The Kernel of Truth

For a long time I was jealous of my friend Thom Atkinson (read about him here). His short stories and plays, justly award-winning, hit a kernel of truth that I couldn’t seem to reach in my own writing (you really should read his work. He’s honestly that good). What I produced was readable, but it was all surface, it didn’t resonate deeply.

Maybe I hadn’t lived enough. Maybe I just hadn’t reached far enough inside. I don’t know.

I had a stack of unpublished novels, six or seven of them. Fair enough.

Finally, though, I did manage to touch that core and find that elusive truth when I wrote The Broken Token. I like to feel that the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books all manage that, to a greater or lesser degree. Some – At the Dying of the Year, for instance, or Gods of Gold and Skin Like Silver – have been very emotionally draining to write. When that happens, I feel fairly sure I’ve achieved work that’s the best I can do.

Some of my other books perhaps don’t delve quite as deep. But I hope that they each have their own truth that shines through.

This is a preface to saying I’ve just completed a book that was quite exhausting to write. Currently titled The Tin God, it’s the next in the Harper series, and Annabelle figures more largely than ever. Soon enough it will be with my agent and then, I hope, my publisher, who will give the thumbs up or down. If it’s success then I’ll let you know, of course. But the issues involved are timely. Women running for office – which they could in late Victorian Leeds, either for the School Board or as a Poor Law Guardian – and the problems they face from men.

My publisher will hopefully receive this new manuscript just after On Copper Street appears in hardback in the US, and everywhere as an ebook (obligatory ad!). I was a little stunned a couple of weeks ago when Booklist, an American publication, named it as one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months before its publication. That is heart-stopping and left me immensely proud.

Over lunch last week, a writer friend told me: ‘You own Leeds.’

I don’t (or if I do, where’s the rent?), but it’s lovely to be so associated with a city I care for so deeply, that’s helped me find the heart in my fiction.

I’ll be talking about that on June 8 with a great historical crime writer, Candace Robb, who feels about York the way I do about Leeds. Details are here – please come if you can.

A finally, I mentioned Richard Nottingham before. After four years away, he’s returning. Here’s a little teaser…

RN1

 

The Real Richard Nottingham

I’ve been writing about Richard Nottingham for quite a few years now – he first appeared as a secondary character in an unpublished novel on mine written started in 2004 (the central character, as a curiosity, was a Leeds wool merchant named Tom Williamson).

In that time, I’ve been caught up in Richard Nottingham, the character. But he was a real person, the Constable of Leeds from 1717-1737. Now, with the seventh book about him due out later this year, I thought I was well past time I tried to find out a little about the man himself.

Sadly, there’s very little information. He became Constable and Gaoler of Leeds on May 18, 1717, and left that post on October 11, 1737. Richard took over the position from William Nottingham, who would seem to have been the first Constable to Leeds.

But the Nottingham family isn’t especially notable in the parish of Leeds. The Parish Register contains no mention of William, and Richard doesn’t come up until his marriage to Jane Wood on January 4, 1676, at Leeds Parish Church. At the point she was 21.

marriage

How old was he then? At the very least he’d be 16, which means that the latest he could have been born was 1660, the year of the Restoration of the Monarchy; very likely he was older than that, and older than his bride.

The couple, shown as living on Kirkgate, began having children the following year. Elizabeth first, born August 8, 1677, Hannah in July 1679, Richard in 1683, John in 1685, Mary in 1687, Jane in 1689 (died 1694), another Richard in 1691 (died 1694), Samuel in 1692, and finally another Jane, who apparently was born and died in a matter of days in 1694 – and that was an awful year for the family, losing several children in just a few months (a couple of decades later, two of Samuel’s children would die while still infants, something sadly common at the time). Was there an illness? Two more children seem to have followed, Jean in 1696, and Frances in 1697.

Although the family initially lived on Kirkgate, by 1692, with Samuel’s birth, they’d moved to Briggate (or Bridgegate, as it was written in the register), and they’re not listed in the assessment of July 1692 on Kirkgate to help pay for the war (records for Briggate need to be checked). Briggate would seem to be where they stayed for the rest of their lives, and he appears in the rates for 1726 on Briggate.

rates

It’s impossible to be certain  – this is in the days before real birth, marriage, and death certificates – but it appears that Jane Nottingham died in 1715, and was buried on March 28. Richard Nottingham himself died in 1740, buried at Leeds Parish Church on May 18. No cause of death listed; the only information is that he still lived on Briggate.

burial

Given that he only left his position as Constable three years before, he must have stayed in post until he was well into his seventies. Perhaps it’s just as well that the role was ceremonial, rather than being a working man. I’ve searched the churchyard, but no gravestone remains, which is no real surprise, given the upheavals there during the 19th century.

Yet Richard is a very elusive man. It’s impossible to gain any sense of how he might have been as a person, in spite of his very public role for two decades. And William only gains one mention in the records, in 1713, when he took part in a procession to celebrate the peace signed with France in Utrecht. There’s more to dig into, of course – wills, rates, and so on. But so far it seems to be a life that left few traces.

