I used to write a Christmas story every year. In 2020, I feel, we maybe need something like that more than before.
No apologies for being inspired for the details of a Saturday night market by Henry Mayhew’s superb book, London Labour and the London Poor.
This is the first time Simon Westow and Jane have featured in something short. But the new book, To The Dark, comes out on the 31st – go on, pre-order it for Xmas for yourself or someone else (best price here, with free postage!), please – but I’ve also just finished writing the next book, so they’re at the front of my mind.
I hope you enjoy. Be well, be happy. 2021 will be better.
He was surrounded by voices. A river of them – loud, soft, shrill, deep – carried him round. Candles guttered on some of the stalls, casting wild shadows against walls.
A little after eleven, and the night market was thronged with people. Bodies pressed against him, thick with the smells of drink and dirt, sweat and hopelessness. Simon Westow kept one hand on his knife, the other guarding his purse as his eyes moved across the crowd.
He made his living a thief-taker, finding property that had been stolen and returning it for a fee. The woman he was seeking was somewhere in the market, caught between the bodies, thinking she was free to spend the money she’d stolen.
Marjorie Winter was here name. She’d been a good servant for over a year; that was what her employer, Mrs. Carson, claimed. Never even needed a warning. Then, the day before, she’d taken one pound, seven shilling and threepence from the dressing table and disappeared.
‘I don’t know what happened to her, Mr Westow.’ Mrs Carson shook her head. She was the widow of a merchant, a handsome woman in her fifties. ‘Just bring the money back and let her go. After all, it’s only a week until Christmas. Time to show a little charity.’
That seemed unlike her; the woman was known for being vindictive. Still, it wasn’t his business. Simon and his assistant Jane, the feral girl who could follow anyone without being seen, had begun to search. Starting with nothing, asking questions until they discovered some answers.
It was Jane who found the scent of Marjorie, following it around Leeds, growing closer, until someone passed word that the woman would be at the Saturday night market.
It felt as if half of the people in town had come, Every Saturday was the same. The market opened at ten, after the men had waited in the beershops to be paid for their week of work. Wives took some of the money for rent and food before their husbands could drink and bet it away. The open space on Boar Lane, next to Holy Trinity Church, was packed.
Someone lit a torch. It hissed and flared, brilliant orange sparks flying into the sky, and for a moment the cold air was filled with the scene of pine resin. In the flicker he caught sight of Jane, moving around in her old green cloak, shawl pulled over her head.
No sign of Marjorie Winter. She was a stout young woman, only in her early twenties, with a dark red wine mark on her neck. That was how Mrs Carson had described her. But spotting anyone in this mass of people would pure luck. She was here somewhere; the information was good, from someone who knew her well.
Voices rose and fell, calling out their wares, as he pushed his way between people
‘Eight a penny, grand pears! Come on and buy your pears here.’
‘Fine walnuts! Sixteen a penny, none better!’
‘Oysters from the coast. Fresh and tasty!’
The walnut girl hoisted her basket on to her shoulder to try and force a way through the mass. As Simon slid between two men, he heard a stationer yelling a half-quire of paper for a penny as lonely woman’s voice tried to stand out: ‘Won’t someone buy my bonnet for fourpence? Fourpence?’
On the other side of the stalls, a trio of street singers were attempting a folk song, competing against a blind fiddler whose fingers flew as he blazed through a jig. Just on the edge of the bobbing circle of light, a family stood. A man with his wife and three daughters. All of them clean, dressed in their Sunday church clothes. His head was bowed, and the females silently held out rush mats they’d woven. Poor, hoping for a few pennies, like so many here.
A woman had a row of old shoes lined up along the ground. Ann Carr, the woman preacher, passed out tracts to any soul who’d take one.
‘I’ve found her.’ Jane appeared beside him. She seemed to come from nowhere. ‘Over in the far corner.’
‘Let’s finish it.’
‘She has a little girl with her.’
That made him pause. He’d heard nothing about a child. ‘Are you sure it’s right person?’
A nod. ‘I heard someone call her name.’
He sighed. A girl. This was his job.
‘Come on,’ he said. But he could hear the reluctance in her voice.
Marjorie Winter came up to his shoulder as she stood beside him. She was scared, trying not to show it as she kept a gentle hold of the girl. The child looked to be four or five, Simon judged, no older than that, entranced by all the sights and sounds and smells of the night market.
‘Is she going to prosecute me?’ The woman was resigned. She knew she’d been caught, and with the girl here, she wasn’t going to try and run.
‘No,’ he told her, and saw the relief spread across her face. The birth mark stood out livid on her neck. ‘How much of the money do you still have?’
She opened her hand to show the bright coins. ‘Almost one pound and seven shillings, sir. I was going to give most of it to my mother and buy some things for my Sarah here.’ She smiled as she said the name and gently rubbed the girl’s head.
‘If you give me the money you have, you can go,’ Simon told her.
She shook her head, sorrow and confusion showing in her eyes. ‘Mrs Carson owes me that money. She hasn’t paid me for three months. Didn’t she tell you that?’
‘So you thought it was right to take her money?’
‘Me mother looks after Sarah. I go and see them on my days off and give her money to help pay for things. But I haven’t had any. Do you see, sir?’
‘Did you ask her for your pay?’ Simon wasn’t certain he believed her; a thief-taker met too many liars who could twist the truth into impossible shapes.
‘At first I thought she’d forgotten. I know she’s had a lot on her mind. She’s spent a lot of time talking to the man who looks after her business. When I did ask, she said she didn’t have any money in the house, to remind her later.’ She looked up at him. ‘I did, sir. I kept mentioning it, and she gave me one excuse after another.’ Marjorie Winter took a breath and shook her head. ‘I didn’t have any choice. My mother needs the money. I saw it lying there. She owes me more than this, sir.’
It all sounded plausible. She had the edge of desperation in her voice. If she really hadn’t been paid for three months, if it was true, then she was right; she was owed more than she’d taken. From nowhere, a fleeting rumour he’d heard a few weeks before came into his head. A whisper that Mrs Carson had problems; half the shops in Leeds were preparing to dun her, and the bankers weren’t willing to extend any more credit. At the time he’d paid it no mind. Now, though, it made sense.
He stared at Marjorie again. Hopelessness on her face, that sense of being beaten down and defeated once more, the look so many wore.
Simon glanced at Jane. She’d been watching and listening to it all. She gave him the smallest nod of her head: let her go. Her hand snaked from her pocket, opening up the little girl’s fist and placing something inside it. As she looked up in astonishment, Jane put a finger to her lips.
She believed the servant. That was enough for him.
‘Go and spend your money,’ he said, and Marjorie Winter’s eyes widened in disbelief. ‘I won’t be coming after you again. No one else will, either.’ He’d make sure of that.
‘Sir…’ she stumbled over the word, not sure how to reply. ‘I told my mother I’ll go for a mill girl. I’m not going back to service. At least I’ll see this one every night.’
‘Thank you, sir. I don’t know what else to say. Thank the man, Sarah.’ The little girl bobbed a small curtsey and the pair of them began to move away. Marjorie kept glancing over her shoulder, close to tears, until they were swallowed by the crowd.
They wouldn’t be paid. But it wasn’t a job where they’d have earned much. If the rumour about Mrs Carson was true, he wouldn’t have ended up with a penny, anyway.
A week to Christmas. Maybe he’d done his good deed.