The Ghosts Of Memory

Yes, I have a book just out (The Hanging Psalm, set in Leeds in 1820 if you haven’t been paying attention) and the launch is Thursday, October 4, 6.30 pm at Waterstones in Leeds. I truly hope you’ll come.

But that’s not what I want to write about this time.

I’ve been re-reading a fascinating book (Haunted Weather by David Toop), one section of which deals with soundmarkers that can conjure up memories. This set me thinking about similar markers that bring the past crashing into the present for me.

The most obvious is smell. For me, that has to be a coal fire. Very occasionally, I come across them – early in Spring there was one as we walked by the canal in Hebden Bridge, certainly smokeless now. It tumbled me back through time.

We lived in a 1930s semi. A fireplace in the living room that my mother would clean and where she’d set a fire every morning. It fed the back burner in the kitchen (we also had a gas stove). Another fireplace in the front room, only used on Sundays, where my father would go to write. A third in my parents’ bedroom, which I only recall being lit once. The coalman hauling those hundredweight sacks of slack on his shoulder and tipping them into the coal hole. The coalman was a recognisable local figure, the same as the man who deliver pop (Corona) or the rag and bone man with his horse and cart.

Even after all these years, I could still make a fire, I can remember how to twist those sheets of newspaper and bend them round.

The smell of coal was ubiquitous then. Every house used it for heat, and the air was dirty. Every man and boy had grimy rings around their shirt collars. Ring around the collar was even a phrase used in ads for detergent.

Now, that smell seems as rare as diamonds. Not a bad thing in itself at all. But what it can evoke is more than a single thing, it’s an entire life. My mother would only make Yorkshire pudding in the back burner; probably the way she was taught. And so coal brings the memory of the fat sizzling in the pan before the batter was added. It makes me think of winter mornings with frost inside my bedroom window.

So many things, really.

But what about sound? Perhaps curiously, what springs to mind isn’t any natural sound at all. We lived in the Leeds suburbs, we weren’t surrounded by nature. It’s the radio. My mother loved the serial Mrs. Dale’s Diary – if I remember right, it was on at 4.15 in the afternoon. She play it on the transistor in the kitchen as she cooked. I’d be on the lino floor, taking things from my toy box which sat in a cupboard there. I’d play while she worked. I didn’t listen to the show, but somehow I took in a little of it by osmosis ‘I’m rather worried about Jim…’

And the other formative sound? It has to be this.

Like virtually every child of my generation, Listen With Mother was a ritual. I was lucky, we had a television, so I also had the chance to see Watch With Mother, a double helping. Until I started school, it was one of the markers of the day. We’d be back from shopping, my mother would have a cup of tea, and I really would listen with mother.

The book is right. Sound and smell are portals to the past, the doors that hold the ghosts of memory we believe we’ve forgotten, and on the surface we probably have.

It’s one reason I try to use them in my books, I suppose, knowing the power they have, and can bring, even to people who’ve never experienced a city where you can taste soot in the air, or where bronchitis isn’t a common winter ailment any more. And the sounds of industry, of the wheels of a tram, the calls of traders in the market…all of these things are part of a common memory that can bring the past to life.

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How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

Hanging Psalm revised

Another Extract From The Hanging Psalm

It’s just over three weeks until The Hanging Psalm is published in the UK (Jan 1 in the rest of the world).

That means I’m trying to tempt you into ordering a copy. All the big retailers have it, and if you’re in Leeds there’s going to be a very special launch event. Meanwhile, it’s now available on NetGalley for authorised bloggers and reviewers.

And it’s the Severn House Editor’s Pick of the Month. Read about that here.

Meanwhile…take a step back to 1820. The Regency. But it’s not Assembly Rooms and genteel manners at the Pump Rooms in Bath.

This is Leeds. It’s Regency Noir.

Enjoy.

HS ad_1

The night was quieter than the day. Shops were shuttered. Lamps flickered in the houses. People safe behind locked doors.

But another Leeds arose in the darkness. A different population that came to life with the shadows. Simon had known them for years, people like Colonel Warburton, the former soldier who always wore the tattered French officer’s coat he claimed to have stripped from a corpse on the battlefield at Waterloo. He held court in a back room of the Boot and Shoe, a bottle of good brandy on the table, quietly buying and selling stolen bonds.

