It’s an idea that’s been at the back of my mind for a year or so – telling the stories of Leeds through the ages. Not the facts, there are already some excellent volumes that do that, but fiction, a series of short stories, going from Roman times to the middle of the 20th century.
It had been an idle idea until yesterday. Then, digging around online I came across an interesting piece. In 1901, which digging for the Allerton Park estate in Chapel Allerton, workmen unearthed a stone coffin that didn’t contain an entire skeleton. There were only a few bones left in it, along with a coin from about 350 AD. Somehow, that sparked me, a catalyst. So here is what will hopefully be the first story in Leeds, The Biography.
To offer a little background, Leeds may or may not have existed in Roman times. There’s written evidence of a place called Cambodunum about 20 miles from Tadcaster, on the road to Manchester. And both Street Lane and Stonegate Road might have been Roman roads. Might. Additionally, it’s possible that there was a stone ford across the Aire, and Cambodunum was where Holbeck now stands. A lot of ifs, ands and maybes. But put together with the coffin, it’s enough of a structure for a story.
“I don’t see why they need a coffin, anyway,” Bellator said. “From what I heard, there wasn’t enough of him left to be worth burying.”
The cart moved slowly along the rutted tracks, branches rubbing along the sides as the ox plodded on. It had taken the best part of two hours to load the stone coffin and lid, and with each dip and lurch it seemed as if the axle would break.
“Their choice,” Lucillus told him with a shrug. He was a heavy man, somewhere around thirty, his knuckles covered with scars, a thick, ruddy beard on his cheeks. He reached for the wineskin under the seat and took a drink. “They paid good money for it. It’s the Christian way, put them in the ground so they can go to heaven.” He’d been the one who’d done all the work, chipping away at the rock until there was room for the head and body, just like any other coffin, then shaping the lid. Bellator was just the carter.
A hot gust of wind burst out of the west and scoured their faces. Summer, Lucillus thought wryly. That was the way it had been this year. Usually even prayer couldn’t keep the rains away. But it had been dry since early spring, the grass brown and dead, dust kicking up and choking the throat whenever a man walked.
“Almost there now,” the driver said. “It’s well before the road to Eboracum.” He shifted on the seat, big belly rolling, and used the goad on the ox. It didn’t seem to make any difference; the animal didn’t move any faster
Lucillus hadn’t come this far north before. The settlement was just south of the river, a cluster of twelve houses around the stone ford. When he ventured out, it into the country he knew so well he could almost travel it in his sleep. He felt safer there, where family and friends were close. Troops had come to Cambodunum three times in his life, once a whole century of them, exotic men babbling away in languages he didn’t understand as they pitched their tents overnight, buying food and drink. Next morning they’d left so early that they could have been figures from a dream. When the order for the coffin came, he’d been taken by surprise. He worked a little with stone when he wasn’t trying to grow crops. And with this weather there wouldn’t grow. The pay for the job was too good to refuse; it would keep them going for two months, himself, his wife and their two children.
Bellator turned on to a smaller track, hardly wide enough for the cart.
“They’re a strange family,” he said. “Done well for themselves, selling to the garrison over at Adel and up in Eboracum. I don’t know what they’ll do now he’s dead, though. I can’t see her running the business and the son isn’t old enough yet.” He leaned over the side and spat.
It had taken a pair of slaves most of yesterday to dig the grave. Under the topsoil the earth was hard as iron. Out in the field the crops were all withered and hopeless, and bones showed through the flesh of the cattle that milled around, snuffling around hungrily for food. Not that there was any to give them. At this time of year they should have been able to crop the lush, dark grass. But what little remained was dry, brittle, with no nourishment at all.
She’d looked at the accounts he kept on long rolls, taking out a wax tablet and spending hours over the calculations. There were coins in the chest, but half of those were owed, bills that needed to be paid soon. Without a good harvest and fair prices for the cattle they wouldn’t be able to see out another winter here.
He might have had an answer. He always seemed to have the answer, using his charm to arrange a loan here, to haggle down a price there, and leave the other person feeling he’d done them a favour. It was a strange talent, she thought, but he’d used it well. They’d prospered, moving from farmhouse to a villa as grand as any Roman official. And then he had to let himself be killed by a boar. Killed and torn apart so that all they’d managed to a find was a leg and half an arm, still clutching a spear.
Vassura turned away from the window to face her son. Morirex looked so much like his father that it made her heart ache every time she saw him. But where Glevo had always seemed so assured, in control of everything, the boy had all the uncertainty of youth. Still, he was thirteen, what could she expect from him?
“What is it, sweetheart?” She kept her voice tender and smiled at him.
“The men are here with the coffin,” he told her, in the voice that had deepened just a season before.
She’d heard them arrive, the harsh squeak of an axle that desperately needed greasing and the shout of the carter.
“I’ll be out in a moment. Give them a cup of wine and gather the men.”
Alone, she wandered through the room, touching every object she passed as if bidding each one farewell. In a way she was, Vassura thought. A farewell to him. He’d be under the ground very soon, ready to meet his god.
