Halloween Story 2015 #2: The Gardener’s Boy

I have told you two stories about unpleasant people. This story is about someone far nicer. His name was Jack Bean, he was twelve years old, and he lived in my house around fifty years before the old woman in the other story.

When I say ‘in the house’, I actually mean, in the garden, for Jack Bean was the gardener’s boy, and it was common in those days for servants to sleep in the place where they worked which for Jack meant in the potting shed at the end of the greenhouse, on a pile of sacks.

You might think a potting shed would be a horrible place to live. But Jack was very happy with it, even in the winter. The reason for this was that the potting shed was very warm.

The potting shed was warm because Mr Walker, who owned the house, had two hobbies. One was antiquarianism, the discovering and writing about of what we would now call archaeological artefacts. And the other was growing exotic fruits. It was he who planted the apricot tree of which our apricot tree is a descendant, but he also grew peaches, nectarines and had been attempting for many years to grow a pineapple.

In order to grow fruits which need warm weather in our cool Yorkshire climate, Mr Walker had constructed—or I should say had had constructed—a very splendid heated greenhouse which was kept warm all year round by a small stove which piped warm air around the greenhouse, night and day. It was Jack’s job to make sure the fire never went out in the winter, which meant waking up and forcing himself out of bed to feed the stove with another shovelful of coke. This wasn’t his favourite part of his job, by any means, but his pile of sacks was snuggled right up against the wall with the stove on the other side of it, so when winds blew and water froze in the birdbath he at least was always warm and cosy.

One January night he woke up shivering and knew with a sinking heart that the fire must have burned down. He crawled out of his nest of sacking and poked his head round the door to the greenhouse. The stove was still smouldering, not dead, at any rate. He took a handful of kindling and set about blowing it into life again, waiting to get a good blaze going before throwing on the coke. As he did so, an item on the corner of the bench caught his eye. It was something he had discovered in the garden the day before, and he had put aside to show Mr Walker: a rough, terracotta pot that he had discovered deep beneath the corner of a flowerbed when digging a hole to plant a new quince tree. Mr Walker had told him before to save any pots or bones or bits of metal he found in the garden. There had been Romans here once, his master had told him, long before he was born or his father or his father’s father.

The empty garden shone silvery and clear in the winter moonlight. Jack looked over to the place where the new tree poked up above the hedges, where he had found the pot.

Jack frowned. There was a man standing there. A man wearing what looked like a white robe. And two others were approaching, something shiny and metal glinting on their chests. On their heads were helmets with plumes that nodded as they walked.

Jack rubbed his eyes. He was dreaming. He had to be dreaming. But they were clear as day.

As his mouth fell open in astonishment, one of the men turned and looked in his direction.

Jack fled back to his nest of sacks in the darkness, screwed his eyes tight shut and waited for morning.

‘The gardener’s boy? He wishes to see me? Very well. Send him in.’ A smile twitched on the corner of Mr Walker’s lips at the pursed disapproval of his housekeeper. Like all indoor servants, she viewed the outdoor staff with suspicion, and this grubby scrap of a gardener’s boy in particular.

The boy stood uncertainly on the threshold of Mr Walker’s study, holding something in his arms.

‘Come on in. What have you got there? Let me see?’

With care, the boy deposited the dirty pot on the desk.

Mr Walker seized his eyeglasses and peered at the pot. ‘Oh yes… this is very interesting… very interesting indeed. You did right to bring this to me.’

‘Please, sir, there’s something else.’ The boy stood twisting his cap in his hands. ‘Please sir, there was men, sir. Standing there in the night, where I got it out from. They couldn’t have got in, sir. The gates was locked.’

‘These men,’ said Mr Walker slowly, putting down his eye glass and looking hard at the boy. ‘What were they wearing?’

‘From a hundred years ago?’ asked Jack, when Mr Walker explained to him what he believed he had seen.

‘Nearer two thousand.’ Mr Walker said. ‘The Roman occupation of Britain, to be precise.’

‘And the pot had dead people in?’

‘Cremations, yes. Fragments of bone from a cremated corpse. You must have disturbed something, Jack, by uncovering the urn. And that is why they came last night, when you have never seen them before.’

‘I’m locking the greenhouse door,’ said Jack. ‘In case they come after me.’

