Last month my new novel, The Blood Covenant, was published in the UK. The catalyst for Simon Westow in the book is the brutal deaths of two factory boys at the bullying hands of overeers, which brings back memories of his own childhood in the workhouse and the mills.
This was real, and the dig for the site of what became Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds brought up the bodies of local children, factory children, who’d lived short, horrific lives. They weren’t the exception, as testimony to the Sadler Committe in 1832 showed. I’m profoundlky grateful that Big Issue North asked me to write about the reality. It’s in the issue published today (January 17) – and it’s a magazine that’s always worth your money.
The testimony is harrowing, but it’s a window on their lives.
Hard to believe that time barrels along so fast, and that The Blood Covenant will be out in just a few weeks, on the 30th of December. If you order it for Christmas, though, there’s a very fair chance it will arrive in time (just a hint and a nudge).
It’s a very angry book, about finding justice for those who’ve been abused. Those who don’t have the power to fright for themselves. For Simon Westow, it’s more than it job, it becomes something very person, and very, very dark. But not only him. Jane, too, is going to have to face demons she thought long since vanished.
Here’s an abridged extract from near the opening. A way to whet your appetite and have you clicking online to order, I hope. Remember, please, every time you buy from an independent bookshop, all the angels cheer. The cheapest price, with free postage, is here.
‘You testified to the commission that was in town three years ago, didn’t you?’ Dr Hey asked
‘Yes,’ Simon answered.
Oh, he’d talked to them. Men sent from London, part of an investigation around the country into child labour and abuse. Simon knew all about that; he still carried the scars on his body. As he spoke, seeing them sitting safe behind their polished table, he relived all the punishments and torture he received as a boy, at the mill, as an inmate of the workhouse. Year after year of it, from the time he was four until he turned thirteen, when he could take no more and walked away, knowing that even death would be better. Just the memory made the skin of his hands turn clammy and his heart beat faster. He’d talked. But he didn’t believe they’d ever really listened.
‘What made you think about that?’ Simon asked
‘A pair of deaths I had to examine recently.’ Hey pulled some papers from the inside pocket of his coat. ‘I made a few notes I wanted you to see. Read them and come to see me when you have chance.’
Back in the old stone house on Swinegate, Simon read as he ate supper, then spent the evening quietly brooding. For once he scarcely paid attention to Richard and Amos, the twins. Little else existed beyond the thoughts in his head.
‘What is it?’ Rosie asked after she’d put the boys to bed.
‘No need to worry. It’s nothing like that.’ Simon took a deep breath and told her. ‘He made a copy of what he’d written when he saw the children’s bodies. The older boy was ten. He’d lost two fingers on his left hand when he was younger. His body was covered in bruises, it looked like he’d been beaten with a stick or a strap. It was much the same with the younger one. He was just eight.’
‘Who did it?’ Rosie asked. Her fists were bunched, fingernails digging into her palms.
‘A mill overseer,’ he replied.
Simon shook his head. ‘He didn’t put that in there.’
Now he was out here, walking as he tried to stay ahead of his memories and pain.
The sky had cleared. It was colder now; his breath bloomed in front of his face. The remnants of rain dripped slowly from gutters. The stink of the manufactories had returned to fill the air.
Damn Hey. He’d released the past from its cage. Now it was out here, hounding him, snapping and snarling at his heels. All these years and still it wouldn’t leave him. But better for Simon to be doing something than be restless and wakeful at home.
He’d gone from Sheepscar across to Holbeck, along the river all the way to the ferry landing as he tried to exhaust his mind. He’d sensed Leeds grow silent around him as people gave up on the last dregs of night. He was tired, his legs ached and his feet were sore. But he knew he’d be out here for a long time yet. Bloody Hey.
Simon made his way past the warehouses on the Calls. Bone-weary, needing to sleep. But the images, the history, the pain kept raging through his head. He was just a few yards from the river, able to hear the water lapping and smell the low, thin perfume of decay.
A sound cut through, the creak of oars in their rowlocks. Late to be out, he thought. Maybe someone was stealing from the barges moored at the wharves. Never mind, he decided; it wasn’t his business. Not until someone paid him to retrieve what might be taken.
‘Grab him under the arms. Get him out of there.’
The night watch, taking care of some drunk who’d fallen in the river. It happened at least once a month. A man would grow fuddled, lose his way and walk into the water. Some jumped, dragged down by despair. A very few were lucky; they were pulled out and survived. Most drowned, found bobbing downstream when morning came.
‘He weighs a bloody ton.’
‘You don’t need to be gentle, he’s already dead. Just grab him. Oh Christ, his throat’s been cut. The constable’s going to want to see this one.’
Simon felt a chill rise through his body, colder than the night. The men were on Pitfall, only a few yards downriver from Leeds Bridge. Two of them, standing and stretching their backs. Between them, lying on the stones, a shape that had once been a man. Simon could make out the jacket and the trousers, soaked and stained by the water. The men from the watch turned at his footsteps, surprised to see another living soul out at this hour.
‘Can I see him?’
One of the men shook his head. ‘You don’t want to do that,’ he said. ‘The dead are never pretty, mister.’
‘I know,’ Simon told him. ‘I’ve seen my share.’
A short silence. In the glow from a pair of lanterns, he caught the two men glancing at each other. A penny for each of them helped make up their minds.
The light caught the corpse’s face. Simon knelt, brushing away some dirt and a piece of cloth that was caught in man’s hair. He lifted the chin. A straight, deep gash across the neck. Clean and quick. But definitely no accident. Murdered and tossed into the river. He hadn’t been dead long, either; it couldn’t be more than an hour or two. Nothing had nibbled at his eyes yet, the flesh still intact and fresh.
He didn’t recognize the face.
One of the men coughed.
‘There’s something else, sir.’ He raised the lantern. ‘You see? Down there.’
The right hand was missing. Severed at the wrist. It looked like a single, swift blow had gone through the bone. For the love of God. Before or after he was dead?
‘The constable will be wondering who you are, sir. He’s going to want to know about someone asking to see the body.’
‘Tell him it’s Simon Westow. The thief-taker. He knows me.’