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?’

A Christmas Tale

I’m not really one for Christmas in my own life. I never have been. But every couple of years I still seem to end up writing a Leeds Christmas story. Don’t ask; I can’t explain it, either.

This time, though, I wanted to do something different. I’m reading Steve Roud’s wonderful Folk Song in England, and the section on Town Waits – the official musicians employed by many towns, who also doubled as the night watch – struck a chord.

Leeds had its Waits back in the 16th century; they’re documented as far back as 1530, and their history might stretch back even further. As well as their watch duties, they played for official occasions and balls, and often undertook private engagements. In the 17th century, certainly, Leeds Waits were popular, as played as fair away as Carlisle and Newcastle. In other words, they must have been good.

And why Elizabethan Leeds? Why not? After all, I said I wanted to do something different.

We do have a revived Town Waits, who perform occasionally. You should see them if you can.

And on a final note before the story, don’t forget that Free From All Danger, the first Richard Nottingham book in over four years, came out recently. It makes a fine gift for family and friends.

Now, sit down with a mince pie, enjoy, and be of good cheer.

-early-music-folk-style

Leeds, 1559

The crisp weeks before Christmas were always fruitful. The musicians of the Town Waits would perform at the balls and parties around Leeds. Dances and tunes, songs and carols, then the last two dances to close the evening before a walk home in the cold darkness with coins jingling in their purses.

Daniel Wakeman tugged his cloak tighter and tucked the fiddle against his body. It was well wrapped, but the night was frosty and he knew the instrument well; if it grew too cold, it would complain by refusing to say in tune tomorrow. It had belonged to his father, a member of the Waits before him, a beautiful piece of work, but temperamental as a young girl.

Tonight had been good. Out in Potternewtown, a crowd that appreciated everything they played, and a generous host. Good food sent from the table and a jug of ale refilled as often as they needed. Then three shiny pennies each to carry home.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said to the others, ‘I’ll play there whenever they ask.’

Sam Hardy and Tom Carter laughed. Old John Whittaker said nothing, the same as ever, but he’d always been the quiet sort. They walked on, following the road into town. The last few nights had seen some killing frosts, and the earth was hard and rutted under their shoes. Clear skies and a bight enough moon to see his breath bloom in the air.

‘Did you hear about Pawson?’ Tom asked. ‘Someone’s been saying his wife’s made him a cuckold.’

It was all they needed to set tongues going, the speculation of who and when. Leeds was small, a place where everyone knew all the faces, whether high or low. New folk arrived every week, drawn by the way the wool trade was growing, but most were like Daniel, born in the town and lived there all their lives. He knew Pawson the clothier, he saw him almost every day. His wife span wool for the man. It brought in extra money they always needed. Being in the waits meant the silver badge and a good livery, the blue as dark as the evening sky and the yellow like a June sun, but the pay was small. Six nights a week walking around town, playing soft music to soothe the sleepers, keeping a watch for fire or burglars, then something louder to wake people in the morning. But it was a life full of music, and that was enough for him.

Music was joy. He felt free when he was playing. Even the recorder he used as he walked the street on the night watch. But the fiddle was what he loved. He felt he had a special bond with it. Not like some he heard, scraping to bow over the strings to give a sound that made him wince. His father had taught him well, God rest his soul. He caressed the notes, he made them dance. He couldn’t read a note of music, but he only needed to hear a melody once and he could play it.

But they were all good, even grumbling John, his back bent now under the weight of his bass viol. Sam with his lute, and Tom on the other fiddle. The best in the North, some people said, and who was he to deny it? They played all over, not just the parishes around Leeds, but for milady in Skipton back in the summer and as far away as Newcastle once, and Carlisle. They had a reputation, and he was proud of it.

‘Give us a song, Sam,’ Daniel said. Hardy had the best voice of them all, a sweet tenor that the ladies loved. A moment later, he began:

‘The hunt is up, the hunt is up,’ and they made it into a round, voices echoing loud against the silence of the night. But out here there were none to disturb.

By the time they neared Mabgate, Daniel could feel the cold eating through to his bones. A fancy hose and doublet might look fine enough, but they did little to keep out the bitter winter. Even a thick woollen cloak wasn’t much help. But he was close enough to home; soon he’d be warm again.

