Well, sort of…this is the beginning of something, at least. What it will become remains to be seen. Maybe a book, maybe a story, maybe nothing. Still, it’s been a while since Richard had anything at all to say to me.
Perhaps you’ll like it, perhaps you’ll still care about him. Let me know, please.
Leeds, August 1736
Just two years. It always surprised him. It felt as if it should be longer, like a path that stretched out across the moor. Two years, eight months, and thirteen days. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock.
And that suited him. More of a chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.
Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, with brilliant light through the cracks in the shutters. He’d woken before first light, just lying in bed and letting his thoughts wander. He heard his daughter Emily leave to go and teach at her school. Then Rob Lister, her man, now the deputy constable in Leeds, had gone with his clank of keys and the firm tread of his boots across the boards. He could hear Lucy the servant moving around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.
All around him life went on.
He poured water in the ewer and washed, then dressed in old breeches and thin woollen stockings.
The road was dusty and rutted, the hot air of the day tight in his lungs. The trees over Sheepscar Beck gave shade, the sun flickering through the leaves onto the water. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked to the Parish Church and along the path he knew so well.
Two years, eight months, and thirteen days since she’d been murdered.
Three days since someone had shattered the headstone on her grave.
He’d gone to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing as he walked along the path he knew by heart. Just time for a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends again, although he knew she forgave him.
And then he saw it. The pieces smashes and scattered across the grass. For a moment he believed he was imagining it.
Why would anyone do that?
He looked around. It wasn’t only her stone. A few others, almost at random,in other parts of the churchyard. But he didn’t care about them. He knelt and gathered the fragments, piecing them together on the grave until she had her name once more Mary Nottingham. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose stood intact.
He’d risen and gone straight to the jail on Kirkgate, all the smells so familiar as he entered the building. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat.
Someone prissy and exact. That was how Rob had described him. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated. But Nottingham retired. It wasn’t his problem. After so many years he’d chosen to walk away from the job and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.
‘Visiting old glories?’ The man had a politician’s face, smooth and shiny, the periwig clean and powdered, his long waistcoat colourful in reds and yellows.
‘I’m here to report a crime, Mr. Peters.’
The constable picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink and waited.
‘Someone’s been destroying gravestones at the church.’
Peters put the quill down again.
‘You’re the third one in here today to tell me. It happened last night.’
He knew that. He visited the place every morning.
‘My wife’s was one of them.’
The man chewed his lip.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘I have too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll see they ask around and try to find something. For now I can’t promise more than that.’
Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man.
‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’
He wandered. Down to the bridge, watching carts and carriages lumber along in the heat. He passed the tenting fields with all the cloth hung to dry and shrink, through the rubble of the old manor house and back to Lands Lane.
Sadness, anger, emptiness. Just the pointlessness of it all, the sense of loss falling on him once again.
Why? Just the question, why?
Up on the Headrow, as he walked by Garraway’s Coffee House, a sharp tap on the glass made him turn.
Tom Finer sat at the table, his hand resting against the window.
‘You look like a man with the world on his shoulders,’ he said as Nottingham settled on the bench across from him. ‘Would a dish of tea help? Coffee?’
‘No. Not today.’
Nor any other day; he’d never developed the taste for them. Ale was enough for him.
Finer was a criminal who’d vanished to London, back when Nottingham was still young, no more than a constable’s man. He’d returned eighteen months earlier, after almost twenty years away. Older and claiming to have left his past in the capital.
He seemed smaller than the last time they’d met, as if he was slowly withering away with age. In spite of the warmth Finer was well wrapped-up in a heavy coat, with thick breeches and socks.
‘You must have been to the churchyard.’
Nottingham looked up sharply.
‘What do you know about it?’
‘Nothing more than I’ve heard or seen with my own eyes. I was down there first thing. I’m sorry.’
‘Do you have any idea who…?
Finer shook his head.
‘If I did, I’d tell you.’ He paused. ‘But did you notice which ones they were?’
Finer was silent a few moments, chewing on his lower lip.
‘Go back there and look again,’ he suggested. ‘Look outside your own pain.’
‘Why?’ Nottingham asked urgently. ‘What is it?’
Finer stared at him.
He stood by Mary’s grave, his hand resting on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. Another headstone demolished in the corner, a third by the wall. And he understood what Finer had been trying to tell him.
One was the memorial to Amos Worthy, the man who’d kept Leeds crime in his fist until the cancer rotted him and pulled him into the ground. A man he’d hated and liked in equal measure.
The other was the stone for John Sedgwick, Nottingham’s deputy, beaten and killed in his duties.
Messages for him. The past.