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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter fourteen

Alice

We’d known sickness before. In a city where whole families lived in one room and open sewers flowed down many streets it is an accepted part of life. People will fall ill and some will die. Myself, I had nursed the Tuke children through scarlet fever and I was hardly the only one with such a story. For them to lose only Esther was considered a blessing at the time. Yet, when the rumours began to filter through that another sickness was spreading through the city, another far more lethal, I couldn’t act with complacency.

I was within weeks of my due date, and I’d have guarded my precious cargo with my life. Seeing Samuel all those months ago had changed the course of my life once more. I could not say whether the child I carried was his or that of my husband, but I prayed every night that he was Samuel’s.

I returned home that day, soaked again by the rain on my walk back, to find Thomas in a temper, demanding to know where I had been. I never told him the truth, of course; instead that I had been visiting my family, and the next time I saw Eliza, I handed her the precious volumes to keep safe; I couldn’t risk Thomas finding them.

I hadn’t seen Samuel since but those brief hours we shared, reunited, were enough to bring some light back into my life. Knowing that he did not betray me, and that he too would grieve for the child we lost, had lifted me from the cold dark place I had willingly crawled into.

To say I was filled with joy at my life with Thomas Smith was to tell a lie, but I was reconciled; accepting of my circumstances. He was a violent, coarse, crude man, but I was provided for, and with no reason to suspect the babe I carried might not be his, his pleasure at discovering I was pregnant almost touched me.

He had proved a milder man since that day, and I was no longer taken so roughly. I could look Simon in the eyes once more, and that time, my rounded belly was no shame. Neighbours congratulated me, and I was welcomed most openly into my childhood home. No one begrudged me an hour or two with Eliza those days.

But there was a slight shadow; for the first time in my life, I was keeping a secret from her. No one apart from Samuel and myself knew of our brief reunion. I hadn’t dared tell Eliza; not for lack of trust for I would entrust her with my life, but for simple superstitious fear that to speak of such things will be to release them into the world, for anyone to catch at. I dared not. I had simply handed her the books.

And so I carried my babe and my secret alone, and then sickness came to the city and I knew real fear once more.

 

They said some sailors brought it with them from Hull. Hearing of the habits of such men, I don’t doubt it, even today, and certainly, within hours of their arrival, the first people began to fall ill. We might not have afforded a daily newspaper in our household, but news travels fast by word of mouth.

With the first death came confirmation of the worst kind. Cholera was come to York.

 

Months ago, while snow still laid on the ground, it was rumoured that something was afoot when city officials had begun to make their rounds demanding a clean up. We had laughed at them. How do you clean up an open sewer? Where do you put your nightsoil when there are no drains? The river has always seemed as good a place as any for most.

And yet, rooms were whitewashed, as were the pigsties and privies, for those lucky enough to have the latter. Ma had said it wasn’t the first time officials had been to Bedern, but they had scurried away fast enough with their tails between their legs and shit on their shoes. But when nothing followed these incursions into the filthier parts of the city, interest had waned. We should have known that something had spurred those officials on; they never spend money unless they have to.

It was May, Race Week, and a hot day brought with it the stench of sewage, hardly unusual and liable to get much worse before the summer was out; a yearly occurrence, but never one with the whisper of cholera before.

I was unsure whether to count myself fortunate or not for I had a little knowledge of the disease. Samuel’s library was varied and he had let me have free rein. I had thought once I might have been interested in medicine had I been a boy and of means. I remembered only fragments of what I had read but those tightened around my heart like a vice.

It is a dreadful sickness, striking fast and taking those inflicted within days, even hours, as they lie in their own filth unable to keep any fluid in their body. Sacrificing a coin from my pitiful savings, I bought a copy of the day’s Gazette and read:

“The disease has at last manifested itself in our city. The first alarm was on Sunday when a poor man named Hughes residing in The Hagworm’s Nest became ill. He has now recovered and is doing well. The next was Greaves a sawyer living in the same court. He went home intoxicated on Monday night and was a corpse on Tuesday night. Barrett who kept The Anchor in Middle Water Lane was taken to the cholera hospital; a woman in Swan Street (in an advanced pregnancy of an illegitimate child) was the next victim…”

 

Despite the relief I felt that Hagworm’s was far removed from Petergate, the infection of a pregnant woman hit me hard. It should not have come as a surprise to me. Everyone knows a woman with child is at risk, and to be carrying an illegitimate child is to court infection, for, who does cholera target other than the poor and depraved? Or so we are led to believe.

I only knew a few days’ relief for soon we received news that victims were numbered in the Shambles, and the city officials appeared in full strength once more.

Notices were pinned up (a futile effort if ever I saw one for many in the poorer areas barely knew to recognise their own names, never mind struggle with alien words) across the city urging for increased cleanliness from the citizens, and strong-smelling quicklime was dumped in great quantities across the roads, ditches and ancient moats, turning the cobbles and puddles white, while houses with sick inhabitants were fumigated with pitch.

From single figures, the name of victims rose rapidly as the disease wound its lethal way through Bootham, Coppergate, Gillygate, Monkgate and ever onwards, until, inevitably it found its way into Bedern. A note was delivered to Thomas and I in Eliza’s hand begging us not to visit them; she needn’t have feared for my husband.

As soon as he learnt of the sickness, he forbade me from attending them, and for once, I did not resent his demands. I was torn between my desire to help my family, and my need to protect the child inside me. My unborn child won out.

By now, my belly was so big that the birth could only be days away, and I carried myself ungainly. Thomas’ comparisons to a cow were unkind, yet sadly just. The heat caused my ankles to swell uncomfortably in my leather shoes and in the house, where I spent most of my hours, I had taken to wandering barefoot like a slattern.

My back ached from the weight of my belly, my thighs chafed and my breasts were tender. The housework suffered as it took me long minutes to heave my bulk up the stairs and I thought, not altogether joking, that if the pregnancy went on for much longer, I might have to take up permanent residence in the kitchen, where even a restful minute on the stool caused sweat to pour down my face and pool between my breasts from the heat of the stove. An elegant brood mare, I was not, yet Thomas remained pleased with me, and for that, I was hugely grateful, and relieved.

It was amidst the news of the disease spreading to Goodramgate that I was brought to bed. I had thought to have Eliza and Ma with me at my confinement, but was instead tended by a local midwife on whom Thomas had spared no expense, perhaps motivated by guilt at his continued insistence that my family were not to visit us while cholera was still rife; more likely to protect his heir.

The heat from the midday July sun was stifling and I longed to have the window open, but this was forbidden, and a fire was built up in the grate instead. After Simon had brought the great copper bowl from the kitchen and filled it with water, both he and Thomas were banished downstairs by the midwife; an unnecessary pronouncement for the former scuttled off as fast as his legs could carry him, and the latter had yet to make an appearance. I imagined him either in the kitchen with a pint, or the pub with several. I couldn’t say that I blamed him. As the pain increased in my belly, I half wished I could join him. Drinking certainly seemed to take Pa away from the trials of everyday life.

The pains were coming stronger and faster now, and I knew, from helping Ma that it couldn’t be too long now. I also knew that first babies could take the longest, although, was this really my first child, I wondered. By the time Ma was on Maria, I’d swear she slipped out like a puppy. Mind you, that’s what having thirteen children will do to you. I was the first and I bet I didn’t come easily.

When the midwife told me to push, I did and it was a relief to have something to do, something to push against to fight against the pain. I screamed out. It’s unladylike to do so and I had never heard Priscilla Tuke do so in all the time I was with them; four babes in all, but I’m no lady and never had pretensions to that.

“That’s right, love,” said the midwife. “You scream out. Let your husband know what he’s put you through.”

I felt a tightening down below, as if I was going to explode, and with the next push, I knew that the head had passed through. Stretched beyond belief, it was a blessed relief to push the rest of my child out from me and into the midwife’s capable hands, who briskly cut the cord and then laid the sticky red bundle on my chest.

“A boy, Mistress Alice,” she said. “A healthy baby boy. But it’s not over yet. There’s still the afterbirth to be delivered. That’ll come in it’s own time. Now let me clean up baby for you,” and my son was taken away from me.

I watched as he was tenderly sponged down and wrapped tightly, before being placed in the cradle, a makeshift thing provided by Eliza many weeks ago. A son. I could not believe it. After carrying him inside me for nine months, I had a son. Samuel’s son, I hoped, I prayed.

“Come now, let’s get you finished. Push, Mistress Alice; push one last time for me.” I did as bidden and was rewarded with an excruciating pain that shot across my belly. I had never known pain like it and screamed accordingly. “There now, Mistress; the worst is over.”

“It feels different,” I panted. “Wrong.”

“Wrong?” she repeated and put a firm hand on my stomach before slicking her hands with oil and slipping up inside me. I felt a sharp tug and screamed again. “Not the afterbirth,” she said, under her breath. “You’ve got another bairn coming there.”

“Another?” I said.

“Another, and he’s lying funny.”

“A breech?” I asked. I knew what a breech was. Ma had had one with our Philip. He didn’t last more than a few minutes once delivered, and for a while, we wondered if Ma might follow him. “What can you do? Will it be alright?”

“Aye. I’ve delivered breech before. Don’t you worry, Mistress; we’ll have this baby out of you in no time but first, I need to twist him. I’m not going to tell you a lie; this is going to hurt. I’ll put my hands inside you, and I’ll be looking to pull him the right way. Now take a big breath; that’s right, and bite down on this.” I slid the wood into my mouth and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. “Scream as much as you like, it won’t make no difference to me.”

Her cold hands slid into me once more and almost immediately I felt a brutal yank from deep inside. I clenched my hands into fists and closed my eyes. I wished Eliza were there. I felt as if I was being torn apart and with one final agonising wrench, the hands came free and with them, an immense pressure was lifted.

The arms that held up my second child were covered in blood to the elbows, and this time, the baby was taken away immediately. I was too tired to lift my head and watch it being washed and wrapped. With a slithering that felt like I was voiding my bowels, the afterbirth slipped out from within me, and exhausted, my head dropped to one side and my eyes closed. I didn’t even know if the child lived.

I was wakened by the sound of crying, not the cries of a week-old baby, but the soft, almost pathetic, mewing of a newborn when it has been so cruelly ripped from warmth into the cold brightness of this world. I shifted my position, and attracted the attention of the midwife.

“Ah, there you are, Mistress Alice. You’ll want to be seeing the bairns.” She placed one bundle on one breast. “This is your son.” And another to his left. “And this is your daughter.”

“A daughter? I have a daughter?” I was filled with joy. Ma always used to say that sons were for the fathers but daughters were for the mothers. And I was blessed with both. Another shift caused me to wince in pain.

“You’ve torn down there, my love. But nothing a few days rest won’t fix as long as that husband of yours keeps his hands off you. I’ll go tell him the good news, shall I?”

Without waiting for a response, she shuffled out of the room, and left me alone with my babies, my twins. They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Both topped with a fluffy down of whisper-fine brown hair, their skin was the smoothest thing I had touched, and their hands, with tiny grasping fingers each with their own miniature nail, seemed like miracles.

