Finding The Leaden Heart – Two Bronze Pennies

When I started out, I had a plan of sorts for the Tom Harper books, a series arc, if you like. Of course, like all good books, they’ve long since ignored that and developed their own scheme that looks further into the future than I’d ever imagined when it all began.

But in 2015, when Two Bronze Pennies appeared, it was still sticking close to the idea.

I definitely wanted to write about the Jews in Leeds. They’ve been such a powerful, vital force, although in 1890, most of those here were poor and powerless, crammed and squeezed into the Leylands, just north of the city centre.

I did that, and I hope I did it well. There are some references to the legend of the Golem (at one point I wanted to call the book The Golem of Leeds, but my publisher said no. A wise move, in retrospect).

It’s a novel of changes. The influx of immigrants to Leeds, the prejudice against them that still echoes in today’s Islamophobia. The change, the rift that occurs between Tom and his sergeant, Billy Reed.

And there’s another story in there, too, that of Louis Le Prince, the man who arguably invented the moving picture. He lived in Leeds, developed those early movies here, and vanished without trace on a visit home to France.

Le Prince’s first film, taken in his father-in-law’s garden in 1888

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge, shot by Louis Le Prince in 1888

Even today, more than a century on from those times, no one knows what happened to him. But a mystery like that was too good not to use in a book about Leeds at the time. Sometimes life makes your decisions for you.

I wanted to capitalise on the wonderful reviews that Gods of Gold had received. I had plans for the launch people. Big plans. Something that could involve people from all over the world.

Live streaming was still new and unusual then. Hard to believe, I know, when it was only five years ago, but that’s the case. I signed up to use a particular platform. I was going to talk, answer questions people typed, and my friend Shonaleigh, a storyteller and drut’syla, was going to tell a Jewish story (please go and see her if you ever have the chance; she’ll transport you).

For whatever reason, when the time came, I wasn’t able to connect to the platform. It was all a bit of a bust. I felt foolish, that I’d let everyone down and disappointed them. My big plans had crumbled, defeated by technology. I did the only thing I could – hurriedly made this video the next day and posted it (apologies for the sound quality). The beard has long since gone, you’ll be pleased to know.

The reviewers liked the book (thankfully). And with two books, Tom Harper was on his way. From swearing I’d never write Victorian crime, I was up to my neck in it. But the characters didn’t intend to keep to the plans I’d made for them…

two-bronze-4

How Do I Rate My Books?

As you hopefully know, I have a new book coming out next week (it called The Hanging Psalm, in case you weren’t aware). Take a big breath time, it’s the start of a new series, and my publisher has just accepted the follow-up, which will be appearing in a year’s time (I know, it’s hard to think that far in advance).

When something like that happens, though, I tend to look at those titles on my bookshelf with my name on them and have a think about them. It’s very rare for me to go back and re-read any. Certainly not for pleasure; I might have forgotten the details of the plots, but not the months of work that went into each one. If you’re a writer, by the time you’ve written something, revised it, gone through the publisher’s edits and then the proofs, you’re pretty much sick of seeing it.

But I have a surprising number of books out there. Quite often it astonishes me, makes me wonder just how that happened. And it makes me wonder what I think of them in retrospect. So, it’s time for an honest assessment.

 

I started out with the Richard Nottingham books. The Broken Token took several years to see the light of day. It was finished in 2006 and finally appeared four years later. In my memory, it’s curiously poetic, as is most of the series, a style that seemed to fit the character and the times – Leeds in the 1730s, for those who don’t know. Cold Cruel Winter was named one of the Mysteries of the Year by Library Journal, something that floored me. It’s a book that came from a single fact – the trial transcripts of executed men were sometimes bound in their skin. What crime writer wouldn’t relish doing something with that? And it was where I began to explore the grey area between right and wrong. The third book, The Constant Lovers, has its points, but taking Richard out of Leeds, even if it’s just into the surrounding villages, was probably a misstep. It diffused the focus. Leeds, tight and dense, is his milieu, and he’s been back in there ever since. The standout in the series for me, though, will always be At the Dying of the Year. It was the hardest to write, the one that cut deepest into me and left me depressed for a while afterwards. But the emotions are very raw and real on every page. Even thinking about it now, I can still feel them. Returning to Richard after a few years with Free from All Danger felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’d originally intended eight books in the series. That was number seven, but it left him at the end with some share of happiness, and God knows he deserves that.

I do have a soft spot for the pair of novels featuring Lottie Armstrong (Modern Crimes and The Year of the Gun). She’s so vibrant and alive, both as a young woman and in her forties. It’s impossible not to like her. The problem is that I painted myself into a corner; it’s impossible to ever bring her back, although she seems quite happy to leave things as they are. In different ways, I’m hugely proud of them both, and particularly of Lottie. I still feel she might pop in for a cup of tea and a natter.

The Dan Markham books (Dark Briggate Blues and The New Eastgate Swing) book came after re-reading Chandler once again and wondering what a private detective novel set in the North of England would be like. I found my answers. The original is the better book, harder and more real, and it spawned a play, to my astonishment. The second certainly isn’t bad, but it doesn’t quite catch the pizazz of the first.

