Little Alice Musgrave – A Leeds Story

I’ve decided to put up a short story every day this week. Most have been on the blog before, years ago. Some, like this, are published in my collection Leeds, The Biography. This takes its inspiration from the plague of 1645 in Leeds, which lasted for nine months and killed over 1300 people here – quite a percentage of the citizens. Alice lived on Vicar Lane, then a very poor area, and was the first to catch the plague and die. She was 11 years old.

The illustration is from the parish records, the names of some of those who died. Plague cabins were built on Quarry Hill (I’ve heard there were more in Holbeck) to quarantine victims.

Oh, if you’re all very, very kind and buy copies of my new book, The Leaden Heart, this week, then next week I shall post a brand-new Richard Nottingham short story. You know what to do!

scan0001

 

Little Alice Musgrave, lying in her bed,

Little Alice Musgrave with plague in her head,

All the prayers for Alice that all the preachers said,

Little Alice Musgrave, buried and dead.

 

The children sang it for years afterwards, long after most people had forgotten who Alice had even been. At first I’d chase them away and cuff at their heads, yelling through my tears, shouting at them to shut up. But it didn’t help. They’d keep on singing and every word cut deeper and deeper into my soul until I couldn’t cry out any more.

Last week I heard it again. A pair of girls, neither of them more than six, were using it as a rhyme for skipping ropes. The good Lord alone knows where they’d learned it. Alice has been dead these twenty years now. Maybe they’d heard their mother one day.

I was walking along Call Lane with my granddaughter, her hand tight in mine, and the words just made me stop, frozen as winter. I thought my heart might never beat again.

“What is it, Grandmama?” Emily asked. “Why are you crying like that?”

I had to draw in my breath slowly before I could answer her.

“It’s nothing, child,” I told her. “Just a memory that flew past.” I tried to make my voice light but it was filled with the weight of all the tears I’d shed. “Come on, let’s get ourselves home. Mama will be wondering where we are.” I clutched her hand tighter and we hurried away.

The words wouldn’t go away. In the darkness, when I lay alone under the blanket, they came back, singing and taunting. It was as if God wasn’t going to give me the peace of forgetting, as if He’d uncovered all the jagged edges of the past again.

 

The Roundheads had come here once more in 1644, so loud that we cowered in the house and prayed they wouldn’t come in and kill us. Leeds had been buffeted like a feather in the wind, from King to Parliament and back again so often, with more men dead each time.

But these troops stayed. It felt like a year of mud, when every colour was brown or black and the rains just came and came. The men in charge put up notices for everything – church attendance, how we had to behave, what we could wear. They forbade us from celebrating the birth of our Lord in the old way. That was sinful, they told us.

We’d been poor before, desperate for every penny and every bite. But now they took all our joy, too. Snow fell to herald the start of 1645, only the pikemen with their shining leather boots and glittering weapons allowed on the streets after dark.

We tried to make ourselves into mice, scurrying unnoticed lest the cat see us and pounce. Sometimes they’d come and drag one of the menfolk away with accusations of supporting the king. If he ever came home again it was as someone broken and quiet.

I feared for my husband. He’d been a clerk to lawyer Bolton before the attorney had fled. Now Bolton’s grand house on Briggate was a ruin, a burned-out gap in the street and there was a fine waiting against his name if he returned. I kept thinking they’d arrived one day and take Roger off.

He had no work. No one needed a man who knew his letters. The law was whatever the soldiers said, not something to be argued in a courtroom or written into books. And the cloth trade had dwindled so far that even some of the merchants went hungry. Once it would have been a marvel to see a grand man begging his bread. Now it happened every day.

We had three girls to feed, Alice, Hannah and Anne. They often went hungry, but we gave them something before we took anything to eat ourselves. When Alice woke one night in March, moaning with pain, at first I thought it was nothing more than an empty belly.

“Hush, love,” I whispered. “Just go back to sleep now.”

But she didn’t stop.

“It hurts, mama.”

I knelt by the bed she shared with her sisters, no more than a sheet over withered old straw. Her skin was so hot I thought it could burn my fingers and her shift was soaked with sweat. I bathed her face with cold water and stroked her damp hair, softly singing every lullaby I could remember. And I prayed. The first of so many prayers to rise from Leeds that year, but God blocked His ear to them all.

