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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter nineteen

Martha

The journey home is a silent one. Both Isak and Evie are kind and intuitive enough to leave me to my thoughts. When Evie, once again ignoring pedestrian zoning, pulls up right outside my flat, she merely says, “I’ll call you tomorrow, Martha.” I nod, and climb out of the car. Isak also gets out, and taking one hand in his, he squeezes it; nothing more, but it means the world. I send him a fleeting smile before turning and starting the long heavy walk up the stairs. Richard is home; the Saturday papers neatly stacked on the coffee table. I realise I haven’t had a single call from him.

“Martha,” he says calmly, as I walk in. “Where have you been?”

“I went out with Evie and Isak. You remember Isak, don’t you? He’s the man who called the ambulance when I had the miscarriage. He came with me to the hospital. He gave you his number for me.”

“Oh yes. I remember the fellow. Black hair, camera.”

“Why didn’t you give me his number?” I ask, accusingly, happy to pick a fight.

“I didn’t think it was important. I thanked the fellow, offered him some reward for his time-”

“You offered him money?”

“Well, it seemed like the right thing to do,” he protests.

“You’re unbelievable, Richard,” I say.

“Me? Me unbelievable? You’re the one who disappeared today without saying a thing to me about it. You’re the one who’s hanging around with God knows what people. You’re the one who threw your own mother out of the house!” I’ve never seen Richard explode like this, and, despite the storm of emotions flying around my head, I must admit that it’s refreshing to see him like this; out of control and passionate. “What’s going on with you, Martha? Do I have to threaten you with Bootham Park again? Where’s the woman I married?”

“Don’t you dare threaten me, Richard. I’m still here, Richard. I’ve been here the whole time. It’s you who’s been avoiding me.”

“Avoiding you? Don’t be ridiculous. I spend every night with you, for heaven’s sake.”

“In twin beds! Don’t you think that’s a little odd, Richard? We’ve not even been married a year.”

“Yes, well, you had the baby to consider-”

“Not any more, Richard, and still…”

“Well, there’s my back, and you know how important it is for me to have a good night’s sleep.”

“Fine, fine,” I say. Richard, taking this as my surrender, launches into a fresh assault.

“And what about your poor mother? Have you spoken to her since you treated her so badly?”

“My poor mother? My poor mother?! Let me tell you about my poor mother. You want to know where I’ve been today, Richard? I’ve been to my old house. Yes, that’s right. I used to live around here. Did you know that? No, neither did I, but it turns out to be true.

“I grew up in a beautiful old house called Deepdene Hall, in a little village not far from here. And you know what else? That house burnt down about twenty years ago. About the same time that I moved to Milton Keynes with my mother, to live with her parents, after my father had left us.

“But here’s the thing, Richard. He didn’t leave us. He died. He died! And what’s more. So did my brother. Yes, my brother. Matthew. How could I not even know about my brother? How is that even possible?”

“What did you expect her to say? That they’d both been killed in the fire and you were left with nothing? That-”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘What did you expect her-’”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew, Martha. I’m a psychiatrist for heaven’s sake. You think I didn’t take one look at all those pills you were taking and ask your mother what was behind it all.”

“You knew?! You knew my father had died, and my brother too?”

“Well, of course, I only heard small things from her; never the whole story. Never really what happened.” He is desperately trying to backtrack now, after his error; desperate to get the upper hand once more; desperate to have control of me. “And what are we going to do about you seeing a therapist.”

“You knew, and you didn’t tell me?” I ignore his therapist comment. “You’re meant to be my husband, Richard. We’re meant to share everything.”

“What nonsense, Martha.”
“Nonsense to you, perhaps. But to me-”

“To you? Don’t kid yourself.” His desperation has quickly turned to anger, and he blasts one vile comment after another. “You think I didn’t see the way your face lit up when I gave you some jewellery, or took you to a fancy restaurant? You think that you didn’t want this lifestyle? You’re a fool, Martha. You knew exactly what you were getting into, just as I did.”

I am temporarily silenced. Is he right? Did I use him as much as he used me? For a second, I almost believe him, and then the old Martha appears, the one the old woman called fiery. “No, Richard. You’re wrong. I didn’t know. How could I? I was just a girl. A girl who was taking so much medication she didn’t even know herself anymore. But I know now, Richard. I know exactly what this marriage is, and I know exactly who I am.”

“Where are you going?” he asks as I move to the door.

“Anywhere,” I say. “Anywhere but here.”

 

“Evie? I’ve left Richard.”

“Shit. I’ll come and get you.”

I wait for her in the entrance of the snickelway, gazing at Holy Trinity Church opposite. The gate is still open, and I’m drawn to it. I sit on the bench in the graveyard and look around me. More graves, more death, more misery and pain. I can’t sit still. Not yet. I get up and walk about.

My eye falls on one tombstone. One I haven’t seen before. It’s pushed towards the back and shifting ground has forced the stone crooked. Instinctively I place my hands on its surface, and for the third time that day, trace words carved by those left behind. “Sacred to the memory of Thomas Smith, who died October 26 1824, in the 54th year of his age”.

Thomas Smith; this has to be Alice’s husband although there’s no mention of her; why can’t I find Alice? Where is she buried? When did she die? And what did Thomas die from? I remember clearly that cholera victims were forbidden from being buried in graveyards; it was the mass pit for them.

I search around for any more graves from the Smith family, hoping perhaps to happen upon the twins, Rebecca and Joseph, but nothing is immediately apparent. They were baptised, I found the records, and so would be permitted a church burial, and this was their parish church, the burial place of their father, and yet, nothing; no sign of them. It seems more likely that they succumbed to cholera, even if their father didn’t. At only a few weeks old, they didn’t stand a chance. I am struggling to piece this family together.

I hear my name being called and hurry out of the graveyard to meet Evie in the road.

“Get in,” she says. “And tell me what happened.”

After several glasses of wine, and a few more tears, I relate the argument and revelations of my husband.

“So, you have, had, a brother?”

“Matthew.”

“And he died in the fire at Deepdene, with your father?”

“Apparently so.”

“And your mum never mentioned any of this?”

“Honestly, I knew nothing about it.”

“But Richard did?”

“Yep.”

“Bastard. Sorry, I mean, what a secret to keep from you. So, what are you going to do now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for starters, have you left Richard for good?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really know anything yet. It’s all too much to process.”

“What about your mum then? Are you going to call her? You need to speak to her, get her side of the story. She owes you that much, at least.”

“I’m not sure I want to speak to her right now.”

“I can understand that, but without her, how are you going to find anything out? You’re already struggling.”

“I thought I might go back and speak to that old woman.”

“Which old woman? The one from the pub? The one that claimed she knew you?”

“Yes. She knows more, that’s for certain.”

“But how will you find her?”

“I’ll ask in the pub.”

“Ok, fine. Good plan, but you can’t do that now. And even tomorrow it won’t be open until lunch. What are you going to do until then?” Evie fixes me with a steady gaze. “I really think you should call your mum, Martha.”

“Fine. Fine. Have it your way, I will. After I’ve had another glass of wine.” I take a long sip of the cold white she has placed in my hands. “You’ll never guess what I found in the graveyard while I was waiting for you.”

“Stop stalling, Martha.”

“I’m not. Really; this is important.”

“What did you find?”

“Thomas Smith’s grave.”

“Who?”

“Alice’s husband. Turns out he did die not long after they were married; and not long after the twins died as well.”

“But no sign of Alice?”

“Nope.”

“And no indication that he was murdered.”

“Definitely not. But if he died from cholera he wouldn’t be in the graveyard.”

“The plot thickens.”

“Doesn’t it always?”

 

 

“Mum?”

“Martha. I’m so-”

“Mum, I need to speak to you, and you need to listen. Ok?”

“Ok.”

“It’s about dad, and- and my brother.” I can’t bring myself to say his name; it feels alien in my mouth. “I went back to Deepdene today, and I met someone; someone who knew me, and knew more about me that I could have imagined.”

“Where are you now, Martha?”

“I’m at Evie’s.”

“And where’s that?”

I give her the address. “Why do you want to know, mother?”
“Because I didn’t get on a train. I’m still here, in York.”

“You’ve been here all these days?”

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“Because I knew that some day, soon, I’d have to tell you everything. I’m sorry I didn’t before, the other day, but I just couldn’t then. I will now. I’ll be with you in half an hour.”

 

When she arrives, the taxi pulling up in front of Evie’s flat, I open the door but stand back while she gets out. I can’t even force a ‘hello’ out from my lips and simply offer a nod. It is Evie who comes to the rescue.

“I’ll give you two some space,” she says, after she’s placed a mug of steaming tea in front of both of us, and cleared away the empty wine bottle and glasses.

“No. Don’t leave,” I say. “I wouldn’t have got this far without you. I want you to stay, to hear.” She holds my gaze levelly, and I nod for confirmation. “Please stay.” She drops into a chair in the corner of the room, and my mother and I take places on the sofa, sitting at opposite ends, not even our clothes touching.

“Tell me.”

“It was so long ago now, Martha, but I’ll start at the beginning. I’m not from this part of the world, as you know. I grew up in Milton Keynes, went to school there, teaching college and so on. It was only later, on a trip to Yorkshire, that I met your father. It sounds so far-fetched to say, but it was love at first sight. Or, at least it was for me.

“Your father was so handsome; tall, dark, a walking cliché in many respects. Giles Blenkinsop. Quite a catch, so I discovered. He was from an old family in the area; his parents had died years before and he was left in charge of the family home, Deepdene Hall. He was older than me, more settled and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to stay up here, in the north.

I’d never liked Milton Keynes anyway; never felt that I’d belonged there with its perfectly mapped concrete streets. Deepdene was a revelation. There was so much history in the house. Like Giles, I fell in love with it from the moment I first laid eyes on it. And it seemed so romantic.

Of course, we were married by then. He was very traditional in many ways, your father. We had a brief, what we called a ‘courtship’, but that wasn’t so odd for the time. We were so happy, and then your brother came along, Matthew.

Suddenly the house was full of life again. Such a big place, modernity hadn’t been kind to it. You need a large staff to keep a house like that afloat and the Blenkinsops were what was known as asset rich but cash poor. The house was a money pit, but with Matthew, none of that mattered.

Not even a year later, you came along. Those were the happiest days of my life. The four of us, in our own little bubble. And you two, you were so close; more like twins than just brother and sister.