It wasn’t the best part of Leeds, not one of the fine houses of Briggate or Kirkgate with their painted timbers and brilliant white limewash, but it suited his pocket. The children were grown and gone to lives of their own; he and Maggie didn’t need much. A room downstairs for living and cooking, another upstairs which held the rough bed he’d built for them and two small chests of clothes. Plenty of room behind to grow most of their food and keep the pig and a pair of chickens. It was more than many possessed. And he didn’t mind the drabs who touted for trade on the road. They were like everyone else, simply trying to scratch a living.

What he did miss, though, was a cat. Theirs had died six months before. Eighteen years old, and a fine mouser in his day. He’d been good company while Daniel practiced on the fiddle in the bedroom and Maggie span downstairs. We all have our time, he thought. That’s how God wills it, and it was a good, long life for a cat.

With hushed goodnights he said his farewells to the other Waits and started along the street, lost in his thoughts.

Then the sound caught his ear. The tiniest mew, so faint he couldn’t even be sure it was real. It came from across the road. He stopped to listen, hoping to hear it again. And just as he did, right in front of him, a slate toppled from the roof, smashing and splintering as it hit the ground exactly where he’d have been walking.

For a moment, Daniel couldn’t catch his breath. God save us all, he thought, and the Lord had spared him for some reason. He felt himself beginning to shake and held the fiddle close. Then he heard the sound again, a little clearer. Over there, in the bushes by Widow Elizabeth’s house.

It was caught in a tangle of briers, a small, cold creature that tried to shy away from his touch. But he was gentle and patient, easing away the thorns until he could lift the kitten and feel its heart pounding hard against his palm.

No more than four weeks old, so thin he could wrap his fingers around its body. He stroked its fur, hearing the smallest start of a purr. Where had it come from? Not from any of the cats around here, he knew that. And it was still to young to be away from its mother.

But it had saved him. It was a gift.

‘Come on,’ Daniel said as he rubbed it head, ‘let’s get you inside. You need something to drink.’

The fire was banked for the night, but still far warmer than the darkness outside. An old rag for a bed. A dish of milk. He watched as the kitten drank, tentatively at first, then greedily.

Daniel put the fiddle away in the cupboard, resting it carefully on the shelf. It was his livelihood and his pleasure; he always kept it secure. He poured a mug of small beer, sitting on the bench to watch the cat. It was standing now, wobbling a little as it explored a little. A few steps around, then back, nose in the dish for more milk before it mewed again, then settled on the cloth.

‘I heard you come in,’ Maggie said from the top of the steps.

‘We have a new cat,’ Daniel said. ‘Come and meet it.’

‘A new cat?’ she asked in surprise as she came down. ‘What made you do that? It barely looks alive.’

‘I had to. This one just kept your husband alive. If it hadn’t cried out, I’d have been brained by a falling slate from the Thompson’s roof. I think it deserves a home after that, don’t you?’

She squatted, staring at the kitten in the faint glow from the fire, then reaching out and stroking it.

‘What are we going to call it?’ she asked.

‘Yule,’ Daniel replied. It seemed right.

 

 

The Hanging Psalm, Part 2

When I put the opening to The Hanging Psalm on here (the previous blog entry – scroll down to read), it brought some interesting reactions.

It’s still moving ahead, and looking a bit more like a book – although that always remains to be seen. I start many more things than I complete.

But I thought I’d give you one more taste of it, as the plot and characters open out a little. So, please, tell me what you think.

 

As he left the Moot Hall, Simon curled his hands into fists and pushed them into the pockets of his trousers. Briggate was thick with carts and people. He moved between them without noticing. His head was filled with the faces from the past. The children who fainted after working for twelve hours without food or water, because the overseer wanted the most from them. The boy who lost three fingers in a machine, just standing and staring at the stumps, not able to say a word.

And finally, the day he carried a girl back to the workhouse, the bloody patch steadily growing on her skirt after two men had their pleasure with her during their dinner break. Catherine, just turned eleven the week before; that was the all he ever knew about her. She moaned in his arms, in too much pain to cry.

