How Lilian And Clara Nickson Nearly Became TV Stars

Intriguing title, isn’t it? And I’ll get to that in just a moment.

First, the lovely people at the Light on Leeds podcast had me on their blog, witting about Leeds. If you want to listen, just click on this link

A couple of months ago I areceived an email from production company  making a series of documentaries about Victorian shop girls. They hoped to do one episode  in Leeds. Somehow, when they were searching online they came up with my name and dropped me a line. Did I know the stories of any shop girls in Leeds during that time?

Well yes, I did. Almost.

My tale was just that wee bit later, from the Edwardian era, regarding Clara Nickson and her two daughters, most paprticularly the oldest, Lilian.

Clara was born Clara Amelia Buckroyd on August 8, 1852, to George and Mary Ann Eliza Buckroyd on Lincoln Place. He is listed as a warehouseman.

Clara birth

By the 1861 census, however, the family is on Reuben St, and George is a grocer.

Clara 1861 census

By 1871 they’re at a different address on the same street. George is still a grocer, but Clara is making her living as a weaver, and probably also helping in the shop.

Clara 1871 census

On January 1, 1877, Clara enters the Nickson family, when she marries Robert Hewson Nickson. Like his father George, who died 10 years earlier, Robert is a painter and decorator. His mother has successfully run the business since his father’s death, and the 1871 census shows her employing seven men and a boy; no mean feat for a woman in Victorian times. The year Robert and Clara were wed, his mother remarried and he took over the business.

Clara wedding

Clara gave birth to three children. George came into the world in 1878 and died the following year. Lilian was born October 1880. The 1881 census shows the family living on Stamford Street in Sheepscar.

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Stamford St.

This would be a plain terraced house. But the business was doing well, as they had a servant, 12-year-old Edith K. Simmons. Another daughter, Irene, arrived in 1885.

Clara Irene baptism

Clara Lilian 1881 census

Robert had his work premises in Lonsdale Yard, on the Lowerhead Row in the centre of Leeds (also known as Bradley’s Yard). He died in 1893, leaving £331.19s.5d – the equivalent of £40,000 in today’s money, a very respectable sum for a working-class man.

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Lonsdale Yard

Like her mother-in-law before her, Clara ran the business after her husband’s death, and she’s listed as a painter and decorator with her premises at 5 Lonsdale Yard in a trade directory.

The 1901 census shows her living at 4, Beecroft Grove in Chapeltown, and still continuing the business. Notably there was no longer a servant in the house.

Lilian Nickson 1901 census

By this time, Lilian is 20 and working as a restaurant waitress, while Irene is 15 and a clothier and saleswoman – very likely working in a clothing shop.

It must have been a year of big changes. By 1902, Clara no longer has the painting and decorating business. Instead, she’s now a boot maker and dealer and draper (with a sideline arranging servants for families), and her premises are at 204 Roundhay Road in Harehills.

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Roundhay Rd

204 Roundhay Rd today

At that time, much of Harehills was relatively new, a mix of good villas for clerks, terraced and back-to-back housing. She probably sold the decorating business as a going concern and possibly used some of what her husband had left as capital for her new venture.

Clara kept the business going for several years, although she did move. By 1907 she was living at 17, Dorset Road. This was a through terrace at the top end of Harehills on the new Hovingham estate, a definite upward move from Sheepscar.

Dorest Rd

Both Lilian and Irene are with her. Both have been working with Clara in the shop. Irene, of course, already had retail experience, But in 1909 she married a man from Chorlton, near Manchester and moved there.

By the 1911 census, Clara had sold her business and moved to 4, St. James’ Square. The street is now demolished, but it stood on the site of what became the Civic Hall. At 58 she was retired and keeping house for Lilian.

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St. James’ Square

Her daughter had used the real experience well and at 28 had become a “manageress, retail branch of boot trade.” At this time, Leeds was the biggest maker of boots in the country (as opposed to shoes, where Northampton had the title). Working men wore boots, as did many woman, along with clogs. They were big business.

