CRIME Michael Eaton Pippa Hennessy Andrew Kells Alison Moore Lisa Shipman Michael RD Smith Frances Thimann
Founded in 2006, Nottingham Writersâ€™ Studio is run by writers for writers, and is dedicated to the support and development of all forms of creative writing. As well as creating a vibrant social community for writers to discuss and develop their work through courses, writing groups and live literature events, NWS has championed major writing events, including WEYA2013, the EU-funded Dovetail Project, and Nottingham Festival of Words, Nottinghamâ€™s first city-wide literature festival for over thirty years. Membership is open to committed writers who have been or are on the verge of being published, living in or connected with Nottingham. Current members include novelists, poets, songwriters, scriptwriters, copywriters, playwrights and publishers at all stages of their careers. Our patron is 2012 International IMPAC Dublin Award winner Jon McGregor.
NWS is supported by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.
For more information, visit www.nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk
CRIME Michael Eaton Pippa Hennessy Andrew Kells Alison Moore Lisa Shipman Michael RD Smith Frances Thimann
This collection of work was published in 2013 by Nottingham Writers’ Studio, Broadway Business Centre, 32a Stoney Street, Nottingham NG1 1LL www.nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk
Collection copyright Nottingham Writers’ Studio Copyright for individual articles rests with the authors
“I Love Charlie” by Michael Eaton was first published in Crime (Five Leaves Publications, 2013) www.fiveleaves.co.uk The Deed Room by Michael RD Smith was published in 2013 by Weathervane Press www.weathervanepress.co.uk
Nottingham Writers’ Studio gratefully acknowledges financial support from Arts Council England
Introduction ..................................................................................................................7 Sweets for my Sweet Lisa Shipman ......................................................................9 Point of Entry Alison Moore ..................................................................................15 Didn’t See Nothing Andrew Kells ........................................................................19 It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time Pippa Hennessy...........................25 The Deed Room (excerpt) Michael RD Smith..................................................33 The Indus Seals Frances Thimann.......................................................................39 “I Loved Charlie” Michael Eaton...........................................................................47
Welcome to the Nottingham Writers' Studio Crime Sampler, a prequel to the NWS Journal that will be launched in full next year. The first edition will have Secrets as its theme. We wanted to view Crime in its broadest sense and the collection contains pieces that range from the contemporary and domestic to the historical, from moments of poignancy to comedy. All submissions were judged anonymously and there were some tough hours of reading and debating before we found the right balance that would showcase the quality of Nottingham Writers' Studio members' work. We hope you enjoy reading these pieces as much as we did and we're very much looking forward to you telling us your Secrets next year. The Editorial Team
SWEETS FOR MY SWEET Lisa Shipman
Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to. Sometimes you have to revisit the past in order to set the future straight. That’s why I’m standing outside this newsagent. My hands are sweating despite the December chill biting at my neck. I pull my scarf tighter and hop from one foot to the other. The street is deserted. The tram stop does little to attract custom to this long forgotten street. When I was five years old, this newsagent was popular with old and young. Now it is a crumbling wreck, with years-old posters clinging grimly to the dusty windows. And yet it’s still open. The tattered sign tells me so. A bell chimes my arrival as I open the door. I take a step forward then another, my feet sticking to the floor, a grim mismatch of broken tiles and carpet. The shelves are empty apart from a few newspapers and boxes of washing powder. In the corner, an empty Coca Cola fridge, that symbol of the modern age, stands unplugged and unloved. A man sits on a stool behind a wooden counter, rubbing his gloved hands together. Warm air billows out of his mouth and steam from a mug of tea rises to meet it. He is older than I remember, smaller than I thought. And yet that shouldn’t surprise me. Thirty years have passed and we are all older. Though not necessarily wiser. He notices me and raises his head. I walk forward and place a twenty pound note on the counter. This is for you, I say. He looks at the note, then back at me. What for? What’s this about? 9
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO I stole from you, I tell him. When I was five years old. You used to keep lollipops in a tin near the door and I took a few. I’m sorry. How long ago was that? He rubs his chest. A cough erupts, fierce and crackling. It robs him of breath. All I can do is stand and look as he struggles to control his breathing. And all the time his warm breath blooms around him. When he recovers, I tell him how long it has been since I last visited his shop. This is interest, I say, pointing to the note. I wish I could give you more. The man shakes his head. Bloody daft of you to come back, he says, not taking his eyes oﬀ the money. Kids steal all the time. Please take it. The man grunts and picks up the note, places it in his pocket. Shakes his head. Bloody daft of you. I hold out my hand. My name’s Tom, I say. Robert, he says, shaking my hand. My friends call me Bob. He looks at me and smiles. You can call me Robert. I laugh. There’s nothing more to say, so I thank him for allowing me to pay back my debts. He shakes his head and tells me once more how bloody daft it was for me to come. I cannot disagree, but this visit is a precursor to the main reason why I have travelled so far. To ignore this deed would be to ignore all other transgressions. And I have done that for so long. I’m just about to leave when I remember one more thing. I turn back and look at Bob. The church up the road, I ask him, is it still open? Nah. Been closed a few years now. He shakes his head. Turned it into a community centre. They run exercise classes there. Something to do with Zebras. Zumba, I say, correcting him. Whatever. So unless you’re going for a workout, or for knitting lessons, there’s no point going. I look up at the crumbling ceiling, close my eyes. When I lower my head and open my eyes, Bob is looking at me. I walk over and lean on the counter. 10
CRIME I really wanted to speak to the vicar. Does he… He’s dead, Tom. Died about ten years ago. The church didn’t last much longer. Religion’s not popular anymore. Did you know him? I sigh. Perhaps. I perhaps did. Bob looks at me, picks up his mug, puts it back down. It’s gone cold, he says, motioning to the tea. Look, be straight with me now. Why are you here? No-one in their right mind would come back to a shop to pay for some tuﬃes they’d stolen 30 years before. That ain’t normal, Tom. Do you want to tell me why you’re really here? I’m in trouble. You don’t look like a criminal to me. I laugh at this. I am, Bob. I really am. He takes a step back. Murder someone did you? No! Nothing like that. Well what then? Can you remember a break in, at the church? Years ago? Nothing was stolen but… Yeah, I remember. Someone booted the door in. The vicar was proper put out by it. Nothing was taken, if I remember rightly, but it was the vandalism that really hurt the congregation. Not that I cared. Religion ain’t my strong suit It was me, Bob. I did it. Bob blows out his breath. Looks at me, looks away. He sits for a while, staring at his mug. I ask him what he’s thinking. I think you’re the strangest person I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a few let me tell you. What’s all this for, eh? I’m ashamed, Bob. Look, you wanted to see a vicar I suppose to cleanse your soul. Well, I’ll tell you something Tom, you’ll get more from talking to a complete stranger than baring your soul to someone who pretends to give a shit. Whatever’s irking you, get it oﬀ your chest. Then you can leave me in peace, can’t you? 11
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO I smile. You make a lot of sense, I say. Bob stands and walks into the back, returns with a folding chair that seen better days. He places it carefully in front of the counter and returns to his stool. I sit down. I don’t know if you are aware but the cemetery at the back of the church is used as a…meeting place for youngsters who have nowhere to go after dark. I look up at him to see if he gets my delicate phrasing. I know it, says Bob. Took some of my girlfriends there when I was young enough not to know better. Go on. I took my first girlfriend there twenty years ago. We were both fifteen. We started to, you know, in the cemetery. But there was a storm that night and she got frightened. We both wanted to do it, we were desperate. I was desperate. So I acted like the big brave boyfriend and booted down the church door. I stop unable to continue. Bob nods for me to go on. We had sex in the church. Afterwards I felt disgusted. We split up not long afterwards. And then, a few months later, her parents got in touch with my parents. She was pregnant. My parents were understandably angry and asked me if there was any truth in the accusation. I lied. The parents were sent packing. Bloody hell! I forgot about her. But she didn’t forget about me. Last year, I was contacted by my daughter. She’s 19, a beauty. I don’t deserve her. My wife was devastated because, you see, I’d never mentioned that part of my past. I have two sons, Edgar and William, they’re seven and three. My wife has moved out, taken the boys with her. Says she cannot reconcile my past behaviour with the man she loves. I look up at Bob. He looks back with calm eyes. I expect that any moment he is going to send me on my way. Well, you’ve made a right mess of things, haven’t you! 12
CRIME That’s the understatement of the century, I say. And that’s why you’ve come back, to confess to the vicar? I nod. And to pay me back for stealing some tuﬃes? Yes. You’ve got your priorities wrong, son. You should be back home, right now, talking to your wife and trying to save your marriage. How long you been married? Ten years. Well, that’s ten years of hard work gone down the drain then, unless you sort it out. And what about this girl. You don’t deserve her? Yeah, perhaps you’re right. But she should be the judge of that, not you. And let me tell you this; no amount of confession is going to put this right. What’s done is done. It’s not that simple. It’s as easy as it is hard, Tom. He stands up. Now, it’s been lovely talking to you, lad, but I’ve got a shop to run. I stare at Bob. So that’s it? That’s it. That’s your advice? It’s the best you’re going to get. I stand and hold out my hand. Bob takes it and holds it firm. You’d better fight for them, Tom. Your wife, your sons, your daughter. Because I tell you, if you let them go, that’s the worst crime. Not stealing sweets, not vandalism. Apathy is the worst crime. I ask him for one more thing before I leave. He laughs and obliges, taking his time to weigh the sweets in his old fashioned scales. As I walk out of the shop, I smile. I have a train to catch. I’m going to meet my daughter. Sweets can’t make up for nineteen years of absence, but I am her father. I am her father. No, sweets can’t make up for anything. But at least they’re a place to start. 13
NOTTINGHAM WRITERSâ€™ STUDIO Lisa Shipman is an emerging short story writer and poet. After gaining a first class honours degree in Creative and Professional Writing, Lisa is now pursuing her dream career, teaching creative writing to primary aged children. When Lisa isn't teaching, she writes. Lisa lives in Nottingham with her husband and two children. She is currently working on a non-fiction project and a collection of short stories.
