All Stories, General Fiction

Victorian Anthropology by Martyn Clayton

Having spent the previous day stripping layers of old paint off the shop front the last thing she wanted to do today was begin on the interior. But needs must. Her body complained as she dragged it out of bed, Al still snoring contentedly beside her. He was a lazy bastard but to be fair to the boy he’d worked hard the previous day. He’d climbed ladders and brewed up and carried stuff and taken increasingly fraught instructions as she slowly reached the end of her tether. He moved an arm and an eye shot open then closed again, his head being buried further down into the pillow.

The sun was rising at the back of the moor sending narrow fingers of light down through the valley. One hit the coloured glass owl that hung from the kitchen window. Sitting at the kitchen table she munched on toast and skimmed through yesterday’s Yorkshire Post.  They were still hunting that man. The one on the regional news with the unfortunate face. She wasn’t sure if it was the way they took the mug shots or if these people did genuinely look quite evil. There was probably some sort of Victorian anthropology or cod science somewhere that accounted for these things. She swallowed a half digested lump of toast too quickly swigging down some tea in an attempt to aid its passage.  The man on the radio was talking about roadworks on the M62 and delays if you were heading into Leeds.

They’d starting stringing up bunting on the street outside for the May Festival. It marked the beginning of the summer in the valley town. Kirsty intended to have the shop open by then but time was at a premium. There were crates of second hand books in the storage warehouse on the industrial estate off the Huddersfield Road waiting to be brought to their new home. As she reached the shop the familiar litany of doubts began again; “what if it doesn’t make any money ? What if it all ends in failure and we end up in poverty ? What if it gets burgled ? What it the shop burns down ?”  For some reason that was her biggest fear. It was completely irrational. You rarely heard of shops burning down apart from when they’re rioting in that London. It didn’t happen in places like this unless it was an insurance job and usually when it did they were carpet warehouses. There’d obviously been far too many of them set up when the chapels became empty and people were yet to imagine the possibilities of laminate. There was the sound of movement upstairs.

She left the house before her boyfriend felt the need to justify himself. It was downhill all the way, her feet wanting to trip over themselves on the broad stone pavement. It took no time until she was in the heart of town. People were opening up. The lady at the café deli was writing the soup of the day on the notice board. The skinny guy with the ponytail in the gallery was hanging something in the window. The charity shop ladies were nowhere to be seen. An old man’s pub that hung on defiantly against gentrification was still closed. In a couple of hours relics from the hillside hamlets would arrive on buses, red top newspaper folded under their arms, pausing outside to drag on a cigarette before the first drink of the day.

She stood in the silence of her own shop and looked around. The fitter would be in tomorrow to finish fixing the shelves. It was only days away from being complete but it was still hard to imagine how it would all look. There was odd detritus from previous incarnations on the floor and hiding away in corners. Handwritten price signs from when it sold carpet off-cuts, buttons and pieces of ribbon from a short time as a haberdasher. Prior to her a strange young man had sold celebrity memorabilia before ending up in prison when it was discovered his autographs were faked. It was Johnny Depp’s loop that raised suspicion.

She set to work picking up where she‘d left off. There was still much to do. She’d keep going, work steadily, put all other distractions to one side. It would all be done in time.

Her belly was beginning to growl. She’d meant to make herself a packed lunch to save money. She’d been lecturing Aly about his CD habit. Listen, there’s no steady salary coming in. We are, you know, flying by the seat of our pants here but old habits are hard to break. She was in the next door deli looking at the olives, thinking about Spanish salami, some of those nice rolls. She’d sit cross-legged on the floor of the shop and ceremoniously rip at proscuitto, lowering it into her mouth, wiping greasy fingers on her paint splattered jeans. There was plenty of time for packed lunches.

The radio in the deli was tuned to Radio Leeds. The woman behind the counter paused from serving to listen to a news bulletin. Police had issued the name of the man they were searching for. He was 39 and from the Ovenden area of Halifax.

That was just a hop, skip and moorland yomp down a couple of valleys, over a couple of hills from here. The woman said she’d not slept last night. She said she was sure he was out there on the moor somewhere or maybe hiding in a deep wooded clough. He could be camped out, growing more desperate trying to keep the fury in his head from exploding again. The wildness of these moors, but with all these people in the valleys below. Vulnerable people, people who hadn’t secured their doors and windows properly. He might slip down a footpath, prowl around some unlit ginnel, try back gates and doors. He could lurk in the shadows by the railway station as the last train from Leeds or Manchester drops off a lonely passenger. Suddenly you stopped feeling so confident about your safety. You wondered what went on in the head of someone like that. All we could do was keep guessing. There was the name again. This time it lodged in Kirsty’s brain and as she sat cross-legged on the stripped floor that was waiting for wood stain it came back to her.

