I capitalise on my newfound confidence by spending the next day outside the flat for as long as I want. My first port of call is to the Castle Museum. As I arrive a tour group is just leaving from the reception so I slide into the back. As fascinating as the painstakingly kitted out reproduction Victorian Street is, it’s too late in time to bear any resemblance to the world Alice would have known, and it’s the old prison cells beneath the museum that hold the most interest.
Incarcerating both men and women, conditions were dreadful, and yet, depending on the true date of Alice’s arrest, if it happened at all, would dramatically alter the conditions in which she was kept. If 1823, as some sources seem to suggest, then she would have been in the old prison, the part that I stand in now with its bleak stone walls, damp impregnating the walls, and wardens often impregnating the female inmates.
But if in 1825, a new prison had been built in a Tudor Gothic style. Said to be the strongest building in all of England, it was built entirely from dark grey gritstone lending it a particularly forbidding appearance.
Nothing remains of this newer prison, but I can imagine that it was, in many ways, as grim as the old, and with executions taking place just outside in the courtyard, being brought here before trial must have really felt like the end. There must have been little hope in these walls.
In one corner is a little machine that looks rather like a cash dispenser. Closer inspection reveals it to be an online database, not unlike the one online in which visitors can search for names, specifically those of their family. I suppose there’s nothing quite like knowing there’s a sheep thief in the family.
After checking once again that Alice Smith comes up blank, I tentatively type in ‘Chamberlain’, and am rewarded with an entirely clean slate. Richard will be thrilled. ‘Blenkinsop’ reveals itself to be equally as blameless, although I would have been grateful for any snippet of information there, even a crime.
Lastly, reluctantly almost, although I can’t control myself, I type in ‘Martha’. A sad tale appears of Martha Chapel who was executed for murdering her illegitimate child by mangling it with her hands immediately after its birth in 1803. She went to the gallows protesting her innocence to the end, claiming, left alone to deliver her child, any harm was inflicted in panic.
Reading, I can feel the blood pumping in my ears, and my chest constricts with anguish; poor woman, poor child. After all those ghost stories too. Perhaps it is too soon for this; I am still too raw myself. Perhaps I might have found myself in a similar situation?
The thought is too hideous to consider and I force myself to brush it aside. Steadying my hands against the machine, hogging it despite a small child pushing at my elbow, I take a deep breath and try to clear my mind. But before I leave, I still have to ask a member of staff about the execution records online.
“I believe all of the records are on there for you to search,” says the middle-aged man I’ve collared. “Were you looking for anyone in particular?”
“Alice Smith,” I say. “I looked yesterday but couldn’t seem to find anything. And today I can’t either. There are plenty of Smiths but no Alice Smiths, and none around the dates I’m searching.”
“In that case, I’d say that she wasn’t here then.”
“But I’ve read, and been told, several times that she was,” I insist.
“I suppose you could speak to our archivist,” he says, a little doubtfully.
“You’ll have to make an appointment, mind, and even then, she might not be able to help you.”
“That’s fine, thank you,” I say, and take the business card he proffers.
“Oh, and you might find something in our gift shop.”
“Well, you know, a book or something.”
Leaving the unhelpful man behind, I venture into the gift shop, which, needless to say, was already on my to-do list. To not visit the gift shop is sacrilegious. A quick scan of the bookshelves reveals only one possible candidate: Tyburn Tales: The Criminal Chronology of York Castle.
Promising a carefully compiled list of prison documents, ancient papers and other authentic sources, including details of the crimes, trials and executions of every murderer, highwayman, rogue and rebel ever to swing from the York Tyburn, I hand it over to the cashier.
My next stop is the library and the parish records. Evie isn’t working on the reception desk, but by mentioning her to a woman upstairs in the archives, I soon find myself sitting at a solid wooden desk with a large green book in front of me: the records for Holy Trinity, Goodramgate. In spite of knowing otherwise, I also asked after Deepdene’s records, but was disappointed.
Armed with one name only, Alice Smith, I set to with vigour on Trinity’s archives. Fortunately, my degree has equipped me with the ability to decipher old-fashioned handwriting, or I might find my self-imposed task nearly impossible.
Dismissing anything earlier than 1800, arguing that for a woman to be described a ‘young’ she can’t have been more than 23 or 25 when she was executed, it seems at first that my efforts are to be thwarted.
If there was no husband and she was simply imprisoned for being insane, then you might expect to find a record of her baptism as Alice Smith, but if there was a husband, she was probably baptised under a different surname. Plenty of Smiths turn up, all of which I duly note down, but no Alices; and none with a different surname either.
The cramped scrawl takes time to read, and there are pages of entries before I stumble upon something with potential. In October 1824 I find “Thomas Smith, shoemaker, of Petergate, and Alice Haxby, of Bedern, banns, by W.L, he signs, she signs. W: Charles Haxby, Elizabeth Haxby.”
