My dreams have been vivid and yet shifting. The city of York comes alive in them, and I walk the streets of time past, see it as it once was. There is a girl, young, pretty, with fair hair, but always too far away to see clearly. Then she turns and walks away from me. I follow her but she walks faster. She knows her way here, and I am only a visitor. People get in the way and she is lost.
When I wake, I feel frustration but I have a new purpose to my days now. As insignificant as discovering my new city might seem, it is a gift. It sees me out of bed, showered, dressed and breakfasted long before Mrs Gilbert’s key has turned in the lock. I leave the house early enough to count myself a commuter, albeit one setting out on the tourist trail, and I return home with barely enough time to primp myself up for Richard.
With my trusty guidebook, I explore Goodramgate and Stonegate, Coffee Yard and The Shambles, happen upon the fabulously named Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, and finally allow myself Lady Peckett’s Yard which is every bit as glorious as its name suggests with black and white timbered fronts to the surrounding buildings, quaint hanging signs and illuminated lanterns but lacks the authenticity of other, forgotten, snickets.
Piece by piece and day by day, York is revealing its secrets to me and I am falling in love with it. For the first time, I think I am beginning to make sense of the confusion of gates, bars and snickelways, having confidence to slide down the narrow and slime-covered sides of Peter Lane to bring me quickly to High Ousegate. And the peanut inside me has become my travelling companion; and not such a peanut after all, as each day brings an added swell to my tummy and a fullness to my once timid breasts. I find my hands rest naturally upon my bump, and I wish it could see through my eyes as I wander from street to street. I am growing quite used to it.
Today is momentous, for yesterday, only a week since I first picked up the book, I have finished my walk of the snickelways, and now I have a long list of other sites I have been dying to go and see. The Minster library, glimpsed on day one, jumps out from the top of the list, as does The Treasurer’s House, and yet, the greatest of them all, is undoubtedly The Minster itself. The star attraction, it has whispered to me with every footstep, and its towers and spires seem visible from every point in the city, taunting me, drawing me in.
I have resisted for a full month now; storing up this treasure and with the night’s rain still glistening on the pavements and the early December sun beginning to break through the clouds and setting the walls on fire, it seems today is the day. Despite its now seeming redundancy, I still pack the snickelways book in my handbag; it has become a kind of talisman.
As today feels like a holiday, I decide to treat myself to a decadent breakfast; for once, I am actually feeling hungry. I have heard much about Bettys tearooms; they are in every guidebook I pick up and even Mrs Gilbert unbent so far on one occasion to enquire whether I’d been there yet. Today will be my virgin visit. Richard has no interest in tearooms, however great their reputation.
As many places are in York, Bettys is a mere stone’s throw from home, and I think it’s a stone even I could throw. Set in St Helen’s Square and flanked all round by shops, it could easily have been overcome by modernity but it clings on to its Edwardian origins and I admire it for that.
No one seems to know who the elusive Betty was, but the décor is inspired by the interior of the Queen Mary cruise ship. This early in the morning, there is not yet a queue although in a few hours one will snake past the entrance and round the corner. A waitress with a matching white lace cap and apron leads me to a table by the window where I can watch the world. There is a grand piano in the centre of the room, its lid lying flat, but music from the 30s is being piped in somewhere.
This is a time capsule, and it’s easy to see its attraction; for me, it is paradise, and I think Richard is wrong: he would delight in its gentle pomposity. My coffee arrives steaming hot and after deciding against a Welsh rarebit, I am instead presented with a medici, chosen purely for its name, but it turns out to be a gorgeous concoction of chewy caramel encasing roasted hazelnuts and topped with a layer of dark chocolate.
Still savouring my last mouthful, I pay the bill and step out on to Stonegate where the silhouette of the Minster is instantly visible. I can see that tourists are already forming a queue outside the great West entrance but I pause to take in the majesty; I am in no rush.
Despite the chill, nearby cafes have set out tables and chairs and various people are sat huddled in their coats clutching hot drinks in their hands while they too stare at the vast building rising up in front of them.
It is so tall that I have to tilt my head back and as I move closer, it grows taller still, dwarfing everything and everyone. A bell begins to toll above me and soon others join it. It is both dazzling and a little bewildering to be so close to such a noise and I lean against a lamppost. When the bells stop ringing and I have drunk in the exterior as much as I can, greedily, like an unwilling dieter, I join the queue.