Cries abating, and as drowsiness overcame them after their epic battle, I fell in love with their pale blue eyes; unfocused and soft, they reminded me of my new role as their protector. How defenceless they were. I thought, already, that I would die for them, and I pressed my nose on to their scalps and breathed in deeply. It was heaven, but heaven was interrupted by the arrival of Thomas, who threw open the door with a bang, causing two pairs of sleepy blue eyes to start open, and two pink perfect mouths to open in harmony.

“I have a son!” he exclaimed and strode briskly to the side of the bed. “A son!”

“Yes, and a daughter too.” I smiled at him, determined to let nothing prick my bubble of happiness. “Would you like to hold one of them?” I offered up the boy, knowing this to be the real source of his elation. “What shall we name them?” I said. Thomas was cradling our son close to his chest. One hand cupped the small head, the other laid flat taking the weight of the body, and if I hadn’t known otherwise, I’d have said that it is natural for him.

“Thomas,” he said. “After his father. Young Thomas Smith. I’ll train him up to take over from me. Smith and Son. A fine sounding name.”

“Thomas,” I said. The name was not disagreeable to me. I would not have suggested Samuel. “And our daughter?”

“You name her, Alice. It is your right.”

“Rebecca,” I said. “A good strong Christian name. Thomas and Rebecca Smith.”

Thomas let his son’s tiny fingers clasp one of his own, and he studied him with love, but as I watched, his back stiffened, and he roughly thrust the baby back into my arms.

“Blue eyes?” he said.

“Yes, Thomas. Blue, and Rebecca’s as well. See.”

“Blue eyes and dark hair.” I suppose new motherhood had dulled my senses for it took me a second to realise what he was saying. “And you with brown eyes and fair hair? And I with brown eyes and red hair? Not a blue eye between us.”

“But-” I stuttered, and was interrupted by the midwife.

“Master Smith, babes are more often than not born with blue eyes. They change as the weeks go by.”

“Hold your tongue!” he snarled. The atmosphere changed the room in an instant. “Let’s see then, shall we? Let’s see if the child’s eyes turn brown like his father, or stay blue; a sure sign his whore of a mother is up to her old tricks. I said I’d raise your bastard once before, but I’ll not this time. Not if you strayed while living under my roof. No bastard boy is going to be called Thomas.”

“But, we had decided. He is yours Thomas. I swear to it. They both are yours.” I would have sworn anything to protect those babes, even that the blue eyes, in which I prayed I saw their real grey-eyed father reflected, were only a passing colour.

He pressed his face up to mine, his anger caused spit to escape as he said, and “The boy will not be called Thomas; understand?”

The babies were scared. I could feel them squirming on my chest, and soon their cries would join my husband’s.

“But what shall I call him?”

“It’s no concern of mine, Mistress Smith. You call the bastard what you will,” and he swept from the room, slamming the door behind him.

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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter thirteen

Martha

I capitalise on my newfound confidence by spending the next day outside the flat for as long as I want. My first port of call is to the Castle Museum. As I arrive a tour group is just leaving from the reception so I slide into the back. As fascinating as the painstakingly kitted out reproduction Victorian Street is, it’s too late in time to bear any resemblance to the world Alice would have known, and it’s the old prison cells beneath the museum that hold the most interest.

Incarcerating both men and women, conditions were dreadful, and yet, depending on the true date of Alice’s arrest, if it happened at all, would dramatically alter the conditions in which she was kept. If 1823, as some sources seem to suggest, then she would have been in the old prison, the part that I stand in now with its bleak stone walls, damp impregnating the walls, and wardens often impregnating the female inmates.

But if in 1825, a new prison had been built in a Tudor Gothic style. Said to be the strongest building in all of England, it was built entirely from dark grey gritstone lending it a particularly forbidding appearance.

Nothing remains of this newer prison, but I can imagine that it was, in many ways, as grim as the old, and with executions taking place just outside in the courtyard, being brought here before trial must have really felt like the end. There must have been little hope in these walls.

In one corner is a little machine that looks rather like a cash dispenser. Closer inspection reveals it to be an online database, not unlike the one online in which visitors can search for names, specifically those of their family. I suppose there’s nothing quite like knowing there’s a sheep thief in the family.

After checking once again that Alice Smith comes up blank, I tentatively type in ‘Chamberlain’, and am rewarded with an entirely clean slate. Richard will be thrilled. ‘Blenkinsop’ reveals itself to be equally as blameless, although I would have been grateful for any snippet of information there, even a crime.

Lastly, reluctantly almost, although I can’t control myself, I type in ‘Martha’. A sad tale appears of Martha Chapel who was executed for murdering her illegitimate child by mangling it with her hands immediately after its birth in 1803. She went to the gallows protesting her innocence to the end, claiming, left alone to deliver her child, any harm was inflicted in panic.

Reading, I can feel the blood pumping in my ears, and my chest constricts with anguish; poor woman, poor child. After all those ghost stories too. Perhaps it is too soon for this; I am still too raw myself. Perhaps I might have found myself in a similar situation?

The thought is too hideous to consider and I force myself to brush it aside. Steadying my hands against the machine, hogging it despite a small child pushing at my elbow, I take a deep breath and try to clear my mind. But before I leave, I still have to ask a member of staff about the execution records online.

 

“I believe all of the records are on there for you to search,” says the middle-aged man I’ve collared. “Were you looking for anyone in particular?”

“Alice Smith,” I say. “I looked yesterday but couldn’t seem to find anything. And today I can’t either. There are plenty of Smiths but no Alice Smiths, and none around the dates I’m searching.”

“In that case, I’d say that she wasn’t here then.”

“But I’ve read, and been told, several times that she was,” I insist.

“I suppose you could speak to our archivist,” he says, a little doubtfully.

“Perfect.”

“You’ll have to make an appointment, mind, and even then, she might not be able to help you.”

“That’s fine, thank you,” I say, and take the business card he proffers.

“Oh, and you might find something in our gift shop.”

“Something?”

“Well, you know, a book or something.”

“Right, thanks.”

Leaving the unhelpful man behind, I venture into the gift shop, which, needless to say, was already on my to-do list. To not visit the gift shop is sacrilegious. A quick scan of the bookshelves reveals only one possible candidate: Tyburn Tales: The Criminal Chronology of York Castle.

Promising a carefully compiled list of prison documents, ancient papers and other authentic sources, including details of the crimes, trials and executions of every murderer, highwayman, rogue and rebel ever to swing from the York Tyburn, I hand it over to the cashier.

 

My next stop is the library and the parish records. Evie isn’t working on the reception desk, but by mentioning her to a woman upstairs in the archives, I soon find myself sitting at a solid wooden desk with a large green book in front of me: the records for Holy Trinity, Goodramgate. In spite of knowing otherwise, I also asked after Deepdene’s records, but was disappointed.

Armed with one name only, Alice Smith, I set to with vigour on Trinity’s archives. Fortunately, my degree has equipped me with the ability to decipher old-fashioned handwriting, or I might find my self-imposed task nearly impossible.

Dismissing anything earlier than 1800, arguing that for a woman to be described a ‘young’ she can’t have been more than 23 or 25 when she was executed, it seems at first that my efforts are to be thwarted.

If there was no husband and she was simply imprisoned for being insane, then you might expect to find a record of her baptism as Alice Smith, but if there was a husband, she was probably baptised under a different surname. Plenty of Smiths turn up, all of which I duly note down, but no Alices; and none with a different surname either.

The cramped scrawl takes time to read, and there are pages of entries before I stumble upon something with potential. In October 1824 I find “Thomas Smith, shoemaker, of Petergate, and Alice Haxby, of Bedern, banns, by W.L, he signs, she signs. W: Charles Haxby, Elizabeth Haxby.”

One entry. No more. And nothing concrete to indicate this is my Alice except a feeling. It is her; I know it is. And if it is, she was from Bedern. I can’t help a shudder run down my spine. I wonder if it was a hovel when she lived there? Perhaps she knew the stories of the abused orphans? So many coincidences. And there is no wonder her baptism isn’t recorded: Bedern is in a different parish to the Holy Trinity.

I check the date again – October 1824. She can’t have been executed in 1823. That, at least, is one story to cross off my list. Although, 1825 still remains a possibility, despite not turning up in the castle registers.

The record also reveals that Alice signs, meaning she signed her own name on the marriage certificate. Many of the people married in that year, male and female, simply made their mark. Was she educated? Or could she only write her name?

I presume the witnesses are her parents; it’s not an outrageous assumption to make that they would attend their daughter’s own wedding, and they give me a new lead in hunting for Alice’s baptism. I scrabble on the shelves for the Bedern parish records but after five minutes, I accept defeat.

“Oh, you won’t find many baptisms for Bedern; the chapel there had been taken over by the Minster by that time,” says the archivist sitting primly at her desk, a far cry from Evie. “You’ll find the parishioners were incorporated into Holy Trinity.”

“But I can’t seem to find a baptism and I know she existed. Here,” I say, pointing at the marriage entry. “Look, Alice Haxby, of Bedern.”

“Not all children were baptised at that time, you know.”

“I know, but, I don’t know how to explain this, but I think she would have been.”

The woman gives me a sideways glance. “If she was baptised, she would be in here,” she says, pulling the heavy book of Holy Trinity records towards her. “Married in 1824. Hmmmm. Have you searched the whole book?”

“I started at 1800.”

She tuts, “You need to go further back than that. They didn’t marry all that young then… Right, here you go.”

“What?” I say. “You’ve found her.”

“Right here,” and she places a finger on the book.

“But-”

“If you’re going to search for people, make sure you do it properly.”

My thanks freeze in my throat, but I force them out anyway, eager to read the text hidden under her figure.

“Alice,” I read. “‘1799 Dec 1, Alice d Charles and Elizabeth Haxby of Bedern. labourer by W.L.’ What does ‘by W.L. mean?” I ask.

“That would be the initials of the officiating clergy. There’ll be a key somewhere.”

I flip the book open to its front.

“See there, William Lund.”

“So the same man who married her to Thomas?”

“It would appear so. They were small communities then, close, her parish priest would have known her as well as any, I would imagine.”

I stare back at the entry. To see it here, in black ink, is to have further proof that she existed. Pulling a fresh sheet of paper in front of me, I start a timeline. She would have been 25 when she was married. I wonder what Thomas was like. I wonder if they were in love.

Now I have her maiden name, more and more baptism entries pop out at me: Elizabeth Haxby in 1800 through to Maria in 1818.

And in between the births, there are deaths too: Grace Haxby, born in 1805, buried less than a year later, a Thomas too, and a Maude. Thirteen children born and five of them buried before Alice, the eldest by this account, marries.

Everywhere I look today there is death; particularly that of children, of babies. It was a hard time to be a woman and a mother. Alice’s mother must have been exhausted.

