Isak. All I can do is wait. He has my number, not the other way around, and yet, it has been several days since Evie and I had that conversation, and still no contact. It just proves everything I thought about him. At the very least he knows I lost my baby, and yet, even with my number, he hasn’t taken a minute to call me, and see how I am. I’ve had quite a lot of time to think about him since Evie first brought up his name. I can’t believe he didn’t leave a number for me to contact him on. The bloody nerve of the man.
I check my phone again but the screen remains resolutely blank. No flashing alerts that I’ve missed a call or that a text message has been delivered undetected; everything is as it was a few minutes ago. In frustration, I hit the power button, pressing it firmly until the screen goes dark, and carefully place the phone on the coffee table in the hall. There. Now he can’t even contact me if he wanted to. Which I doubt he does. Obviously.
Without Evie as transport, or a willing confidante in my mother, I am stuck with scant information about Deepdene, and so, as suggested by Evie, I turn my attention to Alice, but here, once again, I find myself thwarted.
The other day at the library, I was so thrilled to have uncovered her in the local records, and after only a little more searching, I found a double entry: “Joseph s Thomas & Alice Smith of Pg. shoemaker by W.L.”, followed by ‘Rebecca’ of the same. Twins; baptised on July 29 1824.
How overjoyed Alice and Thomas must have felt; their first children, born not long before their first anniversary. Seeing those names had given me renewed energy for my research. If Alice had had children, then perhaps, there might have been a way to sort the fact from the fiction in this story. Perhaps, there might even be living descendants?
Considering the era as well, it was unlikely that these were Alice’s only children. Her mother had given birth to an eye-watering thirteen after all. And yet in only one flick of the page my enthusiasm and pleasure were dashed. I had read, “Aug 6 Rebecca Smith of Pg. 1 wk by W.L.” Only three entries below, I saw, “Aug 8 Joseph Smith of Pg. 1 wk by W.L.” Dreading what I was next to read, a few pages later I came across another entry that made my heart sink, but for different reasons. “Oct 26 Thomas Smith of Pg. 54 by W.L.”
Unsure as to whether I could photocopy the delicate pages of the register, I had snuck a photo on my phone, and without even bothering to re-shelf the book, quickly walked from the library and out into the cold air, and not returned since.
“It’s so disheartening,” I had said, on the phone to Evie, that evening. “Every time I think I’m getting somewhere, the trail goes cold. I was so pleased to see that she’d had children, and then to lose them both so young, and her husband not long after. I wonder what happened. Maybe she did kill him after all.”
“Martha, I’m certain that if she murdered her husband, there would be some records of it. I think you can relax on that front.”
“But what about the twins?”
“What year did you say it was?”
“I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure there was a big cholera epidemic around about then.”
“Cholera? In York?”
“Well yeah, of course. Living conditions were pretty dire.”
“I suppose. It’s just, well, I always thought of it as one of those tropical diseases.” I hit the search button on my screen. “You’re right. Cholera did come to York then, and, let’s see,” I scrolled down the page. “It says here that it reached its peak in July.”
“It sounds like it fits then.”
“Yeah. God, such tiny babies. They didn’t have a chance.”
“No. I bet that means-”
“Well, it’s just, now don’t freak out, but I bet that means that they died right there. You know, in your house.”
“Jesus!” I looked around me, at the dark wooden exposed beams and the brilliant white walls. “I bet you’re right. I’ve thought of Alice being here before, but I never even knew she had kids.”
“All the more reason to meet up with Isak. You never know what you two might find out.”
With nothing to distract me, no projects to research, and Richard keeping his distance, it would be all too easy to fall back into old habits. Some days my hands automatically reach for my antidepressants, and some days, when the greyness descends I still wish I had saved some of the pills instead of flushing them all, and then I stop; I feel the pain, I feel the emotions; I catch on to them, and I remind myself that this is what it feels like to be alive, to be living. Without the sadness, how can you know joy?
My mind is my own worst enemy though; monitoring each and every thought that has the audacity to cross it, throwing up doubts and fears, squashing hope, ridiculing the simply happiness of waking up to a bright clear day with a weak winter sun battling through.
