Hello there, my dears. I seem to be all about the series these days, and today is no different – welcome to Fiction Friday.
Regular readers might be aware that before Christmas I made a vow to finish the initial draft of my third novel before the end of the year, but then an unexpected visit to hospital (boo) and a new job (yay!) took precedence.
I’m still hankering after that story, and I’ll get back on it in the fullness of time, but I thought I might share this with you in the interim.
Called Mad Alice Lane, it’s very heavily inspired by my home city of York and my love of history, and it’s the first time I a) finished a first draft that I was semi-proud of, and b) had a favourable response from a literary agent. They asked me to make some amends and get back to them, but, even now, almost a year later, I didn’t really know how to go about making the amends they’d suggested. Part of me is hoping that by sharing with you guys, I might see how to a little more clearly. And the other part of me would like to share something that while flawed, I’m still proud of and think has value.
And so, each Friday, I’ll be sharing a new chapter. I do hope you enjoy, and please please please feel free to comment – good and bad. I’ll also be uploading Wattpad so if you spend time on there, drop me a line! Thanks x
I count down the seconds until the alarm clock goes off; seconds until Richard gets up and leaves. It is not yet six o’clock and another December day has arrived. It’s still dark outside but soon the soft grey cashmere throw will already be losing the heat of his body. I lie perfectly still listening as he prepares for the day ahead. There is no need to open my eyes for his routine never changes; the duvet will be pulled straight, the pillows fluffed, and the hideously expensive throw will be neatly folded. Putting on his freshly pressed suit and professionally laundered shirt is a matter of minutes, the Windsor knot which comes so easily after years of diligent practise is achieved in a heartbeat. Breakfast is a bowl of muesli; the bowl, spoon and cereal packet put in place by myself the night before, although he alone must venture to the fridge to discover the milk.
Barely straining my ears, I hear the soft click of the front door closing. I wish I could go back to sleep for the whole day stretches in front of me, yet in a few moments I remember that today is my birthday. I switch the bedside light on, and swing my feet out from the bed, an identical twin to that pushed against the opposite wall and so recently vacated. I’m not so worried about the overnight emergence of wrinkles and lines; it is instead my stomach that demands my attention.
I lift the expensive nightie above my waist, gathering the end and looping it down between the neckline to create a kind of crop top. I face the mirror, before turning to the side. There is a definite swelling now, the bump standing clear. I tentatively stroke it and send shivers across my skin. I’m growing a human. It seems so foreign that it could almost be happening to someone else. I’m not sure what to think about it, this peanut inside of me but at least it means the days ahead of me, great swathes of time lying unclaimed, will not be spent entirely alone.
There was so little time between our meeting and marriage that everyone assumed I was pregnant, but they were wrong; it simply seemed like the obvious thing to do. Richard was a visiting professor at Oxford, and I, a soon to be graduate. He was looking to settle down, and I was flattered by his attentions. Handsome, successful and charming, he had no shortage of admirers, but it was on me that he turned his gaze. He wooed me during a heady month of dinners in expensive restaurants and daily bouquets of flowers. My flatmates were envious, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do after university, and with one simple proposal Richard solved that problem. My mother was pleased; I was pleased she was pleased. An intimate wedding followed, only 200 of our closest friends and family, and everything in the best possible taste. There was an announcement in The Times. The bride and groom honeymooned in the Seychelles. A few short weeks after, I discovered I was pregnant. Richard was pleased; I was pleased he was pleased.
It’s been two months since then and only two weeks since we moved from our elegant townhouse in Fulham up to York after a promotion that thrilled Richard. I wonder if he has remembered today is my birthday and it is the work of mere seconds before my eyes alight on a tasteful bunch of cream roses, which almost fade into the muted décor of the room. A card leans against the crystal vase, and I slip it from its envelope, feeling its luxurious heavy weight, its silky smooth surface and discreet whiff of class: an export from London, his personal stationers. “Darling M,” it reads. “Many Happy Returns. Rx ” There is a tiny spot of black ink underneath his initial. The roses, already expertly arranged, a delicate blush bloom to their very hearts, are scentless.