“Martha,” comes a welcome voice behind me, before dropping to a whisper to repeat my name. “Whoops,” says Evie, with a smile, as the archivist glowers in her direction. “Sorry, Myra. I suppose I’m just not naturally quiet.” She turns her attention to me again. “Fancy a cuppa?”

 

The library has its own little café serving a more than passable cup of coffee and array of muffins. Feeling the need for a hit of sugar, I add two white spoonfuls to my coffee, and balance a double chocolate muffin on my arms as I join Evie on the comfy looking purple sofa she’s snagged us in one corner.

“Found anything good?”

I fill her in on all I’ve uncovered today as she absentmindedly leans over and breaks off chunks from my muffin.

“That’s awesome, Martha. And how did you sleep last night after our spooky ghost walk?”

“I was out like a light,” I say. “Although…”

“Go on.”

“It’s going to sound daft, but after you left, I stayed for a little bit and had a proper look at Holy Trinity’s graveyard-”

“And saw the ghost of the bad Sir Percy?!”

“Nope, but-”

“But what?”

“Stop interrupting me and I’ll tell you,” I say with a laugh.

“Sorry,” she says, looking chastened. “I’ll be quiet.”

“Good. So, I didn’t see Sir Percy, but I sort of saw… something. Just out of the corner of my eye,” I rush on. “Nothing definite, and certainly nothing I could put my finger on. Like a flash of movement, you know, and it was in Mad Alice Lane.”

“You saw her?”

“I don’t know if it was her. It was probably just a trick of the light, or something. I mean, we had just been on a ghost tour. I bet most people were seeing spirits everywhere after they left.”

“Maybe; maybe not.”

“And,” I pause, unsure how to go on.

“And?” she coaxes.

“It’s not the first time it’s happened.”

“That you’ve seen a ghost?”

“Evie, we don’t even know if it was a ghost.”

“But that’s what you think, right?”

“I don’t know.”

“And you reckon you’ve seen one before?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” I place my hands on my tummy, and weigh up the thoughts whirring in my head. I like Evie. I know Evie. And I think she’d understand. “Erm, did I tell you about my baby, Evie?”

“You have a baby?”

“No, I guess that’s the point.” I rush on before she can interrupt or offer condolences. “When Richard and I first moved here, I was pregnant. About four months or so. And then, one day, while I was exploring, I was in the Minster actually, I had a miscarriage; well, not really a miscarriage but an ectopic pregnancy. It was all quite complicated.”

“Oh God, Martha. That’s awful.”

“Thank you. Well, it was awful, and I still think about it every day. I try not to, but it’s harder than you might think.”

“No, of course. I mean, I understand. Well, I don’t understand but-”

“Evie, it’s ok. I know what you mean. The weird thing was when it was happening, and… well, ever since really, I’ve been hearing voices.”

“Voices? What kind of voices?”

“I don’t know. Normal voices.”

“Yes, but whose?”

“Not people who are really there, let’s put it that way.”

“Like imaginary ones?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Like ghosts?”

“Uh huh.”

“Really?!”

“I think so, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going crazy!”

“No. No. Don’t say that, Martha. I believe you.”

“I used to take a lot of meds though.”

“Did you? Like what?”

‘Oh, I forgot you study psychology. Umm, fluoxetine?”

“Prozac?”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re not taking it now?”

“No.”

“But you reckon you started hearing the voices and seeing things after you stopped?”

“Oh God, you do think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“No, not at all. I think it’s fascinating. I mean, let’s face it, Prozac is there to calm people down. I always felt that can deaden the senses, if you know what I mean.”

“Believe me, I do.”

“Well, maybe you were only able to access these, erm, what would you call them, emotions, after you’d stopped drugging yourself?”

“Definitely, except, it all seemed to start when I was losing the baby, I heard a voice then; lots of voices actually, but one that really called to me. The others sort of felt like overhearing a hubbub of conversation, but that first voice, it was like it was speaking for me only.”

Silence falls between us, and then Evie reaches out and wraps her arms around me. We stay there for several minutes, not saying a word, as I feel her heart thump against my chest, and her breathing in my ear. It’s the closest I’ve been to someone in weeks. “Oh, my love,” she says, as she pulls back. “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” I whisper, and wipe away the tears that have fallen on my cheeks with a sleeve.

“And since then? What have you heard?”

“That same one in particular that seems to be calling for me. I keep hearing my name, over and over. And then there are the dreams, and the flickers, but when I look, there’s nothing there, and sometimes, sometimes I just feel like there’s someone there, but there’s not.”

“Do you see things when you’re at home?”

“Sometimes. Again, it’s not really seeing anything, more of a sensation. And then there’s the voices again.”

“So who do you think it is that’s calling to you?”

“I think it might be Alice.”

“Alice? As in Mad Alice?”

“As in Mad Alice.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Well it makes sense, don’t you think? I’ve never experienced anything like it before, and then I move into her old house, and bang – I’m hearing things. Plus, in my dreams, I think she’s called Alice.

“I guess it makes sense.”

“Maybe. Or maybe I’ve finally lost it.”

“Hush. I don’t think you’re going mad.”

“Richard does, or, at least, he would do, if I ever told him any of this. He doesn’t know I’ve stopped taking my meds. He’d be furious. He likes a calm controlled wife,” I say, with a bitter laugh.

“He sounds like a peach!”

“Oh, he’s not all bad; not at all. It’s just, well, that’s another story,” I say.

“So what are you going to do?”

“About what?”

“About the ghosts, you numpty. About Alice!”

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

“I have the most brilliant idea.”

“Oh yes?”

“And you must absolutely promise to say no if it doesn’t feel right to you.”

“Ok.”

“I have this friend, a photographer. He’s a bit off the wall, like me. You’ll like him. Well, he mostly focuses on boring wedding stuff to keep the money coming in, but he loves history. He’s always on his hands and knees crawling around old buildings. We’ll still go to Deepdene as we planned, but in the meantime, why not get Isak around to see if he can capture anything on film?”

“Isak?”

“Yeah; my photographer friend. He’s really good, really nice, and I bet he’d love the chance to do this sort of stuff.”

“This sort of stuff?”

“Photograph the dead.”

“But Evie, I haven’t really seen any-”

“Martha, aren’t you interested?”

“Yes.”

“And don’t you want to know more?” I’m not so sure but I say yes anyway. “You can always change your mind, whenever you want to. Let me give him your number, then you can sort things out between you.”

It’s too much of a coincidence to think Evie’s Isak, this Isak, isn’t the very same photographer I’ve met already. I haven’t seen him since I lost the baby. To be honest, I haven’t given him a single thought, but now I do, I find I’m indignant.

Was it he who called an ambulance and looked after me? Did he come to the hospital with me? Richard certainly never mentioned him, but neither did any of the nurses. What did he do? Call an ambulance and then dump me on the paramedics? Or leave someone else to make the call while he got away as fast as he could to wash my blood off him? I don’t know how sure I am that I want to photograph the dead, but I do know I want to see Isak again, even if it’s just to give him a piece of my mind.

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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter twelve

Alice

Almost every woman I know has lost a child. It is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, it’s more common than bringing one alive and kicking into the world, and even if you manage that miracle, to have a child reach its adulthood is considered good fortune. The fact that I had lost my baby troubled no one but myself; even dear Eliza was concerned only for me, I feared. I knew my husband cared not, and Ma thought it a blessing. After all, it was only a bastard child. And no one mourns for them. But I did.

Daily I found myself at the church of the Holy Trinity, sometimes without even knowing how. There was a bench in the graveyard placed for reflection and prayer. Sometimes I sat and stared into nothingness, other times I wandered from gravestone to gravestone, but always careful never to go close to the sight of my child’s own burial.

I must never forget that what Eliza and I did was an act of blasphemy. No bastard child, no unbaptised child, can be laid to rest in holy ground. I feared that to linger over the spot would be to bring unnecessary and dangerous attention to it, yet I knew that I was not the first mother to have committed such a crime. I would do so again.

When the weather was miserable and to sit outside would be to draw unwelcome notice, I gravitated to the church itself. Before my wedding, I had never known its interior. It was not my local church; I had no call to be there, yet I found the uneven flagstones and the unyielding hard wooden box pews a comfort.

To feel the cool surface as I sat was to feel grounded somehow and even the white-misted air that escaped my mouth, regardless of the outside temperature, brought succour. It was fitting to sit amongst the dead, the icy cold and austere interior when I had been brought lower than ever before. If the sun broke through the clouds and the glorious stained glass window in the east was brought alive in dancing rays of brilliantly alive colour, I would leave. I could not bear the sight of it and I would return to my duties across the street.

Duties that must not be forgotten and my husband saw to it that they weren’t. Every morning, as before, I rose before him to prepare his breakfast, often crossing paths with Simon, the apprentice, whose eyes I could not bring myself to meet, as he stoked the fires.

Every day I cleaned the house from floor to ceiling; every midday I presented Thomas with a plate of hearty food and Simon with his smaller one, while I chose not to partake. I knew I was becoming smaller, my husband remarked upon it. He did not even grant me an evening’s reprieve from his ministrations after I miscarried, only commenting on how pleasant it was to tup a wife who no longer looked like a pregnant sow.

An unfair comment, as at barely four months my stomach had only boasted a small round to it, but my heart grieved for the flatness that was indeed clear to see a mere day later. After all the fuss it had caused, my baby had left this world with barely a mark. And yet, it was only several weeks later that Thomas began to complain of the new angles in my body. My breasts, which had once shown themselves full of promise, were shrunk close to my chest, while my ribs and collarbones stuck sharply from under their thin skin covering.

There was no looking glass in the house, but reflections bore the truth of his remarks as cheekbones I had never known had stretched my face, gaunt hollows taking the place of rounded rosy cheeks. I had lost my looks, and my hair, so thick and golden, had begun to shed with every brush stroke.

I continued my wifely duties as best I could, not for the sake of the fat sweating pig that shared my bed each night, but for my own, with the knowledge that if I did not, I must surely go mad.

But despite my best efforts, Thomas was becoming increasingly infuriated by me: whenever the urge took him, he used me like a whore. I disgusted him. I was not the woman he had married. Even with a bastard in my belly, I had been lusted after for my fine looks, I had bettered myself by working for a fine family, and yet, within a few short weeks, I had been reduced to a haggard shell.

I couldn’t contradict him, and my silence, where once there would have been spirited retorts, angered him more and soon my arms were covered with raging red bruises which barely had time to fade to blue and purple before the next ones appeared. I sat on the bench in the churchyard, risking his wrath for my disappearance, and wondered how my life had ended there.

One day, as I sat, a soft rain began to fall. It was a gentle rain that if I closed my eyes and imagined as deeply as I dared, I could envisage as an embrace from someone, anyone. I lifted my face to the sky and prayed for some comfort or some advice.

Eyes shut, the world became alive to my senses; I could hear a bird trilling in a nearby tree, and the voice of the vicar from within. I fancied I could even hear the sound of the rain as it bounced off the grass beneath my feet, and as I listened closer, I heard another sound. Another voice.

“Alice,” it called.

