It’s a wet Wednesday in Leeds, and that makes it a good time for a story. If you know Leeds, if you’ve even just visited, there’s a good chance you know Roundhay Park. And so you’d know Waterloo Lake, often just called the Big Lake. Things might not have happened quite this way, but according to the stories passed down it might have been very similar…
The foreman looked at him doubtfully.
“I don’t know, lad. This is a job that needs muscle. You’ve not got much of that.”
Joe breathed deeply. How many times had he gone through this in the last six months?
“I’ve been all over England looking for work, sir. I can do my share and more. If I don’t, just turn me out. But there’s not much food on the road.”
Not much in his belly, either, he thought. Berries that he’d found that morning on his way here, and the charity of his sister’s bench for sleeping and a loaf of bread in Leeds yesterday.
“You were in the army, you said?” The foreman had a grizzled face and wide, scarred knuckles. His breeches were thick and patched, old boots scuffed to nothing.
“Yes, sir. The Fourteenth. Started in the first battalion and then in the second as a corporal.”
“Yes, sir. Spain and we followed Wellington up into France. And served in the Lowlands, too, when we were there.” Joe turned his head and spat at the memory. Half his platoon had died of Walcheren fever and they’d never fired a shot.
The foreman chewed at a fingernail as he thought.
“From Leeds?” he asked.
“Long time ago,” Joe admitted. After twelve years away fighting it didn’t feel like home. But nowhere did. He’d only drifted back because he’d run out of other places to go. And then he’d found that his mam and the bastard she’d married were both dead, his brothers scattered who knew where. Only Emily left, and that husband of hers had been grudging enough about a night’s lodging. At least he’d told them about the work here. A landowner making a lake he’d said, and employing men who’d been in the army. Happen they’d take you on, he said.
“I’ll give you a chance,” the foreman decided finally. “Tuppence a day and two quarts of beer. But if you don’t pull your weight, you’ll be gone. He pointed to a hut in the distance. “Report over there.”
“Yes, sir.” He hesitated a moment, then asked, “Is it right that this is going to be a lake.”
“Aye. Mr. Nicholson thinks it’ll look better like that. More harmonious, he said.” He scratched his head and looked at the long deep scar in the ground that stretched for a good half mile. “Can’t say as he’s wrong, neither. Better than a bloody quarry, any road.” The creases on the foreman’s face turned into a smile. “Going to name it Waterloo lake, celebrate the victory. Were you there, lad?”
Joe shook his head. The army had paid him off after they’d caught Boney for the first time. Cast him adrift in England without even a thank you for the thousands of miles he’d marched, all the powder and shot he’d fired or the friends left on battlefields. There’d been hundreds like him, thousands maybe. They could spot each other with ease, skin darkened by years of foreign sun and the eyes of men who’d thought they were needed only to discover that they weren’t once the cannon stopped roaring.
He’d been better off than some; he still had all his limbs and his wits. He could work. He would have, too, if there’d been any jobs. He’d worked where he could, begged when he had to. He’d been moved on from parishes by beadles, sentenced to seven days in jail as a vagrant down South when all he wanted was to earn his keep. Tuppence was a fair wage. It was only September. The days were still hot, the nights warm and dry enough to sleep outside. He’d be able to find somewhere around here. God knew, there was enough space.
He marched across to the hut, aware that people would be watching him, judging him. The door was open, a man studying a drawing weighted down on a table. A gentleman, from the cut of his clothes. Joe stood at attention for a minute, waiting for him to turn, then gave a small cough. The man looked up quickly, blinking against the sunlight.
“You must be a new man.”
“Yes, sir. Joseph Colton, sir.”
“Old John decided you were worth a try, did he?” The man had a calm smile and an easy manner.
“Yes, sir. I suppose so, sir.” He’d say whatever the man wanted. Tuppence a day would see him right for a while.
“Do you have any engineering training, Mr. Colton?”
“No, sir. Just building ramparts in Spain, that’s all.”
“Good.” The man’s smile widened. “That’s more or less what we’re doing here. We’re making a dam to create a lake.” He came out, ducking his head under the low lintel. “You see over there, that low side? We’re digging out from the bottom to dam it all there. There’s another lake. We’re going to bring in water from there and it’ll look perfect.”
“Yes, sir.” Joe gazed around. There had to be fifty or sixty men in the quarry, some digging, others moving earth in carts, by hand or goading donkeys along. “Is that what I’ll be doing, sir?”
“It is, Mr. Colton. We need the dam finished before winter comes.” The man raised his eyes. “Mind you, that might be a while yet if God keeps smiling on us like this. You were a soldier?”
“In the Fourteenth.”
“Ah, good!” The man beamed, the sun catching his fair hair so it almost seemed white. “The West Yorkshires as was. Right. There’s a path cut just over there. Mattocks and spades are at the bottom. And the ale barrel, of course,” he added quickly. “Start at six, dinner at eleven, finish at six.” He drew a watch on a fine gold chain from the pocket of his waistcoat and pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It’s just gone eight. You work hard and I think we can stretch to paying you for a full day.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Calling it a path was generous, Joe decided. In places some of the dirt had crumbled away so that the track was less than a foot wide, and a sheer drop down the quarry for anyone who fell. He walked carefully, testing each pace forward, until he reached the bottom.
By six the worst of the heat had faded from the day. He sat in the welcome shade of a tree, sipping from a mug of ale. Simply walking back up from the quarry had seemed like an impossible effort. He’d spent the day shovelling earth onto an endless procession of carts. By dinner he felt as if there was a fire in his back and his shoulders. He’d forced himself to continue through the afternoon, the sun on him. Blisters grew and burst on his hands, then more came until he could barely take hold of anything.
When work was done he’d waited for the foreman to return and pocketed his wages.
“You can come back tomorrow,” he man told him. “You’re hired on.”
He still had half the loaf his sister had given him and a blanket in his pack. All he needed was somewhere by a stream and he’d be fine for the night. A group of workers passed, raising their arms a weary salute.
“Where are you staying?” one of them called and Joe only shrugged. He wanted a little longer here first, settled under the coolness of an oak.
“We’ve got a camp,” another said. “You might as well come and join us.”
Slowly, Joe pushed himself upright. It was like Spain, when every rest only made going on more difficult. You continued because you had to, because not moving meant a whipping or death from the robbers who roamed the country.
He caught up with them close to the top of the lake, where woods came down to the water.
“We’re over there. Plenty of room.” The man gave a hoarse laugh. “Did you I hear you say earlier that you were from Leeds?”
“Aye,” Joe agreed. “Once.”
“I suppose so.” More people, the chimneys of the manufactories with their smoke, the streets full and feeling dangerous. Or perhaps he’d been the one to change.
“Welcome home, anyway,” the man said.