“Excuse me?” says Evie.
“I used to live here,” I repeat.
“I know. I can’t explain it either, but I know I used to live here, at Deepdene Hall. Look,” I say, and point to a room in the top left of the building where the second floor once was. “That was my bedroom. No; really, it was. And that,” I point to a window on the ground floor. “That was the grown up Drawing Room. I wasn’t allowed in there.”
“What else do you know?” she asks.
“It feels like more and more is coming back every second.”
The sight of this once-magnificent building, now reduced to an unloved shell is heart breaking, and I can feel tears welling up. Not very long ago, I would have faced this house and stood impassive, feeling, well, feeling very little. The emotion, the pain I feel now is preferable to that.
“I have to get closer,” I say. Evie grabs the sleeve of my coat.
“Hang on, it could be dangerous. You’ve no idea what state the building’s in.”
“Evie,” I say, and turn to look at her. “I have to get closer.”
While the front of the house with its stained golden limestone skeletal façade draws me in, a stronger instinct sees me walk past the Grecian portico with the tantalising remnants of a beautifully moulded frieze towards the rear of the house.
I’ve seen the front in the photo and it’s what the photo didn’t show that is now fascinating me. The sides of the house run metres back and as they do so, it seems that the damage decreases; several red brick arches still rise majestically from the ground and in some places, glass has survived in the windows, now broken and jagged.
I am desperate to go inside, but something is pulling me back, an emotion more potent than excitement: fear. Not fear for myself but of what I might find inside. I still can’t say how I know I lived in this house. Nothing makes sense.
My earliest memories are of living with my grandparents and mum in their pleasant semi-detached house in Milton Keynes. And while I was able to point out my bedroom to Evie, I have no memories of being there.
I am recalling facts to which I have no anchor other than instinct. I feel sure that the room was painted blue, but how I know this is a mystery. My skin is prickling, my hair standing on end and the fear takes over. I shouldn’t know this place, but I do. I shouldn’t know paint colours, but I do. The only person I can turn to for answers is my mother.
This is all too much to take in. To see the house like this, its bare bones on display, shockingly neglected and yet feel a connection to it, one that I can’t make sense of, is too much. I have to get away; to get to familiar ground.
Evie shows remarkable restraint on the drive home. I know she must be bursting with questions, yet she is considerate of the shock I’ve just received. She hands me a muffin as I get back into the car, saying only, “Sugar. You need sugar,” and then turns the radio on to play quietly in the background.
As we near the city, she asks, “Where can I drop you?”
“Oh, er, here is fine,” I say, hardly taking in my surroundings; my mind, a blank.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll drop you at home.”
Despite the daytime pedestrian zone, she braves the angry glares of tourists and locals alike (as well as a likely fine) to drive right to the door. Richard would have been proud.
“Here you go, my love. Would you like me to come in with you?”
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”
I get out of the car and head towards the passageway before stopping and turning back to Evie.
“Thank you so much for everything today. I’ll,” I pause, “I’ll be in touch. I promise. I just-I just need to get some things sorted in my head.”
“Don’t worry about it. This is huge; it’s only natural you need time to process it all. Look, you have my number, and you know where to find me. Ok?”
“And Martha?” she says before she rolls the window up. “Take care of yourself.”
I watch the car pull slowly away, dodging the same tourists she infuriated a mere minute ago, and steel myself for the conversation, or should that be confrontation, ahead.
I’m feeling so confused that when I see my mother sitting quietly on the sofa reading her book, I simply blurt out, “I’ve just been to Deepdene.” I let my words hang in the air and watch as she slots a bookmark into place, closes and places the book on to a side table.
“Deepdene,” she says, finally, after several minutes have passed.
“Yes, Deepdene Hall. Tell me about it, mother.” Her calm has shattered my own, and both the volume and the pitch of my voice rise. “Tell me about the home I had no proper memories of until today. Why did you lie to me? I asked you about it!”
“Oh, Martha. It’s complicated.”
“It’s complicated? Is that all you have to say? It’s complicated? I should bloody well think it is!”
“I’m not sure I can explain-”
“Try,” I interrupt. “Just try. Please.” My voice has softened, and I can see that my mother, my implacable controlled mother, is struggling, with emotions and to express herself. “Just try, please, mum. Tell me about Deepdene. Tell me about my home.”