Mr Walker sighed. ‘How I wish I had seen them.’

‘No you don’t, sir. I was right frightened.’

‘Oh, I doubt very much you have anything to fear. Here.’ He reached into his pocked and took out a sixpence.

After that, Jack was always afraid to go into the garden at night. He partly hoped he would see them, of course, because he could have done with another sixpence. Sometimes the hairs prickled on the back of his neck when he walked past the young quince tree, but the tree grew to maturity, and he grew into an old man and he never saw the Roman ghosts again.

The end

Note: My house really was lived in by a nineteenth century antiquary, and I have seen references to the discovery of Roman remains in the garden. We also have the remains of a centrally heated Victorian greenhouse.

This was another very rushed story and I’m not really happy with the ending. But I wanted a story with something spooky happening in the garden because we’re having a Halloween trail outside this time, with witch’s cottages and carnivorous plants. And besides, I have found that when you tell a story to a group of children, letting it peter out a bit rather than wrap up neatly makes them even more likely to believe it’s true….

Halloween story 2015 #1: The Workhouse Master

The Workhouse Master: a story for Halloween 2015

Last Halloween I told you about the little servant girl, Hannah, who lived in our house a hundred years ago. Hannah died from falling downstairs and came back to haunt her mistress. Afterwards, he mistress felt very bad about how she had treated Hannah and tried to make amends by giving money to the local workhouse to buy more food for the poor people who lived there. But unfortunately the master of the workhouse was a greedy man who stole the money and this is the story of what happened to him.

When Mr Oxley saw that Mrs Taylor had come to pay him a visit, his first thought was that she might have come to complain about the fact that the servant girl he had sent her, who he had sworn was strong, had only lasted a few months before keeling over from exhaustion. But when she took out a thick pocketbook and started to count out banknotes his eyes lit up.

‘Buy the paupers some good food,’ she told him. ‘Eggs. Milk. Cheese. A bit of bacon for the stew. And roast beef on Sundays.’

Roast beef? For poor people? Mr Oxley could hardly believe his ears. Why, even he only ate roast meat once a week. The thought of these idle, scrounging layabouts dining off roast beef when they hadn’t done anything to deserve it was too much to bear. But instead of telling her so, he smiled oleaginously—that means in an oily manner—and took the money. ‘Most kind, madam,’ he said to her. ‘I’ll see they get it.’

That he night he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake thinking about all the things he would buy to eat with the paupers’ money. Candied chestnuts, sent from London. Salmon, dripping with buttery sauce. And roast goose for Michelmas. His mouth watered as he imagined tearing into the crispy goose skin. Then a noise made him frown. Scratching and scampering of tiny feet above his head. Must be rats again. He would tell the servantgirl to set some traps.

The next day, as they finished their gruel, Mr Oxley made an announcement. He told the paupers that thanks to Mrs Taylor’s kind gift, they would be getting extra food. ‘You can all have a second helping of gruel!’ he declared.

He smiled to himself. He would put it about in town that the paupers had been given their extra food. No need to tell anyone exactly how much money he had been given, or what had happened to most of it.

Every night that week, he heard the rats scratching in the roof space above his head. The rats were back. He had told the servant to get traps, but he supposed the lazy girl hadn’t bothered. Well, he knew what to do. Jem Huggate kept terriers for ratting. They could be put into the roof to see how many they could catch. He decided to have a word with him that very morning.

But when Jem Huggate went up a ladder to put his terriers into the roof, there was nothing there. And the dogs, who usually pricked up their ears at the prospect of a rat hunt, shrank back whining and cringing, and jumped back into his arms so that he nearly toppled off the ladder. He let the dogs wait below and climbed in himself with a lantern, looking for the telltale signs of rat droppings and chewed timbers. ‘There ain’t no rats there. You must have imagined it. Sir,’ he said.

Mr Oxley’s face grew red. ‘Don’t be impudent. I imagined nothing. There are rats in my house and I want you to find them and kill them.’

Jem Huggate shrugged. ‘That’ll be sixpence,’ he said. ‘Twopence a tail if I get them, sixpence for my trouble.’