POINT OF ENTRY Alison Moore
We stand in the kitchen, looking at the broken glass on the windowsill and on the worktop and in the sink. I reach for Rosie’s hand. It is lunchtime but we are still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns. We have put on our shoes so that any glass we can’t see on the floor will not cut our feet. The police have been and gone, leaving us with a crime number. On the worktop, surrounded by the hundreds of tiny silica balls that have spilt from the double glazing, from the metal bar that keeps the panes apart, is my glass fruit bowl. “My fruit bowl’s been chipped,” I say, reaching for it. “Never mind,” says Rosie. “You should leave it there,” she adds, “until the man from Forensics has been.” I see a shard of glass in the toaster and hear the doorbell ring. “That will be him,” says Rosie, letting go of my hand as both of us turn and look down the hallway towards the dark shape of a man at the front door, his outline fragmented by the patterned glass. She goes to let him in. Stepping onto the doormat, wiping his big work boots, he tells us his name. It is taped, as well, to the side of his heavy-duty metallic case – TOBY CARSON – in big black capital letters. Rosie closes the door behind him and introduces herself. “And that’s Laura,” she says, glancing towards where I am standing in the kitchen doorway. 15
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO I oﬀer coﬀee, which Toby, coming into the kitchen and putting his case down on the floor, declines. I start to make it anyway, for Rosie and me. I make a move towards the kettle but it is in front of the window and is probably not to be touched, and it no doubt has glass in it anyway. Instead, I take a saucepan out of the cupboard, hesitate near the sink and then take the pan upstairs, filling it from the bath tap. When I come back down, Toby is in the garden with Rosie, looking at the point of entry from the other side. I can hear their conversation through the empty window frame. He is showing her where a screwdriver has been used and where the broken bits of window have been thrown onto the lawn so as to land silently. He uses the passive tense, as if these things have just happened and no one is to blame. They come back inside. “I can see that gloves were worn,” he says, knowing this just by looking. Of the silica balls that roll around on the worktop, he says, “You’ll be finding these for weeks.” The water is boiling on the hob. I take it oﬀ and make coﬀee for two, moving awkwardly around the kitchen, getting in the way. “Was entry deep into the house?” says Toby. “They went into the living room,” says Rosie, taking him through. I follow behind. She shows him the desk through which someone has rifled, the bottom drawer from which her holiday money has been taken. Toby crouches down and opens the drawer. “You’d hardly know anyone had been in here,” says Rosie. “They’ve not made a mess. But my euros have gone.” She tells him how it feels to know that someone was creeping around down here while she was asleep upstairs. “At least you’re all right,” he says, standing again, six foot in his work boots, and Rosie smiles up at him. We go back into the kitchen and Toby opens his silvery case. It is lined with thick foam with holes cut out for all his equipment, everything fitting somewhere. Using a brush like a make-up brush, he dusts fine powder over the broken glass. Working on a sizeable shard from the sill, he says, “We’ve got a bootprint here.” 16
CRIME While he lifts the print, he tells us about the bootprint database. “That’s interesting,” says Rosie. He tells us about the matching up of wear and tear on the sole. “That’s clever,” she says. His police radio crackles. Toby takes his equipment through to the living room where he finds fingermarks in the dust, but no prints. He puts his equipment away and closes his case. “I’ve got your number,” he says. “I’ll have to get some more euros,” says Rosie. “Are you going somewhere nice?” asks Toby. “Rome,” she says. “Lovely,” he says. “I love Rome.” They smile at one another and then Toby leaves, carrying the bootprint in his heavy-duty case. Rosie lingers on the doorstep, watching him as he walks away, as he gets into his Scientific Support van and drives oﬀ down the road. She closes the back door but the cold air still comes in through the hole in the side of our house, just as it has been coming in all morning. I shiver and Rosie says, “Are you cold?” *** We’d become running partners in our first week at university, running together throughout the autumn term. On our first winter run, we came to a stop near our halls of residence, by the pond, which had frozen over. We stood with our hands on our knees, breathing hard. Rosie, the first to recover, touched her foot to the ice, testing her weight, stepping out. “It might break,” I said. She walked out into the middle before turning to face me. “Come on,” she said. Stepping cautiously onto the frozen surface, I remained at the edge. “It’s getting dark,” I said. Rosie waited for me, and in the end I took small steps towards her. “Are you cold?” she said. She reached for me, taking my hand. Surprised by my icy fingertips, she said, “You’ll get chilblains.” She squeezed my hand between hers as if she were pressing flowers. She 17
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO blew on my frozen fingertips and my blood began flowing again; my fingertips started to throb. My other hand, which was not being held, remained numb at my side. “Better?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. She dropped her gaze, looking at my lips, which were dry, which had been salved but were cracking at the corners. My fingertips were hurting. I was looking away, listening for the creaking of ice beneath us, when she kissed me. *** “We lock our doors,” I say. “We lock our windows.” Rosie nods. “We could get laminated glass in the replacement window, to stop anyone else getting in that way.” She shrugs. “If you like,” she says. She goes upstairs for a shower and I clean up. I put the pieces of glass into the bin. I sweep the worktop, the silica balls scattering and getting into the gaps. I sweep the floor. When I have finished, I sit down at the kitchen table and see, near my foot, a small fragment that I have missed. On the table, next to our crime number, two mugs of lukewarm coﬀee sit untouched. I reach for mine and wait for the man who is coming to board up the window through which our morning sun comes in.
Alison Moore is the author of The Lighthouse, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and winner of the McKitterick Prize 2013, and The Pre-War House and Other Stories. Born in Manchester in 1971, Alison Moore lives in a village near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur. She is an honorary lecturer in the School of English at Nottingham University.