Whatever Matthew did, you followed suit, but you were more than his shadow; partners in crime, Mrs McGready used to say.”

“Mrs McGready?”

“Your nanny. She was devoted to you both; she’d looked after Giles as a young boy as well. Ethel McGready worked in that house from a small girl until the fire took it from us. She looked after the pair of you as if you were her own. The pair of you, Matthew and you, were inseparable, toddling about hand in hand; you never needed anyone else. Do you not remember him at all?”

“No,” I say, helplessly. “I wish I could, but how can I when for the last twenty years, I didn’t know anything about him! What was he like?”

“He was like every other five year old boy, and like none of them. He had blonde hair too, as fair as yours, but his was golden, not your silver; and his eyes were darker blue. He was such a bundle of energy, and then when you came along, we were the perfect family. It never crossed my mind to worry when I’d come across you two jabbering away to thin air as happy as you please.”

“Why would it? Surely I was just playing?” I ask, already anticipating the answer.

“That’s what I thought too, of course. And I was happy to leave it at that. Children have imaginary friends all the time, and they grow out of them in due course, but Ethel, she brought me your drawings.”

“And?”

“Your friends looked different, for a start. Ask a five year old what a Tudor doublet and hose looks like and you’ll not get very far, but ask a child to draw what they see, and you’ll get a better idea. How could either of you possibly know what clothes looked like several hundred years ago?”

“Books,” I interrupt. “Or paintings. It’s not very difficult to copy what you see in a book.”

“But you knew about more than their clothes; you could tell us their names, and where they lived.”

“In Deepdene Hall, I suppose?”

“Oh no, Deepdene Hall was never that old. It was only built in the late Georgian period. No, these children lived on the estate before then, and you two could describe it, in detail, despite there being no pictures of it surviving.”

“But again, surely that’s just imagination.”

“Stop being difficult, Martha. I know it’s hard to hear, I know you’ve had a hard time recently, but you yourself told me about the voices you’ve been hearing. Why is it so tough for you to believe that you heard and saw people as a child?”

“Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why. Because things like this don’t happen in real life; because only crazy people hear voices; because that’s all I’ve ever been told; because that’s why I’ve been taking medication for almost my entire life. I can’t believe it, because despite of everything I’ve heard and seen for myself, you’ve spent years and years telling me the opposite. And now, now you’ve turned around, and you expect to believe that I saw ghosts as children?”

“Martha,” my mum sighs. “I don’t know what you saw. Ethel certainly thought it was ghosts, but without telling your father, I visited every specialist in the area to see if there was something physically wrong with you.”

“Are you saying that this is my fault? That somehow all of this is my fault?”

“No, Martha; I’m not saying that at all. I would never say that. Please, just hear me out.”

“Fine. So what did you specialists tell you?”

“Nothing. No one found anything, ever. You were perfectly healthy. We consulted psychiatrists-”

“Oh, you love a psychiatrist.”

“-And they all said it was normal for children to make up playmates. But you still worry, Martha; you still worry. And then I finally told your father; I needed some reassurance. I was a vicar’s daughter. You might think that gives me a nicely ordered view of the world, with life and death neatly separated, but my father, your grandfather, you know what he was like. He always believed there was more to death than meets the eye; always had a slightly non-Christian view about it all. I couldn’t help remember. When I told your father, he was silent for a long time. Then he gave a huge sigh and his whole body deflated.

“Where are the children?” he asked me.

“In bed,” I said, impatiently. “As they always are at ten o’clock at night.”

“And Ethel?”

“Gone for the night. What is going on, Giles?”

“I’m a Blenkinsop, and the Blenkinsops have been here in Yorkshire and Northumberland for as long as anyone can remember; a good strong family; a rich family too, with estates across the county; a family to be proud of. But you know what they say about goings on behind closed doors. Like every family, we’ve had our secrets.”

“Secrets? What? Like priest holes behind the fireplaces?” I tried to bring some lightness back to the conversation.

“If only it were that simple, my love. Did I ever tell you about my great-great-grandfather? He built this house, but he wasn’t a Blenkinsop. No, he was something else but you see, at that point, there weren’t any male heirs so when he married my great-great-grandmother, he took her name, and so the Blenkinsops were saved. That’s him there,” he pointed to a handsome oil painting hanging from chains in the ceiling. “James Samuel Blenkinsop. Well, rumour has it that the Blenkinsops weren’t quite as saved as they thought. Oh, James brought with him money and prospects, to a family that only had its name, but he also brought something else, something strange. The women of his family saw things.”

“Things?”

“Things. Things that shouldn’t have been there.”

“Things like what?”

“I don’t know. I’ve heard the stories all my life, and always thought it was absolute rot. Lifted straight from the pages of a cheap thriller. Nothing more than that, but my mother, she wasn’t so sure, but, of course, like you, she only married into the family.”

“Giles, are you saying that your family can see ghosts? Are you actually telling me this and expecting me to believe it?”

“Sarah, I hardly know what I’m saying. I’ve certainly never seen a ghost in my life; not even a suspicion of one. Can’t say I even believe in them. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Your body goes into the ground, and that’s that.”

“So what’s all the fuss about?”

“My sister, Elaine, she believed in the ghosts, you know.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She was younger than me. Quite the apple of my parents’ eyes, but I didn’t blame her for that. She was a lovely girl. Rather delicate – a dose of polio growing up – but full of life.”
“What happened to her?”

“She changed. I was away at university, but she became withdrawn and melancholy. One of the maids, a confidante of hers, later said that Elaine had complained of seeing and hearing people at all hours. She started taking sleeping pills, and then one morning, our mother found her; she’d taken too many pills and never woke up.”

“Oh, Giles; that’s terrible. But, well, are you saying that your sister had her accident because she saw things that other people couldn’t?”

“No; not exactly. Listen, I’m not really sure what I’m saying, at least, I don’t think Elaine died because of what she thought she was seeing and hearing; I believe it really was an accident, but something had changed her in those last few months.”

I pressed and pressed him for more of an answer, but he could tell me nothing. I admit it, I was scared, and so was he. But what could we do? How could two grown adults discuss the possibility that one of their children is seeing ghosts? It sounds ludicrous now, and it sounded ludicrous then. I grew wary of the house, and I was scared for you.”

“But what about the fire?”

“That really was an accident.”

“Really? You think that after Elaine died?”

“Eventually a report was released blaming it on one of the workmen that we always had on site keeping the old place standing; a cigarette that wasn’t properly extinguished. The house was an accident waiting to happen.”

“So do you think I’m an accident waiting to happen?”

“I don’t think so, Martha; not now.”

“Not now?”

“You know I’ve worried; I’ve always worried. I tried to do what was best for you, always.”

“So what happened to my father and brother?”

“I remember that night so clearly. We woke to the sound of an alarm beeping madly. I rushed to your bedroom and the curtains above your bed were already ablaze. I don’t know how we’d slept through it for so long. Scooping you up in my arms, we fled the house. Giles, your father, had gone for Matthew, and I stood there, outside, waiting for him to come out, to join us.

“I still don’t know what happened to this day; why he didn’t get out; why he didn’t follow me. I tried to go back in but the fire fighters were there by then and they wouldn’t let me. The fire had taken a strong, ferocious grip by then. It was too late; too late for our belongings, too late for the house, and too late for your father and brother.”

I tried not to interrupt my mother as she recounts her tale, letting the memories flood out of her, but now, she falters, brings her hands to her face and cries. I can see her whole body is racked with pain and grief, and even though I’m in shock, even though I don’t know what to think about everything I’ve just heard, I can’t watch her cry like this, alone; like a wounded animal. In one move, I am right next to her on the sofa, my arms pulling her tight into my embrace, my lips on her hair, as I try to help share this burden for her.

“It was too late,” she whispers.

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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter eighteen

Alice

Watching my husband breathe his last was the most satisfying thing I had seen in a long time. I nudged him, pinched his nose and then placed a piece of glass beneath his nose to see if he had any breath left but he was truly gone; for good; or bad.

With Mrs Simpson outside, I was left with two choices. Did I play the grieving widow? Or did I confess my crime? Undoubtedly they would hang me for what I had done. I had no illusions on that account. And yet, there was still cholera in the city. Many had died like him, and still more would.

But if he was diseased, his body would be thrown into the same pit in which he had caused my babies to be put. He would be alongside them, in body although certainly not in spirit. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. That was all that I needed to make my mind. I called Mrs Simpson back into the room.

“You must call the constable,” I said.

“The constable, Mrs Smith? What in heavens for?”

“My husband has been poisoned.”

“Been poisoned, you say?” She looked at me curiously. “What makes you think that, Mrs Smith?”

“Because, Mrs Simpson, I poisoned him myself. And good riddance!”

She gasped aloud. “You wicked, wicked thing.”

“You’re quite right, Mrs Simpson. Quite right. Now please go and get the constable.”

“No shame at all. No remorse.”

“None, I’m afraid. Very shocking, I know. The constable, if you please.”

My neighbour scampered out of the room as fast as her arthritic limbs could take her, and I heard the key turn in the lock. I wouldn’t have ordinarily minded being locked in a room, after all, I had become quite accustomed to it, but being stuck with Thomas galled me more than the smell of sick, piss and shit.

I was surprised when I heard the key turning again, not more than ten minutes later. She must have run like the devil himself was on her trail, or, more likely, sent poor Simon. Although the key had turned, it was a few moments before the door itself was pushed open, and seated as I was, I had a perfect view of it inching wider very slowly.

I was right; it was Simon’s head that first peeked through. He saw me watching, let out a squeak and the door slammed shut again. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s alright, you know,” I said. “You can come in. I won’t hurt you. It was only my bastard husband that I thought to see dead.”

The door was pushed open more rigorously this time, and it was a young man who walked in, not the constable; probably just a watchman, I’d have wagered. He was struck still for a moment as the smell of the sickroom hit him full in the face, and I saw him blanch. Not much older than Simon, about my age perhaps, and I took pity on him as I saw him shrink back.

“Don’t worry. It’s not cholera. It’s tansy that did for him. Ministered by my own fair hand, as you see,” I said, and gestured to the mug on the pallet nightstand, with the dregs still inside. “You’re quite safe.”

Whether it was my words, or some inner courage he managed to plumb, but he straightened up and walked over to me.

“You’ll come with me, Miss, er, Mrs Smith.”

“Of course.”

He had nothing on him but the heavy wooden truncheon used to beat unwilling captives, but as I stepped towards him as willingly as a lamb, his uncertainty returned.

