Category Archives: Classics and Historical

PODCAST – BookElfLeeds Reading Challenge – Update

modern mrs darcy reading challenge

This year, @BookElfLeeds and I decided to reignite our reading groove thaing by completing a reading challenge. We found this awesome list by Modern Mrs Darcy – and already we’re inspired!

Jess provides us with an update of her Modern Mrs Darcy Reading Challenge of 2016.

With 6 books read; she’s at the halfway mark already!

From historical fiction to librarian-readers-recommendations books (oooh, secret knowledge!) to coming-of-age to raunchy reading for teens – join us for a fascinating voyage of literary wonder!!

As with any other podcast that I am involved in; the usual language warnings apply (it’s really bad – mixed metaphors, noun-aphasia and swearing that would make a navy blush!)

Mobile Link

Visit our  Modern Mrs Darcy 2016 Reading Challenge page to see our choices (for now!)

  1. a book published this year
  2. a book you can finish in a day
  3. a book you’ve been meaning to read
  4. a book recommended by a local librarian or bookseller
  5. a book you should have read in school
  6. a book chosen by your spouse/partner/sibling/child or BFF
  7. a book published before you were born
  8. a book that was banned at some point
  9. a book that was previously abandoned
  10. a book you own but have never read
  11. a book that intimidates you
  12. a book you’ve already read at least once

If you’d like to join us with this – or any other reading challenges, please drop me an email, leave a comment or tweet one of us!


LBC Outlaws – Dissolution – C.J. Sansom

LBC Outlaws

Date:  Wednesday 7th of October 2015
Time:  6:00pm
Address: Harper Street, LS2 7EA





It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege – a black cockerel sacrificed on the altar, and the disappearance of Scarnsea’s Great Relic.

Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to investigate. But Shardlake’s investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes . . .

Dissolution_(Sansom)This was one of those random picks where some of us got to read a book that has been sat on the shelf for a long time. It was my pick and I wanted to read something along the lines of a previous pick ‘The Name of the Rose’ but without all the latin and for the most part we enjoyed it with praise for the religious debates contained within the story.

After several other books such as Wolf Hall which present different perspectives on Cromwell we found it interesting to see a book written with the common viewpoint of Cromwell in mind – a man responsible for the sacking of Catholic churches.

We found the book to be set just past medieval times – which seems to be a favourite period amongst the Outlaws – but still at a time when history was interesting and as one reader said ‘before history got modern and boring’. Set around the time of Anne Boleyns death; we enjoyed Sansom’s depictions of myths and conspiracies as to why she was beheaded.

It was also a dangerous time and we had a good chat about those in the Kings favour who were often in fear of his mood swings resulting in the loss of their heads. How often people were afraid to speak up especially if they disagreed with the Kings opinions such as with religion. Church was a huge part of people’s lives and we discussed how people would be fearful of having opinions as that could also lead to the loss of one’s head.

We discussed the tradition of patronage and the blossoming egalitarian reformists and how despite reform and our protagonist had been such a person, how he still believed in patronage with his assistant Mark; brought to London after growing up on his father’s farm.

As the crime was set in a monastery we talked about dodgy priests, with one reader commentating that some of the best forgers were from medieval times. This was something from the book, where several priests wrote false land documents.

We discussed which point in the book everyone figured out whodunnit with a varying degree of answers from midway discussions on the constant talk of marshes and a point where it was mentioned several times how heavy certain boxes were by people who shouldn’t be moving said boxes! (spoiler free sentence!). There were far too many co-incidences in the story such as the commissioner at the monastery also being the one to investigate the alleged lover of Anne Boleyn.

We had a little chat about assistant Mark – a man so in love he was prepared to overlook the fact his girlfriend was a murderess who chopped off people’s heads. I have a comment – must be the tight trousers – which I think was to do with Marks constant habit of getting into trouble with women.

With Shardlake himself we liked how he was a flawed individual, weary of the reform he had helped to move forward and prone to tantrums, such as when he lost the girl (Rose) to Mark.We liked the fact that it made him more human-like. Also his hunchback made him an outsider, like the monks helping him to form strong relationships on the way to solving the crimes.

Lots of red herrings in the book which made it enjoyable and we decided it had an air of Agatha Christie about it. We loved the way the story was constructed and the way it was set – descriptions of the journey, the smells of London and so on. It was very easy to visualise the times.

This months tangents (not many this month):

  • Henry VIII wives
  • How medieval crime solving would have been so much easier if they had mobile phones rather than having to travel by horse a hundred miles to pass a message on.
  • The church of Spain claiming to have the head of John the Baptist as a boy. Then whose head did he have as an adult????