Then there are the anomalies – a three-book series set in medieval Chesterfield. The first came as a literal flash on inspiration, the others were harder work, and the difference shows. I lived down by there for a few years, I like the town itself and I think that shows. There’s also a pair of books set in Seattle in the 1980s and ‘90s that hardly anyone knows about – they’re only available on ebook and audiobook. But I spent twenty years in that city, a big chunk of my life, and I loved it. I was involved in music as a journalist (still am, to a small degree), and the novels, still crime, are part of that passion. You know what? I still really believe in them. They’re pretty accurate snapshots of a time and place, and the scenes that developed in the town – the way music itself was a village in a booming city.

The Dead on Leave, with Leeds in the 1930s of the Depression, was a book born out of anger at the politics around and how they seem to be a rehash of that period. It’s a one-off, it has to be, but I do like it a lot – more time might change my view, but honestly, I hope not.

And that brings me to Tom and Annabelle Harper. I’m not quite sure why, but I feel that they’re maybe my biggest achievement to date. That’s a surprise to me, given that I swore I’d never write a book set in Victorian times. Yet, in some ways they feel like the most satisfying. More complex, yet even more character-driven. And I think someone like Annabelle is the biggest gift anyone can be given. She’s not the focus of the novels, but she walks right off the page, into life. I didn’t create here – she was there, waiting for me. And what feel like the best books in the series are the ones that involve her more, in an organic way: Skin Like Silver and The Tin God. Not every book works as well as I’d hoped; in Two Bronze Pennies I don’t think I achieved what I set out to do. My ambition was greater than my skill. But maybe I’m getting there. The next book in the series, The Leaden Heart, takes place in 1899, the close of a century, and I feel I’m starting to do all my characters real justice. I’m currently working on one set in 1908, so the 20th century is already here, and I still want to take them to the end of World War I, a natural closing point for the series. I feel that I’m creating not only good crime novels, and I strive to make each one quite different, but also a portrait of a family in changing times – and also a more complete picture of Leeds.

And that’s always been the subtext, although it took me a long time to realise it. Leeds is the constant, the character always in the background, changing its shape and its character a little in each era. And I’m trying to portray that, to take the readers there, on its streets, with their smells and noises. I’m hoping to have a novel set in every decade from 1890s-1950s (maybe even the ‘60s, if inspiration arrives), to show how the place changed.

In a way, the nearest I’ve come to running after the character that is Leeds and its essence is a collection of short stories, Leeds, the Biography, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s based on anecdotes, snippets of history, and folk tales, and runs from 360 CE to 1963. For the most part, they’re light tales. But one has resonance – Little Alice Musgrove. That still stands as a good story (you can probably find it online)

But with The Hanging Psalm, out next week, I’m going back to an unexplored place, Leeds in the 1820s, when the Industrial Revolution was still quite new. The Regency, although there’s very little gentility to it; better to describe it as Regency Noir. The book is still too fresh for me to asses it fairly. But I do know how electric it felt to write. So I’m hopeful it will stand the test of time in my mind…and in the meantime, I hope you’ll buy it (definitely buy it if you can!) or borrow it from the library and enjoy it.

Hanging Psalm revised

New Tom Harper

It’s definitely spring out there. The kids are enjoying their holidays, the weather is growing balmier. I’ve been able to get things planted at my allotment, and it’s beginning to take shape for the season.

But life wouldn’t be right if I wasn’t writing, and I have my head deep into what I hope will become the sixth Tom Harper novel, although Annabelle proves to be a very big part of this one. Now I just have to hope that my publisher wants it.

This extract is fairly lengthy and is still in a fairly raw state, so I hope you’ll bear with me on that. More importantly, I hope you like it. Please, seriously, tell me what you think, okay?

 

Late September, 1897

 

Tom Harper stared in the mirror.

‘What do you think?’ he asked doubtfully.

He felt ridiculous in a swallowtail coat and stiff, starched shirt. But the invitation had made it clear: this was an official dinner, formal dress required. The fourth time this year and the suit wasn’t any more comfortable than the first time he’d worn it. He’d never expected that rank would include parading round like a butler.

‘Let’s have a gander at you.’ Annabelle said and he turned for inspection. ‘Like a real police superintendent,’ she told him with a nod. ‘Just one thing.’ A few deft movements and she adjusted the bow tie. ‘Never met a man who could do a dicky bow properly. Now you’re the real dog’s dinner.’

She brought her face close to his. For a moment he expected a kiss. But her eyes narrowed and she whispered, ‘I’ve had another letter. Came in the second post. May Bolland’s had one, too.’

His face hardened. He’d expected some outrage when Annabelle announced she was running to be elected to the Board of Poor Law Guardians. A few comments. Plenty of objections. He was even willing to dismiss one anonymous, rambling letter as the work of a crank. But two of them? He couldn’t ignore that.

‘What did it say?’

She turned her head away. ‘What you’d expect.’

‘The same person?’ he asked and she nodded. ‘What did you do with it?’

‘I burned it.’ Her voice was tight.