He was thirteen, grown big and strong and defiant. He pushed the door of the matron’s office wide, and gently lay Catherine on her desk. The woman was protesting, shouting, but he didn’t want to hear anything she had to say. Simply turned on his heel. He was never going back.

 

There was still an April chill in the air as he stood and gazed down on the river. The water moved slowly, stinking and dirty. Swirls of red and ochre and blue eddied on the surface, waste from the dyeworks. The body of a dead dog bobbed lazily up and down in the current.

Simon took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He needed to let his thoughts ebb away. He needed to forget. To let the fire burn down to embers again.

From the corner of his eye he noticed a movement, a shadow.

‘It’s only me.’ The girl kept a wary distance, eyes on him. She was thirteen, older perhaps, maybe even younger. As invisible as any of the children who roamed the streets in Leeds. An old, patched dress that was too small for her. Stockings that were more holes than wool, battered clogs on her feet. Dirty face and hands and a grubby cap covering blonde hair. ‘The missus sent me after you. I saw you leave the Moot Hall and followed you down. You’re all dressed up today.’

Simon had worn his good suit, the short, double-breasted jacket in fine worsted with long swallowtails and tight, narrow trousers. A ruffle at the front of his shirt and a tall-crowned hat with its curled brim on his head. He’d wanted to make an impression, to show that a boy from the workhouse could be a success. But by now he probably didn’t even exist for them.

‘What does she want?’ He took a breath, tasting the soot that spewed from the factory chimneys. Slowly, he felt the anger recede.

‘Someone’s waiting to see you. Looks like a servant, I caught a glimpse before she sent me out.’ She waited a moment. ‘Are you coming?’

‘Tell her I’ll be there soon.’

He watched her move, melting into the press of people. Who noticed a child? Who noticed a girl? That was what made Jane so useful. She could follow without being seen, she could overhear a conversation without anyone realising she was close.

Simon gazed around. Grim faces everywhere. People who looked as if they were just clinging on to life. He began to walk.

 

The house stood on Swinegate, right on the curve of the street. He could hear Rosie in the kitchen, talking to the twins as she worked. She raised her head as he entered, pushing a lock of hair away from her cheek. An apron covered her muslin dress. She brought the knife down sharply on a piece of meat.

‘Jane found you?’

‘She did. Where is he?’

‘I gave him a cup of ale and left him in the front room. Arrived about half an hour ago.’

Simon nodded.

‘How was it?’ she asked.

‘Give them three lifetimes and they’d never understand. All it did was drag up the past.’

She gave him a tender smile.

‘It’ll fade again. It always does, Simon.’

‘I suppose it will.’ She was right; it always had before. His sons peered at him around the corner of the table, two identical heads. He stuck out his tongue and they began to laugh. They were the best medicine he knew.

 

The smile vanished as he opened the door and walked into the front room. The man in the chair jerked his head up at the sound as if he’d been sleeping.

‘I’m Simon Westow. You wanted to see me?’

‘My master does.’

Jane was right. He was a servant. But a trusted one, if they were sending him here. Older, with sparse grey hair and a grave, formal manner to match his dark clothes.

People didn’t seek Simon out. They placed a notice in the Mercury or Intelligencer for their stolen property. He found it, returned it, and gave them the name of the thief. In exchange, he received the reward. If they chose to prosecute, they could take their chances in court.

That was how a thief taker worked. No one came here for his services.

‘Who’s your master?’

‘He’d rather not be identified yet.’ The man gave a forbidding smile. ‘But he’d like to meet you today.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s a delicate matter. He’d prefer to tell you himself.’ The man reached into his waistcoat pocket with two long fingers and drew out a sovereign. ‘He believed this might convince you.’

The gold felt heavy in his palm. Solid. Real.

‘Where and when?’

‘Three o’clock. Do you know Drony Laith?’

‘Yes.’ Out beyond Gott’s big mill at Bean Ing. Just woods and fields, where the town ended and the countryside began.

The man stood and gave a small bow.

‘What would you have done if I’d refused?’ Simon asked.

‘My master gave me a second sovereign. He’ll see you at three.’

 

He tossed the coin. It skittered across the kitchen table. Rosie’s had moved swiftly and it vanished, disappearing into the pocket of her skirt.