I hear the front door open, announcing the arrival of our daily, Mrs Gilbert. Such an antiquated notion and I’m usually a fan of times gone by, but in this I feel uncomfortable and yet Richard insists. Indeed it was specified as part of his contract; not only a flat be found for us, but also some local help. Efficient, brisk and respectable, Mrs Gilbert is everything a daily should be, and I have yet to warm to her. I can’t bring myself to face her unarmoured and in my pyjamas. I dash to the en-suite, and send a jet of hot water spurting from the showerhead.
I’m fortunate that I don’t have to wash my hair every day. Reaching almost to my waist, it would take hours to dry and style; hours of solitary staring in a mirror. Instead, I grab the shower cap that hangs on the back of the bathroom door and stuff the long blonde strands inside. Adjusting the settings as hot as possible – Richard prefers his showers tepid – I breathe deeply. I shiver in pleasure and pump some shower gel into my palms before rubbing it all over my body – my small breasts, across my collarbone and around my narrow neck, then sweeping over my jutting hipbones and the foreign bump that is my stomach down my legs and to my rather bony feet.
Bony; I suppose some might describe me as that, but I’m vain enough to hope that with my height they’d opt for willowy instead. The heat of the water brings the clear blue veins at my wrists to the fore, my skin pale and almost translucent with delicate spider thin silver lines threading their way elegantly from left to right, remnants from my teen years. The delicious scent of subtle citrus fills the air, breaking through my reflections and I swallow its warm headiness. Richard insists on luxury concoctions and I am still so used to the cheapest pharmacy brands for them to bring instant pleasure. Reluctantly turning the jets off, I wrap a thick soft white towel, a mate of the high thread cotton bed sheets, around myself.
I sit on the vanity stool and survey the dresser, filled with more bottles from the most prestigious skincare brands – Clarins, Lancome, Estee Lauder – with care, I select first a cleanser, then toner and moisturiser. Early on in our relationship, Richard gifted me with a spree at Selfridges, which included a session with some chatty beauty therapists. I know more about my skin now than I thought possible, and when Richard arrived to collect me several hours later and handed his credit card over, the cashier twittered with envy. While money might not buy you friends, it certainly buys you the best of everything else. My skin has never looked so good. I add a spritz of Jo Malone’s Lime Basil and Mandarin perfume, approved and selected after long consultation. I’ve never worn much make up but was persuaded to see the positives in a light foundation, sheer blush, expertly groomed eyebrows and a slick of jet black mascara. Already, as Mrs Chamberlain, I have my own routine, as entrenched as Richard’s.
I open the wardrobe and select a pair of dark jeans. Although I know that Richard prefers me in dresses, I decide that I can change later before he comes home, and besides, the jeans are designer. I add simple white t-shirt, whose price was as much as a month’s rent at my university flat, and a chunky knit mohair jumper in a soft grey. I slide my engagement and wedding rings back on, both exquisitely beautiful and faultlessly tasteful. I am unused to wearing diamonds.
Even now, I still catch myself staring into the depths of my engagement ring mesmerised, and when I am unaffected, I see other women staring greedily. Out of habit rather than any sense of disorder, I draw the curtains, securing the tiebacks, smooth out the duvets on both beds, fluff the pillows, fold the throws, place any dirty laundry in the basket, and hang the damp towels back in the bathroom. The only disorder I’m attending to anyway is my own; Richard is meticulous in his possessions. I puff my own pillow up a little higher. Thin watery rays of sunshine are beginning to filter through the grey clouds and I cross my fingers that the day will prove fine. Taking a deep breath, I open the bedroom door and head towards the kitchen.
“Good morning, Mrs Gilbert,” I say, edging around her to reach the kettle.
“Mrs Chamberlain,” she replies with a tight smile that doesn’t and has never yet reached her eyes. Her sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, house shoes on her feet and an old fashioned apron tied around her capacious middle. She should look inviting, homely even, but instead she unnerves me. “Is there anything particular you’d like me to do today?”
