A new and second edition of my historical novel ‘Tom Fleck’ is now available on Amazon Createspace:
A novel of Cleveland and Flodden.
It is now listed on Amazon and elsewhere
- Paperback: 266 pages
- Publisher: Creatspace Sept 2012
- Language English
- ISBN-10: 1478308915
- ISBN-13: 978-1478308911
- Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15.2 x 1.5 cm
- Recommended price £7.99 or $12.99
A version for Kindle is now available at £2.12 or $2.99
Back cover synopsis:
‘Sharp as quivering hares are the Flecks. We’ve eyes and ears for things other folk miss.’
Much later, in the aftermath of Flodden, a young man finally understands his father’s words.
The year: 1513. The place: North-East England.
Tom Fleck, a downtrodden farm worker but gifted archer, yearns to escape his masters. He unearths two objects that could be keys to freedom: a torque of ancient gold and a Tudor seal ring. He cannot know how these finds will determine his future.
Rachel Coronel craves an end to her wanderings. When the torque comes to rest around the neck of this mysterious woman, an odyssey begins which draws Tom Fleck into borderlands of belief and race.
The seal ring propels Tom on a journey of self-knowledge that can only climax in another borderland – among the flowers and banners of Flodden Field.
To see if ‘Tom Fleck’ is the sort of story you would like to read, here is the opening chapter (my apologies for this site’s refusal to preserve indents):
Green and White
29th June 1513. North-East Yorkshire.
Wings clattered through branches. A young man stayed his axe in mid-swing as two wood pigeons flung themselves into the mist. He looked down at the dog as her throat rumbled. She raised a paw, shot him a glance, then – ears cocked – faced back along the track. Metal clinked somewhere.
Tom Fleck whispered, ‘Hush now. Come away.’
Soft-footed, man and dog crept off the path and into a thicket to huddle together, among ferns and willow stems, as the crack of twigs grew louder and voices filtered through moss-coated trees.
‘It’s thinning. A wind’s sprung up.’ The helmeted man seemed a giant as he squelched past their hiding place. Two other burly men followed; all three wore green and white tunics. One of them groaned as his leg plunged into the mire. He wrested it free.
‘Shite! My boot’s full o’ clarts! How much more o’ this, Sarge?’
‘The river’s close I reckon.’ The giant paused. ‘Though it’s a few years since I enjoyed the charms of this path.’
Five more tunic-clad men pushed out of the mist; all had round shields on their backs and swords at their belts. They trudged alongside a pair of black horses; each horse carried a man cloaked in red. Three brown-smocked labourers, pulling on the ropes of pack-ponies, took up the rear. The column wound beneath dripping alder trees until halted by a fallen monster.
Tom tried to work out who they were. He’d seen that green and white before – at the manor house. It meant power that cared naught for the likes of him – power that could seize a man and take him away. In these times it made sense to hug the ground and just watch.
The giant raised an arm. ‘A dead wind-throw. She’s hacked about like someone’s been at her for kindling – I did hear an axe.’ Tom shrank lower as the seamed face looked around. ‘But we need to get on. We’ll work our way around her. Dobson, see to it nobody tumbles into that root-pit.’
Tom squinted through the sodden ferns. The shattered roots of the ancient alder reared above the strangers’ heads like the antlers of stags entangled in combat. Then the mass groaned as the trunk settled deeper into the mire. A horse snorted and shied away, the rider cursing as he clung on. Tom flinched as the mount staggered sideways off the track and sank onto its forelegs in the ooze. With gasps and snorts it heaved free, pitching the rider from the saddle. A pair of full-fleshed buttocks thudded into the mud.
‘God damn you, nag!’ The man clambered to his feet. He glowered at his stained breeches then punched the horse on the neck. ‘Blast you! You and this bloody bog . . .’ The reedy voice choked into a squeak.
His lean companion looked down from the saddle. ‘Hold yourself together, York. After the ford we’ll be on ground more to your comfort, and just two hours from the mattress you crave.’
