Elegy – A Richard Nottingham Story

Richard Nottingham rarely makes an appearance these days. Right now, at least, my focus of Tom Harper (and The Leaden Heart is just out – please buy a copy!) However, eighteen months ago Richard was in Free From All Danger, the first book in several years to feature him. Yet people still seem to love him. They ask if there will be more. A few weeks ago I had a spate of requests that me me back into things I’d written about him. I came across this, a story I’d started and never finished.

This time I completed it, looking back into the far past, to Cold Cruel Winter, a pivotal novel for me. The second with Richard, my first for Severn House, one that was named one of the 10 best mysteries of the year by Library Journal in 2011. It established him and it helped establish me.

Hopefully, this story – and it’s small, it’s personal (although longer than I expected) – does Richard justice.

 

 

Leeds, August 1736

Two years. It always surprised him. It should be longer, he thought. It felt longer. Time past, time passing. But not so quickly now, as if someone had slowed the hands of the clock. A chance to keep memory close. To hold on to ghosts.

Richard Nottingham stirred. The dog days of summer, 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 solid tread of his boots across the boards. Lucy the servant moved around downstairs, opening the door to the garden and tossing the crumbs for the birds.

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 tight in his lungs. Sun flickering through the leaves onto the water of Sheepscar Beck. He crossed Timble Bridge and walked along Kirkgate to the Parish Church, then over the path he knew so well.

Two years, eight months, and thirteen days since she’d been murdered.

 

 

He went to visit his wife, to talk to her, the way he did every single day, thinking of nothing in particular. Just a few minutes of conversation, a chance to hear her voice in his head, to try and make amends once more, although he already knew she forgave him.

And then he saw it. The pieces smashed and scattered across the grass.

For a moment he couldn’t move. It had to be a dream. Then he was on his knees, scrabbling around all the pieces, the fragments, and piecing them together on her grave until her name was Mary Nottingham once more. Beloved. Died 1733. Beside it, the memorial to their daughter Rose was intact.

Why? Why would anyone do that? He looked around and saw that a few others had been damaged. But he didn’t care about them. Only this one.

the-history-of-kirkgate-leeds-minster-13-638

‘You must have heard them.’

Jeb looked after the ground, sleeping in a small shed at the back of the burying ground. He was tall, like a long streak of water, a man in his fifties, back bent, straggly hair grey and thin.

‘I din’t,’ the man insisted. ‘I told you.’

He stank of ale, eyes rheumy.

‘For God’s sake, Jeb, someone took a hammer to that stones,’ Nottingham said in disgust. ‘And you were so drunk you never stirred.’

His mind was raging and he strode away to the jail. The smells in the building were so familiar. But there was another man behind the desk where he once sat. Simon Kirkstall. The new constable.

‘Visiting old glories?’ The man had a politician’s face, smooth and shiny, the periwig clean and powdered, his long waistcoat colourful in sharp reds and yellows.

Prissy. Exact. That was how Rob had described his boss. Fractious, a know-nothing who knew everything. Nottingham had listened and commiserated, glad to be gone from the job. He’d chosen to walk away from being Constable of Leeds and never regretted his decision. The corporation had given him the house and a small pension, enough for the little he desired.

‘I’m here to report a crime, Mr. Kirkstall.’

The constable picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink and waited.

‘What’s happened?’

‘Someone’s been destroying gravestones at the church.’

Kirkstall put the pen down again.

‘I see.’

‘My wife’s was one of them.’

The man chewed his lip.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But…’ He gave a helpless shrug. ‘You know how it is. Too few men and too much crime. A murder, robberies, a young man missing for a week. I’ll make sure they ask around and try to find something. But that’s all I can promise for now.’

Nottingham stood for a moment, staring at the man and seething.

‘I see. I’ll bid you good day, then.’

 

He wandered. Down to the bridge, watching carts and carriages lumber along in the heat. Past the tenting fields with all the cloth hung to dry and shrink, through the rubble of the old manor house and around, back to Lands Lane.

Sadness, anger, emptiness.

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?’

‘Not today.’

Nor any other day; he’d never developed the taste for them. Ale was fine for him.