‘What?’ He pulled back in disbelief. ‘It’s evidence.’

‘Little eyes,’ she hissed. ‘You know Mary’s reading has come on leaps and bounds since she started school. Safer out of the way.’

He breathed slowly, pushing down his anger. For a long time he said nothing. What could he do? It was dust now. Maybe Mrs. Bolland had kept hers; he’d send Ash round to see her in the morning.

‘Button me up and we’d better get a move on.’ Deftly, she changed the subject. ‘That hackney’s already been waiting for five minutes.’

Annabelle was wearing a new gown, dark blue silk, no bustle, high at the neck with lace trim and full leg-of-mutton sleeves, the pale silk shawl he’d bought her over her shoulders. Her hair was elaborately swept up and pinned. She was every bit as lovely as the first day he’d seen her.

There were calls and whistles as they walked through the Victoria pub downstairs. Her pub. She laughed and twirled around the room. He was happy to keep in the background, to try and slink out without being noticed. People didn’t dress like this in Sheepscar. They owned work clothes and a good suit for funerals; that was it.

‘What is this do, anyway?’ she asked as the cab jounced along North Street.

‘The Lord Mayor’s Fund,’ he replied. ‘Charity.’

The Mayor’s office had finally become the Lord Mayor’s office that summer, Leeds honoured by Queen Victoria to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty years on the throne, Harper thought, going back long before he was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, before his parents had even met. There had been parties and civic events around the city all summer, and hardly any problems, as if everyone just wanted to celebrate the occasion with plenty of joy.

The Chief Constable had been pleased, and even happier when the crime figures came out: down everywhere. The biggest drop was in Harper’s division. God only knew why; he didn’t have an explanation. He’d praised his men then held his tongue, not wanting to tempt fate.

Annabelle’s elbow poked him in the ribs.

‘You’re miles away.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Is it a sit-down affair tonight?

‘Three courses, then the speeches.’

She groaned and he turned to smile at her.

‘We’re in for plenty more of these once you’re elected.’

‘If I’m elected,’ she warned. ‘Don’t be cocky.’

Seven women were standing to become Poor Law Guardians, their election costs paid by the Suffrage Society and the Women’s Co-op Guild. The campaign was no more than three days old, but already the Tories and the Liberals were deriding the women for trying to rise above their natural station. The Independent Labour Party had its eye on the posts, too, as stepping stones for their ambitious young men. And the newspapers had their knives out, pointedly advising people to vote for the gentlemen. He’d arrived home two days to find her pacing furiously around the living room, ready to spit fire, with the editorial in her hand.

‘Listen to this,’ Annabelle told him. ‘Apparently they think men “don’t possess the domestic embarrassments of women.” What does that mean? I could swing for the lot of them.’

She threw the paper on to a chair. But he could hear the hurt behind her words. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight.

The first letter arrived the same day. Second post, franked at the main post office in town, no signature or return address. It was a screed about how women should be guided by their husbands, live modestly and look to the welfare of their own families. Religious and condescending, everything written in a neat, practised hand. Senseless, Harper judged when he read it, but no real threat. All the women running for the Board had received one. He’d placed it in his desk drawer at Millgarth and forgotten about it. But another…that demanded attention.

 

‘Take a look at that,’ Harper said and tossed the letter across the desk. Inspector Ash raised an eyebrow as he read, then passed it on to Detective Sergeant Fowler.

‘Looks like he’s halfway round the bend, if you ask me, sir,’ Ash said. ‘I see he didn’t bother to sign it. Anything on the envelope?’

‘Nothing helpful.’ He sat back in the chair. For more than two years this had been his office, but Kendall’s ghost still seemed to linger; sometimes he even believed he could smell the shag tobacco the man used to stuff in his pipe. ‘All the women candidates running to be on the Board of Guardians received one.’

‘I see. That was Mrs. Harper’s, I take it?’

‘There was another yesterday. She burned it.’

‘Whoever wrote this was educated,’ Fowler said. ‘All the lines are even, everything spelled properly.’ He grinned. ‘Of course, that’s doesn’t mean he’s not barmy.’

He pushed the spectacles back up his nose. The sergeant had been recommended by a copper from Wakefield. He was moving back to Leeds to be closer to his ill mother. Harper had taken a chance on the man. Over the last twelve months it had paid off handsomely.

Fowler didn’t look like a policeman, more like a distracted clerk or a young professor. Twenty-five, hair already receding, he barely made the height requirement and couldn’t have weighed more than eleven stone. But he had one of the quickest minds Harper had ever met. He and Ash had clicked immediately, turning into a very fruitful partnership. One big, one smaller, they seemed to work intuitively together, knowing what each one would do without needing to speak.

‘This woman’s had another letter, too.’ He gave them the address. ‘Go and see her. I doubt we’ll track down the sender, but at least we can put out the word that we’re looking into it. That might scare him off.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Ash stood. ‘How’s Mrs. Harper’s campaign going?’

‘Early days yet.’

She’d only held small one meeting so far, in a church hall just up Roundhay Road from the Victoria. Their bedroom was filled with piles of leaflets read to be delivered and posters to plastered on the walls all over Sheepscar Ward.

