Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter nine

Martha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will; I promise,” I say.

 

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

“A memorial?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t know it,” I mutter.

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

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

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

 

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

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

“We’ll both need to register,” I say.

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

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

“Hello, how can I help you?”

“I’d like to register here please.”

“Not a problem, take a seat.”

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

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

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

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

“All of our reference section is upstairs.”

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

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

“Thanks,” I say.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I check my notes.

“12th November 1994.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ok?”

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

“Yes, sorry, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

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

“Sadly no. Why?”

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

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

“I’m Martha.”

“Nice to meet you.”

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

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

“What are you studying?”

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

“Psychology?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lockdown?”

“Yeah; it’s a long story.”

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

“You’ll drive me to Deepdene?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

“You don’t even know me.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

“Oh, hi there!” I say, surprised.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With pleasure,” I say.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“But there’s no one around.”

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

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

“Why me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A mile, my arse,” says Evie.

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go exploring.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“So,” Evie says. “What do you think?”

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

“Really? When?”

“I think I used to live here.”

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