The way Glevo had embraced the new religion had always seemed strange to her. But he’d seen it as the future; that was what he’d said. He’d found something in it that eluded her. She was content enough with her small household gods and a small offering in the stream at the bottom of the valley each spring. At least he’d never mocked her for what she believed, little as it was. He’d been a good husband and father.
Just stupid at times. Why he’d gone after the boar on his own she couldn’t understand. In the past he’d always taken at least two slaves with him when he hunted, men he trusted. This time, though, he’d left soon after dawn, certain he’d be back well before sunset with meat for them all. It was as if he’d wanted to prove himself in some way. Instead they hadn’t found him until the following day, after the wolves had taken everything of him they wanted. The men had brought the remains home in a sack, reluctant to show her until she’d insisted.
She’d kept her tears until she was alone, cold and rigid as a corpse herself in bed. She’d forced herself to wait, not to show all the turmoil that filled her; the children needed to see her strong. Morirex had been uncertain what he should do, whether to cry like a child or become the man of the house, firm and unemotional. Narina had wept. She was eight, no more than a little girl still, and the world swept over her at the loss of her father.
“We’ll ease it down there,” Lucillus said. The four slaves looked at him doubtfully. He’d arranged two stout boards from the back of the cart to the ground. Together they could manage it; after all, they’d been able to put it in the cart. He glanced at Bellator. The carter shrugged and took a sip of the wine the boy from the house had offered.
Lucillus pushed the men into place then climbed into the cart.
“Right,” ordered. “Pull and take the weight as it starts to move.” Very slowly the coffin began to shift. At first it seemed as if they’d never succeed, then, as the sweat started to pour on their faces, it scraped over the wood, sliding down over the boards until it touched the earth. “Pull it!” he yelled. “Pull!”
Then it was there, sitting in the dust next to the deep hole. Lucillus took a long drink of the wine, still breathing hard, and looked back at the villa.
He didn’t have the words to describe it. Just the size of it, easily twenty times larger than the roundhouse where his family lived, never mind the barns and stables that stood apart from the building. And the workmanship, each block of stone dressed and even. Part of him wanted to go and run his fingertips over them, to soak in the craftsmanship that was more than he could ever manage. Whoever lived here possessed the world.
A few more minutes and the lid was propped against the coffin, heavy leather straps under it all. Now there was nothing to do but wait. He leaned against the wagon. The sun beat down hard on the back of his neck and he wiped the flesh dry with a rag.
“All downhill on the way back,” Bellator said, studying the sky. “If they hurry up we’ll be home well before dark.” He sighed. “Typical rich. They always take their time about things. Even death. Expect everyone else to wait on them.”
“Are there many like this?” Lucillus asked.
“Many what?” He coughed and spat.
“You ought to travel more. This is small compared to some. Go up near Eboracum, that’s where the real money is. The proper Romans. You could fit four of these in one of the villas they build themselves around there. And more slaves than you can count.”
Then he stood straighter as the door opened.
Vassura had prepared herself carefully that morning. The maid had dressed her hair, sewing in the bun at the back, and she’d dressed in her best stola, the one he’d brought back six years before from a trip to Verulamium. She’d never worn in before, keeping it packed away in a chest, only pulling it out to hold against herself, to feel the quality of the material. Today, though, she knew nothing else would do.
What were they going to do? The question kept nagging at the back of her mind, the way it had since she’d seen all that remained of the man she’d loved. They needed something for the farm to survive, one of those miracles he said his Christian god could provide for the believers.
Morirex and Narina were waiting in the atrium, the maid behind them. Vassura took a deep breath, picked up the sack and opened the door, moving with the gravity and weight of a widow.
She was beautiful, he thought. So clean, no dirt anywhere on her skin. The woman seemed to glow through her sorrow. She approached them with slow steps and greeted them all with a small bow of her head. The children stood just behind her, a boy with dark, curly hair holding hands with a girl who kept dabbing at her face.
“Thank you,” the woman said quietly. She bent, placing the sack inside the coffin and with a shock Lucillus realised that the story was true; there really was next to nothing of him left. The woman stood, then bent once more, opening her fingers to show a silver coin, letting it fall softly onto the sacking. “For the ferryman,” she explained. “Just in case.”
He watched her, taken by her sadness, the long, slim fingers with their golden rings. Minutes passed as she kept her gaze on the coffin, then she lifted her head and said, “You can finish now.”
She stood, her arms protectively around the children’s shoulders, as the men sweated and grunted, moving the coffin over the grave, then lowering it gradually out of sight. From the moment she realised that he was dead she’d known the place for this. He’d stood here so often, looking out over the valley as the sun rose. Sometimes she’d come out and stand by him, watching the way the light shifted and grew, and for brief moments she could understand why he cherished this place. Buried here, when his god called him he’d rise up and see all this one more time. Then, maybe, his shade would think of her again, with love.
The carter and the mason left, the sound of the wheels echoing loudly into the distance. The men began to fill in the grave, earth piling on the coffin until it was hidden. She remained in the same place, still there after the maid had taken the children indoors where it was cooler. She stood and kicked at a straggle of weeds, the only things that would prosper in this dry season.
What are we going to do?