Annabelle Atkinson and the Strands of Memory

All families have their tales. Mine is no exception. But they’re not quite tales, they’re strands, almost footnotes, and they wait to be woven into something bigger, to be made into a picture, maybe even a real one. At this remove all the detail has been lost. And maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Because what is a tale other than something that captures your imagination and makes you believe for a little while.

There’s talk of ‘the Spanish woman,’ but there’s no one in the family tree with a Spanish name. The closest is a Charlotte. Maybe she’d been a Carlotta. Most likely she wasn’t Spanish at all, but had olive colouring. Who she might have been, she ended up in Cold Cruel Winter as the girlfriend of a killer, made over by fiction.

My father, who grew up in Hunslet (part of Leeds, south of the river for those who don’t know) sometimes recalled spending summers at the Victoria, a pub in Sheepscar (another equally working-class part of Leeds) as a child. There was plenty of space to run around and a large garden to the rear where they grew rhubarb. Best of all, there was a piano where he could play to his heart’s content. The pub closed a few years ago (it’s now an Indian centre), but I visited it once in the mid-‘90s. It had stayed happily out of fashion, still an ordinary working man’s pub and all the better for it.

He also talked about a woman, a relative – how close or distant, I don’t know – who arrived in Leeds from Barnsley as a servant at the pub. Eventually, she married the landlord, and after he died, she ran the place herself. This would have been just after world War I. Not content with that, she opened a few bakeries around Leeds, rising early to supervise the baking. Her enterprises made her into a wealthy woman, although she evidently continued to live above the Victoria.

Enough for one woman? You’d think so, but she saw the shrieking poverty all around every single day. In an area like that it was impossible to miss. So she would loan a little money here and there, enough to tide people over a bad patch. To people she knew and trusted, and she was always repaid. Perhaps she charged a little interest, but possibly not.

My father only told the story once, but she stuck with me over the years. I’ve no idea who she really was, but that’s irrelevant. An early version of her surfaced in the short story Annabelle Atkinson and Mr Grimshaw. I knew it was her in there, but she hadn’t really appeared yet. And by now she was firmly in my head, demanding to be let out.

With Gods of Gold (to be published next year by Crème de la Crime), the real Annabelle has her voice. In the best Northern tradition she’s a strong, bold woman, the widowed landlady of the Victoria, engaged to be married to Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds Police. She runs two bakeries and is thinking of lending money to people she can trust. Here she is now:

She’d been collecting glasses in the Victoria down in Sheepscar, an old apron covering her dress and her sleeves rolled up, talking and laughing with the customers. 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 was still 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 there was no ring on her finger. ‘He’s dead, love,’ she explained as she caught his glance. ‘Three year back. Left me this place.’

She’d started as a servant in the pub when she was fifteen, she said, 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 was eighteen, he was fifty, already a widower once. After eight years together, he 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 copper by now I might as well give up the keys to this place. You’re not in uniform. Off duty, are you?’

‘I’m a detective. Inspector.’

She pushed her lips together. ‘Right posh, eh? Got a name, Inspector?’

‘Tom. Tom Harper.’

He’d returned the next night, and the next, and soon they started walking out together. Shows at Thornton’s Music Hall and the Grand, walks up to Roundhay Park on a Sunday for the band concerts. Slowly, as the romance began to bloom, he learned more about her. She didn’t just own the pub, she also had a pair of bakeries, one just up Meanwood Road close to the chemical works and the foundry, the other on Skinner Lane for the trade from the building yards. She employed people to do the baking but in the early days she’d been up at four each morning to take care of everything herself.

Annabelle constantly surprised him. She loved an evening out at the halls, laughing at the comedians and singing along with the popular songs. But just a month before she’d dragged him out to the annual exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery.

By the time they’d arrived, catching the omnibus and walking along the Headrow, it was almost dusk.

‘Are you sure they’ll still be open?’ he asked.

‘Positive,’ she said and squeezed his hand. ‘Come on.’

It seemed a strange thing to him. How would they light the pictures? Candles? Lanterns? At the entrance she turned to him.

‘Just close your eyes,’ she said, a smile flickering across her lips. ‘That’s better.’ She guided him into the room at the top of the building. ‘You can open them again now.’

It was bright as day inside, although deep evening showed through the skylights.

‘What?’ he asked, startled and unsure what he was seeing.

‘Electric light,’ she explained. She gazed around, eyes wide. ‘Wonderful, eh?’ She’d taken her time, examining every painting, every piece of sculpture, stopping to glance up at the glowing bulbs. Like everything else there, she was transfixed by the light as much as the art. To him it seemed to beggar belief that anyone can do this. When they finally came out it was full night, the gas lamps soft along the street. ‘You see that, Tom? That’s the future, that is.’

Family stories, eh? You never know where they’ll crop up.

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