Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter nine

Martha

Every morning the dreams seem more vivid and I’m able to piece together more and more, and yet, they still mean nothing to me; peopled with unknown faces in unfamiliar places. I’ve not been able to get any more information from the Internet about Deepdene, so this morning, once I’m showered, I pull trousers over my legs, notch a bra into place and hunt for my favourite angora soft grey sweater; a pair of silver studs and a thin chain complete the outfit. If I am to convince my mother and Richard that I’m on the mend, appearance is everything.

I know I need to do more than scratch the surface with a simple Google search if I’m to find out more and the library is the obvious place to do that but I know, although it won’t be stated outright, that I am on lockdown. I am not to be trusted on my own.

I can hear my mother pottering around in the kitchen. It’s not yet seven o’clock and I wonder if Richard will make a check up on his way to work. Just in case, I sit at the dressing table, open my make up drawer and carefully smooth on a layer of lightly tinted moisturiser, followed by circular strokes of pale pink blush to my cheeks, some clear mascara to my eyebrows, some black to my lashes, a dusting of translucent powder to set and a spritz of Richard’s favourite scent on my neck but avoid the bandaged wrist. I pull the sleeves of the jumper low to hide any evidence.

I examine myself critically, as I imagine he would. Skin a little pale perhaps, eyes a little sad, but overall an acceptable appearance; one that suggests an invalid on the mend. I involuntarily brush my hands against my stomach, a habit that is proving hard to break. A side view shows not only my flat stomach, but also smaller breasts now too; ones that easily fit into my pre-pregnancy bra this morning.

My hands reach to the drawer for my medication, and had it not been for its absence, I think I would have forgotten my previous resolve. To take a daily set of pills is as natural as brushing my teeth. I know the stasis I’ve been held in is damaging; my emotions frozen. Today, I can still feel the effects of the drugs slowly washing from my body and I feel undeniable nerves at the thought of facing my emotions again, for the first time in years.

“Good morning, Martha,” says my mum, as I enter the kitchen. “You look much better today. It must have been those pills that Richard brought back for you.” Any indecision I have about not taking my medication vanishes with that one sentence. I refuse to be controlled by my husband.

“Morning, mum. Yes; I feel brighter.” I have to play the game; at least I’ve woken up enough to know I’m in one and that I already know the rules. “What are your plans for today?” I say.

“I don’t have any plans, Martha. I’m here for you.”
“I have a check up with my doctor, and then I thought I might go to the library and pick up some books.”

“Oh yes, of course; your final appointment. I’m not sure about the library though; a long day might tire you out.”

“I was hoping to pick up some books about grief and loss,” I say. “You know, maybe find something to help me tackle all of this so I can make sense of things before I see the therapist.” I am being deliberately manipulative. Surely this isn’t a request she can refuse.

“What about that tablet you have? Can’t you download them on to there?”

I’m surprised by her techno-savviness but have a response already, “You can’t download every book yet, and besides, this way, once I’ve read them, I don’t have to have them lying around the place. And then you could see if they’ve got any new books in for you.”

She stares at me with concentration. We might have little in common, but she’s still my mother, and I think that she senses that I’m not telling her the whole truth. I can see her debating my suggestion.

“Well, I suppose I don’t see why not. Although you must tell me if you’re getting tired.”

“I will; I promise,” I say.

 

The doctor’s visit is a success. I let my mother come into the appointment and I know she’ll report back to Richard; by doing so, I’m gaining brownie points. The doctor is pleased. There’s no more bleeding and very little soreness. The small scar from the operation is healing nicely and the stitches are clean. When a memorial for the child I lost is mentioned, my mother frowns at the doctor but I sit up.

“A memorial?”

“Yes. It’s quite common for mothers to want to have some sort of service and it’s very good for the grieving process.”

“But there isn’t anything to bury,” I say as I twist my fingers in my lap.

“But that doesn’t stop you from having a few words said. Of course, it’s entirely up to you, but you might find it helpful.”

I resolve then and there to visit the Minster and light a candle for my lost child. Having such a suggestion made by a medical professional and all in the name of healthy grieving, can’t be disapproved of too much. Immediately I am pleased I let my mum accompany me. Hearing it from the doctor’s own mouth must carry some weight.

It’s beginning to drizzle when we emerge from the surgery and before my mother can make any murmurs I take her arm and stride off in the direction of the library. I am amazed when she brings up the subject of a memorial.

“I think it would be a good thing for you to do, Martha.”

I stare at her. “You do? I thought you’d hate the idea.”

“Don’t make me a monster, Martha. I’m only doing what I think is best for you. It wasn’t just you who lost a child you know; Richard did too; and I lost a grandchild.”

“You wouldn’t know it,” I mutter.

“Don’t you dare say that. We all cope with things differently. I love you; you know that; and Richard does too. This will get better, Martha. You’ll have more children but no one’s denying that you’re not in pain right now. I know what it feels like to lose somebody or something precious. It doesn’t have to be anything big, and if you’d prefer, Richard doesn’t even need to know, but you and I, or just you, can make sure that your baby isn’t forgotten.”

It’s the longest speech she’s given since being here and I stand still in the rain to listen. Her face is wet; from tears or just the rain? I can’t tell.

“Thank you,” I manage to say. “Look; we’re here.”

 

A red brick building is before us, with great white columns flanking the entrance: the library. Automatic doors slide open and lead us into an echoing hallway. Looking back twin staircases take you upwards, while in front, more automatic doors open ushering us into a carpeted room with vast ceiling windows throwing light on the towering wooden bookcases.

I take a single step inside and the smell immediately throws me back to Oxford. I once read that the smell of old books is the smell of death; made of organic materials, they respond to the heat, the sun, the air and die, producing with them a scent that if bottled, I’d spray everyday. But despite the inherent sadness of the death of books, it is smell that fills me with promise and anticipation.

“We’ll both need to register,” I say.

There are three counters where staff are dealing with requests and a space soon becomes available with a stereotypical looking librarian – a non-descript woman of middle age with colourless hair and a brisk manner. I push my mother towards her and wait for the next slot to become available.

It’s the youngest member of the team who’s free next – a woman, perhaps the same age as myself, with jet black hair cut into a straight bob, accenting a pallor as pronounced as my own and a set of striking tanzanite blue purple eyes.

“Hello, how can I help you?”

“I’d like to register here please.”

“Not a problem, take a seat.”

Leading me through the same questions I can hear my mother being asked two desks over, I’m soon the proud owner of a plastic credit card that not only allows me my pick of the library, but also free access to a number of the city’s attractions, including the Yorkshire Museum, which I’ve yet to visit. Tucking it carefully into my wallet, I glance over to see that my mother is still deep in conversation and so I take my chance.

“I was wondering if you could help me with a couple of things?”

“I’ll do my best,” smiles the girl, revealing a set of white teeth with noticeably pointed canines giving her a wolfishly imp-like look.

“First of all, where can I find the self-help books, and stuff on depression?”

“All of our reference section is upstairs.”

“Oh. Ok. Thanks. And, I’m also doing a bit of local research and I wondered if I might look through some old newspapers, and maybe some parish records?”

“Right, well, the archive collection is also upstairs, and the card catalogue is the best place to get started. There’s a staff desk up there and they’ll help you with any problems you have.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“Good luck,” she replies, and turns to the next person waiting in the queue.

 

I take the stone steps leading upstairs, noting the niches in the walls where large china vases are placed, past a bank of public computers and through a set of security gates as I enter the inner sanctum.

Pleasingly furnished with solid wood tables and chairs with red leather seats, I find a free space close to a gridded window and set down my bag. I reckon I have about ten minutes before my mum tracks me down. I need to work fast.

My first port of call is the card catalogue. I’m thrilled to find that Deepdene has its own neatly filed card with two entries each written in a different hand; the first directs me to a thin racing green hardback book, entitled ‘Regency Houses of Yorkshire’; another to some issues of The York Press.

Frustratingly, despite finding the correct shelf, ‘Regency Houses’ is nowhere to be found, and I look around in desperation. The clock is ticking and so far I’ve found nothing out. My saviour comes in the form of the young woman from the downstairs counter.

Seeing her familiar face entering the archives, I pounce. Taking the card from me, she writes down the reference number, saying, “Sometimes books are kept in storage. Let me go and check in the back. Is there anything else you can be looking at?”

“I noticed some references in a past issue of The York Press,” I say.

“We’ve got copies going back years. When did you say you were looking for?”

I check my notes.

“12th November 1994.”

“With a specific date it shouldn’t take too long. Why don’t you get started on the microfiche and I’ll see if I can find this book for you.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve used the cumbersome machines, but eventually I start to get to grips with it again. Twiddling the controls I manage to find 1994 and I see what the young woman meant – a daily newspaper, it would be a long scroll from January to December, with little idea of what I’m looking for.

Unused to the rollers, I fly backwards and forwards, missing November several times until finally my control allows me to stop at the right page. It’s not on the front, or even in the first three pages of that day’s issue. Sitting on page four, there is a single entry that reads:

More than 30 fire fighters battled to tackle a huge inferno, which ripped through a Grade II listed 100-year-old mansion last night injuring two of its inhabitants. The fire caused £6m worth of damage to Deepdene Hall, a grade-two listed mansion, in Deepdene village, Yorkshire. The hall, which was built in the mid 1800s, is the family home of the Blenkinsops.

 

A spokeswoman for the fire service said they did not know the cause of the blaze. “The building is completely gutted. It’s gone,” they said. Adding that it would cost in excess of £6million to restore the building to its former glory.

Ambulance officer Stephen Twaites, who was at the scene, said, “The site was a beautiful manor house and home; an historical landmark. It is a real shame and very sad to see it going up in flames.”

 

Villager Eileen Ives, aged 75, was shocked at the devastation caused. She said, “We heard the fire engines and came out and saw the flames. It was such a nice building, I am heartbroken to think of the damage that has been caused.

 

I scroll down hoping for more information, and then flick through the following days’ papers but there isn’t another mention of Deepdene or the fire. All I have is barely 200 words and that doesn’t have much real information either. How was the fire started? Who was injured? What happened to them? What happened to the house? And why does it sound so familiar to me.

I search desperately for an image to confirm or deny the feelings stirring within me but there isn’t one. I shudder as the reality and my dreams collide. It must be a terrible thing to lose your home like that, watch treasured possessions go up in flame. I jump when a hand is placed on my shoulder.

“Ooh. Sorry!” says the librarian. “Here,” she hands me the book. “Hidden underneath a great pile of old ordnance survey maps; must’ve been there for ages! Oh, that’s sad,” she says, looking over at the article which I have enlarged on the screen. “I bet it was a beautiful old house as well; these Regency ones always are. Is that what this is for?” Before I can answer, she’s taken the book back out of my hands, flipped to the index and run a finger down the page. “What was it called again? Deepdene? Here we go! Page 63.”

She proffers the book to me, with the pages open to reveal a faded black and white image on the top left. My heart begins to hammer in my chest and I scan for the caption. ‘Deepdene Hall, Yorkshire. A lovely example of Late-Regency architecture.’

It is beautiful to look at, although perhaps a little stern. Encompassing both an east and west wing, the entrance is fronted by a Grecian style portico supported by pillars; nine identical windows span the top floor, with eight and the door on the ground which is reached by three steps and surrounded by a gravel driveway with trees rising either side which give some sense of scale.

The stone underneath the portico is substantially lighter than its counterparts to the east and west; a pale creamy yellow, showing how the house may have looked when it was first built and without years of pollution.

There’s only this single photo but I don’t need more to know that the house goes back many metres, more than doubling the frontage; I don’t need another photo to know that the whole house is surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and carefully raked gravel paths.

I know this place; I know this house. I’ve been here, I’m sure of it. I flick to the front papers of the book; published in 1973. I was born in 1990 and it burned down in 1994 according to all the reports. I doubt I visited it before then. So how?

Even in its prime, it was hardly one of the great houses of the country; it’s not hard to see that it’s no Chatsworth or Castle Howard; I doubt we studied it. Perhaps I came across it later; something about the decline of stately homes across the country?

“Are you ok?”

I look up and see the girl looking at me anxiously.

“Yes, sorry, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Did you ever get a sense of déjà vu?”

“Sadly no. Why?”

“I feel like I know this house. Like I’ve visited it before, when that’s quite impossible.”

“That’s awesome!” she says. “I love stuff like that; you know, déjà vu, the spiritual world; all of that. Did you know there’s also deja vecu where you feel like you’ve experienced an event before? And deja senti, jamais vu, presque vu, and deja visite, and…” She tails off looking abashed. “I’m Evie, by the way.” She holds out her hand.

“I’m Martha.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too. If you don’t mind me saying, you’re not a normal librarian, are you?”

“Ha! No; I’m not really a librarian at all. I’m studying for a PhD at the uni, but I volunteer here in my spare time, which, is getting less and less.”

“What are you studying?”

“It’ll sound extremely boring to you, but essentially psychology.”

“Psychology?”

“Yes, more complicated, more in-depth obviously. But I’m interrupting you-”

“No; don’t go,” I say. “You’ve been really helpful, thank you. In fact, I was wondering if you could help me dig up some more… damn it-”

Moving across the room is my mother; spotting me, she heads with purpose and tight lips.

“Erm, I’ve got some more stuff to research but I don’t have time today.”

“I’m here on Friday, but to be honest, if you haven’t found anything more in the card catalogue or in the newspaper archives, there’s probably not much to find.” I process this information dourly. “It sounds to me like what you really need is to visit it yourself.”

“To visit Deepdene?” I can’t believe actually visiting hasn’t crossed my mind. “I would, if I could, but not only do I not have a car so I couldn’t get there if I wanted to, I’m also on lockdown.”

“Lockdown?”

“Yeah; it’s a long story.”

“I have a car.” I look at her in surprise. “I’ll drive you.”

“You’ll drive me to Deepdene?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Let’s just say you’ve piqued my interest.”

My mum is now standing right next to me. Politeness dictates I introduce them, which I am happy to do while I shut down the microfiche machine as discreetly as possible. I’m fairly certain that she didn’t see anything.

“Look,” says Evie. “It was lovely to meet you both, and Martha, here’s my number.” She hands me a torn piece of paper. “You don’t have to decide today, but call me when you make your mind up.”

 

It’s a few days before I can put my plan into action. After our brief moment of understanding in the rain outside the library, my mother’s suspicion returned at finding me gone. I had hoped that by now she would be going home but she seems settled here. I know that she and Richard won’t consent to my visit, and even if they did, I don’t want either of them intruding.

I can’t simply lure my mother out of the way for if she was to return and find me gone again, this time with no clue as to my whereabouts, I have no doubt that a long stint in Bootham Park Hospital wouldn’t be long following, besides try as I might, I can’t think of a single way that she would leave me on my own for an entire day, especially when she’s here specifically for the purpose of looking after me. I bite the bullet and decide to recruit the services of Evie.

I call the number scrawled on the paper and she answers after barely two rings. Hearing her enthusiasm spurs my own, and she suggests the following day; she’s off work, can’t book any lab time at the university and is fairly certain that the weather will hold. Promising to look up directions for her, she arranges to come and pick me up at eleven o’clock.

 

I am being deliberately sneaky. When the front door rings announcing Evie’s presence the next day, I make sure that it’s my mother who answers. Politely she greets her, and invites her in. With my ear against the bedroom door, I judge the best time to make my entrance. Evie is primed.

“Oh, hi there!” I say, surprised.

“Morning, Martha,” she says. “Look, I just popped by on the off chance you’d be free. I’ve got the day off and I thought we could take advantage of this gorgeous day and get out of the city for a bit.”

“That sounds wonderful,” I say. “You don’t mind, do you, mum?”

“I wasn’t thinking all day,” interrupts Evie. “Just for a few hours or so, into the country, get some fresh air.”

“I’ll just get my bag… Right, you’ve got my number; mum, if you need to get hold of me. I’ll see you in a few hours.” I brush my cheek against hers and follow Evie out of the front door before she’s even had a chance to regulate her thoughts.

 

The only car pulled up outside is a battered Ford Focus in a once-bright shade of blue.

“You came,” I say. “I wasn’t sure if you would after I explained everything.”

“Are you joking? It just made me want to come even more. Hey, I didn’t realise you lived down Mad Alice Lane.”

“I only found out myself a month or so ago.”

“That’s awesome. Do you know the story behind the name?”

“Only what a guidebook told me – about a young girl called Alice Smith who went crazy who lived here.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much all I’ve ever been able to find out; not that I’ve looked very hard but it’s always intrigued me. You’ll have to let me have a poke around your flat some day.”

“With pleasure,” I say.

“Good, well, I know it’s only an hour’s drive but I’ve got some hot chocolate in this thermos, and blueberry muffins and wine gums in the bag at your feet. It wouldn’t be a proper adventure without supplies!”

I concede to her obvious knowledge of such things and she accelerates away with a crunching of gears that makes me wince.

 

Finding the village itself proves fairly straightforward but locating the house becomes an entirely different matter. After driving through the village three times with no luck at all, Evie pulls over on to the verge and I consult the printed out map.

“Doesn’t it say where the house is?’ she asks.

“No. There’s nothing. Just the village; there’s the pub, the shop and you can just see the church spire over there. But there’s no Deepdene Hall.”

“Nothing for it then. We’re going to have to ask someone.”

“But there’s no one around.”