But the noise of the rats was even louder that night. And it wasn’t just scampering any more. He heard scrabbling and squeaking. Mr Oxley had a brainwave. The rats weren’t in the roof space after all. They must be somewhere else in the house, and the sound was echoing up the walls and only sounded as if it was coming from the roof.

His relief at having thought of an explanation made him eager to prove himself right. He seized the candle from beside his bed, the one he kept burning in case he needed the chamber pot in the night. He pulled his velvet dressing gown round himself, stepped into his slippers and set off in search of the source of the noise.

He stamped down the stairs, holding the candle out in front of him, looking into any and every corner for a flash of beady black eye or disappearing scaly tail. He tried the parlour. Nothing. And the drawing room. Nothing. What about the kitchen? The girl slept in the kitchen—surely she would have heard something? But she slept soundly. He could hear her snoring echoing down the hallway. That would be enough to frighten off any rats, surely.

He pushed open the kitchen door. A light came from the larder at the other end, where the door stood ajar. A light! Was somebody in there, stealing his candied chestnuts, his bacon and his fat goose?

His eyes opened wide with outrage. The cheek of it! It would be one of those lazy, thieving paupers, he’d be bound.

He marched across the kitchen, knocking over a stool as he went. What a sight met his eyes when he opened the larder door. There was not one, not two, not three but more than a dozen rats feasting on his goose. Their red eyes glittered with malice.

He opened his mouth to exclaim in disgust. But before a sound had escaped his mouth, the first rat had leaped from the goose and caught him by the throat, its tiny teeth sinking deep into his windpipe. The next rat went for his plump cheek. And the next had him by the fingers as he tried in vain to tear the others off his face.

When they found his body, it had been well and truly gnawed. The servant girl recognised him only by his green velvet dressing gown. The strange thing was, that the goose was completely untouched.

‘It would be a sin to waste it,’ said the servant girl. She knew what it was like to be poor. She had been a child in the workhouse herself before she had been taken on as Mr Oxley’s servant, and only got enough to eat because there were always leftovers and scraps in a kitchen as well-funded as Mr Oxley’s. So the paupers ate roast goose. And, because the wad of banknotes crammed into the top drawer of his desk was assumed to belong to the workhouse rather than Mr Oxley himself, they ate roast beef and apple dumplings that week, with custard and cream.

The end.

Author’s disclaimer: I wrote this in a great rush this morning for our Halloween party tonight. I will redraft it at some point! But I have been asked for the story of what happened to the greedy workhouse master, so here it is.

Five Wounds is open for preorders

Here’s the Amazon.co.uk link…

And here’s the Amazon.com link!

Visit Goodreads to see what reviewers have said, or read the extract below.

And a big thank you to everyone who has helped get the book this far.


***************STOP PRESS***************


Thanks to all the preorders, Five Wounds is now #1 on Amazon.co.uk in Young Adult historical hot new releases and #1 Bestseller in Young Adult historical – Renaissance, as well as reaching an amazing #5 in Young Adult historical bestsellers!



Screenshot 2015-02-28 09.34.45


Read an extract from Five Wounds!


Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…

(From Dame Agnes’ Book of Hours)


My sister’s sweetheart gave me the hawk. I was six months home from the convent, and struggling to live under my father’s rule.

Look,’ Henry said. ‘For you. May said you wanted one.’

He lifted the lid off the basket and two huge eyes peered up at me, shiny as beads of jet.

It’s a merlin. To hunt with. Larks and things. You can train her yourself.’

I cupped my hands round the ball of grey fluff and lifted it out. Its heart throbbed against my fingers, too huge for its tiny body. My own heart turned over unexpectedly. I love you, I thought.

Henry said, ‘I’ve brought you all the things you’ll need.’ He reached under his fur-trimmed gown and brought out a pouch. ‘There’s a hood, a glove and some jesses to tie her up by. When she starts to fly, give her a reward every time she comes back to your hand. She needs to think you’re her only way of getting food. Take care when you start to fly her free. If she finds out she can hunt for herself she’ll be gone.’

I brought the merlin close to my face and stared into its fierce eyes. It opened its beak and squeaked angrily at me. ‘Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki!’

Henry beamed. ‘Do you like her? She’ll need a name,’ he said. ‘What are you going to call her?’