Lilian Nickson 1911 census

Lilian was working in the city centre, so moving to a more central location made sense. However, mother and daughter moved on from there. 1914 saw them at 14 Oakwood Drive, in the very leafy suburb of Roundhay, very close to Roundhay Park. The area had only recently become part of Leeds, and it was only in the previous decade that it had started to be developed. The street stood about 200 yards up Oakwood Lane from Oakwood Clock and the lodge at the entrance to the park.

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Oakwood Clock, 1914

They would be moving again, as Lilian married in September 1914, just five weeks after the beginning of World War I. Her husband, Henry Corrigan Smith, was 35, a tailor who lived in Southport. By now Lilian was 33, quite old for a woman to marry, although war, as always, changed everything. On the marriage certificate Lilian is shown as not working; this could mean that she’d already left her job to marry.

Henry was getting a package, not just a wife, but also a mother-in-law; Clara lived with the couple in Southport until she died in 1919. Henry passed away in 1929, but Lilian survived until the end of the 1950s.

Sadly, I have no photos of Clara, Robert, Lilian, or Irene. All I have is admiration. Retail was part of their lives, but Clara did much more than that, managing a very masculine business for almost a decade when times were not kind to women, then opening a shop and going into retail – which must, in some way, have taken her back to her childhood.

But by the time she stopped working, Clara had achied something quite remarkable for a women essentially on her own – she’d ascended from the working-class to the middle-class.

And, of course, since you’re here, please don’t forget this. It’s been getting wonderful reviews, the best I’ve ever had, with trade magazines in the US calling it “superlative” and my “best”

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An Author’s Distraction

I write. It’s largely how I define myself, it’s what I love to do. My chance to be published arrived when I was 54, and since then I’ve grabbed it with both hands. And until three years ago, I was generally as happy as Larry.

Since then, however, I’ve gone up and down. It’s politics, and I know I’m far from the only one. But I’m lucky, I do have something to take me away from the world and its problems for a while.

My allotment.

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Maybe it sounds silly that a piece of ground 10 metres by 7.5 could bring me so much joy, could lighten the load so much, but it does. I’ve had the allotment for four years now. It came with raspberries, blackberries, redcurrants, rhubarb, and strawberries. It was overgrown and neglected. It needed plenty of work. It was utterly on a whim that I call in a put my name down for one. I didn’t really garden, and flowers had never greatly interested me. But after about twelve months I received a call – was I still interested.

Yes. The romance might not last, but I’d give it a shot.

That first year was mostly about that. I enjoyed the fruit, apart from the currants, which I dug out, and I had chance to clear a little ground a plant a few things. Since then I’ve been watching, listening, reading, learning and experimenting.

The winter days when I can dig in compost and manure and wonderful, as if the year is beginning to wake and I can stretch my muscles after a few months of doing nothing. It’s not nothing, of course – garlic and some onions have gone in during the autumn – but it feels like it.

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I could go on about the things I’ve done but let’s face it, unless planting things is a pleasure for you, then you’ll find it boring. Let’s just say I’ve made some big changes in the last 12 months; well, as big as you can on 170 square metres. And this year I feel I’m utilising every scrap of space. It means I have to tread very carefully to avoid killing plants.

What is growing on the plot? I’m glad you asked…

Onions, garlic, kale, radishes, several types of lettuce, salad leaves. Two varieties of peas, mangetout, runner beans, two varieties of climbing beans. Squash, cucumber, carrots, corn, tomato, green and yellow courgettes. Leeks, spring onions, parsnips, spinach. Rhubarb, plum, tree, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, raspberries, dwarf apple tree. And potatoes. Plenty of potatoes. A bit of lavender and rosemary, too, but I don’t really count those.