The rain had intensified and indeed, now I could hear it bounce off the slats of the wooden bench, but when I opened my eyes, there was not a soul in sight, but still, I heard it.

“Alice.”

I craned my neck behind me, but no one. It was more persistent, more demanding and I knew that I must find the source. The rain was falling fast now, as insistent as the voice I heard and it blurred my vision.

From inside the church, the vicar appeared and beckoned me inside. We have become friends, of sorts, Rector Lund and I. I took a step forward to comply, as unthinkingly obedient as I had become, and yet, there was the voice, to the other side, away from the church.

Wrapping my shawl tight around my head, I quickly walked, not towards the church, nor towards the alleyway that would have brought me back to Low Petergate, but to the other, the second, that led me on to Goodramgate itself. I turned left almost immediately and was at Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate within moments.

I could no longer hear the voice but it was of no matter. I knew where I was going: down Fossgate and Walmgate until I reached Lawrence Street. I had to see Samuel. I had to tell him of the death of our child. He had to know.

 

By the time I reached the house, I had removed the shawl from my head. Sodden with water, it offered little protection against the elements, and long strands of my hair had fallen down on to my face in my mad dash across the city. It was exactly as I remembered; little wonder since it was barely two months since I left. How could so much happen in a month?

I stood on the street looking up at a house I was once privileged to call home. I never entered through the front door, not once in four years, but then, I never expected to. The delicate pale blue of the entrance hall was not for the likes of myself, except to sweep and mop its floors. I understood that, and even after Samuel and I became intimate, I never fooled myself that I might once be mistress of this house. I knew my place then, and I wish that I knew it still, but my mind was racing like a frightened horse.

I couldn’t stop staring at the façade and wondering what was going on behind the walls. Was Samuel even there? The clock on the church tower over the road proclaimed it to be a little after three in the afternoon. It would be a rare day to find him at home at that time.

My heart, temporarily buoyed, sank deep; deeper than I thought possible. My journey – my mad foolish, impulsive journey – was in vain. What could I have hoped for? – A joyous reunion? Yet I knew that it was he who had sent me away; he who had condemned me to my miserable existence while he returned to the sour safety of his wife. He could not want me now, even if he hadn’t betrayed me; and he certainly wouldn’t want me turning up on his doorstep in full view of his family dressed in clothes shamefully ragged.

Tears which had become so commonplace to me now mingled with the rain on my cheeks, and the salty taste on my lips brought vivid memories of a time when it was sweat, not tears, that ran down my cheeks as Samuel and I made love in the very room not a stone’s throw from here. Seeing the house now, seeing truly what I had lost and for what; nothing; was crueller than I could ever have imagined. Part of me raged and I was tempted to throw myself at the house, railing at Samuel and his treatment of me, but what would that prove? Who would that help? I forced my eyes from the house and turned back towards the city, its medieval walls in sight.

I heard my name called but I knew, as before, it was merely a figment of my mind. Samuel’s voice did not summon me from across the city. It was my own fancy, and a stupid foolhardy one at that. I didn’t search for the voice; there was no point. Even when it became stronger, louder, I continued onwards. It was only when a hand grasped my arm that I swivelled around.

“Alice,” he said. “Did you not hear me calling for you?”

“Samuel,” I said, before correcting myself. “Mr Tuke. I- I feared it was only my mind playing tricks on me, sir.”

“It was not your mind, Alice; it was I. Indeed, it is I.” He sounded forced, formal, and unsure of himself. He released my arm from its grip, and gingerly placed a hand underneath my chin, gently forcing my head up and my eyes to meet his. “Why did you leave me, Alice? Why did you go?”

“I-” I stammered, and found myself unable to answer.

“My wife told me you had gone to nurse your sister, but I felt certain that if Eliza had been sick, you would have told me of it. I felt certain of it, but then, when you didn’t return, as the weeks passed, I feared that perhaps you did not want to return, and I’m afraid I grew angry with you, Alice. I thought perhaps it was for the best, for you to leave and never return-”

“But Samuel,” I cut him off; passion had overtaken me. “I was told to leave. I was dismissed; my services no longer needed, by your wife, by Priscilla. She found out about us. I was disgraced.” I pulled my head from his hands, the shame of the situation made me turn my eyes away. “I thought it was you who had sent me away.”

“And I thought it was you who had left me.” He tried to pull me into his arms and I ached for his embrace yet I was painfully aware of our surroundings.

“No, Samuel. Not here; we cannot embrace. I am a servant in disgrace. You are the respected master of the house.”

Looking taken aback at the vehemence with which I pronounced these words, he took an uncertain step away from me, hands lying impotent at his side. As he did so, his eyes raked across my body, taking me in, in my entirety.

“Alice,” he said, a look of horror dawning on his face. “What happened to our child? What have you done to our child?”

“We cannot have this discussion in the street, sir,” I said, again.

“Then you must return with me to the house.”

“I can never return to the house,” I said.

“Priscilla is visiting this afternoon, with the elder children and I daresay, the younger are safely in the schoolroom. You shall have no trouble, I guarantee it, but Alice, I must know about the child.”

It was the desperation in his face that decided me; that, and knowing that he would share in my pain and misery upon hearing the truth. At last, I would be able to grieve with the father of my child. I headed towards the servants’ entrance.

“No, it must be the main,” he said.

“But what if someone should see us?”

“Far more chance of that if we use the back stairs,” and he held open the front door. I slipped inside and wondered if the grandfather clock looked as imposing to all visitors. He quickly ushered me into the Library. “I shall tell Roberts that I am not to be disturbed. You have nothing to fear.”

He returned in due course, and my fears were further allayed when I saw him turn the key in the lock. He gestured to the chaise longue but I was ashamed to sit on it in my sodden clothing. Instead, I took the footstool and was immediately conscious of a cruel parody of our former roles but there was no use moving once more; Samuel took his accustomed seat in the wingback chair.

“Tell me everything, Alice,” he said, and I began. I missed nothing out, from my dismissal at the hands of his wife to my recent marriage to Thomas. Samuel displayed little emotion until I came to the loss of our child. “A boy?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It came too soon and was too early to tell, but boy or girl, I would have loved it,” I said, fiercely. “I did not rid myself of it. The baby was mine, was ours, Samuel, and I held on to that when sometimes there seemed no other light thing to hold on to.”

“What happened-” he struggled over the words, and I longed to take him into my arms and offer comfort as I had done when Esther was taken from him. “What happened to the child, to the body?”

When I explained that the child had been buried in the graveyard at Holy Trinity, I was worried that he might disapprove, knowing his orthodox Quaker ways, but he only said, “It was done rightly, Alice. It was the right thing to do. God will be watching over. I only wish- I only wish that I could have been there for you. I only wish that you had not, are not, suffering as you are now. This Thomas Smith, he is a good man?”

I didn’t wish to tell Samuel of the intimate details of my marriage; not for propriety’s sake but for my own; the shame at being so used and my own fears that Thomas’ treatment of me led to the loss of the babe. Instead, I led him to believe it was a simple miscarriage. But even without divulging the full extent to which I was fallen, I could still take comfort from our shared grief at the loss of our child.

“He provides for me,” I answered. “And he would have provided for the child, I think.”

“And do you- do you care for him? What of these bruises, Alice?”

In all our time together, not once did words of love pass our lips, and with reason: to do so would have been folly. We both knew we were indulging in something that could never exist, not truly, not once exposed to the real world. Our affair offered us a respite from the toils of everyday life, yet I had loved Samuel, and I still did, far more than I thought possible. The love I felt for him was as strong as the revulsion I felt when Thomas touched me making my skin crawl where once it danced.

“My life is hard now, Samuel, harder than before, but Thomas took me in when no one else would. I do not care for him, but I owe him my life, I think.” And I realised that I did. For all my distaste of the man, he offered me a roof and food when even my family would, or rather, could not. If I had not married Thomas Smith, I did not know where I would be now, and I said as much.

“I wish,” he said. “I wish that you could come back and all would be as it once was.” The first piece of whimsy I had known from the man.

“That can never be, Samuel. You see that, don’t you?” And when I looked into his eyes, I realised that he did, but there was something else there, something other than grief and regret.

“I have missed you.”

“And I, you.”

In another move that surprised me, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me with passion on my forehead, my cheeks, my neck and when I felt his tongue pressing against my lips I responded as a dying man might to the offer of water.

“I know you are another man’s wife, Alice. I know that; and still I cannot stop myself.”

I collapsed into him, my arms flung tightly around his neck and I pulled him as close as I could for I never wanted to let him go again. We surfaced for air but immediately returned to our embraces, all thought of the household and the world beyond the locked door banished.

It was I who reached for the strings of his breeches first. His kisses had only inflamed my passion, not sated it. I could not have enough of the man I loved. My whole being was poured into that very moment, but even then I knew that it must be the last time. There could not be another.

As we lay in each other’s arms, sweat cooling on brows and with a feeling between my thighs much different from that inspired by my husband, he turned to me and whispered in my ear, “I love you, Alice Haxby.”

“And I love you, Samuel Tuke,” I said, feeling both a great lightening of my heart, and a sinking of my stomach, for I was no longer Alice Haxby, but Mrs Smith, and his words had a finality to them. He was not a stupid man. He knew that this must be the final time we met too.

“Samuel, I know we must not see each other again; I understand that, but can I ask one favour of you?”
“Anything.”

“I left here without my books. Would you please return them to me?”

“I don’t even have to search for them. Your boxes are here; their presence was a balm to me. Here; take them.”

“I cannot take all of them, but I will take the most precious.”

Unseen and unsuspected, I slipped out from the front door, pressing several copies close to my breast; a different woman from the one that entered, but, I wondered, a better one?

 

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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter eleven

Martha

“Excuse me?” says Evie.

“I used to live here,” I repeat.

“But…”

“I know. I can’t explain it either, but I know I used to live here, at Deepdene Hall. Look,” I say, and point to a room in the top left of the building where the second floor once was. “That was my bedroom. No; really, it was. And that,” I point to a window on the ground floor. “That was the grown up Drawing Room. I wasn’t allowed in there.”

“What else do you know?” she asks.

“It feels like more and more is coming back every second.”

The sight of this once-magnificent building, now reduced to an unloved shell is heart breaking, and I can feel tears welling up. Not very long ago, I would have faced this house and stood impassive, feeling, well, feeling very little. The emotion, the pain I feel now is preferable to that.

“I have to get closer,” I say. Evie grabs the sleeve of my coat.

“Hang on, it could be dangerous. You’ve no idea what state the building’s in.”

“Evie,” I say, and turn to look at her. “I have to get closer.”

While the front of the house with its stained golden limestone skeletal façade draws me in, a stronger instinct sees me walk past the Grecian portico with the tantalising remnants of a beautifully moulded frieze towards the rear of the house.

I’ve seen the front in the photo and it’s what the photo didn’t show that is now fascinating me. The sides of the house run metres back and as they do so, it seems that the damage decreases; several red brick arches still rise majestically from the ground and in some places, glass has survived in the windows, now broken and jagged.

