Five week now until The Molten City is published. To whet you’re appetite and get you ordering it (hopefully), here’s a very short extract from the book. It’s 1908, and Harper’s daughter, Mary, is 16 now, a Suffragette supporter; her mother, Annabelle, is a Suffragist, opposed to the violence Mrs Pankhurst’s women espouse. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minster, is about to arrive to give a speech in Leeds. The Suffragettes, led by a woman named Jennie Baines, are demonstarting at his opposition to women’s suffrage, and the unemployed men are holding their own rally in opposition to the government inaction on jobs. If they come together outside the Coliseum, where the PM is giving his speech, there’s going to be a riot.
Harper looked around the railways station. It all seemed ordinary. No sign of anyone lurking. Just the everyday travellers and people waiting for arrivals. He let out a breath, then he was aware of someone running.
A constable in uniform, his face red as he gasped for breath, boots skidding over the tiles. A hasty salute.
‘I was looking for you up by the Coliseum, sir. Message for you from Millgarth. Sergeant Mason says to tell you it’s important.’
‘What does he want?’ He felt fear creeping up from his belly.
‘Don’t know, sir. He just told me to give you this and get back sharpish.’ He thrust a piece of paper in Harper’s hand and ran off.
Your wife telephoned. Vital you ring her as soon as possible.
He opened his watch. Twenty past four. God Almighty. The Prime Minister’s train was due in ten minutes.
‘You keep watch,’ he told Emerson. ‘If anything happens, come and get me immediately.’
In the station master’s office, he lifted the receiver, waiting impatiently for the connection.
‘What is it?’ he asked as soon as Annabelle was on the line. ‘The prime minister’s arriving any minute.’
‘It’s Mary,’ she said, and he stopped, unable to say a word. ‘She told me she was going to do some shopping after work this afternoon.’ Annabelle caught her breath. ‘She telephoned half an hour ago. She’s going to the demonstration, Tom. I’ll swing for the little madam, behaving like this.’
Christ, he thought. Bloody girl.
‘I can’t do anything now. Nothing.’ He tried to think. ‘I’ll tell Ash.’
‘I’m coming down there.’
‘Don’t—’ he began, but she’d already gone.
Damn the girl. They’d told her, but she had to go and bloody defy them. Now she was going to be trapped in the middle of a war and there was nothing he could do to help her. If she was hurt, injured . . . not just her. Annabelle, too.
He dared not let himself think about it. Not now. Not—
‘Sir,’ Emerson said, ‘the Chief Constable is looking for you.’
Harper hurried up the hill, crossing Great George Street, passing the Mechanics’ Institute. Ash stood in the middle of the road, tall, bulky in his overcoat and new bowler hat.
He nodded towards the Coliseum. ‘Almost full in there, sir. They’re just waiting for the guests of honour. Everything in order?’
‘No.’ He pointed at the suffragettes, close to a hundred of them now, penned in on Vernon Street. ‘My daughter’s in with them and Mrs Harper is on her way down here.’ He could hear how frantic he sounded. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care.
There was too much to juggle. The prime minister would arrive at any moment. The last of the audience was filing into the hall. Businessmen in expensive suits, tickets checked at the door before they could gain entry.
Mrs Baines was addressing the women, her voice loud and strident. And somewhere among them . . .
‘It’s probably just a matter of time before the unemployed men break out from that rally they’re holding,’ Harper said.
‘We have the reinforcements, sir.’
He shook his head. ‘I’m holding them back for when we really need them. We’d just better be prepared for the worst. It’s not far away.’
‘We’ll manage, sir. You leave things up here with me. I’ll have that lass of yours out of there.’ He marched away, shoulders back, shouting orders at the constables.
Harper stood. For a moment he felt utterly lost, out of his depth. Too much was happening, his head was on fire. This was like trying to keep a dozen balls in the air, knowing that if one fell, chaos would follow.
Suddenly, off in the distance, he made out a faint swell of cheering. He cocked his head, leaning his good ear towards the sound. It was definitely there. Asquith’s procession was drawing closer, all those people by the side of the road happy to have a sight of their prime minister. A tiny glimmer of sanity among the madness.
He ran his palms down his cheeks.
Everyone was relying on him to make sure the politicians were safe. Let the demonstrators bray all they liked, that wasn’t going to do any damage. Words might fill the air, but they couldn’t wound. Nobody would die from them. But if it went beyond that – when it did – he’d stop them.
A final breath and he was ready.
The first of the motor cars came in sight. A chorus of boos, a clamour of shouting from the women. He searched their faces for Mary. Couldn’t see her. A swift prayer to keep her safe. Her and Annabelle.
You can order from your favourite bookshop (or ask your library to get it in). This place has the cheapest price (currently £15.66, with free UK postage).