Imagining Leeds

The legends and tales and folklore of a place tend to depend on a deep connection with its past. Roots that go deep into the earth to create a sense of history, of being connected to that earth. That sense of place is vitally important. Go to York and history surrounds you. Reach out your hand and you can touch it. Walk along a green lane in the countryside and there’s still a sense of brooding mystery that seems to tumble through the years, the sense that a spirit might suddenly appear in front on you. Visit one of the old battlefields and you can almost hear the clash of weapons and the cries of the wounded and the dying.

Places have power.

Look for that in Leeds and you’ll be sorely disappointed. I say that as someone whose life involves conjuring up Leeds’ history. Our oldest real artefact is the Leeds Cross, and that a composite, the remnants of five Saxon crosses that once stood outside an early version of Leeds Parish Church, but were broken up and tossed into the walls as filler during a rebuilding. Quite deliberately, we vandalised our own history – and sacred history, at that. It was old, so it was no longer relevant.

leeds cross

Yet somehow that’s emblematic of a place that only began to truly flourish with the arrival of industry. The era of machines and power, water and steam and the manufactory and the mill. They stood tall, the modern equivalent of the castle or the cathedral as a symbol of subjugation of the people. And folk did flock here to live in the shadows of them. Yet while the past is very tangible in both cathedral and castle, the legends and supernatural close to hand,  it’s impossible to evoke any ancient magic inside the walls of a mall. It can’t.

Whatever old folktales and songs we might have once had were lost. There could never be a Beowulf or Wayland the Smith here, because our roots to whatever we possessed long ago have long since been cut. Those bards we have – a Bennett, a Waterhouse, a Hoggart – are all recent, and can only touch the surface, because that’s all there is. They have no grand words or ideas, but their language reflects industry; practical and utilitarian. Notably, all three came from working-class beginnings.

With its factories, Leeds was very a society of immigrants. Not necessarily from other countries, although that happened soon enough, but from other regions. Although it has a history of things that are demonstrably older, it’s essentially people who define a town or a city. Their stamp moulds it more than it moulds them, especially when the influx is so quick and so large. In 1800, just after the start of the Industrial Revolution, 30,000 people lives in Leeds. In three decades that number tripled.

So any Leeds we can imagine only goes back a little more than two centuries. Those roots are barely old enough to sink below the surface. We haven’t had time to create many folktales or songs. And those that have come about are of disappointment, of factory workers or grand Victorian buildings (Jenny White’s Hole, for example, or the Town Hall Lions). This is a place built of brick and smoke, on dirt and poverty. We don’t have a mythology.

And most of those factories and mills that were the foundation of industry have been demolished. The buildings proved as ephemeral as the lives of the people who worked there. They and their histories are erased. The history of Leeds is essentially the history of working people. But when their workplaces become rubble and their homes are torn down because they’re slums, where is the past for anyone to touch? There’s very little history for anyone to dream.

Even our parks are human constructs, where man has imposed himself on the countryside. Kirkstall Abbey was once in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s a tamed, picturesque ruin.

k abbey

It’s probably not just a Leeds phenomenon. Very likely it’s true across the north, in all those places that were built on different industries. And there’s a kick to finish it all off. Leeds was essentially created by industry. By pain and sweat, the riches of a few and the labour of so many. But industry has all but gone. And a city of finance and service industries doesn’t offer much in the way in inspiration.

We all need a spine of tales, of folklore, of songs that are us. And there are artists and writers, musicians and makers of theatre who are trying to do that. But these things need to grow from the bottom up, not be imposed upon a place.

At one point there was continuity. Now things are demolished, refashioned and repurposed every couple of generations. You can’t find any tradition in that. And that’s the pity. Humans need tradition. It’s part of belonging.

Yet a few faint tendrils do curl down and survive in our language. A few things that are uniquely Leeds. Ginnel. Loiner.

ginnel

There’s beauty in those and other words like them. It’s a dialect that’s largely dying and TV culture makes language homogenised. But it’s holding on. And those words do conjure up a fading Leeds of the imagination.

Possibly, just as Leeds is post-industrial, it’s also now post-mythology. But people will always need stories, songs and ballads to pass on. They always have. It’s part of being human. We need to create them, then nurture the flame and keep them alive.

The Anchoress Will Be Coming Soon – And Some Norman-Era Fiction

First of all, apologies. I’ve been quiet for a little while. Physically well, thankfully, but preoccupied with this and that. Writing the new Tom Harper, of course, but I was also asked to take part in another project called Street Stories, which will take place on Quarry Hill in Leeds. It’s the brainchild of Leeds City College and put together by #foundfiction. Small pieces of writing will be displayed as street art around various parts of Quarry Hill, and I’m one of four writers creating work for it. Mine will cover aspects of the area as it was: Quarry Hill flats, of course, but also the 1645 plague cabins, St. Peter’s Well, the death of Tom Maguire and more. It’s something different, every piece is very compressed, and it’s an interesting challenge.

Some of you will be wondering exactly when The Anchoress of Chesterfield is likely to appear, or even if it will appear. The initial publication date of June 1 is now a memory, and another date of the end of June isn’t going to happen. But it’s at the printer, and I’m told that it will be available in paperback and as an ebook from the end of July. Not exact date, I’m afraid, but this appears concrete. Thank you for being patient, but these have been very different times, as well all know.

anchoress comp 2 0993098

I showed you a little of my Civil War period novella, The Cloth Searcher. Before I began work on that, I revisited and picked up the threads and completed another story I began a few years ago, this one set in Norman-era Leeds, called Norman Blood. I’m now going back over it, slowly. Another novella. Here’s how it begins:

Note: Ledes was the name given to modern-day Leeds.

1

1092 AD

He rarely dreamed now. In the beginning the night mare had ridden every time he closed his eyes, slipping through the blackness like a cutthroat and gripping him so close he could smell its graveyard stench. Then, slowly, almost without him knowing, it had faded and become a fearful memory.

But last night it had returned, more powerful for having been away so long. Screaming, growing louder and louder before dropping into a single moment of dead, empty silence.

Then a welter of noise filled the space. Sounds he hadn’t noticed before. Shouting, hooves. The metal rasp of weapons drawn. The crackle as a thatched roof caught fire and the night flamed.

He was hobbling through the darkness, desperate to keep out of sight. But even when he was a mile away and more, he could still hear the soldiers shouting in their foreign tongue; no doubting the meaning and their hatred. Killing, rape, the devils in hell let loose to roam, all the order and the law gone from the earth. Blades hacking at flesh and tearing at souls.

Somewhere, someone must be alive. They must be, or all the world would be blood.

When he woke, he was breathing so hard that his chest hurt, hands clenched tight into fists, the t tears tumbling down his cheeks.

Trembling, Erik had to ease himself out of the bed, careful not to wake Inga, then paced up and down on the earth floor of the house, letting its cold hardness, its realness, into his body, until the demons danced away. Hours later, in full daylight, he could still taste the smoke and death on his tongue, a poison no gulp of ale could take away.

For the dream to come back after all this time…it had to mean something.

 

The villagers always closed their doors as the soldiers passed. It was safer, like a cantrip to keep evil at bay. There were only ten men this time, churning up the mud as they marched rapidly along the road. Beyond the houses and the church, their feet clattered as they crossed the bridge over the beck until the hard beat of marching softened into the distance.

Every week it was the same, a patrol sent out, as if the Normans were fearful that people might flare up and oppose them again. But who was left to fight or forge the weapons? Who had the will? The army had conquered, it had destroyed the land far and wide. The soldiers had used their iron and steel to choke away hope.

The Harrying. That was what they called it.

Death was the word he used. That was the truth of it.

All across Yorkshire, manors had burned. Animals butchered in the fields and left to rot. Not only the stock: people were killed, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, unshriven and unburied. Those still alive fled, praying for safety, begging for deliverance. But God had turned His face away, unhearing, unforgiving. No food, no shelter. No hope. No life. They died beyond counting during the winter, children and parents withered to sacks of bone and heart and flesh until they barely made a meal for the wolves.

But Ledes…Ledes was spared. A miracle, that was what the people here believed. God’s blessing. But he knew that the reality spoke far less of heaven and much more of power. It was a military decision, nothing more than that. A finger stabbed down on a rough-drawn map. Keep this place with the ford over the river. We can station our men there.

Erik brushed the wood shavings from his lap and put the knife back in his belt. He’d whittled the end of the post to a sharp point that would go easily into the ground. Since Sunday, his wife had been reminding him that the gate between their toft and the pasture needed repair.

The job was there in his head, but every hour of daylight had been filled. He was the reeve, elected by the others when the manor became property of the monks in York. Each dispute about the size of a villager’s planting strips, who should do what, when they should do it, ended with him.

