4 Things: 3 Great, 1 Incredible

Well, it’s certainly been quite a week. Not just one thing, but four, and all wonderful.

First of all, yesterday these arrived. Yes, The Molten City is in the wild, although it’s not officially published in the UK until the end of the month. But people who’ve ordered from online retailers – not just that one – have received their copies. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published (this is my 28th in total, the 22nd novel set in Leeds) it remains a thrill to open that package.

Molten books

But so many things can be a thrill, even a simple piece of paper. Last week I went to Abbey House Museum at Kirkstall Abbey and to go hold this. It’s a bill, on letterhead, to the estate of a client for work done the year before, then signed on receipt of payment. It’s for £2, 5 shilling and sixpence. Doesn’t seem like much, but it’s about £275 in today’s money.

What makes it special? It was sent by my great-great-great uncle, George Nickson. In 1858. He’s reached across 162 years. What truly floored me was his signature. The way he signed Nickson was almost exactly the same as my father.

George Nickson 1858

Another piece of family history shook loose, too. In a newspaper archive, I discovered that my grandfather, then in his fifties, was arrested during World War II for stealing 99lbs of cloth from the mill where he was the assistant manager – and on a good salary, too. I have yet to track down the verdict of the trial. It was a time when clothing and material was rationed. However, my half-sister recalled that he had asked her aunt, who wasn’t a direct relation) to hide a bolt of cloth for him. When he came back for it, he gave her enough to make two suits and several skirts. So he got away with it at least once.

Harold Arrested

And finally, that big, BIG thing I promised in the title. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate 10 years of doing this novel writing lark.

I’m now the very first writer-in-residence at Abbey House Museum. It’s a huge honour to be a part of Leeds Museums, and we’re already making some plans for things I could do involving the collections and community involvement. It’s the perfect cap to what’s been a wonderful 2020 so far.

A New Book Trailer And More

Well, it’s been quite a week. Tonight I’m doing an In Conversation event as part of the wonder Leeds LitFest, which is roaring along in its second yeay, ambitious and energised.

I’ve also been digging into the history of Sheepscar. In part, of course, because where Tom and Annabelle Harper live, but also because my family has some roots there, at the Victoria public house (my great-grandfather ran it from the 1920s to the 1940s) and beyond (more to come on that).

Surprisingly, no one has studied the history of the area, which means a lot of digging and piecing things together from censuses, old plans, maps, anything I can find. It’s strictly for my own pleasure, really, although, since i’m a writer, I’m putting it all together – 7000 words so far, along with photos and so much more, almost 50 pages’ worth.

But I haven’t forgotten that The Molten City arrives in three weeks. It’s available to bloggers and reviewers on NetGalley, so if you’re approved, get over there…if not, I’m afraid you’ll need to wait. But in the meantime, here’s a second trailer for the book.

The Molten City – An Extract

Five week now until The Molten City is published. To whet you’re appetite and get you ordering it (hopefully), here’s a very short extract from the book. It’s 1908, and Harper’s daughter, Mary, is 16 now, a Suffragette supporter; her mother, Annabelle, is a Suffragist, opposed to the violence Mrs Pankhurst’s women espouse. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minster, is about to arrive to give a speech in Leeds. The Suffragettes, led by a woman named Jennie Baines, are demonstarting at his opposition to women’s suffrage, and the unemployed men are holding their own rally in opposition to the government inaction on jobs.  If they come together outside the Coliseum, where the PM is giving his speech, there’s going to be a riot.

 

Harper looked around the railways station. It all seemed ordinary. No sign of anyone lurking. Just the everyday travellers and people waiting for arrivals. He let out a breath, then he was aware of someone running.

A constable in uniform, his face red as he gasped for breath, boots skidding over the tiles. A hasty salute.

‘I was looking for you up by the Coliseum, sir. Message for you from Millgarth. Sergeant Mason says to tell you it’s important.’

‘What does he want?’ He felt fear creeping up from his belly.

