Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter seventeen

Martha

The doorbell rings and I bound to the door eagerly. Richard is long gone to work and Mrs Gilbert has become an ally. I let Isak in and his grin matches mine.

“Hello,” he says, enveloping me in a hug, which after the first cautious second, I return with relish. “Right, Operation Capture Alice, Part One.” He is lugging a great bag of equipment behind him. “You wouldn’t believe how much information there is about all this stuff. There are institutes set up just to verify paranormal images.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. This is big business now but for the Victorians, it was huge!”

“So are there many?”

“Many what?”

“Many verified photos of ghosts?”

“Ah, not a great deal, to be honest. A lot of the early photos were manipulated using cotton wool to create a sort of mist, and then double exposures added faces, but, the good news is that there’ve been no really successful fakes since the thirties.”

“That’s good news?”

“Sure. It means if we do manage to capture something, you can be pretty certain that it’s Alice.”

“Ok, so now what?”

Isak crouches down to the bag at his feet. “First off, we’ll use these two 35mm cameras. One is loaded with a black and white high speed infrared film, the other with ordinary black and white film.”

“Why the infrared?”

“It picks up on things that we can’t see with the naked eye, specifically invisible sources of heat, but it’s pretty volatile. Next, we need to set everything up on tripods. Is there anywhere in the flat that you’ve felt Alice’s presence more than others?”

“Not really. To be honest, I’ve never really had a bodily sense of her, if you see what I mean, more of a floating atmosphere, except maybe outside in the snickelway.”

“Well we’ll set up in here as there’s plenty of space, and then move around if we need.” He hands me one of the tripods. “Here, set this up.” I struggle with the knobs but manage to get it standing reasonably straight. “We’re using tripods because then we eliminate the risk of blurry images from human shake. We’ll also use a cable release to take the actual photos; again to reduce blur.”

“Ok,” I nod, hoping that I look knowledgeable. I have a basic understanding of photography, and I’ve always enjoyed it, but the moment people start talking about proper photography, the real science behind it, with exposures, shutter speeds and so on, I’m at a loss.

“We’ll do a range of exposures.”

“Ok.”

“Do you know what I mean?”

“I’ve no idea,” I reply, cracking a smile.

“It’s simple really.”

“Ha! Simple for you.”

“Nope, simple for you too. All an exposure means is how long the lens is left open in the camera while it takes the image. So, if you use a really short exposure, of say a hundredth of a second, you’ve got a better chance of catching really fast movement cleanly, with no blur. So, a moving car will look static. Got it?”

“I think so.”

“And if you use a really long exposure, you’re giving the camera a chance to capture more and more information, so a moving car will look blurred. Ok?”

“Ok.”

“See. Not so hard.” He smiles at me, and the corners of his eyes crinkle. I catch myself licking my lips, and stop immediately.

“Er, what else?” I ask quickly, breaking eye contact.

“90% of ghostly images can be explained by flaws in the film developing, fog, specks on the lens, light reflections or simulacra.”

“Simulacra?”

“It’s when we see shapes in what is actually random patterns in shadows, or bushes.”

“Like the face of Jesus on a piece of toast?” I ask.

“Exactly like that,” he laughs.

“Right, so no seeing Jesus on toast; got it. Next?”

“So what we’re actually looking for are – hang on,” he gets his phone out of his pocket. “I made a note so I wouldn’t forget. We’re looking for phenomena that include glowing balls-” I stifle a snigger at that. “Streaks of light, patches of fog, or filmy shapes.”

“That’s it?”

“What do you mean?”

“So we’re not going to get an actual image of Alice?”

“Not necessarily, apparently orbs – those are the glowing balls – are the most common, but, here, look at this.” He slides to an image on the phone screen. “This photo was taken in 1966 in Greenwich. The guy who took it was a complete amateur, a tourist in fact, not trying to take a paranormal image. He’d taken loads of pictures that day, and after developing the film, two shadowy figures appeared climbing a staircase he’d photographed. The photo has been examined by experts all over the world, and there’s no evidence of fraud. That’s more than just an orb.”