Richard, though, appears a number of times in the Quarter Sessions records. First in 1695, when he awarded money for pointing out men who are highway robbers. The amount was £20  – in today’s terms close to £2800.

1695

Three years later he’s there again. Interesting, this time he’s given the title of Deputy Constable, some nine years before appointed to position of Constable.

1698

When in office, it seems that things didn’t always run smoothly. In 1723 a warrant for his arrest by the bailiffs was issued, and he’d failed to execute an arrest warrant on someone. Sir William Lowther, the first Baronet of Swillington, was the member of Parliament for Pontefract and a former High Sheriff for Yorkshire.

1723

A year later he’s obviously back in good graces.

1724

 

1728

These are wonderful snippets. Did that first reward urge him towards becoming Deputy Constable? What was the reason he never made that arrest? We’ll never know, and an some ways, though, perhaps it good that the real Richard Nottingham remains so nebulous. It would seem that he had money: his oldest child, Elizabeth, married John Wombwell, the second son of Baron Wombwell, and one of their children became a consul. She died in 1745, at the age of 63. But the money might have drained away. In the 1760s Richard’s son Samuel lived in one of the backside houses off Briggate, in a property with low rateable value; just 20 years earlier, Samuel had occupied a house fronting on Briggate with a much higher value.

So far I haven’t managed to find a copy of the Leeds Mercury from May 1740 that might carry an obituary with more details. However, Leeds Libraries do have it on microfilm, so hopefully more details will be forthcoming next week!

Even if Richard never married a Mary or had Rose and Emily as daughters, he’s very much alive to me, at least the version who exists in my head. And as no portraits exist, he can only look the way we imagine him.

Richard Nottingham – the fictional one – will return in Free From All Danger, to be published in the UK on October 28, 2017.

2017, And My Year Ahead

So here we are, tiptoeing into 2017, casting a cautious eye at its possibilities, a little hopeful, a little wary that it might be more brutal than 2016. But the only thing my prognostications and the tea leaves are telling me is about the books I have coming up this year. Sorry I can’t help on lottery numbers or Grand National winners. I’m just not that good.

I write every day. I do it because it’s what I love and I have things to say. I’ve been lucky, so far at least, that publishers have wanted to put them in print and some people enjoy them. You have no idea how grateful I am for that.

I still have things to say, tales to tell. But there’s a strange alchemy that turns life into fiction, an odd transmutation. Late in February the fifth of my Tom Harper novels, On Copper Street,  comes out in the UK. Except that underneath everything, it’s not a Tom Harper book at all; that’s just the cloak it wears. Early last year, in the space of two weeks, I received news that three different friends had all been diagnosed with cancer. By then, 2016 was already whittling away at some of the icons of my generation. My friends, I’m pleased to say, are still here and seem to be doing well. But this book became my way to cope with it all, my way of understanding. Maybe even of accepting, I don’t know. It’s a way to reach down to the truth of it as it hits me, of that balance between life and death.

That, I know, probably doesn’t explain much. But for now, it’ll have to do. Oh, and if you’re especially eager, the best price for it seems to be here.

on-copper-street

This summer there’s the third, and last, Chesterfield book with John the Carpenter, The Holywell Dead. For a man who came to me in an instant on the A61, driving through Chesterfield, he feels to have been around a while. We still had a little unfinished business, I was aware of that. Not just him, but Walter, Katherine, Martha, even Coroner de Harville. Their stories had further to run. Not that much…maybe just enough. The limits of a small town and a man who’d rather work with wood than find murderers were closing in. And it ends, I hope, in a fairly apocalyptic fashion, bowing out on a high note. I’ve enjoyed my time in the 14th century with him, but we’ve walked as far as the fork in the road and he’s taken one path and I’ve trodden along the other.

9780750979955

Then there’s my second – and again, last – visit with Lottie Armstrong in The Year of the Gun. I didn’t have a choice about it. She insisted. Her presence haunted me after I’d completed Modern Crimes, so that she had to come back. But the woman I visited again was older, in her forties, and experiencing World War II in Leeds. There was a vibrancy about her, so extraordinary by being ordinary. She had this other adventure to tell me about; all I had to do was listen and note it all down. But she wasn’t going to let me be until she’d finished the tale. As I said, the choice was taken out of my hands.

the-year-of-the-gun-new-fcp

And finally, in late November there will be Free from All Danger, the seventh Richard Nottingham book. It’s still unfolding, not quite all written yet. But I’ve known for a long time that Richard had more to say, and I’m glad he has the chance. By the time it appears, it will be four years since the last volume in the series.

I’m not a fan of endless series with the same character. It’s rare to be able to pull that off, although one or two writers do manage it with some depth. But as characters age, some edges get rounded, while others splinter a little and grow jagged and sharp. Some surfaces harden and other become softer. Those are the hallmarks, far more than the lines on the face or the lack of hair.