‘Don’t know, sir. He just told me to give you this and get back sharpish.’ He thrust a piece of paper in Harper’s hand and ran off.

Your wife telephoned. Vital you ring her as soon as possible.

He opened his watch. Twenty past four. God Almighty. The Prime Minister’s train was due in ten minutes.

‘You keep watch,’ he told Emerson. ‘If anything happens, come and get me immediately.’

In the station master’s office, he lifted the receiver, waiting impatiently for the connection.

‘What is it?’ he asked as soon as Annabelle was on the line. ‘The prime minister’s arriving any minute.’

‘It’s Mary,’ she said, and he stopped, unable to say a word. ‘She told me she was going to do some shopping after work this afternoon.’ Annabelle caught her breath. ‘She telephoned half an hour ago. She’s going to the demonstration, Tom. I’ll swing for the little madam, behaving like this.’

Christ, he thought. Bloody girl.

‘I can’t do anything now. Nothing.’ He tried to think. ‘I’ll tell Ash.’

‘I’m coming down there.’

‘Don’t—’ he began, but she’d already gone.

Damn the girl. They’d told her, but she had to go and bloody defy them. Now she was going to be trapped in the middle of a war and there was nothing he could do to help her. If she was hurt, injured . . . not just her. Annabelle, too.

He dared not let himself think about it. Not now. Not—

‘Sir,’ Emerson said, ‘the Chief Constable is looking for you.’

 

 

Harper hurried up the hill, crossing Great George Street, passing the Mechanics’ Institute. Ash stood in the middle of the road, tall, bulky in his overcoat and new bowler hat.

He nodded towards the Coliseum. ‘Almost full in there, sir. They’re just waiting for the guests of honour. Everything in order?’

‘No.’ He pointed at the suffragettes, close to a hundred of them now, penned in on Vernon Street. ‘My daughter’s in with them and Mrs Harper is on her way down here.’ He could hear how frantic he sounded. It didn’t matter. He didn’t care.

There was too much to juggle. The prime minister would arrive at any moment. The last of the audience was filing into the hall. Businessmen in expensive suits, tickets checked at the door before they could gain entry.

Mrs Baines was addressing the women, her voice loud and strident. And somewhere among them . . .

‘It’s probably just a matter of time before the unemployed men break out from that rally they’re holding,’ Harper said.

‘We have the reinforcements, sir.’

He shook his head. ‘I’m holding them back for when we really need them. We’d just better be prepared for the worst. It’s not far away.’

‘We’ll manage, sir. You leave things up here with me. I’ll have that lass of yours out of there.’ He marched away, shoulders back, shouting orders at the constables.

Harper stood. For a moment he felt utterly lost, out of his depth. Too much was happening, his head was on fire. This was like trying to keep a dozen balls in the air, knowing that if one fell, chaos would follow.

Suddenly, off in the distance, he made out a faint swell of cheering. He cocked his head, leaning his good ear towards the sound. It was definitely there. Asquith’s procession was drawing closer, all those people by the side of the road happy to have a sight of their prime minister. A tiny glimmer of sanity among the madness.

He ran his palms down his cheeks.

Everyone was relying on him to make sure the politicians were safe. Let the demonstrators bray all they liked, that wasn’t going to do any damage. Words might fill the air, but they couldn’t wound. Nobody would die from them. But if it went beyond that – when it did – he’d stop them.

A final breath and he was ready.

The first of the motor cars came in sight. A chorus of boos, a clamour of shouting from the women. He searched their faces for Mary. Couldn’t see her. A swift prayer to keep her safe. Her and Annabelle.

 

You can order from your favourite bookshop (or ask your library to get it in). This place has the cheapest price (currently £15.66, with free UK postage).

Molten City

An Interview, Teaching, A Book

10 years

February has barely begun, but it feels like a flying start.

I’ll begin with the teaching. I’m involved in the Leeds Year of Reading, and proud to be part of it. Because of that, yesterday I went in and taught two writing workshops to students at my old school. Truthfully, it felt as if I’d achieved one of my ambitions. My day there was long ago, but I received an excellent education, and some of the English teachers were among the first to encourage my writing. This is some small way I can give something back and I greatly enjoyed it, even if I’m not one of nature’s teachers.