“Erm, no. I think my husband will have left a note,” I reply, more a question than a fact, looking deeply into the bottom of the mug to avoid her eyes and the disdain I think I can see there.
“Yes, he has. Is there nothing else you’d like to add to it?”
I am saved from answering by the ferocious boiling of the kettle, and gratefully pour it into the mug, dunking a teabag on top and plunging two spoonfuls of sugar into its depths. I reach to the fridge for some milk and when I reappear, Mrs Gilbert has gone, her bucket of cleaning products with her. I sigh in relief. I have no idea how to interact with her; she is a foreign concept to me.
I poke my head out into the sitting room, and seeing it empty, tiptoe across the room, place the mug on a side table and perch on the edge of the sofa. I should very much like to have something to do with my time yet from our very first day here, Mrs Gilbert undertook all the cleaning, a task I’m happy to be rid of to be honest; but also the daily cooking, which, I’m rather fond of, in my slapdash kind of way; while Richard’s new PA is arranging the house hunting, a job I’d happily take on. There’s no question of my getting a job; not only does a history degree, even a double first from Oxford, equip me with little vocational skills, Richard earns more than enough for both of us, and now there’s a baby growing inside me. Switching the television on, dismal news, frenetic chat shows and children’s cartoons greet me. I switch it off again immediately.
I glance at the clock on the walls. It is barely past nine o’clock. Far too early to go back to sleep again, besides, I could never do that with Mrs Gilbert still here. I usually wait until later, post-lunch, for a nap. Richard won’t be home until six, at the earliest. Nine hours to kill. If I factor in the nap, that leaves me with eight. If I take a bath, re-do my make up and choose a dress before Richard arrives, then I have about seven hours left. 420 minutes. 25,200 seconds.
My eyes fall on to the bookcase in front of me. The flat was fully furnished when we moved in, it’s only a temporary thing until Richard chooses a proper house for us but to be honest, I’d be happy never to leave. Nestled down a side street, it is a gem and every historian’s dream: grade II listed, the first impression you get as you enter through its impressive wrought-iron gates is a white and black timbered building, as sprawling and complex as only an old building can be.
Tiled in striking red, there is an elegantly paved courtyard with luscious green grass in a sun-trapped corner. There is no lift, and our flat is on the top floor, the penthouse, if you will. Richard moans about such an inconvenience but he will only have the best, and the penthouse is the best. The front door opens into a low-ceilinged timber-framed room – the sitting room, with crisp white painted walls, bookcases on every wall, two fat cream sofas and a matching armchair, a glass topped coffee table and clearly designed skylights flooding the room.
The kitchen is similarly decorated with white units and shiny black granite work surfaces. All the appliances are new and top of the range, and most of them baffle me, as I’m sure they do Mrs Gilbert. The master suite is painted a soft grey with twin white wooden beds and matching bedside tables, dressing table and wardrobe, and the en-suite leads off with its power shower, stark white porcelain and heated floor. There is a second bedroom, as yet, unused, with darker, heavier furniture and a large double bed.
I couldn’t wish for a lovelier flat, and the icing on the cake, is a small door leading from the kitchen. Instead of opening out into the expected pantry, a narrow set of stairs pull you upwards. The outer door pushes open, not into an attic space or converted loft, but a wonderful roof garden, of tiny, yet miraculous proportions. Terracotta pots have been placed all round the edge, and while they are desolate in December, I can imagine their glory in the summer. There is a small gas BBQ in one corner, and a wooden table with four chairs takes up the majority of the space. When you stand, and look to the north, the towers of York Minster gaze impressively back – a privileged sight. I don’t think Richard has been up here yet. Darkness has always long since fallen when he arrives home, and our weekends have been spent in socialising with his new work colleagues.
Apart from the sitting room, I think the roof garden is my favourite corner. When the sun shines, I could happily curl up like a cat and soak up the rays. I turn instead to the bookcase in front of me, like the other across the room, it is filled to bursting with books placed every which way. I’m surprised Richard hasn’t set Mrs Gilbert on to it before now. It might not be the most thrilling way to spend my birthday, but at least alphabetising the lot will take a few hours. I hope.