She sighs and runs a hand over her hair, smoothing invisible strands into place, then pulls it down her face, stretching her features and covering her eyes.
“It was a lifetime ago,” she begins, “a lifetime ago.” She drops her hand to her lap. “A lifetime ago, Martha.” She straightens her back. “It doesn’t do to dwell in the past.”
“Mum, you owe me this. This is my past too. I need to know.”
“No, Martha, you don’t. Some things are better left alone.”
“You can’t be serious. You’re honestly not going to tell me about this- this incredible revelation?”
Her mind now made up, her features are once again tranquil.
“No, Martha. I’m not.”
I stare at her in disbelief, and anger; anger that quickly makes itself known.
“Then I have to ask you to leave.”
“You heard me – leave. Pack your bags, you’re no longer welcome here.”
“But- but I’m your mother. I’m here to look after you. I-” Her tranquil mask has slipped once more and she appears genuinely dismayed.
“I didn’t ask you to come here. Richard did. If you have nothing to say to me, then I have nothing to say to you, except I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee, and I expect you to be gone by the time I’ve finished it.” Seeing no movement, my anger and heart harden. “In fact, I’ll help you pack,” I say, and walk briskly through to the master bedroom with its twin beds.
My mother’s suitcase is sitting neatly by the end of the bed, and throwing it open, I grab every item of hers that I can see and dump them inside. From the en-suite, I take her toothbrush and wash bag, both of which are chucked unceremoniously on the top.
“Right; there we are,” I say. “If I’ve missed anything I’ll send it on. I’ll call you a taxi to take you to the station immediately. I’m sure there’ll be a train back to Milton Keynes in the next few hours.”
I know I’m being cruel, but I don’t care. My unflappable mother is staring at me with her jaw slack and mouth hanging open. She has never seen me like this; timid obedient Martha with barely two iotas of a personality to rub together, and bizarrely, I am feeling energised by this encounter.
I can feel the emotions bubbling up inside me, and it’s a joy to feel something, anything! I can’t restrain the smile that starts at my mouth and reaches my eyes, and I imagine that must hurt my mother even more. Let it.
The taxi arrives five minutes later and after handing the driver a crisp ten pound note and my mother’s suitcase, I turn on my heel without even a perfunctory attempt at a goodbye, and shut the outer door of the snickelway behind me.
Of course, it can’t last, this temporary euphoria. There is no denying that my mother is keeping secrets from me; secrets that I have a right to know about. A few years ago I might have called my grandfather and asked him; we were always very close, but he’s gone. I have no one to turn to. Richard is out of the question. My phone is sitting on top of the kitchen counter, and instinctively I dial Evie’s number and hold my breath until she answers.
She’s at the door within thirty minutes.
“So, tell me, what did she say?”
“Pretty much. I mean, she admitted that I was right, that I did know Deepdene. She even said that we’d lived there once and then she clammed up. She refused to say anything more, so I-”
“So you?” Evie prompts.
“So I asked her to leave,” I say, a little worried about her reaction.
“Well done, you,” she says. “So then what?”
“Well, then I helped her pack… to be honest, I sort of just threw everything in her suitcase, called a taxi and hustled her out of the door. She’s probably still waiting for a train at the station now.”
“Good for you. I know it may seem tough, and I don’t really know much about the situation, or even you really, but you deserve to know the truth, especially about your own past. Now what?”
“I don’t really know. I feel like I’ve reached an impasse. Apart from my mum, there’s no one else I can ask. I thought, maybe, that if you didn’t have anything else planned, and if you wanted to, that is, that maybe you might fancy driving back out there?”
“Are you kidding? I’d love to. This is turning out to be a bigger mystery than any of those ridiculous books I read.” She looks at the clock on her phone. “It’s probably too late to go back out there today. I know it doesn’t take too long to get there, but it’ll be getting dark soon and it’s probably not the best idea to be wandering around an abandoned and fire damaged house in the pitch black. Don’t worry though,” she rushes on, seeing my slightly crestfallen face, “we’ll go back as soon as we can. I’m not working on Saturday. We can go then. Deal?”