Erik sighed. Since the spring ploughing and planting began, it had been one task after another. Decide this, measure that, give an order, settle an argument. Finally, last night, the procession of people hammering on the door stopped.

Then the night mare visited. But it had ridden on again, thank God. No one had needed him this morning. And now he finally had time to do something for himself. He hoisted the post on to his shoulder and limped to the end of the garden. When he was young he’d jumped from a tree and broken a bone on his thigh. It was never set properly, leaving him to walk like this.

On the horizon, ravens swooped down on something, then scattered high into the air as a buzzard dived. The first fingers of spring and the ground was beginning to soften after the long winter. Pray for a warm summer and a good harvest.

The scents of life drifted on the air. Off in the distance he could see lambs, newborn and tentative, discovering the astonishment of movement. Every year it was the same, and every year it enchanted him and made his heart soar.

He loved this ville. It was home, it was comfort. He cherished the people here, even when their voices and demand and questions wearied him. Erik had been surprised when they put him forward as reeve, grateful when they voted for him.

In return he took all his responsibilities seriously, sitting and making his judgements at the manor court, tallying harvests, making sure the priest received his tithe and the monks had all they were owed.

He’d been on God’s Earth for almost forty years, as close as he could guess; an old man now, with all the pains and failings of age. But he tried to do his duty by everyone.

And he put them all in front of himself. That was his wife’s complaint. Inga was right. But what could he do? He could hardly turn them away or make them wait. So jobs like this were tucked into odd, quiet hours when the chance arose.

Erik dug into the soil with the tip of his knife and set with post in place. He’d set a rock aside, heavy enough to need two hands. The dull sound of stone on wood, over and over and over, until it was seated straight and secure. Now the gate would close properly; no animals would wander into the garden and eat what his wife grew. Inga would be happy.

The manor had improved since it became the property of the monks. They paid rents every quarter day now instead of giving their labour, and what man wouldn’t work harder for himself than for a lord? But the monks had also taken the best pasture to graze their sheep. The best pasture, of course, and the villagers had to tend them. Less ground for fallow or farming.

His eyes followed the line of low trees that grew along the stream that marked the northern boundary of the manor. The villagers were busy with ploughing and sowing and digging. At least if they were occupied, he’d have some time. And he still needed to plant early seeds in his own strips.

He stretched, an ache of satisfaction in his arms, then turned towards the house. For a moment the clouds parted and the sun shone, the glimpse of colour and brightness welcome against the grey. Erik smiled, then caught a glint of metal from the corner of his eye. Two of the soldiers were running back along the road to their palisade.

Suddenly every sense of pleasure vanished. He was alert, a prickle of fear running down his back.

Let’s Go Back To…1645 In Leeds

There are so many awful things going on in the world right now, but this blog isn’t the place to comment on them. Writing about the past is one way to escape to something different. Not always kind or less brutal.

I’m working on a new Tom Harper book which takes place in 1917 (this is a good place to mention that the ebook of Gods of Gold is still 82p/99c from all retailers for all platforms).

gods of gold cover

I’ve also finished a novella entitled Norman Blood, set in Leeds in 1092 CE. I’ll be self-publishing that this autumn, quite possible combined with this, if it works out. It’s called The Cloth Searcher, and it’s set in Leeds in during the Civil War 1645…just before plague broke out.

Here’s the opening. Please, drop me a line and tell me if you think it’s worth continuing. And please, all of you, stay safe and careful.

 

February 1645

 

With the new year, Leeds began to emerge from the winter. Under the rule of the Roundhead garrison, as kind of normality took hold. Like a patient too long in bed after an illness, the town took tentative, faltering steps. But with each week things improved, the invalid seemed a little more confident, even if its colours still seemed to be greys and blacks and browns.

At least the weather had been mild so far, Adam Wright thought. Granted, it was still February, but there’d been little snow to trouble and freeze them and enough days of chill, pale sunshine to give some hope to the heart.

He walked up Briggate, past the sorry ruin of lawyer Benson’s house. Once it had been a fine building; now the front door flapped on its hinges, all the windows were broken and so many slates missing from the roof that the ground floor was little better than a lake. The revenge of Cromwell’s Scottish soldiers for the man’s support of the King. Benson himself had long since fled Leeds to live who knew where.

It was impossible not to resent the troops stationed in the town, even if the Scots and their violence had been packed off home. Soldiers strutted with muskets and pikestaffs, their officers gave orders and ran the place now. Adam had only managed to avoid having a man billeted with him because he had three young children, and he thanked God for his fortune.

It was wrong for a town to be this way, to be occupied by their own countrymen, to be at the mercy of other Englishmen who were supposed to be their equals.

He had little interest in politics. That was something which happened in London. His only desire for a quiet life and to make his business as a wool merchant prosper. Leeds had been on the cusp of success before all this, order books full, trade growing. But over the last two years, as different sides took and retook the city, everything had fallen apart. The weavers started taking their cloth to Bradford and Wakefield, where things were calmer, and he couldn’t blame them. Only now, in the months since the big battle down on Marston Moor had the area begun to exhale again.

 

At the Moot Hall his boot heels clicked on the hard wood floor and he waited for the military clerk to lift his weary eyes.

‘Adam Wright, the Cloth Searcher, to see Captain Eyre.’

‘Go through,’ the man told him, jabbing a lazy finger along the corridor then pushing his head back down among his papers.

There was another guard in the hallway, this one with keen, assessing eyes, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, his buff uniform scrupulously clean, leatherwork gleaming.

At the door Wright took a deep breath. The summons here had surprised him. He’d searched in his soul and found nothing that could give offence. He attended church each Sunday, paid what was due in taxes and gave deference to those who ordered his world.

He didn’t know why he was here and it scared him. Slowly he raised his hand and knocked on the door. At a sound from within he turned the handle and walked into Captain Eyre’s office. A few years before it had belonged to one of the aldermen, but these days the power in the city lay with Major-General Carter and his staff.

‘Mr Wright,’ the Captain said. To Adam’s surprise the man sounded grateful. ‘Thank you for coming so promptly. I thought you might have been busy.’

He’d been at home when the messenger arrived, entranced by his baby son, now just three months old, while his wife and the serving girl attended to the other two children. He knew he should have been at the warehouse in the yard behind his house, but there was precious little to do there these days.

‘I had the time,’ Adam replied carefully. ‘Your man made it sound important.’ He stared at the soldier, a man of about forty with shrewd eyes, his face lined, grey hair cropped short over his skull, a lean, hardened body inside a neat uniform.

‘How are the cloth markets these days?’ Eyre began.

‘Better than they were,’ Wright answered guardedly, surprised by the question, ‘but there’s still a long way to go for them to be what they were.’

The Captain nodded in understanding.

‘And the quality of the cloth?’

Adam shrugged, unsure of the meaning behind all this.

‘Excellent, on the whole. There are always one of two pieces that aren’t up to standard, and sometimes someone wants to cut corners.’

‘But you find them.’

‘I try,’ he said.

He’d been given the post of Cloth Searcher in 1642, before the conflict began. It paid nothing, meant as a tribute to a merchant’s honesty. It became his responsibility ensure all the cloth coming out of Leeds was the very best quality. To keep the town’s reputation high. But his tenure was only meant to last a year.

Then the war began. King against Parliament. The Corporation was in tatters, and there had been no one to name a replacement. And so, three years later Adam Wright was still the town’s Cloth Searcher He’d never wanted the title, but he couldn’t set aside until a new man was named.

‘How long will it take, do you think?’ Eyre asked.

‘For what?’ he asked.

‘For the weavers to return and sell here the way they used to.’

Wright shook his head sadly. ‘I don’t know. Another year, perhaps? They might never come back.’ The questions seemed pointless. If the man wanted to know about the cloth market he should come to Leeds Bridge on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, cloth for sale displayed on the parapets and the business conducted in quiet whispers.

‘Mr. Wright, do you know Ralph Whitelaw?’

He opened his eyes wide. ‘Of course.’ Whitelaw was one of the city’s leading wool merchants, one of the original burgesses when Leeds had received its charter from King Charles two decades before. More than that, Adam had served his merchant’s apprentice with him. He knew Ralph and all his family. The man was a Royalist, but wise enough to keep his loyalties to himself.

‘One of the patrols was out this morning. You must know the bell pits down past Vicar Lane?’

Wright nodded, confused by the strange, constant twists in the conversation.

‘People used to mine coal in them,’ he said. ‘But no one’s used them in years.’

‘Not quite,’ Eyre corrected him. ‘My sergeant found Whitelaw’s body in one today.’

