Free For You…

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

Here’s the first.

 

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

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

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

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.