May rolled her eyes. ‘She’ll probably call her Alcelda after the Saint.’

She was baiting me, but I called the hawk Alcelda anyway. The nuns had venerated St Alcelda. She was my friend and protector and I loved her like a mother. The baby bird had been torn from her nest as I had from the safety of the nunnery, but I would be her mother now, and teach her to hunt.

The first time she landed back on my outstretched hand of her own free will, my spirit rose. Now her hunting could begin.

By September, Alcelda was fully fledged. Her fluffy grey doublet and hose had given way to sleek feathers, like a brown velvet gown with a speckled forepart. I loved to walk about with her on my hand, her jess strings wrapped firmly round my fingers. When I took her hood off her head would bob up and down as she looked from left to right, beginning to sight prey.

Last week she had nearly made her first kill in the watermeadows near my father’s manor house. She had chased a kingfisher back and forth along the stream while May and I shrieked in excitement. My bird made contact, but the kingfisher found an extra burst of speed from somewhere and got away. ‘She tapped it on the arse!’ May was practically jumping up and down. ‘Did you see? She’s touched her prey. She’ll kill in no time now.’

Today my hawk and I climbed the hill alone. Skylarks twittered above our heads. Today, I was sure, she would taste her first kill. No bird in the world could fly like my pretty falcon.

I pulled her hood off, stretched out my arm with her at the end of it and let go. She took off and rose above the treetops, the leather jess strings trailing behind her. I held my breath with excitement. And then she wheeled round and landed in a tree.

Oh, you–’ I stood under the tree and spoke to her sternly. She began to preen.

I tried wheedling. ‘I can hear skylarks.’ She looked at me blandly. ‘You can too! You’re just pretending not to listen.’

Alcelda put her head to one side, shook her tail feathers at me, took off again and soared.

I watched her go, and in my mind I soared with her. We gazed down together at the sheep grazing on the hillside, the farmland hacked from the forest, the heather-thatched houses clustered around our little stone church.

Nan! Nan!’

My sister was scrambling up to me, holding up her skirts so her scarlet petticoat glowed like a jewel against the tufty grass. ‘Father wants you. You need to come now.’

I can’t!’ I called.

You must.’ May stood panting next to me. ‘He’ll be angry if you don’t come at once. Come on.’ She tugged my sleeve.

If I’m not there for her to fly back to, she might not come,’ I said desperately. ‘I could lose her.’

My sister laid her hand on my shoulder. ‘Give me the glove. She’ll come to me.’

I pulled off the gauntlet and handed it to her, but I did not take my eyes off the merlin.

Go on.’ She gave me a push, and I stumbled down the hill, watching the hawk rather than my footsteps until she was out of sight. As I crossed the bridge over the moat I turned and squinted up into the watery sunshine. She had sighted prey!

The skylark flew round in circles, and she flew after it. Faster and faster. She was gaining on the little lark! Then, with a sudden change of direction, the lark slipped out from under her.

I walked backwards towards the house, still watching as Alcelda recovered the chase.

A third dark dot was moving towards them. I clapped my hand to my mouth. A bigger bird, a kestrel, come to harass my little falcon and steal her prey.

The kestrel was heading for them, straight as an arrow. It swerved. It was not after the lark. It was after Alcelda.

A quavering voice sounded from inside the house. ‘Nan? Are you there?’ My grandmother. The kestrel dived. Alcelda spun out from under it but the kestrel took aim again, flying faster than she could. I bit my lip. There was nothing I could do. With a last, hopeless glance at the sky, I straightened my cap, smoothed my skirts and plunged into the darkened house.

The particular smell of my father’s study made my chest tighten. Candle grease, spilled wine gone sour, the leather of his sword belt. He sat behind his table. In his gown with padded shoulders he was a square dark shape against the window, blocking out the light.

Father.’ I kneeled for his blessing.

From my place on the floor I could see a patch of sky above the hillside, but the duelling birds were out of sight.

Get up, daughter.’

I scrambled to my feet, still breathless from my run down the hillside, and waited for what was to come. A scolding? A beating? My heart thumped.

My father leaned back in his chair and looked me up and down, a smirk of satisfaction at the corners of his mouth.

Well, girl. How would you like to marry Lord Middleham?’