Secondly, the interview. It’s with Mystery People. You can read online here, but i’m also posting it in full here. It’s quite lengthy and conducted by the woman who first publishe me – she put out The Broken Token 10 long years ago.

And that leads on to the book. As I’ve said (often), The Molten City comes out at the end of March. And that month will also see The Broken Token available in print again, after so long as just an ebook or audiobook.

9781906790844

And the 10th anniversary celebrations are just beginning!

The Modern Milky Bar Kid In Leeds

I don’t know where this came from. It’s not part of anything bigger. It just is, little piecre of flash fiction. Make of it what you will.

When I was little, still a nipper, there used to be an ad on television. A smug little kid with fair hair and NHS specs, dressed in a cowboy outfit. His big line was ‘the Milky Bars are on me.’

This guy reminds of him. Same pale hair and round glasses. But this fucker isn’t going to be giving me any chocolate. He has a Glock in his hand. And he’s not smug. He’s shit scared, I can see the tremors in his wrist.

Evening, one of those old, little streets off Burley Road. Close by, there’s a bar with craft ales, a couple of takeaways, and blocks of shiny new student flats where mummy and daddy’s beloveds can live in comfort while they take their degrees.

I know what this guy’s thinking. It’s so obvious that he might as well come out and say it.

Killing a copper will make him a big man. A few will reckon he’s a hero.

But killing a copper means he’ll be a hunted man. No matter where he goes, or how long it takes, they’ll be coming for him.

He’s posed on a very fine line, and right now I don’t know which side he’ll choose.

Slowly, I extended my arm, palm up. A gesture; give it to me. He just tightens his grip on the gun and hunches in on himself.

My own fault. A tip, someone who claimed to have a little information about a crime. Nothing to make you suspicious. And Burley Road was more on less on my way back to Cookridge. Didn’t even see the need to tell anyone where I was going.

After so long on the job, I should know better. But that’s how it happens; you let down your guard and bang, it’s over.

It’s cold, dark, a clear Leeds sky up there. I can see my breath when I exhale, but I’m sweating. Under my arms, a trickle down my spine. I’ve faced down thugs before, back when I was on the beat. But in those days, a truncheon and a uniform seemed to carry some weight. Now I’m just a bloke easing his way through late middle age, a bit paunchy, more grey than brown in his hair. Detective Chief Inspector. Senior.

I might even make it to retirement if this fucker doesn’t shoot me.

Something’s changed on this lad’s face. He’s made up his mind. Raising his hand. Is he going to give it to me, or is he going to shoot?

Well? What are you going to do?

The Muffin Man’s Daughter – A Lottie Armstrong Story

Continuing these 10 years of publishing crime novels set in Leeds, I’m moving back in time a little to revisit WPC Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds. She featured in Modern Crimes, set in 1924, then again, 20 years later, in The Year of the Gun.

This little story takes place in 1923, a few months before Modern Crimes, and gives more background into how Lottie (whom I really do love) came to know Auntie Betty and the Royal Hotel.

10 years

 

Leeds, December 1923

 

December. One of those long winter days when the sun came out but hardly seem to rise in the sky. Lottie Armstrong’s breath had plumed in the air as she walked on patrol, and she’d been grateful for the heavy cape and leather gloves.

Now, sitting on the tram and it trundled up Chapeltown Road, she realised how much her feet ached. She wanted to peel off her scratchy woollen stockings and let her toes soak in a warm bath of Epsom salts. Still, it came with the job, and she’d wanted to be one of the first women police constables in Leeds. Today, she and Cathy Taylor, the other WPC, had covered the area around the railway stations, over to Holbeck, back through Hunslet, down to Kirkgate market and up through Quarry Hill. Some of the places where girls and young women might mix with low types, she’d been told.

They hadn’t seen any. Hardly any girls at all. They probably had more sense than to hang around in the cold.

