Authors: Chris Nickson
There was indeed a window box at the fourth cottage, and blooms had been coaxed out of the late flowers. If his errand hadn’t been so grim, this would have been a good place to sit and
think and visit awhile. For a second he wondered why he hadn’t come to see Meg before.
But he knew the answer to that. There was always so much to do. If he wasn’t working, he wanted to spend time with his family. There were barely enough hours to sleep, let alone think of
Nottingham brought his fist down lightly on the door, suddenly aware of his tatterdemalion appearance, the coat with its frayed cuffs, stained with dirt and blood, the old breeches and mended
He could hear her slow footsteps on the flagstone floor, still unsure how to break the news. Pamela had been her only remaining family.
Then she was before him, the door swinging wide. Time had been kind, letting her face settle in wide laughing lines around her face and eyes. Her thin grey hair was carefully gathered under a
mob cap. She stared up at him blankly for a moment before suddenly recognising his face.
“Richard!” she said with a genuinely pleased smile. “You’re the last person I expected to come calling on me today.” The youthful lightness in her voice made it
sound as if her life was one long social round. “Come on inside,” she beckoned him, “you look tired.”
She bustled him into a tidy room. A chair and stool sat in front of the fireplace, although the grate was empty. There was a worn table under the window and a bed in the far corner. It was
small, but Nottingham could see she had everything she needed.
Meg eased herself into the chair and gestured to the stool.
“Sit yourself down, Richard. And then you’d better tell me why you’re here. From your face it’s not good news.”
He lowered himself awkwardly, still with no idea how to tell her.
“Is it something to do with Pamela?” she asked, and he nodded mutely in reply.
“You’ve come to tell me she’s dead, haven’t you?” The words were stark, all the joy suddenly stripped away.
He looked up and faced her, his heart as empty as hers.
“I have, Meg, yes. I’m sorry.”
She was silent for a long time, then raised her right hand, knuckles gnarled into ungainly shapes, the fingers thick.
“Sewed all my life to make a living, until I couldn’t do it any more.”
“I know,” he told her.
“I saw her settled with you, then married to Tom.” Meg shook her head. “What’s wrong with life, Richard?”
“What do you mean?” He gazed at her quizzically, trying to find the meaning beyond her words.
“I’m still alive and she’s gone.” She cocked her head at the walls around them. “I’m happy enough here, but…” Her words trailed off and he could
see her eyes glisten as the tears began to form. “How did she die?”
He reached out and tenderly placed his hand on her arm. “She was murdered, Meg.” He knew it would hurt, but he had to offer her the truth. She deserved his honesty.
Nottingham could hear her praying under her breath, her eyes closed. He left his hand where it was, keeping her anchored to the world. Finally she focused on him again.
“Thank you,” she told him.
“I’m so sorry,” was all he could manage. To his ears it sounded empty, forlorn.
“She had two miscarriages with Tom, did you know that?” Meg told him, drifting away on bitter memories. “And a stillborn son that almost killed her.”
“I had no idea,” he said sadly, shaking his head. They’d had no word after she married.
“She survived all that. It was God’s will, it had to be. I thought she was safe then, even if she couldn’t have babbies. And now you’re telling me He saved her just so
someone could murder her.” She sounded as bleak as a midwinter night.
“Why was she even back in Leeds, Meg?” He asked the question that had been nagging at him since he’d seen Pamela’s body.
Her sigh came from a place deep inside.
“Tom died, a year or so ago.”
He shook his head.
“I didn’t know. And she returned after that?”
“The landlord turned her out. He needed the cottage for a labourer, not a widow.”
“Then why didn’t she come to me?” he wondered imploringly. “I’d have helped her find a post.”
“Oh, I know you would. I told her to go and see you.” Her hands tugged and pulled at the old material of her dress. “But she’d developed some strange ideas out there,
lad. She felt she daren’t be a burden to anyone.”
“A burden?” Nottingham said, astonished and confused by the idea. “How could she have been? We loved her.”