‘What?’ He started to rise from his seat. ‘Ralph? Are you sure?’

‘I’m certain, Mr. Wright. I saw the corpse myself. I had a number of conversations with him. I’m sorry, Mr Wright.’

Adam ran a hand over his face, feeling the sharp stubble of his cheeks against his palm.

‘But..?’ he began, knowing he didn’t have the words to express all the things in his mind just them ‘But why? That doesn’t make any sense. What would he doing there?’

Eyre look directly at him, his eyes pale and serious.

‘Someone killed him,’ he announced finally. ‘And put his body in one of the bell pits.’

 

 

A Tale Begins…Some New Tom Harper

Stories…we’re humans, we need stories. And in uncertain, anxious times, something to take us away from our fears and ourselves is always welcome.

Here’s a brief exceprt from what will be the next Tom Harper novel. It’s called Brass Lives, and it’s set to appear sometime in 2021. Sorry, with publishing schedules all topsy-turvy, I can be more exact than that at the moment.

It takes place in 1913 and Tom is now the Deputy Chief Constable of Leeds, with an office at the Town Hall. Ash has become a Superintendent and taken over Millgarth.

Before we get to that, though: my publisher has Gods of Gold, the first Tom Harper novel, currently at 82p/99c an all ebook formats, everywhere in the world. But only until the end of May. You might enjoy it, and at that price you can take a risk.

Secondly, I’ve written a short history of Sheepscar. No fiction, all fact. If you’d like a copy, drop me a line and I’ll send it to you in a pdf file.

Now, would you like to catch up with Tom?

 

He’d been back in his office for an hour, sipping a mug of tea and reading the daily reports from the divisions when the telephone rang.

‘Morning, sir. It’s Superintendent Ash.’ The familiar voice made him smile. Until Harper’s promotion, the two of them had worked together every day. Then Ash had taken over A Division and moved up in rank to run the station.

He knew the man; Ash wouldn’t ring unless there was a good reason.

‘Good morning to you, too. What can I do for you?’

‘Something that might strike your fancy, sir,’ Ash replied after a moment. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like your dinner at the cafe in the market, would you?’

‘I imagine you could twist my arm,’ Harper said. ‘Your shout?’

‘Of course, sir. Between one thing and another, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a free lunch with you yet.’

He walked, glad of the exercise on a warm day. Briggate was thronged with Thursday shoppers crowding the pavements. Trams and lorries and carts bustled up and down the road. Harper cut through County Arcade, astonished as ever at its elaborate gilt and splendour, before crossing Vicar Lane, entering Kirkgate Market and climbing the stairs to the café on the balcony.

Ash was waiting at a table. He’d always been a big man, but now he looked broader than ever, the shaggy moustache over his top lip as grey as his hair. His face crinkled into a grin and he stood, hand extended.

‘Thank you for coming, sir. I hope you don’t mind, I went ahead and ordered; I know you like the cottage pie here.’

‘That’s fine,’ Harper said, and it was. ‘What’s so important? Something wrong at Millgarth?’

The station would always have a special place in his heart. It was home.

‘Nothing like that, sir. Something a little unusual, though.’

‘What is it?’

Ash held a letter in his hand, written on thin onionskin paper.

‘This arrived from America, sir. From the police in New York.’

That was enough to pique his curiosity.’ What do they want?’

‘It appears that one of their criminals is on his way here. I suppose he’s probably arrived now.’ Ash stopped and pinched his lips together. ‘He’s coming back here, that is. It seems he grew up in Leeds, moved to America when he was ten years old. Followed his mother. She went ahead and got herself settled.’

‘Go on,’ he said.

‘His name’s Davey Mullen. Born on Somerset Street.’ It was no more than three minutes’ walk from where they were sitting, a row of run-down, hopeless houses. ‘He’s twenty-one now.’

Harper rubbed his chin. ‘What’s he done to make them write to us?’

Ash grimaced and shifted on his seat. ‘It’s more like what hasn’t he done, sir. Quite a bit, given his age. It took me by surprise.’ He paused, just long enough to be sure of Harper’s attention. ‘They’re as certain as they can be that Mullen’s murdered at least six people.’ He let the sentence hang in between them in the air. ‘Four of them shot, the other two beaten to death. And two of those shootings were in broad daylight, with witnesses.’

‘Then surely-’ he began, then stopped when he saw the look in Ash’s eyes.

‘The witnesses decided to leave the city or refused to testify.’

Harper sighed. The old, old story. Fear and intimidation.

‘Why’s he coming here?’

‘Recuperation. That’s what he told people. He’s a member of a gang. It seems some people from another gang found him on his own outside a dancehall and shot him eleven times.’

‘Eleven?’ Harper said in disbelief. ‘Come on. Nobody can survive that.’

‘He did, and he made a full recovery. He refused to tell the police who did it, but not long after he was back on his feet the bodies of some of this other gang started turning up. Now he’s heading to Leeds until things cool down in New York.’

‘What do they want us to do?’ Harper asked. ‘They don’t have a warrant for him, do they?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then unless he breaks any laws here, he’s a free man.’

‘They’re tipping us the wink so we can keep an eye on him. His other reason for being here is to see his father. It seems he never made the trip to America with the rest of the family. It was just Mullen and his brother who followed their mother over there.’

‘What’s the father’s name?’

‘Francis Mullen. Goes by Franny. I had Sergeant Mason dig out his file. There’s not much to him, really. Petty crook, in and out of jail. Loves his drink. Never held a proper job in his life. Parents came over from Ireland during the famine.’ He shrugged and took a photograph from his pocket. ‘The New York people included this, sir. It’s Mullen, from the last time they arrested him.’

Harper studied the picture. It showed the man’s head, viewed full on. Thick, dark hair, glistening with pomade. A smile of straight, white teeth and a face brimming with arrogance, a young man utterly certain that the world belonged to him. On the back, someone had scribbled a few details: Mullen was a big man: six feet one, weight two hundred and ten pounds – fifteen stone, he calculated – carrying sixteen scars all over his body from knives and bullets. The next of kin was his mother Maureen. Mullen still lived with her, an address on West 47th Street. Behind it, in brackets, someone had added Hell’s Kitchen. An apt name for any neighbourhood that was home to a man like him.

The waitress arrived with two full plates.

‘They’re hot, so don’t you be burning yourselves,’ she warned. ‘I’ll be back in a tick with your pot of tea.’

No talking shop while they ate; that was the rule. No spoiling the digestion. It allowed a few minutes for pleasure, a pause for thought. A constant roar of noise rose from the market, the conversation of shoppers, traders calling out their wares. Finally, Harper wiped a slice of bread around the plate to soak up the last of the juices, swallowed the final bite and washed it down with a swig of tea.

‘What did you have in mind for Mullen?’ he asked.

‘I thought Walsh and Galt could pay him a visit,’ Ash replied. ‘Just a quiet word, let him know his card is marked. Polite as a Sunday tea party.’

‘The slightest breath of trouble, haul him in,’ Harper ordered. ‘We don’t want any murderers walking round Leeds like they’re God’s gift. Keep a uniform on him too.’

‘Not plain clothes?’

‘No, let’s make it blatant. We’ll show him he’s not welcome here.’

‘I’ll take care of it, sir.’

‘Anything else worthwhile?’

‘Nothing much. Just the Boys of Erin trying to act up again.’

They’d been a growing thorn in the side of the police for a year, ever since Johnny Dempster became leader of the gang. Harper thought he’d crushed them more than twenty years ago, but they were slowly creeping back. They wanted to be a force again, to rule the Bank the way they had a generation before. It was the area of Leeds where the Irish had settled when they arrived. Back then it was desperately poor, dirty, a place where disease thrived. Even now it was bleak. Annabelle had grown up there, on Leather Street. Many still living on the Bank today could trace their ancestors back to Ireland.

‘What have they been doing this time?’

‘Tried a little protection on shopkeepers. We’ve taken care of it. I’m keeping a watch on them. Dempster’s ambitious. I’ve a feeling he has big plans.’

‘Time to stamp them down again?’ Harper asked.

‘Not just yet, sir,’ Ash replied thoughtfully. ‘I want to see what they have in mind.’

‘Keep me informed.’ He stood and patted his belly. They always served up big helpings in the cafe. ‘And make sure this Mullen knows he’s being followed.’

The Anchoress Of Chesterfield – A Taste

As most of you know, I write about Leeds. I bloody love Leeds. But I like NE Derbyshire too; I spent a few years living there, and I have a series set in medieval Chesterfield, featuring John the Carpenter. The fourth The Anchoress of Chesterfield, comes out June 1 (that’s the plan, anyway). Fancy a little bit of it? Oh, it’s available to order, and the ebook is cheap.