For further details, please email me at or tweet me @LeedsBookClub or @LBCOutlaws

The Pub can be contacted on @CrowdofFavours 

And feel free to let us know your thoughts using #LBCOutlaws

LBCPuffins review book 06 -Black Beauty

Black Beauty

by Anna Sewell

 About the book

A horse is a horse of course unless of course the horse is Black Beauty. Animal-loving children have been devoted to Black Beauty throughout this century, and no doubt will continue through the next. Although Anna Sewell’s classic paints a clear picture of turn-of-the-century London, its message is universal and timeless: animals will serve humans well if they are treated with consideration and kindness.   Black Beauty tells the story of the horse’s own long and varied life, from a well-born colt in a pleasant meadow to an elegant carriage horse for a gentleman to a painfully overworked cab horse.  Throughout, Sewell rails – in a gentle, 19th-century way – against animal maltreatment. Young readers will follow Black Beauty’s fortunes, good and bad, with gentle masters as well as cruel. Children can easily make the leap from horse-human relationships to human-human relationships, and begin to understand how their own consideration of others may be a benefit to all. Written in 1877

About the AuthorAnna_Sewell_Jugendbild

Anna Sewell was born in 1820 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. At the age of fourteen she injured both of her ankles in an accident, which meant that she could never walk properly again. Because of this she relied heavily on travelling in horse-drawn carriages, and it was from here that her love of horses grew. In 1871 Anna began writing a book aimed at encouraging more humane treatment of horses. Owing to her failing health the story took nearly seven years to complete but was eventually published in 1877. Sadly, Anna never got to know of the huge success of Black Beauty, her only book, as she died in 1878, five months after the book’s publication.





‘Do you think that personality and temperament are established by childhood experiences and fixed forever?.’

‘The story is narrated in the first person as an autobiographical memoir told by the titular horse named Black Beauty—beginning with his carefree days as a colt on an English farm with his mother, to his difficult life pulling cabs in London, to his happy retirement in the country.’

Black Beauty is a well know story for children about a horse who survives cruelty and hardship. Where  horses and animals can think to, they just can’t communicate like it stories of Narnia or because us humans can’t read the signs until it’s too late and nothing can be done.  As in another discussion of LBCPuffins, the book isn’t the story most of us remember. For a few members  it was first time of reading the book and some knowing the story from the film with Mark lester in. The film was made, not through talking animals but in the usual ways of humans communicating.

“We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.”

For one member of the group this was a childhood favourite, and it was one of those reads that created mixed feelings. Through this book club we have found how as adults we read differently to what we did when we were children. How as adults we bring so much to a book when we sit down to read it when really in some cases we should read like we did as children, and just absorb the story and read it for what it is. Re-reading Black Beauty for some of us, we donut it quite depressing and not what we remembered as a child. One member was a ‘horsey child’ and loved this book for it’s nature and realised that they must have read an abridged version, not remembering all this hurt and suffering. Another felt it red like a horse manual, teaching you how to present a horse and cart or put a blanket over a horses back. Another lesson was that a horse would only drink as much water as it needed and oats and barley were high spirited food so it’s best to stick to bran mash as that gives them a glossy coat and keeps them in check. However it is a story for children and it is about animals and we are very fond of them. The group found that we were all big softies at heart and almost shed a tear when the captain (horse) and Ginger (another horse) died.

Throughout the story the animals are portrayed almost like humans except they cannot speak and the human are seen as ignorant and at one point we can see if they just looked more closely into the animals eyes it might have been able to speak to them, that’s what it shows in most of the film versions of Black Beauty. Although most film versions are not suitable for a younger audience with all the images of cruelty and war and tall handsome men cue Colin Firth in Bridget Jones. The film shows more of the cruelty to the horses of the way they were treated as cab horses, because it was the fashion to be driven around by a horse,  cue Gee Gee cars for a taxi or lead to battle in the wars, and pulling things much to heavy for them.

In the end it was still a much loved book, Black Beauty went on many adventures, met quite a few cruel people, found some amazing friends and showed us it’s quality and not quantity we need.

“My troubles are all over, and I am at home; and often before I am quite awake, I fancy I am still in the orchard at Birtwick, standing with my friends under the apple trees.”

The book  was enjoyed by the group but did bring up mixed feelings from reading it as a child, but it does have  a happy ending which for children it is a good introduction to death, however like most books of it’s time some of the  group felt the writing is brilliant but a bit preachy for some readers, one of which did not turn up for the discussion.

and I end with:

“If you in the morning
Throw minutes away,
You can’t pick them up
In the course of a day.
You may hurry and scurry,
And flurry and worry,
You’ve lost them forever,
Forever and aye.”
― Anna Sewell, Black Beauty

LBCPuffins review book 19 – Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce


LBC Puffins LogoDate: Wednesday 18th of February 2015

Time: 6:30pm

Venue: White Swan Leeds

 Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce1543387

Lying awake at night, Tom hears the old grandfather clock downstairs strike . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . . Thirteen! When Tom gets up to investigate, he discovers a magical garden. A garden that everyone told him doesn’t exist. A garden that only he can enter . . .

About this Author

Philippa Pearce was one of the twentieth century’s greatest children’s writers. Her books include Tom’s Midnight Garden, winner of the Carnegie Medal; The Squirrel Wife, illustrated by Wayne Anderson; and A Finder’s Magic, created for her two grandsons and illustrated by their other grandmother, Helen Craig. Philippa Pearce died in 2006.





‘A beautiful and haunting story’ loved by kids and adults alike


The one thing about book club is that you never know what you might find. LBCPuffins is all about the little people’s books, one’s that have stayed with us for years that we want to reread and recently one’s we haven’t heard which has led us to discover some little gems.