“I know. We all loved her.” The woman sighed again, and age settled heavily on her face. “But she wasn’t going to listen to me. She wasn’t going to listen to
anyone, come to that. She’d never really talk about what happened there, but she’d changed. She was… harder, I suppose you’d say.”
“From the look of things, she’d become a whore,” he informed Meg cautiously.
The old woman nodded again, sadly.
“Oh aye, I know all about that. We argued about it enough. She didn’t want to, but once she’d made her decision, she refused to have any regrets. Claimed it was the only way
she could make a living. She tried to get work as a servant, but she didn’t have any references, and no one wanted her when there were girls of twelve and thirteen available.” She
looked into the Constable’s face. “Selling her body didn’t stop her being a good woman, Richard. She was here every week, you know, bringing me a little money, whatever she could
afford. It wasn’t much, but she gave it gladly, and it made my life a little easier.”
“When did you last see her?” Nottingham asked.
Meg thought back, counting through the long days. “Let me see… Thursday, it’d be. She brought me a little piece of ribbon she’d bought at the market. It’s still
over there, on the table. I told her I didn’t need any ribbons at my age, but she said it’d make me feel like a girl again.” Meg gave a brief, tight smile that flickered off her
face as soon as it arrived. “And she was right, well, for a minute or two, anyway.”
With difficulty she pushed herself out of the chair and crossed slowly to the window, picking a small length of bright blue ribbon off the table and rubbing it with her fingertips. He remembered
the torn blue ribbon at the corpse’s neck.
“Did she still wear that old token I gave her?” Nottingham asked.
“Every time I saw her,” Meg replied with a nod, a warm glint of memory in her eyes for a second. “She always loved that, Richard.”
It was one of the very few items his mother had refused to part with, even at her poorest; her half of a lovers’ token. A penny, cut jaggedly in two, with a hole drilled in the metal so it
could be worn around the neck. It was used at a parting, a vow of love, even a wedding gift, and a promise to return, however long the time might be. The halves would come together again one day,
and the broken tokens would become a single whole.
For his mother it had remained broken. He didn’t know who gave it to her. Vaguely he recalled a man who’d visited for a while, but there’d been no lover who came back to save
her. Nottingham had been the only one at her bedside in the end. Yet she’d worn it around her neck faithfully until she died.
He wasn’t even sure why he’d kept it; the thing had done her no good. By itself the token meant nothing to him. There were other, happier memories that didn’t involve her
waiting and hoping in vain for someone who’d never intended to return.
But Pamela had been taken by the coin when she first saw it. He’d explained about broken tokens, and the romantic idea of parted lovers reunited had brought a bright gleam to her young
face. So for her birthday one year he’d given it to her.
Then he looked at Meg and he could feel the hurt twisting up inside her, joining all the other pains of her long life – the loss of her husband and daughter. Losing her granddaughter might
be the cruellest blow of all.
“Did she seem strange?” he asked eventually. “Was anything troubling her?”
“No more than usual.” Meg sounded distracted, distant. “She’d stopped being a carefree soul by the time she came back here, Richard. Half the time she looked like she had
the weight of the world pressing on her.”
“Had anyone hurt her or threatened her?”
“Of course people had hurt her.” Sour flintiness crept into Meg’s voice. “For God’s sake, she was a whore! Men used her and hit her. She was usually bruised or cut
when I saw her. But she was still my Pamela. I could still see the little girl in there.”
“I know,” he said softly, and realised he’d seen it too, even in the silent scream of a dead face.
“I can’t afford to bury her,” the old woman told him.
“I’ll take care of that,” Nottingham assured her patiently. “I’ll take care of everything. And I’ll make sure you’re there.”
“Thank you.” She looked at him with sad warmth. “And thank you for coming to tell me yourself.”
“I couldn’t do anything less,” he admitted.
“Do you think you can find the man who did it?” Meg asked, and he could hear the hope in her, barely daring to rise. After a lifetime of disappointments he sensed she was scared to
even make the request. He waited a moment before answering.
“I don’t know, Meg,” Nottingham replied truthfully. “But I’m going to try.”
“And I’m going to weep like an old woman after that door closes. Please, Richard, come and see me again. Just bring me better news next time.”
