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Watch for the Talleyman

Extract -Chapter One


Dolly Tomkins put her arms about her mother’s frail shoulders and hugged her tight. ‘It’ll be all right Mam, you’ll see. Dad’ll walk through the door any minute with his wage packet in his hand.’

‘Aye, course he will, chuck.’

They both knew this to be wishful thinking. When had Calvin Tomkins ever put the needs of his family before a sure fire certainty? which was how he viewed any bet, whether on the dogs, the horses, or two raindrops running down a window. And since it was a Friday and pay day at the mill, his pocket would be full of brass, burning a hole in his pocket. Most women hereabouts would be waiting with their open hand held out to collect wages as each member of the family came home on pay day. Maisie certainly did that with the three children she still had left at home: Willy, Dolly and Aggie, but had learned that it was a pointless occupation to wait for Calvin’s pay packet. He wouldn’t give a single thought to his long-suffering wife and daughters, not for a moment.

Dolly studied her mother’s face more closely as she bent to cut the cardboard to fit, and slid it into the sole of her boot. The lines seemed to be etched deeper than ever. Dark rings lay like purple bruises beneath soft grey eyes which had once shone with hope and laughter, and her too-thin shoulders were slumped with weariness. She looked what she was, a woman beaten down by life, and by a husband who thought nothing of stealing the last halfpenny from her purse in order to feed his habit, his addiction, despite the family already being on the brink of starvation.

Maisie handed the boots to her younger daughter with a rare smile. ‘There y’are love, see how that feels.’

Dolly slid her feet inside and agreed they were just fine, making no mention of how the boots pinched her toes since she’d grown quite a lot recently. They’d been Aggie’s long before they’d come to her, and probably Maisie’s before that, and their numerous patches had themselves been patched, over and over again.

Mending her daughters’ footwear was a task carried out each and every Friday in order to give the boots a fresh lease of life. Dolly wore clogs throughout the long working week, but in the evenings and at weekends when she wasn’t at the mill, she liked to make a show of dressing up. Worse, it’d rained for days and Dolly’s small feet were frozen to the marrow. She’d paid a visit to Edna Crawshaw’s corner shop and begged a bit of stiff cardboard off her, whole boxes being at a premium. This piece had Brooke Bond Tea stamped all over it but that didn’t trouble Dolly; the card was thick and strong and would keep out the wet for a while, which was the only consideration that mattered.

Even so, Dolly longed for a proper pair of shoes instead of this pair of old fashioned button boots; ones with a strap which would set her off as the modish young woman she so wanted to be. She longed too for a beaded dress with a square neck and no sleeves, the kind with a short skirt that was all the rage at the moment. Perhaps in a deep blue to match her eyes and to set off the shine of her bobbed hair, dark as a blackbird’s wing. In all her sixteen years, Dolly had never possessed anything that hadn’t been handed down to her from her older sister. She ached for something new, for something entirely her own, instead of having to share everything, even her bed with Aggie.

She never expressed these thoughts out loud, of course, because it would only upset Mam, and where was the point in such dreams anyway? The Tomkins family considered themselves fortunate if they had bread and dripping on the table. Tonight, being pay day, Maisie might buy them each a potato pie, and tomorrow be able to afford to add a bit of boiled mutton to the stew pot that sat on the hob day in and day out. Even more exciting, Dolly and Aggie planned to go to the Cromwell Picture House to see Mary Pickford in Little Annie Roonie, a rare treat indeed.

‘Oh hecky thump, he’s here already!’ Maisie Tomkins sank to her knees, pulling the two girls down beside her, so that their heads slid down below the window sill and would not be seen by the man now hammering on their front door. The letter box flew open and his raucous voice echoed loudly around the small room that served as both kitchen and living room in the back-to-back terraced house.

Dolly felt a surge of resentment that he could see in; that his greedy little eyes could explore their humble home. Though what was there to see? A stone flagged floor, a pegged rug, a black-leaded grate which combined fireplace, oven and hot water-boiler, and a slopstone where the washing up was done. The only furniture comprised half a dozen bentwood chairs and a deal table where the family ate, (when they were fortunate enough to have food to put on it, that is), or perform any other function that required a flat surface. The table was covered with a dark red chenille cloth with bobbles round the edge, of which Maisie was inordinately proud. This was taken off when the table was used for baking and other messy jobs, or covered with a scrap of scorched cotton for the ironing. Other than the beds upstairs, this was all they possessed in the world, plus what little remained of their pride. No different from anyone else who lived hereabouts, whether in Tully Court or any of the other ginnels, courts and alleyways which led off Potato Wharf.

‘I know yer in there Maisie Tomkins, so don’t think ye can escape by hiding from me. I’ll be back, don’t you fear.’ Again he applied his fist to the rickety panels of the door, and followed this up with a vicious kick from his booted foot.

Maisie jumped, stifling her own instinctive whimper of fear as she drew her two daughters close and silenced them with a fierce glare. Not that either Aggie or Dolly needed telling to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. They’d been hiding from the talleyman, the rent man, the insurance collector and any one of the many bookies whom Calvin got involved with, for as long as they could remember. Grown up with these tricks, in fact, so that even now they were young women, their one thought was to steer clear of trouble, for their mother’s sake. Even Aggie, not known for her patience, was keeping silent, biting down so hard on her lower lip, she was almost sucking off the cheap lipstick she’d so recently applied. Nevertheless, when the knocking finally stopped, Aggie was the first to speak.

‘Has the bugger gone?’

‘Hush love, I’ll have no bad language here. What would yer dad have to say if he heard you?’

‘Dad would say nothing against me. It’s you what’s got us into this mess.’ Certain always of her father’s uncritical love, Aggie gave a little toss of her head, flicking back her pretty chestnut curls, hazel eyes glinting.

‘Eeh, how can you say such a thing?’ Maisie heaved a weary sigh and, sinking further down onto the stone flagged floor leaned her head against the damp wall. ‘Why can you not appreciate that I’ve done my best to manage but it’s not easy. Everyone’s suffering with wages being what they are. There’s talk of a general strike, of the whole country being brought to a standstill and all workers coming out in sympathy with the miners. Where will we be then, eh?

I often  interview people when  I’m working on a book. For this one I talked to many women who had worked in the mills, one of them, a very old lady called Dolly Fitton, proved to be my  inspiration for this book.  You  can read more about that interview on my blog.

Reached Number 2 in Family Sagas

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‘Freda Lightfoot has a reputation for creating strong, character-driven sagas and Watch for the Talleyman is no exception… a fast paced story, packed with action and sentiment.’ Historical Novel Association

Freda Lightfoot’s Lancashire sagas, such as Ruby McBride and Dancing on Deansgate, have won her many devoted fans. In Watch for the Talleyman she vividly recreates the tough years of the General Strike, taking her readers back to a time when families were forced to draw on their deepest resources just to survive. Featuring a feisty, determined heroine, this is a rattling good read! www.

‘A gripping story.’ The Sunday Post on Watch for the Talleyman.

He’s after more than your money…

Dolly Tomkins knows what it’s like to live hand to mouth. In the mean streets of 1920s Salford, the only one making a decent living is the talleyman - and Nifty Jack has a moneybag where his heart should be.

Dolly’s mam is in hock up to her ears, but when Jack offers to wipe the slate clean in return for Dolly’s favours, she just can’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she takes him on at his own game, and in the process is in danger of losing the love of her life.