The village seems eerily deserted, but on a weekday, I suppose that isn’t so unusual, besides clearly there are people living here. This is no ghost town.

“Right, well, we’re going to have to knock on some doors then. You go first.” She points at the house nearest the car, the end of a row of small cottages, mostly now sporting garish extensions.

“Why me?”

“Because I’m the driver, and I say so.”

“Fine,” I say, hiding a smile. It’s nice to have someone treat me like I’m made of something stronger than china.

No one answers at the first, nor the second, but from the comfort of the car, Evie waves me further and further down the row. Finally, door number five opens to my knocking and an old man leans in to hear my question. I scamper back to the car with my news.

“It’s not actually in the village proper at all,” I say. “Apparently, it’s down a track on the right hand side about a mile out, in the direction that we just came. There’s a gatehouse hidden by some trees.”

Executing a suspect three-point turn, we drive back at a snail’s pace, both sets of eyes glued to the right of the road, desperate not to overlook anything.

“There!” I cry, spying two matching square stone boxes, a single storey high with one window apiece. “I think those must be the gatehouses, or at least, what’s left of them.”

A few minutes more, if it wasn’t for the twin buildings we’d just seen, I’m not so sure that this isn’t just a farmer’s track.

Thickly planted with trees either side, the road has long since gone from our rear view mirror and it’s another five minutes drive before the trees begin to broaden their path allowing us a better view ahead.

“A mile, my arse,” says Evie.

I ignore her as my heart sinks. Lying across our way is an iron gate, which even from this distance I can see is secured with a huge old rusted padlock.

“What do we do now?” I say, already defeated.

“First things first, we’ve found something so don’t give up yet. Next, shove a muffin into your pocket and let’s go.”

The coat I had grabbed that morning turns out to be one of Richard’s favourite cashmere and wool blend crombies. I take great delight in pocketing a muffin in either side.

“Let’s go exploring.”

The padlock proves to be little more than a deterrent, once Evie raises a leg and bashes it with her booted foot it falls away, but the iron gates are too heavy for us to move on our own. After struggling and failing, we give up trying to widen the gap enough to fit the car through, but manage to ply apart a space through which a slender body can slide.

“After you,” says Evie, and I squeeze through sideways.

 

The driveway is completely overgrown but just a few scuffs of a foot show the gravel underneath, and the trees were once expertly pruned. Leading us in a winding path to the right, with little warning, the trees give way to a clearing in which stands the most wonderful house. Or what was a wonderful house.

An impressive façade stands proudly but smoke stains the honey coloured stone in obscene inverted triangles that drag skywards. Windows are smashed; leaving the rooms behind, what little is left of them, open to elements. The roof has vanished; partly destroyed by the fire, partly by the water, and partly through neglect.

A crude steel gate has been thrown across the main doorway in an attempt to stop people entering the ruin, but the flourishing weeds that reach our thighs show the futility.

Like a haggard debutante, reminiscing about her glory years, the house shows glimmers of the beauty it once was, but you have to dig very deeply. Even having seen the photo a few days ago, it’s hard to reconcile the building in front of me with the printed image. It is a wreck. Ravaged by time that not even the most rigorous facelift could reverse.

“So,” Evie says. “What do you think?”

“This is going to sound insane but I’ve been here before.”

“Really? When?”

“I think I used to live here.”

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter eight

Alice

I had always considered myself a lucky girl; the eldest of a pack, I survived childhood relatively unscathed. I was blessed with fair looks, but more importantly, good health. Growing up in Bedern far from guaranteed that.

Of Ma’s children, five died before they reached one; a situation no doubt helped by the open sewers that ran past our door, but nevertheless, with three rooms – one up, two down – we were far more fortunate than most. More often than not, there was food on the table, and a warm bedmate to fall asleep next to, and if that mate was riddled with fleas you soon learned to scratch in your sleep.

It had been four years since I left home to join the household at 29 Lawrence Street, and with a pound a month going into Ma’s pocket, things had changed for the better. Three to a bed, instead of four, and warm blankets for all, not to mention the day old bread Ma was able to get. My sisters – Eliza, Hannah and Ellen – had my cast-off dresses, not that I was growing much by that point but I still found a way to pass them down.

That day, as I struggled along Walmgate and across town, I thanked God for small mercies. It was very kind of Lucy to give me that pound, which undoubtedly came from her own pocket, but it only gave me a month.

A month to do what exactly? The shame of my situation overwhelmed me: to be trudging home after four years in service with nothing to show for it but the dress on my back, a small bundle of clothes and a babe in my belly; even then I thought longingly of the books I had been forced to leave behind. They might have been no use to me now but I would have cherished them, even with their reminder of Samuel’s betrayal.

Despite knowing my numbers and letters, as well as having a fair hand, without a reference and sent home in disgrace – and make no mistake about it, despite Mrs Tuke’s dislike of scandal, I knew everyone would know what had happened – I was unemployable. If I were lucky, they’d think it was the footman who I’d let have his way; no one would dream I’d reached so high or thrown myself so low as at the master of the house; far more dangerous to cross social boundaries than simply be branded a slut.

I had read enough by then to know that rightly the rain should have been pouring down on my head at this low point in my life, but it was a glorious day with the bloody sun shining brightly and a bluer sky that no-one could have wished for.

It meant that the streets were full and while I wasn’t known about that part of town, as soon as I reached Bedern, I knew the sly glances and knowing looks would appear. It wasn’t my day off, and it wasn’t even the weekend, instead 11 o’clock on a Wednesday. There was only one reason I’d be there; it either meant a death in the family, and even then, most masters or mistresses would make you wait until the weekend, or I was in disgrace. The neighbours would have known if there’d been a death.

I wanted to drop my head and keep my eyes on the cobbles but I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me slink home. Although I didn’t catch anyone’s gaze, I stared dead ahead, my head upright and my back straight. Picked up some hoity toity ways, they’d be saying. Not for long.

I hesitated to knock on the door of our house; I’d never knocked before but somehow felt the need to announce myself; I couldn’t just walk in like nothing was the matter. I hadn’t yet plucked up the courage when the door swung open abruptly and Ma stood there.

“What are you doing here, girl?” she said. She took the bundle from my arms, looked to the left and right espying the neighbours and stepping back said, “You’d better come in.”

The door closed behind us and I was temporarily blinded in the gloom. As my eyes adjusted, I made out the scarred kitchen table, which already had the vast copper tub on the top full of linen while Eliza stood on a stool with a wooden paddle in hand and swirled the water.

“Alice!” she cried, with delight.

“You keep what you’re doing,” said Ma, and her tone saw my sister shrivel. “Now what’s all this about?” she said to me. There was no disguising the matter, and she was a shrewd woman. She already knew, but she was silently begging me to tell her different. I’d never seen her beg, silent or otherwise. If I had had any courage at all, I’d have forced a lie from between my lips, said I was there for a visit, stayed an hour or two, then picked up my bundle, walked out the door and never looked back.

“I’ve been let go, Ma.”

“Let go? What for?” For an answer, I placed my hands over my stomach. “You stupid girl!” A sharp ringing slap across my left cheek. “Didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I tell you what they’re all after? And I suppose you’ve got no reference either?” Another blow to my left ear, which caused me to lose my balance and stumble back against the table. “One of the bloody footmen, was it? You little slut,” and I heard Eliza gasp at her language; language that Ma would never have countenanced from anyone; language that would have caused your mouth to be literally rinsed with soap.

“You’re no good to anyone, are you? Who’s going to want you now? Eh? No one will have you. And you can’t stay here. There’s barely enough food to keep mind and body together here as it is.” In response, I handed over the pound coin that I had been tightly grasping in my palm. “A pound? A bleeding pound? How far do you think that’s going to go?”

Her bark always was worse than her bite, I had expected a reaction like this and I knew I deserved it and all, but that didn’t mean that hot salty tears didn’t spring up in my eyes. I tried to blink them away. Crying was not looked upon kindly in that house; especially not tears of self-pity.

I saw Ma had spotted them and I braced myself for another clip around the ear, but it never came. Instead, I was pulled from against the table and into her arms.

“You stupid girl,” she said again, but softer this time. “What are we going to do with you?”

“I don’t know, Ma.” I said. “I’m so sorry.” And as the whole bloody mess sank in, tightly wrapped in her arms, I allowed the tears to run down my cheeks and let go for the first time.

 

 

 

The whole family rallied around me, well, except my pa, but we all knew it was Ma that really ran the house, even though he drank as much of the money as he could. The problem was, Ma was right: no one did want me.

Without a reference, and at my age, and with a bairn on the way, I couldn’t get work in another house as a maid. I helped with the laundry, but in four years, not only had I lost the art of some techniques I had never thought to lose, my hands, hardened as they were by housework, were still red, raw and bleeding by the end of every day.

Since leaving, Eliza, despite her slightness, had proven herself to be a more than able assistant and Ma had built up her customers. Now, the entire two ground rooms of our house were entirely taken over by laundering.

Long before first light, Pa, James and William, our two eldest boys, men now really, were out labouring, Eliza was down in the kitchen setting the water to boil with Hannah and Ellen to help while the youngest – Joseph and Maria – were sent on errands.

The kitchen became the washing house, and the great copper pans were placed on the wooden table near the light of the window; all the girls used stools to reach into them and it needed all three of them to carry a full tub to the front door and empty the foul water into the drains.

Some of the bigger fancier laundries had drains inside the house but Bedern wouldn’t see the like for many years still. As it was, Ma’s skills were still sought after and she prided herself in taking in the soiled linens of many wealthy merchants, if not actual gentry.

Next door, the only other ground floor room was used for bleaching, ironing, drying and mangling. A table, as different from the battered one in the kitchen as was possible, sat near the window, furiously scrubbed clean at the start of each day and night, and there was an ironing board in one corner, with a mangle and various clothes horses in the other.

Since teaching Eliza to read and write, a washing book now lay on the end of the table with every article of clothing carefully entered into its correct column and assigned to its owner.

Ellen was in charge of separating the white linen, collars, sheets and body linens into one heap, the fine muslins into another, coloured cotton and linen into a third, woollens into a fourth, and finally, greasy items into a fifth. Any stains were identified; ink treated with salts of sorel, grease with yellow soap, wine with sal ammonia.

The heavily soiled items were soaked in a lime solution that cracked my palms and drew blood, while the sheets and linen were simply soaked overnight in soda water, but it was the second day’s work where the real toil began.

Soaked linens were rinsed, rubbed and wrung, the water emptied and fresh tubs refilled, before being soaped and rubbed once more. By rubbing the linens against each other rather than your hands you saved some of your skin, but not a great deal.

After the first wash, came the second with soaping, rubbing, rinsing and wringing, after which they were boiled once more with soda, rinsed again in hot and then cold water before finally being hung to dry by which point every muscle in my body ached. I was no use to anyone with bleeding palms. Takes a lot of work, skill, and luck to get blood out of fabric.

Seeing my fatigue, Eliza kindly put me to work on the coloured muslins and cottons instead while the two younger girls, Hannah and Ellen rubbed away with gusto. Once linen bandages had been tied around my sore hands, I was trusted with the silk handkerchiefs as well, soaking them for hours until the light began to fade and the tubs were rinsed and cleaned, the floors scrubbed and the kitchen returned to its family function.

All day long, Ma worked in the other room with Eliza to help; between the two of them, vast sheets were passed between rollers coming out smooth and crisp on the other side; flat irons were heated in the grate and starch boiled. It was this, and not the actual washing, that ensured Ma’s reputation for a single rough wringing could rend a tear in a delicate fabric; an unnoticed smear on the ironing table render a whole day’s work wasted; or a singed corner destroy a costly silk. Although a lowly profession, there was as much skill demonstrated on a daily basis there as I ever saw in the Tukes, and Eliza, in taking responsibility, had become a woman. I wondered if her monster still visited.

Helping out as best I could, it was soon clear that while not precisely a hindrance, there wasn’t even work to justify my being there. I was no good as a labourer, and it was not even thought of seriously. I could see how carefully Ma managed the little money we had and I knew that I was putting a big strain on everyone, and that was with the pound that I brought with me; add to that a baby in a few months and no income, I didn’t see how we could manage.

There was the workhouse on Marygate, of course, but you’d not have me going there. Not after the stories I’d heard from Samuel, and the stories we all heard around here anyway. To go to the workhouse is to die; it’s as simple as that. Luckily, Ma wouldn’t have had it either. Then there was the charitable poor fund that our church had, but there was barely enough to feed a family of mice and we were considered too well off to qualify anyway, especially when I only had myself to blame for my situation.

For the first time in my life, I understood why girls turned to the streets. That was not an option; Ma would die of the shame. Besides, few men wanted to have a pregnant girl. They already had that at home.

Of course, there was always pennyroyal, tansy or savin. I had never thought I’d have considered them; babies may be a burden on your resources, but I’d always thought they were a gift from God. I’d been terrified that Samuel would suggest that course of action, but instead he’d had me sent from his house in disgrace. Now, what had once seemed abhorrent to me was beginning to appeal.

I’d heard drinking a simple herb mixture was not like the stuff that went on in a dark dank room somewhere; there was no one shoving a metal rod inside you; no one holding you down while you bit on a piece of wood and cried out for the pain to stop. But I’d be a fool to think there was no risk. Girls had bled to death after taking tansy; we’d all heard the tales. And they might be herbs, but there was nothing natural about it.

That night, after a week at home, I lay in my old bed next to Eliza and pulling the blanket over our heads, we got some semblance of privacy.

“What happened Alice?” she said.

“He told her.”

“Who? Your Samuel?”

“He’s not my Samuel. He never was.” The betrayal cut deeper and tasted more bitter with every hour. “I was his plaything. I amused him and I was a fool to think it was anything more.”

“But the books; he gave you all those lovely books.”

“They’re nothing to him. He has a whole room filled with them. Fat lot of good they’re going to do me now anyway.”

“I can’t believe it of him, Alice. After all you’ve told me. After he taught you to read and write.”

“I don’t know what to say to you. I told him about the baby, he said he’d sort it out, and the next morning I was on my arse in the road.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“About the baby?” She nodded, and I put my hands on my tummy. She followed suit. “You won’t feel anything yet. It’s far too soon for it to quicken. I’m only a few months gone by my reckoning. Need another couple before that happens.” Still, she kept her hands in place, and looked at me. I hadn’t said a word to her but I swore she knew.

“You can’t do it, you know, Alice.”

“I know I can’t.”

“You know, despite everything, it’s still his.”

“Yes; it’s still his. Samuel Tuke’s bastard child.”

“Promise you won’t?”

“I promise,” and thoughts of tansy and pennyroyal disappeared. I wouldn’t have known where to get them anyway. Besides, if you got caught, it was the rope; a life for a life.

“So what are you going to do?” she persisted.

“I don’t know, Eliza. What can I do?”

She had no solutions to offer me, but said, “Let’s pray. God will send us an answer.”

“I’m not sure God wants to hear from me at the moment.”

“Tush,” she chided, and chastened, I folded my hands together as she did, and shut my eyes.

It was sleep, rather than an answer, that came to me.

 

Of all the people, it’s Pa who found the answer, as usual, in his cups. And if I’d known that was what God had meant, I’d have prayed a damn sight harder.

“Thomas Smith asked about you today,” he slurred over our evening meal of meagre stew of vegetables and meat, the only meat being the long lingering remains from a ham bone boiled every night for the last month.

I looked up, “About me, Pa?”

“Yes, girl. He’d heard tell you were back in Bedern.” I said nothing to this and concentrated on the watery contents of my cracked bowl. “He fancies you, you know.” A blush I couldn’t stop came to my cheeks.

Thomas Smith was 50, if he was a day. The local shoemaker, there was no denying he was good at his trade; while those surrounding him starved, he’d managed to grow a fat belly; but working with leather left him stinking of the dog shit it was soaked in, and no woman would have him.

Not only for the smell, mind, quick with his hands, walk past him in an alley, you’d be lucky to escape with only ruffled skirts, and more than once, when I was younger and fetching Pa’s ale for his supper, he’d tried to slip his fat slimy tongue in my mouth as his fingers roamed below my waist.

The last time, abandoning the ale for my dignity and risking a slap at home, I had spat full in his face, lifted a knee into his groin and sprinted away. Working at the Tukes, I’d never given him a second thought but this was not the first time his name had been brought up by Pa.

“I told him you were getting heavy with a bastard child, and were nowt but a burden to your family, and if he still doesn’t fancy you!” He looked around the table in amazement.

“What do you mean, he still fancies her, John?” Ma asked.

“Exactly what it sounds like. He’ll have her, bastard and all. I told him I’d give him her answer later tonight, but there’s no question of her refusing now, is there?”

“Ma!” I said. “You can’t marry me off to that pig. I can’t.”

“You don’t have any choice in the matter. The deal’s as good as done,” he said. “He’ll let me off that money I owe him into the bargain.” I turned desperately from one parent to the other, hoping that Ma would intervene; that one of them would see sense.

“I won’t let you,” I said.

“You’ll do whatever I tell you to, madam. You come back here, bringing shame on the family and expect to stay here? No money, no prospects.”

“He’s right,” said Ma so quietly I had to strain to hear her.

“You what?”

“I said, ‘he’s right’. We can’t support you here for much longer, Alice. You knew something was going to have to change, and he’s not a bad man.”