One entry. No more. And nothing concrete to indicate this is my Alice except a feeling. It is her; I know it is. And if it is, she was from Bedern. I can’t help a shudder run down my spine. I wonder if it was a hovel when she lived there? Perhaps she knew the stories of the abused orphans? So many coincidences. And there is no wonder her baptism isn’t recorded: Bedern is in a different parish to the Holy Trinity.
I check the date again – October 1824. She can’t have been executed in 1823. That, at least, is one story to cross off my list. Although, 1825 still remains a possibility, despite not turning up in the castle registers.
The record also reveals that Alice signs, meaning she signed her own name on the marriage certificate. Many of the people married in that year, male and female, simply made their mark. Was she educated? Or could she only write her name?
I presume the witnesses are her parents; it’s not an outrageous assumption to make that they would attend their daughter’s own wedding, and they give me a new lead in hunting for Alice’s baptism. I scrabble on the shelves for the Bedern parish records but after five minutes, I accept defeat.
“Oh, you won’t find many baptisms for Bedern; the chapel there had been taken over by the Minster by that time,” says the archivist sitting primly at her desk, a far cry from Evie. “You’ll find the parishioners were incorporated into Holy Trinity.”
“But I can’t seem to find a baptism and I know she existed. Here,” I say, pointing at the marriage entry. “Look, Alice Haxby, of Bedern.”
“Not all children were baptised at that time, you know.”
“I know, but, I don’t know how to explain this, but I think she would have been.”
The woman gives me a sideways glance. “If she was baptised, she would be in here,” she says, pulling the heavy book of Holy Trinity records towards her. “Married in 1824. Hmmmm. Have you searched the whole book?”
“I started at 1800.”
She tuts, “You need to go further back than that. They didn’t marry all that young then… Right, here you go.”
“What?” I say. “You’ve found her.”
“Right here,” and she places a finger on the book.
“If you’re going to search for people, make sure you do it properly.”
My thanks freeze in my throat, but I force them out anyway, eager to read the text hidden under her figure.
“Alice,” I read. “‘1799 Dec 1, Alice d Charles and Elizabeth Haxby of Bedern. labourer by W.L.’ What does ‘by W.L. mean?” I ask.
“That would be the initials of the officiating clergy. There’ll be a key somewhere.”
I flip the book open to its front.
“See there, William Lund.”
“So the same man who married her to Thomas?”
“It would appear so. They were small communities then, close, her parish priest would have known her as well as any, I would imagine.”
I stare back at the entry. To see it here, in black ink, is to have further proof that she existed. Pulling a fresh sheet of paper in front of me, I start a timeline. She would have been 25 when she was married. I wonder what Thomas was like. I wonder if they were in love.
Now I have her maiden name, more and more baptism entries pop out at me: Elizabeth Haxby in 1800 through to Maria in 1818.
And in between the births, there are deaths too: Grace Haxby, born in 1805, buried less than a year later, a Thomas too, and a Maude. Thirteen children born and five of them buried before Alice, the eldest by this account, marries.
Everywhere I look today there is death; particularly that of children, of babies. It was a hard time to be a woman and a mother. Alice’s mother must have been exhausted.
“Martha,” comes a welcome voice behind me, before dropping to a whisper to repeat my name. “Whoops,” says Evie, with a smile, as the archivist glowers in her direction. “Sorry, Myra. I suppose I’m just not naturally quiet.” She turns her attention to me again. “Fancy a cuppa?”
The library has its own little café serving a more than passable cup of coffee and array of muffins. Feeling the need for a hit of sugar, I add two white spoonfuls to my coffee, and balance a double chocolate muffin on my arms as I join Evie on the comfy looking purple sofa she’s snagged us in one corner.
“Found anything good?”
I fill her in on all I’ve uncovered today as she absentmindedly leans over and breaks off chunks from my muffin.
“That’s awesome, Martha. And how did you sleep last night after our spooky ghost walk?”
“I was out like a light,” I say. “Although…”
“It’s going to sound daft, but after you left, I stayed for a little bit and had a proper look at Holy Trinity’s graveyard-”
“And saw the ghost of the bad Sir Percy?!”
“Stop interrupting me and I’ll tell you,” I say with a laugh.
“Sorry,” she says, looking chastened. “I’ll be quiet.”
“Good. So, I didn’t see Sir Percy, but I sort of saw… something. Just out of the corner of my eye,” I rush on. “Nothing definite, and certainly nothing I could put my finger on. Like a flash of movement, you know, and it was in Mad Alice Lane.”
“You saw her?”
“I don’t know if it was her. It was probably just a trick of the light, or something. I mean, we had just been on a ghost tour. I bet most people were seeing spirits everywhere after they left.”
“Maybe; maybe not.”
“And,” I pause, unsure how to go on.
“And?” she coaxes.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened.”
“That you’ve seen a ghost?”
“Evie, we don’t even know if it was a ghost.”
“But that’s what you think, right?”
“I don’t know.”