Tom’s midnight garden is all about a young boy who gets sent away to his Aunt’s and Uncle’s to prevent him from catching measles. He has to stay indoors all the time in case he develops it, but at midnight after hearing the Grandfather clock strike 13, goes downstairs to discover a garden no one told him about. In entering this garden after midnight he meets a young girl called Hatty and after a while becomes really close friends. On later occasions to the garden he finds it’s not always the same, sometimes it’s summer, sometimes it’s winter, sometimes he meets a younger Hatty and then an older one.

The whole story sweeps you along on Tom’s adventures in the garden, meeting Hatty, finding out her story, Tom’s investigation of why Hatty was dressed the way she was, as the group pointed out, not being able to use the internet and digging out the encyclopaedia’s, yet again another book we have read where modern technology is not involved and wonder what we would do without it at the touch of our fingertips even though it’s still quite new age thing, using the internet and such.


‘Nothing stands still, except in our memory’

This was a story loved by everyone. the friendship of the two children, from playing int he garden to Tom’s idea for hatty to hide the skates and for him, and to later find them in the floorboards made him realise she wasn’t a ghost. Previous to this the group enjoyed the little argument the children had about who was the ghost. As the children were from different time periods, it could be said both were. But it was such a sweet scene.

The whole story was beautifully written and captivated the group, with its secret adventures into the garden. The story was also loved for covering years and not weeks when Tom visited the garden, and the fact that he always saw Hatty as the same age until nearly the end when Peter appears and points out Hatty is nearly a woman. The book brought adventure, friendship, and at the end, brought a lot of us to tears when Tom meets the older Hatty.

One question I raised to the group, was had they seen the TV adaption, and some after reading this as a book on its own mentioned that they would be deeply suspicious of any film adaption as it would try to fill in the gaps. It was also mentioned that this book is a world of imagination and with most adapted to screen it makes you lose the characters you created in your head and how you perceived them. I think it might work as a play in the theatre, as the theatre creates magic itself and you feel apart of it. Something I didn’t mention on the night, but film and TV will always be a shady area when it comes to book adaption

In the end the story unfolds that it was all through Hatty’s dreams, similar to a programme once or twice mentioned named Sunset Beach where everything happens and the lead character wakes up and it is all a dream, but this was far better, so find a copy, grab a cuppa and let yourself delve in to Tom’s Midnight Garden.



Check out the trailer (bearing in mind the reservations mentioned above!)

Find fellow members on twitter by searching for #LBCPuffins

Let me know your thoughts by either tweeting me @LBCPuffins, commenting below or emailing me at

EVENT – Chris Nickson Book Launch


Chris Nickson is launching his latest book!

Date: 6th of February

Time: 6.30 pm

Venue: Waterstones Leeds – 0113 244 4588

There will be free wine apparently – just let Waterstones know that you are coming!!



LBCPuffins review book 18 – Five children and it

In this classic tale of adventure and wish fulfilment, five city kids find the countryside to be filled with magic and wonder

Be careful what you wish for.

About the book

15796891After two years cooped up in London, Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and their baby brother, “the Lamb,” are thrilled to be living in the country. The best thing about their new home is that there are no rules, no places that are off limits. One day while playing in a gravel pit, they uncover a fat, furry creature that has been asleep for thousands of years. The Sand-fairy, also known as It, grants them one wish a day, to be shared among them. At sunset, the wish will turn to stone.

But every wish brings a disastrous result. When the children wish to be beautiful, no one recognizes them. When they wish to be rich, their gold doesn’t buy them anything. When they wish to be able to fly, they end up stuck on top of a church tower with no way to get down. Other wishes lead to a confrontation with Indians, a scuffle with kidnappers, and accusations of thievery. When the children beg the Sand-fairy for more wishes to set things right, It agrees—on the condition that they never ask for another wish again.

E. Nesbit’s pioneering fantasy novel continues to delight new generations of young readers.

“Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse.”
― E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

About the Author

lrg_128200813849E. Nesbit ( 1858–1924), English author and poet wrote the children’s novel The Railway Children (1906).

Nesbit lived a colourful and active life while writing many poems, plays, short stories, fiction and non-fiction, but some of her most enduring works are her children’s stories. With elements of fantasy, time travel and spies, fairy tales and magic, they are a reflection of her idyllic childhood days and travels through England, France, and Germany. The Railway Children inspired television and film adaptations.

Edith Nesbit died on 4 May 1924 and lies buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in the Marsh, Kent, England.

Find out more here


In the book we meet five children they are Cyril, known as Squirrel, Anthea, known as Panther, Robert, known as Bobs, Jane, known as Pussy, Hilary, the baby, known as the Lamb and this is their story about the adventures they had when they met “It” the Psammead also known as a sand fairy.

This is one of those classic children’s story, where we have a group of children who are sent to the country to live for a while. One day while playing on the beach the children discover a sand fairy.