Richard has been away, but as he comes back it’s a chance to see how Leeds and the world has changed, and what his place in this might be. The old rubbing up against the new and how they can work together.

In many ways, Richard struck me early on as being like the straight-arrow sheriff in a Western, with his strong sense of good and evil. That changed somewhat over the course of the books, and the grey areas lapped so strongly into the black and the white. But coming out of retirement, how will he find everything now? Is he still sharp enough? More than that, where does he fit? And part of that is me, and my own sense of mortality, heavily tempered by the last 12 months, and the knowledge that new generations are shaping the world, while those of us who are older become more and more like bystanders, slightly out of time.

If the series had continued without a break, this wouldn’t have been the book I’d have written. So I hope that gap, that distance, has served us well.

Tom (and Annabelle, naturally), John, Lottie, Richard – they’re all as alive to me as anyone I talk to in a shop or over coffee. They’re friends, confidantes. And sometimes their books refract bits of the present into the past. Sometimes reflections of history, sometimes my own present, my thoughts and emotions. That transmutation that fiction can give.

And that offers a little background to the work of mine that’s appearing in the next 12 months. Of course, I hope they entertain, which is what they should do, and if they don’t manage that, then I’ve failed as a fiction writer. But there’s a backstory to each one, too, and maybe knowing it will offer a little more richness to the books.

The Last Job

Damn the man.  If Amos Worthy hadn’t bought his debt, he wouldn’t be here now. But Josh had been so relieved when the man did it he was almost willing to give over his soul. Sometimes it felt as he’d done exactly that.

He’d gone up to the hanging on Chapeltown Moor, drunk more good ale than he should, and made a bet on the horse race afterwards with Moreland the Fence. In his stupor he’d wagered more than he had, certain the nag would win. It was the favourite, wearing a ribbon from Mrs. Farley, and Josh was sure he’d walk away with plenty of silver in his breeches. Then the animal galloped into a hole and broke its leg.

Josh didn’t have the money to cover what he owed, not even close, and soon Moreland became insistent. He took a beating one night from two men that left him in bed for two days before he could move properly. That was the threat. Next time would be worse. Broken bones, maybe a broken neck.

Then Worthy came to visit, solicitous as you like. Even brought one of his little whores to minister to Josh. He could buy the debt from Moreland, he suggested. Josh wouldn’t even need to give him the money. All he’d need to do was perform one or two services. He left the girl overnight. When he came back the next morning Josh was ready to agree to anything.

That was a year ago and still the ledger wasn’t clean. He knew what Worthy was like but he’d agreed anyway. What was the choice? At least he was still alive. Once, twice a month, he had to break into a house, under orders to steal this or that and take it to the man’s house on Swinegate. He tried to refuse once, to say he’d paid enough, and Worthy had slashed his face with that silver-topped cane he carried. It slashed his skin like a knife, enough to leave a pale scar. After that he’d agreed meekly and prayed he’d survive. Worthy was a big man, he was older. He was bound to keel over dead one of these days.

The months of 1731 had passed and he’d done as he was ordered. Now it was December, Christmas just three weeks away, and he was creeping round a merchant’s house in the middle of a frigid night.

Stealing was Josh’s trade. It had been since he was a boy, moving from picking pockets to snatching what he could through open windows, then learning the housebreaker’s art. He was good at it, never arrested. At twenty, though, he knew his luck couldn’t hold forever. He wanted away from the life. Something steady, where he could settle and dream there could be a future.

Back in October, still in his cups on a Sunday morning after a long night of drinking, he’d ended up in a Baptist service, not even sure how he’d stumbled in there. But he’d found something, some purity in its severity. He’d gone back every Sunday since then, wanting to repent but not certain he was able. He could almost smell the hope, but wasn’t sure he could reach it. He was ready to be immersed, to be baptised, to find that new life.

If Worthy would ever let him go.

 

Emil Frederiksson was one of a pair of Swedish merchants who’d arrived in Leeds two decades earlier and built a strong, profitable trade exporting cloth to the Baltic. He’d built his new house near to top of Kirkgate, no more than a stone’s throw from the jail. It was the type of place Josh always avoided. Too many rooms, too many servants. And if you stole from the very rich, the law came crashing down hard on your head; he’d seen that happen to men he’d known, transported to America or the Indies and lucky if they lasted long enough for passage back after seven years. But Worthy had ordered. He wanted the mirror that Fredriksson had bought from the silversmith who had his workshop behind the Shambles. And he didn’t accept failure.

Josh had tried to argue. He’d begged. He’d even cried. But Worthy didn’t give an inch. It was only at the end that the man made his promise: do this job and the debt would be forgotten.

Finally he had a ray of light in the distance, if he could reach it. He had to believe it was real.

It would be in the man’s bedroom, the worst place for stealing anything. On the ground floor, he had a chance. He knew how to move around an empty room without a sound. Up the stairs – that was a different matter. People stirred in their sleep. They woke. The servants were just up in the attic.