‘I’m sure she’ll win, sir.’

He smiled. ‘From your lips to God’s ears.’

Once they’d gone he turned back to the rota for October, trying to recall when he’d once believed that coppering meant solving crimes.

 

Billy Reed drew back the curtains, pushed up the window sash, and breathed in the sharp salt air. After so many years of soot and dirt in Leeds, every day of this seemed like a tonic. He heard Elizabeth moving around downstairs, cooking his breakfast.

They’d been in Whitby since July, all settled now into the terraced house on Silver Street. The pair of them, and her two youngest children, Edward and Victoria. The older ones had stayed in Leeds, both in lodgings, with work, friends, and lives of their own.

Moving had been a big decision, an upheaval. He’d come to love Whitby on his first visit. He’d left the army, just home from the wars in Afghanistan and troubled in his mind. The water, the beach, the quiet of the place had brought him some peace, and he’d always wanted to live there. But when he’d seen the job for inspector of police and fire in the town, he’d hesitated.

‘Why not write?’ Elizabeth urged him. ‘The worst they can say is no.’

‘We’re settled. I’m doing well the with fire brigade. And you have the bakeries.’

She stared at him. ‘Do you think we’d be happy there?’

‘Yes,’ Reed answered after a moment. ‘I do.’

‘Then sit down and write to them.’

It had taken time. First the application, then an interview, Elizabeth travelling with him on the train and inspecting the town while he was questioned by the watch committee. Another wait until the answer arrived, offering him the position. After that, it was a scramble of arrangements. In the end he’d gone on ahead while she finished up the up sale of the bakeries, packed the rest of their possessions, and said goodbye to all the friends they’d made.

He had no regrets. He liked his job, but it was time for a move, for something new. And this was certainly different. He could make out the shouts of the fishermen at mooring points as they unloaded their boats, and hear the gulls calling.

‘You’d better come and get it while it’s hot,’ Elizabeth shouted up the stairs.

The children were already eating, ready to scramble off to their jobs. Soon enough, Elizabeth would march down Flowergate, across the bridge, and along Church Street to the shop she’d leased, ready to open her tea room and confectioner’s in the spring. She’d made the bakeries in Leeds turn a fair profit, and she wasn’t one to be content as a lady of leisure. She relished work.

‘It’s right by the market,’ she pointed out to him. ‘And all those folk going to the abbey in holiday season will pass by the door.’

She’d developed a good eye, he knew that, and she’d already managed to cultivate a few friends in town, like Mrs. Botham, who ran her bakery and the Inglenook Tea Room on Skinner Street. A formidable woman, Reed thought, but she and Elizabeth could natter on for hours.

He’d quickly settled into the rhythm of his job. During the summer it was mostly dealing with complaints from holidaymakers and breaking up fights once the pub closed. There had only been one fire, and that was easily doused.

He strolled over to the police station on Spring Hill and went through the log with the uniformed sergeant before setting off in the pony and trap. Sandsend and Staithes today. Both of them poor fishing villages, and little trouble to the law, but he still needed to put in a monthly appearance. Show the flag. He covered a large area, going all the way down to Robin Hood’s Bay, but on a day like this, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze blowing off the water, nothing could be a better job.

No, Reed thought with a smile as the horse clopped along the road, no regrets at all.

 

 

 

 

 

Two

 

‘I saw Mrs. Bolland, sir.’ Ash settled on to the chair in the superintendent’s office. ‘She’d kept the letter.’ He ran his tongue round the inside of his mouth. ‘It left her scared.’

‘What does it say?’ Harper put down the pen and sat back.

‘Read it for yourself, sir.’ The inspector pulled a folded sheet of notepaper from his inside pocket.

A woman’s place is in the home, tending to her family and being a graceful loving presence. It’s not to shriek in the hustings like a harridan or to display herself in front of the public like a painted whore.

The Good Lord created His order for a purpose. Man has the reason, the wisdom, and the judgement. He’s intended to use it, to exercise his will over women, not to be challenged by them, the weaker element. Eve was persuaded to eat the apple and tempted Adam, and since that time it has been her duty to pay for the sin.

It is time for you to withdraw your candidacy. Should you fail to do so, if you continue to talk and challenge men for what rightly belongs to them, we shall feel justified in taking whatever means necessary to silence you for breaking God’s profound will.

‘A death threat. No wonder it frightened her.’

‘Yes, sir. Funny what these types come up with in the name of religion, isn’t it? It was all love thy neighbour when I was at Sunday school.’ Ash gave a wry smile.

Harper took out the first letter from his drawer and compared them.

‘The same handwriting. Twice means he’s more than a crank. We’re going to follow up on this and make sure nothing happens to her.’ He thought about Annabelle. ‘To any of the women. Where’s Fowler?’

‘I sent him off to talk to the others, to see if they’d had anything like this.’

‘Odds are that they have. That “we” in there makes me wonder, too.’

‘I noticed that, sir.’ Ash pursed his lips. ‘If I had to guess, thought, I’d say it’s a man on his own.’

‘I agree. Still…’

‘Better safe than sorry, sir.’