Usually a coffee fan, I force myself off the sofa I’ve plonked myself on to waiting for Isak to call, and walk to the kitchen where I make myself a cup of tea instead. Not a builder’s brew, but a chamomile and honey concoction that is sure to soothe my mind, if not my soul, and the addition of several chocolate hobnobs pilfered from Mrs Gilbert’s personal stash will go even further. I’m just about to reach for a book to bury myself in, unable to face daytime TV and the contemplation of my own mind when the buzzer goes to the outer door.
“Hello?” I say, and a familiar, if fuzzy, face comes into view.
“It is you! Excellent. I’ve just spoken to Evie, can I come up?”
I blame the camera on the intercom entirely, without that, I think I would have the courage to turn away, but seeing his handsome face in the screen, those melting eyes and casually scruffed hair is too much. I press the buzzer. I hear the front door release, and swing the flat door open waiting for him to climb the four flights of stairs.
I am a mess of emotions. Why is he here? Why hasn’t he called first? I thank God, and Richard, that I at least have enough of a routine still to have bothered to shower this morning, and apply the lightest of make up. Glamorous, I most certainly am not; presentable…almost. But then again, who cares how I look? This is the man who didn’t even bother to see if I was ok after I bled all over him. I consider punching him in the face when I see it.
With one foot propping the door open, I lean on the doorjamb and wait for the awkward encounter that must surely come. He arrives seconds later, not puffing as Richard always is. His black leather jacket is battered and has definitely seen better days, and he’s pushed the sleeves back revealing strong, slightly muscled forearms; black straight jeans, a checked shirt and tie complete him.
“You,” I say accusingly.
“Er, yes, me,” he says, and his smile fades as he sees I am making no move to let him into the flat.
“What are you doing here?”
“Evie rang me. She gave me your number but I persuaded her to give me your address once she knew I’d met you before. I had to see you again. I had to know if you were ok.”
“Oh, now you have to know if I’m ok,” I say. “Now. When it turns out there might be something interesting about me after all. Not before. Not when I’d had the most traumatic experience of my entire life, and I woke up alone, to be told by a doctor I’d lost my baby. Not then. You didn’t want to know if I was ok then, did you?”
He’s so taken aback by my outburst that he takes a full step down away from me.
“As you can see,” I gesture full body, “I am fine. And now, you can go.” I turn, fully intending to let the door slam behind me, but Isak leaps forward and wedges himself in between. “ What are you doing?” I say.
“Look, Martha. I seem to have annoyed you for some reason, I’m not quite sure why, but I’d like to clear that up.”
“You? Annoy me? I can’t imagine why that should be. Perhaps it’s because when I was losing my baby you left me? Perhaps it’s because I woke up in hospital and you were nowhere to be seen? Or perhaps it’s because you didn’t even bother to leave a number?”
“But-” he stops, and takes a step back, forcing me to move forward and once again take the weight of the door. “But, I didn’t leave you.”
“Well you did a bloody good job of looking like you did then-”
“And I suppose I just imagined you disappearing without a trace?”
“Martha! Stop!” he says, and shocks me into silence. I’m not sure if Richard has ever raised his voice at me. “Just stop. And let me explain. I didn’t leave you. I came with you in the ambulance although I had to fight the paramedics to let me. I said I was your boyfriend.
“Anyway, that fell through when we got to the hospital and I didn’t know anything about you apart from your name. They got your husband’s details from your phone. And then, when he turned up, he asked me to leave; very politely, of course. He thanked me for my help, and I gave him one of my cards so that you could call me. If you wanted to, that is. He, erm, he didn’t give it to you?”
“And he didn’t mention I’d been there?”
“No, he neglected to mention that as well.” The rush of blood, which I know only too well, is flushing my cheeks and I hardly dare to look at him. Of course Richard would throw away Isak’s card. I doubt there was any malice in it; it would just never have crossed his mind that I’d have wanted to get in touch with Isak. “Jesus, Isak. I’m sorry. I must look like a right bitch now. I just, well, I felt, sort of, abandoned. And then when Evie mentioned you, I got all angry, and then you turned up here, and…”
“I can imagine. I’m really sorry.”
“No. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry I didn’t try to find you sooner to thank you, I just thought that you’d-”
“It’s fine. Honestly. Now how about a cup of tea?”
“Yes, of course. Come in.”
Apart from Richard, there’s never been another man in the flat. Well, the movers, but they didn’t count. At least, I didn’t want to kiss any of them. And there’s no denying that I’d really like to; to kiss Isak, that is.