“Er-”

“You should probably take me to the parish constable. He’ll know what to do.”

“I know my job!” He said indignantly and stretched himself to his full 5 foot 6 inches. “Come along now.”

There was no carriage waiting outside. I had hardly expected there to be one, instead, I was marched, with a watchman on each side, to the lodgings of the constable, who, to his credit, did indeed appear to know what to do.

Heavy iron cuffs were placed on my wrists, and I found myself at the Castle in less than an hour. It was decided that it was at York Castle that I would be tried so at York Castle I would be detained. I cared not. A prison is a prison, and I had been living in one long before then.

I was placed in a cramped cold cell made of stone. Rivulets of rancid water ran down the walls but I was fortunate that there was a window, albeit barred with iron. I shared the cell with seven other women, all awaiting trial.

There was a single wooden bed in the corner, and a bench stretched across one wall. We took it in turns to sleep, although I, accused of petty treason, that is, murder of my husband, found it difficult to sleep with the iron cuffs.

There was no water to clean ourselves and food was brought but once a day: a thin gruel with hunks of stale bread. Vile filth-covered straw lined the floor and rats made themselves our neighbours.

Being brought so low would once have wrought a terrible change on my mind but then, knowing the crimes I had committed, for I knew them to have been so, I was resigned. I let the minutes, hours, days wash over me. I took no interest in the other women, or the coming and goings of our gaolers. I saw, but didn’t care, when one woman offered herself to a guard, hoping not only for more gruel, but that she would conceive a child, thus granted her a temporary reprieve from the noose. I had no need of more children. I had Rebecca and Joseph with me.

They nestled on my chest. I crooned lullabies to them and cradled them close; these children of mine, who would have been reaching their quarter-year. Every night, as darkness fell, I would put them to bed, and every night, like good babes, they would sleep the night through; and in the morning, I’d waken them to suckle at my breasts. I worried my milk had dried up, and despite knowing the gruel was almost worthless, I begged the guard for extra to feed them. All I received were blows and laughs.

At night, with the children sleeping, I heard voices. Were the same voices that led me back to Samuel all those months ago? I hardly knew. The first time, I started from my sleep, and looked around immediately for Eliza, but she was nowhere to be seen. Soon I learned not to be afeared of the voices; mostly there was the voice of a young girl, her tone well mannered and soft. In real life, I should never have mistaken her for Eliza. Eliza with her dropped ‘h’s and ‘t’s, just like me. Sometimes she cried with me, this girl; sometimes she called my name.

One night, I knew as sure as anything that the girl was Martha. I knew no Martha, but that was her name. Perhaps she had told me. Perhaps I just knew. When I looked down at the dirty bundle in my lap where I wrapped my children, and when I spoke to Martha, I knew that my mind had gone; untethered by my sorrow and guilt. You didn’t need a mind to nurse your dead babies, and you don’t need a mind to dangle from the gallows; only a neck to loop the noose around.

Other nights, Martha was nowhere to be found, and I wept instead for Eliza; pounding my fists against the walls as if that might bring her to me, instead of angry words from the other women. I wept for Samuel too. I would never know who was the twins’ father, but the thought that I had lost more of his precious children, brought my soul as low as I thought it could ever be.

I scraped my nails against the stone floor and gained some small sense of satisfaction when I drew blood from where my nails had been. My body was foul and stinking; crawling with lice and fleas and coated in a thick patina of human waste and dirt. Cholera was as rife within the prison as without, and yet, this time, I escaped while others perished. No one cared who succumbed or who fought through. The rushes were never changed, the buckets hardly emptied, and fresh water unheard of. A dead prisoner only deprived the hangman of his fee.

I had no sense of time. As the weather grew colder, I thought perhaps Christmas was coming, but there was nothing to celebrate.

One day, the mood was different in the prison; tense, unsettled and vibrating with energy, we could hear noises coming from the cells beyond, even through the thick stone walls. I drew my filthy shift tighter around the twins, to shield them from what was to come.

The key turned in the iron lock, and the heavy wooden door swung inwards. The assizes had arrived. It was time. A bucket of water was placed in the cell. Months ago, we would have fought for our turn, instead we shuffled up in silence and I was able to wipe my face as clean as the dirty rag provided would get it.

I made sure the twins looked as presentable as I could too. We were all led from the cell along with several other women from other cells, iron shackles making a great clamour. We were all to be tried together in the same court and by the same counsel. I was the only murderess in the midst; others were there for stealing a bolt of fabric or counterfeiting coins; regardless, we’d all hang from the new drop in the Castle grounds if found guilty.

 

The courtroom was truly magnificent. It even put the Tuke House to shame. Duck egg blue walls were lined with high wooden benches, each filled with serious looking men. The ceiling was decorated in a delicate white stucco and long windows cast bright light across the room; cruelly it not only reminded me of the Tuke House, the light also showed my dress to be more filthy than I had possibly imagined. There was shit crusted to the bottom and large sweat stains lay under my arms. The water had not helped much, and to see the grime and blood under my destroyed fingernails would have given Ma a heart attack. She was always ever so strict about clean hands and nails. No one would trust a laundress with dirty hands, she reckoned.

We were shuffled into an iron pen to one side of the room, and face the judge’s bench. It lay empty, and it was a full thirty minutes before he made his entrance. All the men rose but we women were already on our feet, and would remain so until sentence was passed.

One by one, the cases were called, and one by one, sentences were passed: transportation, transportation, hanging, transportation. This judge was not a kind one and one by one, women wept as they were led back into the dark prisons below. Soon, I was the only one remaining, and my case was put forward.

“Alice Smith, aged 24, stands accused of the wilful murder of her husband, Thomas Smith, by poison.” The prosecution spoke. “Alice Smith was married to Thomas Smith in the year 1823 at Holy Trinity Goodramgate, York. A constable was summoned to the premises of the prisoner and the deceased after the prisoner confessed to the crime of poisoning her husband to her neighbour, Mrs Simpson.

“John Hindle, a local surgeon, examined the body of the deceased on the 26th of October, the day on which the inquest was held. He opened it, and was enabled clearly to ascertain the cause of his death. The stomach was in a very putrid state; the coats of it much corroded and inflamed. He attributed the immediate cause of Smith’s death to herbal poisoning, which would produce all the effects that he observed. He discovered by tests the poison to be tansy, or tanacetum vulgar, also known as Common Tansy, Bitter Buttons, Cow Bitter, Mugwort, or Golden Buttons.

“Sarah Parker is a herbalist at York and has seen the prisoner before. She approached her several times, and remembers a meeting on Friday the 23rd of October. She wanted some tansy, which she gave to her after an inquiry. She said she wanted it to treat abdominal cramps. She is quite sure the prisoner is who she sold it to.

“Catherine Simpson is the neighbour of the deceased and prisoner, on Low Petergate, York. She was fetched by the apprentice of the deceased on Monday the 26th of October to the house of the deceased. The prisoner told her Thomas Smith was ill and needed nursing. She was also told that the prisoner had also been sick. She nursed the deceased who was crying out, folding his arms across his bowels while the prisoner made several tisanes for his relief. It was in these concoctions that the poison was to be found. Later that day, the deceased passed away. After which, the prisoner confessed her crimes and asked for a constable to be called.

“George Farrow is the watchman of the area. The prisoner was in his charge from Monday the 26th of October. He brought her to the Castle forthwith.”

After all this evidence is given, his Lordship, the judge addressed the court. I was called upon for my defence and was about to speak when another voice cut across. A voice I recognised; a voice that caused me to wish I were hanged already. Samuel Tuke’s.

“I speak for the defence of this woman; the prisoner, Alice Smith,” he said.

“And you are, sir?” enquired the judge.

“I am Samuel Tuke, proprietor of The Retreat and former employer of the prisoner.”

“Continue.”

“Alice Smith, then Alice Haxby, came to my household at the age of 19. She stayed with us for more than four years, in which time she proved herself to be a valuable and loyal member of our household. When she left to marry Thomas Smith, it was a great sorrow to myself.

“Since that marriage, she has suffered untold miseries, first a miscarriage, and second the loss of two children to cholera. I have here, the deceased’s apprentice, Simon Blunt, who will attest that the deceased beat the prisoner cruelly. I put forth to you, your Lordship and the honourable men of the Jury that the prisoner be judged as insane, and henceforth, not responsible for her actions or crimes. I propose that her care be entrusted to my lunatic asylum, where she remain for the rest of her life, being a danger to herself and those around her.”

“Alice Smith. Do you have anything to say in your defence?” asked the judge.

I was primed to say that I was guilty of the crime, primed to admit to my sins and be judged for them, but I looked into Samuel’s eyes and I saw something there, a pleading.

I had no real wish to die, only to be left alone with my children. If I hanged, I would leave them behind, with no one to care for them. I was already free of Thomas, and perhaps now, with Samuel’s help, I would be free to end my days peacefully.

I remembered his talk of The Retreat and it was a far cry from the dank cell I had been in. So instead of a defence, or instead of stating my guilt, I stared at the judge in silence until nudged by a watchman, said, “I leave it to God, and my conscience, sir.”

The jury retired and it was only six minutes until they returned.

“We, the jury, find the prisoner, Alice Smith, guilty of petty treason, and murder.” A murmur went round the assembled crowd and I saw Samuel grip the bench in front of him tightly. I met his eyes and tried to send him a message of gratitude, love and regret, but as I did so, the jury continued.

“We also judge the prisoner to be insane and as such, sentence her to spend the remainder of her days in The Retreat.” Hearing these words, I was filled with relief. My knees buckled beneath me, the blood drained from my face and I fell upon the floor of the dock.

The gaoler raised me to my feet and I heard in a blur the judge pass the sentence, demanding I be taken from the Castle prisons to The Retreat with immediate effect. I sagged in the gaoler’s arms and let the darkness flood over me.

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Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter seventeen

Martha

The doorbell rings and I bound to the door eagerly. Richard is long gone to work and Mrs Gilbert has become an ally. I let Isak in and his grin matches mine.

“Hello,” he says, enveloping me in a hug, which after the first cautious second, I return with relish. “Right, Operation Capture Alice, Part One.” He is lugging a great bag of equipment behind him. “You wouldn’t believe how much information there is about all this stuff. There are institutes set up just to verify paranormal images.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. This is big business now but for the Victorians, it was huge!”

“So are there many?”

“Many what?”

“Many verified photos of ghosts?”

