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
25634600-front-2000x1125
Fashion

Girls in glasses

I’m thinking of getting some new glasses. I fell for the big black Rayban-esque geek chic nerdy cool frames last year, and after a trip to Specsavers where I tried a pair of the designer frames on, I actually decided I preferred Specsavers’ own version, which, brilliantly, cost a mere £25 for the frames AND prescription lenses! I was sold. I’ve had the glasses for a year, and still love them, but I’ve been toying with branching out and if I can get my hands on another £25 pair, then I’ll be chuffed. These are my picks so far; are any taking your fancy? (They’re not all £25, but they’re all Specsavers’ own and none of them are more than £65 with lenses.)

 

25390124-front-940x529 25634600-front-2000x1125 25665130-front-940x529 25666106-front-2000x1125 25666120-front-2000x1125 25666847-front-940x529 25666854-front-2000x1125 25672619-front-2000x1125

Standard
Betsy Loves, Writing

Once upon a time at the Oscars

Hi guys. Sorry for the lack of posts – I blame the new job entirely, which, incidentally, is awesome! Anyway, hopefully I won’t disappear again any time soon.

Now, I appreciate this is a little late, but I thought I’d share this piece for the website of my new company all about the Oscars and storytelling. Here’s a link – scarlettabbott- The Oscars – and it also got picked up by an industry newsletter so I’m pretty chuffed by that! And just for kicks, I’ve pasted the full copy below as well. Hope you like it.

The Oscars

The Oscars are on our radar this week at scarlettabbott. Why? Well, we’d be lying if we said the retrospective in-depth critique of the night’s sartorial choices isn’t part of the reason. But mostly we love the glitziest ceremony in the celebrity calendar for the stories at their core. And no, we don’t mean who insulted whom or which clumsy starlet fell off the stage. We mean the stories of the films themselves: the big juicy tales that set previously placid pulses racing, brought tears to the eyes of the most stiff-lipped viewer, turned typically reserved titters to belly-aching guffaws, and drew the most reluctant of us deep into the lives of others.

A great story is so much more than the sum of its parts; more than just the holy trinity of characters, plot and narrative. Creating a compelling and nuanced cast of three-dimensional characters is a start. Add to that a rollercoaster ride of a plot for an even better start. But, more than anything else, it’s a narrative that takes those characters and that plot, and breathes life into both. The narrative is the ‘who’ and the ‘how’; the narrative is the heart of the story – it’s the storytelling.

It comes as no surprise that seven out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture have also been nominated for either Best Original or Adapted Screenplay as well. Sure, there is a lot of A-list casting – Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Emma Stone for starters, who all know their way around a character they can sink their teeth into. There are several cracking plots – the life of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking for one, but it’s the way the stories are told that makes them great.

Take Boyhood. The six-time Oscar nominated film depicts the coming of age of Mason Evans – a young boy in Texas growing up with divorced parents. An unknown actor and an arguably mundane plot are not necessarily the stuff of little gold statuette dreams but then there’s the narrative. Because when you see Mason grow up, you actually do – there’s no clever make-up and no adolescent actor taking over, just a real-life young boy filmed over the course of 12 years – and that’s ground breaking. As viewers, we grow up with Mason – progress, develop – and most important of all, we come to care. And when a story makes you care, when you’re emotionally engaged, great things happen- in the cinema, on the awards stage, or in your business.

While we might not all be winning Oscars just yet, a great IC team has a nose for a great story, and more importantly, knows how to make your story great, and how to make people care. Are you sitting comfortably?

Then let’s begin…

Standard
Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter two

Alice

At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time, but with Eliza in better health, and the little ones to help her, it was decided I’d be of more use earning a regular wage in a respectable house. It was Ma who heard of a position with the Tukes; Lord only knew how, but when that woman set her mind to something, it had a way of coming to pass.

Set a little ways out of the city, through the old Bar on Walmgate, 29 Lawrence Street, or more commonly, the Tuke House, was a fine imposing red brick building. Standing three floors tall, it was pleasing to the eye with big windows to the front, an impressive porch with a glossy blue front door with a shiny brass knocker and knob, additional wings each side and strong iron railings set in a stone wall encasing it. It couldn’t have been more different than my home in Bedern. I’d be both glad and lucky to get a place here.