“It’s pretty amazing actually, and kind of beautiful.” I take his phone into my hands and look closer. A simple photo, not a great one in terms of composition – even I can see that – but the left side is taken up by the elegant curve of a staircase, and in the bottom right, at the base of the curve, is a single figure; both indistinct and clear, it looks as if someone wearing a white flowing gown, possibly with a hood, is draped over the bannister, with one arm extended towards the ceiling. “How was that taken?”

Isak retrieves his phone from me, and checks his notes once more. “Not with any specific equipment: just a camera body, with a lens and a filter.”

“Do you have any more?”

“Yeah, I saved a load of them. This one is called The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.”

“Catchy name.”
“Oh yeah, a ghost is nothing without a good moniker. The story behind this goes back a bit further. The ghost is meant to be that of Lady Dorothy Walpole who committed adultery and was locked away until she died in 1726. Her ghost was first seen in 1835 and in 1936 some photographers from Country Life were taking some pictures for an article and saw a ghostly apparition and they quickly took a photo; that’s what you’re looking at now. No expert has ever confirmed it as a fake, although some people think it might have been an accidental double exposure or light in the camera.”

“What do you think?”

“Honestly, I couldn’t say, but it looks better than this.”

“God, yes! What is that?”

“Apparently, that’s ectoplasm.”

“Like Ghostbusters?”

“So they say, but Arthur Conan Doyle, he of Sherlock Holmes, was big into his spirituality and he debunked lots of these. People used muslin, toothpaste, soap, egg white, all sorts, to fake the ectoplasm.”

“Yeah, they look totally different to these two.”

“Exactly, and these are orbs.”

“But they could be anything!”

“Which is why it’s so hard to get a conclusive photo. If it’s a genuine orb it could float and change direction at speed, it will react to people around it, appear both in and outdoors, but probably won’t be strong enough to set off motion detectors, which is good, because I don’t have any of them.”

“Anything else?”

“A real orb will look dense and bright, and false one will be pale. If we eliminate all natural possibilities of that like dust, moisture, light reflection, we should be ok.”

“But it’s not much to go on, is it?”

“Not really, but I’ve got more up my sleeve if we need it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes, but let’s focus on this first.”

 

“Now what?” I say, when all the equipment is in place.

“Now we just take some photos.”

“I’ll go put the kettle on then,” and I take myself off into the kitchen. To be honest, it’s all feeling a little anticlimactic. At least if Isak were using a digital camera we’d be able to see if we were successful straight away, but with film, I’ll have to wait until he’s got everything developed. I want to know now. I want to see Alice.

 

Several hours later and we are having no luck. Well, that’s to say, we might be, but who knows. I certainly haven’t felt anything, or glimpsed anything from the corner of my eye, which I often do when I’m in the flat alone.

“Maybe she doesn’t like to appear when there’s someone else here?” Isak says.

“Maybe.”

“And you never know; we could have some great stuff on here.”

“Maybe.”

“What does it feel like when Alice is around?”

“Feel like? I’ve not really thought about it.” I settle back into the sofa, curl my legs underneath me and close my eyes. “It often feels colder. Not dramatically so, not so I can see my breath, but my skin pricks, you know?” Isak nods. “And there are noises which no one could have made: bangings, and taps, not really loud, just as if someone else was in the house going about their business.”

“Do you ever feel frightened?”

“Of Alice?” I close my eyes again. “No. No, I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. I mean, it gave me a bit of a start to think that I was living in the house of a supposed murderer, but like I said, I just don’t get that from her. Sometimes a noise can make me jump, but that can happen with anyone.”

“And smell? I read that ghosts can bring different smells with them.”

“I haven’t noticed anything; I’ll have to pay more attention.”

“But you hear voices?”

“Oh yes. I hear the voices a lot.”

“The voices?”

“Yes. It’s not always easy to work out who is saying what, or even who ‘who’ is. Alice is the strongest though. God, that sounds ridiculous!”

“No; I think I know what you mean. Maybe the other voices are other ghosts.”

“Yeah, maybe; I suppose if I’m willing to believe I’m hearing a woman who died a century ago, then I have to be willing to believe I’m hearing from other people too. You know, ever since – ever since I lost my baby, it’s all been a little surreal.”