I haven’t even reached ‘C’ before I hold the book in my hands, ‘A Walk around the Snickelways of York’. It is an oddly shaped book which was what first attracted me to it, pondering whether to shelf it horizontally or vertically. About as thick as a monthly magazine, its A5 cover is badly faded although I can make out a red border, and some bullet points highlighting ‘snickets, ginnels, alleyways, courts, yards and footstreets’. It proudly boasts it has featured on BBC and ITV, as well as being in its sixth edition. I turn to the flyleaf, printed in 1993; it is only a few years younger than myself, although the first edition was a whole decade before. It’s a book that on any other day I would have replaced and moved on, but today, on my birthday, sat with piles of books around me and hours lying in front of me, I look at it with interest. The introduction, handwritten, promises that ‘history is simply left to emerge piecemeal from the snickelways’ well-trodden past: a past embracing diverse centuries and lifestyles, majesty and misery, inspiration and squalor.’ I need read no more; I am already hooked.
Since moving here, I have suggested several tours to Richard who distains tourists and their diversions as only a Londoner can. My new city is as unknown to me as the Amazonian jungle, and yet far more appealing without poisonous frogs and scuttling spiders. I am struck by an idea. Grasping the book tightly in my left hand, I walk briskly to our bedroom, anxious to take action before inspiration vanishes.
Mrs Gilbert is nowhere to be seen, and I grab the butter soft leather bag from the side of the dressing table. On impulse, I step further into the room, open a drawer, and scrabble around at the back before pulling my hand out, victorious, camera clasped. At the front door to the flat, I pause and take my navy pea coat from the stand, another of Richard’s purchases; he has an excellent eye. I would usually have gone for black, not that I would have looked in the designer section of any department store, but the softer navy he selected brings some colour into my cheeks while the blue of my eyes, subtle at the best of times, is brought to the fore. I wrap a lighter blue scarf around my neck; the perfect match to the coat, and I can’t help admire my improved reflection in the mirror by the door. The man has taste.
Taking the cowards’ way out, it is only as the door is almost pulled to, that I say, “I’m just popping out for a bit, Mrs Gilbert.”
I race down the two flights of stairs, like a child, fling open the main entrance and step out into the crisp chill of the December day. The coldness hits me physically and I come to a standstill before I bowl into a group of warmly clad tourists. I pause to take a deep breath and feel the cold air rush deep into my body and savour the experience. I clutch at the wall behind me overcome with heady oxygen. This is the first time in two weeks that I’ve left the flat on my own, and I have no idea what I’m doing.
I reach into my handbag and pull out the reason for all this, the book, and flick through the pages, which fall open to a tantalisingly named ‘Lady Peckett’s Yard’. I let my eyes linger for a moment but I force them back to the beginning. If I am to follow this tour, and I don’t know what else I am doing, then my starting point for today is to be Bootham Bar. I know enough that this street I’ve thrown myself out on to is Low Petergate, but that’s where my knowledge stops. Thankfully the book has charming hand-drawn maps; I can only trust that despite its years they’ll still be fairly accurate.
Five minutes later, the imposing stone structure of Bootham Bar, at least I hope it’s the Bar, towers in front of me. It’s not a bar in any modern sense of the word; instead an immense gatehouse rises, wedged in place between parallel rows of shops, a gateway to the medieval city. It stands as tall as any of the modern buildings, about three storeys, its stone walls sometimes golden, sometimes tinged with green damp.
I am facing it from the interior, and so walk through the arch to see it as it would have been viewed by an approaching visitor to the city. From this angle, without any buildings at the side to distract, it is more imposing still. Atop stand three stone figures, and beneath them are three coats of arms, which I can’t quite make out; thin slits, in the shape of a cross, appear either side, perhaps for archers, and at the base is the great stone arch through which I’ve just walked. A car can easily pass through its width, and there are pedestrian arches on both sides as well. Hanging from the top of the great arch is a vast wooden door, studded with metal and reinforced across the back. It may only be a replica but it gives a very good idea of the strength of this gatehouse.