I caught myself before anyone saw me staring like a fool, and searched around for the servants’ entrance, which I found to the right of the house: a gate in the railings with a staircase swept clean leading down to the kitchen and cellars. I wished I had the chance to knock on the door and compose myself, but it was standing ajar to let a fresh breeze through and I was spotted almost at once.

By rights, it should have been the cook to interview me for the job as kitchen maid but it was the housekeeper, a Mrs Nelson, who stood across the scarred and stained oak table in the sweltering heat of the kitchens and addressed me. Apparently there was some misunderstanding. There was no job for me as a kitchen maid, there was, however, an opening for a housemaid.

“A housemaid, ma’am?”

“Mrs Nelson,” she corrected me. “And yes; that’s right, Alice. Mrs Murray, our cook, is training up the kitchen maid Eileen to join her in the kitchen properly; she has no wish to enter into house service,” she said, rather testily, implying that the loss was Eileen’s.

I tried desperately to recall what my ma said about housemaids. I knew they were higher up the pecking order than kitchen maids, and I reckoned that meant a bigger wage too.

“You’re a little old to be starting in service.”

“Yes, ma’a-Mrs Nelson. I’m used to helping my ma. She takes sheets and the like in, but our Eliza is fit to be helping her now, but she’s still delicate, like. They reckoned I was the best fit, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

She nodded, and took my hands into hers, turned them over.

“Strong hands, used to hauling wet sheets around, I’ll be bound. Fine looking girl too; that’ll give Nanette something to think about. No shame in having you above stairs. Flatten that accent off. Yes, you’ll do.”

I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I had even been holding. Never one to mince her words, Ma had said I’d be more suitable than Eliza, not just because I was stronger, but because of my looks. The only one of the Haxbys to have fair hair, today it was pinned in a thick flaxen coil to my scalp, and while my hands may have been chapped from the washing, my skin was clear with rosy cheeks I’d pinched not a minute before, my eyes bright and my teeth my own without a rotten one to be seen.

“Yes; you’ll do. You’ll start Monday.”

“This Monday?”

“Do you have somewhere else to be?” she said, with a hint of a snort.

“No, no; Monday is grand. Thank you very much, Mrs Nelson,” and I bobbed an uncertain curtsey, unsure of what I was to do.

“You don’t curtsey to me, girl, just the family. Now, mind you’re here by the dinner bell on Sunday evening, Alice.”

She saw me looking down at my brown serge dress; my mother’s best but even in that light I could see the patches and darns, as well as the fabric worn thin on one of the elbows, while my shoes were held together with wishful thinking rather than substance.

“You’ll be provided with a uniform, like the rest of the girls. It’ll come out of your wage. A day dress, and one for afternoons and evenings; which you’ll be expected to wear on Sundays, and we’ll get you a pair of good solid leather shoes. Of course, you’ll bring your own stockings and shifts.”

I wondered how we’d manage that. The few items of clothing I did own would hardly be considered acceptable or appropriate attire in this household.

“And you’ll have your day off once a month. Any questions? No. Well, we’ll see you on Sunday, Miss Haxby. And welcome to 29 Lawrence Street.”

 ***

Ma organised stockings and a shift almost as good as new; for there they were, sat on top of the bed Eliza, Hannah and I shared, with the rest of my bundle; a bible taking pride of place.

“A bible, Ma?” I asked.

“They’re good folk, the Tukes. Respectable, like, but I don’t want you to be a party to their Quaker ways. Nowt wrong with the way we do things here, if you ask me, and you’d do well to remember that, my girl. This is an opportunity for you to better yourself, and no mistake. You get out of this filth, and don’t you look back.” She gestured to the Bible, “Thought it would be good if at least one of us could learn to read the thing.”

“Ma,” I said. “Don’t be daft. I’ll come back and see you on my day off; see you, Eliza and all the rest of them. I ain’t leaving you behind.”

“Hmmm,” was her response. “You’d best be going if you want to be there in time.”

“Yes, Ma.” I gave her a quick peck on the cheek; we were not a kissing family, nor a hugging one for that matter but I’d never left home before. Never spent a single night apart from my family.