The Psammead is described as having “eyes [that] were on long horns like a snail’s eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes; it had ears like a bat’s ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider’s and covered with thick soft fur; its legs and arms were furry too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey’s” and whiskers like a rat’s. When it grants wishes it stretches out its eyes, holds its breath and swells alarmingly.

During the discussion the group commented on how the book appeared dated, partly the writing style and the idea of going off for a picnic and stuffing their faces. The group also found the wishes the children gave were a bit pointless, like wanting to be beautiful and not thinking through the consequences of what they had wished for.  For example, wishing to be in a castle that’s undersiege, one member asked ‘why, why would you do that!’

And then there was a few health and safety issues that would come into play today if these things happened today. But we’re forgetting it’s a children’s book and this to most children would be a magical story but as some of our members pointed out they much preferred The Phoenix and The carpet as a book but this was always good for a chapter before bed. Overall the book wasn’t loved by all and didn’t score high, but we mustn’t forget the cuteness of the sand fairy in the BBC version to fall back on…….


Highlight of the year – Book wise!

Across the book clubs we read a huge range of different types of books in a year. Some stories and styles more naturally appeal than others; some winded me up thoroughly in very unexpectedly ways and a few just took my breath away.

In previous years, I’ve been hard pressed to pick a favourite story across a year, let alone across the book clubs (and – frankly – I haven’t been that bothered so I just let it go). This year however, one choice in particularly has greatly impacted upon me.


John Williams

augustusWritten in 1972 and the joint winner of the following years National Book Award for Fiction, this book comprises of a series of letters which follow the path of Gaius Octavius Caesar. His path, for Williams, begins on the date that Julius Caesar is killed and follows through his ascendancy via war and violent retribution – first into the ruling triumvirs then to the position of First Citizen (Emperor) of Rome. Alongside Octavius, we learn the fates of several of Rome’s most illustrious citizens – including Mark Antony and Brutus.

John Williams – ever a writer who marched to the beat of his own drum – broke from convention in his portrayal of Augustus in a more sympathetic light than the biographers of his day. Here, Octavius is logical – his lack of mercy for his enemies seen more as pure pragmatism than cruelty or blood lust. While his reign was forged in blood and vengeance; he is also recognised as being a stable leader, one under whom Rome appeared to flourish. His letters reflect a man capable of seeing beyond his own moment of time.

“Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die.”

John Williams only ever wrote four novels and Augustus was the most acclaimed during his lifetime, though Stoner has certainly been rapidly gaining admirers in recent years. Each book was of a totally different style and subject matter. I’ve read Stoner (which I didn’t love exactly, but enjoyed the read of) and will one day tackle both Butcher’s Crossing and Nothing but the Night. I almost wish I go back in time though, to read them all in order – I can’t imagine anything ever matching up to the enjoyment I had during Augustus.

When heading into the White Swan LBC meet up; I had been worried that the book might not have had the same impact on others. I needn’t have been.

We had a fantastic conversation. We loved the epistle style; the characters; the development and the fact that Octavius himself remains silent for the first two thirds of the book. Julia was a particular conversational piece and we happily debated her change in status with glee.

Nearly everyone agreed that they would have continued reading the lives of the next three Caesars…heck, one or two or us would have read the story of the next 2000 years if John Williams had been the one writing it!

Indeed, we were so enamored with this book that we picked Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare as our 2014 Christmas read-a-long.


augustus 01

Listening along to Dark Briggate Blues

chris nicksonLBC’s pet author Chris Nickson has just released Dark Briggate Blues – the first in the Dan Markham series (at least I hope that it’s the first; I’m only on chapter 10 and I’m hooked!).

A jazz inspired noir, this book in set in the 1960’s and has a fantastic soundtrack.

Check it out on Spotify HERE 


Leeds 1954. When Joanna Hart came into his office, enquiry agent Dan Markham thought it would be an easy case. All the blonde with scarlet lips and swinging hips wanted was to know if her husband Freddie was unfaithful. But when the man is killed, Markham’s involvement makes him the prime suspect. As the evidence piles up against him, he realises someone had set him up.
In a deadly game, Markham has to battle to keep himself and his client alive. All he can rely on are his wits and the rusty skills he acquired during his National Service in military intelligence. But can he hope to be any match against the killer who has spies on every corner in Leeds and a reach that goes all the way to Whitehall?




Dan’s music (or Track Listing)
* Miles Davis – Round Midnight

* Ella Fitzgerald – Blues In The Night

* Bud Powell – Un Poco Loco

* Count Basie – One O’Clock Jump

* Billy Eckstine – Stormy Monday

* Charlie Parker – Donna Lee

* Sarah Vaughan – Someone To Watch Over Me

* Thelonious Monk – Blue Monk

* Duke Ellington – Prelude To A Kiss

* Tubby Hayes – Round About Midnight

* Ella Fitzgerald – Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me

* Coleman Hawkins – Body And Soul

* Dexter Gordon – A Night In Tunisia

* Lester Young – A Foggy Day In London Town

* George Shearing – How High The Moon

* Art Tatum – I Got Rhythm

* Billie Holiday – God Bless The Child

* Thelonious Monk – Round About Midnight


Chris Nickson Exclusive Short Story – Christmas 1890

Once again, Chris Nickson has kindly provided us with a special Christmas treat – a short story featuring Annabelle Harper (nee Atkinson) – instantly recognisable to fans of his Inspector Tom Harper series!