Tom wrapped one hand around the dog’s muzzle and stroked her neck with the other. He watched two bearded men grin at each other as they splashed forward to grab the horse’s bridle. One shoved a biscuit under its nose while the other calmed the shivering beast and held it for the rider to remount. Back in the saddle the barrel-shaped man, face as red as his cloak, wiped his brow then yelped, ‘My ring! It’s gone from my hand! It’ll be in the mud. Find it! I’ll give a reward.’
The dog’s muffled snort went unheard amid laughs as soldiers’ fingers grubbed among the rushes. The pack-ponies stood in a line with heads drooped as their drivers squatted to chew on crusts, indifferent to the pony-dung that thudded around them. As the mist condensed into drizzle the two gentlemen pulled down their hats and moved to the shelter of a tree on drier ground. With their backs against the trunk they drew out corks and sipped from flasks. Tom caught the searchers’ low banter:
‘Yon will have a sore arse, he hit the deck like a sack of cabbage.’
‘He went down more like that feather-bed wench at the inn last night, when she skidded on your slopped ale.’
‘Hast’ seen his cacky bum?’
‘Get on with it, Jones.’ The giant spat, then growled, ‘And have a care – if York hears thee mock him, he’ll not forget.’
‘It should fetch a bit of coin, eh, Sarge? What’s the reward?’
‘Knowing him – a piss-pot of sour ale,’ someone cackled.
‘We’ll have to see. Now shut your gob, Bentley! Get cracking or we’ll be sleeping in this muck.’
Taking a final sip before pushing the stopper back into his flask, the lean gentleman called out, ‘Sergeant! Stop all that, it’s far too late, if we don’t make Norton before dark, we sleep rough. In an hour the tide runs up river and we’ve yet to ford the Tees. Two men will return at dawn to search again.’
‘Aye, sir.’ The giant snapped a branch off the fallen tree, broke it twice across his knee, and pushed the bits upright into the mud. He rubbed his big palms together. ‘That’s marked the spot, now let’s get shifted.’
Through the tracery of twigs, Tom Fleck’s keen eyes had also marked the spot. A shower of heavy drops, from the leaf canopy overhead, began to drum against his leather skullcap and the shoulders of his battered jerkin, but he did not move. Midges were becoming lost in his young beard; he scratched at the itches but stayed crouched. When the last pony had faded into the gloom, he listened on. After a few minutes the agitated tew-tew . . . pity me . . . pity me . . . cries of the pair of sandpipers that nested on the riverbank told him the travellers had reached the ford.
At a snort from the dog he took his hand from around her jaws. ‘They’re away now, Meg – whoever they were. Stay hushed while we see what might be sniffed out yonder. Come on.’
He scanned the flattened bog plants mangled by boots and hooves, then the bruised earth, until he became aware of a hollow. Shaped by a beefy backside, he thought – so one stride away is where the rider’s hands would grab the ground to crawl back onto the track.
Stretching out an arm, he snapped his fingers. ‘Seek!’
The little black mongrel rushed to the spot, tail wagging in a blur. She circled a few times, nostrils sweeping the ground. She stopped, lifted a paw, stiffened her tail, pointed her nose close to the earth, and let out a whine.
‘Shift,’ he whispered and pushed her snout away to rake his fingers among the roots. They closed on a hard, round shape. He wiped the lump on his sleeve, held it up and saw a golden gleam. Trembling, he looked around, but the vague shape of a night screecher, perched on a high branch, made the sole witness. The owl bobbed its head a few times then launched on silent wings deeper into the trees.
He dropped the object into his skin bag, safe among the moss that wrapped a clutch of mallard eggs. The dog’s ears got a quick rub before he slipped the axe into his belt, picked up a bundle of firewood and heaved it across his shoulders.
‘Right, let’s away for our supper.’
The ground lifted in a gentle rise as the wetland faded. He pushed out of the sodden alder carrs and stopped in the meadow to breathe in air that was not loaded with rot. Through fading drizzle loomed a yellow glow that brightened in a shaft of weak sunlight. The glow sprang from the mass of gorse blossom on the slopes of Whinny Bank and gave the bearing for home.