For 19 years I’d fallen asleep to the grunts, farts and the moans of three, four, five, 10 other people; been comforted from bad dreams by the warmth of my sister, Eliza, and done the same for her. But that night I’d be sleeping in a house of strangers.

 ***

The work turned out not to be too bad; I’d done worse. Lord knows that having your hands in a barrel of sudsy water for hours at a time will teach you the meaning of pain when you’re left with cracked and bleeding palms that never get the chance to heal up properly.

My day began before dawn but that was no change, indeed, I liked to be up with the sun. Rightly, the work should have been divided almost equally between Rachel, the upper housemaid, or head housemaid as she liked to be called, and myself, but I was not trusted upstairs yet; not to the bedrooms and such. I didn’t speak flat enough; never mind the hours Mrs Nelson nagged me over it. My ‘t’s weren’t what they ought, while my ‘h’s also left a lot to be desired. I’d get it in the end though; I’d be damned if I didn’t.

Instead, I headed down the backstairs from the attic room I shared with Rachel and Nanette, who turned out to be the lady’s maid, to the lower floor where the shutters were opened to let the light break in through the rooms. There was a very particular order in which my work was to be carried out, which both Mrs Nelson and Rachel were keen to remind me of.

“First there’s the shutters to be opened,” said Rachel. “And then you sprinkle some tea leaves-”

“Tea leaves?”

“Don’t interrupt me, Alice. Yes, tea leaves. It gives everything a nice fragrance. Sprinkle them over the floor like this, see? Push all the dust to the fireplace… No, move the fender out of the way first, you silly girl. That’s right. Now, in the summer you’d usually only have to clean the grate when necessary, but in the winter it has to be swept and laid before the family rise for breakfast every morning. Lay your cloth here. Now where did you put your box? You must keep it with you at all times, Alice. A housemaid’s box is her most prized possession.”

I looked disbelievingly at the wooden box at my feet. It contained black lead brushes, leathers, emery paper, cloth, black lead, and numerous other tools for the correct cleaning not just of the grate, but of the entire house. I couldn’t promise, but I was almost certain that it would never become my most prized possession, but I got to my knees as Rachel demonstrated, sweeping the remaining ashes into a pail to go to the kitchen.

“And now you must blacken the grate. No, not the emery paper, that’s only for the bars! Get the tin of black lead. That one. Now lay it on with the soft brush. Get into all the nooks.”

All the rubbing was beginning to bring a glow to my cheeks so I stopped for a moment to roll my sleeves up.

“Alice! What on earth do you think you’re doing? Stop that at once!”

I paused, guiltily caught with my right hand at my left wrist.

“You must never be anything other than perfectly dressed at all times. To fail to do so is a disgrace. The master and mistress have no wish to see you with your arms exposed like a tavern girl or a slattern. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Rachel. Sorry, Rachel.”

“Good. Now, back to the grate. Polish off the blacking, and see how it begins to shine.”

I pulled my head back to observe the effect of the polishing, and while it didn’t shine like silver, there was a pleasing glow to the grate; something to be seen for the effort.

“I have a receipt for Brunswick black which will help move even the most stubborn marks.”

I gave her only half an ear as she mentioned linseed oil, turpentine and asphaltum, instead worked on getting a glow from the entire grate. I have always thought there something satisfying in watching dirt disappear; a useful trait in a housemaid, I think. When it was polished to mine, and Rachel’s, liking, she turned my attention to the lighting of the fire.

“You’ll find Mrs Nelson and I differ in our methods. She prefers the older practice of first laying cinders, followed by paper, dry wood, and finally pieces of coal, before setting light to the paper. By all means try her way. You may find it suits you. I, myself, lean towards a newer, more efficacious technique.”

She got to her knees beside me, for the first time all morning, and with almost a hint of enthusiasm reached into the coalscuttle.