Or Hetty Marcombe. She looked like a harmless, vacant old woman wandering forlornly around the yards of the coaching inns. But she had quiet cunning behind the empty eyes, ready to make off with any case that passengers didn’t keep close. Josh Hartley, Silver Dexter, all the flash men and burglars, and the whores who strutted up and down Briggate. Once the daylight faded, Leeds belonged to them.

Simon was at ease in their company. He talked a little and listened as they spoke. With a word or a nod, one person often led him to another. He learned who’d stolen what, if it had been sold and for how much. Information he’d be able to use in the coming weeks. But tonight his eyes were open for a particular man.

At the Cross Keys, just across the river in Holbeck, he stood inside the door and watched the crowd. Almost every face was young, drinking with the grim determination that dashed headlong towards oblivion. A few more years and most of them would be gone. Violence, disease, the gallows, a ship to the other side of the world. Something would carry them away. And deep inside, they knew it. So they forced out their pleasures like duty.

Strange, Simon thought, Harry Smith didn’t seem to be anywhere tonight. People called him the Vulture. He’d earned the name; he relished it like an honour. Smith fed himself on the weak, the gang of young boys who worked for him, picking pockets and robbing shops.

But Harry heard things that didn’t reach other ears. He was sly, he understood that knowledge brought a good price. And he always knew who’d be willing to pay.

Simon moved on. By the time the clock struck ten he’d gone all round the town. No word of anyone anticipating a fortune soon. Finally, close to midnight, he turned his key in the lock and climbed up to bed.

 

‘You’re a pretty thing. How much do you charge?’

Jane turned away and the man laughed.

‘Don’t play coy, luv. Tuppence and you’ll get the bargain. You might even like it for once.’

She began to walk down Kirkgate, but he staggered along behind, drunk, cursing her. She’d survived the nights out here for too long. She knew the men who populated them. This one was harmless, all drink and bluster and noise. Still, she reached into the pocket of her dress and curled her fingers around the handle of her knife.

The voice faded and she forgot he’d ever been there. No one behind her now. With the shawl over her head, she slipped in and out of the shadows. People passed without a glance. The only light came from gaps in the shutters, but she knew her way around in the darkness.

Lizzie Henry lived out on Black Flags Lane, the far side of Quarry Hill. The building stood alone, looking as if it had once been a large farmhouse. Now, as she entered, she saw a series of rooms off a long hallway. The lamps had been lit and trimmed, the floorboards swept, paintings on the walls; everything was clean and tidy. The faint sound of talk leaked from behind closed doors. But she had no sense of joy from the place.

Jane had heard tales. This was a house that catered to the worst things men desired, anything at all if the fee was right. From somewhere upstairs there was a stifled scream, then silence. She paused for a second, feeling the beat of her heart and the breath in her lungs, then walked on to the open door ahead. Beyond it, a neat, ordered parlour and Lizzie herself sitting in an armchair, close to the blazing fire.

Jane had always pictured the woman as a hag. Instead, the woman was slim, darkly attractive, dressed in an elegant, fashionable gown whose material shimmered and sparkled in the light. She had power and wealth, and wore them easily, a woman who held her secrets close – the names of the men who came here, what they did, those who went too far.

She’d never have difficulty finding girls to serve in the house. Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample land for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.

Lizzie Henry looked up and her mouth curled into a frown.

‘Who are you? How did you get in?’ Her voice had a harsh rasp. But there was no trace of worry or fear on her face. Beside her, a decanter, a glass and a bell sat on a small wooden table.

Introducing…A New Genre?

Over here, August Bank Holiday has been and gone, a sign that autumn is coming soon – from the weather it feels like it might have arrived.

That means it’s four weeks until The Hanging Psalm is published. And yes, I am excited by it. The series starts here, and it feels very electric and wonderfully jagged to me.

Last week I made the book trailer, presented for your pleasure – and to get you to place your pre-orders for the book, of course. Or if you’re around Leeds, come to the launch at Waterstones on Albion Street, 6.30 pm on Thursday, October 4. No guarantees, but on past experience they might even have free wine. Not that you need the inducement, of course.

Filming the trailer was definitely an interesting experience. Walking around the wild parts of the park at 7 am, trying to find a low enough branch for the noose that could still look high, and doing it without anyone seeing me and calling the police. Luckily, I managed it, with less than a minute before a dog walker came along. By that time the noose was already tucked away in my backpack.