LBC would like to thank Chris for this short story and for his extraordinary kindness and friendship over the last few years!

Christmas 1890

by Chris Nickson

Crossgates Station c 1890 Has nothing to do with the story, but I thought it was interesting

Crossgates Station
c 1890
Has nothing to do with the story, but I thought it was interesting

‘Excuse me, luv, do you have one like that in a plum colour?’ Annabelle Harper pointed at the hat on display behind the counter. It was soft blue wool, with a small crown and a wide brim, decorated with a long white feather and trailing lace meant to tie under the chin.

The shop assistant smiled.

‘I’m afraid not, madam. We only have what’s on display. ‘I’m very sorry.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ She put down her purchases, stockings, bloomers, garters, and a silk blouse. ‘I’ll just take those, please.’

Be polite to everyone, that’s what her mother had said when she was younger, and it was a rule Annabelle had lived by. It cost nothing, and a little honey always ensured good service.

The Grand Pygmalion was packed with people shopping. Women on their own, with a servant along to carry purchases, wives with long-suffering husbands who looked as if they’d rather be off enjoying a drink somewhere.

Four floors, two hundred people to help the customers, wonderful displays of goods. It just seemed to grow busier and busier each year. But it was the only real department store in Leeds. She waited as the girl totted up the totals.

‘I have an account here, luv.’

She saw the quick flicker of doubt and gave a kind smile. Couldn’t blame the lass. She didn’t sound like the type of person with the money to shop here. Then the gaze took in her clothes and jewellery and the girl nodded. Annabelle had brass.

‘Of course, madam. What name is it?’

‘Mrs. Annabelle Harper. The address is the Victoria public house on Roundhay Road.’

Everything neatly packed and tied into a box, she walked out on to Boar Lane. A fortnight until Christmas and it was already cold. Bitter. A wind whistled along the street from the west. All around her she could hear people with their wet, bronchitic coughs. It’d probably snow soon enough, she thought.

Omnibuses, trams, carts and barrows moved along the road, a constant clang of noise. On the corner with Briggate, by the Ball-Dyson clock, a Salvation Army brass band was playing, their trumpets and tubas competing against the vehicles and the street sellers crying their goods.

She pulled the coat closer around her body as she walked, clutching the reticule tight in her hand. Plenty of crime this time of year. Married to a detective inspector, she couldn’t help but hear about it. And she had enough cash with her for something special; she didn’t want to lose that.

Strolling up towards the Headrow, all the lights in the shops were already glowing. Only three and it was almost dark. Roll on spring, she thought, then stopped herself. Never wish the days away. Who used to say that? She racked her brain. Come on, Annabelle told herself, you’re not old enough to forget things yet.

Then it came. Old Ellie Emsworth at Bank Mill. Annabelle was ten, she’d been at the mill a year, working as a doffer, still too young to be on the machines. Six days a week, twelve hours a day for not even two bob a week when all she wanted to be was out there, away from it all. Ellie had worked the loom all her life. She was probably no more than thirty-five but she looked old, worn-down.

‘I know you don’t like it here,’ Ellie had said to her one day as they ate their dinner. Bread and dripping for Annabelle, all her family could afford. ‘But don’t go wishing the days away. They pass quick enough, lass. Soon you’ll wish you had them back.’

She smiled. For a moment she could almost hear Ellie’s voice, rough as lye soap.

People pressed around her as she walked, some of them smiling with all the joy of the season, others glum and po-faced. Christmas, she thought. They’d never had the money to make a do of it when she was little. As soon as she had a little, when she’d married the landlord of the Victoria, she’d given presents and spent all she could afford.

Even the Christmas after he died, she’d been determined to put on a brave face. A big meal for friends, presents that saw their eyes shine. It made her happy.

And now she had Tom Harper. She had the wedding ring on her finger and she felt happier than she had in a long, long time. This was going to be their first married Christmas and she was going to buy him something he’d never forget. A new suit. A beautiful new suit.

Along New Briggate, across from the Grand Theatre, the buildings were bunched together. Business on top of business as the floor climbed to the sky. Photographers, an insurance agent, gentleman’s haberdasher. You name it, it was all there if you looked hard enough.

The girl stood in the doorway of number fifteen, a broken willow basket at her feet. At first Annabelle’s glance passed over her. Then she looked again. For a moment she was taken back twenty years. She was ten again and staring at Mary Loughlin. They’d gone to school together, started at the mill together, laughed and played whenever they had chance. The same flyaway red hair that the girl had tried to capture in a sober bun. The same pale blue eyes and freckles over the cheeks. The same shape of her face.

‘Wreath, ma’am?’ The girl held it out, a poor thing of ivy and holly wrapped around a think branch of pine. ‘It’s only a shilling,’ she said hopefully.

Her wrist was thin, the bones sticking out, and her fingers were bare, the nails bitten down to the quick, flesh bright pink from the cold. An old threadbare coat and clogs that looked to be too small for her feet.