I am desperate to go inside, but something is pulling me back, an emotion more potent than excitement: fear. Not fear for myself but of what I might find inside. I still can’t say how I know I lived in this house. Nothing makes sense.

My earliest memories are of living with my grandparents and mum in their pleasant semi-detached house in Milton Keynes. And while I was able to point out my bedroom to Evie, I have no memories of being there.

I am recalling facts to which I have no anchor other than instinct. I feel sure that the room was painted blue, but how I know this is a mystery. My skin is prickling, my hair standing on end and the fear takes over. I shouldn’t know this place, but I do. I shouldn’t know paint colours, but I do. The only person I can turn to for answers is my mother.

This is all too much to take in. To see the house like this, its bare bones on display, shockingly neglected and yet feel a connection to it, one that I can’t make sense of, is too much. I have to get away; to get to familiar ground.

Evie shows remarkable restraint on the drive home. I know she must be bursting with questions, yet she is considerate of the shock I’ve just received. She hands me a muffin as I get back into the car, saying only, “Sugar. You need sugar,” and then turns the radio on to play quietly in the background.

As we near the city, she asks, “Where can I drop you?”

“Oh, er, here is fine,” I say, hardly taking in my surroundings; my mind, a blank.

“Don’t be silly. I’ll drop you at home.”

Despite the daytime pedestrian zone, she braves the angry glares of tourists and locals alike (as well as a likely fine) to drive right to the door. Richard would have been proud.

“Here you go, my love. Would you like me to come in with you?”

“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”

I get out of the car and head towards the passageway before stopping and turning back to Evie.

“Thank you so much for everything today. I’ll,” I pause, “I’ll be in touch. I promise. I just-I just need to get some things sorted in my head.”

“Don’t worry about it. This is huge; it’s only natural you need time to process it all. Look, you have my number, and you know where to find me. Ok?”

“Ok.”

“And Martha?” she says before she rolls the window up. “Take care of yourself.”

I watch the car pull slowly away, dodging the same tourists she infuriated a mere minute ago, and steel myself for the conversation, or should that be confrontation, ahead.

 

I’m feeling so confused that when I see my mother sitting quietly on the sofa reading her book, I simply blurt out, “I’ve just been to Deepdene.” I let my words hang in the air and watch as she slots a bookmark into place, closes and places the book on to a side table.

“Deepdene,” she says, finally, after several minutes have passed.

“Yes, Deepdene Hall. Tell me about it, mother.” Her calm has shattered my own, and both the volume and the pitch of my voice rise. “Tell me about the home I had no proper memories of until today. Why did you lie to me? I asked you about it!”

“Oh, Martha. It’s complicated.”

“It’s complicated? Is that all you have to say? It’s complicated? I should bloody well think it is!”

“I’m not sure I can explain-”

“Try,” I interrupt. “Just try. Please.” My voice has softened, and I can see that my mother, my implacable controlled mother, is struggling, with emotions and to express herself. “Just try, please, mum. Tell me about Deepdene. Tell me about my home.”

She sighs and runs a hand over her hair, smoothing invisible strands into place, then pulls it down her face, stretching her features and covering her eyes.

“It was a lifetime ago,” she begins, “a lifetime ago.” She drops her hand to her lap. “A lifetime ago, Martha.” She straightens her back. “It doesn’t do to dwell in the past.”

“Mum, you owe me this. This is my past too. I need to know.”

“No, Martha, you don’t. Some things are better left alone.”

“You can’t be serious. You’re honestly not going to tell me about this- this incredible revelation?”

Her mind now made up, her features are once again tranquil.

“No, Martha. I’m not.”

I stare at her in disbelief, and anger; anger that quickly makes itself known.

“Then I have to ask you to leave.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me – leave. Pack your bags, you’re no longer welcome here.”

“But- but I’m your mother. I’m here to look after you. I-” Her tranquil mask has slipped once more and she appears genuinely dismayed.

“I didn’t ask you to come here. Richard did. If you have nothing to say to me, then I have nothing to say to you, except I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee, and I expect you to be gone by the time I’ve finished it.” Seeing no movement, my anger and heart harden. “In fact, I’ll help you pack,” I say, and walk briskly through to the master bedroom with its twin beds.

My mother’s suitcase is sitting neatly by the end of the bed, and throwing it open, I grab every item of hers that I can see and dump them inside. From the en-suite, I take her toothbrush and wash bag, both of which are chucked unceremoniously on the top.

“Right; there we are,” I say. “If I’ve missed anything I’ll send it on. I’ll call you a taxi to take you to the station immediately. I’m sure there’ll be a train back to Milton Keynes in the next few hours.”

I know I’m being cruel, but I don’t care. My unflappable mother is staring at me with her jaw slack and mouth hanging open. She has never seen me like this; timid obedient Martha with barely two iotas of a personality to rub together, and bizarrely, I am feeling energised by this encounter.

I can feel the emotions bubbling up inside me, and it’s a joy to feel something, anything! I can’t restrain the smile that starts at my mouth and reaches my eyes, and I imagine that must hurt my mother even more. Let it.

The taxi arrives five minutes later and after handing the driver a crisp ten pound note and my mother’s suitcase, I turn on my heel without even a perfunctory attempt at a goodbye, and shut the outer door of the snickelway behind me.

 

Of course, it can’t last, this temporary euphoria. There is no denying that my mother is keeping secrets from me; secrets that I have a right to know about. A few years ago I might have called my grandfather and asked him; we were always very close, but he’s gone. I have no one to turn to. Richard is out of the question. My phone is sitting on top of the kitchen counter, and instinctively I dial Evie’s number and hold my breath until she answers.

 

She’s at the door within thirty minutes.

“So, tell me, what did she say?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Pretty much. I mean, she admitted that I was right, that I did know Deepdene. She even said that we’d lived there once and then she clammed up. She refused to say anything more, so I-”

“So you?” Evie prompts.

“So I asked her to leave,” I say, a little worried about her reaction.

“Well done, you,” she says. “So then what?”

“Well, then I helped her pack… to be honest, I sort of just threw everything in her suitcase, called a taxi and hustled her out of the door. She’s probably still waiting for a train at the station now.”

“Good for you. I know it may seem tough, and I don’t really know much about the situation, or even you really, but you deserve to know the truth, especially about your own past. Now what?”

“I don’t really know. I feel like I’ve reached an impasse. Apart from my mum, there’s no one else I can ask. I thought, maybe, that if you didn’t have anything else planned, and if you wanted to, that is, that maybe you might fancy driving back out there?”

“Are you kidding? I’d love to. This is turning out to be a bigger mystery than any of those ridiculous books I read.” She looks at the clock on her phone. “It’s probably too late to go back out there today. I know it doesn’t take too long to get there, but it’ll be getting dark soon and it’s probably not the best idea to be wandering around an abandoned and fire damaged house in the pitch black. Don’t worry though,” she rushes on, seeing my slightly crestfallen face, “we’ll go back as soon as we can. I’m not working on Saturday. We can go then. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Right, not for nothing do I work at a library,” she says, pulling an A4 pad out of her sloppy handbag, shortly followed by a chewed up biro. “Don’t get me wrong,” she gestures at my tablet, “I bloody love those things, but somehow, you can’t beat good old pen and paper.”

“A girl after my own heart,” I reply, and we share a smile.

“A kindred spirit.”

“Like Diana and Anne,” I say, almost without thinking.

“Exactly! Good old Green Gables,” she says. “I knew when I met you at the library that we’d be friends. Let’s get down to business. What do we know?”

As I had done a few days ago, she writes Deepdene in black capitals in the middle of the page and encircles it. Then follows it with my name – Martha Chamberlain. “And what’s your maiden name?

“Hislop.”

“And your mum’s?”

“That is hers, she changed back to it after my dad left.”

“Right. So what was his name?”

“Giles. Giles Blenkin-”

“Blenkin-what?” she asks.

‘Blenkinsop,” I say. “That can’t be a coincidence.”

“What?”

“Hang on. I’ll be right back,” and I dive into my room where I left the few print outs I’d made from my library visit the other day. “Look,” I say, and thrust the copy of the newspaper article in front of Evie.

“Where am I looking?”

“Here! Listen. ‘More than 30 fire fighters battled’, blah blah blah, ‘injuring two of its inhabitants,’ blah blah blah, ‘The hall, which was built in the mid 1800s, is the family home of the Blenkinsops.’” I look up triumphantly. “The Blenkinsops!”

“Jesus, Martha. So that means, your family, well, it can’t be a coincidence, can it?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, but I’ve always been Martha Hislop and I’ve never known my mum as Mrs Blenkinsop, just Hislop too.”

“What else does it say?” she returns her gaze to the crumpled sheet of paper in her hands.

“Not a lot more really. I mean, there wasn’t anything else about the fire. Not that I could find anyway.” I’ve also brought the print out of the Wikipedia entry. “This is everything.”

“There has to be more than that,” she says. “I refuse to believe that a bloody great country pile burnt down with two people injured and that’s the last we hear of it; maybe a hundred years ago, but not today. It’s nose to the grindstone, my dear.”

“But I’ve already searched everywhere,” I protest.

“Not everywhere,” she says. “What about the parish records?”

“They’re not online, and I couldn’t find anything in the library, and aren’t they just births, marriages and deaths?”

“Maybe, but they’re a starting point, and it’s not unusual for them not to be online, unless they’re central York parish records, most churches still keep them themselves. We have to find out which parish Deepdene is in. I bet you anything we can find out more there.”

Evie, clearly a much better researcher than I, needs only a few minutes on my laptop to find out the church we need to target. “Look, they even have their own website. Yes, you’re right, the records aren’t online but I’m sure if we give the vicar a call, he’ll let us come by one day.”

She adds, “I can flash my York University I.D., and you can flash, well, whatever the good Lord gave you, although I don’t know if that’ll help much in this case! Now, on to the Blenkinsops themselves. What have you found?”

I angle my tablet in her direction, “I can only find John Blenkinsop, and I think he might be a little old.”

“‘John Blenkinsop,’” she reads. “‘Born 1783 was an English mining engineer and an inventor of steam locomotives, who designed the first practical railway locomotive.’ Granted he may be a little old, but it’s a step in the right direction. He was from Leeds. It’s the right area, sort of. Maybe he’s a relative? And you know, Martha, there are other websites than Wikipedia, you know. It’s not the fount of all knowledge.”

“He never married, so he can’t be a relative,” I retort.

“Get back to your research, girl,” she says. “Come on, chop chop.”

 

We spend the new few hours amusing ourselves with my potential relatives, from Arthur Blenkinsop, a Labour MP, to Christopher, an Anglo-German musician, and Ernie, a footballer.

To Evie’s great mirth, Bertie Blenkinsop is revealed to be a ‘softie’ and enemy of Dennis the Menace, but later on in the day, we stumble across both Blenkinsop Castle and Blenkinsop Hall.