“Not a bad man! He smells to high heaven.”

“No one’s too good for the likes of you, Miss Free and Easy,” said Pa. “This is a good offer, the best you’ll ever get. You’ll take it, and you’ll be grateful.”

“But Pa, Ma; no!”

He stood up and leaned across the table, “Listen to me, it’s either Thomas Smith for you, or the streets. Which is it to be?”

I appealed to Ma, but Lord, even I knew that this sham of a proposal was better than anything else I was likely to get.

“What about the bairn?” I said.

“I told you, he’ll take you both on, and not question you about its father. Although, if it’s a boy, it’ll not be his heir but it’s not too late to acknowledge it as his child if you get the wedding done fast. A few months early and no one will talk much.”

“This is your only chance, love,” said Ma. “At the moment, you’re not showing and while there might be gossip about why you’re back, no one’s talking about bastards yet. You leave it much longer and everything will have changed. Think of the child. This way, it can have a respectable upbringing. It won’t be a bastard and you won’t be a whore.”

The words cut deep but there was truth in them. Forget the banns; wedded and bedded within a week and I’d be saved, although at what cost, I didn’t yet know. A shiver ran down my spine. Sold for a few of my father’s debts, but I couldn’t avoid my own culpability, much as I’d have liked to.

For the second time, that night was my last night in the family home; my last night with Eliza by my side. The darkness couldn’t fall fast enough. I understood Ma’s actions in supporting Pa, but I couldn’t face her just yet, and the other children didn’t fully understand or care.

“I don’t think I can bear being parted from you again,” I said to Eliza that night when we were snuggled under the covers, Hannah banished to squeeze in with Ellen and the little ones.

“Me neither, Alice; but we shall.”

“And Thomas Smith,” I couldn’t help another shiver escape.

“He’s not so bad.”
“Don’t lie to me; we both know the best that can be said for him is he’s no devil.”

We fell into silence as Eliza desperately tried to think of ways for my soon-to-be husband to appeal to me.

“He’s rich,” she said.

“Aye; richer than some.”

“And he’s agreed to look after the baby.”

My heart softened when I heard that; he couldn’t be a terrible man if he had agreed to take on another man’s child.

“That’s true.”

“And he’s… well, he’s not so old as some. And who knows, he might not even ask that of you.”

I had to laugh at that.

“He’s a bawdy man, Eliza, the whole of Bedern and beyond knows that; he’ll be wanting the same as any other man. He’d be getting a poor bargain if he didn’t.”

“You’ll not be far away.”

“You’re right there,” and I fell asleep consoled by the thought that Eliza and my family would only be a brisk five-minute walk away.

 

The following morning dawned brilliantly; another affront to my mood, and although I knew where Thomas Smith lived, Pa insisted on walking me there. I suspected he thought I might run off. There was no chance with him, almost sober for once, pressed tightly to my side, a small bundle of dresses and shifts, and a basket of all the goods Ma could spare slung on my other; she optimistically dubbed it my dowry.

In spite of everything, I think she was secretly rather pleased to be marrying off a daughter. Certainly my new position as the soon-to-be Mrs Smith should have been a safer bet than a mere housemaid, and while renowned for being a filthy bugger, Thomas Smith had made his mark on the town having moved out of Bedern and into a small house off Low Petergate. With just the two of us, well, three in a bit, there would be a luxury of space, and a shoemaker will always be in demand.

It was not a long walk and soon we turned right down an unnamed snickelway. Before us stood a tall three-storey house, still with its Tudor timber and whitewashed walls, even if the base was smeared with muck. I doubted much light got into the windows, which looked thick with grime. I imagined I’d soon be soaping them clean, and if they were any indication of the state of the rest of the place, I’d be kept busy for the next few weeks. I welcomed the thought of hard physical work; nothing clears your mind like it.

The front door swung backwards, and Thomas walked out. Clad in his work gear of a leather apron over brown breeches, filthy once-cream woollen stockings, and a straining white linen shirt that was covered in stains, he was not the man I yearned for, and certainly not the man of any woman’s dreams.

To keep the size he was, I reckoned he must have eaten all the food that passed every lip in our house every single day. His eyes were deep set, piggy and brown, his nose small and feminine, his weak chin hidden by a straggling ginger beard, which contained the remains of his breakfast, his balding head afflicted with the same thin feeble strands of red hair, the top of which only just reached above mine.

Our wedding was to take place that afternoon, with only Ma and Pa as witnesses. Eliza was to remain at home with the others and to keep the washing going.

“Mistress Alice,” said Thomas, with a mocking smile. “But not Mistress for long! Thank you for bringing her early, John. I wanted to get acquainted with my lovely bride-to-be.” Leaving my pa with no option other than to shake the hand proffered to him, he ushered me into the dark depths beyond and shut the door to the sunlight.

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter seven

Martha

Richard’s silver BMW slides silently to the flat ignoring the pedestrian measures in place, and clearly on the watch, my mother appears at the gateway. As physically unlike me as possible, her thick dark brown hair is pulled into a severe bun on the back of her head, her slightly olive skin evoking her Hungarian heritage, several times removed, and in a uniform of polo necks and black trousers, she stands with her arms crossed over her chest like a painfully thin former prima donna. Brittle, rigid and self-contained, she waits for Richard to open the passenger door before approaching.

“Martha,” she says.

I take Richard’s proffered hand and hoist myself up causing a painful tug deep inside me. Had we been men, a simple handshake would have sufficed, but as women, and mother and daughter at that, something more is, and always will be, expected. I shuffle awkwardly forward, and we press our cheeks against each other for a dutiful second. Richard takes over as host.

“Sarah,” he says, while handing the holdall to Mrs Gilbert, who has also emerged from the building; seen but not heard; a good domestic at heart. “Thank you so much for coming. I know Martha really appreciates it, don’t you, darling?”

I smile rather than force a response, and it’s Mrs Gilbert who comes forward and takes my arm, as well as heaving the holdall on to her shoulders.

“I am very sorry, Mrs Chamberlain. Let’s get you inside.”

I gratefully lean on her, waddling slightly, leaving my mother and Richard to continue exchanging niceties.

 

Inside the flat Mrs Gilbert busies herself putting my bag into our bedroom, putting the kettle on, and generally taking over the more menial hostess duties; we, the unholy trinity, perch in the lounge, and I desperately hope that the pad which I’d spitefully wished to fail on Richard’s cream leather car seats, now lends itself ably to the task while I’m sitting on our loaned cream suede sofas.

We wait patiently, Richard’s eyes wandering over the paintings on the walls, my mother’s hands placed in her lap, her eyes also downcast. No one attempts conversation. It’s not that I don’t like my mother; it’s not that we’ve fallen out; it’s just that we’re not close, we never have been; if I have a bad day, I don’t pick up the phone to call her, nor if I receive good news. We’re not friends, simply two people linked by blood. We have nothing in common.

“Here we go,” says Mrs Gilbert, entering from the kitchen with a tray. Elegantly accessorised with a white rose in a slender silver vase, the ‘best’ china has been laid out on the tray, complete with silver teaspoons, linen napkins, and, uncharacteristically kind, a plate of chocolate hobnobs; my favourites. I send an honest smile in her direction; my first of the day. Before I get the chance, my mother swings into action and takes control of the milk jug and teapot.

“How do you take yours, Martha?” Both she and Richard look at me expectantly, and I wait a moment to give the latter a chance to answer; both stay silent. “Martha?”

Such an innocuous question, but the ridiculousness of the situation strikes me: my mother and my husband, arguably two of closest people in my life, and yet neither know how I like my tea. I start to laugh, and then I discover I can’t stop. They stare at me in horror.

“I’ll just take Mrs Chamberlain to have a little lie down. I’m sure she’s very tired,” says Mrs Gilbert as they remain inactive. She tucks a hand under my arm and eases me to my feet taking far more of my weight than I would have thought possible.

“Thank you,” I say, recovering myself. “I think Mrs Gilbert is right. I am feeling a little tired. I’ll have a catnap for an hour or two.”

“Don’t forget your medication, darling,” calls Richard.

She takes me only as far as our bedroom door and then tactfully leaves me with a gentle pat on my hand. “Thank you,” I say again, much more quietly.

Shutting the door to our bedroom firmly behind me, I lean against it and slowly slide to my feet; an act that is suddenly so reminiscent of my fall in the Minster that I pull myself up again as fast as I can and walk to the bed. There is no sign that anything is a-miss; no clue that Richard had to hastily grab a bag of clothes to bring to me in the hospital: both twin beds are beautifully made with sheets twitched perfectly flat, and all the surfaces are clear. It disturbs me that so much has changed, but so little.

I realise miserably that without help, I can’t get out of the wretched red dress, but the thought of calling anyone in here defeats me, instead I throw back the covers, pull the blinds and draw the curtains, before getting into bed, and dragging the duvet over my head. It is blissfully dark, and despite the muffled voices drifting through the walls, it is almost peaceful. I let out a huge breath that I didn’t even know I was holding. I close my eyes and lie there, still.

I want to cry; I want to mourn my little girl, but the tears don’t come and won’t come; haven’t come since I was a child and taking anti-anxiety pills; nor, more recently, in my teens, when I upgraded to antidepressants. I can’t even cry for my unborn baby, now lost and lying God knows where.

I scrunch my face up into an approximation of grief, but nothing. I feel empty, physically and emotionally; my face, a blank staring slate; my chest feels heavy; an elephant sitting on my breastplate, squashing the breath from my lungs; my limbs weighted with lead; my head, a deadweight. What now?

A flicker of sound in my ears; and my name. I know Richard and my mother will be discussing me. But I don’t recognise this voice, not at first, but then a light flares in my head. It is a female voice; a whispered voice: the voice from the Minster. A terrible thought occurs to me – is this my child reaching out to me? Chastising me? I failed her. I couldn’t protect her.

My eyes prick, and my nose feels sour, crinkling from a bitter smell. I know I would feel better if only tears would form and fall, but they will not. My brow lowering, eyes creasing and my bottom lip pushed out, helplessly, as my teeth grit together and my throat tightens. This is crying, but no tears come. I feel trapped in a cage of unemotion; encased in bands of steel.

I’m screaming but no sound is released, as instead, I bring my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around them and bury my head. The voice doesn’t stop, doesn’t diminish, and when I can take it no longer, I reach into my bedside drawer and shake out two pills from a bottle. I don’t care if they react poorly with the drugs the hospital has already pumped me full of. If I can’t grieve, I must sleep.

But the dreams come again. More persistent as faces melt in front of my eyes, skin blisters and pops, and this time, I can feel my own skin warming, heating up by the unforgiving blaze. The pain is unbearable and the blood begins to drip down my arms. Men, women, children, no one is spared, and still they call to me.

 

I struggle out of sleep, desperate to escape. The room is pitch black and I have no idea of how long I’ve lain here. The alarm clock reads ‘3.23’ but I don’t know if that’s morning or afternoon. I’m about to turn the bedside light on when the door cracks open.

“Are you awake, Martha?”

It opens further and my mother puts her head around it. I am tempted to fain sleep but can’t face the thought of those dreams.

“Yes. What time is it?”

“Almost half past three.”

“In the morning?”

“In the afternoon.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“Just a few hours.” She flicks the light on. “Ah…” She looks unsure of herself. “Let me call Mrs Gilbert.”

I look down at the duvet, which, in my fear-drenched dreams, I’ve half pushed on to the floor, and see that the expensive dress has ridden up to my waist and that a small circle on the under sheet, about the size of a melon, is soaked in blood; my thighs are sticky with it which is already beginning to dry in the air. Panic, revulsion and shame grip me and I pull my legs free of the mess. Mrs Gilbert, summoned by my mother, takes one look at the situation, and bustles her out of the room.

When the ruined hundred pound sheets and designer dress have been bundled up and shoved into a bin bag, and wrapped only in a silk dressing gown, the last thing I want to do is lie in a hot bath; too reminiscent of the gin-soaked forced miscarriages of the past, but Mrs Gilbert insists.

“It’s already running for you.”

“Thank you,” I say. She follows me to the bathroom door.

“I know you’re not feeling quite yourself at the moment.”
“I’m sure I can manage,” I say.

“But-” Her words peter out with things left unsaid. What has my mother said to her? – That I am not to be trusted alone.

“Thank you,’ I say, and I close the door as gently as I can, in her face.

I turn the water off at the taps and dip a finger in to test the temperature. It is boiling hot and sweat begins to spring up as my memories of my dream return. I push the cold tap to its fullest and once a barely lukewarm effect is achieved, only then do I allow the dressing gown to fall.

A full-length mirror stands by the door and I can’t help but examine my body. My breasts are still fuller than before, but my tummy, which had grown almost imperceptibly with each day, has returned to its normal, almost concave, shape. There is little left to show. I had wanted to bathe alone, and I had got my wish.

“Are you ok in there, Martha?” calls my mum, from the other side of the door, clearly having replaced Mrs Gilbert as watchman.

Shaken out of my reflection, I step into the bath and feel the water wash over my limbs, before replying, “Yes.”

The water smells delicious, one of my favourite perfumes from Molton Brown, but I’m not soothed, rather repulsed as the water around me turns a rusty brown as the congealed blood loosens its grip on my skin. I can’t shake the notion that this is still my peanut – part of her – that I’m washing away.

I refuse to stay in the water for long, and barely two minutes after I get in, I stand up and wrap a thick white towel around me. This time it’s my face I see in the mirror, and its ghostly pallor is heightened by two bright pink dots on my cheeks. I am exhausted, shattered, and still I feel numb.

I turn my inside wrists upwards; the left is lined with a spider’s web of silvered scars. I push my thumb into my skin but the scars stay the same. I still remember my routine so clearly; I even had a favourite knife I would use, long since confiscated.

It’s been years since I sliced into the soft flesh and watched the beads of crimson blood spring to the surface, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. Old habits die hard. Perhaps it was merely for attention as the therapists said but I thought of it as a way to feel something, anything. When drugs had dulled my emotions, at least I could still feel physically; at least there was some way that I still knew I was alive.

I open the bathroom cabinet. Richard’s old-fashioned cutthroat razor is clasped neatly into its mother of pearl handle. I pull the blade free. It is untarnished, curved slightly, and regularly sharpened. I stare at it. Slowly, deliberately, I put the blade on to the surface of my left wrist and press gently.

Immediately I feel the pressure and it is a relief. I press harder and when I take the razor away, am rewarded with a bright red mark springing up, but the skin is not yet broken; it is more resilient than you think; it requires a conscious effort to break it open. But for the present, the mark is enough. It is enough to feel; to know that I can still hurt. I carefully fold the blade back into the handle and shut the door of the cabinet.

There are fresh clean-smelling sheets on the bed; the work of Mrs Gilbert rather than my mother, I suspect. The medicine prescribed for me by the hospital doctor is laid out on the bedside table with a tall glass of water.

“I’m not sure I want to take them,” I say.

“Of course you must, Martha.”

“But they’re giving me nightmares.”

“They’re just dreams. Now swallow these,” she hands me two small round white pills.

“But they seem much more vivid than dreams.”

“Richard has said you can also have one of these if you’re having trouble sleeping,” and she presents me with another pill; this one bright pink, which I recognise as the double of the strong sleeping pills I keep in my drawer. I look at the three tablets in my palm, lift it to my mouth, tip back my head and swallow them with a mouthful of water.

“There’s fire everywhere.”

“Fire?”

“In my dreams. Flames everywhere, and dripping faces. There’s a man, and a boy; just a child really. And a young woman who knows my name; she called to me. And then it gets hot, so hot, and my skin melts, and there’s blood; so much blood.”

“Hush now. Let the pills do their work. You need to rest, not worry yourself over some silly dreams.”

I fall asleep with her words echoing in my head.

 

Every night it’s the same; I wake screaming, and Richard, who has taken a room at a nearby hotel, leaving my mum to sleep in the guest room, prescribes me with some stronger sleeping pills. But it’s not falling asleep that’s the problem.

One day, I go too far in the bathroom and press too hard with the razor. I try to cover the cut with a bracelet but my mother sees it instantly.

“What’s this?” she says.

“Nothing,” I say, with a shrug. “I just caught myself in the shower.”

She purses her lips and says nothing more, but when Richard comes home from work that day he sits me down.

“Cut yourself in the shower?” he says, deliberately tracing the old scars. I snatch my wrist back angrily, feeling like a thwarted teenager and shoot a bitter look at my mother. ‘We’re just worried about you, Martha. Now, I’ve pulled a few strings and called in a favour or two, and there’s a private room just waiting for you at Bootham Park. You can get some proper rest there for a few days, or as long as you want.”

“Bootham Park?” I jump up from the chair causing my stitches to pull uncomfortably. “You mean the mental hospital where you work?”

“You know it’s not called that, Martha. And you’d receive the very best care there.”

“You think I’m crazy.”

“No, darling. I’m not saying that; neither of us are.”

“Then I’m not going,” I say. “You can’t make me.”

Richard sighs. “Martha, darling, this is for your own good. It’s taken a great personal sacrifice for me to reach this point. After all, I have my colleagues and professional reputation to consider, but your mother and I both agree-”

“You can both go to hell. I’m not going to a crazy house. Not ever!”