Later the same day, a return trip to the park with my partner, who filmed me tying the noose. So now I have that as a life skill that might come in useful.

The second in the series has just gone to my agent, so fingers crossed for the future on that. Of course, it will help if you all buy the first one.

But the read-through has made realise something I should probably have seen earlier.

Simon Westow, the main character in The Hanging Psalm, is a thief-taker. He searches out items that have been stolen and returns them for a fee. The book is set in 1820, during the Regency, but this isn’t the world of Georgette Heyer, or even Blackadder 3. No silver-tongued gentlemen highwaymen. No balls at the Assembly Rooms in Bath. It’s all Northern. It’s all Leeds.

And the Leeds of the time is a dangerous, deadly place and its crooks mean business. The Industrial Revolution has firmly arrived, on the brink of having the town by the throat, but the transition isn’t complete yet. It’s just a few years since the Luddites shook the country, and there’s still plenty of unrest. Prices for staples are high and wages are low. People are flocking to the industrial towns, looking for work as there’s little opportunity in the countryside. There’s not enough housing to meet the demand.

The rich are few, at the top of the heap and growing wealthier all the time, and the poor…they have little chance.

But down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. (Chandler talking about the private detective in fiction)

And that man is Simon Westow.

In my imagination, Leeds in 1820 is somewhere between the London Dickens describes and the wide-open Los Angeles of Chinatown and Raymond Chandler. It’s a town where danger is always present. And Simon is the early 19th century equivalent of a private investigator. The law is the constable and the night watch; a proper police force is the best part of twenty years away. He’s the best hope people have. He’s an honest man, with principles and morals, who can make his way from the highest to the lowest in society. And he’s a man full of anger at the way he was brought up, in the workhouse and the factories. He’s done well for himself in spite of that, not because of it.

And Jane, who assists him. Well, you’ll have to read for yourself. She intrigues me and she terrifies me at the same time. I’ve no idea where she came from, but the second book digs into her past more.

So yes, it’s the Regency. But not the way we it’s been looked at in fiction.

If you like, think of The Hanging Psalm as Regency Noir.

It’s the Severn House Editor’s Pick of the Month for September. Read more here.

And now, here’s that trailer. And here is the cheapest place to order the book.

Please, let me know what you think.

Hanging Psalm revised

A Different Kind of Book Launch

Let me start by apologising to those of you not in Leeds, and I know most of you live elsewhere. I would love it if you could be involved in this, but the nature of the beast means it’s simply not possible.

As you may know, my book The Hanging Psalm comes out at the end of September. To coincide with that, I’ve teamed up with the lovely people at #foundfiction for something that’s a mix of treasure hunt, geocaching and Pokemon Go.

Probably the easiest thing is to use their words:

HP Press Release

Sounds like fun? I really hope so. And it seems like a good way to introduce a new series about a thief-taker. But for those who can’t take part, there will be a launch event on Thursday, October 4, 6.30 pm at Waterstones on Albion Street in Leeds. No need to book; simply show up. Sadly, no free books, but you’ll be able to hear all about The Hanging Psalm and (please) purchase a copy.

Of course, you can pre-order a copy from your favourite independent bookshop, chain store, or online retailer…and I hope you will. This series definitely feels like it has something (I’ve just finished writing the second book).

Hanging Psalm revised

The Hidden Truths Of The Hanging Psalm

My new book, The Hanging Psalm, comes out in the UK at the end of September (Jan 1 elsewhere and on ebook – you can order it at the best price here). While it’s decidedly fiction, none of the plot based on fact, there are some truths underneath it all. Some, though, reference a few of my other books…

 

It opens with the main character, Simon Westow the thief-taker, giving testimony to a travelling commission on the abuse of children in factories. I didn’t make up the words he speaks. I just paraphrased things spoken by children to similar commissions in the early 19th century.

Did Leeds have a thief-taker? I don’t know, there’s no record of one, but it’s very likely. At that time, before the police, the only way for people to recover stolen items was to employ someone who’d to it for them in return for a fee. Many thief-takers colluded with thieves and they’d split the fee. Simon, at least, is honest.

