The Memory of Midnight is out now and available at Amazon, Tesco and all good bookshops.
Read an excerpt from the first chapter here:
York, August 1561
She had to hide.
‘One … two …’
Nell didn’t wait to hear more. Dashing across the yard and through the main door, she skidded to a halt in the dim passage while her eyes darted around in search of somewhere Tom wouldn’t find her.
A flight of wide wooden stairs led up to the first floor, where Mistress Maskewe was lying in, and a door to the right opened into the buttery, pantry and the kitchen but otherwise the passage offered nothing in the way of a hiding place.
‘Three … four …’
Instinctively, Nell headed towards the kitchen, only to hesitate with her hand on the latch. There would likely be servants there: Joan, the Maskewes’ rabbit-faced maid, perhaps, and certainly Fat Peg, the brawny cook whose temper was unpredictable, to say the least. If she caught a glimpse of Nell, she might laugh her fat laugh and offer a scraping from the sugar loaf. Or she might buffet Nell’s ears till they rang and raise a clamour that would bring Tom running straight away.
Which would mean that Nell would lose again. She always lost to Tom. Her face darkened at the thought. It wasn’t fair. This time she was determined to show him that she was just as good as him.
‘Five … six … seven …’
Dropping her hand to her side, she nibbled at her bottom lip. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come inside? Outside there were stables in the garth at the back, and a hay chamber and a wood store and a dairy. Good places to hide, all of them, but the first that Tom would look.
No, she needed somewhere different. Somewhere small and secret. Somewhere he would never find her.
She put a foot on the bottom stair. Did she dare go up? If her stepmother saw her, she’d be scolded and made to sit quietly in the stifling chamber where the gossips were cooing over Tom’s new brother. Nell had hunched a shoulder uncomprehendingly when called upon to admire it. It was only a baby, she thought. It just lay in its cradle and cried sometimes. No need for everyone to sit around and make a fuss about it. She had slipped away as soon as she could to find Tom.
They weren’t supposed to play upstairs. Nell knew that. But didn’t that make it the perfect place to hide? Tom would never think she would be brave enough to go up there on her own.
Outside in the yard, he was beginning to gabble through the numbers and Nell’s soft mouth set disapprovingly. He was cheating, but she couldn’t tell him so or she would give herself away.
Her shoulders straightened. Enough! This time, this time, she would hide so well he would have to admit that she was cleverer. This time she would win.
Without allowing herself to think any more on it, Nell grabbed her skirts and ran up the stairs, remembering just in time to jump over the fifth step from the bottom that always creaked and groaned horribly if you trod on it. The house was quiet apart from an occasional desultory murmur of conversation from the great chamber, and the slap, slap, slap of her small leather soles rang loud in the silence, but it was too late to change her mind now.
Her heart was beating hard when she reached the top and she paused, the sound of her breathing loud in her ears, waiting for one of the women to look out and demand to know what all the noise was about. But no one bothered. Perhaps it was too hot for them to move.
The summer heat was slumped over the city, as it had been all week, and the air was so thick and soupy it was an effort to drag it in for breath. Everyone except Tom and Nell seemed to be seized with a kind of torpor. They moved lethargically, plucking at their collars and wiping the sweat from their foreheads. Even the dogs lying in the dust could barely rouse themselves to bark.
At the top of the stairs, Nell hesitated, one hand on the intricately carved post, before tiptoeing across the threshold of the great hall. She loved this room, so different from her father’s cramped hall where despondence seemed to hang next to the cheap painted cloths. Here the walls were covered with richly coloured tapestries, their edges thronging with flowers and birds and insects, the way the hedgerows did in June when the grass grew long and lush and the air was soft and humming with the promise of summer to come. It was Nell’s favourite time of year and she couldn’t resist reaching out and touching a butterfly. The tapestry rippled beneath her fingers, and the butterfly’s wings seemed to beat in flight.