“Ah, not a great deal, to be honest. A lot of the early photos were manipulated using cotton wool to create a sort of mist, and then double exposures added faces, but, the good news is that there’ve been no really successful fakes since the thirties.”

“That’s good news?”

“Sure. It means if we do manage to capture something, you can be pretty certain that it’s Alice.”

“Ok, so now what?”

Isak crouches down to the bag at his feet. “First off, we’ll use these two 35mm cameras. One is loaded with a black and white high speed infrared film, the other with ordinary black and white film.”

“Why the infrared?”

“It picks up on things that we can’t see with the naked eye, specifically invisible sources of heat, but it’s pretty volatile. Next, we need to set everything up on tripods. Is there anywhere in the flat that you’ve felt Alice’s presence more than others?”

“Not really. To be honest, I’ve never really had a bodily sense of her, if you see what I mean, more of a floating atmosphere, except maybe outside in the snickelway.”

“Well we’ll set up in here as there’s plenty of space, and then move around if we need.” He hands me one of the tripods. “Here, set this up.” I struggle with the knobs but manage to get it standing reasonably straight. “We’re using tripods because then we eliminate the risk of blurry images from human shake. We’ll also use a cable release to take the actual photos; again to reduce blur.”

“Ok,” I nod, hoping that I look knowledgeable. I have a basic understanding of photography, and I’ve always enjoyed it, but the moment people start talking about proper photography, the real science behind it, with exposures, shutter speeds and so on, I’m at a loss.

“We’ll do a range of exposures.”

“Ok.”

“Do you know what I mean?”

“I’ve no idea,” I reply, cracking a smile.

“It’s simple really.”

“Ha! Simple for you.”

“Nope, simple for you too. All an exposure means is how long the lens is left open in the camera while it takes the image. So, if you use a really short exposure, of say a hundredth of a second, you’ve got a better chance of catching really fast movement cleanly, with no blur. So, a moving car will look static. Got it?”

“I think so.”

“And if you use a really long exposure, you’re giving the camera a chance to capture more and more information, so a moving car will look blurred. Ok?”

“Ok.”

“See. Not so hard.” He smiles at me, and the corners of his eyes crinkle. I catch myself licking my lips, and stop immediately.

“Er, what else?” I ask quickly, breaking eye contact.

“90% of ghostly images can be explained by flaws in the film developing, fog, specks on the lens, light reflections or simulacra.”

“Simulacra?”

“It’s when we see shapes in what is actually random patterns in shadows, or bushes.”

“Like the face of Jesus on a piece of toast?” I ask.

“Exactly like that,” he laughs.

“Right, so no seeing Jesus on toast; got it. Next?”

“So what we’re actually looking for are – hang on,” he gets his phone out of his pocket. “I made a note so I wouldn’t forget. We’re looking for phenomena that include glowing balls-” I stifle a snigger at that. “Streaks of light, patches of fog, or filmy shapes.”

“That’s it?”

“What do you mean?”

“So we’re not going to get an actual image of Alice?”

“Not necessarily, apparently orbs – those are the glowing balls – are the most common, but, here, look at this.” He slides to an image on the phone screen. “This photo was taken in 1966 in Greenwich. The guy who took it was a complete amateur, a tourist in fact, not trying to take a paranormal image. He’d taken loads of pictures that day, and after developing the film, two shadowy figures appeared climbing a staircase he’d photographed. The photo has been examined by experts all over the world, and there’s no evidence of fraud. That’s more than just an orb.”

“It’s pretty amazing actually, and kind of beautiful.” I take his phone into my hands and look closer. A simple photo, not a great one in terms of composition – even I can see that – but the left side is taken up by the elegant curve of a staircase, and in the bottom right, at the base of the curve, is a single figure; both indistinct and clear, it looks as if someone wearing a white flowing gown, possibly with a hood, is draped over the bannister, with one arm extended towards the ceiling. “How was that taken?”

Isak retrieves his phone from me, and checks his notes once more. “Not with any specific equipment: just a camera body, with a lens and a filter.”

“Do you have any more?”

“Yeah, I saved a load of them. This one is called The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.”

“Catchy name.”
“Oh yeah, a ghost is nothing without a good moniker. The story behind this goes back a bit further. The ghost is meant to be that of Lady Dorothy Walpole who committed adultery and was locked away until she died in 1726. Her ghost was first seen in 1835 and in 1936 some photographers from Country Life were taking some pictures for an article and saw a ghostly apparition and they quickly took a photo; that’s what you’re looking at now. No expert has ever confirmed it as a fake, although some people think it might have been an accidental double exposure or light in the camera.”

“What do you think?”

“Honestly, I couldn’t say, but it looks better than this.”

“God, yes! What is that?”

“Apparently, that’s ectoplasm.”

“Like Ghostbusters?”

“So they say, but Arthur Conan Doyle, he of Sherlock Holmes, was big into his spirituality and he debunked lots of these. People used muslin, toothpaste, soap, egg white, all sorts, to fake the ectoplasm.”

“Yeah, they look totally different to these two.”

“Exactly, and these are orbs.”

“But they could be anything!”

“Which is why it’s so hard to get a conclusive photo. If it’s a genuine orb it could float and change direction at speed, it will react to people around it, appear both in and outdoors, but probably won’t be strong enough to set off motion detectors, which is good, because I don’t have any of them.”

“Anything else?”

“A real orb will look dense and bright, and false one will be pale. If we eliminate all natural possibilities of that like dust, moisture, light reflection, we should be ok.”

“But it’s not much to go on, is it?”

“Not really, but I’ve got more up my sleeve if we need it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes, but let’s focus on this first.”

 

“Now what?” I say, when all the equipment is in place.

“Now we just take some photos.”

“I’ll go put the kettle on then,” and I take myself off into the kitchen. To be honest, it’s all feeling a little anticlimactic. At least if Isak were using a digital camera we’d be able to see if we were successful straight away, but with film, I’ll have to wait until he’s got everything developed. I want to know now. I want to see Alice.

 

Several hours later and we are having no luck. Well, that’s to say, we might be, but who knows. I certainly haven’t felt anything, or glimpsed anything from the corner of my eye, which I often do when I’m in the flat alone.

“Maybe she doesn’t like to appear when there’s someone else here?” Isak says.

“Maybe.”

“And you never know; we could have some great stuff on here.”

“Maybe.”

“What does it feel like when Alice is around?”

“Feel like? I’ve not really thought about it.” I settle back into the sofa, curl my legs underneath me and close my eyes. “It often feels colder. Not dramatically so, not so I can see my breath, but my skin pricks, you know?” Isak nods. “And there are noises which no one could have made: bangings, and taps, not really loud, just as if someone else was in the house going about their business.”

“Do you ever feel frightened?”

“Of Alice?” I close my eyes again. “No. No, I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. I mean, it gave me a bit of a start to think that I was living in the house of a supposed murderer, but like I said, I just don’t get that from her. Sometimes a noise can make me jump, but that can happen with anyone.”

“And smell? I read that ghosts can bring different smells with them.”

“I haven’t noticed anything; I’ll have to pay more attention.”

“But you hear voices?”

“Oh yes. I hear the voices a lot.”

“The voices?”

“Yes. It’s not always easy to work out who is saying what, or even who ‘who’ is. Alice is the strongest though. God, that sounds ridiculous!”

“No; I think I know what you mean. Maybe the other voices are other ghosts.”

“Yeah, maybe; I suppose if I’m willing to believe I’m hearing a woman who died a century ago, then I have to be willing to believe I’m hearing from other people too. You know, ever since – ever since I lost my baby, it’s all been a little surreal.”

I look down into my lap, to where my bump was, to where my baby should be, and as I lift my head, Isak reaches out a hand to my cheek, falters, and then falls on to my arm, where it lies hot and heavy; his thumb gently stroking back and forth. We both jump when my phone rings; he draws his hand back in a flash, and I grab at the ringing mobile and frantically press ‘answer’.

“Evie?”

“How’s it going, Martha?”

“Erm,” I say, and dart a look at Isak, who is concentrating on a picture hanging on the wall opposite. “I’m not sure, to be honest. We’ve taken a few rolls of film, but we’ll have to wait for them to be developed, and I’ve not really felt Alice.” I get up from the sofa and walk through to the kitchen.

 

When I return, Isak has already packed up most of his gear.

“That was Evie,” I say, unnecessarily.

“Let’s call it a day, shall we?” says Isak.

“If you think that’s all we can get.” I am reluctant to draw our time to a close. “Erm, look, I’m not sure what you’re doing tomorrow. You’re probably really busy, but Evie and I are going to drive out to Deepdene tomorrow and see if we can have a proper look around.”

“Deepdene?”

“Yeah, you know, my old house?”

“Your what?”

“Didn’t she tell you? Oh. I thought she must have. So there’s this whole Alice thing, right?

“Yes.”
“Well, I also found out that I used to live near here… when I was younger.”

“Really? And you didn’t remember it?”

“No; not at all. At least, not until I saw the house.”

“Huh; weird.” He rushes on, “Weird in a good way, though. How did you find out?”

“In a dream, sort of. Again, I know this all sounds crazy but when I asked my mum, she didn’t deny it. The only thing is, she wouldn’t tell me anymore about it and I couldn’t find any more online so Evie and I decided to drive over to the house again this Saturday. It’s only half an hour or so away. It’d be great if you could take some photos.”

“Of ghosts?”

“I don’t actually think there are any ghosts there. Just memories I can’t quite hang on to, and it’s really frustrating me. But Evie thought, and I’m sure you’re busy but-”

“I’d love to.”

“You would? … Ok, perfect.”

“Where shall I meet you?”

“Erm, I usually meet Evie just outside the Minster, say ten-ish?”

“Ten sounds good to me. I’ll see you there.”

“See you there.”

As soon as I close the door on him, I send Evie a text. Her reply comes back a second later: “Get your coat, love. You’ve pulled.” I push my phone into a pocket, lean back against the door, and hug my knees against my chest; it’s a familiar position to me, but this time, rather than trying to crush the pain I feel, I’m trying to contain the giddy thrill that’s growing bigger and bigger.

 

Leaving Richard to browse the Saturday papers, I race to the Minster and see Isak casually propped against a wall, a scruffy canvas bag slung over one shoulder, a plastic bag in one hand and balancing two takeaway coffee cups in the other.