“Right, not for nothing do I work at a library,” she says, pulling an A4 pad out of her sloppy handbag, shortly followed by a chewed up biro. “Don’t get me wrong,” she gestures at my tablet, “I bloody love those things, but somehow, you can’t beat good old pen and paper.”
“A girl after my own heart,” I reply, and we share a smile.
“A kindred spirit.”
“Like Diana and Anne,” I say, almost without thinking.
“Exactly! Good old Green Gables,” she says. “I knew when I met you at the library that we’d be friends. Let’s get down to business. What do we know?”
As I had done a few days ago, she writes Deepdene in black capitals in the middle of the page and encircles it. Then follows it with my name – Martha Chamberlain. “And what’s your maiden name?
“And your mum’s?”
“That is hers, she changed back to it after my dad left.”
“Right. So what was his name?”
“Giles. Giles Blenkin-”
“Blenkin-what?” she asks.
‘Blenkinsop,” I say. “That can’t be a coincidence.”
“Hang on. I’ll be right back,” and I dive into my room where I left the few print outs I’d made from my library visit the other day. “Look,” I say, and thrust the copy of the newspaper article in front of Evie.
“Where am I looking?”
“Here! Listen. ‘More than 30 fire fighters battled’, blah blah blah, ‘injuring two of its inhabitants,’ blah blah blah, ‘The hall, which was built in the mid 1800s, is the family home of the Blenkinsops.’” I look up triumphantly. “The Blenkinsops!”
“Jesus, Martha. So that means, your family, well, it can’t be a coincidence, can it?”
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, but I’ve always been Martha Hislop and I’ve never known my mum as Mrs Blenkinsop, just Hislop too.”
“What else does it say?” she returns her gaze to the crumpled sheet of paper in her hands.
“Not a lot more really. I mean, there wasn’t anything else about the fire. Not that I could find anyway.” I’ve also brought the print out of the Wikipedia entry. “This is everything.”
“There has to be more than that,” she says. “I refuse to believe that a bloody great country pile burnt down with two people injured and that’s the last we hear of it; maybe a hundred years ago, but not today. It’s nose to the grindstone, my dear.”
“But I’ve already searched everywhere,” I protest.
“Not everywhere,” she says. “What about the parish records?”
“They’re not online, and I couldn’t find anything in the library, and aren’t they just births, marriages and deaths?”
“Maybe, but they’re a starting point, and it’s not unusual for them not to be online, unless they’re central York parish records, most churches still keep them themselves. We have to find out which parish Deepdene is in. I bet you anything we can find out more there.”
Evie, clearly a much better researcher than I, needs only a few minutes on my laptop to find out the church we need to target. “Look, they even have their own website. Yes, you’re right, the records aren’t online but I’m sure if we give the vicar a call, he’ll let us come by one day.”
She adds, “I can flash my York University I.D., and you can flash, well, whatever the good Lord gave you, although I don’t know if that’ll help much in this case! Now, on to the Blenkinsops themselves. What have you found?”
I angle my tablet in her direction, “I can only find John Blenkinsop, and I think he might be a little old.”
“‘John Blenkinsop,’” she reads. “‘Born 1783 was an English mining engineer and an inventor of steam locomotives, who designed the first practical railway locomotive.’ Granted he may be a little old, but it’s a step in the right direction. He was from Leeds. It’s the right area, sort of. Maybe he’s a relative? And you know, Martha, there are other websites than Wikipedia, you know. It’s not the fount of all knowledge.”
“He never married, so he can’t be a relative,” I retort.
“Get back to your research, girl,” she says. “Come on, chop chop.”
We spend the new few hours amusing ourselves with my potential relatives, from Arthur Blenkinsop, a Labour MP, to Christopher, an Anglo-German musician, and Ernie, a footballer.
To Evie’s great mirth, Bertie Blenkinsop is revealed to be a ‘softie’ and enemy of Dennis the Menace, but later on in the day, we stumble across both Blenkinsop Castle and Blenkinsop Hall.
“It looks like the Blenkinsops were quite a big family in Northumberland,” Evie says. “Look, there’s a castle up here. And listen, ‘Blenkinsopp Castle is a fire-damaged, partly demolished 19th-century country mansion incorporating the ruinous remains of a 14th-century tower house located above the Tipalt Burn approximately one mile from Green head, Northumberland. It is a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.’”