‘Exactly.’ He wondered why his wife had destroyed the letter. Not to keep it away from Mary; she could manage that by hiding it in a drawer or on the mantelpiece. Had it terrified her? She was so strong that it seemed hard to believe. But this election campaign was already putting a strain on her and it had hardly begun. ‘No signature again. Handy, isn’t it? He can just pop it in the post, then sit back and stay anonymous behind the paper.’

‘Any ideas for catching him, sir?’

‘No,’ Harper said with a sigh. ‘We’ll just stay on our guard.’

‘How was your dinner last night, by the way, sir?’ The inspector smiled slyly. ‘Big do, from all I hear.’

‘Big?’ Harper asked. ‘Pointless, more like. Tasteless food that was barely warm by the time it reached the table, followed by an hour of mumbled speeches.’

‘The perks of rank, eh, sir?’ Ash’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

‘You’d better be careful, or I’ll start sending you in my place.’

‘My Nancy would probably enjoy that.’ He grinned, slapped his hands down on his knees and stood. ‘I’ll go out and ask a few questions. Who knows, maybe we’ll be lucky and our gentleman writer isn’t as discreet as he should be.’

‘If you really believe that, I’ll look out of the window for a herd of pigs flying over the market,’ Harper told him.

‘Stranger things have probably happened, sir.’

‘Not in Leeds, they haven’t.’

 

‘Was your letter like this?’ he asked. Mary was tucked up in bed, exhausted by a day of school and an evening of telling them every scrap of learning that had gone into her head since morning. Harper was weary from concentrating, trying to make out all the words with his poor hearing.

Annabelle read it. ‘Word for word,’ she said, quickly folded it and handed it back to him.

‘Ash and Fowler are after him.’

‘Doesn’t help if you don’t know who you’re chasing,’ she said. They were in the bedroom. He sat by the dressing table while she counted election leaflets into rough bundles, ready to be delivered tomorrow. She raised her head. ‘I’m not a fool, Tom. There’s not enough in that for you to find him.’

‘We can ask around. And I’ll make sure there’s a copper at the meetings.’

Annabelle stopped her work and stared at him. ‘Would you do that for the men?’

‘Yes,’ he told her. ‘If I believed things could get rowdy,’

‘Don’t you think it’s wrong that women should need special protection? We’re in England, for God’s sake.’

‘Of course it’s wrong. But when there are men like this poison pen writer, it’s better than something bad happening.’ He let the idea hang in the air. ‘To any of you.’

Her stare gradually softened to a curling, twinkling smile.

‘Well, if you really want to look after me, Superintendent, perhaps you could offer me some very close guarding of my body.’

He grinned and bowed. ‘My pleasure, madam.’

 

‘They all received identical letters,’ Fowler said. He pushed the glasses back up his nose and produced the papers from his pocket. ‘Three had burned them. But it’s the same wording and the same handwriting as Mrs. Bolland’s.’

‘And the one my wife received,’ Harper confirmed. ‘What do you two have on your plates are the moment?’ he asked Ash.

‘Next to nothing, sir. We’ve been too successful, that’s the problem.’ He smiled. ‘They’re all too scared to commit crimes these days.’

‘Better not get over-confident,’ the superintendent warned. ‘We might be up to our ears tomorrow. While you have the chance, spend some time with this. Do you have a list of where and when these women are holding meetings?’

‘I do,’ Fowler said. ‘There are four tonight.’

‘Make sure there’s a uniform at every one of them. And I want him very visible.’

That should deter any trouble, he thought. If it didn’t, the weeks until the election were going to be difficult.

‘Mr. Ash and I have been talking, sir,’ the sergeant began. ‘We thought perhaps we could each go to a meeting. You know, stay quiet and keep an eye out for anything suspicious.’

‘A very good idea. Not my wife’s, though,’ he added. ‘I’ll take care of that.’

 

He’d grown used to the routine of running a division, of being responsible for everything from men on the beat to the number of pencils in the store cupboard. But it still chafed. So much of the work was empty details and routine; a competent clerk could have managed it in a couple of hours.

Meetings were the worst times; every month, all the division heads with the chief constable. So far they’d never managed to resolve a single thing. Then there was the annual questioning by the Watch Committee, the council members who oversaw the force. Several of them had no love for him, but he’d managed to fox them. The crime figures kept falling, and he stayed well within his budget. He hadn’t walked away with their praise, but he’d been pleased to see that his success galled them.

Small, worthless victories. Had he really been reduced to that? Sometimes two or three days passed with him barely leaving Millgarth. It felt as if an age had gone by since he’d been a real detective. It was one reason he was looking forward to tonight. Standing at the back of the hall, watching the faces and the bodies, thinking, alert for any danger. At least he could feel like he was doing some real work. That made him smile.

 

One the stroke of five, Harper pulled on his mackintosh and hat and glanced out of the window. Blue skies, a few high clouds, and a lemon sun; a perfect autumn afternoon. Saturday, and a little time away from this place. Not free, though: he’d spend it walking round Sheepscar, delivering leaflets for Annabelle’s campaign.