“Calm down. We don’t actually need your permission,” Richard says, and gets to his feet. In my anger and panic, without realising I have picked up a beautiful glass horse from Murano and am holding it high above my head as if to launch an attack. I lower my arms slowly and carefully place the horse back on the side table.

His words have brought me to the danger of my situation. Despite my protests, they can make me go, but some part of my self-preservation kicks in. I can salvage this. I calmly sit back down, and look at the two of them. I take a deep breath.

“I understand your concern,” I say. “I know you think you’re just doing what’s best for me, but please listen to me when I say that that would not be it.”

“Martha-”

“No; please listen to me, Richard. I know I’ve worried you both, and I’m sorry about that. It’s just, this whole situation has been very difficult for me.”

“It’s been difficult for all of us,” he says. “I asked your mother to come for precisely that reason but you’ve barely spoken a word to her.”

“Yes; I can see that it’s been difficult for all of us. What I’m proposing is this,” I turn to my mother. “What I’m proposing is that you stay here and help me, erm, recuperate, and while I won’t agree to go to Bootham Park.” I turn back to Richard. “I will agree to attending a weekly counselling session with whichever of your colleagues you deem best.”

“You’ll get therapy?”

“Yes, Richard. I’ll get therapy.”

“Well,” and he lets out a great sigh. “That changes things, doesn’t it, Sarah?” He addresses my mother. She nods. He stands up again. “Now that that is sorted, what has the ever-reliable Mrs Gilbert left us for tea?”

 

After a dinner of lasagne and green beans, I excuse myself from the table. Shutting the bedroom door quietly behind me, I go swiftly to my bedside table where I keep not only the prescription strength sleeping pills, but also the two anti-depressants I take on a daily basis. I have just filled out a repeat prescription and there is almost a full month’s worth of pills.

Punching them from their foil-sealed wrappers as quickly as I can, I pop the packaging in my handbag to dispose of later, and gathering up the pile of pills, walk into the en-suite and throw them down the toilet. I flush. When I open the door to leave, Richard is standing there.

“Everything ok, darling?” he says and eyes me suspiciously.

“Of course,” I say. “I’m still feeling a little nauseous, that’s all.”

“You poor thing. Still, I think we should operate an open bathroom door policy from now on, don’t you? Just to be on the safe side, you know.”

“A what?” I stutter.

“Well we don’t want you to do anything silly like this again, do we?” he says, lifting up my wrist.

My mother has come up behind him. “Now Richard,” she says. “I don’t think that’s necessary. We need to show Martha that we trust her.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” he says, with a frown. “What’s for pudding?”

 

That night my mother moves her things into Richard’s bedroom and mine; placing her nightie on the pillow of his single bed; he returns to his hotel. I make sure she sees me swallowing my medication, which is, in fact, a single painkiller to ease the discomfort of my stitches, and we settle down for the night.

In the darkness, I stare at the ceiling trying to process my thoughts. It’s not just that my husband and mother tried to institutionalise me this evening, it’s that I very nearly let them. I rub my fingers over the thin bandage on my wrist. I was stupid and I vow never to let that happen again.

Flushing away my medication was less about an act of rebellion and more a sudden realisation of the control being exerted on me. I’ve been taking some form of medication, whether anti anxiety pills or anti depressants, for as long as I can remember, and it’s never bothered me before. I suppose I thought that they were a natural part of life, as common as taking antibiotics for an infection; after all, if you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t just leave it, and so, if you had a broken mind, then the same process applied.

Now I’m not so sure. I may be wrong, and perhaps, after all of this, Richard and my mum are right, but I’ve got to see for myself. More than that, I have to grieve for the child I’ve just lost.

 

I notice a difference immediately. This time, when I wake I have more than a sense of horror lingering from my dreams, this morning, I have some words too; two inexplicable words, hovering around the edges of my mind that I know if I grasp too eagerly will disappear in a breath. Instead, I allow the fragile thoughts to settle and am gifted with ‘deep’ and ‘dean’.

Once captured, I know they have no chance of vanishing again, but to be sure, I write them on a piece of paper. I am loath to discard them as just meaningless scraps from a dream.

I feel more alert too. The bed on the other side of the room has already been made, but the curtains and blinds remain drawn and I have been left to sleep. I’m awake now though and have no wish to stay in bed.

With a sense of purpose that has been missing for days, I let the dull December light filter through the windows and ponder what to do with the day ahead. It’s been in my mind to return to the Minster but I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet. I still have a whole list of places to visit but after the scene from last night, I have a suspicion that if I’m not on some sort of house arrest, at the very least my mother will insist on accompanying me and I like to do my exploring alone.

Reluctantly, I conclude the best thing to do is to make good on my promises and show some sort of good will. When I’m showered and dressed, I press my ear against the bedroom door; I can’t hear any sound in the flat and I allow myself to hope that my mother has gone out on some sort of errand.

I am desperate for a cup of tea and I have a craving for a slice of buttered toast. I’m surprised by this show of appetite. I strain my ears to catch any hint of noise but hear nothing. Cautiously, and as stealthily as a thief or an eavesdropper, I turn the door handle and pull it towards me, inch by inch. Still nothing.

Long seconds tick by and I sum up all my insignificant courage and tiptoe out through the lounge and into the kitchen. Congratulating myself on my good fortune to find myself alone, I am walking back to the lounge with a mug in one hand, plate in the other, when I pause, shocked into stillness at the sight of my mother lying on the sofa, the back of which had hidden her from my first glance of the room.

She’s facing the room, and I catch my breath when I realise she’s asleep. A soft snuffling sound is coming from her nose, and whistling from her mouth with each breath. It’s so rare to see her like this, unguarded, that I can’t help but place the mug on a table and sit down gently in a nearby chair.

Her face, usually so tense and rigid, has relaxed in sleep, except for her brow, which remains high. Botox, I suspect, which is a surprise for me. I hadn’t thought her vain. But as I look closer, I see the lines in her forehead, around her eyes and mouth. She’s not old, not in today’s society anyway; a scant forty-five today, but despite only being twenty-two when I was born, and despite growing up without my father, who left when I was a baby, we’ve never been close.

I think it’s a case of chalk and cheese, well, I’ve always been chalk, and she’s never really been anything. Now I think about it, I recognise her by her lack of personality and interests, rather than any clashes between us. I suppose I’ve always got the impression that she wasn’t very interested in me.

When my father walked out on us, we went to live with my mother’s parents in Milton Keynes and it’s them who I remember fondly. My grandfather, Gramps to me, was a vicar, who read bedtime stories from the Bible; magical sounding tales of far away people living in far off lands; interspersed, of course, with Roald Dahl. Even a vicar knows a good children’s book when he sees it; but not my mother; never her.

She was, and still is, a primary school teacher. She’d leave early and return late, working at a different school to mine. It was Grandma and Gramps, who cooked me tea, made sure I did my homework, worried when I didn’t get any invites from other children to play, came to my parents’ evenings, and sent me to bed.

I never caused a problem through primary school; I’d already been prescribed medication for my ADHD. When I moved up to secondary school, there was a temporary upset when I was caught self-harming, but after I’d been referred to a therapist on a weekly basis and once the antidepressants kicked in, I crawled back into my shell, but it was the concern and worry I saw on my grandparents’ faces that really made me stop; I’d discovered history by then too, and reading. I soon learned it was far easier to retreat to a fictional world or relive the past than deal with the present.

I worked hard at school, studied, and earned a place to read history at Oxford. I came home during the holidays for the first year, but once Grandma and Gramps died, within months of each other, I found reasons not to any more. I got a job in a bookshop there; earned enough to rent a little flat, and when the opportunity came to study abroad in Florence for a year, I grabbed it with both hands. My final year came, and with it, Richard. When we met my mother to tell her of our engagement, at Richard’s insistence, it was the first time I’d seen her in almost a year.

She stirs in her sleep, and anxious to avoid a conversation for as long as possible, I stand up, retrieving the mug but leaving the now empty plate, and as I do, a murmur catches my attention. She is talking in her sleep, and I can’t resist the opportunity to eavesdrop on her inner thoughts. I lean closer and she shifts suddenly, her eyes flashing open sending me reeling back.

“Martha?”

I manage to restrain a scream, and swallow before saying, “Erm, morning, mum. Did you not sleep well?”

She moves up into a sitting position. “Well, you still haven’t grown out of your habit of sleep talking, it seems.”

“Oh? Did I make any sense?”

“None whatsoever.”

“It’s strange. I’m still having these craz- odd dreams. They always disappear in the mornings, you know, like they do, but this morning, I could remember part of them.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Just a few words and they don’t even make any sense: ‘deep’ and ‘dean’.” Some instinct makes me watch her closely for a reaction, but I am disappointed: her features are as carefully controlled as before and once again, botox flits into my mind. “Do they make any sense to you?” I persist.

“No, Martha; they don’t. Now what are we going to do today?”

“Erm,” I cast around for inspiration, pouncing with enthusiasm on a familiar guidebook resting on the side table. “There’s this wonderful old guidebook I found which shows you all the hidden and forgotten passages-”

“I think you should probably rest a while longer, Martha. Keep indoors for a few more days.” I lapse into silence. “I’ve brought some good books with me, and I know how much you like to read.”

Seeing an opportunity, I grab it.

“Yes, I’ve just downloaded a great book on to my tablet. I’ll just go and get it, and then come and join you.” I smile as genuinely as I can. She might have dismissed my questions, and while I have no idea what the two words mean, they sound right. Deep and dean, they fit together; a natural pairing in my mind. I slip the tablet out of its Italian-crafted leather case and instead of loading up the book programme, click on the icon for the Internet instead.

For as long as I’ve had access to the Internet, I’ve been an inveterate Googler. To someone, somewhere, ‘deep’ and ‘dean’ must mean something. To my frustration, the first hit is for a porn site, the second for a hiking trail in the South Downs. Next come recipes for deep-fried dishes, and disturbing fan clips from TV shows. By the fifth page, I’m beginning to lose interest and question myself; ridiculous to pin together abstract words.

I try the search one more time, to see if there’s anything I’ve missed, and immediately spot a helpful tab at the top of the page – ‘Do you mean deepdene?’

I don’t know, do I? Although I’ve paired the two words together, I haven’t tried any alternate spellings. I click on the link, and a whole new set of hits floods the screen. I steadfastly ignore the link to the world’s largest irradiated diamond, and instead click on a wiki link to Deepdene, Yorkshire. A thumbnail description appears, “Deepdene is a village and civil parish in the Harrogate district of North Yorkshire, England. The village is very old and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Despite being only small, it is home to the remains of Deepdene Hall, a late-Regency estate and country house.”

I click on the link for Deepdene Hall, which frustratingly brings up a page saying there is no article with that exact name. I scroll down for a photo, any photo, but there are none to be seen; nothing to throw any more light on this scant information. Not even 50 words but it rings true.

I’ve heard of Deepdene before, I know I have. I strain my memory for any recollection; childhood visits, anything, but get nothing. I click back to original search page and while there are no more pages dedicated to Deepdene, on closer inspection, I can see the name highlighted in several newspaper articles from The York Press, dated 14th November 1994.

Eagerly I click again but frustratingly I can’t gain access to their archives; instead the date winks tantalisingly at me. Wherever this Deepdene is, it’s too small to warrant its own newspaper or even a parish newsletter, and any records it might have had are yet to be digitalised.

I want to throw the tablet across the room. I feel like I’ve caught something here; something important; something that might slip away between my fingers if I don’t anchor it down firmly.

“Not enjoying your book?”

I’m startled out of my investigation. “Wha- Oh, no. I mean, yes, I am; it’s just getting to a really tense part.”

“What is it? I shall have to see if the library at home has it.”

“It’s, erm, it’s just a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” I improvise. “It’s very dry really. I’m not sure you’d enjoy it.” Apparently I’ve managed to persuade her and she returns to her own book, a paperback which she has folded the front cover around the back. I wince to see it.

Once I see her settled, I open a word app on the tablet and discreetly type, ‘Deepdene. What is it? Where is it? How do I know it?’ I follow that in block bold capitals, underlined, ‘FIND OUT MORE’.

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter six

Alice

I relished my life at Lawrence Street; how could I not? I had a friend in Lucy, the nursemaid; the conditions were far better than those I was used to, I was treated well, the work itself could be tiring, but apart from posh folk, who could boast of more? Moreover, I was bettering myself. My evenings with Mr Tuke – Samuel, as I now called him in my head – were bread and butter to me.

Four years had passed since joining the household and much had changed. Mrs Tuke had delivered one child successfully – a son, James; a little girl, Esther, had followed the next year and she was by then a bonny little lass of two. As fair as her mother and siblings are dark, she was doted upon by all, not least Samuel. He always tried to make a trip to the nursery and schoolroom each day to see his children, but little Esther reserved a special place, I warranted.

But one day, as it is wont to do, disaster came to the house. Young Master Henry, heir to the Tukes, was struck down by scarlet fever – with a headache, restless and fretful, he was hard to manage. No one could rightly say how he came by it, but we were all quickly plunged into quarantine. Much good it did us.

One by one, each of the children, apart from Little James and Eliza, were infected. I waited for a sore throat, shivering, fever and rash to appear, but being brought up in Bedern had its advantages, it seemed. When spirit of nitre failed, the windows were thrown open for fresh air and buckets of coal carted back and forth to stoke up raging fires. Mrs Murray prepared great vats of beef tea, while the patients were bathed with cold water and vinegar, and strips of flannel rinsed in cool water and placed upon the brow.

After a few days, the fever abated with the sore throat lessening soon after, while the rash took several more days to fade resulting in peeling skin, causing loud squeals to emanate from Mistress Hannah and Maria’s room.

Soiled linens were burnt in the furnace below stairs and appetites restored, the house at Lawrence Street returned to order. Until, that was, one of the new nursemaids appointed to help with James and Eliza came running. Being isolated in the nursery had shielded them from infection, but only for a time. The doctor was called and the fires stoked once more.

James, a hearty little lad of almost four, recovered in a matter of days, but Esther took a turn for the worse. Never a thriving baby, as soon as she sickened, the doctor warned Samuel and Mrs Tuke to prepare for the worst. With a raging fever that no amount of linen strips could quench, and a rash that inflamed her whole body, she passed from this life a week after taking ill.

Lord knows I was never a seamstress but after Ruth was dispatched to the drapers for some black fabric, I spent a good few hours making armbands for the servants, while Rachel looked out and aired the family’s mourning clothes.

Mrs Tuke, who proved an inadequate nurse, paid the first respects to the tiny coffin before the undertaker arrived. The sight of it would have brought tears to anyone’s eyes, and although plenty of my brothers and sisters didn’t make it past a year and were buried swaddled in the best that we could find, the sight of Miss Esther broke my heart; and I knew that Samuel’s would be breaking too. He had doted on her, his fair-haired angel. I longed to go to him, to comfort him, but not only was that impossible, I respected his need to grieve with his family. Instead I simply bade my time until the hours passed when I might enter the library, even though I suspected it would lie empty.

 

I was wrong. He was there, slumped in the armchair and had let the fire burn down to smouldering ashes. He didn’t look up when I entered, and I saw that the whisky decanter had joined its brandy counterpart. Both were far from full, and the crystal glass in Samuel’s hands was askew.

I closed the door softly behind me, and for the first time ever, turned the key in the lock and pocketed it. Making sure my black armband was firmly in place, I drew my usual footstool to the armchair, and sat. I said nothing, and let the silence sit comfortably between us.

When he finally turned his face to me, I saw wet lines running from the corners of his eyes, and he seemed aged by years. Still he said not a word, so I took the tilted, and now empty, glass from his hands and placed it on the sideboard, then, in a moment of braveness, or madness, I clasped my hands over his.

We sat there, together, watching the embers glow. Emboldened by his acceptance of my gesture, I started to rub my thumb across the back of his hand. Soothing him, as I would have done any creature in pain.

“Alice,” he said.

“Samuel,” I replied, uttering his Christian name for the first time. He didn’t flinch.

“Oh, Alice. She is gone. Esther is gone.”

His voice cracked and he looked helplessly into my eyes, I found I could bear it no longer. Pushing the footstool to one side, I climbed into his lap, placed my arms around him, and he leant his head into my chest and began to cry.

“I’m so sorry, Samuel. So terribly sorry.”

I cringed at how empty and useless my words sounded, but I hoped that my actions offered some comfort. I held him tight, determined, naively, to never let anything hurt him.

I don’t know how long we remained like that: I, in his lap, he, in my arms, but I awoke to the clock above the fireplace gently announcing a new day. His cries had subsided and his breathing settled, as slow as a sleeper, and I reached down to press my lips to the top of his head.

I breathed in; he smelled of wood smoke, whisky and cologne. My eyes and then my mouth lingered on the delicate curves of his ear, and while my right hand caressed the back of his neck, my left began to stroke his chest.

I didn’t notice his breathing change, but then he lifted his head and met my gaze.

“Alice.”

I know the desire of men, and I saw it that night, in his eyes. I also knew that he was too much of a gentleman to act but my body yearned for his touch; I was emboldened. Placing one hand on his cheek, I pressed my lips against his, lingered, and then drew back.

This time, it was he who moved towards me; his grief morphed into physical lust, a need to feel alive in the face of death. One hand went to my hair, the other to the nape of my neck as he pulled me against him.