I look down into my lap, to where my bump was, to where my baby should be, and as I lift my head, Isak reaches out a hand to my cheek, falters, and then falls on to my arm, where it lies hot and heavy; his thumb gently stroking back and forth. We both jump when my phone rings; he draws his hand back in a flash, and I grab at the ringing mobile and frantically press ‘answer’.

“Evie?”

“How’s it going, Martha?”

“Erm,” I say, and dart a look at Isak, who is concentrating on a picture hanging on the wall opposite. “I’m not sure, to be honest. We’ve taken a few rolls of film, but we’ll have to wait for them to be developed, and I’ve not really felt Alice.” I get up from the sofa and walk through to the kitchen.

 

When I return, Isak has already packed up most of his gear.

“That was Evie,” I say, unnecessarily.

“Let’s call it a day, shall we?” says Isak.

“If you think that’s all we can get.” I am reluctant to draw our time to a close. “Erm, look, I’m not sure what you’re doing tomorrow. You’re probably really busy, but Evie and I are going to drive out to Deepdene tomorrow and see if we can have a proper look around.”

“Deepdene?”

“Yeah, you know, my old house?”

“Your what?”

“Didn’t she tell you? Oh. I thought she must have. So there’s this whole Alice thing, right?

“Yes.”
“Well, I also found out that I used to live near here… when I was younger.”

“Really? And you didn’t remember it?”

“No; not at all. At least, not until I saw the house.”

“Huh; weird.” He rushes on, “Weird in a good way, though. How did you find out?”

“In a dream, sort of. Again, I know this all sounds crazy but when I asked my mum, she didn’t deny it. The only thing is, she wouldn’t tell me anymore about it and I couldn’t find any more online so Evie and I decided to drive over to the house again this Saturday. It’s only half an hour or so away. It’d be great if you could take some photos.”

“Of ghosts?”

“I don’t actually think there are any ghosts there. Just memories I can’t quite hang on to, and it’s really frustrating me. But Evie thought, and I’m sure you’re busy but-”

“I’d love to.”

“You would? … Ok, perfect.”

“Where shall I meet you?”

“Erm, I usually meet Evie just outside the Minster, say ten-ish?”

“Ten sounds good to me. I’ll see you there.”

“See you there.”

As soon as I close the door on him, I send Evie a text. Her reply comes back a second later: “Get your coat, love. You’ve pulled.” I push my phone into a pocket, lean back against the door, and hug my knees against my chest; it’s a familiar position to me, but this time, rather than trying to crush the pain I feel, I’m trying to contain the giddy thrill that’s growing bigger and bigger.

 

Leaving Richard to browse the Saturday papers, I race to the Minster and see Isak casually propped against a wall, a scruffy canvas bag slung over one shoulder, a plastic bag in one hand and balancing two takeaway coffee cups in the other.

“Morning,” he says, passing the coffee cup to me. I accept readily and slurp the first mouthful. I managed to avoid Richard’s questions more by luck than skill, and I’m sure that when he actually registers that I’ve gone out I’ll have a call. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. In fact, now that I think about, he’s been surprisingly calm ever since my mum left; and he’s not asked me about making an appointment with a therapist either.

The more I think about it, the more suspicious it makes me. I’m sure he’s got something up his sleeve. Ever since he tried to force me into Bootham Park, I don’t trust him. When Evie’s car pulls up, I push my husband to the back of my mind. Isak and I exchange glances as the door to the passenger side is flung open.

“Come on,” says Evie. “No dawdling, please.”

“You go in the front,” I say.

“No, you go.”

“No, honestly, it’s fine, you-”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, you two. Isak, you go in the back with all your stuff. Martha, you sit here with me. I might need your navigating skills again.” I cast an apologetic glance in Isak’s direction and slip into the front seat. “What? No coffee for me? I’m glad I relegated you to the back seat, Isak Fletcher. Right, who’s got the wine gums?”

 

We arrive in record time thanks to actually knowing where we’re going this time, and as we crunch up the gravel and reach the iron gates, Isak lets out a long whistle.