Leeds embraced the Industrial Revolution. It transformed the place and drew huge numbers of people, all hoping to make a good living in the factories. They didn’t, of course; wages were low, especially for the unskilled. And those who’d done well before, such as the croppers, who trimmed the nap from cloth, found themselves out of work when their jobs were taken by machines. The Luddites had attempted to stem the tide at the start of the 19th century by breaking the machines that took men’s jobs. But it’s impossible to halt progress.

The book takes place in 1820, pretty much midway between the Richard Nottingham series and the Tom Harper novels. And there are traces of continuity from the past, certainly in Simon’s life. His house is on Swinegate, where the road curves – the one that Amos Worthy owned in the Nottingham series. Simon is the father of twins. Just before their baptism at Leeds Parish Church, he wanders around the graveyard, hunting for inspiration for names and finds it, calling them Richard and Amos. Of course, he never knows the history behind that.

Jane, Simon’s young and very deadly assistant, wears a shawl, as every working-class girl and woman did throughout the 19th century. With it pulled over her hair she becomes, she feels ‘the invisible girl.’ The shawls were a fact of life, but I chose to focus on it because of the way some whites have criticised the Muslim headscarf.  I wanted to show that it’s not too long since something similar was prevalent in a way they might not have expected. Not for religious reasons, but for social and economic reasons; hopefully, it might make a few people think.

By 1820, transportation as the sentence for a crime was commonplace, for seven years, 14, or for life. Few came back, and many never survived the long journey to Australia. It had become a fairly ubiquitous punishment after the statutes were changed and many capital crimes (over 200 of them at one point) became non-hanging offences.

The Hanging Psalm itself did exist. It was spoken by the parson before a person received the drop from the gallows, a couple of extra minutes to commend a soul to God and hope for a last-minute pardon. It’s Psalm 51:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

 

I’ve already written about some of the historical background to the book (read it here). But now you have a few of the less obvious truths.

Hanging Psalm revised

Something Very Different

This is…well, I have a good idea about what I’d like it to become, but whether that will ever happen is another matter.

I’ve long harboured the idea of a book where Leeds is the main character, seen as it grows, seen through different eyes with different views. How to do it has always been the question. Finally, an idea came – a multi-generational saga. Not covering all of history, but a part of it. My own ancestors arrived here in the 1820s. Going from there to just after World War I would let me tell a very fictionalised version of their stories, as well as leaving Leeds the focus of it all in what was probably the richest time – in every way – of its growth.

Who knows how far I’ll get. But this is a tentative beginning. Please, let me know what you think.

Many years later, sitting by the hearth as the flames rose from new coal on the fire, he wondered what he used to dream after he closed the shutters in his room at the Golden Lion.

The market square would be quiet by then, the echo of the bell at St. Michael’s tolling eleven. All of Malton dark. His wife would already be asleep, the children bundled together in another big bed. Finally the darkness would take him for a few hours, until first light crept through the window and the day began again.

Hard work, running an inn. Long hours, frantic whenever a coach arrived. The bustle of market day, people crowding in to eat and drink. No time to plan then, not even to think. But man was made for work and he earned money.

In the rare luxury of off hour, he could stroll around the town. See the butcher’s shop he’d once run on Newbiggin. It was a milliner’s now, run by Mrs. Mercer, catering to women with taste and husbands who’d allow them to run up bills.

The butcher’s, the inn, all of them of them had steps, he realised, always moving towards something, even if he didn’t understand then what it might be. Going back to being six years old in Westow, set out in the fields to run around and scare the crows, working in the harvest until he was big enough to help with the farming.

Then  he was twelve, riding with his father in the cart, five miles over tracks, looking at the endless flat fields and hedgerows and stretched away as far as he could see. They followed the old road into Malton, the old horse weary in its traces, hooves dragging up dust on a bright, dry summer morning.

‘You must do your work well, Isaac. Promise me.’ His father wasn’t a man to spend words. The village parson had taught him his letters, enough to make out the words on a page and sign his name. But he could read the land and the weather, It was knowledge he kept inside, small secrets to be hoarded. He turned his head, eyes watching his son. The hands that cradled the reins were hard, the colour of oak.

‘I will.’ He was going to live with the butcher and his family, apprenticed in a trade. He’d make something of himself, his mother insisted. The second of the three sons, not the one who’d inherit the scrap of land that fed the family and gave them produce to sell. The money they’d saved for this opportunity was his inheritance.

The cart moving through the market square, almost empty today. He’d been here before, several times a year. This time, though, it seemed larger, more forbidding, ready to swallow him. No journey home at the end of the day. The year of our Lord 1792. The first step.