Lord Middleham? I must have misheard. The most powerful man in the next dale. A baron. Wealthy. But how old? My mouth opened and shut, and no sound came out.

Are you stupid? Yes, Middleham, you know who I mean.’ He was beaming, triumphant.

I clutched the edge of the table, dizzy with shock. ‘Sir, I had hoped to go back to the nunnery when the trouble is over. I’ll be sixteen in a year. My aunt said I could take my vows then.’

He snorted. ‘You’ll never make a nun. Too disobedient.’


This will be good for the whole family. You’d be a noblewoman. No one in our family has ever risen so high.’

How old is he?’ I asked. I could hardly get the words out.

Old enough. He doesn’t need an heir, he’s already got children, older than you. Married three times. That’s a good thing, to my mind.’ My father stroked his beard. ‘An older husband is good for a rebellious girl. Rules her better.’

My head whirled.

Here, read this.’ He unfolded a letter and held it out. ‘I’ve been hunting about for a match for you for a while. Never thought I’d find one as good as this. Want to know how I did it?’ Without waiting for an answer, he went on, ‘He wanted to buy the parcel of land we’ve got in the other dale. You can see it from my lord’s own window. So I told him I wouldn’t let it go, except as the marriage portion of one of my daughters. Never thought he’d bite. But he said he was looking for a new wife and he’d heard my girls were young and pretty.’

My grandmother would never allow me to be married against my will! ‘Is the contract signed?’

As long as the country stays quiet we’ll ride over to Beldon Castle next week. It’s the best part of a day’s travel. If he likes you we’ll sign the betrothal papers then.’

What if he doesn’t like me?’

Then he can have May.’

She’s already betrothed to Henry Hutton,’ I objected.

Contracts can be unmade, if both parties agree.’ He took the letter back and folded it.

Not May and Henry! She lived for him. It would break her heart.

It’s a love match,’ I said. ‘You can’t unmake it.’

Don’t say can’t to me. By God, girl, remember who you’re talking to.’

I shut my eyes. I needed to be a nun.

I had to be with the Sisters, to serve God. To pray, help the poor, maybe even–I swallowed–rule a convent as Abbess myself one day. Then, because I had spent my life being holy, I would rise to Heaven, with the Saints and my mother. How could I give all that up to spend my life bearing children and answering to a man who might be even harsher than my father?

But May. My only sister, sweet as honey and sharp as vinegar. My ally and friend against my father.

I clenched my fists, and remembered May a long time ago, running towards me, screaming, blood splashed on cobbles like scraps of red silk. She had saved my life. After what she had done for me that day, how could I let my father send her to Lord Middleham in my place?

I knelt down again and took my father’s hand. ‘Please don’t make May break off her betrothal. I’ll marry Lord Middleham if I must–’

If you must!’ He shook my hand off his. ‘I make you the best match in the whole of Yorkshire and you talk as if I’m selling you to the Turk. God’s blood, you have a nerve.’ He picked up a silver wine goblet and took a swig. ‘Upon my honour as a knight, any other girl would be kissing my hand in gratitude.’ He banged the goblet down and wine slopped onto the table.

It was a surprise. I am grateful.’

Aye, so you should be.’ He tucked the letter in his sleeve. ‘It’s more than you deserve. May wouldn’t be fighting me. She’s a proper daughter.’

I flinched. It was true May wouldn’t fight him. She was older than me but more cowed. The betrothal to Master Hutton had only come about because Henry was rich and charming and had set himself to persuade my father with presents and flattery.

May’s prettier, too,’ my father muttered. ‘Men always like her sort of looks better. The yellow hair. You’re darker and not so womanly. Perhaps I should let him have May. Less likely to cause trouble.’ There was a warning in his voice.

No, please, sir.’ I tried to sound eager. ‘I am ready to marry Lord Middleham. I’ll do my best to make him want me.’

My father’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’d better please him, wench. This is the best chance we’ve had in all my life. We’ll be connected through this match with all the powerful families in the north. With you as Lady Middleham, every door in Yorkshire will be open to us.’ He eyed me coldly. ‘You’ve let me down before. If you fail at this I’ll put you out of doors without a penny.’


She was sitting by the fire in the parlour, sewing my father’s shirts. Surely she would talk to him? Surely she would be on my side?