After almost twenty years away, older and claiming to have left his crooked past in the capital, Finer had returned to Leeds. Nottingham had still just been a constable’s man when he first knew him. Finer had a finger in everything, but nothing was ever proven against him before he vanished one night.

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.

‘Why? What do you know?’

‘Not much more than you. I heard talk first thing so I went down there. 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?’

‘My wife’s. Why? Who else?’

Finer was silent a few moments, chewing on his lower lip.

‘Go back and look again,’ he suggested. ‘Look outside your own pain.’

‘Why?’ Nottingham asked. ‘What is it?’

Finer stared at him.

‘You’ll see.’

 

He stood by Mary’s grave, resting his hand on the broken stone, and let his gaze move around. He understood what Finer had been trying to tell him. If he’d been thinking he’d have noticed straight away.

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. Someone 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. From the past.

He gathered the remains, puzzling them whole again on the grass.

Why? Why would someone come crawling out of history now? He was no one these days. No longer the constable, not a man of note. Nobody.

 

Nottingham walked the courts and yards, asking his questions. He had no position any more but folk remembered. But all his talking brought nothing. No one knew, no one had an answer. Not even a hint. The closest he came was at the White Swan, when the landlord said someone had been asking for him.

‘Who?’

‘He wasn’t much more than a lad.’ The man shrugged. ‘No one I knew. Looked like a Gypsy, if you ask me. Left his lass and bairns standing in the doorway.’

Strange, he thought. Were the two things connected?

Morning became dinnertime. He pestered men as they ate. Nothing. Over the bridge and south of the river, into the streets that led off the London Road. No Joe Buck to ask these days. He’d left Leeds, searching for something more, the black servant Henry gone with him.

The town he’d known for so long was changing.

 

The church bell rang four as he walked back up Marsh Lane. Head down, lost in his thoughts as the dust rose from his footsteps. He’d go out again later, round the inns and the beershops. Someone knew and he’d find out.

‘I heard about it.’ Lucy the servant eyed him. ‘Who did it, have you found out yet?’

He slumped into the chair and shook his head.

‘I will, though.’

‘There was someone here looking for you earlier. Came at dinnertime.’

Nottingham cocked his head.

‘Just a lad. Not much older than me. Had a lass and little ‘uns with him.’

‘What was his name?’

‘Didn’t tell me, just that he’d come back later.’

‘Did he look like a Gypsy?’

Lucy thought.

‘Aye, happen he did. Who is he?’

‘I don’t know.’ Very strange indeed. He gave the girl a strained smile. ‘We’ll find out if he comes back.’

 

Emily returned home in a fury. She’d been to the churchyard and seen it for herself. Nottingham listened to her, seeing so much of Mary in her face.

‘Why would they do that to mama?’ she asked.

‘To hurt me.’ It was the only answer. Some sweet destruction to shatter his past. Before she could say more, there was a knock on the door. Maybe one mystery would be solved, at least.

Yes, he was young, dark hair hanging straight to his shoulders. Ragged clothes, a bright hoop in his ear. But tall, bulky, already a man from the look on his face. Someone half-familiar, a face he believe he almost knew. A man with a smile on his lips.

‘Hello, boss. How are you?’

With those words, it flooded back. All Nottingham could do was stop and stare. Joshua Forester, the young cutpurse he’d taken on five years before. His girl had died, the lad had been beaten and he’d chosen to go off with a band of Gypsies. But he looked well from it.

‘Come in, lad, come in. Your family, too.’

Soon they were seated around the table. Lucy brought bread and cheese and small beer, standing by the door to catch this glimpse into Nottingham’s past.

‘I don’t remember your wife’s name,’ Josh said and reddened.

‘Mary. She’s dead.’

‘Boss, I’m sorry.’

‘I should tell you that John Sedgwick’s in the ground, too. Someone killed him.’ The boy always had high regard for Nottingham’s deputy constable. Old days, probably best forgotten. ‘And you, what have you been up to?’ He smiled at the children. ‘I can see some of the results.’

‘That’s Frances,’ he said, indicating the girl. The name of his girl who’d died. ‘And the boy’s called John. My wife, Nancy. She’s part of the Petulengro clan. I work with them. I’m a horse dealer now.’ He lifted his hands to show the thick calluses on his palms and fingers. ‘We’re camped on Woodhouse Moor for a few days, on our way down to Buckinghamshire. While we were here I wanted to see you.’