To the right I can see there is access to the city walls but I’m keen to stay true to the book, it’s the only sense of order I have at the moment. The Bar is described as the most ancient of the old entrances into the city, and a plaque tells me that it has been a gateway, of some sort, for nearly 2000 years, indeed it is almost on this site that the porta principalis dextra stood, the north western gate of Roman York, Eboracum. It takes little imagination to see the hustle and bustle of centuries long past unfold before my eyes and I allow the history to come alive, all 2000 years of it.
The unexpected sunshine has brought tourists out in their droves, and although I am happy to concede I am one, of sorts, I’m relieved when the first proper instruction in the guidebook directs me under the Bar and left down a tiny alleyway hidden by a pub appropriately named ‘The Hole in the Wall’.
For a few seconds I am plunged into darkness but an instant later I find myself alone in a yard – Precentor’s Court – with elegant townhouses set on all sides. It is an oasis of calm, and I obediently take some photos from the recommended viewing spots. The Minster rises majestically in front of me, providing a new view of the west doors. It is breath taking; on a whole different scale than the Bar I’ve just left behind: vast and dwarfing everything around it, especially the throngs of tourists I can see once more. Fortunately they have no notion of walking this way, and I am left luxuriously alone. The stone of the cathedral has a whiter quality than the Bar, with some blocks clearly replaced. The craftsmanship is intricate and impressive with each great wooden door encased in not one, not two, but six increasingly large stone arches.
The windows are made up of hundreds of panes set with lead, their coloured glass glinting invitingly. The tower before me, with flags fluttering in the wind, rises up two hundred feet or more; its twin just out of sight, hidden by the red brick of the townhouses and the sparse branches of a spreading tree. I’m almost tempted to abandon my nascent project and head straight into the mighty building, but having now decided on a course of action and being a natural stickler for rules and plans, I walk past the glorious edifice and into the Dean’s Park as directed by the book I still clutch in my hands.
An expanse of green stretches – the Minster taking up one whole side, the other surrounded by more beautiful stone buildings, a tantalising glimpse of the city walls, and what I can only think are the remains of either the Roman fortress or the Archbishop’s Palace, which was once here, now decorated with memorials for fallen soldiers and wreathed in poppies.
No doubt heaving in summer with sun worshippers, in the December chill, I have it almost to myself, apart from a groundsman diligently vacuuming up fallen leaves in a perfectly straight line and another tourist in the far corner. The closer I move to him, the further he moves away until he has receded into a black blob in the distance and I read another plaque attached to the side of a beautiful stone building to the north of the church; this one proclaims that Richard III invested his son as Prince of Wales here on the 8th September 1483. The vastness of time is revealed, more than five centuries, and yet this building, now the Minster library, still remains. It is intoxicating, and once again I have to remind myself of my self-ordained purpose.
I skirt around more clerical houses, out of the park and along a quaint cobbled street. The Treasurer’s House, a National Trust property, pops up on my left. A snippet of information jumps from the page of my guidebook, a hint of a ghost story, some mysterious Romans, but frustratingly it says little more and it too is added to my mental list of future explorations, before I am led along what once was a Roman road.
I pass a boutique hotel, which advertises cream teas in its panelled Long Gallery surrounded by the memories of a duel fought long ago for the honour of a lady. I weave the ancient streets of York leaving the tourists behind, the formers’ attractions abandoned for better advertised ones, and I’m grateful. I enjoy my own company, but, with a hand on my tummy, I remind myself that I am no longer alone, and won’t be again for many months to come. The thought cheers me; a surprisingly positive reaction poking its head through my puzzling ambiguity since the news was first confirmed.