‘What’s your name, luv?’

The girl blushed.

‘Please ma’am, it’s Annabelle.’

For a second she couldn’t breathe, putting a hand to her neck. Then, very gently she shook her head.

‘Your mam’s called Mary, isn’t she?’

The girl’s eyes widened. She stared, frightened, tongue-tied, biting her lower lip. Finally she managed a nod.

‘She was, ma’am, yes.’

‘Was? Is she dead?’

‘Yes, ma’am. Three year back.’

Annabelle lowered her head and wiped at her face with the back of her gloves.

‘I’m sorry, luv,’ she said after a while. ‘Now, how much are these wreaths?’

‘A shilling, ma’am.’

‘And how many do you have?’


She scrambled in her purse and brought out two guineas.

‘That looks like the right change to me.’ She placed them in the girl’s hand. Before she let go of the money, she asked, ‘What was your mother’s surname before she wed, Annabelle?’

‘Loughlin, ma’am.’

‘I tell you what. There’s that cocoa house just across from the theatre, Annabelle Loughlin. I’d be honoured if you’d let me buy you a cup. You look perished.’

The girl’s fingers closed around the money. She look mystified, scared, as if she couldn’t believe this was happening.

‘Did your mam ever tell you why she called you Annabelle?’

‘Yes ma’am.’ For the first time, the girl smiled. ‘She said it was for someone she used to know when she was little.’

Mrs. Harper leaned forward. Very quietly she said,

‘There’s something I’d better tell you. I’m the Annabelle you’re named for.’


She sipped a mug of cocoa as she watched the girl eat. A bowl of stew with a slice of bread to sop up all the gravy, then two pieces of cake. But what she seemed to love most was the warmth of the place. Young Annabelle kept stopping and looking around her, gazing at the people and what they had on their plates.

She was twelve, she said. Two older brothers, both of them working, and two younger, one eight and still at school, the other almost ten and at Bank Mill.

‘What does he do there?’

‘He’s a doffer,’ the girl said and Annabelle smiled.

‘That’s what your mam and I did when we started. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and went into service.’

‘But you’re rich,’ the girl said, then reddened and covered her mouth with her hand. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’ve got a bob or two,’ she agreed. ‘I was lucky, that’s all.’ The girl finished her food. ‘Do you want more?’

‘No ma’am. Thank you.’

‘And don’t be calling me ma’am,’ she chided gently. ‘It makes me feel old. I’m Annabelle, the same as you. Mrs. Harper if you want to be formal.’

‘Yes, Mrs. Harper.’

‘What does you da do, luv?’

‘He’s dead.’ There was a sudden bleakness in her voice. ‘Two years before my mam. So me and Tommy, he’s the oldest, we look after everything.’

Annabelle waved for the bill and counted out the money to pay as the girl watched her.

‘What work do you do? When you’re not selling wreaths, I mean.’

‘This and that ma’a – Mrs. Harper.’

‘And nothing that pays much?’ The girl shook her head. ‘You still live on the Bank?’

‘On Bread Street.’

‘Can you find your way down to Sheepscar?’

‘Course I can.’ For a second the bright, cheeky spark she remembered in Mary flew.

‘Good, because there’s a job down there if you want one. I own a bakery down there, and someone left me in the lurch.’ The girl just stared at her. ‘It’s not charity, you’ll have to work hard and if you’re skive you’ll be out on your ear. But I give a fair day’s pay for a fair days’ graft. What do you say?’

For a second the girl was too stunned to answer. Then the words seemed to tumble from her mouth.

‘Yes. Thanks you ma’am. Mrs. Harper, I mean. Thank you.’

Annabelle looked her up and down.

‘If you’re anything like your mam you’ll be a grand little worker.’

‘I’ll do my best. Honest I will.’

‘I know, luv. You’re going to need some new clothes. And I daresay the rest of your lot could use and bits and bobs, too.’ She took a five pound from her purse and laid it on the table. ‘That should do it.’ The girl just stared at the money. ‘Don’t be afraid of it,’ Annabelle told her. ‘It won’t bite. You buy what you need.’

‘Do you really mean it?’ The words were barely more than a whisper.

‘I do.’ She grinned. ‘When I saw you, it was like looking at Mary all over again. Took me right back. You’re just as bonny as she was.’ She stood, the girl quickly following. ‘You be at Harper’s Bakery at six tomorrow morning. Mrs. Harding’s the manager, tell her I took you on. I’ll be around later.’

‘Yes, Mrs. Harper. And…thank you.’

‘No need, luv. Just work hard, that’s all I need. You get yourself off to the Co-op and buy what you need.’

The girl had the money clenched tight in her small fist. At the door, before she turned away, she said,

‘Mrs. Harper?’

‘Yes, luv?’

‘Sometime, will you tell me what my mam was like when she was young?’

‘You know what? I’d be very happy to do that.’

She watched the girl skip off down the street. Who’d have thought it, Mary calling her lass Annabelle? She shook her head and looked up at the clock. A little after four. She still had time to go to that tailor’s on North Street and order Tom a new suit for his Christmas present.