‘Handsome money,’ she said. ‘What’s it for?’

‘I’ll find out this afternoon.’ He poured a mug of ale and drained half of it in a gulp. She kneaded the bread dough, fingers spread as she pushed it down. She’d given the boys a small scrap; they sat, stretching it between them until it snapped, then starting over again.

This was where he felt complete. This was home.

Rosie began to shape the loaves, concentrating on her work. She’d blossomed, he thought, so different from the girl he’d seen sitting at the side of the road twelve years before, staring helplessly at a mile marker.

‘Can you help me, mister?’ she’d asked. ‘Does it say which way to London? I can’t read it.’

He’d told her, but she didn’t start walking. Instead, he sat next to her and they began to talk. She was still here. Now, though, she knew her letters and her numbers. He’d taught her, the same way he’d taught himself after he left the workhouse. And she learned quickly. His pupil, after a while his lover, and finally his wife.

‘Do you have any idea who sent him?’ Deftly, she slid the loaves into the oven.

‘Not yet. Has Jane come back?’

‘I heard her go upstairs.’

 

He knocked quietly, waiting for her reply. The attic was almost bare, just a bed, a basin and jug on a small table, and a haze of ragged curtain covering the window.

She’d been here for two years, yet there was nothing of her in the room. As soon as she walked out, it was empty. But he understood. Own nothing you couldn’t carry. A portable life, always ready to move, to run. Until he met Rosie, he’d been exactly the same.

‘I saw him leave.’

‘Go out to Drony Laith,’ Simon said. ‘I’m meeting his master there at three.’

He didn’t need to tell her to keep out of sight. It was habit for her; she’d learned it on the streets. Don’t let anyone see you steal. Keep clear of authority. Get caught and you’d be in chains, waiting for Botany Bay or the noose.

‘I know his face. He works for John Milner.’

Interesting. Milner had property all over Leeds, and investments in two of the manufactories that had gone up since Napoleon’s defeat. They’d never spoken, but Simon seen him in town, a sour prig of a man with a miserly face.

But what property had he lost that needed to remain such a secret?

‘Let me know if anyone goes along with him or if anyone’s following.’

The girl nodded.

‘Dinner will be ready soon.’

A Christmas Tale

For someone who doesn’t care about Christmas, I seem to end up writing a Christmas story every year. Most of them have been little present for the wonderful Leeds Book Club, and you can find them here if you scroll down the page. This time, though, I thought I’d simply put it up here. And, in an even more unusual twist, for once it’s very contemporary. I hope you like it, and happy holidays of whatever kind you celebrate (or none).

 

For a moment she didn’t even realise she was doing it. Then Kate caught herself, singing along with Joni Mitchell’s “River” as her car idled at the traffic lights. At least it was a depressing Christmas song. This was always the worst time of year. Both her parents had died in December, years apart, and it always brought back memories, some good, most of them bad.

Ahead of her, the decorations glowed along the Headrow. Four o’clock and it was already full dark. She felt as if she’d barely seen daylight today. In the Magistrates’ Court since nine, waiting, then just five minutes of evidence before she was off the stand. At least she could duck off home early for once.

She glanced out of the passenger window. The big tree in front of the Town Hall was lit up, trying to give some spirit to the city. Kate was about to turn away when something caught her eye. A man looking around cautiously before ducking close to the tree and putting down a pack.

A horn beeped and her eyes slid to the rearview mirror. The lights had changed and traffic was moving. Kate put on her indicator, crept round the corner to Calverley Street, then on to the cobbled forecourt. She could still see the man at the bottom of the steps, gazing up to the top of the tree. Kate turned off the engine and suddenly Joni was silent. She took the radio from her briefcase.

‘This is DI Thornton.’

‘Go ahead, ma’am.’

‘Got something at the Town Hall. A man’s just left something under the big tree outside.’

For a few seconds there was nothing from the other end. She could feel her heart beating fast.

‘Sent out the alert, ma’am.’ The voice was tense now. ‘The super wants to know if you’re you sure you saw it?’

Typical Silver Command question. Don’t believe the bloody officer on the scene.