I turn my attention back to the guidebook, handwritten notes accompany the maps detailing the history and highlighting various points of interest. Coming out into the open, modern buildings housing charity shops and restaurants jar my experience, and I scurry across the busy road to regain sanctuary against the damp shaded stone of a medieval building. This is the Bedern area, and the building I am leaning against was once a glazier’s, but the text in my hands hints at a darker past: an orphanage, and Irish immigrants living in poverty and disease.
I am easily affected by the words and this does not feel like a happy place. In this city, every building and street seems to lay claim to at least one ghost story, and others argue that this is the most haunted city in all of Europe. There are ghost walks and tours advertised on every hoarding, and, if I can persuade Richard, I intend to make one my next port of call. I find ghosts almost as fascinating as history itself; the idea of long dead, or not so long dead, people, spirits, unable to find peace. Sometimes I think of them as a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of the past if only we could connect to them. Other times I think I’m a fanciful fool.
Fanciful or not, the eeriness of this solitary dark passageway does not escape me and I look around eagerly for my exit. As I do, I spot a person in the distance, too far away to make out clearly, but something its movement suggests it is the same one from the Dean’s Park. Perhaps he is following the same tour. But then again, perhaps it is not a tourist at all. London instincts, not my own, make me decide to skip the next back alley in favour of returning to the crowded street I just left.
Consulting my guide, I see that I can pick up the route without too much hassle, if I can find Goodramgate; confusingly not a gate at all, but a street. It doesn’t take too long to locate a signpost and I am on my way again. King’s Square is quickly traversed, heaving with buskers competing with each other, even on this cold day, circles of tourists gathered round in circles, cameras flashing.
On my left, the famous Shambles are calling to me like a siren, the picturesque overhanging houses looking straight out of a film set, but I am urged instead to St Sampson’s Square, home to redundant medieval church. Converted into a senior citizens’ community meeting place, I sneak inside and after a whispered discussion with a lady on the reception, am allowed to pass into the garden outside, still paved with the gravestones from the last few centuries.
More snickelways beckon – Three Cranes Lane and Swinegate – each increasing in tourist traffic, ducking my head to pass under the last part of the passage until unexpectedly I find myself on Low Petergate again, abuzz with bodies. I turn a circle trying to orientate myself. The Minster stands on my left, as it does when we leave the flat, and the shops are familiar. The entrance to our flat must be somewhere close by. I step out into the road, and spot it, nestling one doorway along. I look to the head of the snickelway I’ve just exited and see a stark black and white sign reading Lund’s Court.
Our address is Lund’s Court, we must once have been part of the same settlement, but underneath the lettering there is some smaller writing proclaiming – formerly Mad Alice Lane. The name sends a shiver down my spine. Although I prefer Mad Alice Lane to Lund’s Court any day I’m not so sure I want to live there.
Who was Mad Alice, I wonder? The guidebook is more illuminating telling the sorry tale of Alice Smith, who lived in the lane until 1825 when she was hanged at York Castle for being mad; a sorry tale indeed. Hanged for simply being mad. I wonder how long I might have survived.
Although home is a mere stone’s throw, I am not ready for it. I look at my wristwatch and am amazed to see that lunch has been and gone. I’m not hungry, I find I hardly ever am, but I’m conscious of the peanut inside me so I dart into one of the sandwich shops around and grab one of the few remaining pre-made offerings – a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. It seems decadent enough for my birthday, and I eat half propped against a narrow bar at the window watching the world go by; the remaining half I carefully wrap in several layers of tissue, anxious not to mark the interior of the designer handbag I have slung over my shoulder.
I take a look at my book; my next port of call is Hornpot Lane, almost directly opposite Mad Alice Lane. It is unprepossessing, slightly wider than some, hedged on both sides by tall red brick buildings, and without the book to guide me, no doubt I would have passed it over; indeed, I have faced it directly every single time I’ve left the flat and never given it a moment’s notice before now. A metal plaque, the city is littered with them, decorated with flowing italics states that a thirteenth century church, Holy Trinity, is down the passage, and after twenty yards or so, behind a low archway, lies a surprise.