The strength of my feelings surprises me, and I try to remember if I felt it before. Of course, before, I was pregnant, with Richard’s child, and now, now I’m not. And of course, now I know he was my knight in shining armour, and that Richard is even more of a prat that I’ve accounted for.
“Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Yorkshire or herbal?” I ask.
“You thinking of opening up a teashop? Yorkshire for me, please. Milk, no sugar.”
“Don’t mind if I do. Now, I didn’t fully understand what Evie was banging on about. She talks so fast, that girl.”
“So why did you come round then?”
“To see you.”
“Oh, right. Yes, well, it’s going to sound a bit daft.”
“So, I’ve been doing a bit of research into Alice.”
“Sorry. Mad Alice. You know? As in ‘Mad Alice Lane’?”
“Oh, right. Yes.”
“They didn’t tell me anything about her on the ghost tour,” I say, rather indignantly.
“I suppose you need something really special to make you stand out from York’s plethora of ghosts.”
“Hmmm. Perhaps. Well, she was called Alice Smith. And she lived here, I think. But she wasn’t hanged at the Castle, and there’s absolutely nothing to say that she killed her husband, except for the fact that I’ve just discovered that he died not too long after their children did. But still, there’s no reason to suspect Alice.”
“Good for her! Was she meant to have?”
“To have what?”
“To have killed her husband?”
“That’s what one of the stories says. You see, I managed to find that she had got married.”
“To the man she didn’t kill?”
“Exactly. Thomas. That’s how she became Smith. She was Haxby before. And she came to live here, I suppose, and a few months after the wedding, she had twins, Rebecca and Joseph, but they died. It doesn’t say how, but the dates fit in with the cholera outbreak in the city, and I’m guessing that means they died right here in this house.” Isak looks around as I say this. “And I don’t get the impression of her as a murderer.”
“Yes, well, here’s where it all gets a bit weird. Please don’t judge me. Remember how I said I have this theory about all time, all history, existing in the same moment; everything overlapping? And that if we could find a way to cut through that somehow, then we could find a way to be in another time?”
“Yes, exactly. Well, since I lost the baby, I’ve been hearing voices.” In all fairness, he takes my story as well as I can expect. Perhaps not as well as Evie, but then, I imagine not many people would take it as well as her.
“So Evie thinks that I might be able to capture an image or something on film? Of Alice?”
“I think that’s what she meant.”
He stays silent for a few moments, so I rush on. “I know it sounds barmy, and I understand if you think it’s a waste of your time. Although,” I consider, “I can pay you for it.”
“You don’t need to do that!” he says, sounding quite offended. “I think it’s fascinating. Let me ask you one question.”
“Go for it.”
“Why are you so interested in Alice?”
The question throws me a little bit. It’s not one I’ve asked myself, or been asked. Why am I interested in her? “I suppose,” I say slowly, playing for time, “I suppose it first started when I saw the street name. It sounded so unusual, I had to look it up, and then, it kind of progressed from there. A wife to kill her husband is remarkably enough, but then to discover, that perhaps that was all lies anyway. And then living in this house, her house. How could I not be interested? And then hearing her voice, or at least, I think it’s her voice. And now, knowing that she lost her babies in this house too.
“I get a sense of her that I can’t quite explain. It’s nothing I’ve read or heard, but I feel connected to her somehow. As if, it’s important that I find out what really happened to her. It doesn’t look like she has any family left today, not if she only had the twins, and her name is being maligned. She deserves for the truth to be heard. I don’t get the feeling that she was happy here. I think she was sad, and alone, and lonely; and I think that my baby went, I was too. We fit together somehow.” I look up, into Isak’s eyes, and he smiles. “I don’t think I even knew that until now,” I say. “Before, it’s just been a research project to take my mind off everything here, but I was telling the truth, it’s become bigger than that, more important.”
“Right then. In that case, let’s get cracking.”
“So what do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ve never done this type of thing before. Let me go off and do some research, and then we’ll go from there. Sound good?”
“I suppose so.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
“Yes, sorry. It’s just-”
“You want to get started now? I absolutely understand, but I doubt we’d be successful right now, with just my old Canon. I promise you though, Martha, that I will be back, and even if it kills me, we’ll find Alice for you.”