Chesterfield, September 1370

 

John felt the axe bite into the wood, deep enough for it to stay. He straightened up and stretched, then wiped the sweat from his face with an old piece of linen. Chopping the branches from a fallen tree was labour to make the muscles ache and moan in protest.

It had come down during the night, blocking the road that led north from Chesterfield to Sheffield. At first light the town bailiffs were out knocking on the doors, begging all the craftsmen and labourers in town for their help. Everyone with tools and a strong back. John the Carpenter had been one of the first, bringing his mute assistant, Alan. Soon a dozen men and more were working on the tree with axes and saws. It was an old, thick elm that had rotted at its core until the weight became too much and it had toppled.

Now the trunk lay in sections the height of a man, each one pushed to the side of the road. The only task remaining was to strip the branches, and they were almost done with that. John told Alan to fetch them ale from the jug a kindly goodwife had left. Only six men were still working. Themselves, three foresters who seemed locked into their labour, never joking or gossiping, and a farmhand, a sullen man sent along by his master who kept pausing to grumble.

The sun sat high in the sky. But it was September now, with none of the fierce heat that had burned his skin all summer and turned it the colour of tanned leather. A pleasant day, with the high clouds flitting and dancing above the fields.

At least he’d be paid for this, John thought. Fourpence, a full day’s wage. And there were one or two pieces of wood he might be able to scavenge and shape into things later, once business has ceased for the winter.

Truth be told, he was grateful for any money at all. It had been a meagre year. The only good thing was that the prayers of all in the town had been answered; no cases of plague in the heat of summer gave them all the hope that it might never return. He crossed himself at the thought.

For him, though, things had been hard. Two more joiners had moved to town and brought competition. Their work was rough and ready, they weren’t proper craftsmen; still, they were able to handle most jobs that had been his. Men who charged less than he did and took much of his business. Incomers. Silently, he laughed at himself.

John had been here for ten years now. He was married, he had three children. Much of the time he felt part of the fabric of Chesterfield. Still, to some who’d been born and raised here, he was as much an outsider as someone who’d arrived just the week before. Another decade and he still wouldn’t be a native to people like that.

He carefully pulled out his axe, wiped it with an oily rag and inspected the edge, running it along his thumb, before putting it back in the leather satchel. The tools he owned had once belonged to his father. They’d served the man well until he died in the Great Pestilence. God’s blood, that was more than twenty years ago now. A lifetime and more.

The hammer, the saw, the awl and everything else had kept John alive as he wandered from place to place, growing from a boy to a young man and learning to harness his natural feel for wood. Life on the roads had taken him to York; for several years he’d honed his craft there, constantly employed in the frenzy of church building until circumstances forced him to leave. Only after that had he ended up in Chesterfield.

This was home now. He was settled, he’d lived here longer than anywhere else. To anyone looking at his life, he was a success. He’d become a family man with all the responsibilities that brought. He had his business as a carpenter, he owned two houses, he employed one man. But he knew how readily appearances could deceive.

One of the properties, on Saltergate, had been in his wife Katherine’s family; she was the oldest child, she’d inherited it when her mother died. The other, around the corner on Knifesmithgate, had belonged to Martha, the old woman who was friend to them both. She’d willed him her house when she died two years before. By then John and his family were already living there, caring for the woman in her old age. Martha had stood godmother to two of their children and they’d named their younger daughter after her; her memory would live on in his family.

Both houses desperately needed work. They’d been ignored for too long. John had done what he could, but so much was beyond him. The roof at Martha’s old house leaked into the solar. It was going to need new slates before winter set in. If he left it for yet another year, the beams would begin to rot and it would be a much bigger, harder job. But a tiler would cost money he didn’t have in his coffer.

He rented out the Saltergate house. The amount it brought barely covered all the never-ending list of repairs.

The constant worry about money grew more pressing every month. It kept him awake long into the night and gnawed at his heart. No peace. The other day he’d seen his reflection in a pond, shocked at the way his hair was turning grey and the lines that furrowed his face.

This year it was coming to a head. He was going to have to make a choice. Unless something happened and a fortune tumbled into his lap, he’d have no choice but to sell one of the houses. And he had no faith in miracles. Not for a man like him.

He loved Katherine’s brother and sisters, but he was glad they were no longer part of the household. Fewer mouths to feed was a blessing when he had three children of his own. His brother-in-law Walter and his young bride were settled with her parents in Bolsover, while Katherine’s two sisters were in service on a farm near Holymoorside.

He sighed and began the walk back towards Chesterfield. It wasn’t far, no more than a few minutes away. The spire of the church soared high into the sky, visible for miles around, as clear and welcoming as any beacon.

He’d worked on that when he first arrived in the town. Only for a short time, though. After a few days John had found himself a suspect in a murder in the church tower, a stranger who needed to clear his name.

That had happened ten years ago. Where had the time gone? It happened when he first knew Katherine, before he’d become a husband and a father and all the things that had happened since. John felt the weight of his own history pressing down on his shoulders. What could he do except carry on? With God’s blessing, everything would be fine. He had to believe that. They’d all survive and prosper in His grace.

‘Who knows, maybe we’ll have work waiting for us in town,’ he told Alan, with the kind of hope he didn’t feel.

The lad was twelve now, as much a natural as a carpenter as John had been himself. He carried his own leather satchel of tools that banged against his back as he walked. He was growing into a tall young man with broad shoulders, his hands rough and thick with calluses from the work they did. Alan was old enough and certainly skilled enough to strike out on his own. But he was mute and he didn’t know how to write. His fingers were quick to make signs, but most people would never understand them. It was impossible for him to obtain work himself, and he needed to be with someone who wouldn’t take advantage of him. Six years before, the boy had started out as John’s apprentice and bit by bit the lad had learned everything he had to teach. Now he was… what could he call him, John wondered? An assistant? An equal? He clapped a hand down on the boy’s shoulder and watched the tiny flakes of wood rise from his battered tunic.

The road was dusty; they’d had no rain for over a fortnight. A few horses and carts passed them, and he could hear the sounds of the weekday market on the north side of the church as they climbed the hill. A town of stone and slate, of timber and limewash. Beautiful, in its own coarse way. Home.

Not too much more than a week and the annual fair would begin. It would be eight days of feasting, noise and entertainment, with all manner of goods for sale. Music and players, tumblers and jugglers. It would all begin with a service and blessing in church on the day of the exaltation of the Holy Cross. Already he could sense the excitement around town. Every year it was exactly the same. The children caught it first, dancing through the days in anticipation, then the fever started to affect the adults.

For a brief while, Chesterfield would feel like the most important, magical place in the kingdom. People came from all over for the fair. Not just the North, nor even England, but everywhere. John had met many from beyond the borders: Welshmen, Irishmen, even a Dane once, with his happy, sing-song accent; a German and a man from the lowlands of Holland. An entire world came to Chesterfield, bringing things beyond the locals’ imagination. Goods to buy, foods to taste. Minstrels and clowns to entertain. There would be merchants and goodwives shouting out their wares and displaying all the luxuries on offer. Everything from the ordinary to the exotic. His children were counting down the days. Foolishly, he’d promised Martha a length of ribbon from the fair. She’d remember, of course, but he had no idea how he’d be able to afford it for her. The worry of an empty scrip crowded his mind.

Before he went home he’d stop at the Guildhall and pick up his wage for today’s work. Four good pennies to spend on food. Katherine would be glad to see that. The garden behind their house had been fruitful this year, but the season was coming to an end and it didn’t offer them bread or milk or meat. Only the occasional hen that had grown too old to lay eggs.

He looked as Alan nudged him and pointed towards a man hurrying along with a forceful stride and a determined look in his eye. He was wearing a dark green woollen tunic bearing the coroner’s badge, he had a sword hanging from his belt, and he was coming directly towards them.

Pray God the man wasn’t seeking him. It couldn’t be good news if someone like that wanted him. Either something awful had happened, or the coroner wanted his help. Six years had passed since the last time that had happened. That was when de Harville was still alive and held the office of King’s Coroner. Katherine had always hated the idea of him working for the man. Three times it had happened, and he’d always undertaken the work reluctantly, but what choice did anyone have when a rich man in authority demanded his services? The last time he’d almost been killed. Enough, his wife insisted, and he’d been quick to agree.

Then de Harville died, and John was thankful that his successor, Sir Mark Strong, had chosen to go his own way. He had no desire to be tangled up in any of that again.

‘Are you John the Carpenter?’ the man asked as he came closer.

‘I am.’ He felt his heart sink.