Ash was at his desk in the detectives’ office, writing up a report.

‘Did you find anything?’

‘Not a dicky bird, sir.’ He sighed and scratched his chin. ‘You weren’t banking on it, were you?’

‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘If there’s anything tonight, make sure you let me know.’

‘I will, sir. Let’s hope it’s peaceful, eh?’

It was warm enough to walk back out to the Victoria. Even if the air was filled with all the soot and smoke of industry, so strong he could taste it on his tongue, it still felt good to breathe deep after a day in a stuffy office.

 

‘Do you think I look all right, Tom?’ Annabelle stood in front of the mirror. She was wearing a plain dress of dark blue wool. It was cut high, at the base of her throat, modest and serious. Her hair was up in some style he couldn’t name but had probably taken an hour to engineer so it looked nonchalant.

‘I think you look grand,’ he told her. ‘Like a member of the Poor Law Board.’ He nudged Mary, who was sitting on his lap, staring in awe at her mother.

‘Da’s right. You’re a bobby dazzler, mam,’ she said. ‘I’d vote for you if I could vote.’

‘That’ll do for me.’ Annabelle picked up her daughter and twirled in the air. ‘You’re absolutely sure?’

‘Positive,’ Harper replied. He pulled the watch from his waistcoat. ‘We’d better get going. That meeting starts in three-quarters of an hour.’ It wasn’t that far – the hall at the St. Clement’s just up Chapeltown Road– but he knew she’d want to arrive early, prepare herself, and put leaflets on all the chairs. Ellen would bring Mary shortly before the meeting started.

It was a fine evening for a stroll, still some sun and a note of warmth in the air. The factories had shut down until Monday morning, the constant hums and drones and bangs of the machinery all silenced. The chimneystacks stood like a forest, stretching off to the horizon, their dirt making its mark on every surface around Leeds.

Annabelle took his arm as they walked. He’d put on his best suit, the dove-grey one she’d had Moses Cohen tailor for him seven years before. It was still smart, but growing uncomfortably tight around the waist.

‘It’s going to be fine, isn’t it?’ she asked.

‘Of course it is.’ He glanced over at her. ‘It’s not like you to be so nervous. You usually dive right in.’

‘This is something new, that’s all. And if I fail, well, it’ll be obvious, won’t it? I’d be letting everyone down who’s helping.’ She nodded at the hall, just visible beyond the church, its low outline stark against the gasometers. ‘All of them who turn up tonight. If anyone does.’

‘You’ll be fine.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘That meeting two nights ago was packed.’ He grinned. ‘Trust me, I’m a policeman.’

‘I thought you lot were only good for telling the time.’

The words had hardly left her mouth when he heard the low roar. It grew louder, then a deep violent explosion ripped out of the ground. A column of smoke plumed up from the hall, throwing wood and roof and bricks high into the air.

‘Christ.’ They stared for a second, not knowing what to say. It was beyond words. ‘Stay here,’ he told her, then changed his mind. ‘No. Go home.’

Tom Harper was running towards the blast.

The Soul Awakes

Annabelle Harper. A successful woman, with the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road and three bakeries, all of them making money. Respected all around Sheepscar, she’s become the empress on the corner, and happily married to Detective Inspector Tom Harper.

And then a political awakening. But simpler to let her tell you herself. Better yet, come down this Saturday and here her tell it to you. You can get tickets here.

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I’m going to tell you a story…

 

I still can’t quite believe it happened, although I know it did. We had a coalman who used to deliver to the pub. He retired and a new one showed up. Cocky little devil. Thought he could fob me off with stuff that wasn’t worth the money. When I told him I wasn’t standing for it, he told me that maybe my husband needed to give me a clout or two. I picked up a shovel and I swear I’d have gone for him if he hadn’t turned and run off. I needed to take a walk to try and calm myself down. I ended up by the outdoor market – couldn’t even remember getting there. I must have looked a sight because this woman came up, a little old dear, and asked if I was all right. “Looks like a man’s got to you,” she said. She put a pamphlet in my hand. Votes for Women. All I did was glance down at the title, couldn’t have been more than a second. Blow me down if she didn’t disappear. Like I’d dreamed her up. But I had the pamphlet. Took it home. A fortnight later and I had the parlour full of books. I wanted to know it all. Those words I read…it was like someone had looked into my head and put everything I’d thought down on paper. It made sense. Me, I’d hardly read a book in my life. Who had the time? Once I was done with school, I was too busy working. Now I was sitting there going through them like the pages were the most important thing in the world. And Tom, bless him, he took it all in his stride. Didn’t even blink when I started going to the suffragist meetings. I was worried what the police might think, an officer’s wife involved in all that. He told me to go ahead, to do what I felt was right. I did. I listened. I liked what they had to say. But most of them, they’d never needed to do a day’s graft. They’d never had to try and feed a family on a mill girl’s wages. Course, it wasn’t long before I was up on my hind legs, saying this or that. Putting me two pen’orth in. That was how I met Miss Ford. She was in charge of it all. She’d worked with the unions, helped with strikes. People respected her. Mind like a razor, sharp as you like, and a heart as big as Yorkshire. She sat me down. Told me I could make a good speaker for the Suffrage Society. I thought she was joking, that it was her way of gently telling me to shut my mouth. But she was serious. I didn’t know which way to look. And she made me think that I did have something to give. Something different. I said yes, then I wished I hadn’t. My mind was whipping backwards and forwards like nobody’s business: I was going to back out. I was going to do it. Then everything I tried to write sounded so false. Be yourself, Tom told me. Who was I? A jumped-up piece of muck from the Bank whose husband had left her a pub. What did I have to tell anyone?  It wasn’t as if I knew any answers. Even when I was up on that podium I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. My teeth were chattering so hard they must have heard it in London. Then someone was saying my name and people were looking at me and it was too late to run away.  