‘And you’re very welcome’

It did make his heart soar to see someone doing so well, the new life amongst all the death and the senseless destruction. They talked for almost an hour until Josh gathered together his wife and family. At the door he saw them off just as Rob Lister was returning. Emily’s man and the deputy constable of Leeds.

‘Company?’ he asked.

‘Someone who worked for me a while ago. Passing through Leeds.’

Lister glanced at the family walking towards Timble Bridge.

‘They look like Gypsies.’

‘They are. And you and I have something to discuss.’

‘Aye,’ Lister agreed. ‘We do.’

 

The night was balmy. It wasn’t hard to keep watch over the graveyard, and he wouldn’t trust Jeb to stay awake and sober. Nottingham never slept much any more. He sat in the church porch, letting the darkness wrap around him. He listened to the soft snuffling of animals in the dark, the last sounds of humans fading, then felt the embrace of the hours.

A few times he stood and walked around, as silent as possible.

But no one came. No more damage.

With first light, he ambled up Kirkgate, smelling the cooking fires the servants had lit in the grand houses. Briggate was beginning to come to life, the butchers in the Shambles under the Moot Hall opening their shutters for early customers. He passed without a word, fading into the background.

Tom Finer was up with the lark, already in Garraway’s, reading the London newspapers and enjoying his coffee.

‘You look like a man who’s spent a restless night,’ he said with a smile.

‘I have.’ He settled back on the bench. ‘How did you know?’

Finer raised a thick eyebrow. ‘Know what?’

‘About the gravestones.’

‘A little bird told me.’

Nottingham wrapped his fingers around the old man’s wrist. It was bony and brittle in his grip, as if it might snap all too easily. He stared into Finer’s eyes.

‘Which little bird?’ When the man didn’t answer, he squeezed. ‘That was my wife’s gravestone.’

‘A young man I pay to gather gossip.’ Finer tried to look unaffected, but his mouth as stretched and the skin was tight over the bones of his face.

‘A name?’

‘You wouldn’t know him.’

Probably not, now he was no longer constable. But Rob Lister might. ‘A name,’ Nottingham repeated.

 

‘I know the lad,’ Lister said as they ate dinner in the White Swan. Stew for him, bread and cheese for Nottingham and mugs of ale on the table in front of them both. ‘I’ll find him this afternoon.’

Rob had grown into a thoughtful young man. Hard when the job demanded, but compassionate, too, and utterly in love with Nottingham’s daughter, Emily. Seeing them together, the tenderness and humour between them, he was always reminded of the way Mary approved of the match: ‘They’re perfect for each other, Richard. Like two halves finding each other.’

Nottingham would go home this afternoon and rest, ready to be out again tonight. What kind of man harmed gravestones like that? And why those three? What grudge, what anger could move someone like that? All through the night, as the stars moved through the sky, he’d tried to come up with names and found nothing that fitted.

Who?

 

He’d been wearier than he imagined, sleeping into the evening to wake disoriented and with aching limbs.

Downstairs he sat with Rob as he ate. A young man’s hearty appetite after a long day of work.

‘He’ll meet you at eight on Timble Bridge.’

‘Does he know who did it?’ Nottingham asked.

‘He wouldn’t say.’

‘He’ll tell me.’ He’d make damned sure of it.

‘Watch out for him. He’s a little weasel. He’ll try to rob you if he can.’

‘But will he tell me the truth?’

Lister considered the question for a moment. ‘If you don’t leave him any other choice. Take your knife.’

 

First, the graveyard. Still full light, the evening warm enough to sweat as he worked, picking up all the fragments. He’d cleaned up Mary’s headstone yesterday. Now he tidied Amos’s and John’s. He’d almost finished when he felt someone kneel beside him and looked across.

Josh Forester, with a sad smile on his face and a colourful scarf knotted at his neck.

‘I went to your house, boss,’ he said. ‘Your lass’s man reckoned as you’d be here. Says you visit all the time.’

‘Every day. It’s all I have left of her.’