DIDN’T SEE NOTHING Andrew Kells
I didn’t see nothing. They’ve already asked everyone else; I’m at the back, hanging back, giving it like, what’s it to you copper? Every time it’s our fault right? Something goes wrong near the park – them kids know something. But I didn’t see nothing. I look over to Sammi – there’s a crowd around her – she’s in bits, man; I want to talk to her but Jane’s holding her hand and doesn’t look like she’s letting go. Not until the copper’s finished asking dumb questions. She shook her head when the copper asked her what she saw. They all did – hard to see anything from the park bench in Paul’s Place, that’s why we like it. That’s why we all hang out here, since year seven, earlier for me and Paul. We were the first, see? I spotted it, and Paul said “Race ya then!” and started running. Paul got a head start, and I tripped up on my new laces, otherwise it would have been Jay’s Place. Paul’s Place sounds better. Here comes the copper, all stab vest and I’m in charge. I stare him down, but as he gets closer, the angles change. You can’t stare down when you’re looking up. I mean, how does he get inside the squad car? I didn’t see nothing is the only thought in my head. Because I didn’t see nothing. “And you are...?” he says. “Jay,” I says. He’s not happy. Bet they were all like that with his questions. “Jay...” Better do it. Give the nice copper what he needs for his stupid form and no more. “Jason Malin.” 19
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO He writes it in his little book. “Mal-in. Any relation to—” “He’s my dad.” “Right.” He scribbles in his pad. He thinks he’s got my number. He takes a look at me, but my shield of cool stops him dead. “Same address then?” I nod my head. No need to waste words. No need to tell him anything. Because I didn’t see nothing. Other times with the boys in blue, I’ve leant back on something, looked away into the distance at something, or someone, usually Paul, grinning from the bench, tossing the football in his hands like the copper’s time-wasting at a match, or Sammi, who plays like she doesn’t know what I’m feeling...but she knows. I know it. But I’m out in the open. Nothing to lean back on, no one to look over to…I stand soldier straight to match his height. “Alright, Jason...you’ve probably heard me talking to your mates, but I need to get a statement from everyone who—“ I’ve no time for this. Gotta get to Sammi. “I didn’t see nothing.” He doesn’t write anything. He’s going for another bite. “Were you here? With the others?” “What did they tell you?” “That you weren’t here.” “I wasn’t.” He’s not happy, but he wants to go. He’s got a stack of forms waiting for him – time to get rid. Toss the copper a bone. “I was coming from home to meet this lot. I didn’t see nothing ‘til I got to the crossing. I got out my phone to call 999, but Josh called already. He’s on a rolling contract, see.” The copper looks across to Josh, then to the park entrance, to the car parked up on the side, to the sand on the road. We both look at the sand on the road. He checks his notebook. I look across at Sammi. I shouldn’t be wasting my time. “You know him well?” 20
CRIME The copper’s question catches me oﬀ guard; I toss a playground answer back. “The driver? Dunno. Maybe.” That’s a lie. Dumb lie. I’ve seen him loads – nice alloys – got class for an old guy. Always in a shirt and tie hanging loose like a noose, same as tonight. We’d see him racing back from the Chinese that does mad ribs but takes forever to deliver. Paul said he could run faster than the moped they use. I can smell the Peking sauce through the open driver window, and it makes me feel hungry, like I bet the driver was hungry; thinking about getting home rapid for a cold beer and his freebie prawn crackers. If the copper’s suspicious of my dumb lie, he doesn’t show it. “I meant the young lad...” he checks his notes, but I know exactly what he’s going to say. “Paul.” “Yeah, I know Paul.” He looks at his notebook again. “From school?” “Yeah.” I know Paul from before school, from before anything else. I remember Paul before I can remember my Mum and Dad. He was cool then, and it never left him – always centre forward in the playground and PE, always a good day when you got put in his group, always got something to say that made everyone listen, always been my mate. “You two friends?” Don’t pause. “Yeah. He’s a good laugh, Paul. Was.” He’s got the scent that copper; he thinks he knows something, but he knows nothing. Because I didn’t see nothing. “You met him before...” “Yeah. Said he was late going to see someone. In a right hurry.” So much of a hurry that I couldn’t keep up. I tried. I really tried. Paul tried harder. He thinks drugs. He’s got the “are you talking about drugs?” look. Idiot. “Did he say who he was meeting?” Paul said he was meeting Sammi, and he was gonna ask her out. After I had spent weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks talking about 21
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO her. I look over to Sammi now. She’s looking across at me. I should be with her, cos Paul’s not – he’s just not, alright? And whatever the copper thinks, I didn’t see nothing. “Can I go now?” The copper doesn’t answer. He’s chatting to his mate on the radio. I can feel the pressure building. Stay cool. I didn’t see nothing. I didn’t see nothing. Didn’t. See. Nothing. I told Paul he couldn’t ask her out; I told him I was gonna ask her tonight, that I’d been waiting for the right time and he said I was too slow. That I’d missed my time when we were all in the bus shelter in that crazy hailstorm and still said nothing. I told Paul he was a stone cold thief. You know what he said? Sammi would warm him up. All the times I took second best for him, so he could be number one, so everyone could love Paul Nesmith. I should have punched him, square in the face, drunken kung fu style, but I did worse. I said: “Race ya then.” I didn’t even look back to see if he heard – I just started running. Then I heard him, just the thud of his feet, behind, to the side, ahead – just like that. Paul ran faster than I’d ever seen him run – he was crossing Vic Park Road before I even turned the corner. That’s when I stopped running. When I heard the crunch. And the skidding. And the screams. But I won, ’cos it’s who gets to Sammi first, right? Like Paul’s Place, right? And I’m almost there, the minute the copper clears oﬀ. “Can I go now?” I say. “In a minute, son.” “I didn’t see nothin’. And I’m not your son.” The copper looks at me and closes his notebook. “I’ll be in touch if we have any further questions. Go and see your mates.” He’s lying – he’s not gonna ask me another damn thing about Paul. He’s got villains to catch and kids to move on and road traﬃc incident 22
CRIME reports to finish. Paul’s a number now. Paul’s gone. And I’m still here. And so is Sammi. I walk towards the crowd – they’re all looking in, Sammi stuck in the middle. “Alright?” Dumb word – dunno what else to say. No-one gives me stress for saying it – they don’t know what to say either – they don’t know what to do. I know what to do. Me and Sammi, we’ll get everyone through it, we’ll show them how to live, right? Get on, cos when someone goes away and doesn’t come back, you’ve gotta get moving forwards... Trey backs up to let me through to my Sammi, and I see she’s not holding Jane’s hand anymore. She’s holding Paul’s football. I reach out to take her hand, but she doesn’t let go. There’s tears in her eyes, but she won’t let me dry them. “Did you see him?” she asks. I bury my hands in my pockets. “I didn’t see nothing.”
Living and writing in Nottingham, Andrew Kells has performed work at literature events across the region, including his younger writers’ workshop ‘Your Epic Starts Here!’ at Nottingham Festival Of Words and Nottingham Childrens’ Book Festival. He has completed his first novel for children, the Victorian adventure King of the Rails and is now working on the contemporary urban tale, Red.
IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME Pippa Hennessy
The door of the small room opens, and a woman strides in. Thank goodness for that, I think. The policemen I’ve spoken to so far have been most unsympathetic. I keep trying to explain it was the tree that started it all, but no-one believes me. I smile at her. She doesn’t smile back. Instead, she slams a manila folder down on the table, sits down opposite me and presses some buttons on a tape recorder. A red light starts flashing. “Interview with Miss Hennessy, 12th August 2013, commencing at 5.17pm. DS Finneran conducting the interview.” 5.17pm? I must have been here for nearly six hours without so much as a cup of tea. Still, it won’t be much longer. I’m sure DS Finneran will understand the situation. “You know, this place could do with a bit of brightening up,” I say. “Have you thought about getting some plants in?” DS Finneran looks at me. After a moment, she says, “Miss Hennessy, do you realise you’re under arrest for a series of serious crimes?” This is already going badly. I arrange my face into what I hope is a grave expression and nod vigorously. I need to get this woman on side. “You should have already been informed of your rights, but just in case...You have the right to remain silent, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention anything you later rely on in court. Do you understand?” 25