‘The coroner would like you to attend him.’

‘Me?’ John asked. ‘Are you sure you have the right man? Why would he want me? I’ve never done any work for Coroner Strong.’

He knew the words were hopeless, but he had to say them, to try and ward all this off.

The man shrugged. He was well-muscled, with fair hair and a ruddy complexion, a pair of smiling blue eyes.

‘Nay, Master, I’m not the one to ask. I’m just the messenger. All I do is what I’m told, and my order was to come and fetch you. I don’t know what he wants. But I can tell you this: there’s a body at Calow and he’d like you to see it. You’re welcome to walk out with me if you choose.’

Calow? It was nothing more than a hamlet half a mile from the town. He could picture it in his mind: just three or four tumbledown little cottages and a tiny church with an anchoress’s cell. What could have happened out there to draw the coroner’s attention?

‘Is it a murder?’

The man shook his head. ‘Couldn’t tell you, Master. He gave me my order, that’s it.’

‘Who is it?’

‘I can’t say that, either. Coroner Strong will tell you himself, Master.’ His face flickered with impatience. ‘We should set off.’

anchoress comp 2 0993098

Something Secret And New

The next Simon Westow novel, To The Dark, was due to come out in the UK at the end of September. Unsurprisingly, that’s now been pushed back to the end of December. Publishing is in a state of upheaval at the moment. The fact that it’s still on the schedule at all seems like a miracle.

However, while it lies in limbo, I can treat you to the opening of the book, as a thank you for buying The Molten City, or signing up for the Severn House newsletter, which lets you get the ebook of it free of charge until the end of April.

And as a special bonus, as part of the First in a Series promotion, Gods of Gold is available everywhere as an ebook for 99p/99c until the end of May. Not bad, huh?

But now, I’m going to whet your appetite for a few months in the future…not even available to pre-order yet. You’re the first to see it – shhh!

Leeds, November 1822

 

She sensed him there, behind her in the fog. Jane reached into the pocket of her skirt and took hold of the knife.

From Briggate to Wood Street, then all the turnings and twists through to Vicar Lane, he followed. Growing bolder and closer all the time.

She smiled. Good.

She could run; she knew that. Run so he wouldn’t be able to follow. The urge for safety filled her chest, to vanish through the cramped courts and yards.

But she didn’t. Jane wanted him to find her. She tugged her cloak closer to her body and stopped, listening.

A small cough. No more than five yards away now. The scuff of a heel on the cobbles. Four yards. Then three.

Jane took a breath and turned.

‘Well, well, well.’ He took two paces forward. A swagger in his step once he could see her face, his voice like oil. ‘Looks like it’s just you and me out in this, don’t it?’ He pulled something from his pocket. A silver sixpenny piece. ‘See that? It’s yours if you’re a good lass.’

Jane stared at him.

‘They all like it,’ he said. ‘Talk about Big Tom for days afterwards, they do.’

The coin danced across his knuckles, twirling from one finger to the next and next, then back again. A trick to mesmerize and distract the gaze.

This was the man she’d been told about. Always the same. She watched his free arm start to move, edging towards the blade in his belt.

One flash of her knife, over before he realized. The empty tinkling of the coin as it landed on the cobbles. He stared at the hand in horror. He only had two fingers left.

‘That’s for Bessie Colbert,’ she said.

Another flick and the blood began to run down his cheek. She leaned close and turned his head, waiting until he was looking into her eyes. ‘That’s what rapists get. If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.’

She disappeared into the fog. He began to howl.

 

 

Leeds, February 1823

 

‘No, no.’ Alderman Ferguson shook his head as he walked, pushing his walking stick down into the packed snow with each step. He started to slip and grabbed the sleeve of Simon Westow’s greatcoat to keep his balance. ‘Damned weather. I wish it would all melt.’

‘It’s already started,’ Simon said. ‘It’ll be gone soon enough.’

The thaw had begun that morning. He could hear the slow drip of water from the eaves of buildings, leaving pock marks like smallpox scars in the snow below. After two weeks of being snowed in, things were finally changing. The roads had stayed open, the coaches still travelling between towns, but there had been plenty of accidents. Simon had heard of three horses breaking legs and having to be killed; a good coach horse was valuable property. The skies hung low and grey, but the air was warming. The worst was definitely over.

In Leeds, the snow had fallen a dirty grey colour. The factory smoke and soot that filled the air tainted it before it even reached the ground. Drifts that piled against buildings had a thin black crust, and every path remained treacherous; Simon was grateful for the hobnails on the soles of his boots.

‘Maybe it is,’ Ferguson grumbled. ‘Can’t come soon enough for me.’ He pulled the top hat down on his head and tried to burrow deeper into his coat. Tight trousers emphasized his spindly old man’s legs as he walked up Briggate, away from the Moot Hall. ‘I’m ready for spring and some warmth. Aren’t you?’

‘Always,’ Simon agreed. The only crimes since the snow had begun to fall were men stealing food or fuel to feed their families. Nothing there to bring any income to a thief-taker. He was ready to be busy and earning again. Still, he was better off than most; he had money in the bank. He’d enjoyed a good start to the year.

Sir Matthew Fullbrook had asked him to recover all the items stolen from his house while the family had been away over Christmas and New Year. When they returned, most of the family silver was missing.

It took Simon three days to track down the thief, hiding among the poor and desperate in one of the courts off Kirkgate. Laurence Poole. Simon and his assistant, Jane, had cornered him in his room at the top of a tumbledown house. The only way out was through the window, jumping twenty feet or more to the flagstones, and Poole wasn’t ready to die yet.

They found everything except a single spoon that Poole had sold to keep himself alive. When Simon returned it, he’d noticed the mix of gratitude and relief on Fullbrook’s face. The set was valuable, it was worth a fortune; far more than that, it was his history. An heirloom that had been in the family for generations. Fullbrook settled the bill promptly, in full, with no quibble. He chose not to prosecute, and Poole walked free.

They crossed the Head Row, Ferguson moving cautiously. It was curious how bad weather could age people, Simon thought. Back in the autumn, the man beside him had strode out, hale and full of life. Now he was frail and old. Cautious and fearful of broken bones that might never set properly.

They parted by George Mudie’s print shop. The alderman still had to walk along North Street to his house near the Harrogate Road in Sheepscar. He’d manage, and in a few days the warmer weather would revive him. By spring he’d seem ten years younger again.

Mudie was fitting type into a block. His fingers moved deftly, eyes flickering to acknowledge Simon before returning to his task. The air was heavy with the smell of ink.

‘I want to get this set and printed today. Out on the streets first thing tomorrow. A new ballad about a coach disaster on the turnpike where a brave young man saves some of the passengers and wins the heart of a girl.’

Simon laughed. ‘And when did this tragedy happen?’

He shrugged. ‘Yesterday. Last week. Never. Who cares? It’s got death and romance. That’s what people want. Once a few of the patterers begin singing it, it should sell.’

‘A racket.’

Mudie shrugged once more. ‘Show me something in this life that isn’t. We’re all just trying to make a living.’

He finished and stood straight, pressing his hands into the small of his back, then pushed a pair of spectacles up his nose.

‘What brings you here, Simon? Boredom?’

‘Waiting for the snow to melt. As soon as that happens, we’ll have more crime.’ He smiled. ‘After all, we’re all just trying to make a living.’

Mudie snorted. ‘Some enjoy a better one than others.’

It was true enough. Being a thief-taker could pay well, better than he’d ever imagined when he began. But in those days he knew nothing. He was still a youth, barely older than the boy who’d walked out of the workhouse at thirteen to find his own life. All he had was his size and a quick brain. They’d both served him well over the years, the foundation of everything he did. In the early days, he and his wife Rosie had worked together. Then she had their twin boys, Richard and Amos, and stopped taking risks. Most of the time.

Now he had Jane to help. When she first came to him she’d been a feral girl, living on the streets. Someone who possessed the rare gift to follow without being seen, who could vanish in plain sight. But she was a girl who kept the world at a distance. She built walls around her thoughts and cut herself off. For two years she’d lived with him and Rosie, sharing their meals and sleeping in their attic, but they’d still hardly known her. Since the autumn she’d made her home with an old woman, Catherine Shields, and for the first time, she seemed content.

George was right. He was bored. Two weeks without a stroke of work had left him restless and searching for ways to fill his days. He’d walked around town. He’d taken his sons out sledging in Holbeck and Beeston. Snowball fights on the little scraps of tenter ground that remained as the new factories ate up the land. But they had their tutor each morning.