My mouth was greedy, and not inexperienced. When my tongue probed, his responded. We gripped each other tighter, all thoughts abandoned. In my quietest and most secret moments, I had dreamt of this. His eagerness suggested that I too had not been far from his thoughts, and yet, it was he who pulled back.

“We can’t do this, Alice. It is a sin.”

I had no good answer for him, only an apology.”

“I am sorry, sir. I meant only to offer comfort.”

“Do not call me ‘sir’ once more. Oh, let me be your Samuel again,” he said and lifting me into his arms, carried me across to the settle and laid me down.

Despite the best efforts of some lads from home, I was still a virgin, although I had eyes in my head and sense in my mind to have an idea of what coupling was about. Rough and ready; wherever it could be taken seemed the prevailing theme.

Samuel lifted my shift and dress to my waist, and I stifled a gasp when he first pushed inside me. It hurt like the devil himself; his hips thrust against mine as he set up a rhythm and the weight of his body forced my breath short and sharp. Just as the pain began to grow less, Samuel grunted; his body tightened, convulsed and then he lay limp across me.

“Samuel?” I said, worried by his deadweight. “Samuel?”

He lifted himself on to his elbows and placed a kiss on my lips.

“What a lovely creature you are. Lord forgive me, but I think of you often, Alice. I find that I am only sorry that I could not bed you properly.”

He drew himself off me, and began to tuck his undershirt into his breeches when he spotted the blood on my shift.

“I hurt you?”

“No, Samuel,” I tried to reassure him with a smile. “But I was a virgin.”

“A virgin?” he looked horrified.

“Yes,” I said, offended at his shock. “Of course, I was.”

“Dear Lord. What have I done?” He took my hand in his. “You must forgive me, Alice. I had no idea; if I had known-”

“This would not have happened?”

“I-”

“You did nothing that I did not wish you to. I came to you willingly, and I would do so again.”

He was silenced. I quickly pulled my shift and dress to my ankles, and he buttoned up his breeches. We were suddenly awkward in each other’s company. I had not thought to question my actions so soon. Was I now worthless? Had I simply fulfilled a purpose?

He turned to leave, but finding the door locked, looked back. I reached into the pocket of my dress and retrieved the key. He was on the threshold before turning; he came to me once more. He kissed me softly on the lips, cheek and finally, forehead.

“Had I known, I would have been more gentle and given less thought to myself. I seem to forever be making myself a monster in your eyes and I am truly sorry for that. I will make it up to you, on that you have my word. Goodnight, Alice; and thank you.”

That night I slept with a red leather-bound copy of Robinson Crusoe under my pillow and dreamed of desert islands.

 

Despite our awkwardness the night before, there was no question in my mind, nor, I believed, in his, whether we would meet in the library on the following evening. While at first we resumed our lessons – I had long since moved past Dafoe and could then boast a reasonably elegant script – as soon as our bodies brushed against each other, it didn’t take many seconds for our lips to follow suit. Our initial encounter had been borne out of grief and comfort, now a relationship far beyond teacher and student was blossoming, and it seemed impossible to deny it.

My fingers no longer fumbled at his buttons, nor his hands around my shift. After that first painful, misunderstood encounter, we were beginning to learn each other’s bodies as I had once learned my letters. I responded to his touch with pleasure, and in turn, he looked me in the eyes when we made love, and his monster fed by the grief for his lost daughter was temporarily assuaged.

He was a moral man, however, and some nights we did not touch at all, while others I was left to sit on the little stool on my own in front of a dying fire with only a book for company. He never explained these absences and I knew his conscience was torn.

I thought that I would feel more torn myself if I had had any loyalty for his wife, Priscilla, but I had nothing but dislike. In the four years she had been my mistress, I had never had a pleasant word from her; the best any of us hoped for was civility. She was not the gentlewoman of my imaginings but still she was no tyrant; simply a woman who never looked beneath her. I gave no thought to her feelings until one day I learned that she was with child again.

My emotions were a mess of anger and guilt: anger that Samuel was still undertaking his husbandly duties with her, and guilt that I was participating in adultery. I even felt pity for the woman but not as much as I felt for myself, a mere servant. I could offer only illicit temporary comfort while she occupied his bed.

That evening, it was my turn to miss our appointment, and I huddled under my sheets in the cold attic room, hugging my resentment and bitterness close to my chest. But the next night, I returned, as faithfully as any addict.

I think, even then, a small part of me hated the loss of my own self-control; my sense of self was spiralling and I knew Ma would be horrified and ashamed by my actions. My missing night became just another thing left unsaid between Samuel and I.

When he asked me to choose our next book to read, I selected Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; a new addition to his library. I have since wondered if books have minds of their own. Certainly, specific books have had a way of finding themselves into my hands when they were most needed, if not desired.

I had once thought to be honoured by Samuel’s nickname, Friday, but from faithful companion, had I now transformed into Dr Frankenstein’s monster? – A grotesque creation that ruined the lives of those around him. I struggled to push the morbid thoughts out from my head, and instead focused on Samuel’s voice.

“It is thought that this is written by a woman, you know, Alice.”

“Really?” I asked; my interest piqued.

“Yes; the poet Shelley’s wife, Mary. She is the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. You may find her writing on women’s rights interesting.”

Getting up, he pulled a pale green fabric book from his shelves and passed it to me. I turned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in my hands.

I was building up quite a library myself. After finishing a book, Samuel always found a way to present me with my own copy, whether it was the original we had read together or a new one entirely. Two wooden crates pilfered from the kitchen were pushed under my bed with almost a hundred volumes lying carefully nestled inside. It would not have done to have them on display, and they were the most precious objects in my possession, not my housemaid’s box, as Rachel had predicted.

That evening, Samuel and I forgot our fears and worries as we fell into each other, and sated, lying side by side breathing heavily, I reflected that I loved the man with body and soul. To be his mistress should have been enough; I can see that now, but I wanted more. And it was love that destroyed us.

 

 

 

At first, I gave no thought to my monthly curse when it didn’t appear. I had always been irregular but when Rachel’s courses came, once, twice, and I wasn’t scrabbling in the linen closet for some pads, a penny dropped in my head; too slowly; far too slowly.

I was a fool to not consider the consequences, in this life, never mind the next. I saw Ma bring thirteen children into this world, and Mrs Tuke, two. I knew what the signs were. My breasts were tender and slightly swollen, and when, a few days later, I found myself dashing to the outside privy to throw up my breakfast, there was no avoiding the situation.

“Samuel,” I said, breaking off from Frankenstein. “I have something to tell you.”

He looked at me expectantly.

“I am with child.”

His first reaction was everything I could have hope for, as his face broke into an instant smile and he wrapped his arms around me.

“What marvellous news,” he said, planting a kiss on my forehead. “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure. I’ve missed my last two courses and I’m feeling nauseous.”

He placed a careful hand on my stomach, and despite the churning feeling there, which was nothing to do with the child, I smiled in return.

“A son perhaps? Or another daughter?”

“Yes; perhaps,” I said, ‘but what are we going to do?”

“To do?”

“I’ll start to show in a few months.”

“To show?”

“Yes, Samuel,” I said, as patiently as I could. “The babe will start to show through my uniform.” I watched as the knowledge sank in, and he stared wide-eyed.

“Ah, well, right. Hmmmm.” He sat back down in the chair and took a big swig of brandy. “Well, I suppose it will have to be taken care of properly.”

“Taken care of? You can’t possibly mean-”

“Good gracious, Alice! No! Of course not. Could you not say that your mother, or one of your sisters, is ill and that you’re needed at home?”

“For seven months, Samuel? I could hardly expect my place to be held open for me.”

“Leave that with me, Alice. I’ll talk to Priscilla. I’ll take care of everything.”

 

I was about to nip up the backstairs and change into my day dress, when Mrs Nelson walked into the kitchen.

“Alice, Rachel, come with me now,” she snapped.

“Mrs Nelson?” I asked. She ignored me and swept up to the ground floor. I had no choice but to follow, but not before seeing Rachel shoot me a bewildered glance. She led us into the morning room, where Mrs Tuke was sat with some embroidery in her hands, and Nanette, her lady’s maid, stood to one side.

“Mrs Tuke,” said Mrs Nelson. “Here are the girls. I’m sure we can get this cleared up to everyone’s satisfaction. I’m sure there’s just been a misunderstanding.”

My heart raced, and I clasped my arms tightly behind me so no one should see my shaking hands. What misunderstanding? I could only think of one thing I was guilty of, and that was no misunderstanding. What had Samuel done?

“Thank you, Mrs Nelson. We shall see. Nanette, please get the boxes.” We three – Rachel, Mrs Nelson, and myself – stood while Nanette bent to the floor, picked a wooden crate, leaving the second, and set it on the little fancy table between herself and Mrs Tuke. My shoulders relaxed, and I brought my hands out before me. “Can either of you girls explain this?”

Rachel looked at the box of books, the upmost lying face up, and its cover reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

“No, ma’am,” she said. “I’ve not seen them before. Are they from the library?”

“And you, Alice?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, happy to own my guilt to such a petty crime.

“Yes, ma’am, you say. No dissembling? No excuses. A thief in my household.”

“No, ma’am.”

“In that case, you’re dismissed immediately from my service-”

“If you please, ma’am,” I interrupted. “I’m sorry to interrupt and speak out of turn, but I have not stolen the books.”

“No?”

“No, ma’am, they were given to me by the master.”

“The master? You mean Mr Tuke, my husband, gave you these books? Don’t be so preposterous girl.”

“It’s true, ma’am,” I said. “He was teaching me to read; ask him.” And then, I suddenly knew I had gone too far.

“You may leave, Rachel,” she said. “And you, Nanette. You, Mrs Nelson, you must stay.”

The two girls traipsed out, reluctantly, and the door was shut behind them.

“You say I can ask him, Miss Haxby? That I should ask my husband if he has given you books from our private library. Now why should he do a thing like that?”

I shrugged, but answered, “He saw I was curious, ma’am. That is all.”

“That is all, is it? Don’t make the mistake in thinking that because I am simply a housewife and mother, that I am a fool, Alice.” She picked up Robinson Crusoe. “I wonder,” she said. “I wonder.”

She turned to the inside cover, where Samuel had scrawled, ‘To my girl Friday, Alice’. She read the inscription aloud. Mrs Nelson gasped and turned to me with an accusatory stare.

“Alice!” she cried.

“Indeed,” said Mrs Tuke. “Alice, indeed. What have you and my husband been up to?” She dropped the book with disgust into the box where it landed crushing pages haphazardly. I leaped forward to smooth them out.

“Don’t you dare,” hissed Mrs Tuke, transformed from a gentlewoman in lace collar and cap to a spitting gorgon. She gripped my arm cruelly. “Don’t you dare.” She brought her face close to mine. “You think you’re the first one? You think with eight children conceived, carried and born that you’re the first slut to take his fancy? You little fool. You’re no different than the others.”

She leaned back and landed a sharp stinging slap on my cheek. I bit my lip to stop myself from crying out and clasped my hand to my burning face. She looked at me with real hatred. I didn’t dare contradict her; besides she was right; I was a slut, and it was my own arrogance that was my undoing.

“He was right to tell me about you.”

I couldn’t hold in my gasp.

“He told you?”

“Of course he did. He came snivelling to me. Who do you think you are? I am his wife, while you’re just some little whore who’ll end her days in the gutter. After I brought you in, fed and clothed you. You’re lucky that I refuse to taint this family in a scandal. Now get out of my sight.”

“But-” I stumbled on my words, the shock that Samuel had betrayed me making me slow and stupid. “But where am I to go?”

“To hell, for all I care; and I think it likely you’re headed there anyway. I hope you’re not expecting a reference. You have ten minutes to retrieve your belongings and if I ever see your face around this house again, I shall call the constable.”

Woodenly, I allowed Mrs Nelson to escort me to my room, which she did without once touching me, as if my sin was infectious. Forgotten are the times I nursed the children of the house through sickness, and the years of loyal service.

She didn’t leave me as I gathered my meagre belongings together; I thought that my influence must be considered too pernicious to allow any of the other staff to come into contact with me. A woman I had grown to like as well as respect; a fair woman, and a good one, she addressed not a single word to me until I have reached the backdoor.

“Good riddance,” she said, spitting on the floor, and the door to 29 Lawrence Street slammed shut.

All I carried in my arms was my uniform – a day and night dress – a clean shift and apron. My books were left behind. I had brought nothing else with me. I had nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and head towards Bedern. As I walked away from the house, running footsteps behind me lifted my heart in the hope that Samuel had heard of my plight and was coming to my rescue but there was only Lucy.

“I am so sorry, Alice. I’m sorry it’s not more, but it’s the best I could do under such short notice.” She pressed a coin into my hand. “I’ll miss you. Good luck.”

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter five

Martha

My dreams have been vivid and yet shifting. The city of York comes alive in them, and I walk the streets of time past, see it as it once was. There is a girl, young, pretty, with fair hair, but always too far away to see clearly. Then she turns and walks away from me. I follow her but she walks faster. She knows her way here, and I am only a visitor. People get in the way and she is lost.

When I wake, I feel frustration but I have a new purpose to my days now. As insignificant as discovering my new city might seem, it is a gift. It sees me out of bed, showered, dressed and breakfasted long before Mrs Gilbert’s key has turned in the lock. I leave the house early enough to count myself a commuter, albeit one setting out on the tourist trail, and I return home with barely enough time to primp myself up for Richard.

With my trusty guidebook, I explore Goodramgate and Stonegate, Coffee Yard and The Shambles, happen upon the fabulously named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, and finally allow myself Lady Peckett’s Yard which is every bit as glorious as its name suggests with black and white timbered fronts to the surrounding buildings, quaint hanging signs and illuminated lanterns but lacks the authenticity of other, forgotten, snickets.

Piece by piece and day by day, York is revealing its secrets to me and I am falling in love with it. For the first time, I think I am beginning to make sense of the confusion of gates, bars and snickelways, having confidence to slide down the narrow and slime-covered sides of Peter Lane to bring me quickly to High Ousegate. And the peanut inside me has become my travelling companion; and not such a peanut after all, as each day brings an added swell to my tummy and a fullness to my once timid breasts. I find my hands rest naturally upon my bump, and I wish it could see through my eyes as I wander from street to street. I am growing quite used to it.

Today is momentous, for yesterday, only a week since I first picked up the book, I have finished my walk of the snickelways, and now I have a long list of other sites I have been dying to go and see. The Minster library, glimpsed on day one, jumps out from the top of the list, as does The Treasurer’s House, and yet, the greatest of them all, is undoubtedly The Minster itself. The star attraction, it has whispered to me with every footstep, and its towers and spires seem visible from every point in the city, taunting me, drawing me in.

I have resisted for a full month now; storing up this treasure and with the night’s rain still glistening on the pavements and the early December sun beginning to break through the clouds and setting the walls on fire, it seems today is the day. Despite its now seeming redundancy, I still pack the snickelways book in my handbag; it has become a kind of talisman.

As today feels like a holiday, I decide to treat myself to a decadent breakfast; for once, I am actually feeling hungry. I have heard much about Bettys tearooms; they are in every guidebook I pick up and even Mrs Gilbert unbent so far on one occasion to enquire whether I’d been there yet. Today will be my virgin visit. Richard has no interest in tearooms, however great their reputation.

As many places are in York, Bettys is a mere stone’s throw from home, and I think it’s a stone even I could throw. Set in St Helen’s Square and flanked all round by shops, it could easily have been overcome by modernity but it clings on to its Edwardian origins and I admire it for that.

No one seems to know who the elusive Betty was, but the décor is inspired by the interior of the Queen Mary cruise ship. This early in the morning, there is not yet a queue although in a few hours one will snake past the entrance and round the corner. A waitress with a matching white lace cap and apron leads me to a table by the window where I can watch the world. There is a grand piano in the centre of the room, its lid lying flat, but music from the 30s is being piped in somewhere.

This is a time capsule, and it’s easy to see its attraction; for me, it is paradise, and I think Richard is wrong: he would delight in its gentle pomposity. My coffee arrives steaming hot and after deciding against a Welsh rarebit, I am instead presented with a medici, chosen purely for its name, but it turns out to be a gorgeous concoction of chewy caramel encasing roasted hazelnuts and topped with a layer of dark chocolate.

Still savouring my last mouthful, I pay the bill and step out on to Stonegate where the silhouette of the Minster is instantly visible. I can see that tourists are already forming a queue outside the great West entrance but I pause to take in the majesty; I am in no rush.

Despite the chill, nearby cafes have set out tables and chairs and various people are sat huddled in their coats clutching hot drinks in their hands while they too stare at the vast building rising up in front of them.

It is so tall that I have to tilt my head back and as I move closer, it grows taller still, dwarfing everything and everyone. A bell begins to toll above me and soon others join it. It is both dazzling and a little bewildering to be so close to such a noise and I lean against a lamppost. When the bells stop ringing and I have drunk in the exterior as much as I can, greedily, like an unwilling dieter, I join the queue.

It moves forward in jerky but rapid motions as large groups are admitted in one go, each allocated their own tour guide. I contemplate sneaking into one, relying on my watery colouring to remain undetected, but quickly abandon the thought. With several leaflets tucked safely in the top of my bag and the times for climbing the South Tower committed to memory, I finally let my eyes run wild, and yet it is my sense of smell that is triggered first.