The conductor rang the bell. Her stop.

The pavement felt very hard under her shoes. She had to stop at the butcher and the greengrocer on Reginald Parade to pick up something for tea; Geoff would be hungry when he came home from work. Sausages and mash. Quick, easy, warm and filling on a day like this. She’d just turned up Sholebroke Avenue when she heard someone call her name.

‘Mrs. Armstrong. Do you have a second?’

She turned and saw Tim the muffin man hurrying towards her. One handied stead the tray of muffins balanced on his head, while the other silenced the clapper of the bell he used to let people know he was selling by their house. He was wrapped up warm in the heavy greatcoat he’d worn during the war, a muffler tied around his throat and some knitted fingerless gloves.

muffin man 1

‘Of course you can, Mr Worthy.’ She stood and waited until he’d caught up with her. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘It’s our Nell,’ he began. She knew who he meant and her heart began to sink. His daughter, seventeen going on thirty. She worked in a mill, but the rest of the time she was part of a group of girls who haunted the dance halls in the city centre. Tim was a pleasant man, a hard worker who tried to do his best for his family. But Nell had been trouble since he’d returned from the fighting in France.

His wife had died on the Spanish flu a month after he’d come back, and he was left to bring up Nell and her older brother on his own. The boy was fine, settled in a good job. But Nell had turned wild.

Lottie tried to smile. ‘What’s she been up to now?’ she asked.

‘That’s the problem,’ he said. His face was creased with worry and his eyes filled with sadness. ‘I don’t know. She didn’t come home last night.’

This was serious, more than mischief. ‘Have you reported it? We can have the whole force searching for her.’

He shook his head. ‘I didn’t want to cause any fuss. At first I though she’d come home. She’d been out late and stayed at a pal’s house or something. Now…I’m worried that if I went in and told them, they’d think I’d done something to her.’

‘I can telephone and get things rolling.’

‘Would you?’ His eyes were pleading with her.

‘Of course.’ She gave him a warm smile. ‘Come on, you give me the details. I know what she looks like. And don’t worry, they come home when they get fed up.’

‘Do they?’ He needed hope. He needed something. Lottie knew that Nell had gone missing before, overnight on a few occasions.

‘Of course they do.’

 

The was a blue police box just down Chapeltown Road. She used the key to let herself in, identified herself and gave the dispatcher all she could.

It wasn’t much. Nell Worthy had left for work, the way she always did. But she’d never arrived; her father had checked with the mill owner.

‘She’s seventeen but she looks younger,’ Lottie said. ‘She could probably pass for fourteen. She has a wild side to her, thought. Likes to smoke and drink and she often spends her evenings down in those dance halls on Lower Briggate. Her father gave me the names of her friends and the addresses he knew.’

Another voice cut in, a man. She recognised the gruff tone. Sergeant Wilson.

‘Where are you now, Armstrong?’

‘Chapeltown Road, Sergeant. Mr Worthy just stopped me as I as walking home.’

‘And she’s been missing all night?’

‘Yes, Sergeant.’

‘We’ll send someone to talk to the father-’

‘He’s on his round. He’s a muffin man.’

A hand over the receiver, something that she couldn’t make out, then: ‘We’ll need you here to help look for the girl. There are other females to interview, is that right?’

‘Yes, sir. But I’m off duty.’

‘You’re back on as of now. I want you at Millgarth as soon as possible.’

A quick dash home with the shopping, scribbling a note for Geoff, then the tram back into town. It felt strange to be heading to work in the evening. The shops along Vicar Lane were a blaze of electric lights and there was a curious gaiety to the faces she saw. Work done for the day, an evening of pleasure ahead. Dinner somewhere, drinks, the cinema, dancing. Her police partner, Cathy Taylor, was probably out in it all. She was married, but her husband was in the merchant marine and she didn’t enjoy nights at home on her own. She wanted company and laughter and music.