When I’m there I’m doing what needs to be done, the physical work that requires thought solely about the task at hand. I never consider checking my phone. It only comes out if I want to know the time. In today’s world, that’s freedom of a sort.

I could talk about mindfulness, that trendy word. But instead I’ll simply says that going there (it’s about five minutes’ walk from home, which was part of the appeal) makes me feel better and happier.

And there’s a hug bonus. All that fruit and veg, with things to ear from May onward. From the look of the strawberries, I’m going to be making plenty of jam this year (I know, there’s no need to say a word…).

It’s not something that would be a slave for everyone. It works for me, and that’s fine. So if you ever wonder what I do when I’m not writing books set in Leeds, now you know.

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What People Are Saying About The Leaden Heart (And Some Thoughts Of My Own)

Last night I was in a library talking to people about The Leaden Heart. I was happy to do it – and not just because it’s one of my favourite libraries, the one I used all through my childhood.

I’m proud of it. It’s out there with my name on it. Months of work and thought went into the writing. I want people to read it.

One gentleman said he thought it was the best of my books, with strong parallel stories and very tight plotting. That last bit, if it’s there, is more good luck that planning. I don’t plot. My characters lead the stories. The most I do is nudge them.

This morning I’ve been thinking about what he said. It chimes with the reviews the book has received. I’m gratified. I honestly believe that with The Tin God, my writing moved up a notch. That’s something every writer wants, to make each book better than the last. We learn, we strive to improve. It’s there too in The Hanging Psalm and now this. And having gone through the publisher’s edit for The Hocus Girl, which appears this autumn, I feel it’s also in that.

But I’m glad others see it. More than people may really know.

Thanks to all who’ve read the book. I’d love it if all of you did, whether it’s buying a hardback or ebook. And if you leave a review, may your soul be blessed.

Meanwhile, a look at some of those reviews might sway you.

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The Very First Leeds Novel

I write about Leeds. That’s not a statement to surprise anyone. But I’m not the only person to do that.

Over the last few days I read a book. Nothing unusual there; I devour books. But this one is a bit of a curiosity. Published in 1929, it’s the very first book set in Leeds (as far as I’m aware). That makes it important. Well, a it’s fictionalised Leeds, which is given the name Fleece. The History of Button Hill, written by Gordon Stowell, is set in Chapeltown – the names of all the areas of Leeds are changed – from the mid-1890s, when people moved into the new houses close to Reginald Terrace, through to the middle 1920s (in fact, Back Reginald Terrace was renamed Button Hill in the 1980s in honour of the book).

I’d heard about it for years and I’d expected it to be pretty poor and overly sentimental. But then I found a copy in the library and decided to give it a chance. I was wrong about it. It was stupid of me to judge without looking. Yes, there’s definitely a sentimental side to it, but it’s tempered, especially towards the end. The book doesn’t shy away from the way World War I and that first day of the Somme affected all of Leeds. It’s good, and absolutely believable. And it doesn’t always keep the stuff upper lips.

The book traces an arc over 30 years, with the main character a baby born just after the book opens. His generation, and their parents, are the focus and how the enthusiasm for an area have become diluted, by money, by events. There’s even a very surprising plot twist at the end of the book – but no spoilers.

I know nothing about Stowell, and there’s not a great deal about the man himself online. But he obviously knew Chapeltown, from down around Sheepscar all the way past the Bentham Arms (the Mexborough Arms, or Three Hulats as it is now) through Chapel Allerton (Button Top) around the Gledhows (Gledmere) up to Moortown, Roundhay and Oakwood (Moorhay and Oakhill).

For all the insight, it’s very much of its time, with the touches of casual, thruway anti-Semitism that were so widely accepted then, even in a city with a large Jewish population. And it’s relentlessly middle-class – but then, so were the people who lived in Chapeltown back tin those days. It’s a sobering reminder of just how exclusive the suburb was – and wanted to believe it might remain.