“Jesus, this place looks incredible.” Evie and I exchange looks. Seeing the house for the second time is no less exciting. Fortunately, no one’s replaced the padlock we knocked off last time, and we’re able to squeeze through, leaving the car behind us. The trees fan out in front and with the sun just breaking through the clouds for the first time that day, Isak gets his first view of Deepdene Hall.

His camera is at his face before I’ve even had time to draw a breath, and he pulls away from us searching for the perfect angles. I leave him to it and this time, stop and really look at the building in front of me.

Armed with the knowledge that I used to belong here, or perhaps, still do, I am filled with even more sadness by the fire-damaged exterior. The limestone façade must once have been very impressive, and even today, when the sun catches a relatively unscathed patch it begins to glow with renewed life, which is quickly quashed as shadows fall once more. Conviction is stronger in me today, and I try to grab at glimpses from the past that flash through my mind. Unsuccessful securing them, I leave them be, hoping they will make themselves known in the fullness of time.

“Here, come and look at this!” Isak appears from the side of the house. “Martha, Evie, you’ve got to come here.” He’s managed to pull aside some of the protective fencing and walking into the ruins, I see one room, on the ground floor, that has miraculously escaped fire damage, although the elements have done their work thoroughly since.

“Do you think it’s safe?” asks Evie.

“Safe enough,” says Isak, at least down here.

I barely hear them talking, instead I’m focusing on my surroundings – faded wallpaper is still visible in this room: a sage green in stripes, and in one of the windows, glass remains showcased in a grand style reaching almost floor to ceiling.

Most of the carpet has rotted away but some of the wooden floorboards remain intact, and in one corner, beneath a window, there is a scrap of fabric that I fancy might be part of a curtain; its emerald green a sibling to the sage walls. There is no furniture, no clue remaining to what purpose the room might once have had, but it is a moment’s work for my mind to see a dark wood piano against one wall, a standard lamp illuminating the keys, well-worn sinkable sofas placed in front of the cast-iron fireplace and sedate paintings mounted on the wall.

As I turn in the room, where the wallpaper is most preserved, where the sunlight can’t reach and protected by a jutting exterior wall, I fancy that a darker patch on the wallpaper marks the former resting place of one such painting; moved, almost, yesterday, but long gone today.

We clamber amongst the remains coming next to a room with wooden panelling almost entirely eaten away and ivy coiling seductively through the gaping windows; some rooms appear barren, others are almost furnished with sideboards groaning under the weight of accumulated rubbish – broken bottles, crockery – dust and plaster fallen from the ceiling above.

Everywhere paint peels from the walls in ugly flakes, wallpaper hangs in tatters and thick black soot stains our fingers. I find myself mentally noting the library, the drawing room that I recognised from our first visit here; the back staircase with its iron runners still in place.

Slowly I am forming a floor plan. As we walk, Isak snaps away at my sleeve.

“Do you think-” I say, standing at the foot of the narrow staircase. “Do you think we might go upstairs?”

Isak and Evie exchange a glance.

“To be honest,” says Evie, “we’ve explored more than I really feel comfortable doing anyway. I mean, not to be a party pooper, but the fire damage is so bad, most of the ceilings have fallen through, I really don’t think the flooring up there will hold one of us, let alone three.”

“Isak?” I say, imploringly.

“Sorry, Martha. I guess you’re desperate to have a proper look around, but I think Evie’s right. You could go through a floorboard and break your neck. Once we establish a few more facts around the building, we can come back with a proper surveyor.”

As disappointed as I am by his answer, I am encouraged by his use of ‘we’; quickly the three of us have become a team.

“Ok,” I say, holding my hands up in defeat. “I’m sure you’re both right, but it’s killing me not knowing what’s up there. It’s so tantalising. I feel like I’m so close, and then, ugh, just so far! I just wish my bloody mother would tell me the truth!”

“Maybe she’s not ready to tell you more yet.”

“But I’m ready to know now!”

My voice echoes in the stairwell, and we face each other, all deep in thought.

“Well,” says Evie, finally. “There’s not much more we can do in the house right now, we’re not getting anywhere with either your mum and the Internet-”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I groan.

“Patience. What I was going to say was, we’re here now, just a few minutes’ drive from the village, it’s the weekend, there are bound to be some people around. And it wasn’t too long ago that the fire happened; I bet we can find someone who knows something!”