“First, I like to lay some good sized pieces of coal which you mix with cinders, like so. Then you add your wood and another layer of coal, before popping your paper on the top, and then you light in the usual way,” she said, striking a match and setting it to the paper. “See? And now the fire burns from the top downward, instead of from the bottom. It uses less coal this way. Something the mistress approves of, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

I nodded my head wordlessly while trying to hide a small smile; I never thought my mornings would be filled with wondering whether to lay cinders first or coal; at home, a fire was a fire, and there was always a fight to get close to it before it was covered by the great copper pan Ma used to heat up the water for laundering.

One thing was for sure, I was grateful to discover that the laundry was taken care of by the scullery maid; it was no hardship to leave that task behind.

After the fires were lit, there was more dusting and polishing ensuring no surface was left untouched, and that all in the breakfast room was in perfect order for the family. The other rooms of the lower floor now also fell to me: the library, the morning room and drawing room, as well as sweeping the stairs, hall, doorway and passages, while Rachel took charge of the mistress’ dressing room: lighting the fire and bringing up pitchers of hot water, leaving Nanette to dress and take care of the mistress’s toilette.

The butler, Mr Roberts, dealt with the master, it being unseemly for a maid to do so, and no valet being employed; the footman, James, laid the breakfast cloth which seemed a ritual in itself with the tea urn, knives, forks and salt cellars before returning with the milk, cream, bread, butter, hot plates, egg cups and so forth.

The breakfast room bell would ring, and after seeing breakfast served, Rachel returned upstairs to throw up the sashes and curtains. I followed very briefly to empty the slop pails, scalding them with hot water or adding a drop of turpentine if there was stubborn night soil. Once that task was done, I quickly and quietly went downstairs once more leaving her to make the beds, dust and polish.

The drawing room and dining room required even more care and attention in cleaning, and still yet more tools: hard brushes for the velvet pile carpets, a feather brush and soft cloth for the furniture. After this was accomplished, it was time to dress for the day ahead.

Not that I had been wandering around the Tuke house in a state of undress! I laughed at the thought, and Rachel’s face at seeing such a thing. But the blacking of grates and emptying of slop pails could have an injurious effect on one’s clothes and so it was not until these early morning tasks were undertaken that my proper day dress was assumed.

As I climbed the servants’ stairs to the attic again, I reflected that it was not even nine o’clock; I had been awake barely three hours but already I was tired, although I did not quite yet long for my bed. This was different work entirely to that I was used to, but I knew enough that all I lacked was a little time to settle in. I hoped.

 ***

Even though I was not yet there long, and I was barely allowed upstairs, I could see what Ma meant; these people, they didn’t live like us. I knew that before, but it was different to see for yourself.

Every day Rachel laid out a fresh shift for Mrs Tuke and took water for bathing while the little ones in the nursery were treated with as much care. I was the eldest, but even I didn’t recall ever having something new to call my own, always hand-me-downs and cast-offs, yet the Tuke children had whole sets of outfits each.

And the food! It had to be seen to be believed! Eight courses, one after another. It fair made you gawp. And these Tukes weren’t even fancy folk. Mrs Nelson said that to see the way they carried on in London was to see something else. I bet Nanette would have something to say and all, if she’d deign to open her stuck up pinched little mouth. Seemed to me that just because a proper lady’s maid has to be French, she didn’t have to be a right little madam too; airs and graces like you’ve never.

But they seemed nice folk, the Tukes. Quakers, like Ma said, though I didn’t have much idea what that meant, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure she did, neither. I soon learnt it meant to live peacefully with others, and to live in a plain way.

They called themselves Friends, and Ma needn’t have worried, they read the Bible just like us, well, if we Haxbys could have read. Rachel told me piety, faith and love were their beliefs, adding with pride that the Tukes were well known in the community, philan-something or others apparently.

Mr Tuke, Samuel, the master of the house, was often called on by his grandfather, William; I’d never seen a man so old. There were whispers that he was over a hundred years old. I doubted that myself, for no man could live so long, and the Bible only allotted us three score years and ten, but he was a decrepit specimen with a nose so hooked he looked like a shrivelled bird of prey.

Despite his benevolent reputation, people tended to make themselves scarce when he was around. A will of iron, you did well not to get caught in his path. He founded The Retreat, which caught up so much of my master’s time; a lunatic asylum. Just the thought of it gave me the heebie jeebies when really I should have known better. There were more crazy people living in the slums of York than The Retreat would ever see, and most of them, were no more evil than you and me, simply lonely, sad and haunted by demons.