‘I understand.’ He ran hard fingertips over the carving in the stone. ‘I don’t know who’d do this, but I’ll tell you something I’ve learned. It’s probably not worth much, but a headstone doesn’t mean anything.’

‘I know.’ Nottingham’s voice was hushed.

‘Frances, she went in a pauper’s grave. No markings. You remember that, boss.’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘But she’s still here. They’re alive as long as someone remembers. This…it’s just trappings, isn’t it?’

‘Maybe it is.’ He pushed himself upright, feeling the creak in his knees. ‘But it means something to me. I have to meet someone. It won’t take long. If you wait, we can go for a drink.’

Josh smiled. Bright white teeth. Young teeth. ‘Aye, I’d like that. I’ll be right here, boss.’

 

He stood on Timble Bridge, hearing Sheepscar Beck burble and flow under his feet. It had been a dry summer and the water was low. The sound was pleasing, musical and rich. It filled his heart. But he was ready as he heard footsteps approaching.

A boy? He didn’t know why he was so surprised. The lad looked to be ten or eleven, with suspicious eyes that darted around, dark, matted hair, and dirt ingrained into his skin.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Nottingham said.

It was like coaxing a feral animal. Like the wary boy he’d been himself at that age, living for three years on the streets, surviving by wit and cunning and ruthlessness.

He placed two pennies on the ground and moved away.

‘I only have one question – who’s been damaging the graves?’

‘I’d never seen her before.’

‘Her?’ The word shook him. He couldn’t believe it. It was impossible to imagine any woman doing that. He took a deep breath. ‘Tell me about her.’

‘I couldn’t see much. It were dark and she had a shawl over her hair. And a hammer in her hand. I wun’t going to get too close to that.’

‘Where were you?’

‘Sleeping. There’s a dip in the graveyard near High Court. I were in there and heard her.’

‘Is there anything you remember?’

‘She meant it,’ the boy said. ‘Not just for the sake of doing it. Like she hated those people. She knew which ones she wanted.’

‘I daresay she did.’

‘And she weren’t young. You could see that. She moved slow, like it hurt her.’

‘You’re an observant young man.’

The boy shrugged and scooped the money from the ground.

‘Wait,’ Nottingham told him and brought out his purse. The boy darted for it, knife out to cut the strings. But Nottingham turned away, grabbing him by the hair and pushing him down to his knees. ‘Don’t. You’re too slow. I was stopping this long before anyone even dreamed of you. I was going to give you tuppence more.’

‘I’m sorry, mister.’

‘Maybe you are.’ He pushed the boy away, took out the coins and threw them on the dirt before walking away towards Leeds.

 

‘A woman?’ Josh Forester frowned, cupped the mug of ale and drank. ‘That seems odd.’

They were sitting in the White Swan, a welter of conversation all around their heads. It felt strange to be here with Josh. His memories of the lad were of someone so young, so full of pain. And here he was, grown, filled-out. A man with a life that suited him.

‘It surprised me, too,’ Nottingham admitted. ‘But why not? Women can hurt, too.’

‘Do you think she’ll be back?’

‘I don’t know.’ He leaned back. The woman had done her damage. Why would she need to return?

‘And you’ve no idea who it is, boss?’

‘None at all.’ He gave a weary smile. ‘I’ll be out there again tonight. Maybe she’ll decide she hasn’t had enough yet. Who can tell?’

Josh smiled. ‘Do you fancy some company?’

He stared at the young man. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. We’re going south tomorrow, this will be the last chance.’ He took another drink. ‘You changed my life, boss. I’d like to spend more time with you.’

 

It was a companionable silence. A warm, dry night, with just enough moon to throw light across the graveyard. They settled in the church porch and waited. The last drunks rolled and sang their way home. The nightjars called and turned silent.

A snuffle of animals in the distance. A badger, a fox.

He found himself starting to doze, chin settling on his chest, then quickly sitting upright, stretching his neck and looking round sheepishly at Josh.

It must have happened again. He was aware of the touch on his shoulder, then warm breath and words whispered into his ear.

‘Footsteps, boss. In the churchyard.’

Silently, he stood, ready, feeling the other man stir behind him. But he waited. Impossible to tell yet who it might be. A couple seeking out a private place. Someone with no better place to sleep.

