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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’