Button Hill

“The prime reason was not the housing of the working class population…For them only too many houses have been provided, street after street of squalid little back-to-back dwellings, with no gardens or yards and little sanitation. The people who were hardest hit were the really nice people, the people with nice ideas and aspirations, who, though not extravagantly rich, had still made a little money for themselves and could afford to send their children to the Grammar school or to the new Modern School. To such as these the new suburb on Button Hill was a godsend.

Builders were turned loose on the estate. It was split into gaping rectangles. Water, gas, and drains were laid. And presently a dozen rows of desirable villa-residences shot up as if by magic, and all the contours of the hill were permanently changed. The old turnpike was cleared away, and the Fleece Tramways Company, extending its track, put on a new service of horse-trams out to the Bentham Arms. Removal vans became a familiar sight up Bathwater Road as the best people in Fleece moved themselves and their furniture to a more worthy setting.

Lord Bentham in his wisdom had decreed that the builders were to restrict themselves to villas of a superior type. Retail shops and licensed premises were barred. From the outset the new suburb could not help but feel itself exclusive and superior. Its modestly imposing homes were manifestly designed with some pretensions to that subtle quality known as “class.”

To call it a garden city suburb would have be an anachronism, but it was the nearest thing to a garden city suburb that the imagination of man had conceived up to that date. It was spacious and leafy. Native trees had been spared wherever possible, and every house possessed its green cutilage, a lawn, and a curly footpath of concrete or imported gravel, to give the illusion of landed proprietorship on a small scale. Moreover, the genuine untouched country was still so near that on summer mornings, as you stood at the bedroom window inserting your tiepin, you could sniff the dew-flavoured hedges and the turned hay, and find it difficult to believe that you were yet within half an hour’s tram-ride of the office……”

When smaller houses are built on the west side of the main road, residents look down on them. The people aren’t quite up to snuff. By within the space of 30 years, Button Hill itself is in the start of a slow decline.

The people themselves are the main focus of the story. What happens to them, where and how they end up – those who don’t die. But behind it all, the character of Button Hill itself remains a constant, even as it’s growing and changing.

The History of Button Hill is an important, and surprisingly readable, Leeds novel that journeys from innocence to experience. It’s vivid, and a moving portrayal of a time, a place, and a generation.

A reminder, if I might, that while my new book, The Leaden Heart,  isn’t set in the desirable suburb of Chapeltown – the focus is on the working-class part of Harehills – it’s out in hardback and ebook and will let you seek what life was like in Leeds in 1899. It’s also a lot easier to find than The History of Button Hill.

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Two Events

I don’t often use the blog to talk about upcoming events, but there are two in the next couple of weeks that are going to be rather special.

My good friend Candace Robb is going to be in England promoting her new book, and we’re doing a couple of evenings together, one in Leeds – where my books are set – and one in York – the setting for her work.

I first came across Candace’s Owen Archer books when I lived in Seattle. They were so convincing that I thought she lived in York, or nearby. I found out just a few years ago that she’s a Seattleite. We were in the same place at the same time and never even knew.

We cover different periods. Hers is the late middle ages, the back end of the 1300s and into 1400. Mine is later. I’m a big fan of her books, I have been since I read the first of them around 20 years ago.

We share the same publisher now, and she’s just put out A Conspiracy Of Wolves, the first Owen Archer book in 10 years. I’ve read it, and it’s excellent.

And my new Tom Harper novel, The Leaden Heart, has very recently been published. Between us, we have a bit to discuss, and the events are a double book launch for us! Buy a copy, get it signed (please)

If you can, I hope you’ll come to the Leeds event (link here) on May 16 in the evening, or the York event, also an evening affair, on the 21st (link here). Both are free, you only need to book a seat.

It would be lovely to see you!

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The Leaden Heart On Ebook (Read An Excerpt)

May Day.

