The Whispers – A New Richard Nottingham Story

I did warn you that a new story with Richard was coming. It’s been a long time since I walked the streets in Leeds beside him. Too long, really.

This is a little different. But he’s changed, he’s a bit older. Yer, underneath, the man we know is still very much there. I hope you enjoy a few minutes in his company.

Leeds, March, 1738

Richard Nottingham stood on Leeds Bridge, hands resting on the cold stone parapet. The wind whipped along the River Aire, down from the hills, the water carrying the stink of waste from the dyeworks and the fulling mills. Swirls of red and blue eddied by the shore. The body of a dog or cat, caught up in a branch and pulled downstream.

            He watched a barge dock on the wharf near the bottom of Pitfall. Ropes thrown to shore, wrapped and knotted around bollards fore and aft. As he looked, he listened to the whispers of the ghosts in his ears. His wife Mary, his daughter Rose, and John Sedgwick, who’d been his deputy in the times when Nottingham had been Constable of Leeds.

            Those days were long past. Now it was Rob, his son-in-law, who held the post. Nottingham was glad to let it go. He’d grown too old, his body weary from all it has endured when he was in office. He had his house on Marsh Lane, his ragtag family. That was enough.

            From the corner of his eye, he noticed a man come slide the corner of a warehouse, trying hard to stay unnoticed in the shadows. Lank hair, stoop-shouldered, wearing an old, stained coat and dirty hose.

            One of the barge hands jumped off the boat and began to walk along the wharves. The other man followed. Thirty yards away they huddled together. The barge man brought out a small packet from the deep pocket of his coat. The other man stared around again, making sure they weren’t watched, before he handed over a small purse.

            It was over in a moment, then the two men were talking and laughing like old friends. It could be nothing, Nottingham thought, perfectly above board. Aye, he heard Sedgwick say, and if you believe that I’ll sell you this bridge, boss. Summat’s going on.

            He stood straighter, and suddenly the two men saw him. One pointed and they began to take a path up to the Calls that would bring them out close to the bridge.

            It was time to move.

            He often used a stick to help him walk; it has been useful for the last year. This time he carried it. He’d be too obvious, and it might make a useful weapon.

            A short distance and he’d disappeared into the throng of merchants and weavers crowed around the trestles on either side of Briggate. The Tuesday morning coloured cloth market, everyone bringing their woven lengths from the villages around Leeds to be sold. He’d known ritual this all his life, grown up with it, kept order here. He could move in and out and become invisible as he moved along the street.

            Nottingham had battered his tricorn hat, but so did many others, and his buff coat hardly made him stand out.

            Go to the jail, Richard; that was what his wife told him. He could hear every small inflection of her voice as it whispered in his head. Leave it for Rob to handle. It’s not your job. It’s not your fight. Don’t take any risks, please.

You’re right, he thought, you’re right. This has nothing to do with me now. But he’d seen something. Every scrap of experience told him the men were breaking the law. To make sure it was obeyed was everyone’s duty. He’d pass Rob the word and let the younger man fight the battle; after all, he was Constable of Leeds.

The market was hushed. By tradition, all the deals were made in whispers and sealed with a handshake. But the inns were loud as men and women drank and spent their penny ha-penny on a Brigg-End shot. He made his way past the crowds with nods to the faces he knew. So many, he thought. Are you surprised? Rose asked. You’ve served these people for years, Papa. They respect you. They always have.

Or maybe he was just too familiar.

Nottingham kept a steady, comfortable pace up Briggate, watching for the men he’d seen. In the cloth market, he was just one figure among many. But as he reached Kirkgate, the bodies thinned out and he hurried down the street to the jail, looking over his shoulder.

He spotted one of them, the barge man, father down the street, talking to a man behind a trestle. He was gesturing wildly, anxious, while the other shook his head. Getting nowhere and growing frantic. Now Nottingham was certain he’d seen something criminal. Where was the other man?

He turned the corner, by the entrance to the White Swan, and saw him. Standing, turned towards him, just feet away.

Be careful, Richard, Mary told him. His heart was beating fast, thudding in his chest. He tightened his grip on the stick. This isn’t your fight, she whispered. No, it wasn’t, but he was part of it now; he couldn’t avoid it.

Watch him, boss. Sedgwick’s voice, ready, quietly assessing everything. You see the way he’s standing? Yes, he could see. The man favoured his right leg. Hit that knee, boss. Do it quick and hard and he’ll be on the ground. No need to worry about him after that.

Nottingham gave a thin smile. He knew he looked like an old man, one who wouldn’t put up a fight. A victim. But he’d learned all the ways to give much more than he took.