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO I nod again. “There’s really no need for all this, you know. It’s just a misunderstanding. It started with the tree—” DS Finneran butts in. “Miss Hennessy, you need to respond verbally. For the tape.” “I’m sorry?” “Do you understand your rights?” “I think so. I don’t have to say anything, and then it gets a bit complicated. Something about my defence in court. But I’m sure it won’t come to that. You see, when I found the tree—” “Yes, the arresting oﬃcer mentioned a tree. Why don’t you tell me about it?” “That’s what happened.” I sit straighter in my chair. “There was a tree by the bus stop.” “A tree?” she says. “By a bus stop? Surely that’s not unusual?” “Standing by the bus stop, in a Marks and Sparks bag, waiting for the number 35? A tree, going to Bilborough? Maybe you see that every day where you live?” “Hardly.” She harrumphs. I swear, that’s exactly the sound she makes. “How did it come to be in your possession, Miss Hennessy?” “I wondered what kind of tree it was, so I checked its label. It was a bay tree. Makes nice soup if you put a bay leaf in. Mind you, it didn’t look like a lollipop, like the picture on the label. Not neat and round at all. It was straggly, twigs sticking out all over. A scrawny specimen only about half my height. Anyway, then the bus came—” “So, like a good citizen, you helped the tree up the steps and found it a seat?” “The bus driver said I’d forgotten my tree, so I thought I might as well—” “What? Take it, even though it didn’t belong to you? Why would you do that?” “I didn’t even know Marks and Spencer sold trees. It appealed to my sense of irony.” 26
CRIME DS Finneran rolls her eyes. “So, Miss Hennessy, you’re asking me to believe you found yourself on the number 35 bus with a tree in your possession purely as a result of your sense of irony?” “Yep,” I say. “That’s what—” “And at what point did you decide to use the tree as a weapon?” “I think ‘decide’ is a bit strong—” “Oh, so the tree decided to attack the other passengers all by itself, did it?” “Well, no, but—” “Of course not. So you must have been the one behind it.” “It was an accident. The bus was nearly full, but I didn’t want to stand up, not with all my shopping and a tree. So I was making my way to an empty seat near the back, and I suppose I must have swiped someone.” “You didn’t just ‘swipe someone’, you caused injuries to three people, two of whom are now in hospital. One of them, a Mr...” She consults the contents of the folder. “...Cox, is in danger of losing his eye.” “Oh, was he the one who swore at me? I know one of the branches had caught his eye, and I suppose that was a bit careless of me, but really, he was terribly rude. I suggested to him that he should try meditation. For his blood pressure, you know. It’s a silent killer—” “So,” says DS Finneran. “You admit animosity towards Mr Cox. You ‘accidentally’ swiped him and two other people with the stolen tree—” “I didn’t steal it! The bus driver—” “Don’t interrupt me. You ‘accidentally’ swiped these people. What happened next?” I don’t see why I shouldn’t interrupt her. She keeps doing it to me, after all. “Can’t you read it in your notes? I already told that nice young policeman after they carried me oﬀ the bus, and I’m sure he wrote it all down.” DS Finneran rolls her eyes again. “Just humour me, would you?” And she’s the one losing patience. Still, perhaps if I go over it again, she’ll see how ridiculous the whole thing is. So I slow my breathing down, 27
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO focus on the scarred grey metal table, and try to sort the morning’s events into some kind of logical flow. But I can’t. Logic is nowhere to be found. To my horror, a giggle escapes. I try to camouflage it as a sigh, but DS Finneran’s glare tells me that was unsuccessful. So I carry on telling the story. “I turned my back on the angry man and carried on down the bus. Then a toddler grabbed one of the branches. So I—” “That’s not what young Robbie’s mum says happened. She says you snatched him from his seat.” “How would she know? She was playing games on her iPhone. What actually happened was, as I was trying to tell you, he grabbed the tree. Then the bus went round a corner, and I nearly toppled over. I must have reached out to save myself and dropped my shopping. Next thing I know, the kid’s all tangled up in my scarf, underneath two Primark bags, bawling his head oﬀ. So I tried to pick him up to comfort him.” “There are witnesses who say he wasn’t crying before you picked him up.” I try to remember. It’s all a bit blurry by now. “I guess he might not have been able to cry while he was buried under my shopping.” DS Finneran leans forward and says, very quietly, “So why did you try to kidnap him?” “Don’t be ridiculous! His mother yelled at me to give him back and—” “Miss Hennessy, the bus driver clearly heard you refuse to return the child.” “I wasn’t going to give the kid back to that woman while she was cursing and threatening him! I mean, would you? She said she’d thump him if he didn’t stop crying! It’s not right—” “Numerous witnesses say you’re the one who threatened a small child with grievous bodily harm.” “That’s not what I said at all! They must be deaf, or stupid—” DS Finneran slams her hands down on the table. Then she sits back 28
CRIME in her chair and folds her arms. She stares at me. This is not going well at all – I thought a woman police oﬃcer would be more likely to understand. So much for female solidarity. There is a long pause, then she breaks the silence. “Miss Hennessy, you have been charged with threatening behaviour, behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace, grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm, and kidnapping. You carried out these oﬀences in front of a bus-full of witnesses. There will probably be other charges added based on subsequent events. So I suggest you stop calling other people stupid. We can always add slander to your charge sheet.” I took a deep breath, focused on the table. It helped a bit. “So anyway, that was when his mother started screaming. She was the one who caused all the panic. ‘Oh my days, she’s going to murder my baby!’ she screeched. Then she launched herself at me, so I stepped back, tripped over an old biddy, and the tree swung round and the old bat managed to get one of the branches stuck up her nostril. You can’t blame me for that. In fact, her blood’s all over my clothes. By rights I should—” “And then you panicked?” “All I wanted to do was to go home. I wanted all those screaming people to go away, so I shouted at them to get oﬀ the bus and leave me alone. And they did. It was a bit of a squash, what with the shopping all over the floor, but I held the tree up out of the way and they managed it somehow. I expect they could see I just needed a bit of peace and quiet.” “Or perhaps they could see a mad woman covered in blood, brandishing a tree.” “No, the old biddy wasn’t mad, and I just told you, I had the tree. Perhaps the kid’s mother was a few sandwiches short of the proverbial, but she didn’t have much blood on her.” DS Finneran sighed. “Why didn’t you let Robbie go?” “Robbie?” “Yes, the little lad you kidnapped.” 29
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO “I did not kidnap him. He’d just crawled under a seat. Probably trying to get away from his awful mother.” DS Finneran is silent. Her eyes remain fixed on mine, and I think she’s expecting me to say something. So I do. “The tree—” She sighs. It’s not going to work. I’m never going to be able to explain to these people. I might as well give up. So I say, “Could I have a cup of tea now, please?” Without a word, she leaves the room, closing the door behind her. After five minutes or so, I think maybe she’s not coming back, so I say “DS Finneran has left the room” and switch the tape recorder oﬀ, like they do on CSI: Miami. I’m about to look through the papers she’s left on the table when the door opens again. The tree comes into the room. There’s only one sticking-out branch now, the others have been snapped oﬀ. The main trunk is bent, and shreds of the green Marks & Sparks bag tenaciously cling to the pot. Half of the leaves look rusty. I realise they’re covered in dried blood. DS Finneran pushes past the PC carrying the tree. She has a cup of tea in each hand. “Miss Hennessy, look at this tree. Do you honestly expect us to believe that it – not you – is responsible for that string of oﬀences?” The bloody leaves rustle. It sounds like even the tree thinks that’s laughable. DS Finneran snaps, “Put that tree down, will you?” The PC shoves it onto the table. Then everything happens very quickly. The sticking-out branch catches DS Finneran’s arm. She drops one of the cups of tea, which splashes all down her front. She yells, and drops the other cup on the table. 30
CRIME I push my chair back to avoid the scalding liquid cascading over the rough metal edge. The sticking-up bit on the back of the chair catches the PC in the groin. He screams and falls to the floor, clutching himself. My chair topples over, dumping me on top of the PC with my arm directly under the stream of hot tea. The writhing PC flings me oﬀ, into a corner of the room. I tear oﬀ my cardigan before the tea gets to my skin and check myself for damage. I’m OK, which is more than I can say for DS Finneran and the poor PC. Curious faces appear at the door. DS Finneran roars, “Go away!” She snatches the tree from the table and hurls it through the door, and the onlookers scatter. She slams the door and sits down, directing her wild stare at me. I get up, pick up my chair, and sit down opposite her. We can hear a growing commotion outside the room. “Well—” she says. “You see?” I say. She picks up the tea-soaked papers, bunches them into a ball, and throws the whole mess into the bin. “OK, Miss Hennessy. You’re free to go.”
Pippa Hennessy was a software developer in a previous life. Now she is the Development Director of Nottingham Writers’ Studio. She also works for Five Leaves, is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, and is a writing workshop leader, ebook producer, typesetter, proofreader and editor. She is writing a novel and a collection of poems about quantum theory, and studying for an MA in Creative Writing.
THE DEED ROOM (EXCERPT ) Michael RD Smith
This excerpt from The Deed Room describes the heroine, Maria, letting herself into the flat which belongs to Toby Malkin. Malkin is a successful and ambitious lawyer, but Maria believes his success is founded on his having framed an innocent man as an abuser of children. She has managed to get hold of a key to his flat without him knowing, and believes him to be out of the country. She is looking for a paper copy of a mobile phone bill, convinced that finding this will help her expose Malkin.
