Omnibuses passed them with the click of hooves and the rhythmic turn of the wheels, a few empty carts heading back to the stables, but the area was quiet. There’d be little noise before sunset, he thought. All the Jews would be at home for the Sabbath. He’d grown up less than a stone’s throw away, over on Noble Street, all sharp cobbles and grimy brick back-to-backs, like every other road he’d known; nothing noble about it at all. Back then there’d been no more than a handful of Jewish families around, curiosities all of them with strange names like Cohen and Zermansky. The woman all had dark, fearful eyes and the men wore their full beards long, coming out with torrents of words in a language he didn’t understand. Twenty years on and the Leylands was full of them, working every hour God sent, sewing clothes in their sweatshops. He’d be willing to bet there was more Yiddish spoken round here these days than English.
“What do you want to do tomorrow, Tom?” Annabelle asked.
He shrugged; he hadn’t even given the next day a thought, although it was the only one they could spend together.
“The Park?” he suggested.
“Aye, if it stays like this.”
“I’m off Monday, too. Until the evening.” He hesitated. “After that I might not be around for a few days.”
“You just look after yourself. I’m not dragging a corpse to the register office come August.”
“I’ll be fine, don’t you worry.”
“Anyone hurts you they’ll have to deal with me,” she warned and he believed her. If that didn’t make him safe, nothing would.
He was back in his lodgings by ten and in bed by half past. In the morning he’d write to his sisters and tell them he was getting married. Then there’d be the visits as they swooped in from Bramley, Otley and Chapel Allerton to inspect the bride. But he’d worry about that when it happened.
The banging woke him from a dream that vanished like smoke as he opened his eyes. He struggled into his dressing gown and opened the door. Mrs. Gibson, his landlady, wide-eyed and shocked at the disturbance, stood here, a policeman with a long face behind her.
“I let him in, Mr. Harper. He says he’s a policeman.”
“He is, Mrs, Gibson. Don’t worry.” What else would he be, Harper thought irritably, wandering round in uniform in the middle of the night?
She scurried away. He waited until he heard her door close and said,
“What is it?”
“You wanted to know about Col Parkinson, sir.”
“Has he tried to flit?”
“No,” the constable answered slowly. “He’s dead.”