As she’s been talking, we stumble back to the outside, and into the light, and my stomach rumbles loudly. Evie’s wine gums are long gone.

“Let’s go to the pub, and see what we can find. At the very least we’ve earned some lunch, and maybe even a glass of wine.” I know this last is directed at me. I feel drained by our explorations and right now, a chilled glass of white wine sounds delicious.

“I second that,” says Isak. “Although I vote for beer instead of wine.”

“And I third it,” I say. “But I’m all for the wine.”

“Excellent. Wine, it is then.”

 

We make our way back to the car and in less than five minutes are parked up once again outside a traditional looking country pub called The Huntsman. Last time Evie and I were here it was a weekday and shut, but today, its front door stands invitingly open, a blackboard proudly announcing today’s special of steak and kidney pie. My mouth waters at the sound of it.

Inside the pub doesn’t disappoint. Timber beams and low ceilings give it a cosy feel but despite the tiredness down to my very bones, I can’t quite bring myself to gravitate to the stone fireplace complete with roaring flames, however picturesque it may be. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I join Evie and Isak at the oak-topped bar.

“May as well get a bottle,” she says, and I let her get on with it. My eyes wander across the walls, and I jolt still. There, on the wall, is a photograph of Deepdene. I move closer. There is no mistaking it. I recognise it as the one from the book I found at the library: a black and white image of Deepdene in its glory, and what glory it once was. I can’t help myself and lift it from the wall to look closer still.

“Magnificent, wasn’t it?”

“Excuse me?” I say.

“Deepdene Hall. Such a shame when the fire destroyed it.”

An old lady I had completely overlooked in my desire to get my hands on the photo is speaking. I am so near as to almost be sitting on her lap, and move back swiftly.

“I’m terribly sorry.”

“No need to apologise, my dear,” she says. “I can see you were taken by the house. It has that effect on most people, or it did anyways.”

“You know Deepdene?”

“Of course I do, lovey; no one in the village doesn’t know about Deepdene. When the big house burns down to the ground, it tends to be something that you remember, especially when it takes people with it.”

“Yes, I read that someone had been injured.”

“Not just injured, dear, dead. And not just anyone, either. Such a shame, it was.”

“Dead?” I repeat. “Who died? Do you know-”

“Martha!” Evie cries. “We’ve got a table over here,” and she gestures with the bottle of wine. I turn back to the woman.

“Don’t you worry, dearie. I’ll not be going anywhere. You go join your friends.”

 

As excellent as the steak pie, and as fascinating as Isak’s photos of Deepdene are, my attention is almost entirely on the woman in the corner of the room. Greying hair, wizened cheeks and sporting an argyle sweater, she might have been ordered direct from central casting; one countrified old lady coming up.

I can’t see what she has on beneath the table but I’d put money on it being some sort of sensible trousers and sturdy shoes; although a thick woollen skirt and tights wouldn’t be out of the question either.

When I’m not looking at her, my gaze is drawn to the photo above her head; it brings back familiar, enticing and barely resistible memories.

As my eyes wander, they fall on more images of the village from years past. Photos of hardy men standing in front of a horse and cart; one of this pub looking very much the same; more of the high street, and then, wonderfully, some more of Deepdene Hall itself, one in particular with a large group of servants standing in front. Unable to resist any more, I leave Evie and Isak deep in discussion about the house and walk back to the woman. She gestures to the seat next to her and I sit down without a word.

“It was the owner of the house who died,” she says, continuing our conversation as if we had never been interrupted. “Such a tragedy.”

“When was the fire?” I ask.

“Not so long ago really. You’d have been a bairn yourself.”

“Did you know the house well?”

“Aye. I worked there almost every day until it burned down.”

“You did?”

“That’s right, dearie.”

“So you knew the family who used to live there?”

“That I did. The Blenkinsops.”

“The Blenkinsops,” I repeat.

“No one ever did find out how the fire started, but when they’d beaten the flames down they found his little body inside, right next to Mr Giles.”

“I’m sorry; whose little body?”

“Why young Matthew Blenkinsop.”

“The owner?”