A few minutes later, Maria let herself into Malkin’s flat. The rectangle of light from the landing narrowed to nothing as she closed the door behind her, and she waited a moment before going on, allowing her eyes to become used to the darkness in the entrance lobby. When she stepped through the door into the lounge, she was surprised. She had expected total darkness, but the room was in fact lit by a single lamp standing on an occasional table. It must be on a timer, she thought. Or maybe he leaves it on all the time when he’s away. Who knows? She stood and looked at the room. It was years since she had been here, but it had changed little – still the sparse furnishings with everything in its allotted place, still the appearance of a temple to the music which filled the walls. As she stood and took in the details of the room her eyes rested on the door which led to the flat’s two bedrooms. She shook her head as if trying to clear her mind. Then she walked slowly across the room, past the big sofa facing the music system, and 33
NOTTINGHAM WRITERSâ€™ STUDIO into the alcove which Malkin used as his study. She was sure that he would keep his phone bills somewhere in here. It was just a question of finding where. The oďŹƒce furniture which filled this space was made of hard, dark wood. Built into one of the corners was a desk on which stood a flatscreen computer monitor and another smaller music system. There were very few items on the desk. Everything was precisely arranged, fanatically tidy, and there was no sign of what Maria was looking for. But at the end of the desk, in the farthest corner, stood a glass-fronted cabinet. She could just pick it out in the half-light. This looked more promising. Away from the entrance to the alcove, Maria crouched down by the cabinet and felt in her pocket for a small torch. She switched it on and pointed the beam through the glass doors in front of her. The light reflected back and dazzled her for a moment. As her eyes recovered and she peered more closely, she became sure this was the right place. She saw neatly ordered and labelled ring binders, storage boxes stacked on top of each other and a number of narrow drawers. Her heart was beating now with an excitement which displaced her anxiety. She was convinced that somewhere in here was a sheet of paper, and that on that paper was printed the particular combination of numbers which would allow her to visit upon Toby Malkin all that he deserved. It was uncomfortable crouching, and so she eased herself down and sat on the floor. She was totally absorbed, and she wondered what other secrets the cabinet might contain. Now she was here, she was starting to feel good about herself. She had done this, all of this, on her own, and Tom and everyone else would be impressed. There was one file which particularly caught her eye. Such was her certainty about what she was about to find that she felt a desire to delay the moment of discovery, to savour every minute of the process. She put her torch on the floor and reached forward to slide back the door of the cabinet. When Toby Malkin opened the door which separated the bedroom area from the lounge, it was so unexpected that it took Maria what 34
CRIME seemed like an age to understand what was happening. She heard the noise first, and looked up in time to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the computer screen on the desk. She mouthed a silent obscenity and fumbled as she switched oﬀ the torch, her eyes wide with fear. How could he possibly be here? As she strained to listen to the sounds of Malkin moving around – the opening and closing of doors in the kitchen, the faint humming beneath his breath – she collected her thoughts. He couldn’t have noticed anything, or else he would have come in straightaway. The best thing was to stay where she was, wait until he went back to the bedroom. She eased herself silently to her feet and pressed herself into a small gap next to a bookcase in the darkest corner of the alcove, with her back to the wall. For several long minutes nothing happened. Where was he? And what was he doing here in Nottingham? Maria tried to judge whether she would have time to get out if she could be sure he had gone back into the bedroom. Still she heard nothing. Should she risk looking out? Then the sound of a glass being placed on a wooden surface. He was in the lounge. More sounds. Something being opened and shut, a brief whirring of something mechanical. Another moment of silence. And then, without warning, the almost deafening sound of an orchestra. Thundering chords, half-familiar. The music was dark and beautiful, and Maria now had no way of knowing where Malkin was. Suddenly she realised how frightened she was. She decided to run out now and take her chance with him where there was more room, rather than waiting here where she would be hopelessly cornered if he found her. But that was stupid. She had no choice. She had to wait and see what happened. She tried to push herself even further into her little corner, and at the same time twisted her neck to see if she could see anything in the screen of the computer. The worst part of this was not knowing where he was. Something on the bookcase was digging into her, something 35
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO sharp and metallic. She wanted to move away from it, but feared that she would knock it over. As she glanced down and tried to work out what it was, a shadow fell across the desk. Malkin had come into the alcove. When Maria saw him her face became contorted as if with physical pain and she wanted desperately to bury her head in her hands. It took all her self-control to make herself keep still, and she knew that this must be it. And that he would kill her. But somehow he hadn’t seen her, and he sat down at the desk, no more than two feet from where Maria was squashed. She willed herself to become invisible, and prayed that he didn’t turn round. She watched as he switched on a small desk lamp, and then pressed a button on the computer. She was near enough to be able to make out each individual hair, still wet from being washed, on the back of his neck. She could smell his aftershave. But although she was this close, the thunderous music in the background also made her feel distant from him, as if she were watching him in a film. When the computer had booted up, he inserted a disk in the front, opened a document and scrolled down it, making an occasional adjustment and reading everything carefully. Minutes passed. Malkin was engrossed in what he was doing and as he continued to work, Maria began, very slowly, to feel a little calmer. Over his shoulder, she could see every word on the screen, and to give herself something to think about she read the document, trying to pick out typing mistakes. But her eyes kept returning to the back of Malkin’s head, and slowly her thinking shifted. Who was the one who was vulnerable here? By the light of the lamp she could now see that the thing on the bookcase which was digging into her was a heavy-looking metal statue of a musician. It would be the easiest thing in the world for her to pick it up. If she made any sound, the music would drown it out. Feeling pleased with her cleverness, and moving with infinite care, Maria took a tissue from her pocket and covered her hand with it so there would be no fingerprints. Then she reached out and picked up the statue. 36
CRIME It was solid and the heaviest part of it was the base. Now she looked at the back of the dark head in front of her and she imagined the damage the statue could do. She would have to hit him very hard, but she might get two or three blows in before he reacted and that would be enough. She raised the statue, forward and up. She stopped and then, like a sniper applying pressure to a trigger, and whilst the orchestra worked towards a climax, she lifted it slightly further still and picked out the spot on his head which she would hit.
Michael RD Smith is a writer and lawyer who lives and works in Nottinghamshire. The Deed Room is his first novel.
THE INDUS SEALS Frances Thimann
My boy Will come back last month. I went up on the train to see him in the hospital, big new place in Birmingham. Six weeks before he gets home, they said. And then he’ll have to take it quiet, not do too much. Not for a while. I say my boy but that don’t seem quite right no more. It’s Will’s name on the end of the bed, but it’s not my lad lying there, like. Someone diﬀerent, they got Will’s name up by mistake. I won’t say it wasn’t a shock, like, seeing him that first time. All he said was: “Thanks for coming, Dad,” when I got there, and then he didn’t say much else the rest of the time. I sat with him, just quiet. Once, he says: “Pass me the water, would you, Dad?” and I passed him the glass so he could reach it, I put his hand round it, watched him while he drank a bit. I had to go soon after that because of the doctor wanting to see him. We called him Will, his mum and me, after Prince William. We reckoned he was better-looking though, growing up, everyone thought that, it wasn’t just we was his mum and dad. Derek, at the factory, does nights, he lost his brother, only been married three years. There’s a good few of us at work got family aﬀected, one way or another. A lot of the lads round here go in the Army, not much for the youngsters to do these days, things closing down all over. They say next year the troops’ll be coming home. I’ve not followed it all, what’s gone on, why they went out there to start with, they was always saying something new. But there’s plenty said diﬀerent, our Leanne for one. 39
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO “How’s our Leanne?” Will says that second time I’m up there. “How’s she getting on with them clever types at college?” I was sitting quiet, like, in his room, neither of us talking much. Nice room. He was a lovely boy – fair hair, blond almost, same as his mum, brown eyes. She spoilt him terrible. We called him Will after the Prince. My girl Leanne, she’s the one with the brains, just started at uni. Studying History, reading History she’s pleased to call it. So there’s Will out there fighting, part of the history, like, and our Leanne studying up about it all. They was always scrapping as kids, she was out to prove she could do what her older brother did and more, we couldn’t never stop them, but now Will’s – now things is the way they are, Leanne’s quite diﬀerent with him, can’t do enough, like she’s making up for all the wars they had. She didn’t go in the Army same as him though, not her style. She visits him regular. Very upset she was, that first time. I don’t recall much history from school. Henry the Eighth and them wives, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Victoria and Albert, Churchill and the War – we all thought that was the best, the Tudors and Stuarts didn’t mean a lot to us lads back then. “You ought to know more about it, Dad, fix up an evening class or something,” Leanne says, serious, like, the way she is, but I’d not fit in, all them ladies. Not my style. I used to like a good book, anything with a bit of a mystery I could work out, thrillers, who-dunnits and such. But I can’t get into them books these days, keep losing the plot, like they say, not sleeping too well neither. No good getting to bed and lying there staring at the ceiling. I picked up some of Leanne’s she’d left lying about, there was one great thick one she said was on the radio, but the chapters is quite short, there’s pictures all through it. “You’d enjoy it, Dad,” she tells me, “it’s about things people have made, the same as you did, ordinary people quite often.” Like I said, she’s got the brains of the family. Not much of a looker, not like her brother, skinny little thing, but clever, always top of her class at school. 40