The scent of incense wafts thickly along the nave, coating my airwaves in a fug. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and let the sensation wash over my body. Such a nostalgic smell; one of times long gone as cloistered monks scuttle across the stone floor making their dips to the east. When I open my eyes, I feel the familiar sense of disappointment that the scenes from my imagination are not being played out before me; a ridiculous, but remarkably difficult habit to shake.

It is surprisingly light inside, not only from the daylight streaming through the intricate panels of the stained glass, but also from carefully concealed floodlights sending streams of pure white on to the domed and arched ceiling.

An Oxford alumni, great architecture is no stranger to me, but this building is something else; a wonder to behold with soaring ceilings that would do Hogwarts proud and its great pillars would challenge several men to encircle them with their arms.

The floor is patterned with black marble, which weaves a route I am unable to resist, avoiding stepping on the cracks like a child. Light pierces the stained glass windows scattering shards of coloured light and I stand with my head tipped right back in awe. Something that looks like a golden beached Viking boat protrudes from one of the arches fifty feet above my head, and appealing to a leaflet, I read that it is, in fact, a font lever.

My neck grows tired and I see with some relief that there are mirrors mounted on trolleys into which you look down and view the great bosses on the ceiling, but it isn’t the same, and I stumble over my feet as I tilt my neck once more.

The feeling of space and stillness, despite the hordes of visitors, floods me with calmness, and I recall my grandmother telling me that moments of pure liquid happiness such as this, are a signal that your guardian angel is close by.

Tracing the black stone on the floor leads me across the nave, back and forth, winding my way through chairs set in strict rows for worship, passing several side chapels until I am standing in front of the choir screen – an incredibly ornate piece of art, carved statues of kings gone by, intricately moulded and gilded, concealing, yet also revealing, a mighty organ behind it. To my left, they begin with William the Conqueror, and I try to run through his successors labelled in Latin underneath their plinths, but my grasp of the language fails me. As a historian, I am ashamed to find myself stuck.

William I, William II and Henry I, stare solemnly down at me, all present and accounted for. Then Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John, and a gap for the marvellous entrance into the choir, before continuing with Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and finishing with Henry VI. I know these men, these kings, who sometimes feel more real to me than those I walk among now, but something feels off. I run through the names again in my head, and they all seem to match up with the statues in front of me, and yet…

“Matilda,” comes a voice from my right.

I start in surprise and turn.

“Matilda,” he says again.

The intriguing and undeniably good-looking photographer I met in Holy Trinity is now standing next to me. He is as handsome as before, although this time he wears a navy and white striped top beneath his dark grey tweed jacket, and on his eyes, he sports a pair of thick-rimmed black glasses. His camera is slung over his shoulder.

“Martha?” he says, gently. “It’s Matilda who is missing.”

“Matilda?” I repeat. “Empress Matilda; of course.”

“Omitted for the crime of being a woman. She was the rightful heir to the throne, but she was never actually crowned; a disputed Queen of England.”

“How do you know this?”

“I like history. Don’t you?”

“Well, yes, but-”

“But?”

“I don’t meet many other people who do,” I say, lamely.

He holds out his hand to shake mine.

“I’m Isak. I enjoy history. Nice to meet you.”

I laugh.

“You know, I like to think that’s why Stephen is wearing a skirt though.”

“What?”

“Look,” he points to the statue fourth from the left. “See.”

Sure enough, while the other monarchs are decked in regal robes falling to their feet in soft-seeming waves, he is modelling what can only generously be described as a kilt, more accurately, a skirt.

“And you think he’s wearing a skirt why exactly?”
“Because it took him so long to beat his rival, a mere woman. This was built in the 15th century; they were laughing at him.”

“I’m not sure whether I believe you but it’s a good story.”

“I know; isn’t it? I’ve been wondering when I might bump into you again. York’s such a small place, I was bound to see you sooner or later and I was rather hoping for the former.” He smiles at me; an irresistible smile to return. “How are you finding York?”

“I love it,” I say, truthfully. “How could anyone not?”

“And where’s your guidebook today?”

“What?”

“The one you were clutching so tightly in Holy Trinity?”

“Oh, that one was only for snickelways,” I say. “Although,” and I pull the top corner out of my handbag, “it’s still here.”

“But nothing in it about cross-dressing kings?”

“No; nothing at all.”

“How remiss. Allow me.” I look at him questioningly. “Allow me to show you my Minster.”

I raise my eyebrows at him, “Is that a euphemism?”

“In a house of God? I wouldn’t dream of it.”

 

“You’re a very tactile person, aren’t you?” he says, causing me to draw my hand back swiftly from the marble tomb decorations I’d been caressing.

“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re not meant to touch.”

“No; don’t apologise. It’s just, well, it surprised me.”

“Look at it; how could you not want to touch?”

We are stood in front of an enormous tomb, built for a Tudor husband and wife. Featuring life size and colour statues of themselves, they kneel in prayer facing the east. Both wear great ruffs around their necks; she is dressed in a forbidding black gown, but he wears a brilliant gold brocade jacket with scarlet trim. Their cheeks are rosy and their marble eyes bright. Beneath them a slab of marble is carved with ornate style; not a modest couple, but thoroughly awe-inspiring.

“I mean, it’s almost as if they are here now. And look at this,” I turn to another tomb, quite different. Carved from cream marble, a former archbishop lies peacefully, his hands folded on his chest resting on a prayer book. You can trace the folds of his gown, each fingernail and even the separate pages of the book he clasps. “This is remarkable.”

I place my hands on the stone ones, and I lower my voice, a little embarrassed to be voicing my theory out loud, “I have this fancy. I like to think that by touching something old, something like this, I’ll be able to absorb or access some of its history, somehow. I think that if I close my eyes, breathe deeply and allow my thoughts to wander, then perhaps I’ll be allowed a glimpse of the past.”

Doing just that, I am drawn from my imagination by a warm hand placing itself over mine. Opening my eyes, I look into Isak’s.

“I’m a big fan of your theory.”

I carefully move my hand from underneath his, and continue, “I like to think that all of history is taking place at the same moment; that, if only we could get to it, if only we could cut through the sheets of time, we could glimpse that Tudor gentleman and his wife walking along this very aisle, right now, and that underneath, or rather, besides them, Roman soldiers are parading in their fortress.”

“And perhaps a couple from the future are doing the very same?”

“Exactly.”

“It reminds me very much of a poem I once read at school, but I can’t quite remember-”

“Burnt Norton,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“’Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.’”

“T.S.Eliot.”

“So you do remember.”

“Not so well as you, it seems, but yes, that’s the one. It always intrigued me.”

“What’s next?” I say, breaking the silence before it becomes pointed.

“Let’s see, we have the Chapter House, the astronomical clock, the Five Sisters window, the Rose window, the Lady Chapel, the Zouche chapel-”

“Pick one.”

“I shall take you to the Zouche chapel, always a personal favourite and off the tourist track, via the Lady Chapel and the Orb, which are decidedly not.”

“Lead the way.”

 

We inadvertently tag on to the back of a tour group as they are guided around the new installation called The Orb, which showcases the fantastic glasswork throughout the building, when I feel a brutally sharp stab in my stomach.

I gasp and clutch at the nearest thing to me, the elliptical surface of the display. The pain is so fleeting I could almost have imagined it but I feel disoriented with the voices of those around me deafening, slamming into my eardrums; foreign languages jarring, strange accents and someone calls my name. I release my grasp on the orb and look around. Isak is there but he hasn’t called me. He is intently listening to the guide. There is no one else I recognise so I try to turn my attention to the glass again.

Back-lit and in the darkened orb, the medieval glass of the Great East Window, currently shrouded in essential scaffolding, is transformed from an object of beauty, into one of divine worship. The delicate skill of workers more than half a millennium ago is mesmerising and I’m admiring one particular panel featuring a crimson and sapphire clad saint when the pain comes again. This time, the closest object is Isak, and I see him wince as my hand tightens around his forearm, my other across my stomach.

In seconds, sweat has begun to prickle on my scalp and hairline, and my spine feels enveloped in fire. The left side of my body is shouting in protest and it jangles right up to my shoulders. A wave of sickness rolls over me, and I put my hand to my mouth.

Every sound is amplified, and the voices crowd in again. I hear my name, spoken by not just one, nor two people, but many, insistent. I think I recognise one; one speaks louder than the rest, its rhythms vibrate within me. I can hear you, I think. I can hear you. Who are you? Another voice cuts in and my trance is broken.

“Martha!” Isak says.

“Get me out of here,” I say, clutching my stomach, but it is too late. I see the panic in his eyes as I double up in pain and slump to the floor. The fire is so intense I can’t feel my legs any more. I can see rather than hear him shouting at me now, his mouth working vigorously like a fish out of water, desperate for air. The dark indigo of my jeans betrays nothing but when I draw back the hand that has fallen to my side, my fingers are as crimson as the robe in the glass. My last thoughts are for my peanut, my bump and travelling companion before darkness closes in and the world disappears.

 

“Mrs Chamberlain? Can you hear me?”

They say that the last sense you lose before you die is your hearing; I can only hope that’s so as the woman’s nasal drone is clawing across my brain, dragging great lumps of flesh with it.

“Mrs Chamberlain?”

If only to silence her, I concentrate hard on opening my eyes. They feel remarkably heavy and seem stuck together. They refuse my first attempt, and my second, but by the third, I force them open with all the energy I can summon.

Immediately I am rewarded with light so viciously intense it sends shooting sparks straight down my retinas. Blinded and still unable to focus on the woman, I shut them again, allowing the darkness to flood my mind once again with relief. But she persists and my irritation resurfaces with a flash as my eyes snap open.

“She’s awake. Get the doctor.”

 

“Mrs Chamberlain? Martha? I’m Doctor Maccabee. How are you feeling?”

I answer with a groan.

“It’s natural that you feel groggy. You’ve been under a general anaesthetic. Now what can you remember?”

Nothing. I can’t remember anything. At first. And then, “I was in the Minster. My stomach hurt and there was blood.” And there was Isak; stained glass; a crimson robe; a crimson stain; peanut. My peanut. “What happened?”

“I’m afraid your pregnancy was ectopic, Martha, and your fallopian tube ruptured.

“My baby?”

“There was nothing we could do. Even if the tube hadn’t ruptured, the egg could never fully have developed, although you would have had a number of options as to your treatment. As it was, we had to perform emergency surgery, called a laparotomy, an incision in your abdomen, to stop the bleeding. You’ll be pleased to know that everything went to plan. However, when we tried to repair your left fallopian tube we discovered it was too badly damaged, and unfortunately, we had to remove it in a salpingectomy.”

“But the baby, she’s gone?” Until that second, I hadn’t even known she was a ‘she’ to me. Annoyance morphs into heartbreak in a heartbeat; a heartbeat that no longer exists. Everything else washes over me.

“Yes, Martha, I truly am very sorry for your loss, but rest assured, there is no reason why you should not be able to conceive again naturally in due course. Now you need to rest so I’m just going to give you a little something.”

Whatever he inserts into my arm, it works fast and even if I had wanted to, my eyelids refuse to stay alert. My peanut. Gone.

 

My dreams, when they come, are familiar and yet strange. I’m walking through the streets of York and the girl with the fair hair is in front of me; this time though, she turns and smiles, but as she does, her face melts leaving behind only a mess of charred skin, exposed bone and the smell of meat; there are flashes of brilliant colour; a fire; a staircase I don’t recognise but seem to know spiralling feet into the air with grand brass runners and a sumptuous emerald carpet; and my mother, younger, prettier, not as I ever remember her. Then the voices return; a boy is saying my name and a young man, then a crowd of people all crying out before one pushes through, swims into focus, the girl again, and now she’s reaching for me, whispering my name but instead of touching her outstretched hand, I recoil in horror as the fire begins again to claim her as its victim. Her hair is ablaze and I can smell it; the singeing, as of feathers; rank, bitter. Her skin, the delicate skin on her face, blisters and pops, dripping like a candle.

I wake screaming; my sheets tangled around my legs, pinning me in place. Covered in a sheen of sweat, I struggle in vain, but only for seconds as the man who is sitting beside my bed, leans over and swiftly presses a button for a nurse, before taking my hand in his and hushing me like a child. Richard.

“There, there, darling,” he says, as if reading from a script. “It’s ok now. It was just a dream. I’m here.”

I lie back on the sodden and rumpled pillows, still pinned down but calmer now, until my memory returns and with it, the loss of my baby. I want to curl up inside myself and disappear. The nurse arrives, the same one from before, and Richard drops my hand. Gratefully I pull it close to my body. I am torn between wanting the oblivion of sleep and fear of the nightmares that plague me there. Richard picks up the chart at the end of my bed and consults with the nurse whom I overhear refer to him as ‘doctor’.

“Now, darling, I’ve just spoken to the nurse here, who says it’s perfectly fine for you to come home today. I’ve taken a look at your charts and all you need is rest, and plenty of it.”

“Richard,” I say. “The baby-”

“No need to talk about that now, my love. Everything’s been taken care of. We can have a chat at home.”

A chat? I should be angry but all I feel is exhausted. I don’t want to stay in this place, surrounded by death and the dying. I want to go home. I want to curl up in my own bed. I want to forget everything.

“Nurse, if you could help my wife get ready to leave, and I’ll be back in half an hour or so.”

“Of course.”

She waits for him to leave before pulling the curtain around my bed to create some semblance of privacy. She pulls the sheets back, finally unpinning me, and leaving my legs exposed almost to the crotch, the hospital gown having gathered around my waist during my sleep. There is some blood on the sheets.

“Don’t worry about that, love,” she says. “It’s perfectly fine.”

I wince with pain as I sit up.

“Yes; you’re going to be sore for a few days. The doctors had to make sure everything was out,” she says. “Now I’ve got a bundle of pads for you.” She hands me something that looks a cross between a nappy and an incontinence pad. “They’re not pretty, but they work; for the bleeding.”

The bleeding; my peanut. I feel a great lump rising in my chest that sticks in my throat, where it will remain. My peanut, the baby that Richard wants to chat about. The baby that I lost is bleeding out of me.

The nurse sits down on the edge of the bed, “There’s nothing I can say that will make this any easier for you. But you’re not alone, you know. There are people you can talk to.”

“Like psychiatrists?”

“Yes, and therapists.”

“My husband is a psychiatrist.”

“Is he indeed? Well then, I’m sure you’ll feel much better once you’re home in your own bed. Now you’ll have to see your GP for a check up but your husband has all the details. Let’s see; where’s that bag he brought?”

She opens the soft leather holdall on the floor and gazes amazed as she holds aloft a delicate La Perla thong in chocolate lace and silk which looks ridiculous in her hands. I stare at it, open-mouthed. The matching bra dangles from another finger.

“Well now, aren’t these lovely? But let me see if I can’t find you something more suitable.”

I should take opportunity of her absence to see what else Richard has packed, but I don’t care. She returns several minutes later with what I can only assume are NHS approved knickers: white cotton with low cut legs and a high cut waistband. She turns away discreetly while I put them on and fit a pad into place. When I turn back, she is holding a red crepe dress from LK Bennett. At least the colour is suitable.

“My jeans?” I ask, half-heartedly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but they were ruined. They had to be thrown away. I don’t think we have anything else you can wear.” She places a hand on my arm. “It’ll only be for the ride home.”

She holds the dress open for me as I step gingerly into it, and zips up the back. When she pulls out my black patent court shoes and a matching thin-waisted belt, I want to cry out.

“Jesus,” she says under her breath, but loud enough for me to catch. “I’m sorry, but really….” She sweeps from the cubicle without another word, and returns with a grubby pair of flip-flops. “I might not be able to find something other than that dress, beautiful as it may be, but I’ll not have you jamming your feet into those things. Not unless you want to, which,” she looks at my wet eyes, “I take it you don’t?”

I take them gratefully and shove the shoes, belt and lace thong back into the Mulberry leather holdall. I hadn’t even considered the matching bra.

 

“I have a surprise for you,” Richard says, once I’m safely ensconced in the car. When I gingerly climbed into the passenger seat, I saw him glance at his new cream leather upholstery and a dart of dislike so strong it almost takes my breath away stops me in my tracks temporarily. Now, as we drive home, I almost hope the pad fails me. “Your mother is here.”

“My mother is here? In York?” I say, slowly, turning to face him.

He has the grace to look uncomfortable.

“Yes, well, I thought that you’d like her here. I phoned her after I got the call from the hospital, and of course, she got on the first train here. She arrived last night.”

“And where is she staying?”

“In our flat, darling. I wasn’t going to ask your mother to stay in a hotel, was I?”

Funnily enough, that’s precisely what he would have normally expected.

“I thought she could look after you when I’m at work.”

“I don’t need a nurse, Richard.”

“But this is different; this is your mother.”

“Fine.”

I rest my head against the cool glass of the window and shut my eyes, and Richard lapses into silence.

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter four

Alice

The fourth time I encountered Mr Tuke in the library, long after supper had finished and the rest of the household tucked up, I suspected it might not be a coincidence for either of us; for my part, I was curious to know more of my employer and there was always some task to undertake. We’d still never exchanged more than basic pleasantries, which, I knew was still more than a servant in my position should have exchanged.

That evening, his jacket and cravat had been discarded, he was swirling a great bubble of a glass I’d learned to call a snifter in his right hand.

“Mistress Alice, how are you finding the work in the house?”

