First Day – A Richard Nottingham Story

I’m not sure why, but Richard Nottingham’s been on my mind a little in recent days. So I dug back and discovered this story I wrote about him. The tale will be four years old next week. Maybe it’s time for the light of day…and if you’ve missed Richard, enjoy…

He woke well before the dawn, his body and his mind quickly alert. Quietly, he eased himself out of the bed, hearing the snores and breathing of the other men in the room. There were eight of them and more elsewhere in the lodging house, the smell of sweat, ale, and sour breath part of the fabric of the walls.

He dressed soundlessly, washed his face and hands and swilled cold water in his mouth before running damp fingers through his wild hair. Downstairs, the two servants were in the kitchen, starting the fire, grumbling and moaning their way into the day.

The air was cool against his face as he walked from Hunslet over Leeds Bridge and into the town. On Briggate a few weavers were already setting up their trestles for the Tuesday morning cloth market, and the taverns were open, doing a steady trade in ale and the Brigg End Shot beef breakfast. None of them paid him any attention.

He turned down Kirkgate and opened the door of a squat building. ‘Hello, sir,’ he said.

The man looked up slowly from the papers on the desk.

‘You’ll not get more money for coming early.’ He nodded at the empty chair. ‘Sit thisen down. I need to finish this.’

Richard Nottingham sat quiet, eyes moving around the room, imagining the cells beyond the thick oak door and the people who might be in them. He was ready for his first day as a Constable’s man.

He waited, watching Will Arkwright work, the Constable’s coat over the back of his chair, bright blue waistcoat snug against his chest, the sleeves of his shirt pushed up to show thick forearms covered in dark hair.  Finally the man put down his quill and sat back, staring at him.

‘You think I took you on because of you da, don’t you?’ he asked.

It was true; Nottingham believed that. His father had been a merchant, not good, not successful, but he’d married into money, and the dowry had kept a kind of prosperity. When he’d discovered his wife was having an affair he’d thrown her out, their son with her, keeping the money and the property for himself. As legal as the day was long, the woman and the child left to starve. She’d sold her body, the only thing she had left, to anyone with a few pennies. In four years she was dead and the lad was on his own. He’d slept where he could, in the woods outside the town, empty houses, in the silent, hidden places with the other outsiders. He learned to fend for himself, to live on the rotten food left at the market and what he could steal.

Now he was twenty, it was the year 1711 and the poacher had turned gamekeeper; he was going to catch the thieves.

‘I don’t know,’ he answered. ‘Did you, sir?’

‘Nay.’ Nottingham felt the man’s eyes on him. ‘Your name’s got nowt to do with it. I’ve been watching you for a while. You’re clever. Not as clever as you think you are, mind,’ he added with a sly grin, ‘but you’ll do. And you can learn.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Are you ready, lad?’ the Constable asked.

‘Yes, sir.’

Arkwright grinned.  ‘No need for that. Boss is fine. Come on, I’ll show you round the market.’

Nottingham felt proud as he walked next to the older man, listening carefully as Arkwright pointed out characters among the crowd and among the merchants. As the bell rang and the whispered trading began, the Constable led him all the way to the bridge and looked back up the street.

‘You know how much business is done there, Richard?’ he asked.

‘No, boss.’ He’d never given it much thought.

‘There’ll be thousands of pounds change hands,’ he said. ‘Imagine that.’

He tried, but he couldn’t. His life was measured out in farthings and pennies. A pound was a fortune to him, more money than he’d ever had in his hand.

‘You see him?’ Arkwright pointed out a tall, barrel-chested man who strode up Briggate, looking straight ahead, two younger men following close behind him. The man had his hair cropped close against his skull and walked bareheaded. His clothes might have been good once, but now they seemed old, shabby, worn for too many years.

‘Who is he, boss?’ He’d seen the man around in the inns and shops, but never learned his name.

‘That’s Amos Worthy,’ the Constable said slowly. ‘You stay in this job and you’ll come to know him. And hate it, too. He’s the biggest pimp in Leeds, has the corporation in his pocket.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘Watch your step with him, he’s a brutal bugger.’

Nottingham thought he knew the town well, living so long among its shadows and secrets, but as Arkwright led him around he began to understand there was so much still to discover. Back at the jail Arkwright poured two mugs of ale and handed one across the desk. ‘There’s all you can drink on top of your wage. It’s good; they brew it at the White Swan next door.’

As they drank, the door opened. The man who entered was big, solid, his thick fists scarred, dark stubble heavy across his cheeks and chin. He nodded at the Constable and helped himself to a drink.

‘This the new one, boss?’

‘Aye, that’s him. I’ve taken him round, now you can teach him well. This is Tom Spencer,’ he told Nottingham. ‘My deputy. Pay attention to him; he’ll be giving you your orders.’

‘Call me Tom,’ he said, smiling and showing the lines around his eyes. He was perhaps thirty, with the weary look of a man who’d seen so much that the world couldn’t shock him.

‘I’m Richard.’