Simon read the Mercury and the Intelligencer eagerly, hoping someone had put in an advertisement offering a reward for the return of lost goods. But there was nothing, and he was cast back on his own devices. He didn’t read books, he didn’t play chess or backgammon. He had nothing but work and his family to fill his life. Twice this week Rosie had chased him out of the kitchen for disturbing her while she was busy.

‘You’re pacing,’ Mudie told him. ‘And you’re bothering me.’

It was easier to leave. As Simon strolled back down Briggate, he jammed his hands deep in the pockets of his greatcoat and stared at the faces he passed. Some hopeful, most downcast, intent on simply surviving. A man coughed deep and spat to clear his lungs. The air was foul. It had been for years, ever since the factories started spewing their smoke. But the factories made money and plenty of it, at least for a few. For many of the others they meant jobs, the cash each week to keep body and soul together. And every week more and more people arrived in Leeds to seek work. It was as if they truly believed the streets were paved with gold.

But the only things the cobbles here held was a struggle.

‘People are going over to Flay Cross Mill.’

He hadn’t seen Jane arrive. But there she was, at his side, matching his pace as he walked. Since winter began she’d taken to wearing an old cloak of faded green wool. With the hood pulled up, no one ever noticed her.

‘What’s going on there?’

‘I don’t know.’

Something, Simon thought. It had to be something. And that was better than nothing.

The mill stood down by the bend in the river, out on Cynder Island. It had been there for generations, maybe even centuries, with its hammers for pounding and fulling good Leeds cloth. No one knew how it had come by the name, but the building had been empty and gradually sinking into ruin for a long time. The wooden scoops of the water wheel that powered it had rotted away to nothing. Beyond the shell of the mill the river lapped against the shore, cold and dark.

A crowd had gathered, twenty or thirty people. The usual gaggle of boys and girls, hoping for something gruesome, and men and women with nothing else to fill their days. Simon pushed his way to the front, squeezing into the gaps between people. Jane stayed close to the back, listening for gossip and news.

The best he could make out, melting snow had revealed the body. He could see a pair of trousers and some leather boots. The rest was still covered. Simon held his breath as the coroner brushed slush away from the corpse’s face.

For a moment, Simon couldn’t believe what was in front of him. He knew this man with his pale skin and serene expression. He’d last seen him a few weeks ago, not long before the snow arrived. Laurence Poole hadn’t been so peaceful then. He’d begged and tried to fight to hold on to his loot from the Fullbrook robbery. By the time Simon left, the man was close to tears of desperation.

 

Apologies, But…

I owe you an apology. I haven’t been blogging. I’ve been lost in myself, probably just like everyone else. Spending time at my allotment, enjoying simply being in the moment there and not having to think about how awful everything is right now.

Next week I’ll do a little short fiction (I’m actually working on a new Tom Harper, so it’s not all laziness, okay?)

Meanwhile, I’m so happy that this appeared in the Yorkshire Post today. It made my week.

The ebook comes out May 1. But if you go to the Severn House website and sign up for their newsletter, you can get it free. You do have to sign up for NetGalley, which is a little bit of a faff. But worth it, I promise!

YP 2020

The Molten City Is Free – For Now

I know it’s very difficult for people to get hold of The Molten City at the moment. The big online retailers show it as temporarily out of stock – they have no new books, because their distributors have closed for the moment. Many smaller book shops are closed, one still doing mail order are dependent upon their distributors remaining open. It’s difficult. I’d recomment Fox Lane Books (foxlanebooks), which has the book, or Big Green Books (@biggreenbooks) or West End Lane Books (@welbooks) in London.

However, you can read it as an book now, for free, no matter where in the world you live. It’s due to come out that way on May 1, but get a jump and pay nothing. All perfectly legal, too. Simply sign up for their newsletter and you’ll be able to download it. A great deal, because they publish plenty of excellent authors.

All you have to do is go here. It’s only for a limited time, so I hope you’ll take advantage.

The only favour I’d ask is that you please leave a review somewhere. They honestly do help.

Thank you, and please, I hope you all stay well.

Molten City

Richard Nottingham: The Lost Girl

When the world fell apart I was working on the fourth Simon Westow book (the third is ready, out in six months). But those books run on anger, and it’s hard to feel that right now. Somehow, Richard Nottingham seems to make more sense in this world.

The Molten City is just out in the UK, and I’d love for you to buy it – Fox Lane Books (kirstie@foxlanebooks.co.uk) can obtain copies easily. But in the meantime, spend a little while with Richard.

10 years

 

Leeds, October, 1740

 

Today was a good day.

He’d woken and for once his knees didn’t hurt too sharply, he could walk comfortably without relying on a stick for his balance. It was a morning of spun softness; the sun was shining, he could feel the fleeting kiss of late autumn warmth on his face, and the falling leaves made lush patterns of reds and golds and greens on the ground.

Richard Nottingham stood by Timble Bridge, listening to the quiet music of Sheepscar Beck as it trickled over the rocks. For once he felt at peace with the world, at home in this bag of bones and flesh that was his body.

A deep breath and he marched on into Leeds. At the Parish Church made his way towards two graves. Places he visited almost every day, where his daughter and his wife lay. A chance to bow his head, to talk to them. A few words for Rosie, far more for Mary. Each morning when he woke, he still hoped to find her next to him, no matter that she was seven years gone.

Finally he turned away and found himself staring at a girl who had a round, frightened face and large eyes.

‘Well,’ he asked kindly, ‘who are you?’ He started to reach into the pocket of his breeches for a coin; these days more children were begging on the streets than ever before.

But he stopped; this one didn’t have that look. The clothes weren’t rags. Her face had smidges of dirt, but she was mostly clean. Her dress was made of good calico, with no rips or tears. Her stockings were coarse wool, yet they were whole and the shoes fitted her feet.

‘Someone said you were the constable, sir.’

He smiled. ‘I was, but that was a long time ago. Now, why would you need the constable?’

Nottingham could see where tears had made their tracks down the her cheeks. For a moment he felt the pain well up in the girl, then she forced it down again and made herself speak.

‘It’s my mother, sir. I can find her anywhere.’

‘What do you mean?’ He felt a stir, a sense of something awful.

‘I went to play yesterday and when I got home, nobody was there. I asked but no one knows where she is.’

A bonny girl. Seven, maybe eight years old. The look of someone who’d been cushioned from the very worst of life and never had the scramble of surviving on the streets. He straightened up and looked at her.

‘Why don’t we go and find out, eh?’

‘Can you help me find her?’

He held his tongue. Nottingham wanted to promise an answer, but he knew it was better to wait and discover the truth. Without thinking, the girl reached for his hand. He squeezed it lightly. Some assurance. The contact of another person. They were probably what she needed most just now.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Sally,’ she told him. ‘Sally Virginia Arthur. What’s yours?’

‘Richard Nottingham,’ he replied. ‘Where did you spend last night?’

‘In my home. I kept thinking my mother would come back and everything would be all right’ Her voice faltered, fumbling and lost. ‘But she never did, so I came out to look again as soon as it was light.’

She was turning her head, peering at every face she saw, filled with the hope of spotting her mother.

The house was tucked at the very back of Turk’s Head Yard. The door opened under his touch. As soon as he entered he could feel the emptiness. The chill where no fire has been set that morning. A husk of silence covered the place.

The kitchen was clean. Nottingham ran his hand across the table; only a thin film of dust. The girl hadn’t lied. This time yesterday, people had lived here.

One room upstairs. A larger bed, and a small one for the girl. A woman’s dress hung from a nail, plain brown homespun. A clean apron. Stockings folded on a chair. She hadn’t run off.

‘Why don’t you tell me about your mother,’ Nottingham said. Anything to keep Sally’s mind busy. ‘And your pa.’

There was no father, none that the girl could remember. Only men who stayed a few nights then left again, but not many of those she could recall.

‘What’s your mother’s name?’

‘Hannah Elizabeth Arthur.’ She said it with pride, then looked around and the tears begin, as if the words had invoked a sense of finality. Nottingham put his arms around her and stroked her hair. He waited, letting it all flow out of her, until she was gulping for air and sniffling and rubbing at her eyes. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and put it in her tiny hands.

‘What does your mother do?’

She needed money to rent a house like this. It was a good court, artisans lived here, a large step up from the single room that was home to so many families. The clothes weren’t expensive or new, but they weren’t falling apart, either. There was food in the kitchen. Hannah Arthur was surviving well.

‘I don’t know.’ Her face was serious. ‘But she always spent a lot of time in the cellar. People would arrive and they’d go down there. She wouldn’t let me go down with them, and she kept the door locked.’

Curious. More than enough to leave him wondering.

‘Shall we go and take a look? You and me, together?’

