HEART of CRUELTY is set in Birmingham, England, in 1840. It’s narrated by Jane, a young woman whose dream of a romantic life in the theatre has ended in a workhouse, where someone in authority abuses in plain sight, and victims are unheard. She is rescued by Coroner Doughty and there’s a bitter-sweet love story that explores what happens when desire overcomes reason. I’ve aimed for a Gothic atmosphere with lots of twisting darkness, and plenty of dramas along the way…
I entered my novel for the Wexford Literary Festival ‘Meet the Publisher’ event in July 2020 and was delighted when Paula Campbell of Poolbeg in Dublin offered me a three-book contract.
Extract from HEART of CRUELTY:
The fragmenting bones squirted putrid marrow up at us. Sweat soaked the armpits of my dress; my shoulders were burning, my hands blistering. The bone-meal had to be shovelled into sacks and a new load of bones fetched. It had been just after six o’clock in the morning when we had started; now the chapel bell was striking ten.
‘Are yer hungry in yer bellies now, yer idle bitches?’ Siviter demanded. ‘There’ll be nought for yer today, no bread nor water, only work. Let yer lying tongues go dry, teach yer a lesson.’
It was the day after Ash Wednesday, when we had already endured a fast, but we made no reply, and kept on banging the iron rammer down, its thuds reverberating in the stone enclosure.
‘Idlers like you get a night in the lock-up,’ gloated Siviter.
I had been in there once before, for some infringement of rules I had not understood, hungry, thirsty and alone in the fetid gloom behind the iron door.
‘I won’t.’ I let go the rammer and stood doubled over, my hands dropping to my thighs. ‘It’s not right.’
‘Get back on the job yer!’ Siviter lashed out with his cane. ‘I’ll kill yer, lazy drab!’
The blow jarred my spine and cold needles of pain shot down into my legs. I heard a man shout. As I tried to straighten up, another whack of Siviter’s cane caught my head and knocked off my cap.
‘Jane!’ Clara cried out, but she did not come to me.
The pain was immense. I put my hand to my head; it came away wet, and red. I knew Siviter had not finished. I was overwhelmed by fear, and by the grotesqueness of the scene: the hideous walls of the workhouse yard, the fetid reek of the bones, the blood filling my palm. His next blow sent me crumpling forward so that I lay curling my arms over my throbbing head, my face to the slimy cobbles, one eye open to the red rivulet of blood that trickled between them. As I heard Siviter’s cane whistle again through the air, there came another shout from across the yard.
‘Coroner Doughty, sir, good morning sir,’ he called out, and to Clara and I he muttered that we should get back to work.
I could not move.
‘Mr. Siviter.’ A cold, clear voice came closer to where I lay. ‘Mr Siviter!’
‘Good morning to yer, sir, Dr Doughty, sir, a fine morning too.’
Then I saw darkness and heard nothing.
After a time I smelt a gentleman’s cologne, and found I was lying on my side. My head throbbed as something pressed it down against the cobblestones.
My first sight of Doughty was of his wrist emerging from a white shirt-cuff, of his black coat sleeve, and the corner of his handkerchief. He was kneeling beside me on the filthy cobbles of the Workhouse courtyard, applying pressure to my wound. As he lifted the handkerchief I raised my eyes to his: wide-open, dark, intent on mine…
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