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.

Thank You All And Happy Holidays

Here were are, staring right at the end of the year. Holidays ahead, whether that’s good or bad. And inevitably, we reflect on the almost 12 months that have passed.

In terms of writing, 2019 has been quite an incredible year for me. I published two books, The Leaden Heart (Tom Harper) and The Hocus Girl (Simon Westow). Both have received glowing reviews from a number of people, and in the US each one received two starred reviews from different trade. That’s remarkable in itself, and actually quite humbling. After all, I’ve set a bar for myself that I can’t keep hitting every single time, although I will do my damnedest. After all, if you don’t try to make your next book better than your last, what’s the point? The only competition you have to beat is yourself.

On top of that, I was interviewed by one of the leading US trade magazines, Publishers Weekly. It didn’t just feel like a big deal, it was a big deal. The first commercial American press I’ve had, something ready by booksellers and libraries. So yes, I consider that major.

And I can look ahead to next year. It’s the 10 anniversary of me publishing books set in Leeds, and The Broken Token will be available again in paperback after being only in digital or audio for a long, long time. There will be a new Tom Harper, The Molten City, bringing us into the 20th century, a new Simon Westow, To the Dark. And after quite a wait, a new John the Carpenter next summer, titled The Anchoress of Chesterfield.

But, really, none of this would be possible if people didn’t buy my books or borrow them from libraries. To all of you, I’m hugely grateful. You allow me to sit here and keep telling the stories of people who are utterly real to me.

Whatever holiday you celebrate (or if you’re like me and try to avoid them all), thank you, and enjoy yourself. Be happy, be well in 2020.

And if you’re stuck for last minute gifts, historical crime novels are always greats presents.

A Story To Try And Ease The Pain

Plenty of people I know are hurting at the moment. For some, it’s politics. For others, the crushing weight of something in their lives – money, work, love, all manner of things.

I don’t have much I can offer to help. But perhaps this will offer a tinny glimmer of warmth, of hope. I’m a writer. Stories are what I have. But stories are what connect us, to the past, the future, to each other.

I publish this on the blog well over three years ago. Perhaps it time to see it again.

If you have pain in your life, I hope this helps, evemn if it’s only for a minute.

The light caught his eye, then the sign – Sardan Café, hand-painted and awkward. He was tired, he was thirsty. Inside it would be warm, at least. A tiny bell tinkled as he entered. Only six tables, each covered by an oilcloth. The air was heavy, damp. A scent of roasting meat and spices he couldn’t even begin to recognise.

With a sigh he sat. Within seconds, a man appeared. He was about thirty, a full head of hair shining with oil, a heavy black moustache, and a long white tunic that clung to his paunch. Without speaking, he placed a small cup of coffee on the table, gave a brief smile and bow before disappearing into the back room.

Cautiously, the man took a sip. This wasn’t espresso, bitter and strong. This was real Turkish coffee, thick, with a taste as sweet as a dreaming woman.

He didn’t recall ordering food, but it came anyway. Flatbread, still warm from the oven, beef sliced thin in a sauce that clung to the meat then fell slowly in dark brown drops. The food seemed to dissolve in his mouth. He hardly needed to chew, the texture just rough enough against his tongue. Vegetables so crisp and full of taste they could have been picked in the moment moment before they were cooked. Flavours mingled and overwhelmed him, carrying him along. He wiped the plate with the last of the bread, then the waiter appeared with a small cut-glass dish.

‘Eat,’ he said quietly. ‘Eat and enjoy.’ His voice was heavily accented and his belly wobbled slightly as he spoke. Somehow, it made him seem harmless, jolly.

The man stared for a long time before he picked up the spoon. He was sated. But just a little, he told himself. A taste to show his gratitude, although he had no idea how much the meal could cost in the end.

The ice cream was cold on his tongue. He held it there and the flavours blossomed through his palate. Lavender, as warm as a July afternoon, the velvet scent of rose petals, other things that hovered on the edge of his senses, just beyond grasp. Another spoonful and another, then it was gone, and slowly the tastes faded from his mouth, like the memories of childhood or that last beautiful dream before waking. He closed his eyes for a moment when he opened them again, the waiter was sitting across the table from him.

‘In my country we say that food is friendship.’ He smiled, showing very white teeth, one with a small, glittering gold star set in the middle. He picked up a small, battered coffee pot, the metal dull and stained from use, and poured more coffee, one for the man, one for himself. ‘You’ve eaten my food, so now you are my friend.’ He raised his cup in a toast. ‘To the future.’

‘The future.’ This time the drink tasted of deep winter nights in front of a log fire and the glance of the lover you could never forget.

‘Welcome to the Sardan Café.’

‘How much do I owe you?’ he asked. ‘For the meal, the coffee, everything.’

The waiter waved it away.

‘The food was already made. Who else was in here to eat it? It would have only gone to waste otherwise.’

‘That’s very generous, Mr-’

‘Call me Barsan.’ He smiled again, displaying that gold tooth. ‘I don’t have too many customers these days. With takeaways and ready meals, people don’t seem to bother about places like this. Either it’s too exotic or not exotic enough.’ Barsan shrugged. It didn’t seem to matter to him.