My grandmother laid down her sewing. ‘He’s told you, then?’

You know?’

Know? I suggested it.’

My hope of help drained away. ‘You?’ I said weakly.

She gave a cunning smile. ‘I knew that land would come in useful. It was the first piece I bought for myself. His Lordship cares more for his estates than he does for money or preferment. He could have made a better match than our family without lifting a finger. Half the widows in the North Riding set their caps at him when his last wife died. But my bit of sheep run sticks into his estates like a finger up his arse. He’s wanted to get his hands on it for years.’ She yawned. ‘I little thought when I was working at the tannery that I’d one day be grandmother to Lady Middleham. How the wheel of fortune turns.’

But– ‘ I began.

But what? Your heart’s not elsewhere, is it?’

No, I swear. How could it be?’

Then what? I thought you’d put aside that silly idea about being a nun.’ She smoothed the linen out with her gnarled hands. ‘I don’t think he’s a bad man. I’ve never heard ill of him.’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘The Duke of Norfolk has taken a mistress and locked his wife up. He’s given all her clothes to his lady and when his wife complains, he beats her.’

I wasn’t aware the Duke of Norfolk had asked for my hand,’ I said.

My grandmother poked me. ‘You’re a saucy baggage, Nan. Granddaughter, I’m seventy-one years old. God could take me at any time. I want to go to my rest knowing you’re safely wed. If there’s trouble afoot there are worse places to be than behind the walls of a castle. Besides, it will raise you in your father’s eyes. Don’t you want that?’

I couldn’t answer. A little voice like a demon on my shoulder whispered in my ear that I did. It would mend the harm I had done to my family. It would make things right with my father again.

I picked up some heads of dried camomile that lay on the table next to her sewing basket and began to crumble them in my fingers. They smelled like the nunnery garden in sun.

She swiped at my hand. ‘Stop fiddling, Nan. They’re to keep the linen sweet when it’s packed away. I don’t want them broken.’

Father said if Lord Middleham doesn’t want me he can have May.’

Did he?’ A flicker of concern appeared in her eyes. ‘I don’t expect he meant it. You do your best to please him, and all will be well.’

The sun was setting when I came back up the hill to find May. I sighed with relief. The hawk was back on her wrist and she was feeding her with pieces of chopped coney.

Guess what? She fought the kestrel off! She turned on it and chased it away. And then she got a lark! I’ve kept it for you, here it is, look–’ She saw my face. ‘Nan, what is it?’

I took the bird’s jesses and let her hop straight onto my hand. Without the glove her talons dug into me. When I told May what my father had said her mouth fell open in horror. ‘You can’t do it. I’d die if I had to marry someone I didn’t love.’

I avoided her eyes and busied myself with picking out a morsel of liver for the hawk. I had reported my father’s command to me but not what would happen if I failed to obey it.

May said, ‘I’d probably hang myself with my girdle if it was me.’

Then you’d go straight to Hell. It would be a mortal sin.’

I know, but–oh, Nan. You don’t know what love means until you find it, and then…’ She smiled vaguely up towards the trees, her lips parted and her eyes faraway, as if she were having a holy vision. ‘I know that every moment I’m going to be with Henry, I’ll be happy. I can’t imagine not having that. Of course, you don’t know about love. You don’t understand, living in the nunnery you never had a chance–’

Now I never will.’ A chill came over me.

The bird snatched the meat from me, her sharp beak nipping my fingertips, and golloped it down.

I had never thought about earthly love before, locked away from men in the convent. The only love I knew about was the ecstatic devotion to Jesus of some of the nuns. When they talked of it their faces had worn the same blissful expression as May’s.

Standing here on the hillside, I understood what I had never realised in the convent. Why some women became nuns and others wouldn’t in a thousand years. Love for men or God was the same. It drove everything, and I would never have it.

I turned away and stiffened my shoulders. I might not know love but May had. I couldn’t ruin it for her.

Nan.’ She pulled me back to face her and put her arm round me. Her eyes were wide with sympathy. ‘You don’t have to do it. You could come and live in Kingston-on-Hull with me and Henry, after we’re married. Henry wouldn’t mind.’