Josh had watched the house for a night, keeping out of sight in the shadows, standing until he felt frozen by the winter cold. He knew where Frederiksson slept, he spotted a window he could pry open in the larder.

Easily done. He felt the Turkey carpet under his feet in the hall, the slow, soft tick of the longclock. Warmth lingered in the house, enough to bring the feeling back to his fingers and legs after hours of standing and waiting for the town to quieten. Past midnight by the clock on the  Parish Church when he made his move.

He stayed close to the edge of the staircase, where the treads would be less likely to squeak. He held his breath with each step, one hand on the polished bannister to steady himself. It was slow, but he knew it would be.

Josh was alert for any sound, any sense of movement around him. He’d broken into hundreds of houses in his life and knew the rule: always make sure you have a clear way out. It wouldn’t be so easy this time.  But this time, more than ever, he need it. To put all this behind him and then wash away his sins in the freezing river.

Another Turkey carpet on the landing and Josh thank his luck; it would absorb the footfalls and let him move silently. Up here, though, he had his choice of doors. He had to imagine where he was in the house, which one led to Frederiksson’s chamber.

The man was a widower, he slept alone. That made things easier, only one person in the room who might wake. Gingerly, he felt his way along until he was at the right door. Josh stopped, held his breath, and listened. There right at the edge of his hearing, he caught the small snuffles and movements of someone asleep.

His palm was slick as he grasped the door knob. He drew it back and wiped it on his breeches, then gripped again and slowly turned it. Not a sound, no squeak or groan. His eyes were used to the gloom. Gently, inch by inch, he eased the door open, his feet not moving.

Then he was inside, easing across the floor. The shutters were closed, but a fire was banked in the hearth giving a faint glow. Josh remained still, letting his senses adjust. He could feel the man asleep, covers pulled up high. And there, on the table, the reflection of the silver mirror.

Easy, he told himself. Slow and careful. A few more minutes and he’d be gone, he’d be free. One pace and pause. Another. Then a third and fourth, each one seeming as if it might take forever, and he was close enough. Josh reached out, flexing his fingers, then taking hold of the mirror, lifting its weight and pulling it close to his body.

Josh retraced his steps, closing the door behind him without even a click. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, but he resisted the impulse to run. You made mistakes when you hurried, and this final time would be perfect.

The stairs took time. His throat felt dry, as if it would take an ocean of ale to quench his thirst. Then he felt the Turkey carpet of the hall under his shoes and he began to believe he would soon be free.

Into the kitchen, dark and shadowy, one hand reaching for the door of the larder with its open window, and someone opened a lantern.

‘There’s no point in trying to run. I have a man waiting outside.’

The speaker raised his arm and showed his face. Josh knew him. Every criminal in Leeds did. Richard Nottingham, the constable. The mirror slipped out of his hand and shattered on the flagstones.

‘Seven years of bad luck,’ Nottingham said. ‘That sounds right enough. Good job it wasn’t the silver mirror.’

Josh could feel himself starting to shake. Right at his core, then moving to his arms as if he was freezing.

‘How?’

‘You need to learn not to talk about your plans. Someone heard you and decided we ought to know. Maybe you’ll like the Indies. It’ll be warmer there.’

Amos Worthy. The bastard would never let him go. He’d been the one who peached. Josh would never be free now.

170px-oliver_twist_-_cruikshank_-_the_burgulary

In November 2017 there will be a new Richard Nottingham novel, Free From All Danger. But I’ll be talking much more about it as the time approaches. Meanwhile, I’d be glad if you’d take a glance at my most recent books, The Iron Water and Modern Crimes. Christmas is coming, after all, and books make excellent presents.

Old Jem Tales – Child Roland

Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.

His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.

He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.

Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.

This is one of the stories he used to tell.

You know, there were a time – aye, long before you or me or anyone as is alive now – where there were magic all over England. Grand as that might sound, it weren’t always good, even if it somehow stirred some mighty deeds.

I’m minded to think of a lad called Roland. He was an earl’s song, the youngest of four children, with two other brothers and a sister called Ellen. One day they was out playing in the churchyard and the oldest brother kicked the ball over the church roof. Now Ellen, she was a lass full of energy and playful and she ran off to fetch it. The boys waited but she didn’t return, and when they went looking, there weren’t hide nor hair of her.

roland

The oldest brother, he went to the wise man in the village who said that Ellen must have been taken by the King of Elfland because she hadn’t gone widdershins round the church – that is, t’opposite way to’t sun. He told the young man what to do to bring her back, and off her went.

And he didn’t come back, neither, and nor did the second son when he tried.

That left Roland. His man didn’t want to let him so, but she knew he needed to do this. So she gave him his father’s sword that never struck in vain and cast a spell to give the blade victory.

Then Roland went to the wise man.

‘I’ll tell thee what I told thy brothers,’ he said. ‘There are twa things, one you do and one you don’t. After you reach Elfland, whoever speaks to you, you must take your sword and cut off their heads. And the thing you must never do is eat or drink anything in Elfland. Now.’

