This is…well, I have a good idea about what I’d like it to become, but whether that will ever happen is another matter.
I’ve long harboured the idea of a book where Leeds is the main character, seen as it grows, seen through different eyes with different views. How to do it has always been the question. Finally, an idea came – a multi-generational saga. Not covering all of history, but a part of it. My own ancestors arrived here in the 1820s. Going from there to just after World War I would let me tell a very fictionalised version of their stories, as well as leaving Leeds the focus of it all in what was probably the richest time – in every way – of its growth.
Who knows how far I’ll get. But this is a tentative beginning. Please, let me know what you think.
Many years later, sitting by the hearth as the flames rose from new coal on the fire, he wondered what he used to dream after he closed the shutters in his room at the Golden Lion.
The market square would be quiet by then, the echo of the bell at St. Michael’s tolling eleven. All of Malton dark. His wife would already be asleep, the children bundled together in another big bed. Finally the darkness would take him for a few hours, until first light crept through the window and the day began again.
Hard work, running an inn. Long hours, frantic whenever a coach arrived. The bustle of market day, people crowding in to eat and drink. No time to plan then, not even to think. But man was made for work and he earned money.
In the rare luxury of off hour, he could stroll around the town. See the butcher’s shop he’d once run on Newbiggin. It was a milliner’s now, run by Mrs. Mercer, catering to women with taste and husbands who’d allow them to run up bills.
The butcher’s, the inn, all of them of them had steps, he realised, always moving towards something, even if he didn’t understand then what it might be. Going back to being six years old in Westow, set out in the fields to run around and scare the crows, working in the harvest until he was big enough to help with the farming.
Then he was twelve, riding with his father in the cart, five miles over tracks, looking at the endless flat fields and hedgerows and stretched away as far as he could see. They followed the old road into Malton, the old horse weary in its traces, hooves dragging up dust on a bright, dry summer morning.
‘You must do your work well, Isaac. Promise me.’ His father wasn’t a man to spend words. The village parson had taught him his letters, enough to make out the words on a page and sign his name. But he could read the land and the weather, It was knowledge he kept inside, small secrets to be hoarded. He turned his head, eyes watching his son. The hands that cradled the reins were hard, the colour of oak.
‘I will.’ He was going to live with the butcher and his family, apprenticed in a trade. He’d make something of himself, his mother insisted. The second of the three sons, not the one who’d inherit the scrap of land that fed the family and gave them produce to sell. The money they’d saved for this opportunity was his inheritance.
The cart moving through the market square, almost empty today. He’d been here before, several times a year. This time, though, it seemed larger, more forbidding, ready to swallow him. No journey home at the end of the day. The year of our Lord 1792. The first step.
Each one after that had been bigger. A journeyman butcher. His own shop. Marriage. The tumble when his business failed. The change to managing the inn.
And finally the leap, the move to Leeds. Was that the idea that filled his dreams on those winter nights upstairs at the Golden Lion? He couldn’t remember now.
The fire crackled, a coal sparked on to the rug. He stamped it out and a memory came unbidden.
He was fourteen. A chilly late autumn day, across through the market square in his bloodied apron on an errand for his master. Isaac spotted his father, one of so many selling and buying. He sat on the back of the cart, vegetables piled neatly on the wood. A face as weathered and creased as tree bark as he took someone’s money. Dividing the coins between the two pockets of his waistcoat. Dipping his head as he handed over the purchase with large hands, scarred from a lifetime of the fields. He’d become like a shadow Isaac had known for so long that was now slipping away as the light changed.
The man didn’t see his son and after a moment Isaac ran on, the apron flapping around his legs.
Fourteen, thinking he was a man because he worked for a living. Sleeping in a butcher’s house, eating at a butcher’s table. Doing all the petty, menial jobs: sweeping in the morning, raising the shutters on the shop, the cleaning and scouring when business was done for the day. The only consolation was eating meat with every meal. A life that was so tightly fenced that he might have been penned like one of the animals waiting for slaughter.
Months passed, piling one upon the other. Gradually he learned the trade. How to identify a good carcass, to wield the cleaver with a single smashing blow. All the cuts, setting the best aside for certain customers. He could lift a side of beef on his shoulder and heft it through the marketplace, laughing with the traders. From a solitary child he’d grown into a social youth, with a ready laugh and a pleasing manner. A shopkeeper’s pleasing traits. The opposite of his father. His hair grew thick and wild, a rich brown he kept trying to tame with a comb. He had a tilt in his eyes that made him look as if he might be trying to see beyond the horizon. Growing into manhood.
The only thing he could never do was wash the smell of blood from his hands.
‘It’s the butcher’s curse,’ his master said, watching as he scrubbed with the strong lye soap one night. ‘But at least the money you’ll earn will make up for it. Plenty of woman will put up with a bit of a stink for a secure life.’ He laughed as he lit his pipe.
Isaac stared, not understanding, scrubbing harder until his hands were raw.
And then, finally, he was in the last season of his apprenticeship. He could feel his freedom like a breeze, almost smell it. Served his seven years like a sentence, not even sure who he’d been when he started. A child he no longer recognised, someone dulled and fogged in the looking glass.
Half a day’s summer holiday, so rare it seemed like riches. A chance to wander around Malton without rushing hither and yon. Gazing in windows at the things he might soon be able to afford, then turning to stare at the clear sky over the tower of St. Leonard’s church. He’d arrived here on a day like this, he remembered, the earth dry and crumbling after three weeks without rain. Why should he recall that?
He lowered his eyes, breathing in the smell of horses and sweat, and spotted two figures emerging from Chancery Lane. Mrs. Coultas and her daughter Jane, walking arm in arm towards him. He’d served them both in the shop, always staring at the counter to avoid Jane’s steady look. Every time she saw him she seemed to be weighing his qualities and always fining them wanting.
As they passed, he raised his hat and wished them good afternoon. Mrs. Coultas nodded and gave a polite smile. But Jane stopped, inclining her head.
‘Mr. Lawrence, have you run away from your job?’
He could see the twinkle playing on her face, a little devilment. Her lips curled in amusement, as if she was gently laughing at him.
‘A half day,’ he told her, then blurted, ‘I’ll soon have served my time.’
Why did he say that, he wondered? To try and impress the girl three years younger than him? It wasn’t as if she came from grand stock. Just a farming family like his own, with a smallholding in Appleton-le Street. With her country face, turned brown by sun and weather, she’d done her share of work outside. But she carried herself like a lady.
‘What will you do then, Mr. Lawrence?’ the girl asked. Before he could answer, he mother was tugging her away, up towards the Golden Lion.
‘I’m sorry, sir. Come on, he’s got better things to do than waste his time talking to you. Honestly, I’ve told you before. So forward no man’s ever going to want you.’
Jane didn’t look back, walking over the cobbles in quick, confident strides and raising her chin in the air.