She scans the page in front of her. “It wasn’t in use by the early 19th century, and it was only in 1877, that William Blenkinsopp Coulson built the mansion house, and then basically sold all their estates. It was a hotel in the 20th century but in 1954, a fire caused major damage and a lot of it was demolished.”
“Do you think they have anything to do with me?”
“I’m not sure. They’re Blenkinsopp with two ‘p’s, but I bet there’s some sort of connection there.”
It isn’t too long before Evie and I hit another dead end with our research. Too much to suppose a connection with every Blenkinsop we uncover, yet too little concrete evidence to proceed in any direction leaves us both frustrated; Evie the more so.
“I can’t believe that there’s nothing more written about Deepdene Hall somewhere! I mean, it’s a bloody great Regency mansion, not a mews flat in some poky little village somewhere. It has history! It was burnt down in an unexplained fire, for God’s sake. Are you sure you don’t fancy confronting your mother again?”
“Not any time soon,” I say.
“Fair enough. I don’t blame you one little bit. The only thing I can think of doing right now is to get back to Deepdene as soon as we can and see what we can uncover there.” She looks at me, and pokes an elbow into my ribs, “Oh, how lovely it must be to be a lady of leisure, able to go wherever you want, whenever you want.”
“Overrated,” I say. “Highly overrated.” Although I’ve known Evie a short time, her infectious personality has led us into a friendship closer than any I’ve known in a long time and I’m enjoying her banter. It is an essential ingredient in my life when everything else seems so dark, and she is rapidly becoming the only person I feel I can turn to, and trust.
“And you’re forgetting, not only would I not even have found it in the first place without you, I don’t have any way of getting there, without booking a bloody expensive taxi with a driver who thinks I’m probably batty!”
“Cheapskate. It’s always the rich who pinch the pennies the most.”
“Watch the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves,” I intone gravely. “A great favourite of Richard’s.”
“He sounds like a hoot.”
“Well,” I say, almost reluctantly, “He has his good points too.”
“I can see that,” she says, gesturing at the flat. “This place is gorgeous. I’d kill to live in a flat like this.”
“Oh, he hates it here,” I say.
“Really? How come?”
“Too small, too old, too many corners and beams, and not any parking for his BMW.”
“Barmy. Utterly barking. I think it’s fabulous. You can really imagine that people once lived here before, you know? It’s got such a sense of history.”
“Although I doubt they were sitting on cream sofas,” I say.
“True,” she admits. “I’ve always wondered though, who Alice was.”
“Alice. You know, Mad Alice. The name of the snickelway.”
“God, I’d forgotten about her. When we first moved here, I noticed that and wanted to find out more, but then, somehow,” I can’t help but look at my stomach. “Other things got in the way.”
“There’s a story about her,” Evie says. “I can’t remember all of it, but there was something about being hanged for being insane, which was actually a crime then. She was quite young apparently, this Alice. I wish I could remember more. I vaguely remember it from one of those ghost tours I went on when I was little. Friend’s birthday or something.”
“Not a happy ending then?”
“Not by those accounts, no. Mind you, back then, whenever ‘when’ was, there weren’t many happy endings all over, I gather. Can’t you just see her, here, living in this very room?”
“Poor thing,” I say. “I wonder what really happened.”
“Hey! That’s an idea!”
“Well, we can’t find out any more about your mysterious Blenkinsops here, and Deepdene is going to wait, so why not find out about Alice? Let’s go on one of those ghost tours.”
“Why not? Have you got anything else to do?”
“Erm,” I look around at the flat, now empty of both my mother and my husband. “My diary is wide open.”
“Right then. Wrap up warm, it’s going to get cold.”
The air is just as bitter as Evie said it would be, and I tuck my cashmere scarf closer to my chin.
“Now, they’re a few of those ghost tour things; the tourists bloody love them. Do you mind which one we go on?”
“I’m just following you,” I say.
“I think there’s one that meets near here, down by the Shambles. Let’s walk and find out.”
Any uncertainty we have is dispelled when we come upon a man dressed in a black frock coat, black top hat resting on his head, and silver topped cane resting lightly in his hand. Quite a large group has gathered around the man and his companion, likewise attired.