Kevin Reardon. Kevin Reardon of Ovenden, Halifax. FuckFuckFuck. She stood up, tried to find her phone, scrolled down to the Facebook App, went down her list of friends. There was Kev Reardon. No photos, just a blank head where a profile picture should be, next to nothing on his page. She found his list of friends. No one else but her. What had she been thinking? She couldn’t even remember when he’d added her? It was a while back. When she was planning to move back North. She immediately deleted him, threw her phone in her bag, sat down and finished her lunch. The radio was tuned to a music station, something bland but familiar, and every time the clock approached a news bulletin she managed to turn the volume down to zero.  Concentration got poured into labour. There was purpose in this. If you kept your hand moving things eventually got done. The ruder version of that said that they reached a climax but she couldn’t think like that now she’d been reminded of Kev Reardon. And in these circumstances.

That summer. They were 17. The houses they lived in were being renovated by the council. There were stretches of scaffold down cul-de-sacs that you could climb and then leap from, opening up the estate in new ways. Those with a mind for more than riding up and down the street on mopeds, jumping the speed bumps flicking the V at the CCTV cameras would sit on the scaffold, drink cider and talk into the night. Someone had introduced dope into the proceedings. It was before the days when skunk was so prevalent, and the herb that found its way to Halifax soothed rather than blew your mind. You could smoke away and enjoy the buzz without feeling like a zombie, feeling like your mind was fragmenting, your life slipping away from you. Kev had been the boy who could barely string a sentence together. Speech impediment, nerves, a father who beat him around the head at the slightest straying from the true path. He’d taken himself to the boxing club to make sense of his mother’s breakdown. His dad took up with a 24-year-old and moved into a semi in Wheatley. Kev had a BMX which was way too small for him. He’d take off his Leeds United shirt and tuck it into the waistband of his jeans. His dad drove buses. That Kev. He was wiry but toned from his boxing.  When she looked at him she felt something. It wasn’t a feeling that your heart might skip, it was pure animal lust. She’d been romantic to that point. Reading the Brontes, imagining she was tramping the moors having reckless affairs with wild men who couldn’t be tamed.  Then there was Kev. It wouldn’t be like the times she slept with Ian. She’d thought she’d loved Ian. It would be something else with Kev. Perhaps more liberating. It might be practice for university. In the end it wasn’t much but at least he hadn’t cried like Ian. Now she thought of him up on those moors with his psychopath face and less than wiry body. They’d never ventured there as kids despite the fact the moors were all around. They were a no-go, the deadlands at the end of town, a place of murderers and paedos., weirdoes who spotted birds, teachers who went rambling.

She knew that was where Kev would be now.  The last she’d heard he was working as a chef at a mill they’d converted into some kind of gallery. It was happening all over. Back in her youth there’d been less conversion, more dereliction. Art was a rumour, something other people did.  When she heard about Kev’s employment she imagined him doing things with red onions, searing diamonds of steak, slicing through mushrooms.  Since he’d added her on Facebook she’d wondered about saying hello, but she hadn’t said hello and now never would.

He would know where she was. He’d have seen the excited updates about the offer on the Hackney flat. He’d know that she’d travelled north with Aly to look at premises before they even considered where to live. Somehow it all fell into place and here she was.  He’d know all that.

She stood at the window of the upstairs room drinking tea from her flask looking out of the window as a black cloud crept across the moor. She’d forgotten how bleak the place could look. It was part of the attraction. In Hackney there’d been drama but of a different kind. This felt more elemental. It was enough to turn people mad. People like Kev.

What had he done? The reports so far were sketchy. There’d been an incident at a house in the foot of a valley. There was a woman black and blue and hooked up to machines in a hospital bed in Leeds. Was anyone dead? Children maybe? She wasn’t sure and the full details weren’t being released. She could probably walk into any pub or café in the valley and be hit by a wave of rumour. She texted Aly;

“Are you up yet you lazy bastard?! If so get your arse down here please. Love K xxx”

Aly arrived looking sheepish and confused within the hour just as Kirsty was finishing bringing another wall into the present. He’d bought a box of shortbread from the Co-Op to emphasise his roots;

“They were all out of Tunnocks Tea Cakes.”