“It looks like the Blenkinsops were quite a big family in Northumberland,” Evie says. “Look, there’s a castle up here. And listen, ‘Blenkinsopp Castle is a fire-damaged, partly demolished 19th-century country mansion incorporating the ruinous remains of a 14th-century tower house located above the Tipalt Burn approximately one mile from Green head, Northumberland. It is a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.’”

She scans the page in front of her. “It wasn’t in use by the early 19th century, and it was only in 1877, that William Blenkinsopp Coulson built the mansion house, and then basically sold all their estates. It was a hotel in the 20th century but in 1954, a fire caused major damage and a lot of it was demolished.”

“Do you think they have anything to do with me?”

“I’m not sure. They’re Blenkinsopp with two ‘p’s, but I bet there’s some sort of connection there.”

 

It isn’t too long before Evie and I hit another dead end with our research. Too much to suppose a connection with every Blenkinsop we uncover, yet too little concrete evidence to proceed in any direction leaves us both frustrated; Evie the more so.

“I can’t believe that there’s nothing more written about Deepdene Hall somewhere! I mean, it’s a bloody great Regency mansion, not a mews flat in some poky little village somewhere. It has history! It was burnt down in an unexplained fire, for God’s sake. Are you sure you don’t fancy confronting your mother again?”

“Not any time soon,” I say.

“Fair enough. I don’t blame you one little bit. The only thing I can think of doing right now is to get back to Deepdene as soon as we can and see what we can uncover there.” She looks at me, and pokes an elbow into my ribs, “Oh, how lovely it must be to be a lady of leisure, able to go wherever you want, whenever you want.”

“Overrated,” I say. “Highly overrated.” Although I’ve known Evie a short time, her infectious personality has led us into a friendship closer than any I’ve known in a long time and I’m enjoying her banter. It is an essential ingredient in my life when everything else seems so dark, and she is rapidly becoming the only person I feel I can turn to, and trust.

“And you’re forgetting, not only would I not even have found it in the first place without you, I don’t have any way of getting there, without booking a bloody expensive taxi with a driver who thinks I’m probably batty!”

“Cheapskate. It’s always the rich who pinch the pennies the most.”

“Watch the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves,” I intone gravely. “A great favourite of Richard’s.”

“He sounds like a hoot.”

“Well,” I say, almost reluctantly, “He has his good points too.”

“I can see that,” she says, gesturing at the flat. “This place is gorgeous. I’d kill to live in a flat like this.”

“Oh, he hates it here,” I say.

“Really? How come?”

“Too small, too old, too many corners and beams, and not any parking for his BMW.”

“Barmy. Utterly barking. I think it’s fabulous. You can really imagine that people once lived here before, you know? It’s got such a sense of history.”

“Although I doubt they were sitting on cream sofas,” I say.

“True,” she admits. “I’ve always wondered though, who Alice was.”

“Excuse me?”

“Alice. You know, Mad Alice. The name of the snickelway.”

“God, I’d forgotten about her. When we first moved here, I noticed that and wanted to find out more, but then, somehow,” I can’t help but look at my stomach. “Other things got in the way.”

“There’s a story about her,” Evie says. “I can’t remember all of it, but there was something about being hanged for being insane, which was actually a crime then. She was quite young apparently, this Alice. I wish I could remember more. I vaguely remember it from one of those ghost tours I went on when I was little. Friend’s birthday or something.”

“Not a happy ending then?”

“Not by those accounts, no. Mind you, back then, whenever ‘when’ was, there weren’t many happy endings all over, I gather. Can’t you just see her, here, living in this very room?”

“Poor thing,” I say. “I wonder what really happened.”

“Hey! That’s an idea!”

“What is?”

“Well, we can’t find out any more about your mysterious Blenkinsops here, and Deepdene is going to wait, so why not find out about Alice? Let’s go on one of those ghost tours.”

“What? Now?”

“Why not? Have you got anything else to do?”

“Erm,” I look around at the flat, now empty of both my mother and my husband. “My diary is wide open.”

“Right then. Wrap up warm, it’s going to get cold.”

 

The air is just as bitter as Evie said it would be, and I tuck my cashmere scarf closer to my chin.

“Now, they’re a few of those ghost tour things; the tourists bloody love them. Do you mind which one we go on?”

“I’m just following you,” I say.

“I think there’s one that meets near here, down by the Shambles. Let’s walk and find out.”

Any uncertainty we have is dispelled when we come upon a man dressed in a black frock coat, black top hat resting on his head, and silver topped cane resting lightly in his hand. Quite a large group has gathered around the man and his companion, likewise attired.

“Gentlemen and gentlewomen, welcome to this, the definitive ghost tour of York, Europe’s most haunted city. First things first, the money.”

After taking a fiver from each of us, and strapping a brightly coloured band of paper around our wrists in return, we follow our guide as he leads us first to Stonegate and a house supposedly haunted by a young girl who fell head long down three flights of stairs, breaking her neck and perishing. With the sad, rather than gruesome, tale related we walk to our next destination, our group’s path crossing that of a rival’s, whose leader sports a gigantic piratical hat, complete with a profusion of feathers. I catch a snippet of his tale, and am disheartened to hear a different one to ours.

“Don’t look so glum, chum,” says Evie, catching sight of my face. “There are plenty of ghosts to go round. We can jump on his tour another time. We’ll get to Alice, don’t you worry.”

“And now, we bring you to one of the city’s sorriest tales. See that tiny window there? Those lucky, or unlucky, enough have claimed to see the face of a young girl, crying and scratching at the glass, begging to be released. Alas to no avail, for when the child lived here, plague had stricken the city, and when one of her parents fell ill, the house was quarantined. No one could come in or out. And one by one, each member of her family lay dying, except the girl, who recovered. But she was the only one. And locked in a house which could not be opened. Unheard, and abandoned, with the bodies of her decaying family around her, she eventually starved to death.”

Evie slips a hand into mine. The guide falls silent. He paints a vivid picture. When he moves on, with the more eager of the group following at his heels, Evie and I hold back, until it is just the two of us, looking up at the tiny pane of glass crisscrossed by wood.

“It’s not so very hard to believe, is it?” she says.

“Sadly, no.”

“Come on, or we’ll miss the next one, although, by the direction he’s taking us, he’s only going to tell us about the Roman soldiers, and I could tell you about that!”

She’s right, and we re-join just in time to hear of a worker in the cellar of a great house understandably startled to see an entire legion of Roman soldiers march past with their legs cut off at the knee. It was only when the cellar was further excavated that the Roman road, exactly knee depth beneath the current floor was discovered.

“Is that true?” I whisper to Evie.

“Apparently so. It only happened in the sixties. The old guy, Harry, who saw them, he’s still around. Swears by his story.”

“So what’s next?” I ask. “You seem to know most of these stories as well as he does.”

“Some of them have a habit of staying in your head,” she says.

“But not Alice?” I ask, sadly.

“So it would seem. Sorry about that. But we’ll soon get to the bottom of Alice’s story. I have no doubt! Well, I’d say, by the route he’s taking, we’ll be going to Bedern next.”

“I remember that!” Evie looks questioningly at me. “When we first got here, I did this sort of walking tour thing, and I remember coming here. It creeped me out.”

“I’m not surprised. It still creeps me out. The area was basically a slum, and a pretty bad one at that. That building there, well before it was built, there was kind of an orphanage school place, and at some point, it was run by a really nasty piece of work, a drunk. He used to starve the children.”

“A running theme,” I add.

“A running theme,” she agrees. “And beat them as well, of course. Like most drunks, he could present a charming exterior to those with power, but rumours soon started that several children had actually died at his hands. The bodies, it was claimed, were stored in a big cupboard in the cellar of the building, and he bribed a gravedigger to do the dirty for him, but when he was finally investigated, no bodies were ever found.

“When the old place was torn down, excavators had a pretty scary time of it; one guy felt a tap on his shoulder but there was no one there when he turned, but, when he was undressing that night, he noticed bruise marks of where the ghostly fingers had touched him. Eventually, a pit was discovered, filled with the skeletons of children.”

“God, that’s awful!”

“Yup. People say you can hear their cries at night, or sometimes they slip their hand into yours as you walk past for some reassurance.”

I shiver, and clench my fist against intruders.

“So many ghostly children.”

“Well they were vulnerable,” Evie says.

The group in front of us screams as a man dressed in a ghoulish mask jumps out of an alley as they trickle past.

“They don’t really need the theatrics,” I say. “It’s bad enough on its own.”

“Yeah, but it’s more tragic than scary, you know? They want their punters to leave with a bit of a thrill, not on a downer.”

“I guess, but I can’t help feeling it cheapens the stories, somehow.” Evie nods. We stop in front of a grand stone fronted theatre. “What now?”

“I’m not sure.”

Our guide, standing on a stepladder he has been carrying around with him to ensure we all get a good view, begins, “We all know the stories of monks who got up to all sorts, but this time, it was a naughty nun. This used to be part of St Leonard’s Hospice, a medieval hospital where nuns cared for the sick. This nun got a bit carried away in her duties, and wound up pregnant.

“Terrified of what would happen to her, she fled, but was unluckily captured. When her superiors found out her crime, they decided to make an example of her. Forbidden from spilling blood, instead, they simply walled her up alive and left her to die. The Grey Lady, as she’s become known, haunts the theatre which now lies here-”

“Ugh,” I turn away, sickened. “Did they really do that kind of thing?”

“I guess they probably did, although whether this particular story happened is another issue entirely. Look, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

“No,” I say, firmly. “I’d have just been sitting in the dark on my own stewing otherwise. At least this way I know there are people a lot worse off than me!”

 

Over the next hour, we’re taken past haunted alleyways and told more gruesome tales but none of them hit as hard as those first few. I suppose there is only so much terror one can take, and I’m about to think we’ll have to endure another night like this on another tour to gather any more information on Alice when our guide starts to lead us back in the direction of my flat. He stops us right outside.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Evie stage whispers to me, and grips my arm.

But instead of turning to Mad Alice Lane, the guide turns the other direction, to Holy Trinity Church.

“There are two ghosts associated with this church, but the most famous is Sir Thomas Percy who had the misfortune to fall foul of Elizabeth I. Foolishly involving himself in a plot to oust his queen and replace her with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, and still more foolishly, getting himself caught, he was hauled to prison, where his head and body parted company with the help of an axe.

“His head, as was a traitor’s right, was stuck on a pike on top of Micklegate Bar for all to see, but in the dead of night, a loyal supporter stole the head, and returned it to the graveyard here for burial in holy ground. Unfortunately, a second man, less loyal than the first, then reclaimed the head for a reward, returning it to the authorities. Now, poor Sir Thomas Percy wanders the graveyard desperately in search of his head.”

On cue, a headless man emerges from the gloom scattering the listeners near and far with shrieks of mirth, and the tour disperses.

“That’s it?” I say. “Nothing about Alice, and we’re so close!”

“Maybe he knows the story but just hasn’t told it tonight. Come on, let’s ask him.”

We approach the guide who is neatly stowing his folded stepladder away.

“Did you enjoy the tour, ladies?” he asks, still in his guide patter.