The man grinned, happy to have found his quarry so easily. He let his eyes play the trick on him, seeing what he wanted, a man he could beat, and he started to charge.

So easy that an invalid could have done it. A step to the side, the crack of wood on the bone of the kneecap and the man was rolling in the road, clutching his leg and howling.

Nottingham opened the door of the jail. Rob Lister was sitting behind the desk, head bent as he wrote. He looked up, suddenly curious as he saw Nottingham.

‘There’s someone out here you should meet.’

A small crowd had gathered, standing around the man in pain, but none of them moved to help him.

‘Who is he?’ Lister asked.

‘No idea.’ He summed what had happened in three sentences.

Rob searched through the man’s pocket and pulled out a knotted kerchief. Inside he found tiny silver cuttings from the edges of coins.

‘Coin clipping. Whoever he works for will melt them down.’ The man was struggling to edge away. Lister put a hand to his collar and hauled him to his feet. ‘A cell for you, and some questions. You know all this is treason?’ He gave a dark grin. ‘Takes you straight to the hangman’s dance.’

He pulled the man away before he could answer.

You did well there, boss. Not really, he thought; it wasn’t so hard. But there’s still another of them looking for me.

Papa, no, please. Listen to Rose, Richard, his wife said in his ear. She’s right. You were lucky once. The next time…

But what was the worst that could happen? He’d leave some people he loved, ones who could look after themselves, and he’d be with others. See his wife again, as sweet as the day they married at the Parish Church.

‘Do you want to see if we can find this other one?’ Rob said. He had a sword buckled to his belt, hand resting lightly on the hilt. ‘Will you be able to recognize him?’

‘Why don’t we let him find me,’ Nottingham answered. ‘He’s going to be desperate by now. Let me go ahead. Just keep a close watch.’

Richard…Mary began. But this was duty; after all these years, she’d understand that.

A wander down Briggate towards the bridge and the river, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Pausing to exchange a few words with the merchants and the clothiers, flush and happy from selling their cloth.

The bell had rung to end the market a few minutes before. Now the voices were raised, the taverns full to overflowing, spilling out on the street.

Nottingham spotted the barge man. He had the build of someone used to carrying heavy weight, broad shoulders and thick arms. Richard made a sign, trusting Rob would see it.

Carts and wagons were moving up and down the road. He crossed between them, parading himself for the man to see.

Don’t, Papa, rose said. Point him out to Rob. But he’d started the job he had to- No, you don’t, Richard. You left all that, Mary told him, and he smiled. He’d left it, but someone it refused to leave him.

He’s seen you, boss. He’s coming.

Good. Let him come. He trusted Rob

He’s close, Papa. Just three yards behind you now.

He’s taking out his knife, boss.

Nottingham stopped and turned. The man was no more than six feet away now, a body’s length, with a look on his face somewhere between panic and triumph. He had the knife in his hand, fingers tight around the hilt.

‘Don’t.’ One word, but it took the man by surprise.

‘Why?’ A guttural voice. He sounded Dutch, perhaps, maybe German.

‘Because I said so.’ Rob slid up behind the man and put his blade alongside his neck. ‘Drop your weapon.’

Nothing, and the pressed the metal against the throat until the knife clattered on the floor.

‘He’s the constable here,’ Nottingham explained. ‘I used to have to honour.’

‘Which pocket, Richard?’ Lister asked.

‘The right, I think.’

‘Take a look, will you?’

The purse was there, bulging.

‘You and your friend are going to like Jack Ketch. You’ll meet him at the assizes in York. He does good work. Quick, clean.’

Later, in the churchyard, he stood by the graves and listened to the dead whispering. John Sedgwick, Rose, even Amos Worthy, the man he’d liked and hated in equal measure. All of them with words for him.

            But it was Mary who waited until the others had finished. Richard, you always were a fool. You don’t anyone a duty now. You owe yourself a life. For Emily and Rob and Lucy and young Mary. Don’t you want to see her grow?

            No need to reply. She knew the answer.

            I love you, but you don’t need to come to us. We’re with you, always. Wherever you are, my love. Wherever you are.

6 thoughts on “The Whispers – A New Richard Nottingham Story

  1. Mary Morris

    As I read your description of the bridge and water front , it reminded me of my visits to Leeds many years ago. I loved it. Also the castle that I believe Henry the VII or the V111 gave Ann Boleyn. I stayed in it wandering around looking at the paintings and furniture and thinking what a lovely place for the inhabitants that stayed there. Eventually it closed for the day and I had to leave. I have never forgotten it.
    Mary Morris.

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