Millgarth police station seemed to fizz with energy. Plain clothes officers were moving around, determination on their faces. She recognised a few of them, but far more were strangers. Drafted in from other divisions, she supposed; a missing girl would fire up the authorities.

‘There you are,’ Wilson said when she reported. ‘About time.’

‘I’m sorry, Serg-’

He waved her words aside. ‘I want you to talk to the men working on the case. You know the girl, don’t you?’

‘A little. I’ve met her and spoken with her.’

‘You know what she’s like, where she goes.’

It was easier to simply agree. He didn’t want detail right now.

 

Some listened. Others didn’t want to hear a woman. Never mind. She carried on and told them all she knew about Nell Worthy. Lottie finished and looked hopefully around at the faces.

‘Do we have a photograph?’ Sergeant Wilson asked.

‘Not at the moment,’ she answered.

`’Description?’

‘She’s about five feet tall, quite skinny. No shape to her. Mousy brown hair in a short bob,’ Lottie said. ‘I’m not sure about the colour of her eyes. Whenever I’ve seen her she’s always worn a lot of blue.’

Wilson rolled his eyes.

‘Right, that’s enough to get you started,’ he told the men. ‘Get out there and find here.’

‘What about me, Sergeant?’ she asked once they’d gone. ‘I could help. I know her.’

‘Leave it to the proper coppers, luv. We know what we’re doing. If you want to be useful, you can make us a pot of tea.’

Her cheeks burned with anger and humiliation. She stalked off letting the toilet door slam behind her, folding her arms and staring at the mirror.

Policewomen were nowhere near the equals of the men. They could deal with women and girls, and they didn’t have the power to arrest anyone.

Maybe she should just go home. After all, her shift was long since over.

She’d been standing there for more than a minute when she heard the tap on the door. Cautiously, she opened it, knowing her eyes were red and she was still close to tears.

She’d seen the man in the briefing room, standing near the back. In plain clothes, a dark suit with a sensible blue tie and polished black shoes. He was old enough to have fought in the war, a good six inches taller than her, looking down and smiling gently.

‘He was wrong, you know. There’s plenty you can do to help.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked acidly. ‘Fetch the biscuits as well?’

‘Maybe come out with me and we can look for her. You’ve seen her, you can recognise her.’

‘Why?’ Lottie asked. She could hear the harshness in her voice, but she didn’t care. ‘I’m not a proper copper. The sergeant said so.’

‘Well, I’m a detective sergeant and I think you have something to offer. What do you say?’

‘Yes.’ She suddenly felt calmer. And astonished. ‘Thank you. Can you give me a minute?’

She ran the cold water, splashing it over her face. Looked at herself again, patted her hair down. Better.

 

It wasn’t far from Millgarth to Lower Briggate, but warmer in a motor car. McMillan parked by the railway bridge and turned off the engine.

‘Where does this girl Nell like to go? Is there anywhere in particular?’

‘Dancehalls is all I know, Sergeant.’

‘The other officers will be covering those. Nothing else?

‘Most of the public houses won’t serve her. She looks far too young.’

‘That’s not very helpful, Armstrong.’

‘Sorry, Sarge. Maybe the best thing to do is go up and down and look into the little bars, see if we spot here.’

‘If you include all the courts, there must be more than a dozen.’ He looked at her. If you take off your cap and button your coat all the way up, no one will guess you’re wearing a uniform. ‘

‘I have a cloche in my pocket. I could put that on.’

She brought it out and patted it over her hair. It was a sweet, warm raspberry colour, a contrast to the dark blues and blacks.

‘Will that do, sir?’

‘Excellent.’

A chilly wind was blowing up from the river. No luck at the first place, a dismal little room hidden away in a railway arch, or at the second, a bustling club that played a succession of phonograph records, its bar nothing more than a door on sawhorses in them corner.

In both of them, McMillan knew people and stopped for a question or two.

‘She’s been in before, but not recently,’ he said as they came out into the cold night. He stopped and lit a Black Cat cigarette. ‘Why did you want to become a woman police constable, anyway?’

Lottie gave the same answer as always.

