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.
‘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.
Since it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon and other online shops, I’m hardly giving away any secrets when I reveal the cover and tell you a little bit about the next (eighth!) Tom Harper book. It’s called The Molten City, and see Tom and Annabelle firmly in the 20th century.
Detective Superintendent Tom Harper senses trouble ahead when the prime minister plans a visit. Can he keep law and order on the streets while also uncovering the truth behind a missing child? Leeds, September 1908. There’s going to be a riot. Detective Superintendent Tom Harper can feel it. Herbert Asquith, the prime minster, is due to speak in the city. The suffragettes and the unemployed men will be out in the streets in protest. It’s Harper’s responsibility to keep order. Can he do it? Harper has also received an anonymous letter claiming that a young boy called Andrew Sharp was stolen from his family fourteen years before. The file is worryingly thin. It ought to have been bulging. A missing child should have been headline news. Why was Andrew’s disappearance ignored? Determined to uncover the truth about Andrew Sharp and bring the boy some justice, Harper is drawn deep into the dark underworld of child-snatching, corruption and murder as Leeds becomes a molten, rioting city.
Just to start, I have to tell you the Kirkus Reviews, one of the major trade journals in the US, has given The Hocus Girl a starred revew (they also gave one to my last book, The Leaden Heart). you can read the full review here, but this is the final line: “This historical tour de force reminds readers who come for the mystery that life hasn’t changed for the disenfranchised.”
I’ll take that.
They say that an author draws on people he knows for his characters.
I beg to differ.
I feel that in many cases I simply channel the people who populate my books. But if they have any traits, they’re not from people I know; they’re all small facets of me.
Richard Nottingham, for instance, is a very straight arrow, an utterly honest and upright man. Someone to be admired. He’s who I’d like to be, in an ideal world. The Leeds equivalent of the sheriff from a Western (albeit an old one). Amos Worthy is that creeping darkness in my soul. It’s there, I just need to let it out.
Dan Markham is cooler than I’ll ever be, a man at home in a jazz club or standing up to a criminal. He has style, something I’ve always aspired to but never achieved. Carla, his girlfriend, is the creative spirit I always wished I could be. But I never have quite managed to throw off the shackles of society.
Lottie Armstrong. She’s strength in adversity, someone who doesn’t give up. I suppose in some ways I have that, since I kept on fight to be published and eventually got there. But she’s a woman and that automatically makes her stronger than any man. And revisiting her 20 years later, she’s still got the resilience under all the sorrow. Urban Raven, from The Dead on Leave, has some of the same qualities. But with a crude plastic surgery face, his obstacles are more visible and obvious.
Simon Westow is resourceful, brave, intelligent, a man who’s overcome his past. That’s not me, of course; I’ve been far luckier than that. But I’d like to believe I had to spirit to be able to work my way up. Maybe I would, too. But probably not. Jane…Jane is my real darkness, the side we keep in because that’s what society teaches us. There are times I feel as isolated from the world as her. As an only child I’m good at keeping things inside, at being able to compartmentalise everything in my head. She’s the extreme, with everything coloured by a very deadly nature.
Tom Harper? He’s perhaps as close as I’ve come to a younger me, and his hearing problem certainly mirrors my own
Annabelle? No, Annabelle is channelled. She truly did come out of the ether. But thank God she’s here.
It’s hard to believe, but next Spring it’ll be 10 years since my first book set in Leeds was published – The Broken Token, in case you’re curious. There will be a new Tom Harper novel appearing then, the eighth in the series, which will mean I’ve published a total of 22 novels and a collection of short stories set in Leeds in the last decade.
That’s not counting a couple of plays and involvement in the exhibition The Vote Before The Vote, where Annabelle Harper stepped into Leeds history.
I’m going to celebrate it. 10 years is worth celebrating. It took a while to figure out how, though…
It has to be stories. After all, I’m a writer. So from November to next March I will have a short story with one of my Leeds characters each month. I’ll be starting with Dan Markham, taking him into the very beginning of the 1960s, then working my way back through time – Urban Raven, Lottie Armstrong, Tom Harper, Simon Westow, and finishing, quite rightly, with Richard Nottingham.
It’s going to be a challenge. I need to try and capture the essence of each of them, and in some cases it’s been a few years since we met. But I never like to make it easy for myself. I’ve even come up with a logo for everything 10th, just to warn you.
The Dan Markham story will appear in early November. I hope you’ll like in. In the meantime, you could read the new Simon Westow book, The Hocus Girl. It’s out in the UK in hardback now, and it’ll be available everywhere as an ebook from November 1.
I’m cheap. Well, of course I am, I come from Yorkshire; it’s in my DNA. And it’s quite true, I never pay more for something that necessary. I shop around. I’m unlikely to ever be a John Lewis customer.
That said, I do prefer to buy from independent shops, or those that pay their full whack of taxes. Things being what they were, though, sometimes a bargain from elsewhere can be too good to refuse.
Right now – and I don’t know how long it will last – a couple of my books are very cheap on Amazon.
The Tin God is a little over £2 on Amazon, both in hardback and for Kindle. It costs less that I can for my coffee at La Botega Milanese when I go into town. And, much as I like their coffee, a book lasts longer. This is one of my favourites, as Annabelle Harper becomes such a central character, and it reflects the local politics of the time – and the way women struggled for the vote. The offer is only in the UK (sorry) and you can find it here.
The Hanging Psalm is also cheap, although, costing more than £4 in both formats, it not quite as much of a bargain. But that price for a hardback? I’m astonished. Here is the page.
I don’t know who’s behind it, whether it’s Amazon or my publisher. But if you’ve been thinking of buying, I doubt there will be a better time. I have no idea how long the prices will last.
The Hanging Psalm is the first Simon Westow book. The second, called The Hocus Girl, comes out at the end of next month. It features undercover government agents (based on a true story from the period – nothing changes), Joshua Tetley about to open his brewery, a real-life female preacher, and the world’s first locomotive able to carry loads. It’s currently available to order for £15.66 right here – definitely the cheapest price around.
Time to go back to being personally cheap…
Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.
I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.
One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.
This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.
But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.
Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.
Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.