By morning she was cold, shaking and shivering. Nothing I did could help. I sent Roger to fetch the wise woman who lived on Kirkgate. She looked, poking my beautiful little girl with her fingers so that she gave a scream as deep as Christ’s agony.

Outside, where a bitter breeze came out of the west, the woman put her arms on my shoulders and looked at me with wise, ancient eyes.

“Your daughter has the pestilence,” she said softly.

I opened my mouth. I wanted to scream no, to shout, to cry, but nothing came. All I could think was why was He judging her like this? What had she done? She was only eleven, she had no evil to her name.

“I’ll bring something in a little while,” the woman continued. “It’ll help her rest and ease the pain a little.” Then she was gone and I stood out there, alone as the cold whipped around me.

The word passed quickly, as if the wind had carried it around the town. The soldiers’ doctor arrived in his neat, clean uniform to examine her, then shake his head. A pair of troopers were placed outside our door to force folk away. We were kept inside. Roger tried to amuse Hannah and Anne, to distract them, while I tended to Alice. The wise woman delivered her glass bottle, something clear and sweet-smelling inside, and it worked. My beautiful girl slept. Little Alice Musgrave with plague in her head. But it was on her body, the lumps growing so quickly under her arms and between her legs, the stink growing stronger with every hour, as if death was consuming her inch by inch.

The army left food outside our door, kindling and blankets. For the first time in a year we could have lived like human beings if we’d wanted. But who could have an appetite with this? I tried to keep Alice warm when the cold racked her, hugging her close to give her my heat. Weariness pierced all through my bones but I couldn’t sleep. I only had hours left with my daughter and I couldn’t let any moment of them slip away.

I heard later that they held a service in St. John’s to pray for her. For her soul and her salvation. What good is that when the Lord has turned away, I wanted to shout? But I never said a word.

After a day she’d moved beyond speech, only able to make noise like a baby, each one full of pain and fright. Her swellings turned black, the change coming in the blink of an eye. I kept hold of her hand, letting her know that we loved her. All I wanted now was for her suffering to end.

Alice lasted until the shank of the day. She wasn’t fighting, not even aware, just waiting. Then she gulped in a breath and it was over. I sat, still clutching her fingers and felt life leave her.

 

They took her body away quickly, the first to go into a plague pit. No coffin, no more than a winding sheet and a covering of quicklime. They wouldn’t even let us go to watch her being placed in the earth. All we were allowed were the four walls of our room and a heaven full of sorrow in our hearts.

Two mornings later it was Roger who began to sweat and by dinner Hannah was ill. I tended to them as best I could, moving like a ghost from one to the other as Anne became a silent, frightened child in the corner, too scared to move in case death might catch her.

I hadn’t had any time to grieve for my Alice when the others fell ill. All I could do was exist, snatch rest when I could, lying next to a body with the stench of decay, waking to another scream or a moan.

At least it was quick, less than a day each. And then it was just Anne and I, waiting and wondering how long before it came for us, too.

But it never did. After a week I walked outside. People talked and went about their business, trying to pretend nothing had happened, that Alice and Roger and Hannah were still alive. Yet I could see the terror in their eyes and the way they shunned me, as if I carried the pestilence like a shadow around me. Then I heard the rhyme for the first time, a group of children playing down the road, throwing a ball from one to the other. Little Alice Musgrave, lying in her bed. I ran towards them screaming and saw them scatter in surprise. My arm caught one boy and I started to hit him over and over as the tears tumbled down my cheeks.

Spring came, sunny, bright and fertile to mock us all. I knew what it meant. With the warm weather the plague would remain. While others held their Bibles close, I prayed it would take me and Anne, that it would lift the weight in our hearts. Each week there’d be fewer faces I knew on the streets. More than one thousand three hundred were buried before the winter turned cold again and the appetite of the pestilence was sated. But death kept denying me.

 

The soldiers left in the end. I’d lost track of how long they stayed; sometimes it seemed as if they’d always been there. Now the years have passed and we have a king again in London; that’s what they say. It makes little difference to our life in Leeds.