“And you reckon you’ve seen one before?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I place my hands on my tummy, and weigh up the thoughts whirring in my head. I like Evie. I know Evie. And I think she’d understand. “Erm, did I tell you about my baby, Evie?”
“You have a baby?”
“No, I guess that’s the point.” I rush on before she can interrupt or offer condolences. “When Richard and I first moved here, I was pregnant. About four months or so. And then, one day, while I was exploring, I was in the Minster actually, I had a miscarriage; well, not really a miscarriage but an ectopic pregnancy. It was all quite complicated.”
“Oh God, Martha. That’s awful.”
“Thank you. Well, it was awful, and I still think about it every day. I try not to, but it’s harder than you might think.”
“No, of course. I mean, I understand. Well, I don’t understand but-”
“Evie, it’s ok. I know what you mean. The weird thing was when it was happening, and… well, ever since really, I’ve been hearing voices.”
“Voices? What kind of voices?”
“I don’t know. Normal voices.”
“Yes, but whose?”
“Not people who are really there, let’s put it that way.”
“Like imaginary ones?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I think so, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going crazy!”
“No. No. Don’t say that, Martha. I believe you.”
“I used to take a lot of meds though.”
“Did you? Like what?”
‘Oh, I forgot you study psychology. Umm, fluoxetine?”
“But you’re not taking it now?”
“But you reckon you started hearing the voices and seeing things after you stopped?”
“Oh God, you do think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
“No, not at all. I think it’s fascinating. I mean, let’s face it, Prozac is there to calm people down. I always felt that can deaden the senses, if you know what I mean.”
“Believe me, I do.”
“Well, maybe you were only able to access these, erm, what would you call them, emotions, after you’d stopped drugging yourself?”
“Definitely, except, it all seemed to start when I was losing the baby, I heard a voice then; lots of voices actually, but one that really called to me. The others sort of felt like overhearing a hubbub of conversation, but that first voice, it was like it was speaking for me only.”
Silence falls between us, and then Evie reaches out and wraps her arms around me. We stay there for several minutes, not saying a word, as I feel her heart thump against my chest, and her breathing in my ear. It’s the closest I’ve been to someone in weeks. “Oh, my love,” she says, as she pulls back. “I am so sorry.”
“Thank you,” I whisper, and wipe away the tears that have fallen on my cheeks with a sleeve.
“And since then? What have you heard?”
“That same one in particular that seems to be calling for me. I keep hearing my name, over and over. And then there are the dreams, and the flickers, but when I look, there’s nothing there, and sometimes, sometimes I just feel like there’s someone there, but there’s not.”
“Do you see things when you’re at home?”
“Sometimes. Again, it’s not really seeing anything, more of a sensation. And then there’s the voices again.”
“So who do you think it is that’s calling to you?”
“I think it might be Alice.”
“Alice? As in Mad Alice?”
“As in Mad Alice.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Well it makes sense, don’t you think? I’ve never experienced anything like it before, and then I move into her old house, and bang – I’m hearing things. Plus, in my dreams, I think she’s called Alice.
“I guess it makes sense.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I’ve finally lost it.”
“Hush. I don’t think you’re going mad.”
“Richard does, or, at least, he would do, if I ever told him any of this. He doesn’t know I’ve stopped taking my meds. He’d be furious. He likes a calm controlled wife,” I say, with a bitter laugh.
“He sounds like a peach!”
“Oh, he’s not all bad; not at all. It’s just, well, that’s another story,” I say.
“So what are you going to do?”
“About the ghosts, you numpty. About Alice!”
“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”
“I have the most brilliant idea.”
“And you must absolutely promise to say no if it doesn’t feel right to you.”
“I have this friend, a photographer. He’s a bit off the wall, like me. You’ll like him. Well, he mostly focuses on boring wedding stuff to keep the money coming in, but he loves history. He’s always on his hands and knees crawling around old buildings. We’ll still go to Deepdene as we planned, but in the meantime, why not get Isak around to see if he can capture anything on film?”
“Yeah; my photographer friend. He’s really good, really nice, and I bet he’d love the chance to do this sort of stuff.”
“This sort of stuff?”
“Photograph the dead.”
“But Evie, I haven’t really seen any-”
“Martha, aren’t you interested?”
“And don’t you want to know more?” I’m not so sure but I say yes anyway. “You can always change your mind, whenever you want to. Let me give him your number, then you can sort things out between you.”
It’s too much of a coincidence to think Evie’s Isak, this Isak, isn’t the very same photographer I’ve met already. I haven’t seen him since I lost the baby. To be honest, I haven’t given him a single thought, but now I do, I find I’m indignant.
Was it he who called an ambulance and looked after me? Did he come to the hospital with me? Richard certainly never mentioned him, but neither did any of the nurses. What did he do? Call an ambulance and then dump me on the paramedics? Or leave someone else to make the call while he got away as fast as he could to wash my blood off him? I don’t know how sure I am that I want to photograph the dead, but I do know I want to see Isak again, even if it’s just to give him a piece of my mind.