‘I’m certain. I can make it out. I’m parked close. I can still see the man.’

‘Description, ma’am?’

She stared.

‘White, maybe five feet nine. Wearing a parka. It might be green, hard to tell. Looks a little stocky. Dark bobble cap. Wait, he’s starting to walk away.’

‘We’re going to talk to the CCTV centre. Silver Command says they can track him. He wants you to move away from the area.’

Nobody was saying what could be in that package. These days it was safer to assume the worst.

‘There are people all around. What about them?’

‘Units are on the way. They should be there very soon.’

She could make out the distant wail of the sirens. Five or six of them, maybe more.  Another thirty seconds and they’d probably be here; certainly no more than a minute.

‘I’m going to follow him,’ Kate said. She clicked off the radio, dropped it on the seat and locked the car behind her. Cameras were fine, but nothing beat someone on the ground. Someone there and ready to act. Her heels clicked briskly as she walked. In her pocket the phone was buzzing; she switched it to silent.

He was crossing the road and starting to disappear into the throng on East Parade. Kate hurried, ducking through the traffic and ignoring the blaring horns. Too many people around for him to spot her. He hadn’t even looked back, he wasn’t hurrying.

She kept ten yards away, close enough to keep him in easy sight and rush him if it was needed. A glance over her shoulder. Flashing lights all around the Town Hall, traffic stopped on the Headrow. Good, everything was in hand there.

He left the pavement, going over then along South Parade. For a moment she’d been able to see his face as he turned his head. About fifty, jowly, stubble on his cheeks. Along Park Row, past Becketts Bank, the smokers gathered outside the bar, then on to Bond Street.

Shit.

Kate took out her phone. Five missed calls. She swiped the screen as she walked and pressed the number that had been trying to reach her.

‘What the hell-’

‘Another hundred yards and he’ll be on Commercial Street, sir. How many people do we have close?’

‘Two on Briggate heading your way and another coming up Albion Street. Why-’

Too far away, Kate decided. He needed to be stopped now.

‘I’m moving in on him, sir.’ She ended the call and put the phone back in her pocket.

Deep breath time. Kate could hear the busker on the corner ahead, the old man with the good voice doing his Johnny Cash songs. She walked faster, trying not to run; she didn’t want to panic him. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought it would break her ribs. Kate checked: the handcuffs were in her pocket. Five yards away now. Three. Two.

He went down easily. Before he could even react she had his wrists cuffed behind his back.

‘Police’ she shouted as people stopped to watch. ‘Move away.’

Then she heard the thud of feet as three uniforms came running.

bond-street

No weapon. There was nothing at all, besides his wallet, a couple of pounds in change, and a bloody nose where his face had hit the pavement. He was sitting on the ground, dazed, wrists cuffed behind him.

Kate had laddered her tights, she saw as she squatted to talk to the man. Brand new pair that morning, too.

‘Right, Kenneth.’ She had his wallet open, looking at the driving licence. Kenneth Mitchell. Fifty one. A Belle Isle address. ‘What did you leave under the tree outside the Town Hall?’

‘Eh?’ He squinted at her.

‘You put a package there. I saw you. That’s why we stopped you.’

His face cleared and he smiled.

‘A present,’ he said. ‘For the kiddies.’

‘What?’ She stood again, hands on hips and looked down at him.

‘Me neighbour, like. We were talking and he said wouldn’t it be a good idea if people left presents for the kiddies under that tree? So I bought summat, wrapped it, and came into town. I didn’t mean any harm.’

Christ. She walked few yards away and took out her phone.

‘Detective Inspector…’ Silver Command was purring note, delicious triumph in his voice.

‘He claims he was leaving a present for children, sir.’ Maybe the ground would open up and swallow her so she wouldn’t have to continue this conversation. Kate tapped her foot. Typical luck. No bloody sinkhole.

‘He’s telling the truth. It’s a Fisher Price something or other. You can apologise and let him go. You might take the time to thank him, too, Detective Inspector.’

‘Yes sir.’ Kate swallowed. ‘He had a nosebleed. I’ll have one of the uniforms get a paramedic.’

‘Make sure you do.’ A pause. ‘But good work, eh? These days…’

He didn’t need to finish the sentence. You couldn’t afford to look for the good in people now, only the bad.