CRIME It was the pictures got me interested. When the kids was small I took to making toys for them, carving bits of wood I got from work, models for Will, helping him put them together, making ‘em go. Bits and pieces for the train set and the dolls’ house and such. Knocked up a rabbit hutch for the neighbours’ lot. Always been good with my hands, making things, it was a hobby, like, and they went down a treat with all the kids. Don’t know where they’ve finished up now, them bits of things I made. My Tess was always telling me to get rid of the dust and mess, clear it all up. But she was pleased with them too, her face was a picture. “You’ve got hidden talents, George,” she says. In this book, the pictures was of carvings, pots, models, all sorts, chessmen, things people made, just ordinary things sometimes, but they was important, at least that’s what they think these days. A History of the World in 100 Objects it’s called. I says to Leanne there must be more than a hundred objects in the history of the world. There’s a good few lying around in your room, I says, sharp, like, but “it’s about what they mean in terms of human progress, Dad,” she tells me. Made me think about Will, still up there in the hospital. Looking through the pictures is a treat. Swimming Reindeer – lovely bit of carving, that – Jade Dragon Cup, Double-headed Serpent. Makes you want to read up about them all. So now I’m reading History too, like. I picked out this chapter, Indus Seal, which is about these things they found up in India and Pakistan, near where Will was fighting, Afghanistan. That’s why it caught my eye, I looked it up on the map. Me and the wife was planning a holiday in India a few years back, palaces and forts, the Taj Mahal and folk-dancing in the evenings. Elephants and such. Not my style, but Tess liked all that kind of thing, always loved a curry. That would’ve been our twentieth, Tess wanted something special, always fancied a trip to India. Like a kid herself, sometimes, she was. “‘Peacocks and Palaces’, George,” she reads out, looking through the booklet, her face was a picture. “That’s the one for us. We’re going to see the world, George,” she tells me. 41
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO Twenty-five it would’ve been, next month. Sweet girl she was, my Tess, when I fell for her, brown eyes same as Will, fair hair, just the same. Took to putting streaks in it later, diﬀerent colour each week. I won’t say it wasn’t a shock, like, when she passed away so sudden. “You take care of the kids, George,” she says, last thing. This chapter in the book was about these ruins they found up there, towns, big ones, no-one knew about them for thousands of years till Victorian times and there’s a lot they still don’t know, they’ve not found much written down. But they never discovered no fortifications, nothing military, like, and all the houses was the same, not great villas for the rich and hovels for the poor. It was all planned out, proper plumbing and such. The seals was used in trade with the other countries round about, so they must have known how to do all right without the fighting. Working things out democratic, like, not going to war. Now Will’s back home, the nights is the worst. He wakes up sweating and screaming, shaking all over. Next day he’s lying there staring at the ceiling. That first night I heard all the noise and I went in his room, saw what was happening. I tried to hold him quiet, calm him down, put my arms round him, they didn’t go all round, he’s a good bit bigger than me, been bigger since he was fourteen. I got him better after a bit, awkward, fumbling about, talking to him, anything I could think of, football results, over and over, next door’s goings on, anything. Just holding him, in the dark, it was something deep, like, just a boy and his dad, might’ve been any time, anywhere. I’d not done nothing like that since he was a lad and he fell oﬀ his bike, scratched his knees. Always left that side of things to the wife. “Thanks Dad,” he says, a bit later. Just that. “Thanks, Dad. All right now. I’m fine.” Another night I go in his room, the light’s on, he’s still sitting in his chair, two in the morning. “I don’t want to go to sleep, Dad,” he says, “I don’t want them bad dreams again.” Twenty-one last year, he was. They patched him up in the hospital, but there’s not a lot of assistance with the rest of it now he’s back home. 42
CRIME He’ll not see the doctor. “I’ve seen enough of them doctors,” he tells me. “Dish out a lot of pills.” So it’s down to me to see him through, there isn’t anyone else going to. It’s what my Tess would have wanted. No-one knows how it was back there in them days – they’ve not found much written down. It’s mostly just them seals, for trading, quite small, with the strange animals carved on. There’s one like a unicorn, and there’s an elephant, and them marks, all diﬀerent shapes, no-one knows what they are, letters or signs, if they’re a real language or not, it’s a mystery. They’ve been trying to work it all out for years, the experts, they’re still at it. If they could find out what them signs mean, they could find out how they managed it, how they could live together peaceful, like, without the fighting. It’d change a lot of things if they could find that out. Looking round here, I can’t see any objects which might change anything much. That donkey on the mantelpiece, with the hat, Greetings From Majorca it says on it, neighbours brought it back last year, people might puzzle over that one day. I got rid of most of the bits and pieces when Tess passed away, they was only a reminder, never felt much like replacing them, clutter the place up. Maybe that’s not the right way to think, maybe things – objects – is important after all. You wouldn’t know. Them folk didn’t know the seals would be important, they was just things they used every day, packing up the goods, sending them oﬀ, didn’t give ‘em a thought. Him and Josie, his girlfriend, they was planning on getting engaged, but that’s not happening now, though she’s not said as much. “It’s not his... it’s not the physical things, George, it’s... “ She started calling me Dad one time but it’s George again now. Lovely girl, been sweethearts for years. “I think I’d like to go out to Canada, Dad,” he says one night, as if he’s made a decision. “Farming. Or New Zealand. Somewhere quiet, and cold, lots of space. Mountains.” But he never does nothing about it. I might go up one day to see them things in the Museum. All the objects in the book is in the British Museum in London. Take a day trip. Derek says, “What’re you planning to see then? Phantom of the 43
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO Opera? Not your style I’d have thought. New lady friend?” I says to him, “I’m going to the British Museum, look at some seals,” and his face is a picture. “Don’t you mean the Zoo,” he says after a bit. “You want the Aquarium.” These big ideas which change the world – how did they get started, how would you know when there’s one just getting going? I read a diﬀerent chapter of the book, there was another George Smith – no shortage of George Smiths back then neither – he was just an ordinary chap, got no education, but he took an interest in them old languages and such and managed to work out a bit of writing about the Flood, like in the Bible, Noah’s Ark, which showed the story was written a lot earlier than they thought, earlier than the Bible, and upset all the experts. I’d not be able to do nothing like that. But I’d like to have a look, just see them, so I could get an idea. That George Smith, he changed what people thought. He wasn’t an educated chap. “You should take up the carving again, Dad,” Leanne says. “They were lovely, those little things you made for us when we were kids. You never know, it might be one of your things they’re arguing about in a thousand years’ time.” “Objects,” I says. I might show Will how it’s done, be a bit of an interest for him, like. There’s wars going on all over – Afghanistan, Africa, out in Egypt. Terrible business in Syria. There was a lad in the news, big dark eyes, lost both his legs, and his dad holding him with his face all screwed up crying. It’s diﬀerent when it’s your own lad, it’s not just a picture in the news. The fighting and the killing goes round and round like a virus, there’s no-one to stop it. Maybe Leanne’s right, always going oﬀ on protests and marches and such. “There’s war crimes going on, Dad,” she says, “it’s only people like us can change it all. There isn’t anyone else going to.” Maybe we’re going backwards these days, there isn’t no progress to write about no more. Maybe we’re destroying all the objects we could learn from, the history, like, with the fighting and the bombing. 44
photo © Fæ
If we could figure out them letters and signs we could figure out how they did it, them people back then, no soldiers, no palaces, thousands of miles all quiet and peaceful. I reckon figuring it out’d be better than the protests and the marching. Maybe she got it wrong this time, our Leanne. Just this once. The other night Will come back blind drunk, been out with his mates. I heard him swearing and crashing about, waking up the neighbours, and I went in his room, helped him calm down, got his boots oﬀ, got him into bed. I’m in his chair, in the dark, till he goes to sleep, listening to him, the noise he’s making, and it’s like it’s a mystery and it’s all connected, the fighting, and my Will, what’s happened with him, and the other lads which didn’t make it, the mums and dads and sweethearts, and them pictures and carvings, it’s connected, and there’s one big solution to it all. “You take care of the kids, George,” she says, my Tess, last thing. But there’s a lot to it, being a dad, it’s knowing things, history and such, finding things out. I’ve fixed to go up in the train to London next week, take the day oﬀ, have a look at them seals in the Museum. Get things straight in my mind. I’ll be clearer, seeing them letters and signs, I’ll be able to work things out a bit easier. Sort out what it all means, like.
Frances Thimann has been writing for many years, mostly short stories. Her collection Cello and Other Stories, focusing on the theme of old age, was published by Pewter Rose Press in 2008. In 2012 she published a second short story collection with the same publisher, and she has also had single stories published in Staple and the Southwell Folio. She completed the MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University in 2006.