“It’s very good, sir,” I said, bobbing a curtsey that was no less wobbly for frequent practice.

“I’m very grateful to have been taken on.”

“Is this your first such position?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And what did you do before?”

“I worked with my mother, sir.”

He had this habit of watching you closely when you spoke, but when he wanted more information, rather than question you, he simply let the silence between you lengthen until you felt compelled to continue. It was a clever ruse, and one, I suspected, led people to reveal far more than they would usually.

“She’s a laundress, sir, in Bedern. I used to help her take the washing in.”

“And your father?”

“A labourer.”

“Siblings?”

I laughed at this.

“You could say that, sir. There are thirteen of us, at the last count. Five more that didn’t live past a year.”

“And you’re the eldest?”

“That’s right, sir. Then my sister Eliza right through to Maria, who’s no more than your Gulielma.”

I reeled off the names of the rest, but I didn’t expect him to remember them; my pa found it hard half the time, but then, he spent at least that in his cups.

I was happy to chat with Mr Tuke, I felt at ease with him; not like his wife, Priscilla, who I discovered to be a sanctimonious prune of a woman.

The firelight was kind to him; when he smiled there were no rotten teeth, and I thought him the better for having a plain navy tailcoat rather than the crimson or sapphire of some of his peers. But I was wary too, I’d been warned about drawing attention to myself by Ma; and I’d heard enough tales myself about gentlemen seeking to take advantage, but I was not sure that this is what he was after.

Many wouldn’t blame him, not with Priscilla lying next to him, a dutiful wife but as cold as a fish, although the rumours had proven themselves true: she was holding herself differently so she at least did her duty as a wife. I thought though, even with a bustling house of six young children, I saw in his eyes what sometimes appeared under the surface of my sister Eliza’s otherwise serene countenance – sadness, and even perhaps loneliness.

Melancholy was not an emotion I was familiar with personally, but every now and then, Eliza would be so consumed with it that some days I wasn’t sure if she could get out of bed, certainly, on occasion, it was not worth you trying. An enveloping distress of spirits; sunk low within herself, so low that even sunshine on her face seemed to make little difference, and then, one morning, one day, she’d be out of the bed before me, brushing off my concerns and we’d all learned never to mention it.

Some things are easier swept out of sight, but I wondered, once in a dark corner, if it merely rotted and putrefied, and bloated with bitterness, biding its time, waiting to pounce, stronger and more callous than ever. Some things were better dealt with in the light.

“Goodnight, Alice.”

“Goodnight, sir.”

 

The next night we met, he asked me, “What do you think of asylums, Alice?”

“Of asylums, sir?”

I was surprised. This was the first time our brief conversations had ventured past the mundane, and to ask this of me, it was almost as if I was not a servant, as if he were speaking to an equal.

His eyes were sharp and inquiring as he looked at me, awaiting my answer. My heartbeat quickened for it felt like an important question, one in which there was definitely a right or wrong answer.

I took my time before saying, “What do you mean exactly, sir?”

“I mean, what do you think of the place where they take people who are troubled in mind as well as body?”

“I can’t say as I have an opinion, sir. Not,” I rushed on, “that I don’t think, sir. It’s just that my ma always taught us never to speak if we ain’t – haven’t – got something worth saying, and I don’t know much about asylums.”

“A wise woman.”

“My ma?”

“Indeed. Perhaps you’ll permit me to tell you a little, Alice?”

I nodded. I was hardly going to say ‘no’ to the master, and the only other place I had to be was my bed.

“I remember visiting a workhouse, oh, several years ago now, and while it was not designed for the treatment of insane persons, we enquired as to how those occupants were being treated. It was freezing outside, and the first cell we entered, for it can only be described as such, contained a young woman, not much older than yourself, Alice, and she was lying naked on the floor, trying to cover herself with the soiled straw that lay there.

“There were no windows, the only light and air coming from a small grate in the door. The woman had no blanket or even a horse throw to warm herself with, and she buried her head in the straw, no doubt to avoid being exposed to us. She appeared more physically, than mentally afflicted, but her keeper told us her lack of clothing was due to a propensity to tear them from herself; which she herself denied, much to the discomfort of the keeper. Indeed, he admitted that in the 12 months she had been kept there, unclothed, she had never suffered from any violent paroxysms.

“In another cell, there was a man lying, his leg bound to the wooden bed with a chain; a chain that, due to his exertions to release himself, had caused plentiful abrasions. The master of the house claimed to allow the ‘patients’ any further liberty would be to invite danger.

“Do you think you’re beginning to understand a little of what I mean now, Alice?”

“Yes, sir. You’re saying that even though that woman, even though she’d done nothing wrong, and wasn’t violent, she was still locked up?”

“That’s correct.”

“Because that is what they do in asylums?”

“Indeed it is. Do you know of the lunatic asylum north of the city?”

“The one on Bootham? Yes, I’ve heard of it.”

My heart grew chilled.

“In there, patients are immersed in baths of freezing cold water and ice to temper their hot emotions. The doctors believe, as does the church and many of my class and education, that an insane person is evil, infected by demons and a scourge on society. In effect, their way of brutal treatment is the only way in which such people can be helped. Do you understand, Alice?”
“Yes; sir.”

“But I forget myself; you don’t want to hear all about that. Forgive me; I am preoccupied this evening. My words were hardly fit for the ears of a lady.”

“You forget, sir, I am not a lady.”

Our eyes met and held their gaze. He had no answer for me. I picked up the coal bucket and prepare to leave the room.

“Do you not also have the running of an asylum, sir?”

“Yes; The Retreat, but-”

I waited to hear no more. I had been mistaken. This was no man; this was a monster.

 

When my duties drew to a close on the following night, I headed straight for my room.

“No coal bucket tonight, Alice?” said Rachel, slyly.

If she had any true idea of how I’d been spending part of my nights, she’d have done more than make remarks, as it was, she thought I’d got my eyes set on James, the footman.

“They’re full,” I said and got into bed.

I rolled over to avoid her looks and fell asleep.

 

Another day and night passed, and still I kept away from the library as I intended to do so from now on, but Rachel had other plans. I was just slipping my nightdress over my head when she said, “Oh, Alice. I almost forgot. The coal scuttles in the lower rooms need replenishing.”

“I’ll do them in the morning, Rachel.”

“No. You’ll do them when I tell you to do them, Miss.”

“You want me to get dressed again, go downstairs, go out to the coal cellar, haul up a bucket of coal, and take it from room to room at this hour?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want you to do. Besides,” she said, “it never stopped you before.”

I sighed and stripping the nightdress off, I replaced my stale day dress, slipped my aching feet back into their shoes, and taking a candle, started the journey down the backstairs. I went from the breakfast room and the morning room in short order; neither of their scuttles were empty. I cursed Rachel. The dining room and the drawing room both required a little filling, but nothing that could not have been resolved on the morrow.

I hesitated outside the library door. I couldn’t see any light coming from beneath it and screwing up the small amount of courage I possessed, I walked into the library, coal bucket in my hand, head held high.

The room was in pitch darkness, and when the light of my candle illuminated it, completely empty. There was no jacket or cravat thrown to one side. No brandy glass rested on the sideboard. And there was no gentleman ensconced in the wing chair although I imagined I could still see the indent of his head, and it only took a moment to see him, clear as day, legs crossed at the ankles, sleeves rolled up, beckoning me over. But an empty room was all that was before me.

My resolve was replaced by anger. Anger that I had let this man have power over me, anger that I was unable to confront him, anger that I was in this situation at all.

I lugged the bucket to the fireplace with a snarl, and aimed a kick at its copper counterpart. Clearly the encounter meant little to him, as did I. I reminded myself that it was better that way.

I was about to leave when I noticed a book lying open on the arm of the chair. It hung temptingly, its rich red covers irresistibly pulling at me and I had it in my hands before I really knew what I was doing. I could recognise the occasional letter; ‘A’, I knew the start of my own name. But pages and pages, like that, defeated me.

There was no time for schooling when there was washing to be done, and besides, who would have taught me? – My pa, soaked to his eyeballs in the latest batch of cheap gin he could get his hands on, not that he had much learning anyway, or my ma, who never read a word in her life?

A whole world lay before me in that book. I wanted to better myself, and I’d be damned if I ended up in the workhouse or one of his asylums some day, like that poor creature he mentioned.

No use in a woman learning her letters was what most men would think, but somehow, in spite of everything, I didn’t think Mr Tuke would have agreed.

When I started, Hannah was still in the nursery, but since then, a governess had been appointed, much to Lucy’s delight – a stern looking woman called Pritchard – and I imagined that Maria, Sarah, little Priscilla and even Gulielma, barely out of her swaddling, wouldn’t be far behind; naturally little Henry had a tutor who came in daily, and with another one on the way, boy or girl, they’d be getting an education too.

Part of me felt resentment, but a greater part accepted that that was the way of the world. I remembered my pa saying one day, when he was actually sober, that the gentry didn’t want the likes of us educated because then we’d know we were due more in life. It was a dangerous thing, education. But I couldn’t help stroking the book in my hands.

I lifted it to my face and breathed its heady scent. The leather covers smelled as expensive as they no doubt were, and the thick creamy-white pages were smooth to the touch and smelled of opportunity.

“Alice.”

I dropped the book. It hit the side of the chair and bounced on to the floor, landing with pages crushed and covers askew. I cried out and carefully lifted up the book and uncreased the sheets.

“You came back.”

“The scuttles don’t fill themselves, sir.”

“No, I see that. I was hoping you would return.”

“I have my duties to fulfil, and now, if you’ll excuse me, sir-”

“Alice,” he said once more, and grasped the sleeve of my dress. I stifled a gasp at his audacity and glared at him. He dropped my wrist.

“I- I wanted to apologise for the other night-”

“There’s no call for that, sir.”

“Damn it, girl, if you’ll just let me explain!”

His curse stopped me in my tracks.

“Forgive me. I see that I expressed myself poorly. I do have dealing with an asylum, Alice, but it is not as it sounds. It is not like the asylum north of the city; that place is odious to myself. The Retreat is different. It’s run by the Friends and we believe in moral treatment.”

In the face of my silence, he continued.

“We believe that every being retains their humanity and deserves to be treated appropriately. We do not purge or blister our patients; there are no manacles or chains; and we do not treat our patients like wild beasts. My grandfather, William, founded it in 1796, and the treatment is based on benevolence. Patients can walk or labour, if they choose, in the pleasant surroundings and we function as a family. We believe that recovery is possible and very probable given the right support and environment.”

“Why did you not rescue that woman?”

“From the workhouse? It was not within my power to do so, and I am truly sorry for it. However, after I returned to York I ordered a dozen flannel dresses to be made and sent to the workhouse. I can only pray they were made use of.”

“But if she was no harm to anyone, why was she kept there?”

“Do you know it’s a capital offense, that is, one punishable by death, to be insane?”

“You face the drop for being mad? That doesn’t make sense; besides there’s loonies all over the city that aren’t being hanged.”

“Would you believe me if I told you they’re the lucky ones?”

“Lucky? You should see the filth-” I stopped myself in time, remembered my company. “I mean to say, sir, that if you saw the way that some of them live, I doubt you’d call them lucky.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but there are worse places to be.”

“So you don’t keep people in chains in your Retreat?”

“No; we do not.”

“And you don’t let them be misused?”

“Never.”

I watched him speak, and I believed him; I believed in his words. The man who stood before me was not a monster.

“In which case, I must apologise to you, sir-”

“There’s no-”

“I let you speak, didn’t I? Well now it’s my turn. I have a sister, Eliza. I’ve mentioned her, and you see, she can be a bit funny like, not mad or anything like that. She just has these turns. She gets awful sad and low, and it’s like no one can reach her, you know? And then, well, you told me what it’s like in those asylums, sir. What they do to people like Eliza, I didn’t know before; and then I remembered that you had one too, and I didn’t much fancy talking anymore, sir. I can be gone by the morning, sir. I spoke out of turn.”

“Excuse me?”

“I can have my things and be gone by the morning, sir.”

“Enough of that. Let us leave it all behind us. Ah, I see you’ve discovered Dafoe.”

It was my turn to look confused.

“The book you currently have clutched to your chest. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe. He was from York, you know.”

“Mr Dafoe?”

“No, Robinson Crusoe.”

“But isn’t this,” I rolled the unfamiliar word under my tongue, “a novel, sir?”

“Yes, that it is. And the protagonist, that is to say, the main character in the story, Robinson Crusoe, is from York.”

I’d heard of the book before but had never come across it. Who would I know with the money or the leisure to acquire a novel? Even Ma, who had big dreams of my learning to read, wouldn’t hold with a novel. ‘What was the point in that?’ I could hear her ask. ‘You stick with the Bible, and those knowledgeable books.’ Mr Tuke gestured to the book in my arms, and reluctantly I handed it back.

“It’s a first edition. My great grandfather purchased it when it first appeared in print. I’m rather fond of it. As you can see, “ he said, while pointing at the crack in the leather spine created by regular readings.

“Mr Crusoe goes against his parents’ wishes and sets sails on a sea voyage. Over the next years, he is shipwrecked not once, but twice, encounters cannibals and- but no, I don’t want to spoil the tale for you.”

“You needn’t worry about that, sir. I won’t be reading it any time soon.”

“You mean to tell me that you can’t read, Alice?”

He looked astonished, as if such a possibility had never crossed his mind, and under his gaze, I felt the colour rising in my cheeks.

“No, sir.”

“But didn’t you go to school, girl?”

“There were ten of us by the time I was twelve, sir. My ma needed me. I had no call to be going to school.”

“Yes, of course. How foolish of me. I apologise for embarrassing you, Alice, as I see my careless remarks have. My manners seem to abandon me in your presence.”

For the first time that I could recall I felt ashamed of myself, and of who I was. None of my friends knew how to read. Even some of the lads down my way didn’t. The apprentices might learn, but if you were a labourer, what need did you have of knowing your letters? My pa could only pick them out individually; give him a proper word and he was stumped.

We had passed unscathed through one misunderstanding, only to run into another. I picked up the empty bucket and made to leave the room.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, and dropped a curtsey. He didn’t grab my sleeve this time, and instead let me go.

 

I woke up less ashamed by my master’s words, and more by my reaction to them. I was a housemaid, and had no call to be offended by words, words that he then apologised for; his second apology of the evening. And however I looked at it, whatever angle I attempted to spin, I couldn’t avoid the fact that I wanted to see him again, and that, that night I’d take the coal into the library as if nothing had happened. Which, I reminded myself, it hadn’t.

“Ah, Alice,” he said, when I walked in. “There you are.”

A smile I believed to be genuine brought a twinkle into his eye, and I responded instinctively.

“Good evening, sir.”

He waved the red-leather bound book in his hand, “There’s something I didn’t mention about Robinson Crusoe. He had a companion named Man Friday.”

“Man Friday?”

“Yes, rather an odd appellation, but he was named after the day on which Crusoe discovered him wandering the island he inhabited. Friday was, like you, unable to read or write,” he rushed on, seeing my eyes fall to the floor, “but Crusoe taught him both.”

“He did?”

“Yes, Alice; he did.”

He reached over to the sideboard where the crystal brandy decanter stood, and picked up a much slimmer volume bound in cloth.

“I borrowed this chapbook from Hannah’s governess. I thought we could start here.”

“Please excuse me, sir, but are you suggesting that you teach me how to read and write?”

“That’s correct. I’m afraid I’m not a natural teacher, and we’ll only have these brief sessions in which to work. I can’t excuse you from your duties within the house, but if you’re willing…”

I made my decision in a second, “I’d like that very much, sir.”

“Excellent. If you’d like to pull up that stool, we’ll begin.”

 

And so began the first of many enjoyable lessons. Far from being an unnatural teacher, as he said, Mr Tuke proved himself remarkably adept in teaching me, or so I thought. The few times I’d made it to the school in Bedern run by Christians, I’d witnessed daily beatings and children brought to tears by their inadequacies. Mr Tuke used no such methods.

Patience, gentleness and humility were his by-words, and under his tutelage I was soon able to identify the whole alphabet. I daren’t show the fruits of my labour to Ma when I went home on my next half-day, for I wasn’t sure she’d approve of the circumstances of my learning, but I looked forward to reading passages from the Bible to her some day. Only the third half-day I’d had since starting my employment at the Tukes, I took great pleasure in presenting her with a shiny pound.

“I’ve only just finished paying for my uniform,” I said. I executed a twirl as I was in my Sunday best, far and away the nicest piece of clothing I’d ever owned. Not only was it brand new to me, it was cut in the new Empire style with a high waist and dropped to the floor.

“Don’t you start getting any airs and graces now, young miss,” said Ma as I ducked to avoid an affectionate clip round the ear. Eliza, who’d let out a squeal when I walked through the kitchen door, was stroking the fabric in awe.

“It’s so soft, Alice,” she said.

“It’ll be yours next, Eliza.”

“Really?” she whispered.

“Of course, you silly girl. Who else would I be giving my best frock to?”

“And such a lovely colour too.”

A rich plum, too dark to be considered fashionable but in keeping with the Tukes’ Quaker plain dress, it was still a step above the dingy brown and grey stained dresses us Haxby girls were used to. I made a mental note then and there to gift the dress to Eliza on her next birthday. I only had need of it half a day every month, and then my afternoon dress would do perfectly well. Eliza would take such pleasure from owning a dress like that, and unlike me, she could wear it every day.