“Morning,” he says, passing the coffee cup to me. I accept readily and slurp the first mouthful. I managed to avoid Richard’s questions more by luck than skill, and I’m sure that when he actually registers that I’ve gone out I’ll have a call. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. In fact, now that I think about, he’s been surprisingly calm ever since my mum left; and he’s not asked me about making an appointment with a therapist either.

The more I think about it, the more suspicious it makes me. I’m sure he’s got something up his sleeve. Ever since he tried to force me into Bootham Park, I don’t trust him. When Evie’s car pulls up, I push my husband to the back of my mind. Isak and I exchange glances as the door to the passenger side is flung open.

“Come on,” says Evie. “No dawdling, please.”

“You go in the front,” I say.

“No, you go.”

“No, honestly, it’s fine, you-”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, you two. Isak, you go in the back with all your stuff. Martha, you sit here with me. I might need your navigating skills again.” I cast an apologetic glance in Isak’s direction and slip into the front seat. “What? No coffee for me? I’m glad I relegated you to the back seat, Isak Fletcher. Right, who’s got the wine gums?”

 

We arrive in record time thanks to actually knowing where we’re going this time, and as we crunch up the gravel and reach the iron gates, Isak lets out a long whistle.

“Jesus, this place looks incredible.” Evie and I exchange looks. Seeing the house for the second time is no less exciting. Fortunately, no one’s replaced the padlock we knocked off last time, and we’re able to squeeze through, leaving the car behind us. The trees fan out in front and with the sun just breaking through the clouds for the first time that day, Isak gets his first view of Deepdene Hall.

His camera is at his face before I’ve even had time to draw a breath, and he pulls away from us searching for the perfect angles. I leave him to it and this time, stop and really look at the building in front of me.

Armed with the knowledge that I used to belong here, or perhaps, still do, I am filled with even more sadness by the fire-damaged exterior. The limestone façade must once have been very impressive, and even today, when the sun catches a relatively unscathed patch it begins to glow with renewed life, which is quickly quashed as shadows fall once more. Conviction is stronger in me today, and I try to grab at glimpses from the past that flash through my mind. Unsuccessful securing them, I leave them be, hoping they will make themselves known in the fullness of time.

“Here, come and look at this!” Isak appears from the side of the house. “Martha, Evie, you’ve got to come here.” He’s managed to pull aside some of the protective fencing and walking into the ruins, I see one room, on the ground floor, that has miraculously escaped fire damage, although the elements have done their work thoroughly since.

“Do you think it’s safe?” asks Evie.

“Safe enough,” says Isak, at least down here.

I barely hear them talking, instead I’m focusing on my surroundings – faded wallpaper is still visible in this room: a sage green in stripes, and in one of the windows, glass remains showcased in a grand style reaching almost floor to ceiling.

Most of the carpet has rotted away but some of the wooden floorboards remain intact, and in one corner, beneath a window, there is a scrap of fabric that I fancy might be part of a curtain; its emerald green a sibling to the sage walls. There is no furniture, no clue remaining to what purpose the room might once have had, but it is a moment’s work for my mind to see a dark wood piano against one wall, a standard lamp illuminating the keys, well-worn sinkable sofas placed in front of the cast-iron fireplace and sedate paintings mounted on the wall.

As I turn in the room, where the wallpaper is most preserved, where the sunlight can’t reach and protected by a jutting exterior wall, I fancy that a darker patch on the wallpaper marks the former resting place of one such painting; moved, almost, yesterday, but long gone today.

We clamber amongst the remains coming next to a room with wooden panelling almost entirely eaten away and ivy coiling seductively through the gaping windows; some rooms appear barren, others are almost furnished with sideboards groaning under the weight of accumulated rubbish – broken bottles, crockery – dust and plaster fallen from the ceiling above.

Everywhere paint peels from the walls in ugly flakes, wallpaper hangs in tatters and thick black soot stains our fingers. I find myself mentally noting the library, the drawing room that I recognised from our first visit here; the back staircase with its iron runners still in place.

Slowly I am forming a floor plan. As we walk, Isak snaps away at my sleeve.

“Do you think-” I say, standing at the foot of the narrow staircase. “Do you think we might go upstairs?”

Isak and Evie exchange a glance.

“To be honest,” says Evie, “we’ve explored more than I really feel comfortable doing anyway. I mean, not to be a party pooper, but the fire damage is so bad, most of the ceilings have fallen through, I really don’t think the flooring up there will hold one of us, let alone three.”

“Isak?” I say, imploringly.

“Sorry, Martha. I guess you’re desperate to have a proper look around, but I think Evie’s right. You could go through a floorboard and break your neck. Once we establish a few more facts around the building, we can come back with a proper surveyor.”

As disappointed as I am by his answer, I am encouraged by his use of ‘we’; quickly the three of us have become a team.

“Ok,” I say, holding my hands up in defeat. “I’m sure you’re both right, but it’s killing me not knowing what’s up there. It’s so tantalising. I feel like I’m so close, and then, ugh, just so far! I just wish my bloody mother would tell me the truth!”

“Maybe she’s not ready to tell you more yet.”

“But I’m ready to know now!”

My voice echoes in the stairwell, and we face each other, all deep in thought.

“Well,” says Evie, finally. “There’s not much more we can do in the house right now, we’re not getting anywhere with either your mum and the Internet-”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I groan.

“Patience. What I was going to say was, we’re here now, just a few minutes’ drive from the village, it’s the weekend, there are bound to be some people around. And it wasn’t too long ago that the fire happened; I bet we can find someone who knows something!”

As she’s been talking, we stumble back to the outside, and into the light, and my stomach rumbles loudly. Evie’s wine gums are long gone.

“Let’s go to the pub, and see what we can find. At the very least we’ve earned some lunch, and maybe even a glass of wine.” I know this last is directed at me. I feel drained by our explorations and right now, a chilled glass of white wine sounds delicious.

“I second that,” says Isak. “Although I vote for beer instead of wine.”

“And I third it,” I say. “But I’m all for the wine.”

“Excellent. Wine, it is then.”

 

We make our way back to the car and in less than five minutes are parked up once again outside a traditional looking country pub called The Huntsman. Last time Evie and I were here it was a weekday and shut, but today, its front door stands invitingly open, a blackboard proudly announcing today’s special of steak and kidney pie. My mouth waters at the sound of it.

Inside the pub doesn’t disappoint. Timber beams and low ceilings give it a cosy feel but despite the tiredness down to my very bones, I can’t quite bring myself to gravitate to the stone fireplace complete with roaring flames, however picturesque it may be. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I join Evie and Isak at the oak-topped bar.

“May as well get a bottle,” she says, and I let her get on with it. My eyes wander across the walls, and I jolt still. There, on the wall, is a photograph of Deepdene. I move closer. There is no mistaking it. I recognise it as the one from the book I found at the library: a black and white image of Deepdene in its glory, and what glory it once was. I can’t help myself and lift it from the wall to look closer still.

“Magnificent, wasn’t it?”

“Excuse me?” I say.

“Deepdene Hall. Such a shame when the fire destroyed it.”

An old lady I had completely overlooked in my desire to get my hands on the photo is speaking. I am so near as to almost be sitting on her lap, and move back swiftly.

“I’m terribly sorry.”

“No need to apologise, my dear,” she says. “I can see you were taken by the house. It has that effect on most people, or it did anyways.”

“You know Deepdene?”

“Of course I do, lovey; no one in the village doesn’t know about Deepdene. When the big house burns down to the ground, it tends to be something that you remember, especially when it takes people with it.”

“Yes, I read that someone had been injured.”

“Not just injured, dear, dead. And not just anyone, either. Such a shame, it was.”

“Dead?” I repeat. “Who died? Do you know-”

“Martha!” Evie cries. “We’ve got a table over here,” and she gestures with the bottle of wine. I turn back to the woman.

“Don’t you worry, dearie. I’ll not be going anywhere. You go join your friends.”

 

As excellent as the steak pie, and as fascinating as Isak’s photos of Deepdene are, my attention is almost entirely on the woman in the corner of the room. Greying hair, wizened cheeks and sporting an argyle sweater, she might have been ordered direct from central casting; one countrified old lady coming up.

I can’t see what she has on beneath the table but I’d put money on it being some sort of sensible trousers and sturdy shoes; although a thick woollen skirt and tights wouldn’t be out of the question either.

When I’m not looking at her, my gaze is drawn to the photo above her head; it brings back familiar, enticing and barely resistible memories.

As my eyes wander, they fall on more images of the village from years past. Photos of hardy men standing in front of a horse and cart; one of this pub looking very much the same; more of the high street, and then, wonderfully, some more of Deepdene Hall itself, one in particular with a large group of servants standing in front. Unable to resist any more, I leave Evie and Isak deep in discussion about the house and walk back to the woman. She gestures to the seat next to her and I sit down without a word.

“It was the owner of the house who died,” she says, continuing our conversation as if we had never been interrupted. “Such a tragedy.”

“When was the fire?” I ask.

“Not so long ago really. You’d have been a bairn yourself.”

“Did you know the house well?”

“Aye. I worked there almost every day until it burned down.”

“You did?”

“That’s right, dearie.”

“So you knew the family who used to live there?”

“That I did. The Blenkinsops.”

“The Blenkinsops,” I repeat.

“No one ever did find out how the fire started, but when they’d beaten the flames down they found his little body inside, right next to Mr Giles.”

“I’m sorry; whose little body?”

“Why young Matthew Blenkinsop.”

“The owner?”

“Not the owner, girl. Pay attention. That were Mr Giles. No, Matthew, his son, perished in the flames too.”

“Matthew Blenkinsop? His son?”

“Aye. He had a daughter too, mind, Martha. Popular name that is today,” she says, with a glint in her eye.

“Martha?”

“That’s right, dearie. Martha and Matthew Blenkinsop. Close as twins those two were, only a year between them.”

My heart is thumping so loudly I won’t be surprised to see it press through my chest. Matthew Blenkinsop. Nowhere have I found a son. A son? And maybe, maybe then a brother? But dead now; dead and gone. Who are these people I’m hearing about? Can this really be my family? My life? What has my mother hid from me?

“And Martha?” I say. “What happened to her?”

“After her mother saw her husband and son buried on the grounds, she took Martha away and that’s the last anyone in these parts has seen of the Blenkinsops. Not hide nor hair of them since.”

“They’re buried on the grounds?”

“In the family resting place. There used to be a little chapel there; long gone now; like the family.”

“Where-“ I falter. “Whereabouts are they buried?”