Sally nodded and stayed close, as if she was terrified he might disappear in the same way as her mother. A simple lock in the cellar door, easy to pick with the tip of his knife. A candle and tinder at the top of the stairs. Nottingham waited until the flame took hold, bright and wide.

‘Be careful,’ he warned her. ‘Hold on to my coat as we go down.’

Nottingham kept one hand against the wall to steady himself and made sure of each step beneath his boots. This was no place to take a tumble. He held the candle high, letting the light pool, feeling the relief as his feet touched the hard earth of the cellar floor.

A bench with eight tall candles. A single chair. Strange enough. And tools of some kind. He moved closer, Sally’s hands keeping a firm grip on his coat. One short look was all he needed. Now he understood why the woman had money. And with the knowledge, his fear for her grew.

‘I think we should go and tell the constable about your mother, don’t you?’ He tried to keep his voice bright, not to scare her. ‘He might be able to find her.’ Hesitantly, she nodded her agreement, still staring at the table. However much she looked, Sally would know never know what her mother did.

‘He’s a good man,’ Nottingham continued. ‘I trust him. He’s married to my daughter.’

 

The coloured cloth sales were done for the morning, men grumbling and complaining as they noisily dismantled the trestles. Farther up Briggate, the Tuesday market vendors shouted their wares: fruit, butter, a chicken for your dinner to please your man, missus. With Sally holding tight to his hand and still examining every face, he crossed to Kirkgate and passed the White Swan, loud and hearty with the smell of hot meat and beer as weavers spent some of the profits from their sales. Nottingham ducked inside and bought a small pie.

The jail stood next door. Everything about it was so familiar: the way the door stuck as he pushed it open.  Inside, it was comforting, musty, the warmth from the iron stove spreading around the room. The young man sitting on the other side of the desk raised his eyebrows as he saw the girl.

‘This is Mr Lister,’ Nottingham told her. ‘He’s the Constable of Leeds. And this is Sally Arthur.’ He handed her the pie. ‘You sit down and eat this; you must be hungry by now. I’ll tell him about your mother. We’ll be just down there.’ He pointed towards the cells. Hois voice softened. ‘Not far, I promise.’

‘Boss…’ Lister began once they were alone. Nottingham had been in charge once, Rob a constable’s man at first and then the deputy. The old habit wouldn’t die.

With a finger to his lips, Nottingham spoke in a rushed whisper, explaining what had happened.

‘The mother’s a coin clipper,’ he said. ‘She has small, sharp shears and metal files in the cellar, and there’s a pot and small brazier for melting the silver.’

It was a hanging offence, the same as counterfeiting. Yet it was so easy. The clipper removed small pieces of silver coins with the shears and filed the edge smooth; once there was enough, melt them down. Work with enough people and it was a business that could turn a handsome profit.

‘Maybe…’ Lister began, but Nottingham shook his head.

‘It’s definite. She was making enough to live reasonably, and the girl said she didn’t have any other job.’

‘I’ll go and take a proper look at the house.’

‘Somewhere, you’re going to find her dead.’ His voice was filled with the sorrow of inevitability. ‘I can feel it.’

2

Lucy raised her eyebrows when he walked into the house on Marsh Lane with the girl holding tight to his hand. On the walk out here she’d searched fiercely around, hoping to find her mother somewhere in the crowds. Her free hand clutched a shawl around her shoulders.

‘This is Sally,’ Nottingham said. ‘She’ll be staying here for a little while.’

‘Only until you find my mother.’

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘After that you’ll be going home again.’

‘Let’s have a look at you,’ Lucy said. ‘You could use a good wash, that’s a fact, and I daresay you’d like something sweet. I just baked a cake yesterday.’

She took charge, the way she’d done with everything in the house since she first arrived. Lucy was part of the fabric of the building now, a stout, warm presence who took care of the family. Through the window he could see his granddaughter Mary in the garden. She was four now, another stray who’d found a home here. She’d arrived when she was no more than a baby, left outside St. John’s Church; she’d never known anywhere besides here. Now she stood with the tiny spade he’d paid the blacksmith for forge for her, tongue poking from her lips in concentration as she tried to dig a big hole in the ground; God only knew the reason, but it was occupying her. There had been one more lass for a while, but Annie had gone to live with Mrs Williamson as her servant.

‘I don’t know what Emily will say when she comes back,’ Lucy told him.

He grinned. ‘She’ll probably take one look and wonder how much learning she can put into her.’ His daughter ran a dame school for poor children. Those families who could, paid a little. For the others, it was free. But the education never lasted long and it never could never go deep; too many needed to work as soon as they were old enough. He lowered his voice. ‘Be gentle with her. I think she’s going to need plenty of kindness.’

 

Rob Lister picked up the tools, the files and the shears. The pot was empty; maybe that meant something, maybe not. A small hand broom lay on the floor. He held it up and ran his finger along the bristles, watching one or two tiny particles of silver sparkle like dust motes as they fell. Everything was scrupulously clean, table and floor.

He’d found no sign of a struggle. He heard his deputy, Tommy Warner, clumping around as he searched the bedroom. The man was loud, with a face full of scars he’d never bothered to explain. But his mind was agile, he was loyal and honest, and his eyes picked up the smallest clue.

‘Anything?’ he called.

‘Not a damned thing. All her life is still here.’

Lister tensed and reach for his knife as the door opened. But it wasonly Richard Nottingham.

‘One of your men is looking for you. There’s a body.’ He stopped, took a slow breath and frowned. ‘A woman, he said. Over by the mill garth at Quarry Hill.’

‘Do you want to come with us?’ Rob asked.

‘Yes,’ he replied, not even thinking, then paused and added, ‘If you don’t mind.’ Four years had passed since he’d done any work like this. He’d felt no sadness when he finally left it behind. Instead, he relished a life that was his own, mingling solitude and family, a chance to walk and leave the world out of his thoughts. There, in his mind, he could travel the roads of the past, a green summer country where his wife and older daughter were still alive.

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Nottingham stood and exhaled slowly as he looked down at the corpse. It was Hannah Arthur. Young Sally was the image of her, the same round cheeks and bushy fair hair. He turned away, not wanting to see the terror fixed on her face or the stab wound that had killed her.

‘I’m going to need to talk to the girl,’ Rob told him.

Of course. He needed all the information he could find. ‘She’s at the house.’

Lister issued his instructions, then the two of them set off together. No words, just uninterrupted sorrow and loss.

 

He sat by Sally, his arm around her shoulders for comfort, listening as Rob asked his questions. Was this how he’d been when he was constable? Relentless, burning with the need to know, to discover all the answers, whatever the coat?

‘Sir,’ she said when he’d finished, ‘What about my mother? Do you know when she’ll be back?’

The two men glanced at each other.

‘Sally…’ Nottingham began, and she turned her head to look up at him. Hopeful, wide brown eyes begged him for something good. But she deserved honesty, however much it hurt. ‘I’m sorry.’

Before he could say more, she broke away from him, wailing as she ran off into the kitchen.

‘Lucy will look after her.’

‘I had to do it, boss.’

He nodded. ‘I know. Maybe Warner and the others have come up with a name or two.’

‘She didn’t have any idea what her mother was doing,’ Lister said. ‘That was obvious.’

The poor child. Eight years old and her life had come unmoored. Suddenly alone, completely lost. She wasn’t the first, she wouldn’t be the last. He’d been that age when…no, no matter, that was in another time.

Rob could look after the crime; finding the killer was his job. Nottingham needed to discover if Sally had any relatives who could take her in. An aunt, perhaps, or an uncle.

The girl had thrown her arms around Lucy, as if she could stop her from being swept away. Sally’s head was buried in the woman’s apron as she cried. Lucy whispered and stroked the girl’s hair. She shook her head at Nottingham and waved him away, never pausing in her words.

There were a few useful things he could do. Go back to Turk’s Head Yard and talk to the neighbours, see if they knew of any relatives. And he could try to discover who else was clipping coins in Leeds.

Men came and went from the Arthur’s house. Some women, too. That was what the others in the yard told him. The death shocked them, scared them, too; it was always that way when murder arrived close to home for respectable folk. They’d heard no shouting or arguments. Yet while their mouths gave out condolences, their eyes said that it was no surprise. Any woman involved in crime had it coming.

None of them had really known Hannah Arthur well. She and the girl kept to themselves. No-one remembered a mention of family; it was always just two of them. An attentive mother, but, you know…

He left, discouraged. Later, when she was ready, he’d ask Sally. He’d offer her warmth and listen to her memories and grief.

By the time he walked back up Briggate, his knees were beginning to ache and he had to lean heavily on the stick. Too much walking and the day was far from over yet.

