…but she’d like you to come and visit.
A few years ago (Four? Five?) I was looking at one of my favourite paintings, Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, 1879, by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw and a story came to me, fully formed, out of the ether.
That was my introduction to Annabelle. Annabelle Atkinson, she was then, sitting and looking at the picture with me, telling me how it came about that she was in it, looking back a decade to that days she stood on the banks of the river to be sketched.
We met again when I settled down to write Gods of Gold, set during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. She was Annabelle Harper then, freshly married, flushed with happiness but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. With a flourish of her silk gown as she sat, she pushed me over on the chair.
‘I was there, luv,’ she told me. ‘I saw it all happen. Come on, I’ll tell you about it.’
Since then, we’ve spent quite a lot of time together. She’s in three of my published novels – Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. The fourth, The Iron Water, comes out in July, and I’m working on the fifth. I’ve shared the way Annabelle has blossomed. She’s the emotional centre of the novels in so many ways. She’s become a canny, successful businesswoman and a member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society – and one of its speakers.
It was one of her Suffragist speeches, brought to breathing, passionate life by Carolyn Eden at the launch of Skin Like Silver, that was the catalyst for the play The Empress on the Corner.
‘That’s her,’ Annabelle told me the day after the launch. ‘She’s the one to be me. Now, you, you’d better start telling my story. Are you listening? I’ll begin.’
I didn’t have a choice – when you have someone like Annabelle, she dictates what will happen. And so I wrote her story. Or perhaps I simply wrote down what she dictated.
The presentation is still a work in progress, and it will be sections of the complete play, not the entire thing. But it’s the story of growing up in a poor Irish family on the Bank in Leeds in the mid 1800s. Of having two choices in life, mills or maids. Of luck, of taking the chance to use her good mind. Of understanding that there’s more, that she can raise her voice for others.
It’s a Leeds story. It’s a political story. It’s a love story. But above everything, it’s Annabelle’s story.
And she reckons you need to come and see it. Believe me, I’ve learnt, you don’t argue with Annabelle, she’ll win in the end.
Annabelle has her ticket. She’ll be on the side of the front row, with a big grin on her face, pleased as punch. Say hello to her after they play.