“Not the owner, girl. Pay attention. That were Mr Giles. No, Matthew, his son, perished in the flames too.”

“Matthew Blenkinsop? His son?”

“Aye. He had a daughter too, mind, Martha. Popular name that is today,” she says, with a glint in her eye.

“Martha?”

“That’s right, dearie. Martha and Matthew Blenkinsop. Close as twins those two were, only a year between them.”

My heart is thumping so loudly I won’t be surprised to see it press through my chest. Matthew Blenkinsop. Nowhere have I found a son. A son? And maybe, maybe then a brother? But dead now; dead and gone. Who are these people I’m hearing about? Can this really be my family? My life? What has my mother hid from me?

“And Martha?” I say. “What happened to her?”

“After her mother saw her husband and son buried on the grounds, she took Martha away and that’s the last anyone in these parts has seen of the Blenkinsops. Not hide nor hair of them since.”

“They’re buried on the grounds?”

“In the family resting place. There used to be a little chapel there; long gone now; like the family.”

“Where-“ I falter. “Whereabouts are they buried?”

“I’d have thought you’d know that, dearie,” and she takes my hand in hers. “It’s been a long time since we had a Blenkinsop here.”

I pull my hand away sharply. “I’m sorry. You’re mistaken. I’m not a Blenkinsop. My name is Chamberlain.”

“But you’re Martha, yes?”

“Yes.”

“24 or thereabouts?”

“What of it?”

“Nothing, dearie; nothing at all. I’m an old lady. Pay no heed to me and my ramblings. After all, what do I know? Eh? I remember that Martha well. Almost broke my heart when her mother took her away. It hurts, you see, when the babies that you bathed and put to bed disappear from your life, never to return. Ah, but you’re right, dearie. You can’t be Martha Blenkinsop. Fiery little lass, she was. Just like her brother. She’d know to look for him and her father beneath the willow trees. She’d know that.”

“I must be going,” I say.

“That’s right, love. Off you go.”

I push the chair back under the table, wave to Isak and Evie and hand a couple of notes to the barman to settle our bill before walking out of the pub. I need fresh air. Deep great gulps of it. I crouch down against the wall, hands on my knees and head dangling near my waist. A brother. When Evie and Isak join me, I say, “We have to go back.”

“To the house?”

“Yes, now.”

We pull up to the iron gates.

“Martha?” asks Evie. “Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m fine. We need to look for willow trees.”

“Willow trees? Er, ok. Right. Isak, you go that way. I’ll go this way and Martha…”

I’ve already wandered off before I can hear where I am to go. I’m not entirely sure what a willow tree looks like but I have a romantic view of a weeping willow gleaned from a long abandoned poetry book. I am almost running now. I have to find the trees. I have to find the graves. Luck, or perhaps it’s memories, are with me, and I almost fall headlong over a tumbledown wall, its base hidden by overgrown grass.

It doesn’t take much to discern others nearby, enclosing a small space of grass beneath elegantly drooping trees, their leaves touching the floor. Sweeping the leafy curtains aside, I immediately see a grouping of stones sticking up from the ground.

It isn’t hard to find the two newest, the stark polished granite standing erect. Despite the green mould growing on them, I can clearly make out the words – “Giles Blenkinsop. Beloved husband and father. Rest in Peace.” The second, even more simply, says “Matthew Blenkinsop. Taken Too Soon.”

I sink to my knees and trace the letters with my fingers. Here it is, hard cold proof of their existence, or, lack of it. My father; the one my mother told me had walked out on us when I was just a baby and my brother; the one I didn’t even know I had. Try as I might, I can’t bring a face to mind for either of them. Too much time has passed. Too many lies told.

I can’t help the tears from streaming down my cheeks, and for the first time, I find myself wishing for the drugs to numb the pain. I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands. The pain feels good; right, even.

It isn’t long before Evie and Isak find me, still kneeling in front of the graves. Neither says a word as they read the engravings on the headstones at my feet. Instead, Evie comes to me, while Isak stands a little distant, and she wraps her arms tightly around me, one hand stroking my hair. Then, gently, she lifts me to my feet, and still with one arm wrapped across one shoulder, she leads me from under the weeping willows and to the car.

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