Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter ten

Alice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, please,” I protested.

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

“But Simon-”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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