He found Tom Finer in Garroway’s coffee house. He spent most of his days here, breathing in the warm steam of the air; the dampness was kind to his lungs, he claimed. Finer was more than an old man now, his face as weathered and ancient as the grove of towering oaks that stood outside town. Each year he seemed to shrink inside the layer of heavy clothes he wore to keep himself warm.

But he knew more about crime in Leeds than anyone else. Finer listened, tilting his head to hear more clearly, asking Nottingham to repeat a word or two. Then he sat back, stroking his chin. On the table, a plate covered with breadcrumbs. Next to it, a saucer and a cup with the dark, thick remains of coffee.

‘I’ve never heard of the woman,’ Finer said eventually. Over the years his voice had developed into a deep rasp, that sounded curiously musical. ‘She can’t be anyone too important in the trade.’

‘She made a little money,’ Nottingham said.

All Finer did was shrug. ‘Hard not to do if you’re clipping coins. The big difference comes when you’re making a lot of money. You know what they say: the greater the risk, the larger the reward.’

And the risk was always there. He had no doubt that Hannah Arthur knew the penalty. But how else to support herself and her daughter?

‘Who’d murder a woman like that?’

Finer snorted, a wheezing noise more like a cough.

‘Don’t be an idiot, Richard. Plenty of people. Maybe she’d cheated someone. Perhaps one of the people bringing her coins to clip wanted more. It could be someone saw the chance of a quick profit. Or one of the people who bought the silver she melted down.’

‘It didn’t happen at home.’

Finer examined his fingernails. ‘Where was she?’

‘Quarry Hill, right on the mill garth.’

‘How?’

‘Stabbed in the back.’

‘Henry Wilson,’ Finer said. No hesitation. Then a faint smile. ‘Your son-in-law will have his name on a list.’

‘Who is he?’ Nottingham had never heard of him.

The man exhaled slowly. ‘He arrived, what, it must be three years ago now. After your last time as constable. Someone whose ambition exceeds his brain. That’s a dangerous combination. You know it as well as I do.’

Nottingham stared out of the window at the people passing on the Head Row. A cart trundled, pulled by a slow-moving, swayback old nag.

‘Is he violent?’

Finer nodded. ‘He can be, if it will get him what he wants.’

 

3

‘We’re already looking for him, boss.’

Nottingham recognized Rob’s smile. Indulgent. The man knew his job, he didn’t need help from someone whose days in the job were all behind him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I should have guessed.’

‘Maybe you’d be better spending some time with Sally.’

A gentle nudge away from things. Let us get on with it. He understood, even if it made him feel old and irrelevant. But perhaps that was what he’d become. Keeping the law was a job for younger men.

‘You’re right,’ he agreed. Yet as he walked down Kirkgate, he could feel the tight knot of resentment in his belly. He was the one who’d taken a chance on hiring Lister in the first place. And now…

He stopped at the Parish Church, a chance to ease his legs. The day was turning brisk, the sun vanishing as deep autumn clouds rolled in and the wind tipped out of the north. By tonight the weather would turn cold, a reminder that winter was just around the corner. Time for a bigger fire in the evening and another blanket on the bed.

Nottingham paused at the graves. The carving remained still crisp on their stones, even as the years passed. He traced out the names. How long before his name appeared below his wife’s? Sometimes he wished life would rush by quickly so he could join her in the ground. Often, though, he felt peace enough simply coming to talk to her.

You’d like this girl, he said. She’s as lost as the rest of us, she seems so fragile and trusting. It might only be for a day or two; she may have relatives who’ll take her. He heard the faint echo of his wife’s response: what if there’s nobody? But they both knew the answer: Sally Arthur would become a part of the family. They were all waifs, orphans making their home together.

 

‘She’s sleeping,’ Lucy told him. ‘I gave her one of those old wives’ remedies that Hester Bailey up the road makes. Some rest is the best thing for her right now.’

The horror would still be there when she woke, but at least she’d have some time free of it.

‘Did she say much?’

‘No, poor little thing.’

Little Mary came over to him, looking up with wide, beseeching eyes. What choice did he have? Nottingham hoisted her on to his lap and listened carefully as she told him about her day. Then the front door opened and she was gone, siding down to the floor and scampering away as she called out, ‘Mama! Mama!’

‘I’ve already heard we have a guest,’ Emily said as she attended to her daughter. She shook her head as she hefted the basket of books on to the table.  ‘You know how they love their gossip. Three different people must have told me as I came home.’

They talked, picking over the supper Lucy served as darkness fell. Nottingham lit the candles and closed the shutters, piling more coal on the fire.

Emily tucked Mary into her small bed, then he told her a story. It was a ritual he’d begun when she first arrived, back when she was a tiny baby and filled with wonder at the world. He’d continued as habit and pleasure. The joy of words and weaving a world. Old Jem, the travelling storyteller, had often stayed in the house when he was still alive, and Nottingham remembered many of his tales. Where he lost the track, he discovered his own.

Once Mary’s eyes closed, he crept out of the room, pulling the door closed, and glanced in on Sally. Her head moved; she was awake, her face was streaked with tears

‘I didn’t dream all those bad things, did I?’ Her voice was tentative, the words feeling their way. He knew that a part of her didn’t want to hear the answer.

He settled on the edge of the bed, feeling his knees ache as they bent. Reaching out, he pushed a stray lock of the fair hair behind her ear.

‘No, you didn’t. I’m afraid they’re all real.’ He waited, watching her eyes in the remains of twilight beyond the window. The loss, the loneliness. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘My mother’s really dead?’

‘Yes, she is.’

The girl pushed her face into the pillow. Nothing would make the truth vanish. No wishing, no praying. But let her do what she could.

‘Do you have any family?’ he asked. A small shake of her head. ‘No uncles or aunts?’

‘No.’ Her voice was muffled, beyond hope. ‘Mama never mentioned any.’

‘Don’t you worry, you can stay here,’ Nottingham said. ‘We’ll look after you. At least you don’t need to think about that.’

He left her. When she was ready, she’d come down. But he knew he was offering a small consolation. She’d be entering a different world, a place without her mother, where everything was familiar but strange, all the signposts of the past vanished.

 

The family had gone to bed. Lucy, Emily. He’d looked in Sally once more. She was turned away from him, impossible to tell if she was asleep or awake. Sleep, he hoped; some rest and escape.

Nottingham banked the fire. He had single candle on the table beside him, its flame flickering as he read the Leeds Mercury. Even with his spectacles, the print blurred a little after half an hour.

Rob returned just as he stirred himself. Lister shed the greatcoat, poured himself a mug of ale and downed it in a long, single swallow.

‘How’s the girl?’ he asked

‘The way you’d expect,’ Nottingham replied. ‘Did you find him?’

Rob nodded. His face was drawn and grim.

‘He killed her. Admitted it before he died.’ Nottingham said nothing, simply waited for the rest. ‘I didn’t have any choice, he refused to give up.’ A sad, eloquent shrug. ‘I didn’t have any choice. But he did give us something else.’

‘What?’ He had his murderer. How could there be more than that?

‘It turns out there’s another man running it all.’ A glint in his eyes, the anticipation of what lay ahead.

‘Who?’

‘Sir Walter Carew. We’re going for him at first light. And we’re going to take him alive.’ He placed the mug back on the table and sighed. ‘Sorry, boss. It’s been a long day and I need my rest.’

He heard the boots on the stair, a soft murmur of voices, then silence. Nottingham followed, washing in the ewer and settling between cold sheets, imagining his wife beside him, the warmth of her body for comfort through every night.

Carew tomorrow. But that wasn’t his battle; Rob was right. In any fight, he’d be too slow, too awkward. The men would have to look out for him. Besides, he had enough to do right here, to help Sally find her new life.

 

There are seven Richard Nottingham books – The Broken Token, Cold Cruel Winter, The Constant Lovers, Come The Fear, At The Dying Of The Year, Fair and Tender Ladies, and Free From All Danger, as well as a short story called Convalescence (which is only available for Kindle). The Broken Token has just been reissued in paperback to celebrate 10 years since its first publication. But all are very easily avaialbe as ebooks. He, his family, his friends and enemies, all keep a special place in my heart.

9781906790844

Free For You…

These are awful times, and we all feel powerless. There’s very little I can do as a writer, but…I can read the openings of my books and post them on Yu Tube, one or two of them a week. Maybe it’ll be a couple of minutes of stress-free time for you.

Here’s the first.

 

And from tomorrow, March 22, until Thursday (the maximum they allow), the Richard Nottingham short story Convalescene is free to download from Amazon. Find it here.

I know it’s not much, but perhaps I can take your mind of the world for a short time.