“I’d have thought you’d know that, dearie,” and she takes my hand in hers. “It’s been a long time since we had a Blenkinsop here.”

I pull my hand away sharply. “I’m sorry. You’re mistaken. I’m not a Blenkinsop. My name is Chamberlain.”

“But you’re Martha, yes?”

“Yes.”

“24 or thereabouts?”

“What of it?”

“Nothing, dearie; nothing at all. I’m an old lady. Pay no heed to me and my ramblings. After all, what do I know? Eh? I remember that Martha well. Almost broke my heart when her mother took her away. It hurts, you see, when the babies that you bathed and put to bed disappear from your life, never to return. Ah, but you’re right, dearie. You can’t be Martha Blenkinsop. Fiery little lass, she was. Just like her brother. She’d know to look for him and her father beneath the willow trees. She’d know that.”

“I must be going,” I say.

“That’s right, love. Off you go.”

I push the chair back under the table, wave to Isak and Evie and hand a couple of notes to the barman to settle our bill before walking out of the pub. I need fresh air. Deep great gulps of it. I crouch down against the wall, hands on my knees and head dangling near my waist. A brother. When Evie and Isak join me, I say, “We have to go back.”

“To the house?”

“Yes, now.”

We pull up to the iron gates.

“Martha?” asks Evie. “Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m fine. We need to look for willow trees.”

“Willow trees? Er, ok. Right. Isak, you go that way. I’ll go this way and Martha…”

I’ve already wandered off before I can hear where I am to go. I’m not entirely sure what a willow tree looks like but I have a romantic view of a weeping willow gleaned from a long abandoned poetry book. I am almost running now. I have to find the trees. I have to find the graves. Luck, or perhaps it’s memories, are with me, and I almost fall headlong over a tumbledown wall, its base hidden by overgrown grass.

It doesn’t take much to discern others nearby, enclosing a small space of grass beneath elegantly drooping trees, their leaves touching the floor. Sweeping the leafy curtains aside, I immediately see a grouping of stones sticking up from the ground.

It isn’t hard to find the two newest, the stark polished granite standing erect. Despite the green mould growing on them, I can clearly make out the words – “Giles Blenkinsop. Beloved husband and father. Rest in Peace.” The second, even more simply, says “Matthew Blenkinsop. Taken Too Soon.”

I sink to my knees and trace the letters with my fingers. Here it is, hard cold proof of their existence, or, lack of it. My father; the one my mother told me had walked out on us when I was just a baby and my brother; the one I didn’t even know I had. Try as I might, I can’t bring a face to mind for either of them. Too much time has passed. Too many lies told.

I can’t help the tears from streaming down my cheeks, and for the first time, I find myself wishing for the drugs to numb the pain. I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands. The pain feels good; right, even.

It isn’t long before Evie and Isak find me, still kneeling in front of the graves. Neither says a word as they read the engravings on the headstones at my feet. Instead, Evie comes to me, while Isak stands a little distant, and she wraps her arms tightly around me, one hand stroking my hair. Then, gently, she lifts me to my feet, and still with one arm wrapped across one shoulder, she leads me from under the weeping willows and to the car.

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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter sixteen

Alice

I passed in and out of consciousness. Once, long enough to name my son, Joseph; another time to see Eliza at my bedside.

“Stay with us, Alice,” she pleaded. “Don’t leave me.”

“Rebecca,” I whispered, my throat like sandpaper. “Joseph.”

“I have them, Alice. We’re looking after them.”

“But, the cholera. In Bedern, but not here. You shouldn’t be-”

“It came to Petergate a few days ago. It’s spread to most of the city now. Once we heard that, and that you were sick, Thomas couldn’t keep us away.”

Knowing that, despite the cholera, my children were in safe hands, I allowed myself one more question before letting my dreams take me again, “Am I dying?”

“No, Alice.” I heard. “We’ve got you. You’re not going anywhere.”

 

This time I woke to muffled sounds and Eliza was no longer at my bedside. I was feeling stronger, better. I hadn’t vomited in several hours, nor did I lie in my own filth. I had been aware of sheets being changed and my body being sponged down, but knew only too well that my nurses must have been fighting a losing battle as far as cleanliness went. I was still too weak to move, but had somehow attracted the attention of someone in the room.

“Ma?” I said.

“Oh Alice. It’s me. I’m here.”

“Water,” is all I could manage. Very carefully a beaker was lowered to my mouth, and although much of the contents escaped over my face, it felt like a gift from God. My tongue felt large and ungainly in my mouth, and I struggled to swallow. Finally, despite my thirst having been far from sated, I found the energy to speak once more.

“What happened?”

“Cholera is what happened. That filthy pestilence came. I thought I was going to lose you, my baby.”

Her words brought a jolt of memories flooding through my head.

“My babies?” Ma looks away from me. “My babies?” I cried. “What of Rebecca and Joseph?”

“Eliza is taking care of Joseph.”

“And Rebecca?”

“She- she was taken from us yesterday.”

“Taken from us? By the doctors? To the cholera hospital?”

“No, girl. She was in suffering, and God, in his kindness, released her from that.”

Many people turn to God in times of distress; I find that I turn away. I had no use for Ma’s platitudes, however kindly meant. My baby, my daughter, the child that was for me, had left this world before I had even got to know her. I cursed the man that brought sickness into this city.

“Can I see her?”

“You know that we must bury the dead before twelve hours have passed.”

“She is gone?”

“Yes.”

“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye to her.” If I had had any water left in my body, I would have wept. Instead, my tear ducts stung with unwept promise. “Where is she buried?”

“The cholera pit.”

“Not in Holy Trinity?”

“Your Thomas wouldn’t allow it.”

“My Thomas?”

“No. The rector, William Lund, said he’d make an exception seeing as how she was so small, but Thomas forbade it.”

“What did he say?”

“It makes no difference now.”

“What did he say, Ma?”

“He said that she had to go where all the other victims went, the depraved and sinful; into the pit where they belonged. He said she weren’t no child of his. Blue eyes, he said.”

Hearing those words, his words, worked faster and better than all the soothing words Ma might have found. My husband, and quite likely, Rebecca’s father as well, had condemned her for simply not having his colouring. I was the only Haxby to have fair hair but my pa didn’t see fit to send me away. Every woman knows a bairn is often born with blue eyes.

“Is the pit consecrated yet, Ma?”

“Not yet, Alice. It will be though. It will be soon. Everyone’s for it.”

“And Rebecca, was she- was she baptised?”

“Eliza made sure of that. Took both of them to Holy Trinity the moment you fell ill. Baptised in the sight of the Lord. You’ve no need to fear for her soul.”

“It’s not my soul I fear for. Now let me see Joseph.”

“I dare not, Alice. You’re still too weak, and, well, we think he can’t last much longer.”
“Then it makes no difference. Bring me Joseph, Ma.”

 

I held him until his little body cools and even then, I cradled him close and refused to let Ma take him from me. Another child gone; God was punishing me. He must have been, and I need not have looked too far for the cause.

I was everything my husband called me, and more. I only hoped now that the twins had been Samuel’s. Believing that, I could believe they had gone to a better place.

 

As the sun cruelly announced another day, despite the tragedy in this house, the city official knocked on the door and Eliza persuaded me to release Joseph. According to the laws first passed when the pestilence arrived, every victim had to be buried within twelve hours of death; they had to be buried at least one foot below the surface – an impossibility in most graveyards – and their bodies were not allowed inside a church.

Several months from the first sign of the disease, there were no burials in graveyards, all had to be transported to the cholera pit outside the city walls; all had to be buried in pitch-cloth and many feet below, before being covered in lime; all clothes of the victims had to be burned; and all houses of the victims fumigated and whitewashed.

I had nothing to remember my children by for Thomas had not even allowed a headstone to be placed. I had not seen him since the day he had declared our children bastards, although I had no real sense of how long ago that was; a week? Two?

I had no wish to see him, and yet, there was no other place for me. I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t return to the Tukes, and if I left the house, I would have been on the streets. I might even have ended up there if Thomas had thrown me out, yet to do so would have been to invite public scandal.

 

Ma returned to the Bedern the day Joseph was taken, but Eliza stayed with me, sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the bed until I was strong enough to walk. Still there was no sign of Thomas. Eliza told me he was drowning his sorrows. I didn’t doubt that but soon I had to face him. My chance came that night; the night that Eliza left for home.

 

The door to our bedroom slammed back against the wall and my husband staggered in, using the wall for support. The candle still burnt and I was lying in a clean nightdress on top of clean sheets, the room was freshly whitewashed and the smell of lime still lingered.

“There you are, wife.”

“Thomas,” I said.

“Better, I see.”

“As you see.” He stumbled against the bed and stopping only to remove his filthy boots, climbed beneath the covers.

“I am come to share your bed again, wife. As is my due. Maybe this time I can make sure the children you carry are mine this time. Slut.” He tried to roll over on to me, but with his vast bulk and hampered by the beer he had drunk, he ended up on his back, as impotent as an overturned beetle.

I looked at him with disgust. I had lost two children, and I was still sore and bandaged below from giving birth to them. I would not let him touch me, tonight, or any night. I was risking his highly developed sense of his own reputation against my self-respect. He would not throw me out; to be publicly pronounced a cuckold.

I didn’t doubt that he would try to make my life a misery, but what could he make me feel that I did not already feel? I would live under the same roof as this man, for I had no other choice, but I would be his wife in name alone.

“Come here,” he slurred.

“No, Thomas. I will not.”

“You dare disobey me? After all you have put me through?”

“I grieve for our children, husband.”

“Our children? Our children? They were the bastard offspring of some other man, and I’d have not raised them. It was God’s judgement that they died. Cholera is his punishment for the sick and depraved.”

“God’s punishment? He would not be so cruel.”

“No? If I’d been more fortunate, you would have died too. Whore that you are. But as you’re here, and you are my wife, I’ll take my pleasure of you.”

“Try, husband. Try to heave your fat drunken belly on top of mine. You’re a pathetic excuse for a man.”

“You’ll pay for that, bitch.”

“Perhaps, Thomas. But not tonight, I think. I bid you good night, sir.”

I couldn’t bear to share the same bed as him so I grabbed hold of the edge of one sheet and hauled it out from underneath him. The pallet was light and easy to lift, even so, by the time I reached the kitchen, I was sweating. I had not left my bed in weeks. I knew Thomas would make good on his threat. He would punish me in the morning for my behaviour. I prayed that he was too drunk to remember.