Well, now I know what it must be like to be on the halls. I feel like I should sing a song or something. You don’t know me. No reason you should, really. I run a public house in Sheepscar. Nothing grand but it pays the bills. And I grew up on the Bank, on Leather Street. I know what they say: you grow up on the Bank and you’ll never amount to anything. I’ve heard it all my life. I started out in the mills when I was nine. It’s a hard life, I can tell you that right now. Moved into service a few years later because it paid better and it wasn’t as dangerous. I’m still not above scrubbing a floor if it needs it, or giving something a cleaning. Most of the girls I played with ended up doing the same. Maids or mills. If I ever see them now, the ones who are married have five or six children and husbands who bring in next to nothing every week. They survive, and that’s all they do. It’s down to the pawnbroker with the good clothes of a Tuesday morning so they can last until their men are paid. Redeem everything Friday evening. Do you know what they wish for when they’re walking down the street holding everything of value that they own? That their little ones will have something better. But they won’t. Do you know why not? Because there’s no one to speak up for them. They live, they die. Probably half of the girls I played hopscotch with when I was in pinafores are in the ground now. I’m not saying having the vote would put everything right. I’m not a fool. Men will still run things, same as they always have. There’ll still be more poor people than you can shake a stick at. But at least we’ll have a say. All of us. That’s the women on Leather Street, where I grew up, as much as anyone here. Maybe they need it even more than us. I’ll tell you something else. Every day, every single day, I see women with all the hope gone from their faces. It’s been battered away long before they’re old enough to work. And we need hope. That’s why every woman needs the vote. Every man, too. The only way those men standing for Parliament will ever do anything is if they need our votes to win. Half their promises will still vanish into thin air. Of course they will, they always do. And they still won’t do anything more than they absolutely have to. (Pause) But for the first time they’ll have to listen to us.

And that was it. I couldn’t believe I’d said it all. Couldn’t believe I’d made that much sense. At least I wasn’t shaking anymore. And to see their faces and hear them clapping, well, it didn’t seem like that could be for me. But Miss Ford must have liked it – she wanted me to start speaking regularly. I had to take a deep breath before I said yes. As soon as I agreed to that, she started talking about having me on the committee. Give them an inch and they want a mile. I said no. All that travelling hither and yon. Not when I had the pub and the bakeries. And…

I was up the duff. Couldn’t be. That’s what I thought at first. After all, I hadn’t caught before. I thought the miscarriage meant I couldn’t. So I wasn’t about to say anything till I was sure. Not tempting fate. And I was older, not one of the young lasses popping them out. Tom, he was over the moon. (Smiles) Once he picked his jaw off the floor, any road. From the way he tried to look after me you’d think no one had ever had a bairn before. You have thought I was the best family china. How do you think you got here, I asked him finally? And your ma, and all those before her. It’s nature. That shut him up and he let me get on with things. There was work to do. I tell you what, nature decided to make hard work of me in the end. It had the last laugh. The best part of twenty-four hours in labour. Sweating and cursing and screaming. I was holding the midwife’s hand so hard I’m surprised I didn’t break her fingers. But it was worth it. Called her Mary, after Mary McLaughlin I grew up with on Leather Street. That’s right, I’m talking about you. Bit over a year now and into everything when she’s awake. Daren’t take your eyes off her for a moment. Talk to her da and you’d think butter wouldn’t melt. He’d learn quick enough if he spent all day with her. She won’t want for anything, I’ve already made sure of that. She’s lucky. I have the brass. Not like most round here, where the hunger never leaves the eyes. But I’m going to make sure she knows what the world is really like outside the door. She needs that. I owe her that. I’ve not forgotten all those years when I was muck. Scratch me hard enough and it’s still under there. I want my Mary to have the things I never did. The vote. Rights. A life that doesn’t have to depend on a fella. The things that matter. Might as well wish for the moon, eh? It’s like having a tiny hammer and chipping away at a big block of stone. You keep doing it and nothing seems to happen. But you keep believing that one day the stone will just fall apart. Maybe I can get in a few blows. Do my bit. Yes, I speak at meetings. Maybe it helps, I don’t know. I sold the bakeries. Miss Ford asked me to be secretary of the Suffrage Society. No going out of Leeds, she promised. Aye, I thought, I can do that. But there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, not with this one scampering around. The shops gave me what I needed. But maybe I didn’t need that any more. I’ll never get rid of this place, though. The Victoria, it’s home. Don’t want anywhere else. They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box. Won’t be for a long time yet, not if I have anything to do with it. Too much to do. And here I am, barely started. Up from the muck and still a long way to go. What I’ve learned: you do what you have to do. You get on with it.