Spencer downed the rest of the ale in a single swallow. ‘Right, we’ve had a cutpurse plaguing people at the market for the last few weeks. Let’s see if we can find him.’

He led the way up Briggate, past the Moot Hall and through the market where women clustered around trestles selling old clothes, pans and wares. Up towards the market cross farmers had their chickens in willow cages and others offered butter or fresh milk.

‘You know about cutpurses?’ Spencer asked and Nottingham nodded but said nothing. No need to say that he’d stolen a few himself when he was desperate, his knife quickly cutting the strings then vanishing into the crowd before the owner could even notice. He knew what to look for, the sudden movement only glimpsed from the corner of the eyes, the gaze that shifted around quickly and awkwardly.

‘We’ll catch this one,’ Spencer said confidently. ‘Little bugger’s getting cocky. The boss almost had him last week but the lad was too fast.’

‘How old is he?’

The other man shrugged. ‘Ten or so, small, thin, pale hair. There’s plenty like him around.’

‘Over there,’ Nottingham said quietly.

‘Where?’

‘By the wall, behind the tinker.’ He’d spotted the boy so easily, seen his concentration and the way he stood, his body tense, on the edge of movement.

‘Could be,’ Spencer allowed warily.

‘It is.’

‘You go one side of him, I’ll take the other,’ the deputy ordered. ‘If he reaches a purse, grab him quick, before he can run.’

It didn’t take long. The boy slid away from the wall, his blade extended. A swift cut and the purse was in his hand as he began to merge into the throng. But Nottingham had was already there, his hand tight  around the lad’s wrist as he tried to squeeze past, lifting him off the ground.

Spencer shook the boy roughly by his collar, twisting his arm behind his back until he gave up the money.

‘You’ll not be doing that again, you little bastard,’ he said with relish. ‘You know where you’re going? Jail and the Indies.’ He paused deliberately, a smile on his face. ‘Unless the hangman wants you to dance for him. You saw who he robbed?’ the deputy asked.

‘No.’

‘Never mind, he’ll soon find he’s poorer.’ He tossed the bag of coins to Nottingham. ‘You take this, I’ll look after him.’ He dragged the boy along the street, pushing people out of the way as Nottingham followed behind, muttering apologies and excuses.

At the jail, Spencer threw the boy into a chair. The lad was petrified, curled in on himself, thin shoulders hunched, tears brimming in his eyes, hands shaking as he looked anxiously between the deputy and Nottingham.

‘What’s your name?’ Spencer asked. When the lad didn’t answer immediately he raised his hand, leering as the boy cowered.

‘Mark, sir,’ he answered finally, lowering his head. The deputy walked up to the boy, took a handful of hair and pulled his head back.

‘How many purses have you snatched?’ he shouted

‘Seven.’ The boy’s voice was little more than a frightened whisper. His whole body was trembling.

Spencer raised his eyebrows and laughed. ‘That’ll be the noose for you, then.’ He inclined his head. ‘In the cell.’ The boy moved away meekly and Nottingham heard the heavy clunk of the lock as the deputy turned the key in the door.

‘You didn’t ask why he did it?’

The deputy shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter, does it? The little sod’s a thief. We caught him with the purse in his hand. We’ve done our job.’ He smiled once, showing a mouth missing half its teeth. ‘You saw him fast enough, anyway, though. How did you know?’

Nottingham didn’t answer immediately; he daren’t. Finally he simply said, ‘Something about him. It didn’t look right.’ He thought about the boy cowering behind the bars, terrified of what would happen to him but knowing it would be the worst thing he could imagine. ‘He’ll hang?’

‘Like as not.’ Spencer poured himself ale. ‘All we do is catch them. The rest is up to lawyers and judges.’ He scratched his armpit. ‘I don’t give a bugger what they do as long as they’re out of our way.’ He drained the cup and ran a hand across his mouth. ‘Come on, let’s get back out there. I’ll see what I can show you.’

 

By late afternoon Nottingham had been through parts of Leeds he’d never known, inside the undercroft of the Parish church, around St. John’s and beyond into Town End where a few merchants were building large new houses to flaunt the money they’d made in the wool trade.

‘Take a good look at these,’ Spencer advised. ‘You need to know who runs this city, and it’s not them without anything.’

Nottingham stared at him sharply. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Them with the money pay us,’ the deputy explained patiently, as if to a child. ‘That means we do what they want.’

‘What about the law?’

Spencer spat and gave him a pitying look. ‘One thing about this job, lad, you’ll grow up in a hurry. Who do you think makes the laws? Give it a while, you’ll see what I mean.’

He wasn’t sure what to think. Perhaps the deputy was right and all they did was keep the rich safe. He thought of the cutpurse, alone in the cell, his throat dry with fear. He thought of the bodies he’d seen floating in the River Aire over the years, every one of them poor folk. Nottingham thought of the merchants at the cloth market that morning with their fine clothes and their high manners. He glanced down at what he was wearing, a coat full of holes, hose worn from white to dull, dreary grey, shoes where the uppers were starting to split from the soles. What did he look like? A poor scare-the-crow, not someone with the authority to enforce anything.