 

A sharp kick to my sides woke me. I saw that Thomas, far from forgetting the night before, was in a fouler mood than ever.

“Get up, wench.” He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me roughly to my feet. I saw Simon cowering the corner of the kitchen. “You dare to speak to me that way? Listen to me, and listen well. You are my wife. Wedded in church, blessed by a vicar and consummated in the eyes of God. And I will do with you as I see fit.

You will not leave this house without my permission. You will not receive visitors, not even your family. You will clean this house, you will cook my meals and you will submit to me in every way. I am not a man to be made a fool of. Disobey me and you will wish you had died along with your bastards. Do I make myself clear, Mistress Alice?”

Every other word was punctuated with a blow and after the first, which saw me crumple to the ground; I curled in a ball to avoid the worst.

“I have the keeping of you, and you will do exactly as I wish. If I want to fuck you over this table right now, it is my right. If I want to beat you within an inch of your life, it is my right. If I want to lock you in a room with only bread and water to teach you some respect, it is my right. Never forget that. Now get up, put some clothes on and make me some food.”

I limped upstairs, taking each step as slowly as I dared. My fresh shift was now covered in blood, but I had not a spare. I threw a dress over the top, rolled woollen stockings up my legs and laced my feet into shoes. My hair I pulled back from my face and fastened a neat cap in place. Already bruises were beginning to show on my cheeks and lip. But I deserved this. I knew I did, and the physical pain was almost a relief to block out my mental anguish.

The days blurred into one, and Thomas was as good as his word. Eliza was forbidden to visit me, and I, her. Simon was now sent out to pick up groceries and such, and I wondered what the shopkeepers must have thought of the arrangement. An apprentice selecting meat? Unheard of.

The quality proved this; tough cuts of meat, offal not fit for the table and gristle were all that filled the stew pot. Thomas beat me whenever I displeased him, which was regularly, and once again, I couldn’t bear to look Simon in the eyes. I was ashamed of what I had become.

 

One day, I slipped out and walked to the pit. It was a terrible sight. Although much lessened, the disease was still present and almost daily carts were brought to the place where bodies were wrapped in linen and thrown side by side with a priest to say a few words if you could find a few coins. Most couldn’t.

Mothers brought their children there to watch the spectacle. It was grotesque but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I wondered where Rebecca and Joseph were buried. The ground was still unconsecrated. I sent up prayers to a God I no longer believed in, but still felt rightfully punished by.

Thomas punished my absence with blows that no longer shocked me, and despite my vow to never lie with him again, a roughness in bed that I was almost become accustomed to. I couldn’t stop him from using me. It scared me that one could become accustomed to almost anything.

I had no future before me and Thomas never ceased to remind me of my past, yet, my senses were awakened one morning.

I realised that I had not bled that month. I crossed my fingers and waited a few more days, but still I did not bleed. When I had all the confirmation that I needed, I once again slipped from the house.

“Eliza, this child can only be Thomas’ and I will not carry it.”

“But Alice, you have no choice.”

“You know as well as I do that there is one.”

“But no! You’ll be condemning yourself.”
“My soul is already condemned. There’s no saving me. But I will not have his child.”

“Will you visit-”

“No. I’ll get some tansy or pennyroyal.” I added, “I’ll only visit her if I have to.”

“And then what?”

“And then I’ll wait.”

 

Neither tansy nor pennyroyal were hard to find. Pennyroyal oil is very dangerous, but the leaves, when boiled into a tisane, were said to be effective. I drank only one brew in the morning, but had enough left for more if the baby proved stubborn to come away.

With Thomas in the workshop, I was able to hide the vomiting well enough although I hoped that I had swallowed enough to work. The cramps came later in the day: vicious jabbing pains that were followed by blood; lots of it. I created wads of linen and was able to ward Thomas off that night with clear signs of bleeding.

The child remained inside all the next day but I still bled. I could feel myself becoming weaker, and if the bleeding didn’t stop soon, I would have to go for Eliza. Thankfully, on the morning of the third day, I felt something shift inside me, and with a stabbing pain that could only mean one thing, a bloody mess was released from within me.

This time, I had no desire to search the shape for any sense of a child, and besides, I believed I could only have been a few weeks pregnant. There would have been nothing to see. No child. Not yet. I wrapped it in linen, and threw the bundle on to the fire.

It was the smell that did it. Burning meat; rancid and vile. I sank to the floor. What had I done? I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. I cried not only for the bundle in the fire, but for Rebecca and Joseph; the first time that I had wept for them. I cried for myself too.

What had I been driven to? And who had driven me thus? My eyes alighted on the pennyroyal leaves and I reached to throw them, damning evidence, into the fire, but something stayed my hand.

It was Thomas’ fault that I had no gravesite to visit and mourn my children. It was his fault that I was reduced to this squalor. I loathed the man, more than I had ever thought possible. It took a moment to boil the pennyroyal until the leaves were soft before adding them to the stew downstairs. I had no wish for Simon to fall ill so I kept back some for him. I cared not if I succumbed. What had I to live for now? I was become a monster. I would go to hell for certain but it was no more than I deserved; as long as I could drag Thomas there too.

“Mutton stew, Thomas,” I said, ladling a good portion into his bowl. “Fresh bread too.” He tucked in with abandon, as I knew he would, as he always did. I barely managed a few mouthfuls. He had not been asleep an hour when the cramps wakened him. I was lying awake at his side.

“Ugh. Where’s the chamber pot, wife?” I got out of bed and placed it in front of him where he threw up copiously. I watched with satisfaction. My own cramps were no worse than I had expected, and it was not long before I too was vomiting into another bedpan. The whole chamber reeked of sickness.

I hurried to empty the pots, saying, “Let me get you some tea, husband. You must drink.” He fell back against the pillows without a murmur. Using the last of the pennyroyal, I brewed a tisane that I placed carefully into his hands. I had added peppermint to disguise the taste. “For your sickness,” I said. He emptied the cup.

“Now leave me alone, woman.” My cramps were lessened but it was easy to see that he was in some discomfort. I hugged my illicit knowledge to myself and smiled. The tisane worked its magic and much of the night was spent nursing Thomas as he simultaneously vomited and shit himself. A foul task at any other time, I was almost enjoying it. He was completely at my mercy.                         The morning came and his lips were parched, his skin pale, greenish, and covered with a sheen of sweat. I made sure Simon saw me empty the vomit and shit-filled pots outside. I sent him home. I supposed I ought to have sent for a doctor, and a concerned wife would have, but everyone knew my husband was a miserly type of man and doctors are expensive. He had certainly never bothered to send for one when the twins died.

Instead, I begged the assistance of one of our neighbours, Mrs Simpson: a nosy old cow. Together we rolled the weight of Thomas across the bed to change the soiled sheets beneath him. I shut the window and stoked up the fire while she made sure there was plenty of boiling water. We tried to draw the fever out with flannel patches on his forehead and mustard emetics, but to no avail. The pennyroyal had done its job.

When it became clear that Thomas was breathing his last, I asked Mrs Simpson for some time alone with my husband. Smiling sympathetically, she left the room.

“Thomas?” I whispered. “Thomas? Can you hear me?” I received only a mumble in return. “Thomas, you’re dying and I need to tell you some things before you go. Rebecca and Joseph, my twins, my babies, they were not yours. They were never yours. They were Samuel Tuke’s. And the whole city has been laughing at you. Publicly cuckolded. You were a laughing stock, Thomas. A fool.” I told him things I could only hope for, never truly know.

“And this sickness? This sickness that is going to take your life? It is of my doing. Pennyroyal. I gave it to you after I had aborted our baby with it. That’s right, Thomas, our child. I was pregnant. But I’ll not carry a child of yours.” His eyes fluttered as I spoke, but never fully opened, and as his last breath rattled in his chest, I leant closer and said, “See you in hell, Thomas.”

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Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter fifteen

Martha

Isak. All I can do is wait. He has my number, not the other way around, and yet, it has been several days since Evie and I had that conversation, and still no contact. It just proves everything I thought about him. At the very least he knows I lost my baby, and yet, even with my number, he hasn’t taken a minute to call me, and see how I am. I’ve had quite a lot of time to think about him since Evie first brought up his name. I can’t believe he didn’t leave a number for me to contact him on. The bloody nerve of the man.

I check my phone again but the screen remains resolutely blank. No flashing alerts that I’ve missed a call or that a text message has been delivered undetected; everything is as it was a few minutes ago. In frustration, I hit the power button, pressing it firmly until the screen goes dark, and carefully place the phone on the coffee table in the hall. There. Now he can’t even contact me if he wanted to. Which I doubt he does. Obviously.

Without Evie as transport, or a willing confidante in my mother, I am stuck with scant information about Deepdene, and so, as suggested by Evie, I turn my attention to Alice, but here, once again, I find myself thwarted.

The other day at the library, I was so thrilled to have uncovered her in the local records, and after only a little more searching, I found a double entry: “Joseph s Thomas & Alice Smith of Pg. shoemaker by W.L.”, followed by ‘Rebecca’ of the same. Twins; baptised on July 29 1824.

How overjoyed Alice and Thomas must have felt; their first children, born not long before their first anniversary. Seeing those names had given me renewed energy for my research. If Alice had had children, then perhaps, there might have been a way to sort the fact from the fiction in this story. Perhaps, there might even be living descendants?

Considering the era as well, it was unlikely that these were Alice’s only children. Her mother had given birth to an eye-watering thirteen after all. And yet in only one flick of the page my enthusiasm and pleasure were dashed. I had read, “Aug 6 Rebecca Smith of Pg. 1 wk by W.L.” Only three entries below, I saw, “Aug 8 Joseph Smith of Pg. 1 wk by W.L.” Dreading what I was next to read, a few pages later I came across another entry that made my heart sink, but for different reasons. “Oct 26 Thomas Smith of Pg. 54 by W.L.”

Unsure as to whether I could photocopy the delicate pages of the register, I had snuck a photo on my phone, and without even bothering to re-shelf the book, quickly walked from the library and out into the cold air, and not returned since.

 

“It’s so disheartening,” I had said, on the phone to Evie, that evening. “Every time I think I’m getting somewhere, the trail goes cold. I was so pleased to see that she’d had children, and then to lose them both so young, and her husband not long after. I wonder what happened. Maybe she did kill him after all.”

“Martha, I’m certain that if she murdered her husband, there would be some records of it. I think you can relax on that front.”