Roland walked and walked and finally he reached a strange meadow where horses grazed. Elfland horses, he could tell it by the way their eyes glowed red as fire.

‘Where will I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’ Roland asked.

‘I don’t know,’ one of the horses answered. ‘But go down the road until you find the cow-herder.’ He might be able to tell you.’

Roland lifted his sword and took off the horse’s head in a single blow , then carried on along the road.

He found the cow-herder and said,

‘Where will I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’

‘I don’t know,’ the cow herder responded. ‘But go down this road until you see the hen wife. She might be able to say.’

Roland struck off the cow-herder’s head and walked on until the saw the hen-wife with her fowl.

‘Where do I find the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower?’ He asked.

‘Look for a round, green hill that’s terraced from top to bottom,’ the woman answered. ‘But tha’s got to walk widdershins round the hill and say three times: Open door, open door, and let me come in.’

Well Roland looked at her, and for a moment he didn’t want to chop off her head as he’d been so helpful. But he knew what was needful, so with a single swift blow he did the deed and walked on until he came to hill. He walked three tines around it, the opposite way to the sun, and said the words she’d given him. And happened, but a great door opened in the hillside and Roland went in.

Inside it were like twilight as the gloom seemed to seep through the earth. The were corridors and rooms, arches made of gleaming feldspar. The fittings gleamed like gold and Roland followed the ways until he came to a great hall, where Ellen sat on a settle with a black velvet cushion, pulling a silver comb through her long fair hair.

‘Roland,’ she said. ‘I’m full happy to see you. But you’ve made your journey in vain. Both our brothers tried but they fell to the King’s enchantments and you’ll do the same.’

He told her what he’d done, and how he was footsore and weary and hungry, and asked her for summat to eat and sup.

Ellen was under her own spell. She was forbidden to warn him of the dangers. All she could do was bring him bread and wine and look sadly as he raised it to his lips. But before he could taste a morsel, he remembered the wise man’s advice and threw it to the floor.

And then he heard a shuddering of the tower and the door to the hall was thrown wide as the King of Elfland entered. Roland rushed at him with the sword that never struck in vain, and the pair fought for an hour or more. Then, with a blow, Roland forced the King to his knees, and demanded he released his sister and his brothers in exchange for mercy. With a bowed head, the king agreed. He took a small vial from a chest and poured drops of a liquid red as blood on the eyes of the enchanted brothers who’d been placed to sleep in a room. They awoke, claiming their souls had left their bodies but had now returned. Then the king whispered some words over Ellen, and suddenly the bright, happy girl returned.

Troland granted the kind his mercy. With Ellen and his brothers he left the dark tower and returned to their home, never to go back to Elfland – and never to run widdershins round the church, neither.

Old Jem Tales – The Parson And The Salmon

Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.

His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.

He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.

Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.

This is one of the stories he used to tell.

 

It’s a bitter cold night and the first snow of the year. So if that’ll just plunge that poker in the ale to warm it, I’ll tell you a tale to make you smile. Aye, that’s better, and good health to you and your’n.

A long time ago – the way I heard it, it wasn’t long after the French came over here and that’s many hundreds of years back – there were a priest up in Norham.  That’s on the River Tweed, right up agin Scotland, and I heard all about it where I were up that way. Now he kept a school in his church, and there were one young lad who were allus getting into trouble.

One morning the lad knew he were on to a hiding from the parson, so he got up early, went to the church and took the key from inside the lock. Back outside he turned it so no-one could get it, because that’s where ‘t parson kept the rod he used for beating. Then the lad tossed the key into the river, thinking no one would ever find it.

But this parson, he were a right holy fellow, and when he took his road and went down to the water to catch summat for his supper, God directed him to a certain spot and told him to cast his line. He did as the Good Lord wanted, and afore he knew it, he had a bite on his line.

He pulled it out and he’d caught hissen a plump, juicy salmon. But when he cut if open to get it ready to cook, what did he find inside but the church key. So he was able to get into the church.

I’ll not bother telling you what happened to the young lad. I daresay you can guess it all already.

450px-priests_door

Old Jem’s Tales – The Hand of Glory

Back in the days when a man could wander free on the roads there lived a man called Old Jem. He’d always seemed ancient, with his beard slowly turning from brown to snowy, shaggy white and his hair hanging long over his shoulders.

His clothes were older than he was, and even in summer he wore a long coat that trailed almost to the ground. Its buttons were long gone, and in winter he held it together with a belt made from rope.

He’d been coming through Leeds even before Richard Nottingham was a boy, finding a place on Briggate to set down his pack, put out his hat and tell his stories for a penny or two. People would crowd around to listen, carried off by his voice and the magic of his words.

Jem would often stay with Richard and Mary Nottingham at the house on Marsh Lane, grateful for a bowl of stew and a place by the hearth to roll out his blanket for the night. He’d entertain Rose and Emily with his tales of kings and princesses and times when magic was still strong in the land.

This is one of the stories he used to tell.