All the houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. Maybe they’re even grander than they were before, I can’t remember. My Anne is married now, with a girl of her own. She had one before, but little Alice died when she was no more than a month old. I’d tried to tell her it was a fated name, but she wouldn’t listen to me.

I play with Emily, take her to the market and down to the river where men sell the fish they catch. I live with them, accompany them to church on a Sunday, but all I pray for now is to forget.

Advertisements

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

Leeds Stories On Film

The wonderful people at Made in Leeds TV asked me to read some of the stories from Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories. The original plan was to record them at appropriate locations around Leeds, but the weather wouldn’t cooperate.

In the end, that was our good fortune as we ended up filming at the Leeds Library, a wonderful place with a history that goes back to 1768, and has been in the same location since 1808. We recorded in the ‘New Room,’ which dates from 1880, and looks splendid.

We taped me reading four stories. These are three of them. If you want to waste a few minutes – enjoy! And if you feel inclined to buy a copy of the book….thank you.

To 2015

Here were are, nestled at the end of a year and peeking over the parapets at what lies ahead. And, if you’re interested, I’ll tell you what’s coming up over the next few months.

Gods of Gold, the first in my new Victorian series, came out in the UK in August and in December in the US as well as in ebook form. It’s been attracting some lovely reviews, which is gratifying.

If you don’t already know, there’s a new Richard Nottingham story on this site. Click on novels, then Richard Nottingham and go to By The Law.

Next week (January 5), Dark Briggate Blues appears in the UK, and it’s a paperback (sorry, but it’ll be several months before the US version). Still in Leeds, it’s set in 1954 and features enquiry agent Dan Markham. It’s darker than many of my other books, a real noir (I think). The official launch is in early February at Waterstones Books in Leeds – if you look at my events page, you’ll see the details.

There’s one more thing to say about the book. A TV production company has asked to read it. Chances are that nothing will come of it, but the request was still very heartening.

April sees the UK publication of the second Tom Harper book, Two Bronze Pennies. At a guess, in the US it will be four months later. I think it builds on the first book and goes deeper into the characters, while exploring some of the anti-Jewish feeling that existed in the 1890s.

Then, finally, in July comes Leeds, The Biography. Regular readers of my blog will have already seen some of these stories. Essentially, it’s a history of Leeds in short stories, and the local Armley Press will be issuing it in paperback and ebook – my first non-crime book!

Of course, the serials on this site will continue, both Jimmy Morgan’s World War 1, and the tale of Annabelle Atkinson in Empress on the Corner.

I wish all of you a healthy, happy, and even prosperous New Year, and thanks to you all.

Thank You

2014 has been a very good year. My first full 12 months back in Leeds, so that it truly feels like home now. A book and the start of a new series with Gods of Gold, which has been receiving some lovely reviews and reader comments. I’m grateful.

Above all, my thanks go to you, the people who read what I write, whether in books or on the blog or in the serials I’ve begun on this site. If you write, you want people to read it, and you have. It means a lot, and when people email to tell me how much they like a book, or even with an historical quibble, I love it. Yes, of course I’d like to sell more books (what author wouldn’t?), but times are tight, and public libraries are free. Please, remember to support them.

So thanks to all of you. And to those you don’t see. I’m grateful to all my publishers, the wonderful staff at Severn House, Mystery Press, and Creative Content, all of whom believe in what I do enough to put it out there. Beyond them, friends and family who put up with me constantly at the computer, and whose support (and sometimes criticism) is vital.

What does 2015 hold? More books. January see the publication of Dark Briggate Blues, a 1950s noir set set in Leeds in 1954 and featuring enquiry agent and jazz lover Dan Markham. In April there’s Twp Bronze Pennies, the second Tom Harper Victorian novel (and yes, Annabelle has a larger role – she assures me that’s how it really was). July brings something different. I’m working with local publishers Armley Press on Leeds, The Biography, which is a history of Leeds in short stories (several of which have already been on my blog) running from 363 CE up to 1963. All of them based in things that really happened, or folk tales, and sometimes real people. I’m trying to put a human face on the history of my hometown.

Of course, I hope you’ll read them. And don’t forget the new serial, The Empress on the Corner. I hope you’ll enjoy them. But above all, thank you for being with me this far. Have a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2015.