It moves forward in jerky but rapid motions as large groups are admitted in one go, each allocated their own tour guide. I contemplate sneaking into one, relying on my watery colouring to remain undetected, but quickly abandon the thought. With several leaflets tucked safely in the top of my bag and the times for climbing the South Tower committed to memory, I finally let my eyes run wild, and yet it is my sense of smell that is triggered first.
The scent of incense wafts thickly along the nave, coating my airwaves in a fug. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and let the sensation wash over my body. Such a nostalgic smell; one of times long gone as cloistered monks scuttle across the stone floor making their dips to the east. When I open my eyes, I feel the familiar sense of disappointment that the scenes from my imagination are not being played out before me; a ridiculous, but remarkably difficult habit to shake.
It is surprisingly light inside, not only from the daylight streaming through the intricate panels of the stained glass, but also from carefully concealed floodlights sending streams of pure white on to the domed and arched ceiling.
An Oxford alumni, great architecture is no stranger to me, but this building is something else; a wonder to behold with soaring ceilings that would do Hogwarts proud and its great pillars would challenge several men to encircle them with their arms.
The floor is patterned with black marble, which weaves a route I am unable to resist, avoiding stepping on the cracks like a child. Light pierces the stained glass windows scattering shards of coloured light and I stand with my head tipped right back in awe. Something that looks like a golden beached Viking boat protrudes from one of the arches fifty feet above my head, and appealing to a leaflet, I read that it is, in fact, a font lever.
My neck grows tired and I see with some relief that there are mirrors mounted on trolleys into which you look down and view the great bosses on the ceiling, but it isn’t the same, and I stumble over my feet as I tilt my neck once more.
The feeling of space and stillness, despite the hordes of visitors, floods me with calmness, and I recall my grandmother telling me that moments of pure liquid happiness such as this, are a signal that your guardian angel is close by.
Tracing the black stone on the floor leads me across the nave, back and forth, winding my way through chairs set in strict rows for worship, passing several side chapels until I am standing in front of the choir screen – an incredibly ornate piece of art, carved statues of kings gone by, intricately moulded and gilded, concealing, yet also revealing, a mighty organ behind it. To my left, they begin with William the Conqueror, and I try to run through his successors labelled in Latin underneath their plinths, but my grasp of the language fails me. As a historian, I am ashamed to find myself stuck.
William I, William II and Henry I, stare solemnly down at me, all present and accounted for. Then Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John, and a gap for the marvellous entrance into the choir, before continuing with Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and finishing with Henry VI. I know these men, these kings, who sometimes feel more real to me than those I walk among now, but something feels off. I run through the names again in my head, and they all seem to match up with the statues in front of me, and yet…
“Matilda,” comes a voice from my right.
I start in surprise and turn.
“Matilda,” he says again.
The intriguing and undeniably good-looking photographer I met in Holy Trinity is now standing next to me. He is as handsome as before, although this time he wears a navy and white striped top beneath his dark grey tweed jacket, and on his eyes, he sports a pair of thick-rimmed black glasses. His camera is slung over his shoulder.
“Martha?” he says, gently. “It’s Matilda who is missing.”
“Matilda?” I repeat. “Empress Matilda; of course.”
“Omitted for the crime of being a woman. She was the rightful heir to the throne, but she was never actually crowned; a disputed Queen of England.”
“How do you know this?”
“I like history. Don’t you?”
“Well, yes, but-”
“I don’t meet many other people who do,” I say, lamely.
He holds out his hand to shake mine.
“I’m Isak. I enjoy history. Nice to meet you.”
“You know, I like to think that’s why Stephen is wearing a skirt though.”
“Look,” he points to the statue fourth from the left. “See.”
Sure enough, while the other monarchs are decked in regal robes falling to their feet in soft-seeming waves, he is modelling what can only generously be described as a kilt, more accurately, a skirt.
“And you think he’s wearing a skirt why exactly?”
“Because it took him so long to beat his rival, a mere woman. This was built in the 15th century; they were laughing at him.”
“I’m not sure whether I believe you but it’s a good story.”
“I know; isn’t it? I’ve been wondering when I might bump into you again. York’s such a small place, I was bound to see you sooner or later and I was rather hoping for the former.” He smiles at me; an irresistible smile to return. “How are you finding York?”
“I love it,” I say, truthfully. “How could anyone not?”