I’d not had call to see a great deal of Mrs Priscilla; Mrs Tuke, that was. She kept to her rooms and she certainly didn’t venture below stairs to discuss house affairs with Mrs Nelson. Instead, it was the latter who climbed the narrow spiralling staircase to the ground floor and met the mistress in the morning room once a week to plan out menus, entertaining and the like. But I’d seen her likeness in the portrait hanging in the drawing room; not a handsome woman, to my mind – dark hair that Nanette curled into tight sausages that clustered around her head but were mostly covered by a plain cap, skin scarred by childhood smallpox, thin lips too often pursed, a face already heavily lined, and bushy eyebrows which hung low over her eyes. Like old Mr Tuke, she seemed to have a strong mind of her own, which I couldn’t help but admire until I came to be on the receiving end of it. I should have known better; we all learned to fear her scathing remarks.

Lucy, the nursemaid, said to me, “It’s not so much that you’ve angered her, but that you’ve let her down. I’ve never felt so mortified in my entire life!”

Not a woman who suffered fools gladly then. A strong Quaker herself, like Mr Tuke, she eschewed the fancy fashions of the time. No swagged sleeves and scarlet dresses for her, much to Nanette’s dismay, yet, the severe black and navy woollen gowns that I saw being washed were of the highest quality, her linens expertly woven, time was still taken to rag her hair, and there were even lace collars from French convents. A sort of luxurious modesty was practised. Mind you, I couldn’t and didn’t complain; despite the money for my own dresses coming from my wages, the name Tuke ensured that the fabric I was sent was better quality that anything I’d ever owned before or since.

Anyway, clothing aside, there was a bleeding great lot of Tukes, and it took me a good few weeks to get them sorted in my head, but not as many as I’d left at home, thankfully. If you’d not got old Mr Tuke visiting, his son Henry was, while Mrs Tuke entertained her sisters and other female Friends, with a capital F, daily.

As for the children, Hannah was the eldest, and at only eight, a child very much still. Young Henry was the heir, and a more opinionated five year old I’d never met, which was to say, I’d never actually met him at this stage, but Lucy said he was a right so-and-so. Mind you, our James could probably give him a run for his money, the cheeky sod. Maria was next, then Sarah, and Priscilla (after her mother) and another one just out of her belly, the oddly named Gulielma. A quintet of girls, with only one boy to rule the roost, but, if the rumours were to be believed from Nanette, Mrs Tuke’s courses hadn’t been seen for a month or so. Another baby on the way perhaps? Maybe a little brother for Henry to play with, Lord knew he needed one.

Lucy had her hands full in the nursery, and I couldn’t say I was sorry to be relegated far below stairs. I had had enough looking after our lot.

Despite the Tukes numbering eight, 29 Lawrence Street didn’t boast a great staff, but that was another lot of names to get in my head. Ruth, the scullery maid was at the bottom of the pecking order, followed by Eileen, the kitchen maid, and then myself. The upper housemaid, Rachel, was next and we both answered to Mrs Nelson, the housekeeper. Rightly Lucy, the nursemaid should have answered to a governess, but one hadn’t been appointed yet, and I suspected Lucy, who knew her letters and numbers, had made her own bed when she showed her learning. She was in a sort of limbo, Lucy.

Nanette should really have answered to Mrs Nelson too but that would never have happened in a month of Sundays; far too uppity, that one. A day in Bedern would soon change that, which was as unlikely as me becoming a lady. Then there was Mrs Murray, the cook, who rightly wasn’t anyone’s Missus, but all cooks and housekeepers took the title. I doubted there was a Mr Nelson on the scene, either; certainly not one I saw.

Jefferson, the gardener and Parkin, the coachman, were both outdoor servants, but answered to Mr Roberts, the butler, as did James, the footman.

It took me almost a month to be properly sure of who everyone was and where they all went. By rights, considering our master’s position in society, Mrs Nelson told me we should also have had a tweeny, a valet, a steward and several more housemaids, a governess and a matching set of footmen. Heaven knows where we’d have fit everyone! As it is, I shared a tiny attic room with Nanette and Rachel, while Eileen and Ruth bunked up next to us, Lucy slept in the night nursery with the children, and Mrs Murray and Mrs Nelson both had their own rooms.