“Er, yes,” says Evie. “Very much. We were just wondering one-”

“Two,” I interrupt.

“Er, yes, two things.”

He looks at us patiently, and Evie turns to me.

“You said there were two ghosts associated with the graveyard, but you only mentioned Sir Percy.”

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” he looks rather crestfallen. “I keep meaning to take that part out, it’s hardly an interesting story, but you know how it is with a script – once you’ve learned the lines, they tend to stay with you.” I stare back at him, waiting for the answer.

“So, the second ghost?” Evie prompts.

“Not much to tell, I’m afraid. People simply claim to have seen a woman dressed all in black walking around the graves.”

“And that’s it?”

“Apparently she scans the names of some of the graves, and also looks at the ground as well.”

“Oh.”

Eager to please, he offers us some more, “She only started to appear after the Second World War, so people think she’s looking for someone who died during then.”

“But the graves are all much older than that, aren’t they?” I say.

“Are they? Oh. Well, ghost stories…” and he shrugs his shoulders.

“Do you know anything about Mad Alice Lane?” asks Evie, taking over, and I point to the snickelway across from us to emphasise her words.

“Yes, I do remember something about it, although, like this story, there’s not a great deal to tell… Like most of them, there are several versions.”

“Tell us them all, please,” I say, touching his sleeve lightly with my hand. He glances uncertainly at my fingers, and I withdraw them. “I live there, you see.”

“Oh. Well, let’s see, you see how it’s also called Lund Court? It wasn’t always known as Mad Alice Lane before that. Until proper city maps were drawn up, names shifted a lot, changing several times in a single generation, before Alice Smith apparently lived there, it was officially nameless.”

“Nameless?”

“Yes.”

“So difficult to trace?”

“I would imagine so, but then again, maybe not. York’s not a very big place, and it wasn’t then.”

“Then?”

“When Alice lived here. Early 1800s it was, I think. Some people say that she was just a crazy old woman who used to jump out at people from the shadows; you could be executed for being insane then, and that’s what happened; others say she murdered her husband and that’s what did for her in the end. Whatever it is she did, she certainly left her mark.”

“And that’s it? That’s all you know?”

“That’s all I know, I’m afraid. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another tour leaving in ten minutes.” With old-fashioned charm, he touches the brim of his hat, hoists the stepladder on to his shoulder and walks away in the direction of the Shambles.

 

“So that’s it then?” I say. “That’s Mad Alice?”

“No, that’s just everything that he knows. And we didn’t know her surname before, or when she lived here.”

“True.”

“It’s a start, and it’s something to do until I’m free to go to Deepdene with you.”

“You’re right.” I say, and mull the idea over in my head. The name of the snickelway had certainly caught my attention earlier, and with a project to focus on, perhaps my thoughts won’t stray so much to my peanut? Besides, as Evie had jokingly pointed out, I am a lady of leisure; what else will I do with my time?

“Christ. I’d better get going,” says Evie, suddenly. “It’s pitch black already and I’ve still got some research to do tonight. Hey ho, the show must go on, despite other, far more intriguing, distractions. I’ll see you at the weekend, Martha. Then it’s Operation Deepdene, all hands on deck!”

She casually throws her arms around me in a hug, and walks off into the darkness while I stand alone, except for strangers, with my home and Alice’s on my left, a graveyard on my right.

A strong iron gate bars my way into the graveyard and I press my face between the bars. It should be eerie, but like so many of the stories of tonight, it is simply sad and rather lonely. There is no black clothed figure walking from headstone to headstone, and certainly no beheaded nobleman. I turn away reluctantly, almost mesmerised by the black, and as I do so catch a flicker out of the corner of my eye.

I spin my head to face the snickelway home, and then scour the street. It has emptied. I peer as hard as I can into the gloom trying to make out what caught my attention. Perhaps another flicker, but I’m not sure. I narrow my eyes, and step closer, and stifle a scream as a hand is placed on my shoulder.

“Martha,” says Richard, looking surprised to see me. “Where have you been?” He guides me down Mad Alice Lane and through the courtyard to the front door. “Where’s your mother?” he says, as we walk into the flat, he puffing slightly at all the stairs.

“She’s left.”

‘Left?”

“Yes. On a train this afternoon.”

“What? Why?”

“Let’s just say we had a disagreement and leave it at that.”

“Oh,” he says. “Oh.” He looks rather stupidly at me, but for once, I don’t feel forced to elaborate. “Oh, right then. I suppose I’ll move back from the hotel.”

“If you like.”

“Oh.” He hangs his navy cashmere coat carefully on the stand by the door and sets the briefcase at his feet. “Supper?”

“I expect Mrs Gilbert has prepared something for you, Richard. It’ll be in the fridge as always.”

“Oh. Have you eaten already?”

“No, but I’m not hungry. In fact, I have some work to do.”

“Some work?”

“Yes,” I say, taking sneaky pleasure in his bewilderment, both at my manner and my words. “Some work.”

 

My laptop is still whirring faintly, and armed with a surname and some idea of date, it isn’t long before I uncover some more about Alice. One blog, last updated years before, gives me two specific dates of her supposed execution at York Castle – 1823 or 1825, yet, when I click on the latter’s website and search the archives for hangings, there is no record of an Alice Smith.

I widen my search to include the entire history of the castle, but still nothing. It’s far too late to call the staff there and ask if the online record is a complete one, but I make a note to do so in the morning.

I wonder if she was hanged under a different surname. Another search reveals only one Alice involved in an execution, yet this is Alice Riley, whose throat was slashed by her estranged husband; an Alice Harrison was transported in 1774 for stealing three silver spoons; three further Alices – Cooper, Whitehead and Banks – were the victims of theft, while several more were proclaimed debtors. 22 people of the name ‘Smith’ were executed, yet all, unhelpfully, men, and none in the right year anyway.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the stories are just that, stories. Rather like my investigations into Deepdene and the Blenkinsops, I have hit a brick wall, and yet, unlike those, a list is starting to form in my head about what I can do about that: there are the parish records to uncover, surely living in such proximity to Holy Trinity, Alice must have been a parishioner there; and then there is York Castle itself. There are concrete records I can get access to, for free, in the morning.

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Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter ten

Alice

Although spacious, and dramatically more so than our home in Bedern, the house off Low Petergate was just as grime-filled as I had expected, and yet it was a welcome distraction from my new circumstances.

Thomas, my husband, was everything I knew him to be: overweight, lecherous and foul smelling. Despite the baby in my belly, he took his marital rights nightly, lying on top of me and thrusting away with grunts and sweat dripping off his forehead into my eyes. The comparison with Samuel was so strong it almost hurt.

Every morning I awoke sore and bruised as he rolled out from beneath the sheets that no amount of scrubbing in the copper tub in the kitchen had managed to bring back to their original colour. I determined to try again that day. The thought of spending one more night encased in their filth-ridden depths was more than I could bear. It brought bile to my mouth, and with Thomas lumbering downstairs in his nightshirt; I reached for the chamber pot and threw up. The sickness had started in earnest. I had hoped it would deter my husband, but not so.

A rich man in comparison to us, although nothing to the Tukes, he had an apprentice who let himself into the house early, stoked up the fires and made everything ready for his master. Most of downstairs was given over to the workshop, apart from the kitchen, out of necessity.

The smell of freshly tanned leather permeated every inch. I had once thought, sniffing the rich covers of a leather-bound book, that it was one I loved, but I soon discovered that newly tanned leather left a lot to be desired.

Both fortunately, and tragically, the smell in the house disappeared from my nostrils after I’d been there for a few weeks. I imagined I was beginning to leave a trail of stench just as my husband did. I came to fear leaving the house for the knowledge that upon entering it, with fresh air behind me, a wall of rank odour so thick would hit me, causing me to run for the nearest pot and gag.

Daily, I set the copper tub above the hearth and brought water to bubbling heat. All the fabric I could find in the house was plunged within, and utilising every trick my ma ever taught me, most abandoned until a few weeks ago, I scrubbed away with all my might.

Mid-summer, pegging everything outside saw it dry before night fell. Everything was put back in its place, and the whole process began a-new on the morrow. My hands were more cracked than ever, and each night, I rubbed fat into them before my husband’s onslaught.

 

That day, I started my routine as usual, with the water bubbling away. I’d already managed to clean the house from attic to cellar but somehow it seemed to attract dirt. Nothing seemed to come clean enough. I supposed after Lawrence Street, it never would.

Rags in hand, I ascended the rickety wooden stairs and made the lead mullioned windows my first port of call. Considering the money he made, Thomas could well have afforded to get a woman in daily, but I was glad for his miserliness. I’ve always found cleaning to be soothing, of sorts. I used to think that wiping away the dirt to reveal the clean surface beneath had a symbolic quality, but I’m struggling to believe that in my life. There is too much filth that accumulates daily. You can never be wiped clean again, not wholly.

I tried to not think about Lawrence Street, but it was only natural to compare the two, or, in fact, the three, as my home in Bedern couldn’t escape my thoughts either. To walk into the Tukes house was to walk into another world, even the servants’ quarters were markedly better. I’d never much thought about the grandeur of the interior, apart from when I first saw it all, but then, as I slogged over grimy windows and greasy floorboards, I’d envision the whole house as complete as I could.

Visitors would enter the hall off the street magnificently paved in cream and black marble with pale blue walls to welcome them. Stuccoed doorways in brilliant white, dark oak and mahogany furniture, including an imposing grandfather clock, and a tantalising peek of a grand staircase beyond carpeted in thick red with metal runners, a sturdy wooden handrail and an intricate metalwork side would keep their eyes occupied as they were led into the morning room or library.

The latter was more masculine and inevitably used for gentlemen callers, its crimson walls and carpet lending itself to such company. It was there I first met Samuel, entrenched in a comfy wingchair by the dying glow of the fire. It is still so vivid in my mind: gilt framed paintings hanging from chains on the walls, the elegant highly polished furniture, the impressive fireplace with its marble surround and the delicate crystal chandelier swinging from the plasterwork ceiling. The ticking of the clock on the mantel was as clear as the day I left.

And then the morning room, a more elegant and female affair, papered in a soothing forest green, its wooden floor covered by Turkish rugs, walls also covered in fine paintings with a set of cream covered furniture taking centre stage; Samuel’s bedchamber, with a beautiful four poster and yellow silk curtains trimmed in sapphire blue, an exquisite dressing table in one corner topped with silver combs and a hand mirror; the Wedgewood blue dining room with matching sideboards, crisply starched white tablecloths, gleaming silverware and cutlery; they were all in cruel and stark contrast to my present home.

I had neither lived in those rooms, nor expected to, yet their absence stabbed at my heart. There was no entrance hall for the Smiths; the front door opened straight into the kitchen with the giant iron stove drawing the eye. Not remarkably different from the kitchen at Lawrence Street at first glance, a second and a third revealed dirt so engrained that I foresaw years of hard scrubbing ahead of me.

This was a house, never a home, which had suffered from the lack of a woman for too long; the damage was perhaps irrevocable. The stairs leading upwards were narrow and uneven, treacherous in the grimy daylight that filtered through; lethal in the dark.