‘Thank you, sir.’ Kate ended the call. At least he’d let her off lightly. But it would be all over the station tomorrow.

She turned to look at Mitchell. The cuffs were off now and one of the uniforms was helping him to his feet.

‘I’m sorry, sir. I hope you understand, though, with the ways things are.’ She smiled at him. ‘It was a lovely thought.’

He nodded and she started to walk away.

‘Merry Christmas,’ Mitchell said.

Kate smiled again. ‘Merry Christmas, sir.’

 

I’ll finish with one of those seasonal reminders that books make wonderful gifts any time of the year, and both The Iron Water and Modern Crimes are still warm-ish off the presses. On Copper Street, the firth Tom Harper novel, comes out in February, and you can pre-order it here.

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.

The Factory Lad’s Testimony

This story appears in my collection, Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories, published by Armley Press. But in many ways, it’s not mine at all. It’s taken from John Dawson’s evidence in 1833 to the Factory Commissioners when they came to Leeds, investigating the employment of children in the ‘manufactories.’ John was one of several people interviewed. The facts are exactly as he described them. All I’ve done is paraphrase his words.

 

He came in, walking slowly, almost in a shuffle, using a stick to keep himself balanced. His knees bent inward, making each step awkward. Still holding the doorknob he peered around the room, straining his eyes the way a mole might. He wore thick spectacles, almost a frail old man, although he couldn’t have been more than twenty.

The three members of the factory commission – Mr, Turnbull, Mr. Wakefield, and Sir Edward Jepson – sat behind their table as a clerk put papers in front of them. There was an air of sleekness about them; they all looked comfortable with authority.

The young man was wearing his best clothes, a dark jacket, cut high at the waist, a stock and shirt, with breeches and thick woollen hose. On the other side of the room a fire burned in the grate.

‘Come in, please, sir, and sit yourself down,’ Sir Edward said. ‘Thank you for coming to speak to us.’

The young man bowed his head slowly and crossed the floor, his heels tapping on the boards. He sat as upright as any defendant, his back straight, eyes straining to take in the face: the commissioners, the pair of clerks and the scribe waiting with his paper and steel nib to take down every word.

‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ Mr. Wakefield asked.

‘Yes sir, my name is John Dawson,’ the young man began, repeating the words when he was asked to speak more loudly, ‘and I make my living as a tailor when I’m well enough to work.’ He glanced at his audience. ‘As you can see, sir, that my eyesight is bad. That’s why I wear these glasses.’

‘Do you believe there’s a reason for your bad eyesight?’ Mr Turnbull wondered.

‘I do, sir,’ Dawson answered with a nod. ‘If you ask me, it’s from the flax mills I worked in as a lad. There’s always a powerful lot of dust in the air and it does affect the eyes of some folk. I daresay as I’d be blind now if I still worked there.’

‘When did you begin in the mills?’

‘I started in the mills when I was six, sir, a doffer at Shaw and Tennant’s. The work wasn’t too hard, we had to take the full bobbins off the machines and put on empty ones. But the hours were long, six in the morning to seven at night, six days a week. I was lucky, my da was the overlooker in the room. He beat me, same way he beat the other doffers, but not too bad, not as hard as some,’ he added, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘It was the standing all the time that was worst. Every day my knees ached.’

v_ragged_factory_boys

‘Did you receive any education?’ Sir Edward asked.

‘Not as you’d call it, sir.’ Dawson held his head up to face his audience. ‘I always wanted to learn to read and write. And I went to Sunday school whenever I could, unless my ma wanted me at him with the younger bairns or I had no decent clothes or shoes. My da taught me to read, and I was middling good with the Testament.’

‘But that was all?’

‘It was, sir.’

‘Please continue,’ Mr. Wakefield told him, with a glance at the others.

‘My da left Tennant’s when I was ten, and I went with him to Garside’s Mill.’

‘Do you know why he left?’