 

I don’t know how long ago this happened, but it was afore your time. I heard the tale when I were a young ‘un, and the old lad who told it me swore as it were true.

There were an inn up on the moor past Pickering, on the road to Whitby, and one night a traveller arrived in woman’s clothes, all by hersen and asking to stay until morning. But she needed to leave early, and begged for a little food to be left out to eat before she went on her way.

Now the old couple as kept the inn agreed, but it seemed powerful strange to them, so they told the serving lass to spend the night down by the fire with the woman. The serving lass lay on the settle, but before she closed her eyes she saw that the woman was wearing a man’s shoes and hose under the dress, and suddenly she thought as she’d better pay attention.

She pretended to sleep and watched. The traveller drew out a candle from the pocket of the dress, and then a dead man’s hand. He place the candle in the hand and lit it with a taper from the fire, passing it in front of the lass’ face and saying,

‘Let them as is asleep be asleep, and them as is awake be awake.’

Then he put the hand and the candle on the table, unbolted the door and walked down to the road, where he started to whistle for his thieving companions.

c163158fda54dbd4dbba04f85925e962

The serving lass, well, she jumped up, ran out of the door behind the man dressed as a woman and pushed him down before she ran back inside and bolted the door again. Upstairs, she tried to wake the innkeeper and his missus. But they slept on, under the spell, and nowt she could do would rouse them.

The lass took a bowl of milk they’d been saving for morning and threw it over the candle so the flame went out. After that she could wake the innkeeper, and when she told him, he charged his blunderbuss and went to the window, asking what the men outside what they wanted.

They said that if the innkeeper would just throw them the dead man’s hand, they’d leave. Instead he raised his weapon and fired. That was the last they heard of them. But next morning, when they went out, they could see blood on the road, going for nigh on a quarter mile…

 

Old Jem’s stories were told and re-told by others over the years. They must have travelled around England during the centuries, because some were collected and eventually printed in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, although by then Old Jem was long forgotten.

The Return of Richard Nottingham

It’s been three and a half years since the last Richard Nottingham book, Fair and Tender Ladies, was published; it feels like much longer. But the six books in the series have a real, deep place in my heart. Not just because they were the first novels of mine to see print. Richard and the others became good friends. When one of them died I felt it inside. To me, they were all very real people. But when my publisher gently suggested that six was enough I waved them farewell – more or less; there were still a couple of short stories.

This year, though, things have changed a little. For reasons no-one understands, sales of those books have been growing, even though most are now only available on ebook. I honestly have no idea why, let alone why now – but I’m happy.

People still email asking if there will be any more in the series; I’ve received more of those in the last months than ever before.

And so I knew Richard and I had some unfinished business.

So, a few weeks ago I approached my publisher with an idea: a new Richard Nottingham book. If ever the time was right, it was now. I’m ready for a short – and I do mean short – break from Tom and Annabelle Harper. Returning to my first family for a spell would be perfect.

I’d asked the question but I had absolutely no idea what the answer might be.

It turned out to be yes. I was over the moon, especially as the news arrived on the day Modern Crimes was launch. Perfect timing.

And so I’m very, very happy to formally announce that Free From All Danger, the seventh Richard Nottingham novel, will be published in the UK in November 2017, then in the US and in ebook about four months later.

Who will be in it? Emily, Richard’s daughter, of course. Rob Lister, her man. Tom Finer, Tom Williamson, and others who will be familiar. As well as some new devils…

I’m grateful for the faith my publisher has in Richard, and even more to those who keep buying the books. To tease you a little, here’s the opening of the novel. I hope it whets your appetite for the rest. Only 13 months to wait!

 

Leeds, Autumn, 1736

 

Sometimes he believed he spent too much time in the past, he thought as he crossed Timble Bridge. It was where he spent most of his days now; its lanes and its byways were imprinted on his heart. Once he’d believed there was too much ahead to consider what had gone. But he was young then, eager and reckless and rushing into the future. Now the years had caught up with him. He moved a little more slowly, he preferred to walk with a stick; he was scarred inside and out. His hair was wispy and grey and his face looked creased and folded, with as many lines as a map when he saw it in the glass,

At the Parish Church he turned, following the path to the graves. Rose Waters, his older daughter, married and dead of fever before she could give birth. Mary Nottingham, his wife, murdered because of his own arrogance. Every day he missed her. Both of them. Awkwardly he stooped and picked a leaf from the grass by her headstone. September already. Soon there would be a river of dead leaves as the year tumbled to a close.

Most of the people he cared about were here. John Sedgwick, who’d been his deputy and his friend. Even Amos Worthy. The man had been a panderer, a killer, but they’d shared a curious relationship. Cancer had left him a husk before it too him.

And now there were just two left. Himself and his younger daughter. Richard and Emily Nottingham. She had her man, Rob Lister, now the deputy constable of Leeds, and the road wound out into the distance for them both.