He halted his stride through the buttercups to kick down a fresh molehill. He scattered the moist earth with one sweep of his clog. It did no good to let them harden; let them set and next thing there’s hummocks sprouting with thistles that cows wouldn’t put their noses near. Besides which, it was always worth seeing what black mouldy-warp had tossed out. Stooping, he flicked aside a few scraps of the usual red pot to pick out a round bit of metal. He gave it a rub with his thumb and saw the familiar faint outline of a horse. He would keep it with the other horse coins the little tunneller had shovelled up.
A line of five cows now straggled around him as they made their way home for milking. Tails swishing at flies, they sauntered along carefully, nursing the weight of full udders. The cattle gazed with soft eyes – they knew him well. One or two paused to spatter the track with cow-clap in a companionable manner. Meg trotted behind at a safe distance, herding the heels. He strode between the kine, happy to pull into his nostrils the warm belches of fermented grass.
He grimaced as he neared the cow byre, it looked like a broken-backed ship. Could he manage on his own? While he was fit, Dad had done his best with running repairs – but now . . . A lump came to his throat. Those walls were bulging – the wattle-and-daub giving way. The thatch should have had new reeds last year. That eastern end, leaning where the ground had gone soft with ages of cattle piss . . . It needed a good fettling. Only the thick back wall held the building together. Those long forgotten men had sense, building onto the wall of the ruined chapel. He stopped by the lean-to. Just this morning he’d patched it where the bull had smashed his head through. The auld lad got restless when he caught the scent of his cows ambling past twice a day.
Tom reached the middle of the byre’s front and pushed against the planks of the only door. The cracked leather hinges groaned. He stooped beneath the lintel with his load of firewood and ducked as a cluster of fledgling swallows flew to the opening. They fluttered around his head, then darted into the open air. Their parents swooped chortling from the byre’s sagging ridge in greeting. Once inside he turned to the right and set down his burden. The cattle followed, but turned to the left.
His clogs rustled through a layer of straw as he squeezed between a stack of buckets and a churn. On a barrel stood tinderbox and candles; his fingers worked fast with the flint and soon the wick’s flame melted a pit into the tallow lump. Tom carried the light behind a partition of woven hazel stems and knelt on the floor beside a pallet of hay. He drew back the corner of a sheepskin.
‘I’m home, sister. How are you feeling?’
In the candlelight, Hilda’s forehead gleamed like oyster shell.
‘Ah, Thomas. You’ve been out a long time. I’m not good. I’ve not been on my feet much today. Just rested here in a sort of dream, seeing Mam and Dad’s faces coming and going in them cobwebs fluttering under the thatch, and sometimes listening to the squabbles of the mice.’
Tom looked into the drawn features, framed by red hair studded with hayseeds. Beneath green eyes lay crescents of dark skin. His stomach tightened. She’s not combed through her locks today – them tangles are not like her.
‘Your belly still hurts?’
‘Aye, today it’s lower down. It nags at me all the time. Will you put your hands on me again, please?’
‘I’ll warm them first. Tell me when you’re ready.’ He cupped his hands around the candle flame and faced away from her so that she could roll back the bed-covers and pull up her shift.
She had draped her private places with the sheepskin. He saw only the rise and fall of the shallow dome of her stomach. Except for the pink of two flea bites, it had the colour of milk. She followed his movements as he clenched and unclenched his fingers before placing them on either side of her navel. She closed her eyes and he closed his own.
Murmuring, ‘Breathe easy and think good thoughts and I’ll do the same,’ he moved his hardened palms over her soft skin. ‘Is this where it hurts?’
He felt her become tense. ‘No, it’s further down.’ His hands slipped beneath the covering. She uttered a gasp, ‘Aye,’ she whispered, ‘just there . . . ah . . . ah . . .’
He concentrated on his palms and, holding them still, thought of how much he loved his sister.
She breathed out a sigh and he felt the hardness leave her stomach. The warmth of her flesh mingled with the coolness of his hands. He took his mind to the region around his heart. The comings and goings of their breath came together as though they were one.