A time to celebrate workers, and the fact that everywhere, The Leaden Heart is now available on ebook. Fair makes you giddy, doesn’t it?

Certainly, the reviews from the last couple of days have made me smile. Kirkus called it possibly my “finest” yet, and then there was this.

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Is that enough to convince you?

Then maybe an extract from the book would persuade you to part with your hard-earned money. I hope so, because one’s included here. Whatever ebook platform you use, go and get it – and thank you!

 

‘Superintendent Harper.’

The voice was a bellow, the sound of someone used to giving orders and being obeyed. He stood at the entrance to the office, Tollman looking helpless behind him.

The man was as big as the noise he made. A hefty paunch held in by an expensively-cut suit and waistcoat, jowls sagging on his cheeks, and a double chin that shook as he spoke. Small, dark eyes that seemed to absorb the light.

‘Councillor May.’ Harper stood, slowly extending a hand to a visitor’s chair in his office. ‘You should have let us know you were coming. What can I do for you?’

‘I’m on the Watch Committee.’ He glared, fire in his eyes. ‘I don’t need an invitation to see how one of the divisions is spending the public’s money.’

‘Of course not. Tea?’

May waved the idea away. He remained standing, a heavy, looming presence in the room, eyes moving slowly around until his gaze settled on the map.

‘What’s that?’

‘Related to a case.’ He wasn’t about to offer a word more than necessary.

The councillor snorted. ‘These murders?’

‘Yes.’

‘Something else you’re wasting time and good brass over. What’s happening about the burglaries? I’ve got people telling me they’re terrified to go out.’

Harper didn’t believe a word. May could conjure outrage from the empty air. He loved nothing better than stirring a crowd by appealing to its prejudices. Nobody named, just a wink, a nod, a hint; he knew how to work them. He despised the police, insisting he was on the Watch Committee to keep them in check.

This was the first time since Harper made superintendent that May had stirred himself into Millgarth. And it wasn’t a friendly visit.

‘We’re working on that. We have some suspects.’

‘Some suspects?’ He shouted out the question. ‘What good is that to honest people who are scared they’ll come home to find all their valuables stolen?’

Harper gritted his teeth and forced himself to smile.

‘As I said, Councillor, we’re making progress.’

‘Not enough.’ He moved around the room as if he owned it, picking up a piece of paper, glancing at it then putting it down again. He seemed to fill all the space, to take all the air. ‘In case you don’t already know, a number of us feel you shouldn’t be in this job.’ A lower voice now, more intimate and threatening. ‘We’ve taken our concerns to the chief constable.’

‘So I’ve heard.’ He wasn’t going to show any trace of fear. He wouldn’t give May that satisfaction.

‘We’re going to keep on with it until he replaces you, Harper.’ The words came out in a hiss.

Harper stared at him. ‘That’s your privilege.’

‘I’ve been on the council for a long time. Plenty of people owe me favours.’ May gave a thin, hard smile. His eyes glittered with hatred. He took a step closer. Harper could smell his breath, whisky and red meat. ‘That’s how politics works. And when you’re ready, you collect them. It’s easy to ruin a career. Just like that.’ The snap of his fingers sounded like a gunshot.

‘I can’t stop you trying.’ The man was goading him. Harper bunched his fists, but he didn’t move. He wasn’t that stupid. Hitting a councillor? Instant dismissal, no appeal.

‘I know you can’t.’ The dark smile returned for a second and vanished again. May loved the sound of his own voice. ‘And I’ll win. Do you know why? Because I have power and you don’t.’

He extended his hand. Without thinking, Harper took it, and May dragged him close. A whisper that fed like poison into his ear. ‘I know men in this city who could make you disappear for five pounds and give me change for the pleasure of the work. Think on that, Harper. Imagine how your Godawful, jumped-up wife and little girl would feel when you never came home.’

A hard squeeze of the hand, a final, bitter look, and May was gone, only the stink of him trailing in the air.

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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!

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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.