‘I do not, sir, no. I was just a boy, so they never told me. At Garside’s they put me to work bobbin-hugging, and that was terrible hard work, sir. I had to carry around a basket full of bobbins, some of them still wet. The basket was on my bag, and big it was, held in place by a strap around my forehead.’ He moved his hands to illustrate, each of the commissioners nodding. ‘I often had to carry full baskets up the stairs to the reelers. My knees were so bad that I had to stop after two or three years. You could see them, all bent, but we had no money for a doctor.’

‘No one looked after you there at all?’

‘No sir. They worked us hard there. After a while my da and I left there. We went to Clayton’s, and I was made a doffer again.’

‘Did that help you at all? Mr Turnbull said.

‘The work was easier but the hours were bad. Sometimes five in the morning to half-past nine at night. They gave us forty minutes for us dinner but nothing for breakfast or drinking.’ The lad’s voice was quite even, not angry. Just remembering his life of a few years before. ‘Wasn’t always six days we worked. Sometimes there was only enough for five or four. Weeks like that didn’t bring home enough money.’ He removed his spectacles and polished them on a piece of linen he took from the pocket of his waistcoat. When he spoke he was quieter. ‘It was dangerous work there, too. I knew one lad whose clothes caught in an upright shaft and he closed, and there were other bad accidents I can recall, too. My da died after I’d been there a few years, and when my ma was taken ill we had to go into the workhouse. By then my knees were bent so bad I couldn’t walk more than thirty yards without a rest.’

‘Might we see your knees, Mr-’ Sir Edward glanced down at the page ‘-Mr. Dawson. If you’d be so good.’

Holding on to the chair with one hand, Dawson stood and unbuckled the knees of his breeches, rolling them up. His face was red, not from effort but the embarrassment of being watched so closely.

It was just as he’d said. His knees were misshapen things, bent forward and inwards into something grotesque, beyond human.

‘Thank you,’ Sir Edward told him quickly, looking away and conferring with the other commissioners while Dawson closed his breeches buttons and sat once more.

‘You said you went to the workhouse,’ Mr. Turnbull continued.

‘That’s right, sir.’ Dawson gave a quick nod of his head.

‘What was your experience there?’

‘It was good, sir. At the workhouse they taught me my trade, sir, made a tailor out of me. It’s better than I might have had otherwise. And I did see someone about my knees. They sent me to Mr. Chorley at the infirmary.’

‘Was he able to help you at all?’

‘Very much, sir.’ There was heartfelt gratitude in Dawson’s voice. ‘He gave me strengthening plasters and bandages and they did me some good. You can see it’s still difficult for me to walk, sir, and I need a stick to help me. But it’s better than it was, and I’m very grateful for that. It used to be I couldn’t manage thirty yards without a rest. Now I can walk a hundred yards and more before I need to stop.’ He gave a proud smile.

Sir Edward glanced at the other commissioners. Many more waiting outside to be interviewed before the day was done. Surgeons, overseers, workers, people from all walks of life. When Turnbull and Wakefield shook their heads, he turned back to Dawson.

‘Sir, thank you for coming here today. You’ve been most gracious with your time and we wish you well as a tailor.’

They waited silently as John Dawson left the room, leaning heavily on his stick.

 

The First Tale from the Sardan Cafe

Last week I wrote a story in four parts on Facebook. A serial, perhaps, of a kind of Scheherazade tale. I’ve no idea where it came from, the image arrived as I walked. But like any story, it demanded to be told, so I had no choice.

It was only later, when I’d finished, that I could see a few elements of traditional storytelling in it, and the sense that it would be the first tale from this place. Is there magic at the Sardan Cafe? I don’t know. Perhaps time will tell. And Barsan, he might have things of his own to say, his own wonders to unfurl. There will probably be more.

In the meantime, for those who don’t follow my Facebook Writer page (it’s here if you feel inclined, everybody welcome), the first tale from the Sardan Cafe, subtly edited from its original version. Like life, it’s bittersweet. There aren’t always happy endings.

Best enjoyed with strong, sweet coffee and baklava…

 

 

He’d lost track of her half an hour before. But even then, he couldn’t be certain the woman he’d seen was her; so much time had passed since he’d glimpsed her face.

Now he was drifting through the streets, hoping she might reappear. It was winter, a chilly dusk, the cramped houses and small shops closing in around him as tongues of mist swirl and vanished.

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 second 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.