John Sedgwick gazed around the hovels of Queen Charlotte’s Court. Looking up he could see the pale blue of the sky and the faded lemon colour of the sun, but the light
barely seemed to penetrate between the buildings to offer hope here.
Now the bodies had been taken to the jail, people had shuffled back to their homes and the small street seemed suddenly bare. The doors were closed and unblinking in front of him.
The yard was like the one where he had a room with his wife and their baby son, like the place off Kirkgate where he’d grown up, like so many other courts crammed into every free space
between streets and behind houses. It was all most people could afford. But one day he’d have better.
When the time eventually came for Nottingham to quit his post, he hoped the Corporation would make him Constable. He was twenty-five now, old enough for the responsibility. He’d been the
Constable’s man for seven years and deputy for the last two, doing more than his share of the dirty work and the investigations. He didn’t read or write, but he knew he could learn
those things, and he possessed a good memory. He knew the boss had faith in him and his abilities. In the meantime he worked long hours, every day of the week, just as Nottingham himself had once
had to do. It was the way things went.
Sedgwick’s long legs took him over to the first door. He knocked on the thin wood. There was no answer and he moved along, working methodically. He felt comfortable with people like these,
flirting with the women and joking with the men, cajoling them gently into opening up. That empathy was his skill, the small, subtle prods that released thoughts and images.
This morning, though, all his charm seemed to fail him. No one admitted to knowing anything. He knew there’d have been noise until late, the roaring drunks, the fights that let off
frustration at having nothing. That was the music of their lives here. But anything more they’d have ignored, either from fear or just because it was so different.
He continued around the court. A few people offered snippets that might help, but he could tell there was no substance to them. Only one old man offered anything of value, and even that was
vague, a sort of stifled scream and blow he believed he’d heard in the middle of the night that roused him briefly from his rest.
“What time was it?” Sedgwick asked.
“I haven’t a bloody clue,” the man admitted, idly scratching a wild thatch of hair. “It were pitch dark, that’s all I know. I went back to sleep.”
Sedgwick sighed silently. It was almost nothing, but it was a place to start, and from there he’d be able to find more.
He’d come back and try again in the evening. Persistence paid off; he’d discovered that in the past. The Constable had once called him a terrier, and he liked the image, knowing how
true it was. Once he caught the right scent he followed it, digging and worrying at things until he uncovered the truth.
He hadn’t given much thought to the bodies. They were dead, beyond help. He remembered the preacher from Saturday, of course, another tosspot full of words and promises for the hereafter.
Sedgwick had no patience for sermons. He’d watched how his father worked himself into the grave, dying young as he tried to keep his family clothed and fed. No god he wanted to believe in
would have let that happen. The curate might have talked about a better place when he tossed a sod on the coffin, but what better place for his father than alive, with the people who loved him?
Given his druthers, Sedgwick would have left this preacher to the fists and let him take his chances in the here and now. But he’d had his orders, so he’d hustled the man away.
The girl had been unfamiliar. He’d realised immediately that the Constable knew her though, and that she meant something special to him. At first he thought she might have been an old
lover, but he dismissed that. To his knowledge Nottingham didn’t stray; if he did he was very discreet. And if he’d wanted a whore there were plenty of younger, prettier girls
who’d willingly oblige a man of his rank.
He’d wait. If Nottingham wanted to tell him, he would. Meanwhile, there were other, more urgent answers that he needed.
The market was in full spate as Nottingham walked back down Briggate. Servants gossiped as they crowded around the improvised stalls, and mistresses were halted by the cries of
the sellers with their boastful promises of the best goods at the cheapest prices.
When he was a boy the twice-weekly market had been a treasure trove. At the end of the day, while the traders packed up, he and other lads would scavenge, picking up all the rotting pieces of
fruit and vegetables no one wanted to buy. It looked like a childish game, but it was all done with deadly seriousness. It meant survival. The food tasted bad, but it filled the belly and staved
off aching hunger for another night or two. It had kept Nottingham and his mother clinging to life through a few bad winters.