‘It was something different. Better than stopping at home, and it was a job that would take you if you were married.’

He nodded. ‘Do you enjoy it?’

‘Most of the time,’ she replied after a moment. ‘What about you, Sergeant?’

His face seemed to come alive. ‘I love the work. I’d been a bobby for a year when the war began, and I joined up in the first flush.’ He shrugged. ‘It seemed like a good idea. Patriotic. Was your husband over there?’

No need to say where he meant; everybody knew.

‘He was wounded. Invalided out.’ That was enough. Everyone knew a few men like that. ‘How did you end up in CID?’

McMillan nodded. ‘When I came back, I didn’t want to wear a uniform again. They took a chance on me wearing plain clothes. I suppose it’s paid off. They promoted me.’

An hour later and they’d covered almost all the bars; so many tiny places the Lottie never knew existed. Nell had been in a couple of them. The last sighting had been the evening before.

That was good, she decided. The girl had still been fine twenty-four hours earlier. She glanced up and down the street. She didn’t know what it was about the nightlife here that attracted Nell Worthy, but something made it seem much better than home. Maybe one of the other detectives had discovered her.

‘Just the Royal left,’ McMillan said with distaste.

Lottie had walked past the Royal Hotel often when she was on patrol. She knew the rumours, that the customers liked people of their own sex. There was one bar for men and another purely for women.

It was hard to imagine the girl in a place like that. Lottie had seen her with boys; she’d seemed interest in them.

‘We’ll check it, anyway,’ he told her. ‘You’ll need to go in by yourself. If I walked into the woman’s bar, they’d scatter like a flock of birds.’

‘All right.’ It didn’t worry her. What was they worst they could do, tell her to get out?

 

The bar was dimly lit. A few women sat that the tables, in couples or alone, caught in the shadows. A big woman stood behind the bar, her hair cut as short as a man’s, neatly parted and pomaded. She wore a pinstripe suit, with trousers, waistcoat, shirt and tie.

Lottie took a deep breath and walked across he room. She could feel people watching her. At the bar she stopped.

The woman facing her spoke very quietly: ‘Now you can turn yourself around and leave again. I don’t want any coppers in here. You’re not welcome.’

‘I-’

‘Don’t try and say you’re not with the police. You don’t look like you’d be a good liar.’

Lottie felt herself starting to bristle. ‘I don’t lie,’ she said. ‘And I’m not about to start now.’

‘That’s settled, then. On your way before I come round there and throw you out.’

‘You don’t understand. I’m looking for someone. A girl who’s gone missing. Her father’s very worried about her.’ Maybe it was the tone of her voice. She knew she sounded earnest. But the woman didn’t move, just watching her. ‘Her name’s Nell Worthy. I know her a little, and I know she likes this area. I’ve been in every bar. Other people are trying the dancehalls.’

‘How old is she?’ the woman asked.

‘Seventeen.’

‘You said you know her. What’s her father’s name?’

It was a strange question. What did that have to do with it?

‘Tim,’ she replied. ‘He’s the muffin man near me. He’s the one who asked me to look for her.’

The woman chewed her lip as she looked at Lottie. ‘Come through to the back.’

Crates lined three of the walls. Full bottles and empties. But along the fourth was a camp bed, a few clothes bunched underneath, and a door.

‘What…’ Lottie began. She didn’t understand.

The woman tapped on the door. ‘It’s all right, you can come out now.’

A moment when nothing happened. The Lottie saw the handle turn and Nelly Worthy emerged into the light.

‘She’s police,’ the girl said. It was an accusation, not an observation.

‘I know who she is,’ the woman told her. ‘She might as well have had it tattooed on her head.’

‘She wants to take me home, Auntie Betty,’ Nell said.

‘Well,’ the woman said, ‘you can’t spend the rest of your life living back here, now can you?’

‘You left home when you were younger than me.’

The woman shook her head. For a second, her eyes flashed. ‘I had to go. I didn’t have a choice. My father threatened to whip me bloody. He didn’t like what I was.’