So, About That Play…

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Some of you (hopefully all of you) know that I have a play on soon. It’s called The Empress on the Corner, and it’s Annabelle Harper’s story. Yes, that Annabelle from Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. If you don’t know about the play, you can find out here – it’s on June 4 as part of Leeds Big Bookend festival, with Carolyn Eden as Annabelle.

We’re presenting part of it: a couple of scenes live, script-in-hand (you won’t even notice the script), one as an audio play, and one on video. It allows the audience to see the possibilities of the production. Each scene will be put in context, and you’ll come away feeling you know Annabelle.

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On Friday we recorded the audio section. Then, on Saturday, thanks to the people at Abbey House Museum and Bob Jordan of Obverse Films, we recorded the video.

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Magical? Absolutely. In costume, with the hair and makeup just so, it was Annabelle speaking. Once the video is edited it’ll be on YouTube, of course, as a teaser for the play or for the many things it might become in time.

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It’s Annabelle’s World…

…but she’d like you to come and visit.

A few years ago (Four? Five?) I was looking at one of my favourite paintings, Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, 1879, by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw and a story came to me, fully formed, out of the ether.

That was my introduction to Annabelle. Annabelle Atkinson, she was then, sitting and looking at the picture with me, telling me how it came about that she was in it, looking back a decade to that days she stood on the banks of the river to be sketched.

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We met again when I settled down to write Gods of Gold, set during the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. She was Annabelle Harper then, freshly married, flushed with happiness but with her feet firmly planted on the ground. With a flourish of her silk gown as she sat, she pushed me over on the chair.

‘I was there, luv,’ she told me. ‘I saw it all happen. Come on, I’ll tell you about it.’

Since then, we’ve spent quite a lot of time together. She’s in three of my published novels – Gods of Gold, Two Bronze Pennies, and Skin Like Silver. The fourth, The Iron Water, comes out in July, and I’m working on the fifth. I’ve shared the way Annabelle has blossomed. She’s the emotional centre of the novels in so many ways. She’s become a canny, successful businesswoman and a member of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society – and one of its speakers.

It was one of her Suffragist speeches, brought to breathing, passionate life by Carolyn Eden at the launch of Skin Like Silver, that was the catalyst for the play The Empress on the Corner.

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‘That’s her,’ Annabelle told me the day after the launch. ‘She’s the one to be me. Now, you, you’d better start telling my story. Are you listening? I’ll begin.’

I didn’t have a choice – when you have someone like Annabelle, she dictates what will happen. And so I wrote her story. Or perhaps I simply wrote down what she dictated.

The presentation is still a work in progress, and it will be sections of the complete play, not the entire thing. But it’s the story of growing up in a poor Irish family on the Bank in Leeds in the mid 1800s. Of having two choices in life, mills or maids. Of luck, of taking the chance to use her good mind. Of understanding that there’s more, that she can raise her voice for others.

It’s a Leeds story. It’s a political story. It’s a love story. But above everything, it’s Annabelle’s story.

And she reckons you need to come and see it. Believe me, I’ve learnt, you don’t argue with Annabelle, she’ll win in the end.

So you’d better go here to buy your ticket and we’ll see you on June 4, 2.30 pm at Leeds Central Library. It’s part of the wonderful Leeds Big Bookend festival.

Annabelle has her ticket. She’ll be on the side of the front row, with a big grin on her face, pleased as punch. Say hello to her after they play.

The Play’s The Thing

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Book your ticket here.

Last year, at the launch of the third Tom Harper novel, Skin Like Silver, an actor named Carolyn Eden became Annabelle Harper, giving a speech of suffragism that Annabelle delivers in the book.

She inhabited the character and brought to life a woman who’s lived in my head for a few years now. I’ve tried to tell Annabelle’s story in fiction, but suddenly I saw another way. A play. A one-woman play.

The process of rehearsals has tentatively begun with a read-through and we’ll be moving ahead. The good people at Leeds Big Bookend will be giving us a chance to show some of it on June 4 at 2.30 pm in Leeds Central Library. It’s a work in progress, an exclusive preview. You’ll have a chance to see where it’s going, to become part of Annabelle’s story.

Made in Leeds TV have plans to film Annabelle’s story at historic locations around Leeds and she seems to be drawn to radio too. There’s no substitute for the live experience, but you might be treated to a sharing of more than the stage version as the project develops.

It’s a picture of working-class Leeds in the 19th century, from the grinding poverty of the Bank to relative prosperity as the landlady of the Victoria public house in Sheepscar, and her awakening to the world, to feminism and politics. It’s a story for all of today, as much for today as more than a century ago.

The pleasure and love along with pain. And hope. Because every story needs outrageous hope. Tickets are now on sale, and it will be worth your while. Annabelle will be very much alive in front of you.

You can find out more and book your tickets here.

You need to come.