“And where’s your guidebook today?”
“The one you were clutching so tightly in Holy Trinity?”
“Oh, that one was only for snickelways,” I say. “Although,” and I pull the top corner out of my handbag, “it’s still here.”
“But nothing in it about cross-dressing kings?”
“No; nothing at all.”
“How remiss. Allow me.” I look at him questioningly. “Allow me to show you my Minster.”
I raise my eyebrows at him, “Is that a euphemism?”
“In a house of God? I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“You’re a very tactile person, aren’t you?” he says, causing me to draw my hand back swiftly from the marble tomb decorations I’d been caressing.
“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re not meant to touch.”
“No; don’t apologise. It’s just, well, it surprised me.”
“Look at it; how could you not want to touch?”
We are stood in front of an enormous tomb, built for a Tudor husband and wife. Featuring life size and colour statues of themselves, they kneel in prayer facing the east. Both wear great ruffs around their necks; she is dressed in a forbidding black gown, but he wears a brilliant gold brocade jacket with scarlet trim. Their cheeks are rosy and their marble eyes bright. Beneath them a slab of marble is carved with ornate style; not a modest couple, but thoroughly awe-inspiring.
“I mean, it’s almost as if they are here now. And look at this,” I turn to another tomb, quite different. Carved from cream marble, a former archbishop lies peacefully, his hands folded on his chest resting on a prayer book. You can trace the folds of his gown, each fingernail and even the separate pages of the book he clasps. “This is remarkable.”
I place my hands on the stone ones, and I lower my voice, a little embarrassed to be voicing my theory out loud, “I have this fancy. I like to think that by touching something old, something like this, I’ll be able to absorb or access some of its history, somehow. I think that if I close my eyes, breathe deeply and allow my thoughts to wander, then perhaps I’ll be allowed a glimpse of the past.”
Doing just that, I am drawn from my imagination by a warm hand placing itself over mine. Opening my eyes, I look into Isak’s.
“I’m a big fan of your theory.”
I carefully move my hand from underneath his, and continue, “I like to think that all of history is taking place at the same moment; that, if only we could get to it, if only we could cut through the sheets of time, we could glimpse that Tudor gentleman and his wife walking along this very aisle, right now, and that underneath, or rather, besides them, Roman soldiers are parading in their fortress.”
“And perhaps a couple from the future are doing the very same?”
“It reminds me very much of a poem I once read at school, but I can’t quite remember-”
“Burnt Norton,” I say.
“’Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.’”
“So you do remember.”
“Not so well as you, it seems, but yes, that’s the one. It always intrigued me.”
“What’s next?” I say, breaking the silence before it becomes pointed.
“Let’s see, we have the Chapter House, the astronomical clock, the Five Sisters window, the Rose window, the Lady Chapel, the Zouche chapel-”
“I shall take you to the Zouche chapel, always a personal favourite and off the tourist track, via the Lady Chapel and the Orb, which are decidedly not.”
“Lead the way.”
We inadvertently tag on to the back of a tour group as they are guided around the new installation called The Orb, which showcases the fantastic glasswork throughout the building, when I feel a brutally sharp stab in my stomach.
I gasp and clutch at the nearest thing to me, the elliptical surface of the display. The pain is so fleeting I could almost have imagined it but I feel disoriented with the voices of those around me deafening, slamming into my eardrums; foreign languages jarring, strange accents and someone calls my name. I release my grasp on the orb and look around. Isak is there but he hasn’t called me. He is intently listening to the guide. There is no one else I recognise so I try to turn my attention to the glass again.
Back-lit and in the darkened orb, the medieval glass of the Great East Window, currently shrouded in essential scaffolding, is transformed from an object of beauty, into one of divine worship. The delicate skill of workers more than half a millennium ago is mesmerising and I’m admiring one particular panel featuring a crimson and sapphire clad saint when the pain comes again. This time, the closest object is Isak, and I see him wince as my hand tightens around his forearm, my other across my stomach.
In seconds, sweat has begun to prickle on my scalp and hairline, and my spine feels enveloped in fire. The left side of my body is shouting in protest and it jangles right up to my shoulders. A wave of sickness rolls over me, and I put my hand to my mouth.
Every sound is amplified, and the voices crowd in again. I hear my name, spoken by not just one, nor two people, but many, insistent. I think I recognise one; one speaks louder than the rest, its rhythms vibrate within me. I can hear you, I think. I can hear you. Who are you? Another voice cuts in and my trance is broken.