“Here you go, girls,” said Ma, and handed me a basket.

“What’s this?”

“It’s your lunch.”

“But Ma-”

“Get on with you. I have no need of Eliza this afternoon. Go on; take your sister. Enjoy yourselves.”

“Thank you, Ma,” I said, wanting to throw my arms around her but knowing she’d shrug them off uncomfortably.

“Off you go, now,” she said, and shooed us out of the kitchen. “Can’t be having you two under my feet all day.”

Stopping only to pick up a shawl for Eliza – she was such a skinny little thing she got cold easily – we dashed outside before she could change her mind.

 

“Oh, Alice. How I’ve missed you.”

Eliza had no qualms abut enveloping me in a hug. She had always been more demonstrative than the rest of us.

“And I, you. What shall we do with this glorious freedom in front of us? What’s it to be? The Minster? The Castle? The river?”

“Let’s go to the abbey ruins.”

“St Mary’s, it is. Now, Eliza,” I said, hooking the basket tightly under one arm, and linking my other through hers, “Can you keep a secret?”

 

“I think it’s time for something new,” Mr Tuke said to me one evening.

I was pouring over the chapbook that he liberated from the schoolroom each night.

“Sir?”

“Let’s put some of this into practice,” and he brought out a thickly bound book in a red leather cover. I recognised it immediately. How could I not?

“Mr Dafoe? Do you think I’m ready, sir?”

It had taken me several sessions to overcome my mortification of stumbling over letters in front of him, I wasn’t sure I could bear the shame if I was incapable of reading this, the book that had brought us together.

“Alice, you’ve been ready for a while now. Come, let’s begin.”

I settled myself into the stool at his feet, which had become my favourite spot, gingerly took the proffered book from his hands and, before I opened its pages, brought the cover to my nose and smelled deeply. I was hardly aware of that action, so natural it seemed, but it caused him to laugh.

“I see I’ve converted you into a fellow bibliophile.”

“A what, sir?”

“A bibliophile. It’s from the Latin and means ‘a lover of books’.”

“I never knew it before I came here, sir, but there’s a whole world contained within. I find that a kind of magic.” I stopped, fearful that I had offended his Quaker ways.

“Yes,” he agreed. “They certainly do contain a kind of magic.” He pointed to the book in my hand and I obediently opened to the title page and began to read.

“The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque.”

I stumbled over the unfamiliar word, but was set back on my feet in a moment.

“Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates,” I paused for breath. “Is this just the title?”

“It is indeed; although most people refer to it simply as Robinson Crusoe now.”

“That’s a relief!”

As the story unfolded before me, I blushed to think of myself as Samuel’s Girl Friday. Imagined, just us two, alone on a desert island. The heat rose in my cheeks every time I thought of it. It seemed Ma was wrong about gentlemen preying on servants. Apart from that one time, that seemed many many months ago, Mr Tuke hadn’t touched me at all; nor made any inappropriate overtures. He was a good man, devoted to his family and his faith.

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter three

Martha

“Isak?” I say, still staring at the dark-haired photographer in front of me.

“Yes, that’s my name.”

“Oh, right, of course.”

“And yours is?”

“Martha.”

“Martha, nice to meet you,” he says, stretching forth a hand to clasp mine, and he grins again showing straight white teeth. His skinny black trousers are filthy from kneeling on the dusty floor of the church, and god only knows what else, and underneath a rather beautiful slate grey tweed blazer, he is wearing an thick argyle jumper in a lighter grey with a navy pattern, a white shirt and grey tie peeking out from the crew neck. Hardly a look Richard would wear, and yet, it holds definite appeal. “Visiting?” he asks.

“What?” I’m jolted back into the conversation. He gestures to the book I have in my hand; my snickelway book. “Oh, right, yes… Well, no actually.”

“Yes or no; which is it?”

It’s unusual for me to talk to someone outside my immediate life and I am flustered by his interest, by my interest. I force myself to breathe, and answer slowly, as I would explaining a tricky part of my thesis to a younger student, “Yes, I’m visiting here, but no, I’m not a tourist. I live here now; I moved a few weeks ago with my husband.”

“Well, congratulations,” he says, no visible reaction to my mention of Richard. “You’ll love it here; it’s my favourite place in the world. York, that is, not this church, although it has its charms.” I nod in agreement while I think to myself, who is this man? And why is he talking to me? I was never able to flirt, watching my housemates as they chatted with seeming ease to rowers from our college, or boys they’d met in bars. Is this flirting? For heaven’s sake, Martha, all the poor man has done is and introduce himself. He’s just being friendly. Now pay attention.

“Have you seen the hagioscope?” he asks.

“The what?” I say, surprised by the turn of the conversation when I tune back in.

“The hagioscope,” and he gestures towards what I had taken to be a mere hole in the wall, deliberate, or otherwise. “The guides will tell you that it was built so the chantry priest could say mass in synchronisation with the priest at the high altar, but you want to know what I think?”

“What’s that?”

“I like to think it was more so the priest could keep on eye on his congregation at all times. You know, watch the merry widows, and all that.”

I’m not sure what the right response is so stick to a simple, “Erm, yes. Perhaps.” The conversation stalls. I look around frantically for an escape, any escape, and my eye alights on an intricate stone carving lying at the foot of the wall. Social discomfort instantly forgotten, I step forward and crouch beside it.

“It’s a grave slab.”

“Oh? What?” I say.

“It’s a grave slab,” he repeats. “From the 13th century and these,” he points to a carving of a fish and cauldron. “These are called…”

“Rebus. Yes, I know. They show us the name or the profession of the dead… History student,” I say as he looks curiously at me.

“Fishmonger?”

“Yes, perhaps,” I say, tracing the outline of the fish. “But whatever, it’s beautiful and more than seven hundred years old. Truly remarkable.”

“Yes,” Isak says, picking up his camera and taking a photo of me before I have time to react. “Remarkable.”

“Hey!” I say. “Don’t do that. I don’t like having my picture taken-”

“Would you like an information leaflet?” asks an elderly man, who has appeared at my elbow.

“A what?” I snap. “Oh, right, yes. Thank you,” I say, apologetically. I turn to Isak, “Can you delete-” My words trail off. There’s no one there.

“Is this your first visit to Holy Trinity?” asks the guide.

“I, erm, yes,” I say weakly.

“Allow me to point out the highlights. I don’t suppose you’ve seen a hagioscope before?”

 

It is more than half an hour before I am released by my well-meaning guide, and only after having expressed appropriate admiration for the rare survival of the seventeenth century box pews, the font, pulpit and stained glass windows. There is no sign of Isak, and discreet enquiries reveal nothing. The sun is already beginning to set when I step outside clutching a fistful of leaflets, the remainder of my snickelway tour forgotten. Instead, once I exit the passageway from Holy Trinity and find myself in Low Petergate, I simply let my feet automatically take me the few paces home. Thankfully, Mrs Gilbert is long gone, and I have enough time before Richard comes home to treat myself to a strong sweet tea and several chocolate biscuits.

I throw on an extra jumper and climb up to the tiny roof garden. I am less dazed in these familiar surroundings and I piece the day together; my first memorable one in York, apart from moving in. I think I can begin to see the potential of this city. Already I am enthralled by the Minster, and that’s without having stepped a foot inside, and the church of the Holy Trinity weaves a spell on me that I’m not entirely sure is of its own making or of Isak’s.

I carry the thought of him close to me. Perhaps he will be a friend, one entirely separate from Richard and the life he is building for us here. And yet, more likely, I will never see him again. Excepting his name, and his profession, I know nothing about him. It’s this uncertainty, or rather, the certainty that I will never see him again that leads me to dwell on him and his grey eyes for longer than I ought.

It’s the peanut that rouses me, its movements bringing with them a sense of nausea. Darkness has fallen and the air is damp. Stirring, I go back to the kitchen, stopping to prepare a mug of peppermint tea before heading to the bathroom to tidy myself up before Richard arrives home.

 

By the time he walks through the door, I am ready and waiting in a beautifully cut classic black dress, its clever seams and stitching creating the illusion of curves which the peanut has yet to accentuate, sheer black tights cover my freshly shaved and moisturised legs, and patent black court shoes with a four inch heel wait only for my feet to slip into them. My engagement ring sparkles, matched by the studs in my ears, an ‘impromptu’ honeymoon gift, which I felt, perhaps unjustly, lacked any hint of impulse. Delicate make up, only a touch heavier than its day counterpart, grace my features, and a spritz of Jo Malone completes the look.

From his eyes, I can see that my appearance pleases him, and, if I’m honest, I’m not displeased myself when I look in the mirror. Perhaps it is a little conservative to celebrate a 24th birthday but there is no denying its elegance. I hold two glasses in my hand; one a single malt whisky topped off with a blast of soda water, the other an apple juice.

“This bloody flat!” he says as he shuts the front door forcefully, although not slammed, never slammed. “I had to park three streets away!” Since we now live right in the centre of town, and in a predominantly pedestrian zone, it should come as no surprise to Richard that his brand new BMW, a model of which I am oblivious and a present to himself for securing this promotion, is more often than not relegated to on-street parking wherever he can secure it, and any resident of York can tell you that is easier said than done.

Used to underground parking and valet service in London, this is the very pinnacle of outrage, another cross to bear in this Northern wasteland until he can return home in a few years triumphant with an even bigger, better promotion, and preferably a happy family in tow. I can’t decide if it is becoming more or less irritating with each daily outburst, but even I know enough not to suggest cycling, or worse, the bus.

“Darling,” he says, taking the proffered glass from my hand. “You angel.” He plants a kiss on my cheek without actually letting his lips touch my skin and gives me an appreciative once-over. “You look lovely. What’s the occasion?”

“It’s my birthday.”

He hides his momentary confusion well, “Of course it is. In fact, I have your present with me.” He puts a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulls out a parcel: small, unobtrusive with its delicate cream and black wrapping. Without taking it from him I know what I’ll find: an exquisite piece of jewellery. No doubt a platinum-set diamond, or some such; a girl’s best friend, I am told.

I recognise the packaging as that of his favourite jeweller in London. He must have had Lynn, his previous PA, organise it before we left. He places the box in my hand, and beneath a rustling layer of cream tissue paper, I discover an elegant case, which opens in the way only an expensive jewellery box can, to reveal a diamond tennis bracelet nestling against a cream suede backdrop. I lift it gently and hold it against my wrist. It sparkles irresistibly.

“Happy Birthday. Here, let me. It looks exquisite on you.” He takes a long sip of whisky, “And what’s the capable Mrs Gilbert left us for supper?” He pokes his head around the kitchen door. “Shepherd’s pie?” I nod. “It’s your birthday, and you’re not having shepherd’s pie for supper on your birthday. Let’s see if there’s anywhere decent to eat in this place.”

Taking his mobile phone out of his inner jacket pocket, he has his new PA on the other end in seconds. I feel sorry for the poor woman. She’ll never have had to work for someone like Richard before, but then again, he does have a pretty habit of endearing himself to women across the board while getting everything exactly his own way. Charm, I believe it’s called. Something I’ve never possessed.

“Right,” I hear him say. “Make the reservations, will you? Yes; eight will be fine. You’re a star.” Turning back to me, “Rustique. Little French jobby, apparently. Give me thirty minutes, darling, and I’ll see I don’t put you to shame.”

Taking the whisky with him, his jacket is the first to come off and is carefully hung on its allotted hanger; next his silk tie is pulled wide, almost savagely, and placed on a special hanger with tens of others; the Italian tan leather belt is pulled through the loops of his trousers and coiled, placed in a drawer; wooden shoe trees are inserted in each rich tan leather loafer; he steps out of first one, and then, the other leg of the trousers of his bespoke suit and they are hung with their jacket; the black cashmere socks are folded back in a pair before being deposited in the laundry basket, and he downs the rest of the whisky in one gulp. The silver cufflinks are taken out and popped back in their cream and black box, a twin to that of my diamond bracelet, and the handmade shirt, professional washed, ironed and starched only the day before, follows the socks into the basket.

The whole process is finished in minutes and without any of the fuss or mess I would make. I sip my apple juice and stare at the man I married: a man more than fifteen years my senior. The years have been kind: he is still very handsome, in a traditional sense with a full head of sandy hair, combed over at the side, clean-shaven cheeks, the only wrinkles serving to add to his appeal, soft blue eyes that crinkle at the side when he smiles and a small dimple in his chin.

Regular gym sessions and golf ensure that the dreaded middle-aged spread has been held at bay, for now, and yet, time waits for no man, and as he peels off his boxers – 100% cotton, John Lewis – I see that his bottom has the very beginnings of a sag to the cheeks. Nothing pronounced yet, indeed, far from it, but the clock is ticking. What appears dignified and mature in a face: a few wrinkles and lines, and the bags under the eyes that deem a man busy and important, seem less worthy on a bottom.

You cannot lust after a man with a saggy bottom. Unbidden, Isak flashes into my mind, followed by myself and my still firm body and pert breasts, and the life growing inside of me: the old, the young and the barely begun.

Twenty minutes of expensive lather, designer aftershave and bespoke clothing later, Richard reappears in the sitting room.

“Ready, darling?” he says, knowing full well I’ve been primed and ready to go long before he set foot inside the flat this evening. We descend into the night.

‘Rustique’ is indeed a French jobby, but exceeds even Richard’s expectations, although I suspect that has more to do with the out-of-London prices than the food. Not a miser by any standards, and always keen to spend exactly the right amount, he is nevertheless on guard against being ripped off. A trait of all rich men, I imagine. Richard is an orderer, and an expert one at that. He knows far more about food than I do, and I’m happy to bow to his expertise.

I’m to have the king prawns in a garlic and tomato sauce followed by the confit of duck with dauphinoise potatoes, while he tucks into the game terrine and a haunch of venison. I think I might like to try the guinea fowl supreme but the order has already been placed. A rich burgundy is brought to our table with a flourish at the same time that Richard waves the bread basket away as much for his own benefit, as for mine.

A single glass of wine, red, is good for the baby, he says, and I clink the glass against his, quashing the unexpected urge to tell him that only the middle class engage in such a mundane act, the upper class preferring a simple raise and acknowledgement.

The food is delicious and I’d like to tuck in with more gusto but I’ve never had a particularly large appetite, instead I savour each mouthful: the duck positively melts in my mouth and I allow the wine to coat my entire mouth with its rich velvety smoothness.

With each course, I pass a forkful across the table. Richard takes my fork, decants its contents on to his side plate, and returns the fork before loading his own with the new bounty. Despite having his child growing inside me, we do not, and never will, share cutlery. In an unguarded and oddly confiding moment on our honeymoon, Richard once confessed that ever since he read that Princess Anne never ate all the food on her plate, he had adopted the same attitude, and yet he looks mournfully at the slice of venison pushed carefully to one side on his plate. I think he enjoys the self-discipline and the denial though.

“I discovered something today,” I say. “Did you know that where we live used to be called Mad Alice Lane?”

“You know, I think someone might have mentioned it at work.”

Trust Richard to have known but not to have thought to share this information.

“Don’t you think that’s fascinating?”

“How so?” He tilts his head very slightly to one side, the line between his eyes marginally narrows and his bottom lip turns into a tiny pout.

I go on, “Well, who was this Alice? What did she do? Why was she mad? When did she live?”

“It’s probably just a nickname, one from the locals.”

“Well actually, I read in this guidebook that a real person called Alice Smith lived there in the 1800s. She was hanged for being crazy.”

“We don’t say someone is crazy now, Martha.”

“Oh. Well, you know, insane then. Did you know you could be killed just for being a bit, well, not all there?”

“I’m not sure this is suitable talk on your birthday dinner,” he says, taking my hand to soften the blow.

I sit back in my chair. “Of course not. Still,” I say, feeling unnaturally rebellious. “I think it’s fascinating.”

“What else did you and my future heir get up to today?”

I look at him considering; this isn’t a trick question; he isn’t trying to catch me out; he’s simply making polite conversation. But he knows I have nothing to fill my time with. I weigh up my options. “I found a book at home.”

“Home?”

“The flat.”

“Of course. Carry on.”

“It’s sort of a walking tour of the city.”

“Really?”

“Yes. It’s very old fashioned I suppose but it takes you around all the old snickelways in York; takes you to forgotten little nooks and off the beaten track.”

“Not too far off, I hope?”

“No; not at all,” I reassure him. “In fact, I kept bumping into this one person: a photographer. It was in this church. Did you know we live opposite a church?”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes; Holy Trinity. It’s medieval and has some lovely features still left inside. These box pews-”

“You don’t want a dessert, do you, darling?”

“Pardon?” He gestures at the menus the waiter put down a few minutes ago. “No, thank you. I’ll just have an espresso.”

“This late? Don’t you think a decaf Americano would be better? Two decaf Americanos,” he says to the hovering waiter.

“And it has a hagioscope.”

“A what?”

“A hagioscope,” I repeat. “It’s a little hole cut into the wall of a church so that the… hang on, let me get this right… so that the priest-”

“Oh, and the bill, please,” he says to the waiter. “Sorry, you were saying?”

“So that the priest can say mass in synchronisation with the main priest-”

“God, this is strong coffee. I don’t think it can be decaf after all. Shall we go?”

“Yes; let’s,” I say carefully replacing the cup into the saucer.

Standard