Tom’s father was an important man, an alderman, one of the warmest in the city, they said. You could see it in the pewter that gleamed on the cupboards and the Turkey-work carpets spread plush and vibrant on the tables, in the glazed windows and the cushions embroidered with gold thread. You could smell it in the opulent air.
A burst of laughter from the women’s chamber along the passage made Nell start just as she heard Tom sing out ‘One hundred!’ down in the yard.
‘I’m coming to ge-et you, Nell Appleby,’ he called. ‘Ready or not!’
Nell stiffened. She mustn’t let herself be diverted. What if Tom came running inside after her? He would find her in an instant.
But then she heard him clatter through the passage below and out into the garth and her and her shoulders relaxed. So she had read him right. Sidling over to the window, she peered down to see him running down to the stables.
He wouldn’t find her there.
That meant she had plenty of time to find a really good hiding place.
Pleased, Nell turned back to survey the hall, only to still once more at the sound of sharp footsteps in the yard below and a voice calling for ale.
Nell wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like Ralph, for all his smiles and soft words. Tom’s half-brother was tall, and well-favoured of shape and countenance. He had a smooth face and a full, red mouth, and a set of strong teeth that were the envy of many. Nell thought they were too big for his mouth. He could barely close his lips over them, and when he smiled, instead of admiring how white they were, Nell found herself remembering the stories old Agnes, her father’s servant, would tell about ghoulies and ghosties and bones in the moonlight. She avoided him whenever she could.
She strained to hear what was going on in the yard below. There was a mumble in response to Ralph’s shout, doubtless Joan, sliding shyly out of the kitchen. What if Ralph wanted her to bring the ale up to the hall?
Nell bit her knuckle, thinking. She didn’t want Ralph to find her there alone. But if she scuttled back down to the yard, Tom would be bound to find her straight away and he would crow like a cock on a dung heap again. She was just a little maid, but just once, she would like to beat him.
Besides, she might meet Ralph on the stairs. Better to stay where she was.
Behind the turned chair? In the corner beside the cupboard? She could squeeze into the shadowy space and if she stayed very still no one would notice her.
Or there was the Mr Maskewe’s closet in the far corner of the hall. The door stood invitingly ajar. It was almost as if it was beckoning her inside.
Even more than the hall, the closet was a special room. It was for men’s business. It was not a place for small children.
Tom would never think of looking for her in there.
The tell-tale creak of the fifth stair decided her. Ralph was coming up. Scurrying over to the closet door, Nell peered around it. The room was empty, waiting. She could hear the drone of a fly and the murmur of women’s voices from the suffocating chamber along the passage where the babe lay, but otherwise there was silence.
The closet held a table, with a gilded leather writing box next to a heavy ledger where Mr Maskewe kept his accounts, a chair, a stool. And a long Cypress chest, a kist bought at the same time as the new wainscot that covered the walls. Tom whispered to Nell that the wainscot had been put up to hide a priest’s hole, but Nell thought he was making that up to seem important. She couldn’t see any sign of a door in the walls. Besides, Mr Maskewe was an alderman, and attended divine service for all to see. Mistress Maskewe was less often seen in church, it was true, but why would Tom’s father go to such trouble and expense to indulge his wife?
Of course, if it were true, the priest’s hole would be an excellent place to hide. Tom would never find her there. A gleam of excitement bloomed in Nell’s face. She had already forgotten Ralph. She pushed the door open wider, but just as she went to step inside the room, horror dropped over her like a net, pinning her to the threshold. For a moment she couldn’t breathe with it, but the room looked just as it did before, panelled, still. The casement window was wedged open in the vain hope of some air to stir the heavy heat, and she could make out the sounds of Tom searching for her in the outhouses.
‘I know you’re in there,’ he called, snatching open a door.
The horror lifted from her mind as suddenly as it had gripped her, and she stepped inside the room, shaking the feeling aside as she smirked at the idea that she had got the better of him at last.