They walked slowly down Briggate from the Head Row, all signs of the morning market gone. Businesses were open, their shutters wide, an iron tang of blood rose from the butchers’ shops on the Shambles, and the prostitutes smiled behind their fans at the entrances to the cramped yards that ran back from the street.

‘You wait here,’ Spencer told him, walking up to one of the women and disappearing into the yard with her. Three minutes later he returned, his face flushed, grinning. ‘One of the best things about this job,’ he said. ‘The lasses won’t refuse you. They know what’s good for them.’

Back at the jail the deputy poured more ale and checked on the boy in the cell. ‘Be back here at dawn tomorrow,’ he told Nottingham. ‘You’ve made a good start, you’ll do well here.’

 

He walked along, lost in thought. He’d been excited after the Constable had taken him on. Not only for the regular wage, but also because he believed he could do something in this place where he’d lived all his life. Maybe he’d even manage find a little justice. He’d explained it all for Mary, the girl he was courting, and revelled to see the joy in her face. What could he tell her now, he wondered? That he’d been wrong? He sighed.

There was still plenty of traffic on Leeds Bridge as he walked back to Hunslet. Carters were leaving the town, the rumble of wheels on cobblestones an undertone to the curses, shouts and laughter.

‘Penny for them, laddie.’

He glanced up at the voice. The man was a little taller than him, his nose broken several times, a sly smile playing across his mouth. But his eyes were hard and empty, telling nothing of his thoughts or his mood.

‘You’re Amos Worthy,’ he said.

‘Aye.’ He nodded lazily and chuckled. ‘Old Arkwright warned you about me, did he?’

‘He told me what you do,’ Nottingham replied coldly.

‘I daresay he did,’ the pimp agreed. ‘And did he point out that if I didn’t do it, someone else would?’ He laughed at the young man’s hesitation. ‘Of course he didn’t. One day as a Constable’s man doesn’t teach you everything about life. There’s still plenty for you to learn.’ He picked at a gap between his teeth with his thumbnail, found a piece of food and wiped it on his greasy, discoloured coat. ‘I knew your father,’ he said, then, as if it was nothing, ‘And your mam, too.’

Nottingham eyed him warily. How did the man know who he was? How had he been connected with his family? Worthy gave a predatory grin.

‘I thought that might make you listen. Happen I’ll tell you sometime. But it’s history, a long time ago.’ He looked the young man up and down. ‘You like working for Arkwright?’ He waited for the answer then laughed. ‘Aye, a day with Tom Spencer and I’d be silent, too.’ He turned away, resting his elbows on the thick parapet of the bridge, looking down at the river. ‘I’ll give you a job if you want it.’

‘Me?’ Whatever he’d expected, it wasn’t this.

Worthy nodded. ‘I’ll pay you better than Arkwright does, too. You’ll not be a rich man but you’ll have some coins in your purse every week.’

‘What would you want me to do for them?’ Nottingham asked flatly. He was certain he knew, but he wanted to hear the man say it himself.

‘Anything I need.’ He looked at the younger man. ‘What did you think? There’s nothing free in this life. And when I give an order I expect it to be carried out.’ His gaze was firm. ‘Whatever it is.’

Nottingham stared back. He wondered about the man in front of him, how he knew about him, what power he had in Leeds.

‘I’ve known Will Arkwright for a long time. He won’t take anyone on just for the sake of it,’ Worthy continued. ‘Nor will I.’

‘So why would you want me?’

The pimp spat down into the river then grinned. ‘Taking his new man is one way to spite the bastard.’

Nottingham didn’t smile. Instead he shook his head slowly. ‘Six years ago you had a girl.’

‘I’ve had a lot of girls, laddie.’

‘She was called Molly. I saw what you did to her when you thought she was cheating you.’

The pimp gave a barking laugh. He seemed amused, not angry. ‘Rich enough to be a man of conscience, are you? But if you’re going to tell a tale, laddie, you ought to tell the whole of it.’

‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

‘I remember that lass, right enough. Swore to you she was honest, did she?

‘Yes. I believed her.’

‘Aye, well, you were young. Never believe everything you hear.’ He snorted. ‘She was taking a pretty penny from me every way she could. Told me she’d stop after I beat her but she didn’t.’ Worthy turned his eye sharply on Richard. ‘You ever wonder why she left suddenly?’ Nottingham shook his head. ‘She had ten pounds of my money in her purse. Ten pounds. Keep her for a year, that would. So think on that before you accuse me.’

‘Why should I believe you?’

Worthy shrugged. ‘You either will or you won’t. Doesn’t matter to me either way.’

‘I think you’re lying.’

‘Think what you want.  It’s all history now.’

‘I’m not going to work for you.’

‘Your choice, laddie. You’ll live to regret it, I’ll tell you that.’

Nottingham thought of Mary and how she’d be eager to hear how his first day as a Constable’s man had gone. If he worked for Worthy, all he’d want would be the shame of silence.

‘No,’ he answered firmly. ‘I don’t think I will.’ He crossed the bridge and walked back to the lodging house.

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