The men slept across the corridor but I’d no call to know their sleeping arrangements, nor had any wish to, Rachel reminded me, if I wanted to keep my position.

 ***

Whatever Mrs Nelson said, once I’d grown accustomed to them my duties there seemed much less arduous than helping Ma wash clothes all day long. Days took on a routine as I shook Rachel awake, who slept harder than our Eliza, while Nanette dozed a while longer in her narrow bed and threw mumbled French curses at us.

Little Ruth was always up an hour since, poor lass; stoking the kitchen fire for Mrs Murray and boiling the water for the breakfast, and the family. There was just enough time for me to pour some cold water from the jug into the chipped bowl in its iron stand and throw it under my arms before putting on my first dress of the day.

I learnt more each day and had less need for Rachel’s guidance; soon I’d be trained enough to help her but in the meantime she grumbled loud and long about her extra duties. Personally, I couldn’t see that flattening my vowels would make a difference as my role was to be neither seen nor heard. Anyhow, until Mrs Nelson deemed my ‘h’s and ‘t’s acceptable, I did as I was told, only venturing upstairs for the slops, and to change into my morning dress while the family was at breakfast, and besides, from dawn long past dusk there was plenty that kept me occupied. It was not long before the end of my first month drew near, and with it, my day off.

 ***

It had been raining for days, but whatever the weather in the morning, nothing was going to stop me from taking off through the city to see Eliza and Ma. That day hadn’t been a bad day, far from it. I was getting into the rhythms of the house and finding my place there. I thought I could even sense a softening in the attitude of Rachel, and perhaps a friend in Lucy. I had much to tell my sister and closest confidante.

As it was my day off, either Rachel or maybe Ruth would have to take care of my duties, including laying the fires in the morning. I was conscious that the coalscuttles were low, and Ruth was only a little thing. She was wiry, but I bet it took me half the time it did her to get the coal hauled up there. No harm in helping out now, was there?

It was past midnight and the rarely glimpsed Mr and Mrs Tuke had dined hours before, while the children had long since disappeared to bed. It was only the servants left awake, but all had retreated to their rooms, their heads sensibly hitting their pillows, or a few precious moments snatched to themselves, and I was the only one still dithering, Rachel having dragged her weary legs upstairs several minutes before.

Gathering some coal would take only a few minutes and I was too excited to see my family tomorrow to sleep just then. The scuttle in the breakfast room needed a full top up as did the drawing room – the most favoured room of the house, it got through a lot of coal, and I was on my third trip up the stairs before I reached the dining room. It still smelled of their supper.

Being only the two of them to dine, a plain supper had been served of green pea soup, roast fowl garnished with watercress, gravy, and bread sauce, followed by cold veal and salad, and finished with a cherry tart. Mrs Murray had even made some cherry tart for us as well although below stairs we ate plainer still; sometimes though, the smells of their fancy dinners with blancmange, lobster salads, pigeon pie and strawberry ices, I swore they could almost sustain you. My ma would have laughed at that.

I breathed it all in. Whatever the smell, even in July, it was a damn sight better than Bedern. With only the library left, I glanced at the bucket at my feet. There was only a third left but in this weather there had not been a great need for fires in there. It was only Mr Tuke who used it anyway. A third should have been more than enough, and I’d no wish to go downstairs again.

I opened the door to the library, heaved the bucket across to the fireplace and was down on my hands and knees about to start refilling the copper bucket set to one side when a muffled cough stopped me in my tracks.

“Please be James,” I thought to myself. “Or even Mr Roberts.”

I turned my head ever so slightly, and Lord help me, but who should have been in one of the high-backed wing chairs but Mr Tuke himself; the master. His head was slumped on to his chest, starched white collar biting into his neck slightly, arms folded tightly with shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and legs crossed at the ankle revealing pale woollen stockings.

Still dozing, although my entrance had disturbed him, I was in a quandary. Instructed to remain invisible at all times, we were the hidden clockwork of the house, and Mrs Nelson had been very clear that the family were only to be aware of our presence should they demand.