Time seemed to stretch. He breathed slowly, listening for the faintest sound. Then it came: the tapping on steel on stone.

Nottingham pressed himself against the church wall, turning his head, waiting to hear it again, to know where the woman was in the graveyard. Josh had already disappeared, moving like a ghost through the night.

It was unmistakeable. Mary’s headstone once again. Without thinking, he started to run, feeling every stride in his knees. He needed to get there before too much damage was done.

He knew every inch of this ground, moving sure-footed without even needing to look.

But he wasn’t fast enough.

Josh had beaten him to the spot, big hands clamped around a pair of thin arms, stopping her from struggling.

‘She’s not going to cause a problem, boss.’

‘Keep her still. I want to see her face.’

Nottingham pulled the shawl away. A small, faded woman with stringy grey hair. A thin mouth, most of the teeth missing. Eyes filled with hate. She drew back her lips and spat at him. But there was no power. It dribbled down her chin.

He didn’t recognise her. Nothing about her.

‘Who-’ he began, but her rusted voice cut through his question.

‘Abraham Wyatt.’

The years turned away and he groped for her name. Caroline. Something like that.

‘Charlotte.’ The word seemed to come of its own accord and he saw her cold grin.

‘Now you remember, don’t you? You killed him, you and Worthy and that other man.’

They had, and the man had needed to die for all he’d done. Back then he’d let her go, though, never expecting to see her again.

‘Why? Why try and demolish my wife’s headstone?’ He didn’t understand that. But the answer was simple.

‘Because you don’t have one, and I’ve watched you come here and spend time with her.’ Her eyes glistened. ‘I knew this would hurt you.’

She understood too much, he thought. Nottingham tried to picture her as she’d been when he last saw her, but the image refused to come into his mind. All he could see was the woman as she was now, living on the past and her anger. She’d loved Wyatt; that had never been in doubt. She’d remained devoted to him through all the years he’d been exiled, transported to the Indies.

‘What do you want to do with her, boss?’ Josh’s question interrupted his thoughts.

‘Take her to the jail.’

She fought, pulled against him and dragged her feet. But the young man was bigger, stronger, used to wild beasts. A few minutes and the night man had her in a cell.

‘What’s the charge?’ he asked.

Nottingham didn’t know.

‘Ask Mr. Lister in the morning.’ Rob could think of something.

 

Outside, the night was still, heavy with the scent of flowers.

‘Thank you,’ Nottingham said.

Josh smiled and shook his head.

‘The least I could do, boss. I told you, I owe you a lot.’

‘On your way tomorrow?’

‘We pack up first thing.’ He raised his head and studied the sky. ‘In an hour or two. Then south.’

‘When you come through here again…’

‘I’ll stop, boss. I promise. You look after yourself.’

‘You, too. And that family of yours.’

They shook hands. Nottingham stood and watched as Josh strode up Briggate, out towards the Gypsy camp on Woodhouse Moor. Finally he turned and began to walk back to Marsh Lane.

A headstone could be replaced. But the woman could never destroy his memories. Josh was right. Mary was remembered.

4 thoughts on “Elegy – A Richard Nottingham Story

  1. thanx Chris, I just finished reading “Free From All Danger” My sister, living in Leeds, sent me a copy as a gift. I enjoyed that gift, very much. I’m hoping to get more of Richard, I have several ordinance survey maps of Leeds and I keep meaning to find some of the places you write about. Give me a better sense of location.
    I don’t need to look up the ‘Vic’ as I grew up on Roundhay Street.
    I’ve been in Canada now for more than fifty years and am sorry to say I don’t think I can travel to Leeds now. As you told me in your last post, Sheepscar and Chapletown are all gone now but your books let me visualize those areas. I do well remeber the old ‘Vic’ and those huge Clydsdale horses pulling the wagon with the beer barrels on. And the driver shouting at my brother and I to, ‘get the hell out of here. Those hosses will kill you wi’ one little kick’ That only made us run across Manor Street to goggle from there.

  2. If I can bring them alive, all well and good, and I’m glad you enjoy it. Much of it I took from things my father said about the area when he was growing up, but also old photos (Leodis is great, if you don’t already know it).
    And thank you.

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