Another hidden treasure, its white stone glowing in the weak sun, and as I walk up the grassy path to its doors, I am taken by the gravestones lying at all angles. I’ve always been fascinated by them and their inscriptions of people who lived long ago; more often than not forgotten by anyone but the parish records, and even then, incorrectly recorded, more likely than not. Normal, everyday people with normal everyday lives who vanish as if they’d never lived. I stop to photograph the moss-covered remnants ignoring the empty beer cans that lie strewn around. It baffles me that others don’t see these places as I do. I reach the heavy wooden door of the church, which is propped open and duck inside.
I’m not a religious person; the potential was there, I think. I’ve always been orthodox but any faith I had was lost the day that my grandfather, a vicar, had a stroke on the operating table. A wonderful man, kind, good and generous, his body woke up but his mind never did quite return. I found I couldn’t, and still can’t, reconcile myself with a God who would let that happen, however mysterious the ways in which he works.
But there’s something about churches that moves me. Apart from certain modern monstrosities, I have yet to see an ugly one. The stone speaks to me in a way that brick doesn’t; it speaks of times past and there are moments, less fleeting with each year, that I swear one palm laid flat against the cold hard surface would evoke a cacophony of potent images from centuries gone by. It’s a bewitching thought; a tantalising one, and one I can’t help but put to the test furtively from time to time.
So despite my agnosticism, I won’t say atheism, churches have become a refuge for me, a clichéd safe haven.
Entering the church, I am immediately hit by the chill. Not quite cold enough to see my breath outside, now it appears in faint white puffs, but I’ve always preferred the cold to the heat, and there is something fitting about a church being so. I pull my jumper down to cover the fingers of my hands, lifting them up as I blow hot air and wander around.
My fingers trail over the edges of the sturdy wooden pews; the wood feels markedly warmer than the air around me and I breathe in deeply, searching for a long forgotten smell of incense, and perhaps a whispered aside through the years. Lying in one of the corners is a single stone coffin. Out of place in modern life, yet a very real part of the medieval; a constant living fear. With a carved space for the head, broadening for the shoulders and tapering to the feet, it looks barely large enough for a teenager, never mind a fully grown adult, and I am overcome by the urge to get in it, just to see.
Instead, I lay my hand gently on the rim, close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing once more searching for the past, begging for something to come to me. Nothing. Foolish to be disappointed but I am; its sharpness surprises me and I have to blink rapidly to stop tears forming. I feel that, if only the conditions were just right, if only I was to find myself in the right place at the right time, then I might cross a boundary. Into what? I barely allow myself to think, to dream.
I shake my head and turn to leave. As I do so, I catch sight of a tourist. I would swear the same one from Dean’s Park and the alleyway I ran from. My heart races as I consider the possibility that he has been following me, and yet he is engrossed in his photos, not noticing me at all, and as I watch, he drops to his knees to capture the unevenness of the stone paving. His camera is old and I realise with surprise that it’s not digital. An unusual choice for a tourist, but, as I spot a camera bag complete with separate lenses and a tripod, not so odd for a professional photographer. He intrigues me; if you count our first meeting in the Dean’s Park, then in the alleyway and now this, it makes the longest relationship I have had with someone in this city apart from my husband and Mrs Gilbert.
His skin is dark, far darker than anyone else’s in these dreary grey months. Some Mediterranean blood perhaps? That would explain the dark, almost black, hair slicked back in a quiff. Several days’ worth of stubble dots his cheeks, and his nose looks slightly crooked, like a boxer’s and his lips have a lovely defined cupid’s bow.
His whole demeanour is casual, unplanned; this is no businessman on a lunch break. His eyes, which are a curious almost black, meet mine and I instantly look away; embarrassed to be caught staring so blatantly, but I am unable to resist and when I look again, so is he. I let a small smile reach my lips and he returns it with a large grin.
“Hi,” he says. I wince and look around guiltily as his voice echoes off the stones. “Hi,” he repeats in a whisper, which, if anything, pierces the air more than his normal voice.
“Hi,” I reply as he peels himself off the ground. I let my guard down and my smile reach my eyes.
“Isak,” he says.