Our bedroom, the marital suite, was writhing with lice and fleas when I moved in. The window latch so stiff with age and disuse that it needed a large dosing of fat to coax open; the fresh air a blessing.

I think that it was my husband who was the filthiest of the lot; that it was he who polluted the air and the house, and that it would only be when he was dead and buried that the house might, perhaps, once again regain some measure of cleanliness and comfort. I feared I was fighting a losing battle, and I feared that it might break me.

I had worked my way from the very top of the house back down to the kitchen when Thomas appeared. It was after midday and I had been on my feet, or knees, since dawn.

“Where’s my lunch, wife?” he said as he lumbered to a stool and dumped his weight upon it. “I’ve been up since dawn and I expect my wife to look after me since I put a roof over her head.”

I had a wooden trencher laid up in readiness: bread, cheese, some of Ma’s chutney, a bit of butter and a small portion of rather dry beef left over from the night before. He eyed the food greedily, and started on it before his apprentice, Simon, had come through from the workshop to take his seat and his share, which, was a substantially smaller one than his master’s.

My own portion was smaller still, and after less than a month there, I was still learning the trick of my husband’s temperament. I knew him to be lascivious, I knew him to be physically unappealing, I knew him to possess more confidence than he was entitled to, I knew him to be a successful man, and I also knew that he had offered for me knowing that I was carrying another man’s child, but I still didn’t know what he wanted from me.

“You’re looking in fine colour today,” he said.

My hands went to my cheeks. I had no doubt that the vigorous cleaning had brought a flush to them. My energetic movements had also caused my bodice to slip slightly, which my husband’s comments and gaze had brought to my attention. I tried to pull the fabric higher, concealing any swell of my breasts, but Thomas told me to let it be.

He finished his lunch with obvious pleasure, licking the remaining chutney from his fat fingers and scraping the edge of the knife forcefully against the last chunk of bread to remove any vestiges of the rich creamy butter. His deliberations, and his unerring gaze on myself, brought a sour taste to my mouth; but perhaps that was merely the food and the baby pressing against my belly.

“Get yourself back into that workshop, boy,” he said to Simon. “And make sure you keep your stitching small,” he shouted to a quickly retreating back. “Now you, wife, you get here,” he said, gesturing to his knee.

I sat on it gingerly, feeling revolted by his words. His fingers traced the top of my shift before taking hold of the white ribbons and pulling them. Not revealing as much as he liked, he dragged my bodice roughly, forcing the fabric down my breasts.

I sat in silence, praying and hoping that his attention would soon be caught elsewhere but he was a man undeterred. Undoing the ribbon laces further, he grabbed first one breast, then my second from inside the bodice, exposing me.

“Sir, please,” I protested.

“Do not ‘sir’ me, wife. I am Thomas, your husband, and a man has a right to do as he wishes in his own home.”

“But Simon-”

“But Simon, what? Fancy yourself a piece of the lad, do you?” He grasped my face between his fingers, his own leaning in close. “Don’t go giving yourself airs and graces Mistress Smith. I am under no illusion as to what you are. You’re here because you couldn’t keep your legs shut. The best thing you can do is shut that mouth of yours.”

He let go of my face with a brusque shake of his hand, and bent his head to my breasts. Taking one in his mouth, he squeezed the other roughly, kneading it mercilessly. They were tender even to my own touch, and the treatment was so painful that I bit my lip to keep from crying out, nevertheless, some movement gave me away, for Thomas looked up.

“Still denying your own lusts? We’ll soon see about that.” He lifted me off his knee and I knew a moment of relief before he swung my body around and pushed my head towards the table top, bending me until I was lying prostrate across it, my exposed breasts touching the wood.

I knew what was to come, and I knew that as my husband, this was his right and to struggle would only make the situation worse but instinct overcame the knowledge. I was rewarded with my face pressed even harder into the table, a meaty palm taking a clump of my hair, while my skirts were thrown up to my waist and my legs forced apart.

He was inside me in a moment, thrusting with as much finesse as a drunk, his vicious jerky movements fuelled by desire and anger. I screwed my face up as the pain increased with each clumsy jab, and as I shifted my head, I caught sight of Simon peering around the door. This witness to my humiliation defeated me; I closed my eyes and let my body go limp, and prayed for Thomas to finish and collapse heavily on top of me.

 

That night I felt as lonely as I ever had, and I wondered if that was how it came to Eliza, her monster.

I lay next to my husband but terribly alone as I thought of my dear sister lying under another roof surrounded by our family, and the man I thought I had loved and who had loved me, the man who had abandoned and betrayed me lying under a different roof across the town; and I thought of the small life growing inside of me who would always be unwanted, and a bastard, despite the timely marriage.

Each dreary thought was replaced by another. Was this to be my life now? It was not a bad one by many standards, but I had begun to hope for more, and to have it so cruelly snatched away from me, worse, destroyed by my own foolishness, left me numb where I thought to feel pain.

The only pain I felt was in body, my privates were aching and sore from my husband’s earlier ministrations. To be taken so roughly and so openly, knowing full well the apprentice in the next room could hear every thrust and grunt, and even see should he desire to stick his head around the door, brought colour to my cheeks even hours after.

I was not surprised to discover some blood on my shift when I had prepared for bed. The redness on my right cheekbone would have darkened to purple by the morning, and I had no doubt that similar smudges would appear on my ribs and stomach.

My husband was not a slight man, and hearing his snorts as he lay next to me I was overcome with a rage so violent and all-consuming that I had to quickly slip my hands under my body and anchor them there with my weight to stop myself doing anything I would have had great cause to regret.

When I had recovered some semblance of control, I allowed my hands back to rest upon my stomach, before grief and self-pity took over, and exhausted by the trials of the day, the last few weeks, and the thought of the weeks, months, years to come, I rolled over, my mouth in the pillow and cried with anguish.

Eliza and Samuel’s monster had found me, and it clung to my very heart and soul. I feared I would never be rid of it.

 

My baby came away so softly, so quietly in the night that I was only aware of it when I woke in the morning to discover a shift soaked with blood and gore.

The blood had dried leaving the thin linen caked to my legs. Thomas, disgusted at the mess, said little except to order me to clean myself, and burn the offending sheets. I received no sympathy from him. I didn’t expect it. It was not his child; he would no longer have to raise a bastard as his own.

I was numb, and didn’t know how to feel so my instincts took over. I stripped the sheets from the bed. Thomas was wrong to order them burned; a few hours soaking and scrubbing should have sorted them; blood was the very devil to get rid of but I was already learning to become frugal under Thomas’ gaze. My blood-soaked shift I reserved for the baby I had carried inside me for the last four months.

Morbidly driven, I examined the body. It was too soon; far too soon, and its limbs weren’t fully formed and there was no way of telling if it was a boy or a girl. But there was no mistaking it as a child; a child that until a few hours ago was alive and thriving, until my husband bent me over the kitchen table and drove into me with savage pride.

Was it fair to blame him? Was it even right? I neither knew nor cared. In my eyes, it may have been God’s will, but Thomas had been the ugly brutal instrument.

I wrapped the tiny body in my shift as tenderly as a new mother, and then my thoughts froze. I had no idea how to continue. I tried to recall what Ma did when one of her bairns died, but it’s different when they hadn’t even had a chance to leave the womb. Unchristened, and unborn, the baby had no right to a Christian burial.

I knew some midwives would have thrown the whole bundle on to the fire, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that; dead or alive, bastard or not, the child had been mine. The house had no garden, and I couldn’t risk returning to Lawrence Street.

I thought of the church opposite, Holy Trinity of Goodramgate, where Thomas and I had been married; only a moment from the house, if I could find a small patch of grass somewhere, but the iron gates across the snickelway were locked at night.

It had to be done in daylight, but then I risked exposure. There’s no crime in a miscarriage but to force one is to murder an innocent life. Should someone have suspected me of that, I would have been in deep trouble.

 

In the end, it was Eliza who came to my aid, as she had so many times before. It was her plan to visit during the evening service while the vicar and his congregation were occupied. We were fortunate for we were not seen by anyone, and my unborn baby, Samuel’s baby, was able to rest peacefully in the shadow of the church.

It was only then, only after the burial had happened, that I allowed myself to feel, and only then in the arms of Eliza. We sat in my old room. Ma took one look at me and excused Eliza from her afternoon duties. The pain I had held at bay for so long was released and I cried for the child I would never know; for the relief I felt at no longer being encumbered; for the guilt; and for myself, brought so low by my own actions, which were now, for naught.

If the baby had dislodged itself a month previous I might have been saved, and yet, I couldn’t deny that some of my first thoughts when I discovered I was pregnant were joyful; to be sharing something of Samuel and mine; to be carrying such a precious burden; a burden that I was then relieved to be rid of.

The tumult of emotions tossed me about like a piece of seaweed in a stormy sea; I was helpless. To feel Eliza’s arms wrap around me was to feel some comfort, but always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that as darkness fell, I had no choice but to return to Thomas; the husband who had taken my baby from me, and the husband who would no doubt demand his marital rights once more that night regardless of the blood-stained sheets that were pegged about.

I had been wrong about them; no amount of soaking or scrubbing could take the blood away. They would have to be burned after all.

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Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter nine

Martha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will; I promise,” I say.

 

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

“A memorial?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t know it,” I mutter.

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

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

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

 

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

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

“We’ll both need to register,” I say.

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

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

“Hello, how can I help you?”

“I’d like to register here please.”

“Not a problem, take a seat.”

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

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

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

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

“All of our reference section is upstairs.”

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

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

“Thanks,” I say.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I check my notes.

“12th November 1994.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ok?”

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

“Yes, sorry, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

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

“Sadly no. Why?”

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

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

“I’m Martha.”

“Nice to meet you.”

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

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

“What are you studying?”

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

“Psychology?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lockdown?”

“Yeah; it’s a long story.”

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

“You’ll drive me to Deepdene?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

“You don’t even know me.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

“Oh, hi there!” I say, surprised.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With pleasure,” I say.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“But there’s no one around.”

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

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

“Why me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A mile, my arse,” says Evie.

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go exploring.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“So,” Evie says. “What do you think?”

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

“Really? When?”

“I think I used to live here.”

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Mad Alice Lane Cover 2
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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter eight

Alice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alice!” she cried, with delight.

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

“I’ve been let go, Ma.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened Alice?” she said.

“He told her.”

“Who? Your Samuel?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So what are you going to do?”

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

“You can’t do it, you know, Alice.”

“I know I can’t.”

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

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

“Promise you won’t?”

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

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

“I don’t know, Eliza. What can I do?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I looked up, “About me, Pa?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t let you,” I said.

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

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

“You what?”

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

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

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

“But Pa, Ma; no!”

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

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

“What about the bairn?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me neither, Alice; but we shall.”

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

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

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

“He’s rich,” she said.

“Aye; richer than some.”

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

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

“That’s true.”

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

I had to laugh at that.

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

“You’ll not be far away.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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