“I LOVED CHARLIE” – THE AMAZING CRIMINAL EXPLOITS AND ASTOUNDING CULTURAL AFTERLIFE OF THE GREAT PORTICO THIEF CHARLES PEACE Michael Eaton When I was little child my grandma would sing: I used to be Napoleon in the waxworks show All the people they admired me so But now I’ve had bad luck They’ve melted down my grease They’ve put me in the Chamber of Horrors And called me Charlie Peace. Tales of this night prowler scared me, though in time I came to believe he was a fairy-tale bogey man, a made-up creature of folklore. Only when I saw his terrifying eﬃgy in the Chamber of Horrors did I realise Charles Peace had been all too real. Nana told me that he lived in Nottingham, down in Narrow Marsh. But there was no mention of that in any account I read, so I supposed she had made it up – we have a long-standing habit of embracing criminal folk-heroes round here. But if Charles Peace had simply been the most successful cat burglar of his day and age, is it likely that his name would be used to frighten children almost a century later? Was it Peace the girls were chanting about when the skipping-rope twirled in the playground? I loved Charlie, Charlie was a thief Charlie killed a copper, Charlie came to grief Charlie came to your house, stole a leg of beef Charlie came to our house, stole some bread and jam Ate me mother’s pudding, ate me father’s ham When the coppers caught him hung him on a rope Poor old Charlie... hasn’t got a hope. 47
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO Why did this robber and double-murderer become in popular consciousness a legendary trickster, a Robin Hood of the public prints? Why was he turned into a folkhero even before his execution? Why was he memorialised, at first in Penny Dreadfuls, waxwork shows and travelling fairground theatres, then later in films and comic strips? The man they called ‘The King Of The Lags’ was born in Sheﬃeld in the early 1830s. His father worked on a travelling show with trained, caged lions and tigers before he settled down and became a zealous convert to evangelical Christianity. If Charlie had inherited his dad’s show-business career would he have turned to the bad? When his childhood was over he was apprenticed in the hell of a South Yorkshire steel mill. Charlie had an unexpected fourteenth birthday present when a length of white hot metal shot through his leg. His very survival was amazing, the saving of his limb little short of miraculous. He not only learned to walk again but became a contortionist of immense agility. This accident was the turningpoint. He made a pledge to himself that henceforth no man would ever be his mester. He would never do an honest day’s work again. Peace declared war upon respectable society. He was a fine musician, playing, appropriately, the fiddle, billed in low music halls as ‘The Modern Paganini’. But his musicianship acted as a cover for a much more profitable trade: house-breaking and cat burglary, and his violin case hid the tools of that trade. Peace was a 48
CRIME master of disguise and a ferocious fighter. He had no fear of anyone, eluding a disorganised police force for many years until his inevitable capture. Charlie Peace was in and out of gaol for the next eighteen years under various aliases and prison regimes, imprisoned under the silent system at Millbank, flogged for organising a prison mutiny in Dartmoor. Finally released in 1872, now aged about forty, he determined never to see the inside of a prison again. His wife, Hannah, had remained loyal to him whilst he was banged up and now they outwardly maintained a respectable existence in the patriotically named Victoria Terrace on Britannia Road in Darnall near Sheﬃeld – a fine location for a man who gave ‘darn all’. And then he met the beautiful Missis Dyson. Peace had always exerted a charismatic charm over the opposite sex and Katherine Dyson was far from immune to his blandishments. She was an IrishAmerican woman who moved in next-door-but-one with her husband, Arthur, who had been a railroad engineer in the States. Though later, somewhat unconvincingly, she publicly denied intimacy, their torrid affair must have been conducted right under the noses of their respective spouses. In time, however, the magnetic attraction Katherine once felt for this villainous neighbour turned into terror. Peace did not take easily to being spurned. His lust mutated into obsession. Like a man possessed, his twisted passion began to affect the delicate balance of his work. On a job in Manchester he slipped up and was about to be caught, when he took out his pistol and shot a policeman. Now he had crossed the line. He was a cop killer. His luck held out though. The police pinned the shooting on an innocent Irish labourer: a case of ‘Round up the usual Fenians!’ But this was not an act of political terrorism but Ordinary Decent Criminality. Peace brazenly attended the trial of young William Habron for the murder of Police Constable Cock. He was even heard complaining that 49
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO the evidence against the young Irish lad was merely circumstantial as he sat, in disguise as a clergyman, in the public gallery. Habron was found guilty and sentenced to death despite his desperate pleas of innocence. Fortunately the jury recommended mercy because of his youth and the verdict was commuted to imprisonment for life. The Dysons moved out of the area, but if Arthur thought he could evade his wife’s tormentor he was sorely mistaken. Peace tracked them down to Banner Cross on the posh side of town, the western edge not far from the Peaks, where they lived in a house still standing today. One November night Charlie appeared like a wraith, collaring Katherine as she stepped out to the privy and finally blowing away poor Mister Dyson in his own back yard as his wife looked on in horror. Peace was on the run with a considerable reward of one hundred pounds on his head. That was when he came to Nottingham – I should never have doubted my Nana. He holed up in a cheap gaﬀ in the crimeridden no-go zone of the Marsh, shamelessly continuing to pursue his chosen profession. And there he fell in love again. Susan Gray was one of her names, another was Sue Bailey. She shared a love of music with the man she came to know as ‘Jack Thompson’. Saturday night was the Music Hall; Sunday morning was the Chapel. Her beautiful voice was a great attraction to this supposed travelling salesman. When they set up as man and wife neither of them thought it significant to tell the other they were both already married. Did Sue know what Jack was up to when he went out to work whilst the city slept? She soon found out when the knock on the door came early one morning. She opened up to find two policemen standing there. Her ‘husband’ leapt out of an upstairs window and legged it into the lawless warrens. Later a message came for her to join him in London where a brass plaque outside his Peckham house proclaimed him: ‘Dealer In And Repairer Of Musical Instruments’. They unusually shared their genteel South London home with another woman. ‘Jack’ told the uncomplaining 50
CRIME Sue this was his ‘mother’, Missis Ward – actually she was none other than long-suﬀering Hannah Peace. Sweet Sue was unknowingly sharing a ménage à trois! Inhabitants of the suburbs of South London found themselves victims of a one-man crime wave. The Thompsons were popular neighbours, holding soirées presided over by the Master of the House on his violin accompanying Sue’s lovely singing voice. Sometimes he would make his excuses to be called out on an important matter of business only to return home later when his guests were somewhat worse for wear from the generous gin-soaked hospitality doled out by the old lady. Coincidentally, some guests would return home to find their homes had been burgled. One day Sue must have accidentally discovered that not only that ‘the mother’ was really ‘the wife’ but that the man in her life was, in fact, the notorious Banner Cross Murderer! From that day forth Hannah kept her under virtual house arrest, plying her with spirits and snuﬀ to keep her quiet and befuddled. On an autumn night in 1878, Peace was caught in the act by Constable Edward Robinson whilst robbing a villa in Blackheath. Charlie’s revolver flashed and the policeman was wounded, shot in the arm. The heroic Blue Lobster managed to keep hold of his murderous assailant. Upon arrest the burglar gave his name as ‘John Ward’ but otherwise kept silent. A pretty young woman, it would seem, turned up at the Greenwich police station, claiming the hundred pound reward for the Sheﬃeld killer. Only then did the police realise that the man sitting calmly reading the Bible in their holding cell, the man they thought was a ‘mulatto’ as his face was dyed with walnut juice, might be the infamous Charles Peace, The Banner Close Murderer. Peace made a daring escape from the train taking him back up north for his hearing. But he was caught once again and finally convicted after a trial at the Crown Court in Leeds which galvanised 51
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO Victorian society. For Katherine Dyson was brought back from the States to testify against him, branding the prisoner in the dock ‘a devil’, denying she had ever had an aﬀair with him. The jury returned a verdict within minutes: Guilty! Charlie was an untroubled prisoner who, in the death cell, made a model of a cardboard Gothic monument which he wished to be his tomb, rather resembling the Albert Memorial. But before his last day on this earth he made an astounding confession. It was he who had shot the young policeman in Whalley Range, Manchester. The coppers had committed perjury to convict that young Irish lad. William Habron was released from hard labour as Peace walked to the gallows. Before the drop Charlie refused the hood to cover his eyes and addressed the assembled gentlemen of the press: ‘You know what my life has been. Tell all my friends I feel sure that I am going into the Kingdom of Heaven. Goodbye and Amen!’ *** That was not the end of the story. Charlie Peace’s life and crimes instantly struck a chord amongst the labouring populace; they certainly kept his memory green. Though the days of the broadside ballad, the ‘Chorus From The Gallows’ sold at the foot of the scaﬀold, were long over, Charlie’s exploits were still memorialised in poetry and song. Within hours of The Banner Cross Murder an enterprising letter-press printer, William Rose of Steelhouse Lane, Sheﬃeld, got busy putting out the first ballad versifying the murder of Arthur Dyson. And Charlie continued to crop in popular Music Hall numbers such as ‘I’m ’Enery the Eighth, I am.’ Once ‘John Ward’ was unmasked as Charles Peace the press covered his exploits in great detail. But none of the more respectable prints came close to rivalling the coverage given by The Illustrated Police News. This weekly with its garish cover page, published by George Purkess of The Strand, was called ‘The Worst Newspaper In England’ by a Grub Street 52