I can’t break the betrothal once it’s made,’ I said. ‘It’s a solemn contract. And Lord Middleham is too powerful. He has armed men. They’d come after me with horses and swords.’

Oh, Jesu,’ May said. She looked across to the church spire that pointed up from behind the trees, as if we could hope for divine help. ‘You need a miracle.’ Her lips twitched. ‘Maybe you could grow a beard like St Uncumber did when she didn’t want to marry the pagan prince.’

I grimaced. ‘Or put my eyes out like St Lucy and hand them to him on a plate.’

There was a painting of St Lucy in the village church. She held the plate with her eyeballs in front of her. Her lips were fixed in a beatific smile, even though she had empty sockets where her eyes should have been and her cheeks ran with blood. Two more virgin martyrs stood beside her: St Catherine, painted above the spiked wheel that broke when they tried to crush her on it, and St Agnes, wreathed in the hair that grew miraculously when they sent her naked to a brothel. They were serene and happy, haloed in gold leaf.

They had resisted what their fathers had planned for them, and were sainted for it.

But I was ordinary and sinful.

And if I disobeyed my father it was May, not me, who would pay the price.

Buy Five Wounds on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Read reviews of Five Wounds on Goodreads

Norah Lofts, and why you should read her

Norah_LoftsI had a massive Norah Lofts binge over Christmas. Lofts is a deeply unfashionable writer who people in the know keep saying should be rediscovered. Alison Weir has been plugging away at it, and, brilliantly, was instrumental in getting some Lofts books back into print, while the availability of ebooks and the possibility of finding out-of-print books on ABE or Amazon means that there’s never been a better time to discover her.

Lofts was born in Norfolk, in 1904. She came from a farming family, something which had a lasting influence on her writing, as you will see, but worked as a history teacher before she turned to writing full time. Over a long and busy career she wrote more than 60 books, mostly historical, but with a good handful of excellent psychological thrillers too (the Hammer horror film The Witches was based on one). The Oxford Book of Historical Stories calls her ‘one of the undisputed queens of historical romance.’

I first came across Norah Lofts at thirteen, when I was making my first forays into historical re-enactment and was advised by the organiser to read Lofts for her incomparable grasp of historical detail, and because many of her books are set in Suffolk, where the Tudor house we were re-creating, was. Her ability to handle historical detail, work it effortlessly into a story and endow it with great emotional charge, is certainly second to none. I came to Lofts for the research. But I stayed for the storytelling. How’s this for an opening?

‘At the age of seven I was a skillful pickpocket. I could also sew neatly, write a tolerable hand, make a curtsey and a correct introduction, dance a little and play simple tunes on the harpsichord.’

It’s the start of ‘Felicity Hatton’s Tale,’ the first story in the third book of her fabulous Old Vine trilogy. Lofts had a particular liking for taking a house and tracing its residents through history. Other people have done this with towns (notably Edward Rutherfurd, in Sarum, London and others) but no-one has done it as convincingly as Lofts.

The house at Old Vine is built by Martin Reed, a runaway serf at the turn of the fifteenth century, who takes his own destiny into his hands after his lord refuses him permission to marry the girl he loves. The rest of the first book, The Town House, takes place over Martin’s lifetime. But the fabulous thing Lofts does is to shift viewpoint with each chapter, to the old woman who comes to look after him, then his daughter-in-law, Anne, daughter of an impoverished knightly family who marries beneath her, then his grand-daughter Maud, then his secretary. They’re all such different people, in motivation, life-experience and style of thinking, and the fresh perspectives allow us to see the characters we have come to know intimately, as other people see them. Thus we see them change and grow old – young, hopeful, Martin keeping stoically on, Anne who we first knew as a teenager becoming bitter, alcoholic and cruel.

The second book in the trilogy takes us through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the third book from Georgian times to the modern day, when the house is no longer lived in by Martin’s descendants. Throughout the series there are incredible stories, and, I should add, incredible TEENAGE stories. Ethelreda Benedict, forced out of the island home she shared with her father when it was flooded by the draining of the Fens. Felicity Hatton, who has to survive in Georgian London after her father’s gambling addiction has beggared her family. And (perhaps my favourite), the dreadful Anne, who calculates that marrying the woolmaster’s son and living in a town house with glass windows might be a come-down for her family but it will lead to a far more comfortable life for herself than staying in her parents’ isolated hall forever unable to afford the dowry for a respectable match.