The smell of freshly-cut wood thickened the hot air. It was a smell Nell always associated with the Maskewe house, where there were always new rooms, new furniture, new cladding on the walls. Unlike her father’s house, where everything was old and worn.
The desk drew her toward it. Daringly, she opened the writing box, intrigued by its cunning little cubby holes and by the special places for the inkpot and quill. The ledger was almost as tall as Nell herself, and almost as heavy she guessed. Tentatively, she put her hands on either side of the book and tried to lift it, but her face reddened with effort and she had to let it fall back on the table with a dull thud. She had to make do with lifting the cover instead, and peering at the columns of figures. She wished that she could read better. Her step-mother was teaching her, but she was still not as good as Tom, who went to school to learn his ABC.
The thought of Tom, who was a year older and better than her at almost everything, reminded Nell of her task. She had to find the perfect hiding place. She tried to imagine where she would put a priest’s hole, but she had little knowledge of such things. Her father and step-mother didn’t hold with the old faith the way some did and had no need to hide a priest.
She spread her small hands over the wainscot and felt her way around the room, but she could find no sign of a secret door. Absorbed in her task as she was, the stillness of the closet started to make her uneasy after a while. It was as if she had stepped into a different world, cut off from the women passing the baby between them in the chamber down the hall, from the servants laughing in the kitchen below, far from the street outside and the city that was all she had ever known. Distant even from Tom down in the garden, kicking the woodhouse door in frustration.
Her hands fell from the panelling and she stood very still. Only her eyes moved around the room, from the chest to the window to the desk where the massive ledger sat, and as she looked, there was a strange ringing in her ears and a whirling in her head, and the light shifted and shivered, and in place of the wainscot were shelves filled with tiny, narrow books. Where the table stood was a truckle bed of some kind, its coverlet so oddly coloured and patterned that Nell blinked. A black cat was curled up on it, but when she stepped towards it, it lifted its head to stare at her with great yellow eyes before its ears flattened in fright and it leapt from the bed.
A movement behind Nell made her swing round with a gasp, but there was nothing there, and when she looked back, the cat had vanished, along with the shelves and the bed. It was all gone.
Puzzled, a little giddy, she stared at the desk, the ledger, the new wainscot on the walls. Everything was as it should be. She must have imagined it, Nell decided, but she felt jolted and on edge until a crash and a screech from below snapped her firmly back to the present.
‘Tom Maskewe! You get out of my kitchen, you little varlet! Them were my apples stewing for tonight!’
Fat Peg. Nell spared Tom a grimace of sympathy. He would be lucky if he escaped with a buffet to his ear. If he had any sense, he would slip out of the kitchen while he could, and that meant he would soon be on his way upstairs.
Reminded of the game, Nell looked around the room. She would have to give up on the idea of the priest’s hole, she decided reluctantly, and find somewhere else to hide. But where?
Her eye fell on the kist. It would be too small for him, but she would be able to squeeze inside. I give up. She couldn’t wait to hear Tom say it. How sweet it would be! He would grind his teeth and scowl, but he would have no choice but to say the words, and then she would spring out of the chest and he would have to admit that she, Nell Appleby, was cleverer than him.
It was too delightful a prospect to resist. Nell hauled up the lid of the chest. It was heavier than she had imagined, but when she peered inside, there were just a few papers at the bottom.
There was a moment of foreboding, a darkness flitting across her mind, but she pushed it aside as she climbed into the chest, and let the lid lower on top of her. It was dark inside the box, and the smell of new wood was very strong. It was very well made, with hardly any chinks.
At first she was so pleased with herself for finding such a good hiding place that she didn’t mind the closeness, but it wasn’t long before she began to feel stifled. It was even hotter than before. Nell shifted around in the chest, wriggling to ease the laces in her bodice. A pin from her sleeve had come loose and was sticking into her. She wished Tom would hurry up and admit that he couldn’t find her.
This 15th-century chest in the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall was the inspiration for the chest Tess hides in. As you can see, it is just the right size for a small girl to hide …
With kind permission of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York.