“Gentlemen and gentlewomen, welcome to this, the definitive ghost tour of York, Europe’s most haunted city. First things first, the money.”
After taking a fiver from each of us, and strapping a brightly coloured band of paper around our wrists in return, we follow our guide as he leads us first to Stonegate and a house supposedly haunted by a young girl who fell head long down three flights of stairs, breaking her neck and perishing. With the sad, rather than gruesome, tale related we walk to our next destination, our group’s path crossing that of a rival’s, whose leader sports a gigantic piratical hat, complete with a profusion of feathers. I catch a snippet of his tale, and am disheartened to hear a different one to ours.
“Don’t look so glum, chum,” says Evie, catching sight of my face. “There are plenty of ghosts to go round. We can jump on his tour another time. We’ll get to Alice, don’t you worry.”
“And now, we bring you to one of the city’s sorriest tales. See that tiny window there? Those lucky, or unlucky, enough have claimed to see the face of a young girl, crying and scratching at the glass, begging to be released. Alas to no avail, for when the child lived here, plague had stricken the city, and when one of her parents fell ill, the house was quarantined. No one could come in or out. And one by one, each member of her family lay dying, except the girl, who recovered. But she was the only one. And locked in a house which could not be opened. Unheard, and abandoned, with the bodies of her decaying family around her, she eventually starved to death.”
Evie slips a hand into mine. The guide falls silent. He paints a vivid picture. When he moves on, with the more eager of the group following at his heels, Evie and I hold back, until it is just the two of us, looking up at the tiny pane of glass crisscrossed by wood.
“It’s not so very hard to believe, is it?” she says.
“Come on, or we’ll miss the next one, although, by the direction he’s taking us, he’s only going to tell us about the Roman soldiers, and I could tell you about that!”
She’s right, and we re-join just in time to hear of a worker in the cellar of a great house understandably startled to see an entire legion of Roman soldiers march past with their legs cut off at the knee. It was only when the cellar was further excavated that the Roman road, exactly knee depth beneath the current floor was discovered.
“Is that true?” I whisper to Evie.
“Apparently so. It only happened in the sixties. The old guy, Harry, who saw them, he’s still around. Swears by his story.”
“So what’s next?” I ask. “You seem to know most of these stories as well as he does.”
“Some of them have a habit of staying in your head,” she says.
“But not Alice?” I ask, sadly.
“So it would seem. Sorry about that. But we’ll soon get to the bottom of Alice’s story. I have no doubt! Well, I’d say, by the route he’s taking, we’ll be going to Bedern next.”
“I remember that!” Evie looks questioningly at me. “When we first got here, I did this sort of walking tour thing, and I remember coming here. It creeped me out.”
“I’m not surprised. It still creeps me out. The area was basically a slum, and a pretty bad one at that. That building there, well before it was built, there was kind of an orphanage school place, and at some point, it was run by a really nasty piece of work, a drunk. He used to starve the children.”
“A running theme,” I add.
“A running theme,” she agrees. “And beat them as well, of course. Like most drunks, he could present a charming exterior to those with power, but rumours soon started that several children had actually died at his hands. The bodies, it was claimed, were stored in a big cupboard in the cellar of the building, and he bribed a gravedigger to do the dirty for him, but when he was finally investigated, no bodies were ever found.
“When the old place was torn down, excavators had a pretty scary time of it; one guy felt a tap on his shoulder but there was no one there when he turned, but, when he was undressing that night, he noticed bruise marks of where the ghostly fingers had touched him. Eventually, a pit was discovered, filled with the skeletons of children.”
“God, that’s awful!”
“Yup. People say you can hear their cries at night, or sometimes they slip their hand into yours as you walk past for some reassurance.”
I shiver, and clench my fist against intruders.
“So many ghostly children.”
“Well they were vulnerable,” Evie says.
The group in front of us screams as a man dressed in a ghoulish mask jumps out of an alley as they trickle past.
“They don’t really need the theatrics,” I say. “It’s bad enough on its own.”
“Yeah, but it’s more tragic than scary, you know? They want their punters to leave with a bit of a thrill, not on a downer.”
“I guess, but I can’t help feeling it cheapens the stories, somehow.” Evie nods. We stop in front of a grand stone fronted theatre. “What now?”
“I’m not sure.”