* * * * *

Chris Nickson Exclusive Short Story – Family

Christmas Short Story
Chris Nickson
Leeds, December 1889
It was still dark when she finished the baking, and bitter outside the kitchen. She washed the flour from her hands, walked through the yard and unlocked gate that led to Roundhay Road. The draymen would arrive soon enough, the sharp sound of hooves as the horses stopped outside the Victoria. She peeked out into the street. The air was winter-heavy and wet with soot.
It was early but there were already men out walking, on their way to jobs in the boot factories and tanneries, the mills and breweries. The gas lamps offered a faint glow. She turned and caught the silhouette of someone crouched on the doorstep of the pub.
Someone small. A boy.
“Waiting for something, luv?” Annabelle Atkinson asked as she crossed her arms. “We’ll not be open for two hours yet.”
“I’m just sitting,” the lad answered. She could hear the cold in his voice. As she came closer, she was that his face was grubby and he was only wearing a thin shirt and a pair of ragged trousers that left his calves bare, his shoes were held together withpieces of  string. He wasn’t local, she was certain of that. Annabelle knew everyone around Sheepscar, each man, woman and child. “No law agin it, is there?” he asked.
“Not if you want to stay there,” she told him. “Warmer inside, though. The oven’s going. Cup of tea. Maybe even breakfast if you’re not too cheeky.”
He was torn, it was plain on his face. He was thin as a stick and didn’t look as if he’d had a full meal in days. She didn’t say anything more, deliberately turning away to stare back up the road towards the endless streets of back-to-back houses and factories that lined the way out to Harehills. December. It would be a good while yet before it was light. As light as it ever got when the air was filled with fog and smoke.
When she looked again he was there, standing close, expectant and wary.
“You’re not having me on, missus?”
“No, luv, in you go.” She watched him run through the yard and into the kitchen. By the time she entered he was already standing by the oven, hands outstretched, soaking in the heat. She didn’t have any bairns of her own. Her husband had been older, then he’d died and she’d taken over running the pub. However it had happened, she’d never caught. Now she was courting again, a man called Tom Harper, a copper of all things, and set to wed next year if she could ever persuade him to pop the question.
She cut two doorsteps of bread, buttered them thickly and placed them on the table in front of him. Before he could grab one she took hold of his tiny wrist and said,
“You’re not eating with those filthy hands. Get them under the tap. Your face, too. We’re not short on soap.”
He returned, skin scrubbed and glowing, grabbing the food before she could say anything more. Annabelle brewed tea, one cup for herself, another for him, milky, with plenty of sugar.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Henry, missus,” he answered with his mouth full.
“You can call me Annabelle. Where are you from? I’ve not seen you around before.”
“Me and me da just moved here two day back. We was living in Morley, then me mam and me sister got ill and died and me da started drinking and lost his job so we had to leave.” The words came out in a rush. “He thought we might do better up here.”
She smiled softly. The lad couldn’t be more than eight. But what had happened to him was no more than had happened in so many families.
“We’d best get you home then, Henry. Your da’ll be worried. Get some food in you and I’ll walk you back.”
“He din’t wake up yesterday, missus.” He said the words flatly.
“What do you mean, luv?”
“He’d had a few drinks the night before so I thought he were asleep. I knew he’d belt me if I tried to wake him up, so I left. When I got back the door were locked and he din’t answer. I don’t know anyone round here so I din’t know where to go.”
“Right,” she said after a minute. “You tell me where you live, Henry and I’ll go and see your Da.” Emma the maid came into the kitchen, raising her eyebrows at the sight of the child. “Can you make him something hot?” Annabelle asked. “Bacon and eggs or summat. Poor little sod’s perishing. And see he gets a bath after. I’m off to see his Da.”
“Are you posh, missus?” Henry asked, looking at the servant in awe.
“No, luv,” Annabelle laughed. “I’m not.”
Armenia Grove ended in a big stone wall at the back of the dyeworks. A little further along, Gipton beck ran along past the school, down to the mill pond. Number six was the same as its neighbours, all blackened brick and rotting woodwork, the front door opening as the turned the handle. Henry and his father had the upstairs room at the front, the boy had told her. Locked, just he’d said. She knocked but there was no reply.
Back on the street, Annabelle caught a glimpse of Bert Hardwick and shouted him over before he could duck out of sight.
“There’s a door I need opening,” she said.
He gave her a sheepish glance. “I don’t do that no more. I’m over at the brick works now. It’s steady, like.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to take owt, you daft ‘apeth. Just work the lock for me. Or do you want me to tell your Annie about seeing you with Betsy Ainsworth the other night?”
It only took him a few seconds, working with the tip of his pocket knife. Before she could enter, he’d vanished, boots hammering down the stairs. Men, she thought. They were all bloody useless.
Rags covered the window, blocking out the first light. But she could still see the shape on the floor, huddled under a threadbare blanket. Annabelle spoke his name but he didn’t stir. She reached out to touch his cheek then recoiled with a gasp as soon as her fingers felt his cold skin.