“Martha!” Isak says.
“Get me out of here,” I say, clutching my stomach, but it is too late. I see the panic in his eyes as I double up in pain and slump to the floor. The fire is so intense I can’t feel my legs any more. I can see rather than hear him shouting at me now, his mouth working vigorously like a fish out of water, desperate for air. The dark indigo of my jeans betrays nothing but when I draw back the hand that has fallen to my side, my fingers are as crimson as the robe in the glass. My last thoughts are for my peanut, my bump and travelling companion before darkness closes in and the world disappears.
“Mrs Chamberlain? Can you hear me?”
They say that the last sense you lose before you die is your hearing; I can only hope that’s so as the woman’s nasal drone is clawing across my brain, dragging great lumps of flesh with it.
If only to silence her, I concentrate hard on opening my eyes. They feel remarkably heavy and seem stuck together. They refuse my first attempt, and my second, but by the third, I force them open with all the energy I can summon.
Immediately I am rewarded with light so viciously intense it sends shooting sparks straight down my retinas. Blinded and still unable to focus on the woman, I shut them again, allowing the darkness to flood my mind once again with relief. But she persists and my irritation resurfaces with a flash as my eyes snap open.
“She’s awake. Get the doctor.”
“Mrs Chamberlain? Martha? I’m Doctor Maccabee. How are you feeling?”
I answer with a groan.
“It’s natural that you feel groggy. You’ve been under a general anaesthetic. Now what can you remember?”
Nothing. I can’t remember anything. At first. And then, “I was in the Minster. My stomach hurt and there was blood.” And there was Isak; stained glass; a crimson robe; a crimson stain; peanut. My peanut. “What happened?”
“I’m afraid your pregnancy was ectopic, Martha, and your fallopian tube ruptured.
“There was nothing we could do. Even if the tube hadn’t ruptured, the egg could never fully have developed, although you would have had a number of options as to your treatment. As it was, we had to perform emergency surgery, called a laparotomy, an incision in your abdomen, to stop the bleeding. You’ll be pleased to know that everything went to plan. However, when we tried to repair your left fallopian tube we discovered it was too badly damaged, and unfortunately, we had to remove it in a salpingectomy.”
“But the baby, she’s gone?” Until that second, I hadn’t even known she was a ‘she’ to me. Annoyance morphs into heartbreak in a heartbeat; a heartbeat that no longer exists. Everything else washes over me.
“Yes, Martha, I truly am very sorry for your loss, but rest assured, there is no reason why you should not be able to conceive again naturally in due course. Now you need to rest so I’m just going to give you a little something.”
Whatever he inserts into my arm, it works fast and even if I had wanted to, my eyelids refuse to stay alert. My peanut. Gone.
My dreams, when they come, are familiar and yet strange. I’m walking through the streets of York and the girl with the fair hair is in front of me; this time though, she turns and smiles, but as she does, her face melts leaving behind only a mess of charred skin, exposed bone and the smell of meat; there are flashes of brilliant colour; a fire; a staircase I don’t recognise but seem to know spiralling feet into the air with grand brass runners and a sumptuous emerald carpet; and my mother, younger, prettier, not as I ever remember her. Then the voices return; a boy is saying my name and a young man, then a crowd of people all crying out before one pushes through, swims into focus, the girl again, and now she’s reaching for me, whispering my name but instead of touching her outstretched hand, I recoil in horror as the fire begins again to claim her as its victim. Her hair is ablaze and I can smell it; the singeing, as of feathers; rank, bitter. Her skin, the delicate skin on her face, blisters and pops, dripping like a candle.
I wake screaming; my sheets tangled around my legs, pinning me in place. Covered in a sheen of sweat, I struggle in vain, but only for seconds as the man who is sitting beside my bed, leans over and swiftly presses a button for a nurse, before taking my hand in his and hushing me like a child. Richard.
“There, there, darling,” he says, as if reading from a script. “It’s ok now. It was just a dream. I’m here.”
I lie back on the sodden and rumpled pillows, still pinned down but calmer now, until my memory returns and with it, the loss of my baby. I want to curl up inside myself and disappear. The nurse arrives, the same one from before, and Richard drops my hand. Gratefully I pull it close to my body. I am torn between wanting the oblivion of sleep and fear of the nightmares that plague me there. Richard picks up the chart at the end of my bed and consults with the nurse whom I overhear refer to him as ‘doctor’.