Our guide, standing on a stepladder he has been carrying around with him to ensure we all get a good view, begins, “We all know the stories of monks who got up to all sorts, but this time, it was a naughty nun. This used to be part of St Leonard’s Hospice, a medieval hospital where nuns cared for the sick. This nun got a bit carried away in her duties, and wound up pregnant.
“Terrified of what would happen to her, she fled, but was unluckily captured. When her superiors found out her crime, they decided to make an example of her. Forbidden from spilling blood, instead, they simply walled her up alive and left her to die. The Grey Lady, as she’s become known, haunts the theatre which now lies here-”
“Ugh,” I turn away, sickened. “Did they really do that kind of thing?”
“I guess they probably did, although whether this particular story happened is another issue entirely. Look, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.”
“No,” I say, firmly. “I’d have just been sitting in the dark on my own stewing otherwise. At least this way I know there are people a lot worse off than me!”
Over the next hour, we’re taken past haunted alleyways and told more gruesome tales but none of them hit as hard as those first few. I suppose there is only so much terror one can take, and I’m about to think we’ll have to endure another night like this on another tour to gather any more information on Alice when our guide starts to lead us back in the direction of my flat. He stops us right outside.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Evie stage whispers to me, and grips my arm.
But instead of turning to Mad Alice Lane, the guide turns the other direction, to Holy Trinity Church.
“There are two ghosts associated with this church, but the most famous is Sir Thomas Percy who had the misfortune to fall foul of Elizabeth I. Foolishly involving himself in a plot to oust his queen and replace her with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, and still more foolishly, getting himself caught, he was hauled to prison, where his head and body parted company with the help of an axe.
“His head, as was a traitor’s right, was stuck on a pike on top of Micklegate Bar for all to see, but in the dead of night, a loyal supporter stole the head, and returned it to the graveyard here for burial in holy ground. Unfortunately, a second man, less loyal than the first, then reclaimed the head for a reward, returning it to the authorities. Now, poor Sir Thomas Percy wanders the graveyard desperately in search of his head.”
On cue, a headless man emerges from the gloom scattering the listeners near and far with shrieks of mirth, and the tour disperses.
“That’s it?” I say. “Nothing about Alice, and we’re so close!”
“Maybe he knows the story but just hasn’t told it tonight. Come on, let’s ask him.”
We approach the guide who is neatly stowing his folded stepladder away.
“Did you enjoy the tour, ladies?” he asks, still in his guide patter.
“Er, yes,” says Evie. “Very much. We were just wondering one-”
“Two,” I interrupt.
“Er, yes, two things.”
He looks at us patiently, and Evie turns to me.
“You said there were two ghosts associated with the graveyard, but you only mentioned Sir Percy.”
“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” he looks rather crestfallen. “I keep meaning to take that part out, it’s hardly an interesting story, but you know how it is with a script – once you’ve learned the lines, they tend to stay with you.” I stare back at him, waiting for the answer.
“So, the second ghost?” Evie prompts.
“Not much to tell, I’m afraid. People simply claim to have seen a woman dressed all in black walking around the graves.”
“And that’s it?”
“Apparently she scans the names of some of the graves, and also looks at the ground as well.”
Eager to please, he offers us some more, “She only started to appear after the Second World War, so people think she’s looking for someone who died during then.”
“But the graves are all much older than that, aren’t they?” I say.
“Are they? Oh. Well, ghost stories…” and he shrugs his shoulders.
“Do you know anything about Mad Alice Lane?” asks Evie, taking over, and I point to the snickelway across from us to emphasise her words.
“Yes, I do remember something about it, although, like this story, there’s not a great deal to tell… Like most of them, there are several versions.”
“Tell us them all, please,” I say, touching his sleeve lightly with my hand. He glances uncertainly at my fingers, and I withdraw them. “I live there, you see.”
“Oh. Well, let’s see, you see how it’s also called Lund Court? It wasn’t always known as Mad Alice Lane before that. Until proper city maps were drawn up, names shifted a lot, changing several times in a single generation, before Alice Smith apparently lived there, it was officially nameless.”
“So difficult to trace?”
“I would imagine so, but then again, maybe not. York’s not a very big place, and it wasn’t then.”