There were more people in his life, of course there were. But so many of those who’d meant most rested here. He stood for a minute. With a sigh he straightened the stock around his neck and walked up Kirkgate. At the jail he glanced through the window. Empty inside, but that was no surprise. Simon Kirkstall, the constable, had died a fortnight before. Simply fallen down one night in the White Swan, a mug of ale in his hand, as his heart stopped beating. Now Rob and the others were working all the hours God sent to cover everything.

Red Letter Weeks

Last week was quite a week, one of those that stand out on the calendar in bright, brilliant red. The great highlight was a couple of days with my closest friend and his wife, in Leeds for a couple of days between France, Germany, London, Bath, Bolton, and Bantry Bay in Ireland. He was between the final of the Bath International Short Story Competition, which he didn’t win, and the literary festival in Bantry, where he has a story in a new anthology. Thomas M. Atkinson. Discover his work, you won’t regret it. He’s a far better writer than I’ll ever be.

He lives in the American Midwest. We talk regularly, but the last time we met was in 2000. I was on my way from Seattle to cover Lotus Fest in Bloomington, Indiana and I spent a night with him. It was an occasion to together the band which had been our introduction to each other.

This time we covered York and Whitby on a glorious weekend of weather. We’re older, more crotchety, but, as in every conversation, it was like picking up where we’d left off, only with visuals. The only bad part? Time was too short.

Then on the Wednesday, I received an email from my agent. The publisher wants to publish my fifth Tom Harper novel, On Copper Street. That makes a thrilling opening to the day. It’s a little different to its predecessors, a bit more meditative. To me it seems like a mix of the best of Tom and Richard Nottingham. But others will offer their judgement.

Later in the day, another email. The other publisher I work with wants to publish my third John the Carpenter novel, set in medieval Chesterfield and currently called The Holywell Dead. This on the basis of the first 4,000 words I’d sent them.

Yes, I sold two books in one day. Staggered myself. I’ll never repeat the feat and it doesn’t matter. I was thrilled. But you know what? It didn’t compare to seeing my closest friend again after all this time. Now we need to start making plans for 2032.

Oh, and I should remind you that the fourth Tom Harper Novel, The Iron Water, is published in the UK on Friday. Just to round everything off perfectly.

the iron water 4 blue legs

One More Richard Nottingham Story

This is the last of the Richard Nottingham stories I have sitting on the hard drive. Called December, I probably wrote it as a Christmas story for Leeds Book Club in 2012, and it’s just been sitting there quietly ever since. So it’s time it saw daylight again.

Will there be more? I’ve a feeling there will. I’m just not sure when.

The frost lay heavy on the grass and the branches as he walked towards Timble Bridge, his breath blooming wide in the air. The dirt was hard under his boots and the air bitter against his face. Richard Nottingham pulled the greatcoat more tightly around his body and walked up Kirkgate.

It was still dark, dawn no more than a line of pale sky on the eastern horizon. In some houses the servants were already up and labouring, plumes of smoke rising from a few chimneys. At the jail he checked the cells, seeing a drunk who’d been pulled from the street and a pair brought in by the night men for fighting at an alehouse. Another quiet night.

He pushed the poker into the banked fire and added more of the good Middleton coal kept in an old scuttle nearby. As warmth filled the room he removed the coat and settled to work. So far the winter had been gentle, he thought, but it was still only December. Come January and February, once the bitter weather arrived, the poor would freeze and die.

It was the same every year, he thought sadly. He’d been Constable of the City of Leeds long enough to know that all too well. When the cold bit it was always those without money who paid the price.

Down on Briggate the weavers would be setting up their trestles for the cloth market. They’d be laying out the lengths ready for the merchants, then eating their Brigg End Shot breakfast of hot beef and beer in the taverns, close enough to the door to keep a wary eye on their goods. He’d go down there before the bell rang to show the start of trading, walking around to watch for cutpurses and pickpockets, hearing the business of Leeds carried out in low whispers, thousands of pounds changing hands quietly in an hour.

He fed a little more coal onto the fire and straightened as the door swung open, bringing in a blast of chill air.

“Morning, boss,” said John Sedgwick, edging closer and holding his hands out as if he was trying to scoop up the heat. He’d been the deputy constable for little more a year, still eager and hardworking, a lanky, pale lad with pock marks fading on his cheeks.

“Looks like you had an easy time of it last night,” the Constable said.

“Aye, not too bad,” he agreed, pouring himself a mug of ale. “You know what it’s like. As soon as the nights turn chilly they stay by their hearths at night.”

“You wait. It’s Saturday, they’ll all be out drinking come evening,” Nottingham warned him. “You’ll have your hands full then.” He shook his head. “Get yourself home, John. Have some sleep.”

The deputy downed the ale and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I’ll be glad to see my bed, right enough. I might even warm up for a few hours.”

Alone, Nottingham wrote his daily report for the mayor, nothing more than a few lines. He delivered it to the Moot Hall, the imposing building that stood hard in the middle of Briggate. The city was run from there, from rooms with polished furnishings and deep Turkey carpets that hushed the dealings and the sound of coins being counted. He gave the paper to a sleepy clerk and made his way down the street just as the Parish Church bell rang the half hour to signal the start of the cloth trading.