Each one after that had been bigger. A journeyman butcher. His own shop. Marriage. The tumble when his business failed. The change to managing the inn.

And finally the leap, the move to Leeds. Was that the idea that filled his dreams on those winter nights upstairs at the Golden Lion? He couldn’t remember now.

 

The fire crackled, a coal sparked on to the rug. He stamped it out and a memory came unbidden.

He was fourteen. A chilly late autumn day, across through the market square in his bloodied apron on an errand for his master. Isaac spotted his father, one of so many selling and buying. He sat on the back of the cart, vegetables piled neatly on the wood. A face as weathered and creased as tree bark as he took someone’s money. Dividing the coins between the two pockets of his waistcoat. Dipping his head as he handed over the purchase with large hands, scarred from a lifetime of the fields. He’d become like a shadow Isaac had known for so long that was now slipping away as the light changed.

The man didn’t see his son and after a moment Isaac ran on, the apron flapping around his legs.

Fourteen, thinking he was a man because he worked for a living. Sleeping in a butcher’s house, eating at a butcher’s table. Doing all the petty, menial jobs: sweeping in the morning, raising the shutters on the shop, the cleaning and scouring when business was done for the day. The only consolation was eating meat with every meal. A life that was so tightly fenced that he might have been penned like one of the animals waiting for slaughter.

 

Months passed, piling one upon the other. Gradually he learned the trade. How to identify a good carcass, to wield the cleaver with a single smashing blow. All the cuts, setting the best aside for certain customers. He could lift a side of beef on his shoulder and heft it through the marketplace, laughing with the traders. From a solitary child he’d grown into a social youth, with a ready laugh and a pleasing manner. A shopkeeper’s pleasing traits. The opposite of his father. His hair grew thick and wild, a rich brown he kept trying to tame with a comb. He had a tilt in his eyes that made him look as if he might be trying to see beyond the horizon. Growing into manhood.

The only thing he could never do was wash the smell of blood from his hands.

‘It’s the butcher’s curse,’ his master said, watching as he scrubbed with the strong lye soap one night. ‘But at least the money you’ll earn will make up for it. Plenty of woman will put up with a bit of a stink for a secure life.’ He laughed as he lit his pipe.

Isaac stared, not understanding, scrubbing harder until his hands were raw.

And then, finally, he was in the last season of his apprenticeship. He could feel his freedom like a breeze, almost smell it. Served his seven years like a sentence, not even sure who he’d been when he started. A child he no longer recognised, someone dulled and fogged in the looking glass.

Half a day’s summer holiday, so rare it seemed like riches. A chance to wander around Malton without rushing hither and yon. Gazing in windows at the things he might soon be able to afford, then turning to stare at the clear sky over the tower of St. Leonard’s church. He’d arrived here on a day like this, he remembered, the earth dry and crumbling after three weeks without rain. Why should he recall that?

He lowered his eyes, breathing in the smell of horses and sweat, and spotted two figures emerging from Chancery Lane. Mrs. Coultas and her daughter Jane, walking arm in arm towards him. He’d served them both in the shop, always staring at the counter to avoid Jane’s steady look. Every time she saw him she seemed to be weighing his qualities and always fining them wanting.

As they passed, he raised his hat and wished them good afternoon. Mrs. Coultas nodded and gave a polite smile. But Jane stopped, inclining her head.

‘Mr. Lawrence, have you run away from your job?’

He could see the twinkle playing on her face, a little devilment. Her lips curled in amusement, as if she was gently laughing at him.

‘A half day,’ he told her, then blurted, ‘I’ll soon have served my time.’

Why did he say that, he wondered? To try and impress the girl three years younger than him? It wasn’t as if she came from grand stock. Just a farming family like his own, with a smallholding in Appleton-le Street. With her country face, turned brown by sun and weather, she’d done her share of work outside. But she carried herself like a lady.

‘What will you do then, Mr. Lawrence?’ the girl asked. Before he could answer, he mother was tugging her away, up towards the Golden Lion.

‘I’m sorry, sir. Come on, he’s got better things to do than waste his time talking to you. Honestly, I’ve told you before. So forward no man’s ever going to want you.’

Jane didn’t look back, walking over the cobbles in quick, confident strides and raising her chin in the air.