‘Your father wants you back,’ Lottie said. ‘Maybe it’s not perfect, but he’s tried, you know. He’s doing it on his own. He’s a man, they can’t understand girls.’

‘Listen to her,’ the woman said. ‘He’s a good man. If my sister was still alive, you wouldn’t have run, would you?’

‘I don’t know.’ A young, sullen response.

‘Well, I do. Look, I’ll come up and talk to your Dad. Me and him always got on well enough. How would you feel if he let you come and stay with me sometimes?’

‘Do you think..?’ Nell’s eyes widened. There was hope in her voice.

‘Maybe. But only sometimes. I have a life outside this place, too. Would that satisfy you?’

‘Yes,’ the girl agreed after a second.

‘You pack up your things and come through when you’re done.’

 

‘A woman copper, eh?’ Betty asked as they stood at the bar.

‘Yes. There are two of us.’ She paused for a second. ‘Only two of us. And a matron.’

‘You seem to care, at least. You came in here to look.’

‘I told you, I know Tim.’ She smiled. ‘I like his muffins.’

The woman glanced back towards the room. ‘I can’t guarantee she won’t run off again. But I’ll start to spend a little time with her.’

‘It can’t hurt.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘WPC Armstrong.’

‘Your Christian name.’

‘Lottie. Short for Charlotte.’

‘You can call me Auntie Betty. Sure you don’t feel uncomfortable in here?’

No,’ Lottie said. ‘Why would I? We’re all people, aren’t we?’

Jingling James – A Christmas Story

It’s not a new Christmas story, a re-run from a few years ago. But this is the season for sentimental repeats, isn’t it? So why not enjoy it with Annabelle? It’s from a time before she knew Tom Harper.

Leeds, December 1887

 

Annabelle Atkinson didn’t want Christmas to arrive this year. She didn’t feel any of the joy or the goodwill this December. It was barely three months since her husband Harry had died; the earth had barely settled on his grave.

They’d had a few good years before the heart attack took him. Now she had to look after the Victoria public house as well as the two bakeries she’d opened. On her own, sometimes she felt like she was drowning.

On Christmas Eve, once the last customer had gone, she’d bolt the door, close the curtains, and keep the world away until Boxing Day. She’d never been one to wallow in sadness; if you had a problem you took care of it and carried on. But the last few weeks…she’d been slowly sinking and she knew it. She felt like one of the jugglers in the halls, trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air. Too many of them.

‘Come on,’ she said to Willie Hailsham, taking the empty pint pot from his hand. ‘You’ve had enough. Get yourself off home so your wife can remember what you look like.’

The same with Harelip Harmon, Donald the Steel Man, and Jingling James, always moving the coins around in his pocket. They’d stay drinking all night if anyone would keep serving them.

‘Don’t you have homes to go to?’

It was the nightly routine, almost a comedy act after so long. They drained their glasses, said their goodnights and then the bar was empty. She locked the door, drew down the bolts and let out a long sigh. Glasses to wash, woodwork and brass to polish.

Better get started, she thought. The work’s not going to do itself.

 

Up a little after three to supervise the baking in the kitchen at the other end of the garden. The last day before Christmas, orders to fill, plenty of demand; the shops would be little goldmines today. And the Victoria would be full from the time the factories closed.

Gossiping with the girls as they all worked together, mixing, kneading, baking, the smell of fresh loaves filling the air and making her hungry. Back in the rooms over the pub she made breakfast.

This was what hurt most: the silence. There used to be so much laughter here when Harry was alive. It seemed like there was always something to set them off. Now just being here was oppressive, all the weight of ghosts around her.

 

Dan the barman and Ellen the servant were already working hard with polish when she went downstairs. Sleeves rolled up and plenty of elbow grease, they’d be done soon enough. Nothing for her to do here. The day from the brewery was due at ten, but Dan could take care of that.