CRIME rival jealous of its massive circulation of 200,000 copies per week. Charlie made the cover nine issues on the trot with graphic illustrations depicting iconic incidents: The Murder Of Dyson, The Shooting Of Robinson, The Escape From The Train, The Walk To The Scaﬀold. No other criminal came close until an unknown serial murderer stalked the streets of Whitechapel. Even before the execution Purkess was advertising another forthcoming publication: Charles Peace – Or The Adventures Of A Notorious Burglar. Retailing at one penny per week this Penny Dreadful was eagerly devoured by the newly literate multitude, running for one hundred issues totalling eight hundred pages, and reissued under hard covers in several editions well into the twentieth century. Each issue had an action-packed woodcut on the title page. Presented gratis in Part One was a lurid full colour folio-sized print of Charles Peace’s Dream On the Night Of His Execution. This is a most extraordinary publication. For the first few numbers evidently little was yet known of the truth of the eponymous burglar, so an entirely fictional story was concocted to pad it out. As the run continued, however, more and more primary sources were plagiarised verbatim, making this volume an extraordinary research resource. It’s hardly surprisingly that Charlie often makes an appearance whenever a story or song is set in a Waxworks Museum, for Photo courtesy of the National Fairground Madame Tussaud’s instantly Archive, University of Sheﬃeld Library 53
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO snapped up Peace-iana and displayed no less than two wax effigies of him. One showed a creepy, menacing figure whilst the other depicted a contrite Charlie in the presence of William Marwood the Hangman, inventor of the long drop method of ‘humane execution’. These were exhibited in The Chamber of Horrors well into the 1960s. Scotland Yard’s Black Museum also preserves some priceless items of memorabilia including his violin, his burglary tools and the fold-away ladder he used for scaling. Sheffield’s Police Museum can hardly compete, with only a pair of his glasses proudly on display, but it does contain an effigy of the native son in one of the cells. Charlie Peace is one of the few ‘true life’ criminals to be named in a Sherlock Holmes story. In The Illustrious Client (1927) Conan Doyle has his consulting detective remark: ‘A complex mind. All great criminals have that. My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso.’ Though how Holmes could ever have known him when Peace was living incognito in London is never explained. Charlie had previously made an appearance in Gentlemen and Players (1899) by Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law E. W. Hornung. His Old Etonian cracksman A.J. Raﬄes makes the case: ‘To follow Crime with reasonable impunity you simply must have a parallel, ostensible career – the more public the better... Mister Peace, of pious memory, disarmed suspicion by acquiring a local reputation for playing the fiddle and taming animals. Fill the bill in some prominent part and you’ll never be suspected of doubling it with another of equal prominence... That’s the one and only reason why I don’t burn my cricket bats for firewood.’ Mark Twain uses Charlie to have a dig at the public fascination with celebrity criminals in the last story he published, his satirical squib Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1909): 54
CRIME ‘(T)he finest thing that has happened (up in Heaven) in my day... was Charles Peace’s reception – him they called ‘the Bannercross Murderer’, an Englishman. There were four patriarchs and two prophets on the Grand Stand that time. There hasn’t been anything like it since Captain Kidd came...’ Mrs Belloc Lowndes’ shocker of the London fog The Lodger (1913) might have been inspired by the exploits of Jack the Ripper, but this didn’t stop Charlie from ingratiating himself into the tale. The heroine, Daisy Bunting, and her father are given a tour of the Black Museum: ‘In this here little case are the tools of Charles Peace... Many gents as comes here thinks this case the most interesting of all. Peace was such a wonderful man! A great inventor they say he would have been, had he been put in the way of it. Here’s his ladder; you see it folds up quite compactly, and makes a nice little bundle – just like a bundle of old sticks any man might have been seen carrying about London... without attracting any attention. Why, it probably helped him to look like an honest working man time and time again... My word, he was artful!’ Even the prolific Edgar Wallace got in on the act, casting Peace as The Devil Man (1931). Dictated in the course of a weekend, it takes longer to read than it took the author to write! Here Charlie has few redeeming features, the publisher’s blurb thundering: ‘He was a repulsive creature to look upon; a colossal braggart; a gifted musician; a murderer; a dwarf in stature and a Samson in strength; the perfect burglar...’, not forgetting to stress that Peace was ‘a man with an irresistible attraction for women.’ Bills from the travelling theatres advertised plays which continued to be performed long after his death. The text of one of these ‘Plays For The People’ is still extant, that of Joe Hodson of Swallownest, Yorks. In this piece Charlie has become a truly popular rebel, a silver-tongued lover secretly dispersing the profits of his crimes among the poor and dispossessed, including a Dickensian crossing-sweeper. The hero, it goes without saying, mounts the scaﬀold with a swagger and without regret. 55
NOTTINGHAM WRITERS’ STUDIO So it comes as no surprise that Charlie’s story was embraced by a new medium of narrative sensation. Two cinematograph productions were released in 1905, possibly the first ‘factual dramas’ to be made in this land. The wonderful Life of Charles Peace by William Haggar, a travelling showman in South Wales, survives as an early masterpiece of the British cinema. Haggar’s son, Walter, plays Charlie as a villain of melodrama. His outrageous exploits must have been taken to their bosoms by the working-class audiences in the mining communities of the valleys. He’s always on the move, a shape-shifter incarnate. The relish with which he metes out violence towards a variety of comic policemen is especially prominent, causing magistrates and clergymen to denounce the film’s potential influence upon the minds of the young and ignorant. The final scene of Peace’s execution was considered particularly shocking. The other film from the same year came from the Mottershaw film company based in Peace’s own home town and now unfortunately lost. Their advertisement explicitly states that this more tasteful enterprise certainly does not, unlike its competitor, depict the hanging. But the shot-by-shot description that does remain proclaims an unrivalled realism, for the scenes depicting the murder of Dyson and Peace’s attempt to escape from the train were shot in the actual locations at Banner Cross and Shireoaks. The only sound film was a low-budget but nevertheless interesting Monarch production made in 1949. The Case of Charles Peace, directed by Norman Lee and starring Michael Martin Harvey, concentrates on the William Habron miscarriage of justice story and the trial of Peace. But it was in a comic that kids of my generation were introduced to the ‘Arch Rogue of Victorian London’. The Astounding Adventures of Charlie Peace ran as a strip in Buster from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. In these beautifully drawn, subtly subversive stories for the nation’s children any mention of amorous dalliances has been expunged from the record and Charlie is transformed into a loveable rogue whose antagonists were not so much the ‘Crushers’ (police) as Scrooge-like exploitative capitalists 56
CRIME and criminals far more hard-hearted than himself. There was even a series of stories in which he was ‘tricked into entering a time machine’ and found himself in a modern Britain of Mini cars and mini-skirts – a world which, needless to say, he found more confusing than his own Victorian past. The mass media transformed a Life into a Legend, a Man into a Myth. Why was this common criminal the focus of such multitudinous makeovers? Could it be that Peace’s life and crimes oﬀered a resounding ‘No’ to his society’s sanctimonious illusion that honest toil leads to material prosperity? He cocked a shameless snook at notions of the sanctity of private property and domestic, matrimonial bliss. Accepting no authority but his own, he lived out the unspoken desires of the downtrodden. Charlie Peace was the ambiguous focus of troubling fascination, the Rampant Id, the Trickster, the Dionysiac Bringer of Chaos.
Michael Eaton has written drama-documentaries including Shoot to Kill, Why Lockerbie? and Shipman for television; The Conflict is Over and Washington 9/11 for radio; and The Families of Lockerbie for theatre. He is contributing to the perpetuation of the myth of Charlie Peace with a new play that was produced at Nottingham Playhouse in the autumn of 2013.
Published on Dec 4, 2013
The pilot issue of the Nottingham Writers' Studio Journal, showcasing our members' writing on the theme of Crime.