He’d set to work, his tongue peeking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on the fiddly corners with the smallest paint brush. Kirsty had looked at him and felt a brief surge of overwhelming love as big as any epiphany. After a decade together that was really something. She wouldn’t tell him that she knew the missing man and in his presence her worry had dissipated.  She took a deep breath the paint fumes making her light headed.

There was little dog running up and down outside the shop. It was a busy faced terrier with a grey muzzle and a stump of a tail that didn’t stop moving. The traffic was starting to gather on the high street, it would soon be time for the school run. Visions of dog beneath the wheel of a 4×4 disturbed her mind. She left the shop to see who the dog belonged too. It was sniffing the lamppost outside the bookmakers. Kirsty crept towards it. It lifted an arthritic leg and looked at her.

“Hey, you. Here boy.” She held out a hand. She wondered if her fingers still smelled of prosciutto. The dog cocked his head and eyed her suspiciously. She saw through the shop window that Aly had taken the opportunity offered by her absence to slack off. He was stretched out on the floor eating a shortbread.  Kirsty stood up. There was a man standing on the other side of the road staring at her. She glanced in his direction. He was wearing a dated bomber jacket in a grubby mock satin. She guessed he had brown fingers. The dog was trotting off down the road away from her with a purpose that suggested it knew what it was doing. She let it go but the gaze of the man was crippling. It was if he knew her but she didn’t know him. She knew hardly anyone in this little town, across three hills and down a valley from the place she grew up. It wasn’t as if this was really her hometown. It wasn’t as if when she left London that she was really going back to her roots. That was too grim a prospect to bear. The man stared as if he knew all this stuff. As if he knew that deep down she was still a snobby little social climber who’d ran as far and as fast from her childhood as she could. Didn’t she want to return as the all-conquering heroine with the interesting bookshop and the raffish poet of a boyfriend ?  No kids round her ankles and Primark leggings for her. No daytime TV and high-velocity rammies with the neighbours over cockeyed garden fences. No skipping the cat shit and fighting off bull terriers for our Kirsty. The quirky bookshop girl who’d made Kevin Reardon’s heart skip that long summer when they’d hung from the scaffold and plotted their futures.

The man wasn’t Kevin Reardon. He was someone else. Another never left these parts. Another fallen through the gaps. The whole valley, the whole county, the whole of the North was probably full of them.

“I was trying to see if I knew you,” said the man. He was smiling.

“Oh I…”

“But I don’t think I do.”

Kirsty thought about introducing herself but before she’d had chance the man had started moving off. The dog was now a white dot disappearing at speed up the hill to the terraces that met the paths from the moor. She stood outside the shop realising that her heart was beating fast in her chest. The rain clouds had moved off. There was a watery sunlight drenching the stone valley. Back inside she told Aly to put down the paint brush he’d hurriedly picked up.

“I think we should go for a walk.”

Aly’s surprise turned his eyebrows clown-like. He worked hard at playing the loveable geek guy from the indie movies they loved so much. She knew he was probably working out his latest verse, putting order on all the things he saw and felt. His poems read like emotional scaffold across the white of a page.

They locked the shop, pushed up from the town to where the footpath signs led up to the moor. Sweat gathered on their paint flecked clothes, people acknowledged them. A little white dog with a grey face and busy tail wagged at them from behind the gate. The wanderer had returned home.

The path edged a rocky incline through trees that reached a narrow clough down which tumbled a moorland stream heavy from the downpours. The path was muddy but it drained quickly, the two of them stepping around puddles. There was no fear here. The two of them together. She wondered if at any point, any place on this moor above her new town you could see where she grew up. Probably not, but you could guess the direction.

There was a police helicopter circling over the brow of a hill across the other side of the valley. The sounds of the blades blowing in their direction then the opposite, the lull allowing the sound of the birds to displace their chugging fury. They sat on a piece of millstone grit and watched the clouds, heard the rattle of the Manchester train in the valley below, tried to make out the roof of their house and the position of the shop.

Perhaps not far away was Kevin. The net would close in on him. The past and whatever had brought him to this point would swallow him like a tsunami. He’d either drown or come up for air, his arms flailing reaching out for anyone who felt inclined enough to assist.

Aly pushed his glasses further onto his face and wrinkled his nose. Kirsty wondered who she was and what connection she had to that willowy girl with ideas above her station, swanning around a Halifax estate daring the whole world not to admire her.

Martyn Clayton

Banner Image: Dave Dunford [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “Victorian Anthropology by Martyn Clayton”

  1. A reminder of my days on the moors in 1988 Dousland (?) north of Plymouth. Wife & editor Sharon sank a little bit into the ground until she started moving again in Hound Of The Baskerville country.

    Liked by 1 person

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