‘It feels very welcoming.’ That was exactly it, he decided. The pale walls, rugs tacked up for decoration. Like a pair of arms that wrapped comfortingly around you.

‘Thank you.’ He dipped his head. ‘My father opened the café after he came here. Forty-three years ago. It was popular then. Maybe we had more dreamers in those days.’

‘You don’t think there are now?’

‘Maybe they’ve gone elsewhere. Found places that suit them better. I seem to attract more of the lost souls.’ He cocked his head to one side. ‘Like you. People who thought they had something and lost it.’

He thought of the woman. The argument years before, the way she’d stormed out and he knew she wouldn’t be back in his life. Of the other women since, the jobs, the hopes that had all fallen by the wayside.

‘Maybe I have.’

Barsan poured more coffee from the pot.

‘Let us talk, my friend. There’s nothing else you need to do tonight, is there?’

It was funny, he thought. It seemed as if Barsan said a great deal, but really he just listened. He was the one who spoke. Bit and pieces, things that connected to each other in a way that made no sense to anyone else.

They drank coffee; the pot was tiny but somehow it was never empty. Barsan smoked his cigarettes, the tobacco with the aroma of wild thyme crushed underfoot. He smiled a lot, showing the gold tooth.

Finally he seemed to wind down, feeling as if he’d exhausted all the words that had been waiting inside him for the time to tumble out. No other customers had come in the café. How does it stay in business, he wondered at one point? How can it make money? Then the thought rose and drifted away.

He shook his head and glanced up. It had been night when he began to talk. Now he could see the first light of dawn on the horizon, rising in the sky. That wasn’t possible. It couldn’t have been more than an hour. Two at the very most. He started to panic, pushing himself upright.

‘Time passes quickly in good company,’ Barsan told him with an impish grin. Then, more seriously, ‘You miss her, don’t you?’

He nodded, not trusting himself to say more about that. He’d mentioned her briefly, then skirted the subject. Not the one he imagined he’d glimpsed. She’d made her decision and it was probably the right one; she was better off without his madness. The one he’d barely spoken about was their daughter, dead for eight years now. Playing in the garden when a car ploughed through the fence. The driver had suffered a heart attack. Instant. But it had taken three days for Jane to go. And after that his life could never be the same.

‘Here,’ Barsan said. Had he been into the kitchen? The man hadn’t seen him go. How could he have missed that? But he was holding a plate with a small piece of pastry on it. ‘Eat it, my friend. It’s baklava, sweet with honey. A good end to a meal.’ His eyes twinkled kindly. ‘Or a start to a day.’

He took one bite, then a second. It seemed to dissolve on his tongue, the taste filling his mouth. He need to close his eyes to absorb, to relish it. And as he did, he images came.

Jane at seven, laughing, at ten running in the sprint at school. Fifteen and the dark arguments with her parents, weighing every word before speaking. Eighteen: exam results and the joy of a university place. Taller, happier, more confident. With her degree, a job she didn’t enjoy but a life that brought her pleasure, helping at a charity. Serious boyfriend, marriage. Her first child, a daughter named Helen after her mother. A miscarriage, then a second girl.

Each picture seemed alive. He could smell, touch, feel, just as surely as if he was in it. And with every one, he was fading a little, Growing older. Until the last. Jane, the girls at her side, the pair of them almost grown. She was waving and blowing a kiss.

Very slowly, he opened his eyes.

‘Good, yes?’ Barsan asked.

‘Very.’ He had no idea what else to say. The man had given him the life that had been taken away. Glimpses of what might have happened. No more what if. He knew. ‘Thank you. Thank you.’

Barsan stood and stretched.

‘My friend, it is my pleasure. And now, perhaps, we should both find some sleep, eh? You know where Sardan Café is now. You must come again.’

Walking down the street he glanced over his shoulder. The city was coming to life around him, the mundane sound of buses and traffic. No light burned in the café’s window.

The Return Of The Broken Token

 

10 years

Next spring marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Broken Token (I’m pretty certain that the launch took place on May 10 – in Leeds, of course). I’d certainly never imagined all the things that have happened since, and all the book that have come out. At that time, I was working on the second in the series.

My small publisher sold out to a larger independent publisher later that year, and they understandably didn’t want the back catalogue, so physical copies of the book quickly vanished.

Thanks to Creative Content, it’s been available ever since as an ebook and an award-winning audiobook, named one of the Independent on Sunday’s 10 Best Audiobooks of 2012.

And now, to make the tenth anniversary, it’s coming back into print as a paperback. Creative Content approached me, and I’m very happy to continue our partnership. It’ll be a trade paperback, priced at £9.99, and should be available from February. Richard Nottingham will be back!

However, I do still have one mint copy of the original paperback, which I’ll be giving away in a contest next spring. That’s real collector’s value. I’m serious; someone on Amazon is offering a new copy for £161. You’ll need to stay turned to find out all the details.

Meanwhile, here’s the cover of the new paperback:

9781906790844