The merchants were out in their expensive clothes, the thick coats of good cloth, hose shining white as a sinless day and shoes with glittering silver buckles. They were moving around the stalls, making their bargains and settling them with a swift handshake before moving on to the next purchase. He saw Alderman Thompson softly berating a clothier, his face red, trying to beat the man down in price in his usual bullying manner.

The alderman glanced around, noticed him and glared. There was bad blood between them and Thompson was loath to forget it, a man who kept grudges in his mind like a ledger. But the man had been a fool, trying to cheat a whore of the few pennies that would have been food and shelter for her. The girl had complained and the Constable had confronted the man in front of his friends, shaming him, forcing the money from his pocket and passing it on to the lass.

He knew what he’d risked, the enmity of a man who was powerful on the Corporation. But the girl had earned her payment and deserved it; the man could afford it easily enough.

The Constable walked up and down the road, alert for quick movements, but there was nothing. He settled by the bridge, leaning on the parapet and looking at the rushing black water of the Aire. How many bodies had they pulled out of the river this year? Twenty, perhaps? Enough to lose count, certainly. Those who couldn’t cope any more with life and had found refuge in the current, the ones who’d drunk too much and fallen in, unable to get out again. There was always death, always hopelessness.

He shook his head and started to make his way back to the jail. Atkinson was striding out, thirty yards ahead of him. A girl running headlong down the street crashed into the man, and he batted her away idly with his arm, sending her tumbling before uttering a loud curse moving on.

The girl picked herself up and began to walk. As she passed, Nottingham took her by the arm.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he told her, his grip tight.

“Done what?” she asked, the fright in her eyes as she raised her eyes to him and tried to pull away. She was young, no more than thirteen, thin as March sunlight, cheeks sunken from hunger, wearing nothing more than an old, faded dress and shoes where the upper was coming away from the soles. Her flesh was cold under his touch, puckered in goose pimples.

“You know exactly what you did. You cut his purse.”

“I didn’t,” she protested and began to struggle.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked gently. She shook her head, her mouth a tight, scared line. “I’m the Constable of Leeds. I think you’d better come along with me.” She tried to wriggle away, but his hand was firm on her. After a few moments she gave up, hanging her head and shuffling beside him.

The jail was warm, the fire burning bright and loud. He sat her down then held out his hand for the purse. Reluctantly, she brought it from the pocket in her dress and gave it to him.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Elizabeth, sir.” Now, with the cells so close she could see them, she was shivering in spite of the heat. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing just yet,” he assured her. “But I can’t make you any promises, Elizabeth. Where do you live?”

“Nowhere, sir.” He looked at him. “Me and my man and my sisters, we sleep where we can.” It was a familiar tale, one he’d heard so many times before, one he’d lived himself when he was young.

“How many of you?”

“Five, sir.”

He nodded at the purse. “How long have you been doing that? And give me an honest answer,” he warned.

“Two month, sir. But I’ve only managed to take three,” the girl pleaded.

He sat back, pushing the fringe off his forehead then rubbing his chin. “When did you last eat?”

“Thursday.”

“How old are your sisters?”

“Nine, seven and six, sir.”

“What happened to your father?”

“He died, sir. A horse kicked him in the head during the summer.” He could see the beginning of tears in her eyes.

“What was his name?” Nottingham wondered.

“William Marsden, sir. He worked at the stables.”

He remembered the name and the incident. The man had been a farrier, experienced and good at his trade. He’d been about to put fresh shoes on a horse when it reared, the sharp hoof catching him on the temple. He’d died instantly. “Doesn’t your mam work?”

“She has a bad leg, sir, she can’t walk proper.”

“And what about you? You’re old enough.”

“I’ve tried to find work, sir, but no one has anything.” The girl raised her chin defiantly. “I have, sir, honest.”

He stared at her face. All the guile vanished now, leaving a terrified girl who knew she could be sentenced to hang for what she’d done. He hesitated for a long moment, then said, “When you leave here, go next door to the White Swan. Talk to Michael and tell him the Constable sent you. He needs a girl to help there. It won’t pay much, but it’s better than nothing.”

Her eyes widened in astonishment and happiness as she began to understand he was letting her go. “Thank you, sir. Thank you. Do you really mean it, sir?”

He nodded, weighing the purse in his hand. It was heavy enough. With a small movement he tossed it to her. As she caught it, her mouth widened into a silent O.

“Rent a room for all of you and buy some food. Now go.”

He stood at the window, watching her in the street, looking back in disbelief before she vanished into the inn. Off to the west the clouds were heavy and pale as pearls. If they came in there’d be snow later.

 

I hope you won’t mind me going on about it, but another favourite character of mine, Annabelle Harper, takes to the stage in June. Seats are limited, and if you’re near Leeds I hope you’ll book a ticket here.