“When Alice lived here. Early 1800s it was, I think. Some people say that she was just a crazy old woman who used to jump out at people from the shadows; you could be executed for being insane then, and that’s what happened; others say she murdered her husband and that’s what did for her in the end. Whatever it is she did, she certainly left her mark.”
“And that’s it? That’s all you know?”
“That’s all I know, I’m afraid. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another tour leaving in ten minutes.” With old-fashioned charm, he touches the brim of his hat, hoists the stepladder on to his shoulder and walks away in the direction of the Shambles.
“So that’s it then?” I say. “That’s Mad Alice?”
“No, that’s just everything that he knows. And we didn’t know her surname before, or when she lived here.”
“It’s a start, and it’s something to do until I’m free to go to Deepdene with you.”
“You’re right.” I say, and mull the idea over in my head. The name of the snickelway had certainly caught my attention earlier, and with a project to focus on, perhaps my thoughts won’t stray so much to my peanut? Besides, as Evie had jokingly pointed out, I am a lady of leisure; what else will I do with my time?
“Christ. I’d better get going,” says Evie, suddenly. “It’s pitch black already and I’ve still got some research to do tonight. Hey ho, the show must go on, despite other, far more intriguing, distractions. I’ll see you at the weekend, Martha. Then it’s Operation Deepdene, all hands on deck!”
She casually throws her arms around me in a hug, and walks off into the darkness while I stand alone, except for strangers, with my home and Alice’s on my left, a graveyard on my right.
A strong iron gate bars my way into the graveyard and I press my face between the bars. It should be eerie, but like so many of the stories of tonight, it is simply sad and rather lonely. There is no black clothed figure walking from headstone to headstone, and certainly no beheaded nobleman. I turn away reluctantly, almost mesmerised by the black, and as I do so catch a flicker out of the corner of my eye.
I spin my head to face the snickelway home, and then scour the street. It has emptied. I peer as hard as I can into the gloom trying to make out what caught my attention. Perhaps another flicker, but I’m not sure. I narrow my eyes, and step closer, and stifle a scream as a hand is placed on my shoulder.
“Martha,” says Richard, looking surprised to see me. “Where have you been?” He guides me down Mad Alice Lane and through the courtyard to the front door. “Where’s your mother?” he says, as we walk into the flat, he puffing slightly at all the stairs.
“Yes. On a train this afternoon.”
“Let’s just say we had a disagreement and leave it at that.”
“Oh,” he says. “Oh.” He looks rather stupidly at me, but for once, I don’t feel forced to elaborate. “Oh, right then. I suppose I’ll move back from the hotel.”
“If you like.”
“Oh.” He hangs his navy cashmere coat carefully on the stand by the door and sets the briefcase at his feet. “Supper?”
“I expect Mrs Gilbert has prepared something for you, Richard. It’ll be in the fridge as always.”
“Oh. Have you eaten already?”
“No, but I’m not hungry. In fact, I have some work to do.”
“Yes,” I say, taking sneaky pleasure in his bewilderment, both at my manner and my words. “Some work.”
My laptop is still whirring faintly, and armed with a surname and some idea of date, it isn’t long before I uncover some more about Alice. One blog, last updated years before, gives me two specific dates of her supposed execution at York Castle – 1823 or 1825, yet, when I click on the latter’s website and search the archives for hangings, there is no record of an Alice Smith.
I widen my search to include the entire history of the castle, but still nothing. It’s far too late to call the staff there and ask if the online record is a complete one, but I make a note to do so in the morning.
I wonder if she was hanged under a different surname. Another search reveals only one Alice involved in an execution, yet this is Alice Riley, whose throat was slashed by her estranged husband; an Alice Harrison was transported in 1774 for stealing three silver spoons; three further Alices – Cooper, Whitehead and Banks – were the victims of theft, while several more were proclaimed debtors. 22 people of the name ‘Smith’ were executed, yet all, unhelpfully, men, and none in the right year anyway.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the stories are just that, stories. Rather like my investigations into Deepdene and the Blenkinsops, I have hit a brick wall, and yet, unlike those, a list is starting to form in my head about what I can do about that: there are the parish records to uncover, surely living in such proximity to Holy Trinity, Alice must have been a parishioner there; and then there is York Castle itself. There are concrete records I can get access to, for free, in the morning.