If there was one thing Mr Tuke, a reserved Quaker gentleman, respected throughout the city, didn’t need, it was to be caught snoozing in a chair with his stockings on show, jacket-less with his arms bared by the new housemaid.

I shouldn’t even have been in there, doing that now, anyway! I knew that I needed to make my exit as quickly and as quietly as I could, but instead I stayed on my knees and examined him. It was the first time I’d seen him up close, and who knew when I’d get another chance.

He was handsome, no one could say otherwise, and far removed in looks from his beak nosed grandfather. I would have placed him no older than 35, with a full head of thick curling brown hair that was kept long as fashion dictated but neatly tied behind at the nape. Full eyebrows framed his face, although what colour his eyes were could have been anyone’s guess, tightly closed as they were.

His face was relaxed in sleep, his cheeks smooth without a popular moustache. I found I was glad about that. Yes, he was definitely well made. Sat in the chair he gave me little indication to his build, but from the few glimpses I had had of him in the distance, I knew him to be tall, although not overly so, and without any great breadth in his shoulders. Unlike our James or even William, who was only seven, there was no hint of the labourer in him. He was unmistakably a gentleman born and bred, as his hands bore witness: smooth and lined only with age and design, rather than wear.

Even I, unused to quality, could see the fineness of his clothes, despite their plainness; the woollen navy jacket slung carelessly over the nearby settle with a thick white cravat thrown on top, his beautifully embroidered brocade waistcoat, its twin rows of golden buttons undone revealed more of the cream linen shirt beneath, leading down towards the woollen breeches, not yet upgraded to the more fashionable trousers, and stockings woven of the finest cream wool.

He even smelled like a gentleman, not that I could put my finger on how, probably it was simply the smell, or lack of, a clean person. I’d never seen anything like him.

As if aware of my scrutiny, he stirred again slightly, and I realised my situation. I had to get out of the library. I prayed I could get to my feet quietly, but feared that my new shoes, which, even after a month, I’d yet to wear in properly and were causing agonising blisters to form across my toes and the back of my ankles, would betray me once more (having already caused disgrace earlier in the week as the combination of them with the polished marble flooring of the hallway saw me fall head over heels).

Using the palms of my hands, I put first my left, and then my right, foot beneath my knees, and pushed myself up, hoping the creaking of my knees was only discernable to myself. My bottom rose in the air, and as I straightened my back, I heard the sleeper clear his throat. Hoping against hope that God was still on my side and that he was merely disturbed, I reached for the bucket and was about to leave when his throat was cleared once more.

“Ahem.”

Silently cursing, I turned around as slowly as I dared, wasting time until my inevitable dressing down. I faced the wingchair and while I lowered my eyes respectfully, I refused to hang my head like a dog waiting for a whipping.

However, as the silence grew between us, I couldn’t resist raising my eyes. He was smiling, I’d have sworn it, and even though I knew it was not my place to talk, and by doing so, I was committing a far greater crime, I couldn’t help myself.

“Mr Tuke, sir. I’m very sorry for disturbing you. I thought the room was empty, you see, and- and I can assure you it will never happen again.”

In my haste, I dropped my ‘h’s, and it was that that brought colour to my cheeks; the thought that I was disgracing myself. My words trailed off. His silence was unnerving and yet the smile still remained, and his eyes, grey I then discovered, were smiling too. Finally, he cleared his throat again and I had to stifle the urge to offer to get him a glass of water.

“Well, it seems you know who I am, but I am at a disadvantage. Who might you be?”

“I’m your new housemaid, sir.”

“And am I to know the name of my new housemaid?”

“Alice, sir. That is to say, Miss Haxby, sir. Or Alice. Or, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re to call me.”

This time I did hang my head with my cheeks burning brightly.

“Alice,” he said. “I shall call you Alice.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well Alice, it is time I went to bed, and you to yours, I suspect.”

“Goodnight, sir,” I said, and bobbed a small, decidedly wonky curtsey. Before he left the room, he gathered his discarded jacket and cravat into his arms, buttoned his waistcoat, and as he left I thought I caught a chuckle, and the whisper of my name.

Standard