Quietly, she left the house.
Dan the barman was emptying the spittoons and polishing the tables. She asked him to find the beat bobby and take him to the house on Armenia Grove.
“He’ll know what to do.”
She brightened her expression and walked through to the kitchen. Henry was sitting in front of the oven, wearing nothing more than a large towel. Emma had stoked up the fire and washed his clothes; they were strung up on the wooden rack, steaming as they dried.
“You look better all cleaned up,” she told him. “Right handsome.”
“Did you find my Da, missus?”
“I did.” She stood by the chair and took hold of his hand. “What’s his Christian name?”
“Edward,” the boy answered. “But everyone calls him Ted.” Worry flashed across his eyes. “Why, missus?”
She gazed at him for a moment.
“I don’t know how to tell you, Henry, so I’ll just do it straight. Your father’s dead. It looks like he passed away in his sleep. I’m sorry.”
His grip tightened.
“But…” he began, then the words failed him. He began to cry and she cradled him close, rocking him softly until the tears turned to slow hiccoughs.
“Tom, you’ve got to help him.”
He’d arrived after work, close to eight on a dreary evening, exhausted and dirty. He’d ended up chasing a pickpocket out to Marsh Lane, finally bringing him down in the mud that passed for road there. She’d kept a plate warm in the oven for him, the way she always did, hoping he’d visit on the way back to his lodgings.
“Where is he now?” Inspector Harper asked.
“Fast asleep.” She smoothed the silk gown and with a satisfied sigh, let down her hair so it fanned over her shoulders. The mutter of voices came from the bar downstairs. “Poor little lamb’s all cried out. I finally got him to tell me that his mother’s sister lives in Morley. She’s Temperance, so after his ma died, she wouldn’t have anything to do with his father because he was a drinker. What do you think? Maybe she’d take him in.”
“Maybe. What’s her name?”
“Molly Wild.”
“I’ll get in touch with the station down there. Someone will let her know. I can’t promise anything. What about the father?”
“The undertaker has him. Burial tomorrow up at Beckett Street.”
He shook his head.
“You’re paying?”
“Someone has to,” she pointed out. “Come on, Tom. I couldn’t let the boy’s father go to a pauper’s grave, could I?”
“No,” he answered slowly. “I suppose you couldn’t.”
“It’s only money. I have the brass for that.”
Two days passed before the woman arrived. Annabelle had set Henry to work, washing glasses and helping with small tasks in the kitchen. He was an eager little worker, humming as he did whatever he was told. Only when the memories caught up with him would his face crumple and the tears begin. She fed him well and tucked him into the spare bed every night, watching from the doorway until he was asleep.
“There’s a woman outside wanting to talk to you,” Sad Andrew told her as he entered the Victoria. It was a little after ten in the morning, the fog thick as twilight.
“Tell her to come in, then,” she said. “I’m right here.”
“She won’t come into a public house.” He mimicked a prim voice and Annabelle sighed, drying her raw hands on an old cloth before pulling a shawl around her shoulders and pasting a smile on her face.
A horse and cart stood at the curb, driven by a man with hunched shoulders and a defeated expression. The woman had climbed down, glancing at the pub with a critical eye. Her bonnet was black, her gown a plain charcoal grey, button boots peeking from the hem.
“You must be Mrs.Wild.”
“I am,” she replied with a sniff.
“I’m Mrs. Atkinson.” The woman’s gaze moved to Annabelle’s hand, no ring on the third finger. “I’m a widow.”
“I see.” Her tone was disapproving. “The police came,” she said as if it was the most humiliating thing that could have happened. “They said Henry’s here and that his father’s dead.”
“That’s right. Do you want to see him?”
The woman stepped back as if she’d been slapped.
“I would never set foot on licensed premises.”
“Then I’m glad not everyone’s like you,” Annabelle said, smiling to take the sting from her words. “I’d be out of business in a week.”
“Was it the drink that killed my sister’s husband?”
“I don’t know, luv. All I did was take the boy in and see that his father was buried. But now you’re here, I’m sure Henry will be glad to have a home with you.”
“We already have five children.”
“Then you’ll hardly notice another.” She tried to make her voice light.
“We have good, God-fearing children.”
“You’ll love Henry. He’s a wonderful little boy.” She paused for a heartbeat. “And he’s flesh and blood to you. Your sister’s boy.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me something, luv,” Annabelle said. “You strike me as someone who likes to live by the Bible.”
“Of course we do.” Mrs. Wild lifted her head.
“Then what does it say inre about looking after those in need?”
“Don’t you go quoting that to me!” the woman bristled. “I’ll not have that from someone who runs a place like this.”
“What about someone who took your nephew in when he had nowhere else to go and arranged his father’s burial?” It didn’t matter who the woman was or what Annabelle needed from her. No one was going to speak to her that way. “Or doesn’t that count because I own a pub?”
The man on the cart turned.
“Just bring the lad out, missus.” He glared at his wife. “Don’t worry, we’ll look after him proper, won’t we, Molly? Like you said, he’s family.”

She stood on the doorstep of the Victoria, watching them drive away until they vanished into the fog. Henry had clung to her, not wanting to leave, crying once again as his aunt looked on, hawk-faced.

But it was for the best, she told herself. They were family.
* * * * *
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