Minutes later he murmured, ‘Is there summat you’ve not said?’
‘When the time comes,’ she whispered. ‘That’s helped. You can ease off.’
He covered her with the sheepskin. ‘You’ll be famished. I found a mallard’s nest; do you fancy a couple of duck eggs?’
‘Oh, I don’t know whether I could hold them down.’
He considered for a moment. ‘I’ll boil them, then mash them in a drop of hot milk and mix in some chopped sorrel-dock. You can shift them with a bit of bread and butter – how’s that sound?’
‘My mouth waters – by rights I should cook for you.’
‘Don’t fret on that. I’ll make supper once I’ve seen to the beasts. Meg will stay by you.’
The milking would take an hour. He washed and dried the udder of the first cow. Seated on a stool he rested his forehead against her warm flank and wrapped his fingers around just two of the four teats; the other two quarters were for her calf. He drew down the milk with a steady rhythm, first on one teat and then on the other. Squirt, splash, squirt, splash – the milk spurted into the wooden bucket. The smell of cow hair, mixed with the vapour of foaming milk, drifted around his face. After humming for a while, he sang in a lilting voice:
‘I cannot get to me lass
her freckles to see,
for the flood o’ the Tees
gans between her and me.
I maun wait on the moon
when the heron gans yem,
and the shiv’ring salmon
has done her last run.
When the watter o’ the wath
drains down to the sea,
then I’ll sharp gan across
and she’ll sit on me knee.
We’ll sing the words fluted
since Adam was born,
like the coo o’ the cushat
from yonder blackthorn.’
He sang to help the cows let down their milk and because his sister enjoyed his made-up songs. As the buckets filled, his mind wandered, sometimes back to the marsh, sometimes to imaginings of the future.
The cows waited meekly, in a row of stalls, with their heads swung towards the end of the byre where a group of tiny calves bawled. The calves spent their days confined when their mothers roamed the pasture. They now gathered, shoulder to shoulder, peeping with hungry eyes through the slats of their stall. After the milking, Tom unhooked a gate and they tottered out, each one to find and nuzzle its own mother’s teats.
Outside in the dusk, among softly fluttering moths, he fed and watered the bull in the lean-to. The beast snorted and nodded his great head.
‘Never mind, auld lad.’ He patted the hard brow. ‘Tha’ll be on grass tomorrow, for some of the girls are wanting thee.’
Back in the byre, he built up the fire in the chimney alcove.
‘Not much longer. I’m about to boil watter.’ He filled a blackened iron pot and hung it on a hook above the blaze. With the eggs unwrapped from their layers of moss he paused, took out his find and gave it a rub. Rotating the ring in the firelight to admire its gleam, he saw the engraving of a rose surmounted by a crown. Staring at the symbol he became lost in thought.
A creak came from the bed-place. ‘What’s happening in there, brother? Have the fairies got you? Apart from that cow with a bad cough it’s all gone quiet.’
‘Nowt’s happening. I’m just sat here, thinking.’
‘You take after Dad, he was always doing nowt – just thinking. What are you thinking on?’
‘Pictures keep coming into me head of a farm on dry ground; one that has a hollow spot with a patch of mere where snipe and plovers nest. It has good black kine, grass that talks in the breeze, and it’s all our own.’
‘Ah, if only the fairies could weave us a magic spell – ‘ She broke off to cough. ‘You’ve made that fire smoke and it’s getting on my chest.’ She coughed again, spat, then wheezed, ‘Tonight’s milking song was bonny – about crossing the wath to see a freckled lass – is it another one you’ve made up?’
‘It came today when I was chopping at the dropped alder. The words floated up in me mind, like bubbles in the duck pond. I’ll get the wise-woman to make a potion for that chest if it gets no better.’
The water simmered. Tom lowered five clay-coloured eggs into the pot and watched them sink. Rising from his squat he tiptoed to the centre of the back wall – the old chapel wall, double skinned and built of chiselled sandstone. He located the unmortared joint just above head height. The stone squeaked as he drew it out. His fingers groped inside the void until they closed around a skin bag. He opened it and dropped in the ring. It made a faint clink as it fell against another object. After pulling the drawstring tight he replaced the bag and eased the stone back into position.