Annabelle put on her cape and picked up her purse. Go into town and have a poke around the shops. Happen an hour or two away would perk her up. But there was no magic in December this year. The pavements were full of people jostling around, weighed down by packages and bags. She felt removed from it all. The displays in the windows of the Grand Pygmalion didn’t make her want to part with her money. She was low, she knew it; a lovely gown or a good hat could usually tempt her. Today, though, there was nothing. No cheer.

Even a stop at the cocoa house for something warm to drink and a slice of cake didn’t help her mood. She trailed back out along North Street, through the Leylands and past Jews’ Park, back along to Sheepscar.

Soon enough the Victoria was busy, and it would stay that way until she kicked them all out. She took her place behind the bar, smiling, flirting the way she always had, and for a few minutes at least she could forget why she hurt inside.

‘Give over,’ she told one man who insisted he’d be a good husband. ‘I’d wear you out in one night, then I’d have to send you home to your missus.’ It brought laughter. As she walked around, collecting glasses, she brushed hands away, giving the culprits a look. It was all part of running a pub. A game; if you played it well, you were successful.  And she had the knack.

Annabelle promised old Jonas free beer for the evening if he played the piano in the corner, and soon half the customers were singing along the favourites from the music hall. It gave her a chance to breathe and Dan could look at the barrels.

By eleven she’d had enough. The pub was still busy, the till was overflowing. But all the noise made her head ache. She wanted peace and quiet for a while. She wanted the place empty.

‘Come on.’ She rang the old school bell she kept under the bar, next to the cudgel for sorting out the unruly. ‘Time for you lot to see your families. They probably don’t believe you exist.’

Slowly, the crowd thinned. Another five minutes and it was down to the usual four still standing and supping. Donald the Steel Man, Willie Hailsham, Jingling James, and Harelip Harmon.

‘That’s enough,’ she told them. Her voice sounded weary. She knew it and she didn’t care. They were regulars, they’d probably been coming in here since they were old enough to peer over the bar. ‘Let’s call it a night, gentlemen, please.’

James slipped off to the privy while she was ushering the others out, wishing them merry Christmas and accepting beery kisses and hugs until they’d gone and she turned the key in the lock.

Then James was there, looking bashfully down at his boots. He was a gentle soul, a widower with grown children. Fifty, perhaps, his hair full white, jammed under his cap.

‘Are you seeing your family tomorrow?’ she asked.

‘Not this year.’ He gave a small shrug. ‘They all have their plans. It’s different now, everyone’s so busy. Are you going to your sister’s?’

‘A quiet day.’ Sometime before the new year she’d slip over to see her sister and the wastrel husband she had. Take some presents for their children. But she wouldn’t pop over to Hunslet and see her brother. He could take a running jump; she’d told him that a few years before. ‘Maybe it’s better that way.’

‘When my Alice died I carried on, same as I always had. The bairns were grown and gone but I still had to work and put a roof over my head.’

‘I know,’ she agreed. The everyday tasks that carried on like a machine. Without thinking, he jingled the coins in his pocket.

‘Then her birthday came around. We never made a fuss when she was alive, well, who could afford to? First we had the little ‘uns, then it didn’t seem to matter so much.’

‘We were the same,’ Annabelle said. ‘Harry’s birthday or mine, there was still the pub to run.’

‘Any road, the year she died, on her birthday it suddenly hit me how alone I was. Not just then, but for the rest of my days. Because no one could replace Alice. I had all them years in front of me.’

‘What did you do?’ she asked.

‘I sat there at the table and made myself remember all the good things. How she looked when she smiled, how she sounded when she laughed. The way she were pretty as a picture when we got wed. I said it all like she were sitting there and I was talking to her.’

‘Did it help?’

‘It did. But I can tell you’re feeling that way. I can see it in your eyes. I just thought it might help.’ He gave her a smile and bussed her cheek.

‘You said you’re not going anywhere tomorrow?’ Annabelle said.

‘That’s right.’

‘Come round for your tea. It won’t be anything special, mind.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ she said with a smile. ‘I’ll probably sick of my own company by then anyway.’

She locked the door behind him, hearing the jingling of his coins as he walked down the street.