“Now, darling, I’ve just spoken to the nurse here, who says it’s perfectly fine for you to come home today. I’ve taken a look at your charts and all you need is rest, and plenty of it.”
“Richard,” I say. “The baby-”
“No need to talk about that now, my love. Everything’s been taken care of. We can have a chat at home.”
A chat? I should be angry but all I feel is exhausted. I don’t want to stay in this place, surrounded by death and the dying. I want to go home. I want to curl up in my own bed. I want to forget everything.
“Nurse, if you could help my wife get ready to leave, and I’ll be back in half an hour or so.”
She waits for him to leave before pulling the curtain around my bed to create some semblance of privacy. She pulls the sheets back, finally unpinning me, and leaving my legs exposed almost to the crotch, the hospital gown having gathered around my waist during my sleep. There is some blood on the sheets.
“Don’t worry about that, love,” she says. “It’s perfectly fine.”
I wince with pain as I sit up.
“Yes; you’re going to be sore for a few days. The doctors had to make sure everything was out,” she says. “Now I’ve got a bundle of pads for you.” She hands me something that looks a cross between a nappy and an incontinence pad. “They’re not pretty, but they work; for the bleeding.”
The bleeding; my peanut. I feel a great lump rising in my chest that sticks in my throat, where it will remain. My peanut, the baby that Richard wants to chat about. The baby that I lost is bleeding out of me.
The nurse sits down on the edge of the bed, “There’s nothing I can say that will make this any easier for you. But you’re not alone, you know. There are people you can talk to.”
“Yes, and therapists.”
“My husband is a psychiatrist.”
“Is he indeed? Well then, I’m sure you’ll feel much better once you’re home in your own bed. Now you’ll have to see your GP for a check up but your husband has all the details. Let’s see; where’s that bag he brought?”
She opens the soft leather holdall on the floor and gazes amazed as she holds aloft a delicate La Perla thong in chocolate lace and silk which looks ridiculous in her hands. I stare at it, open-mouthed. The matching bra dangles from another finger.
“Well now, aren’t these lovely? But let me see if I can’t find you something more suitable.”
I should take opportunity of her absence to see what else Richard has packed, but I don’t care. She returns several minutes later with what I can only assume are NHS approved knickers: white cotton with low cut legs and a high cut waistband. She turns away discreetly while I put them on and fit a pad into place. When I turn back, she is holding a red crepe dress from LK Bennett. At least the colour is suitable.
“My jeans?” I ask, half-heartedly.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but they were ruined. They had to be thrown away. I don’t think we have anything else you can wear.” She places a hand on my arm. “It’ll only be for the ride home.”
She holds the dress open for me as I step gingerly into it, and zips up the back. When she pulls out my black patent court shoes and a matching thin-waisted belt, I want to cry out.
“Jesus,” she says under her breath, but loud enough for me to catch. “I’m sorry, but really….” She sweeps from the cubicle without another word, and returns with a grubby pair of flip-flops. “I might not be able to find something other than that dress, beautiful as it may be, but I’ll not have you jamming your feet into those things. Not unless you want to, which,” she looks at my wet eyes, “I take it you don’t?”
I take them gratefully and shove the shoes, belt and lace thong back into the Mulberry leather holdall. I hadn’t even considered the matching bra.
“I have a surprise for you,” Richard says, once I’m safely ensconced in the car. When I gingerly climbed into the passenger seat, I saw him glance at his new cream leather upholstery and a dart of dislike so strong it almost takes my breath away stops me in my tracks temporarily. Now, as we drive home, I almost hope the pad fails me. “Your mother is here.”
“My mother is here? In York?” I say, slowly, turning to face him.
He has the grace to look uncomfortable.
“Yes, well, I thought that you’d like her here. I phoned her after I got the call from the hospital, and of course, she got on the first train here. She arrived last night.”
“And where is she staying?”
“In our flat, darling. I wasn’t going to ask your mother to stay in a hotel, was I?”
Funnily enough, that’s precisely what he would have normally expected.
“I thought she could look after you when I’m at work.”
“I don’t need a nurse, Richard.”
“But this is different; this is your mother.”
I rest my head against the cool glass of the window and shut my eyes, and Richard lapses into silence.