“But what about the twins?”

“What year did you say it was?”

“Erm, 1824.”

“I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure there was a big cholera epidemic around about then.”

“Cholera? In York?”

“Well yeah, of course. Living conditions were pretty dire.”

“I suppose. It’s just, well, I always thought of it as one of those tropical diseases.” I hit the search button on my screen. “You’re right. Cholera did come to York then, and, let’s see,” I scrolled down the page. “It says here that it reached its peak in July.”

“It sounds like it fits then.”

“Yeah. God, such tiny babies. They didn’t have a chance.”

“No. I bet that means-”

“Means what?”

“Well, it’s just, now don’t freak out, but I bet that means that they died right there. You know, in your house.”

“Jesus!” I looked around me, at the dark wooden exposed beams and the brilliant white walls. “I bet you’re right. I’ve thought of Alice being here before, but I never even knew she had kids.”

“All the more reason to meet up with Isak. You never know what you two might find out.”

 

With nothing to distract me, no projects to research, and Richard keeping his distance, it would be all too easy to fall back into old habits. Some days my hands automatically reach for my antidepressants, and some days, when the greyness descends I still wish I had saved some of the pills instead of flushing them all, and then I stop; I feel the pain, I feel the emotions; I catch on to them, and I remind myself that this is what it feels like to be alive, to be living. Without the sadness, how can you know joy?

My mind is my own worst enemy though; monitoring each and every thought that has the audacity to cross it, throwing up doubts and fears, squashing hope, ridiculing the simply happiness of waking up to a bright clear day with a weak winter sun battling through.

Usually a coffee fan, I force myself off the sofa I’ve plonked myself on to waiting for Isak to call, and walk to the kitchen where I make myself a cup of tea instead. Not a builder’s brew, but a chamomile and honey concoction that is sure to soothe my mind, if not my soul, and the addition of several chocolate hobnobs pilfered from Mrs Gilbert’s personal stash will go even further. I’m just about to reach for a book to bury myself in, unable to face daytime TV and the contemplation of my own mind when the buzzer goes to the outer door.

“Hello?” I say, and a familiar, if fuzzy, face comes into view.

“Martha?”

“Isak.”

“It is you! Excellent. I’ve just spoken to Evie, can I come up?”

I blame the camera on the intercom entirely, without that, I think I would have the courage to turn away, but seeing his handsome face in the screen, those melting eyes and casually scruffed hair is too much. I press the buzzer. I hear the front door release, and swing the flat door open waiting for him to climb the four flights of stairs.

I am a mess of emotions. Why is he here? Why hasn’t he called first? I thank God, and Richard, that I at least have enough of a routine still to have bothered to shower this morning, and apply the lightest of make up. Glamorous, I most certainly am not; presentable…almost. But then again, who cares how I look? This is the man who didn’t even bother to see if I was ok after I bled all over him. I consider punching him in the face when I see it.

With one foot propping the door open, I lean on the doorjamb and wait for the awkward encounter that must surely come. He arrives seconds later, not puffing as Richard always is. His black leather jacket is battered and has definitely seen better days, and he’s pushed the sleeves back revealing strong, slightly muscled forearms; black straight jeans, a checked shirt and tie complete him.

“You,” I say accusingly.

“Er, yes, me,” he says, and his smile fades as he sees I am making no move to let him into the flat.

“What are you doing here?”

“Evie rang me. She gave me your number but I persuaded her to give me your address once she knew I’d met you before. I had to see you again. I had to know if you were ok.”

“Oh, now you have to know if I’m ok,” I say. “Now. When it turns out there might be something interesting about me after all. Not before. Not when I’d had the most traumatic experience of my entire life, and I woke up alone, to be told by a doctor I’d lost my baby. Not then. You didn’t want to know if I was ok then, did you?”

He’s so taken aback by my outburst that he takes a full step down away from me.

“But- I-”

“As you can see,” I gesture full body, “I am fine. And now, you can go.” I turn, fully intending to let the door slam behind me, but Isak leaps forward and wedges himself in between. “     What are you doing?” I say.

“Look, Martha. I seem to have annoyed you for some reason, I’m not quite sure why, but I’d like to clear that up.”

“You? Annoy me? I can’t imagine why that should be. Perhaps it’s because when I was losing my baby you left me? Perhaps it’s because I woke up in hospital and you were nowhere to be seen? Or perhaps it’s because you didn’t even bother to leave a number?”

“But-” he stops, and takes a step back, forcing me to move forward and once again take the weight of the door. “But, I didn’t leave you.”

“Well you did a bloody good job of looking like you did then-”

“No. Listen-”

“And I suppose I just imagined you disappearing without a trace?”

“No.”

“And-”

“Martha! Stop!” he says, and shocks me into silence. I’m not sure if Richard has ever raised his voice at me. “Just stop. And let me explain. I didn’t leave you. I came with you in the ambulance although I had to fight the paramedics to let me. I said I was your boyfriend.

“Anyway, that fell through when we got to the hospital and I didn’t know anything about you apart from your name. They got your husband’s details from your phone. And then, when he turned up, he asked me to leave; very politely, of course. He thanked me for my help, and I gave him one of my cards so that you could call me. If you wanted to, that is. He, erm, he didn’t give it to you?”

“No.”

“And he didn’t mention I’d been there?”

“No, he neglected to mention that as well.” The rush of blood, which I know only too well, is flushing my cheeks and I hardly dare to look at him. Of course Richard would throw away Isak’s card. I doubt there was any malice in it; it would just never have crossed his mind that I’d have wanted to get in touch with Isak. “Jesus, Isak. I’m sorry. I must look like a right bitch now. I just, well, I felt, sort of, abandoned. And then when Evie mentioned you, I got all angry, and then you turned up here, and…”

“I can imagine. I’m really sorry.”

“No. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I didn’t try to find you sooner to thank you, I just thought that you’d-”

“It’s fine. Honestly. Now how about a cup of tea?”

“Yes, of course. Come in.”

 

Apart from Richard, there’s never been another man in the flat. Well, the movers, but they didn’t count. At least, I didn’t want to kiss any of them. And there’s no denying that I’d really like to; to kiss Isak, that is.

The strength of my feelings surprises me, and I try to remember if I felt it before. Of course, before, I was pregnant, with Richard’s child, and now, now I’m not. And of course, now I know he was my knight in shining armour, and that Richard is even more of a prat that I’ve accounted for.

“Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Yorkshire or herbal?” I ask.

“You thinking of opening up a teashop? Yorkshire for me, please. Milk, no sugar.”

“Hobnob?”

“Don’t mind if I do. Now, I didn’t fully understand what Evie was banging on about. She talks so fast, that girl.”

“So why did you come round then?”

“To see you.”

“Oh, right. Yes, well, it’s going to sound a bit daft.”

“Ok.”

“So, I’ve been doing a bit of research into Alice.”

“Alice?”
“Sorry. Mad Alice. You know? As in ‘Mad Alice Lane’?”

“Oh, right. Yes.”

“They didn’t tell me anything about her on the ghost tour,” I say, rather indignantly.

“I suppose you need something really special to make you stand out from York’s plethora of ghosts.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps. Well, she was called Alice Smith. And she lived here, I think. But she wasn’t hanged at the Castle, and there’s absolutely nothing to say that she killed her husband, except for the fact that I’ve just discovered that he died not too long after their children did. But still, there’s no reason to suspect Alice.”

“Good for her! Was she meant to have?”

“To have what?”

“To have killed her husband?”

“That’s what one of the stories says. You see, I managed to find that she had got married.”

“To the man she didn’t kill?”

“Exactly. Thomas. That’s how she became Smith. She was Haxby before. And she came to live here, I suppose, and a few months after the wedding, she had twins, Rebecca and Joseph, but they died. It doesn’t say how, but the dates fit in with the cholera outbreak in the city, and I’m guessing that means they died right here in this house.” Isak looks around as I say this. “And I don’t get the impression of her as a murderer.”

“The impression?”

“Yes, well, here’s where it all gets a bit weird. Please don’t judge me. Remember how I said I have this theory about all time, all history, existing in the same moment; everything overlapping? And that if we could find a way to cut through that somehow, then we could find a way to be in another time?”

“Burnt Norton?”

“Yes, exactly. Well, since I lost the baby, I’ve been hearing voices.” In all fairness, he takes my story as well as I can expect. Perhaps not as well as Evie, but then, I imagine not many people would take it as well as her.

“So Evie thinks that I might be able to capture an image or something on film? Of Alice?”

“I think that’s what she meant.”

“Oh.”

He stays silent for a few moments, so I rush on. “I know it sounds barmy, and I understand if you think it’s a waste of your time. Although,” I consider, “I can pay you for it.”

“You don’t need to do that!” he says, sounding quite offended. “I think it’s fascinating. Let me ask you one question.”

“Go for it.”

“Why are you so interested in Alice?”

The question throws me a little bit. It’s not one I’ve asked myself, or been asked. Why am I interested in her? “I suppose,” I say slowly, playing for time, “I suppose it first started when I saw the street name. It sounded so unusual, I had to look it up, and then, it kind of progressed from there. A wife to kill her husband is remarkably enough, but then to discover, that perhaps that was all lies anyway. And then living in this house, her house. How could I not be interested? And then hearing her voice, or at least, I think it’s her voice. And now, knowing that she lost her babies in this house too.

“I get a sense of her that I can’t quite explain. It’s nothing I’ve read or heard, but I feel connected to her somehow. As if, it’s important that I find out what really happened to her. It doesn’t look like she has any family left today, not if she only had the twins, and her name is being maligned. She deserves for the truth to be heard. I don’t get the feeling that she was happy here. I think she was sad, and alone, and lonely; and I think that my baby went, I was too. We fit together somehow.” I look up, into Isak’s eyes, and he smiles. “I don’t think I even knew that until now,” I say. “Before, it’s just been a research project to take my mind off everything here, but I was telling the truth, it’s become bigger than that, more important.”

“Right then. In that case, let’s get cracking.”

“So what do we do?”

“I don’t know.”
“Excuse me?”

“I’ve never done this type of thing before. Let me go off and do some research, and then we’ll go from there. Sound good?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”

“Yes, sorry. It’s just-”

“You want to get started now? I absolutely understand, but I doubt we’d be successful right now, with just my old Canon. I promise you though, Martha, that I will be back, and even if it kills me, we’ll find Alice for you.”

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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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