Tom knelt once more to watch the eggs, remembering his mother’s words: ‘Boil them hard. You’ve to go canny with duck eggs – ducks are mucky feeders.’
After shelling two eggs he mashed them in milk and stirred in the chopped sorrel; the tang of it pricked at his nose. He arranged the food on a trencher board, into what he considered a pretty mound, then from a bucket ladled ale into a wooden bowl.
‘Food’s ready. Stay put, I’ll bring it through.’
He set the meal beside her and propped her up against a linen bag of feathers.
‘I can manage, brother!’ Her voice sharpened. ‘And that pillow needs burning – it’s alive and feeding off me.’
‘I’ll change the feathers tomorrow.’ He squatted on the floor to peel himself an egg.
‘Why did you go raking about behind the loose stone?’ she snapped.
‘Raking about?’ She’s hurting inside, he thought.
‘Yes, you rummaged in Dad’s secret place.’
‘There’s nowt wrong with your lugs today. It’s just summat I found that’s worth keeping hold of.’
She picked at the food, and sniffed. ‘So – what is it then? Aren’t you going to tell me?’
The words formed slow at first, then flooded out. As Hilda listened, she leaned back and frowned. Seeing her reaction, Tom faltered until the words dried up. Hilda straightened, narrowed her eyes and looked hard at him.
‘Brother – you’re daft! Think for a bit. If we try to sell it there’d be questions and we’ve no answers.’
‘It’s gold and might buy a cow or two. We could set up on our own instead of slaving at the beck and call of those hard buggers at the manor.’
‘I don’t like you using words like that, our Tom – Mother would never stand for it. You can’t sell that ring either – it’s a special one; we’d be found out and then what? That dreamy, duck-pond of a mind will get us hanged.’ Her green eyes flashed.
Tom’s mouth spread into a grin. ‘That’s better, it’s good to see a bit of spark and spit; you’re not bad looking with your freckles aquiver.’
She flicked egg at him from her spoon. ‘Now don’t you try to butter me up. I mean what I say. I’m older than you – you’re nowt but eighteen remember, and I’m not having you getting us into trouble.’
They ate in silence. From the corner of an eye Tom saw her hands tremble. She looked up from her trencher and glanced at him. ‘Tom . . . When will you wed?’
‘That’s a queer question. I’ve never given it a scrap o’ thought and I’ve no mind to. Why ask?’
‘It struck me today that I never want yoking to a man, though I can’t bide alone. If you do wed, maybe we could still shelter under the same roof.’
‘A dripping, crook-backed roof like this one, you mean? Scraping along beside the beasts, among the cow-clap and black-beetles?’
She fixed him with a desperate stare and struggled to speak. ‘Where else can we live? We can’t just wander the tracks from parish to parish. But I don’t want to stay here, not now Mam and Dad are gone.’ She let out a sobbing cough.
Tom stopped eating and moved to her side. He put his arms around his sister and felt the trembling of her thin shoulders. ‘Now, don’t fret. We will have our own spot. There’ll be apple and damson trees, with hens of all colours scratching about underneath. Mind – thou will have to tend them. Meg can have some pups and they’ll have white stars on their foreheads like her own. I see a milking nanny goat to build you up and you’ll have a cosy bedchamber – with a mirror of polished brass so you can see to comb through your bonny locks.’ He stooped to kiss the crown of her head.
She straightened up and hugged him. Then, pushing him away, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hands and giggled. ‘Have a care! I might hold you to that! Now eat your supper.’
After bolting the rest of his food he pulled on a tattered cape. ‘I’m off out for an hour. I’ve one or two things to see to. Meg – you stay here.’
He ducked out into the drizzle and hurried downhill towards a cottage a half-mile distant.
The story opens in a wooded marsh on the Yorkshire bank of the river Tees. The location is now buried beneath main roads and housing estates.