Like Alison Weir, I rate the House trilogy the most highly, but the prolific Lofts produced many more books worth reading. Broadly speaking, her historical fiction falls into two categories – historical biography, and Suffolk books. The historical biography is not confined to England – there is a splendid book, Crown of Aloes, about Isabella of Spain – and includes one of the most sensitive fictions written about Anne Boleyn, The Concubine.

The Suffolk books, which include the House trilogy, all take place in or around a fictional town called Baildon, which is similar to (though not identical with) Bury St Edmunds. One of the joys of being a hardcore Norah Lofts fan is the way places and families recur across the books, so the fictional world becomes deeper and richer than anything that could be achieved in one book alone. We know which family has a streak of gambling addiction, which breeds the best horses, which local in is best and who built the Assembly rooms. One particular strength of Lofts as a writer, in a genre which can often focus on the rarefied and privileged lives of the wealthy, is that she is as interested in the lives of the ordinary people as those of kings or queens. Even her Anne Boleyn book is told from the viewpoint of a serving maid. Lofts’ farming background comes into this in a big way, writing as she is about a rural country through centuries when most people were closely tied to the land. Martin Reed first meets Anne Blanchfleur when he is visiting his sheep, and her mother lets him heat his tar pot on their fire. Lofts understand the economics of farming: what it means to have a farm of a certain size, or to carry out the work yourself (as another knight’s child, Henry Tallboys, does in the Knight’s Acre trilogy).

There is another sense, too, in which Norah Lofts’ books are realistic, and it is one of the things I like most about her work. Despite her designation as ‘historical romance’, which would conjure up images of happy endings, for Lofts the world is a brutal, unfair place. Good deeds go unrewarded, and, often to a very disturbing extent, bad ones unpunished. Murders are regularly concealed, and criminals live on benefiting from their crimes. This lack of idealising makes her world feel very real. When I used to borrow Norah Lofts books from my local library, their spines would be stickered, seemingly at random, with either a black castle to designate ‘historical fiction’ or a pink heart with a crown on top for historical romance. I wonder how many readers picked them up expecting to be transported to a delicious tale of swooning damsels, only to find they had been sucked into a gritty story of murder and medieval farming practices. Sometimes there is supernatural, and there is often evil – the Gad’s Hall books involve Victorian girls and devil worship – but the down-to-earth nature of her style adds to the plausibility and creepiness, as, for example, in the one I have just finished, The Devil’s Own (also called The Witches, Catch As Catch Can and The Little Wax Doll), published under the name of Peter Curtis, in which the prim heroine is horrified by the sight of the unattractive bodies of her middle-aged neighbours as they dance naked at the Halloween meeting of their coven.

So, where to start with Norah Lofts? To begin with, she did write two books specifically for teenagers, both based on characters from the Old Vine trilogy, Rupert Hatton’s Tale and Maude Reed’s Tale. I would recommend these to younger readers, but really these date to a time before Young Adult fiction had reached the no holds barred place it is in today. Older teens will be perfectly comfortable reading her adult books (and their parents/teachers should be happy with most of them too – if delicate you might want to give the Peter Curtis ones a miss, and The Claw should probably have an advisory sticker but mostly there’s nothing more shocking than you will find in Jacqueline Wilson). The Old Vine books are a good place to start, as is Bless This House, which uses the same ‘house through history’ technique but in a single volume. The first Knight’s Acre book is eventful, and interest in the characters will probably carry you through the second two, even if they are a bit heavy on the farming. Of the biographical books, I have already mentioned The Concubine, and The King’s Pleasure is a sympathetic portrait of Katherine of Aragon, and Crown of Aloes a fascinating book about Isabella of Spain. For those who like their history earlier, The Lute Player is about Richard the Lionheart, or, earlier still, Esther fictionalises an Old Testament book. Lofts is equally comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and The Lost Queen is a moving book about George III’s younger sister. Goodreads has plentiful reviews, and there is a thriving group there for the hardest of hardcore fans – a group which, I suspect, is destined to grow and grow as a new generation of readers discover the Queen Of Historical Romance. Or rather, Of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders….