Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter nineteen

Martha

The journey home is a silent one. Both Isak and Evie are kind and intuitive enough to leave me to my thoughts. When Evie, once again ignoring pedestrian zoning, pulls up right outside my flat, she merely says, “I’ll call you tomorrow, Martha.” I nod, and climb out of the car. Isak also gets out, and taking one hand in his, he squeezes it; nothing more, but it means the world. I send him a fleeting smile before turning and starting the long heavy walk up the stairs. Richard is home; the Saturday papers neatly stacked on the coffee table. I realise I haven’t had a single call from him.

“Martha,” he says calmly, as I walk in. “Where have you been?”

“I went out with Evie and Isak. You remember Isak, don’t you? He’s the man who called the ambulance when I had the miscarriage. He came with me to the hospital. He gave you his number for me.”

“Oh yes. I remember the fellow. Black hair, camera.”

“Why didn’t you give me his number?” I ask, accusingly, happy to pick a fight.

“I didn’t think it was important. I thanked the fellow, offered him some reward for his time-”

“You offered him money?”

“Well, it seemed like the right thing to do,” he protests.

“You’re unbelievable, Richard,” I say.

“Me? Me unbelievable? You’re the one who disappeared today without saying a thing to me about it. You’re the one who’s hanging around with God knows what people. You’re the one who threw your own mother out of the house!” I’ve never seen Richard explode like this, and, despite the storm of emotions flying around my head, I must admit that it’s refreshing to see him like this; out of control and passionate. “What’s going on with you, Martha? Do I have to threaten you with Bootham Park again? Where’s the woman I married?”

“Don’t you dare threaten me, Richard. I’m still here, Richard. I’ve been here the whole time. It’s you who’s been avoiding me.”

“Avoiding you? Don’t be ridiculous. I spend every night with you, for heaven’s sake.”

“In twin beds! Don’t you think that’s a little odd, Richard? We’ve not even been married a year.”

“Yes, well, you had the baby to consider-”

“Not any more, Richard, and still…”

“Well, there’s my back, and you know how important it is for me to have a good night’s sleep.”

“Fine, fine,” I say. Richard, taking this as my surrender, launches into a fresh assault.

“And what about your poor mother? Have you spoken to her since you treated her so badly?”

“My poor mother? My poor mother?! Let me tell you about my poor mother. You want to know where I’ve been today, Richard? I’ve been to my old house. Yes, that’s right. I used to live around here. Did you know that? No, neither did I, but it turns out to be true.

“I grew up in a beautiful old house called Deepdene Hall, in a little village not far from here. And you know what else? That house burnt down about twenty years ago. About the same time that I moved to Milton Keynes with my mother, to live with her parents, after my father had left us.

“But here’s the thing, Richard. He didn’t leave us. He died. He died! And what’s more. So did my brother. Yes, my brother. Matthew. How could I not even know about my brother? How is that even possible?”

“What did you expect her to say? That they’d both been killed in the fire and you were left with nothing? That-”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘What did you expect her-’”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew, Martha. I’m a psychiatrist for heaven’s sake. You think I didn’t take one look at all those pills you were taking and ask your mother what was behind it all.”

“You knew?! You knew my father had died, and my brother too?”

“Well, of course, I only heard small things from her; never the whole story. Never really what happened.” He is desperately trying to backtrack now, after his error; desperate to get the upper hand once more; desperate to have control of me. “And what are we going to do about you seeing a therapist.”

“You knew, and you didn’t tell me?” I ignore his therapist comment. “You’re meant to be my husband, Richard. We’re meant to share everything.”

“What nonsense, Martha.”
“Nonsense to you, perhaps. But to me-”

“To you? Don’t kid yourself.” His desperation has quickly turned to anger, and he blasts one vile comment after another. “You think I didn’t see the way your face lit up when I gave you some jewellery, or took you to a fancy restaurant? You think that you didn’t want this lifestyle? You’re a fool, Martha. You knew exactly what you were getting into, just as I did.”

I am temporarily silenced. Is he right? Did I use him as much as he used me? For a second, I almost believe him, and then the old Martha appears, the one the old woman called fiery. “No, Richard. You’re wrong. I didn’t know. How could I? I was just a girl. A girl who was taking so much medication she didn’t even know herself anymore. But I know now, Richard. I know exactly what this marriage is, and I know exactly who I am.”

“Where are you going?” he asks as I move to the door.

“Anywhere,” I say. “Anywhere but here.”

 

“Evie? I’ve left Richard.”

“Shit. I’ll come and get you.”

I wait for her in the entrance of the snickelway, gazing at Holy Trinity Church opposite. The gate is still open, and I’m drawn to it. I sit on the bench in the graveyard and look around me. More graves, more death, more misery and pain. I can’t sit still. Not yet. I get up and walk about.

My eye falls on one tombstone. One I haven’t seen before. It’s pushed towards the back and shifting ground has forced the stone crooked. Instinctively I place my hands on its surface, and for the third time that day, trace words carved by those left behind. “Sacred to the memory of Thomas Smith, who died October 26 1824, in the 54th year of his age”.

Thomas Smith; this has to be Alice’s husband although there’s no mention of her; why can’t I find Alice? Where is she buried? When did she die? And what did Thomas die from? I remember clearly that cholera victims were forbidden from being buried in graveyards; it was the mass pit for them.

I search around for any more graves from the Smith family, hoping perhaps to happen upon the twins, Rebecca and Joseph, but nothing is immediately apparent. They were baptised, I found the records, and so would be permitted a church burial, and this was their parish church, the burial place of their father, and yet, nothing; no sign of them. It seems more likely that they succumbed to cholera, even if their father didn’t. At only a few weeks old, they didn’t stand a chance. I am struggling to piece this family together.

I hear my name being called and hurry out of the graveyard to meet Evie in the road.

“Get in,” she says. “And tell me what happened.”

After several glasses of wine, and a few more tears, I relate the argument and revelations of my husband.

“So, you have, had, a brother?”

“Matthew.”

“And he died in the fire at Deepdene, with your father?”

“Apparently so.”

“And your mum never mentioned any of this?”

“Honestly, I knew nothing about it.”

“But Richard did?”

“Yep.”

“Bastard. Sorry, I mean, what a secret to keep from you. So, what are you going to do now?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for starters, have you left Richard for good?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really know anything yet. It’s all too much to process.”

“What about your mum then? Are you going to call her? You need to speak to her, get her side of the story. She owes you that much, at least.”

“I’m not sure I want to speak to her right now.”

“I can understand that, but without her, how are you going to find anything out? You’re already struggling.”

“I thought I might go back and speak to that old woman.”

“Which old woman? The one from the pub? The one that claimed she knew you?”

“Yes. She knows more, that’s for certain.”

“But how will you find her?”

“I’ll ask in the pub.”

“Ok, fine. Good plan, but you can’t do that now. And even tomorrow it won’t be open until lunch. What are you going to do until then?” Evie fixes me with a steady gaze. “I really think you should call your mum, Martha.”

“Fine. Fine. Have it your way, I will. After I’ve had another glass of wine.” I take a long sip of the cold white she has placed in my hands. “You’ll never guess what I found in the graveyard while I was waiting for you.”

“Stop stalling, Martha.”

“I’m not. Really; this is important.”

“What did you find?”

“Thomas Smith’s grave.”

“Who?”

“Alice’s husband. Turns out he did die not long after they were married; and not long after the twins died as well.”

“But no sign of Alice?”

“Nope.”

“And no indication that he was murdered.”

“Definitely not. But if he died from cholera he wouldn’t be in the graveyard.”

“The plot thickens.”

“Doesn’t it always?”

 

 

“Mum?”

“Martha. I’m so-”

“Mum, I need to speak to you, and you need to listen. Ok?”

“Ok.”

“It’s about dad, and- and my brother.” I can’t bring myself to say his name; it feels alien in my mouth. “I went back to Deepdene today, and I met someone; someone who knew me, and knew more about me that I could have imagined.”

“Where are you now, Martha?”

“I’m at Evie’s.”

“And where’s that?”

I give her the address. “Why do you want to know, mother?”
“Because I didn’t get on a train. I’m still here, in York.”

“You’ve been here all these days?”

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“Because I knew that some day, soon, I’d have to tell you everything. I’m sorry I didn’t before, the other day, but I just couldn’t then. I will now. I’ll be with you in half an hour.”

 

When she arrives, the taxi pulling up in front of Evie’s flat, I open the door but stand back while she gets out. I can’t even force a ‘hello’ out from my lips and simply offer a nod. It is Evie who comes to the rescue.

“I’ll give you two some space,” she says, after she’s placed a mug of steaming tea in front of both of us, and cleared away the empty wine bottle and glasses.

“No. Don’t leave,” I say. “I wouldn’t have got this far without you. I want you to stay, to hear.” She holds my gaze levelly, and I nod for confirmation. “Please stay.” She drops into a chair in the corner of the room, and my mother and I take places on the sofa, sitting at opposite ends, not even our clothes touching.

“Tell me.”

“It was so long ago now, Martha, but I’ll start at the beginning. I’m not from this part of the world, as you know. I grew up in Milton Keynes, went to school there, teaching college and so on. It was only later, on a trip to Yorkshire, that I met your father. It sounds so far-fetched to say, but it was love at first sight. Or, at least it was for me.

“Your father was so handsome; tall, dark, a walking cliché in many respects. Giles Blenkinsop. Quite a catch, so I discovered. He was from an old family in the area; his parents had died years before and he was left in charge of the family home, Deepdene Hall. He was older than me, more settled and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to stay up here, in the north.

I’d never liked Milton Keynes anyway; never felt that I’d belonged there with its perfectly mapped concrete streets. Deepdene was a revelation. There was so much history in the house. Like Giles, I fell in love with it from the moment I first laid eyes on it. And it seemed so romantic.

Of course, we were married by then. He was very traditional in many ways, your father. We had a brief, what we called a ‘courtship’, but that wasn’t so odd for the time. We were so happy, and then your brother came along, Matthew.

Suddenly the house was full of life again. Such a big place, modernity hadn’t been kind to it. You need a large staff to keep a house like that afloat and the Blenkinsops were what was known as asset rich but cash poor. The house was a money pit, but with Matthew, none of that mattered.

Not even a year later, you came along. Those were the happiest days of my life. The four of us, in our own little bubble. And you two, you were so close; more like twins than just brother and sister.

Whatever Matthew did, you followed suit, but you were more than his shadow; partners in crime, Mrs McGready used to say.”

“Mrs McGready?”

“Your nanny. She was devoted to you both; she’d looked after Giles as a young boy as well. Ethel McGready worked in that house from a small girl until the fire took it from us. She looked after the pair of you as if you were her own. The pair of you, Matthew and you, were inseparable, toddling about hand in hand; you never needed anyone else. Do you not remember him at all?”

“No,” I say, helplessly. “I wish I could, but how can I when for the last twenty years, I didn’t know anything about him! What was he like?”

“He was like every other five year old boy, and like none of them. He had blonde hair too, as fair as yours, but his was golden, not your silver; and his eyes were darker blue. He was such a bundle of energy, and then when you came along, we were the perfect family. It never crossed my mind to worry when I’d come across you two jabbering away to thin air as happy as you please.”

“Why would it? Surely I was just playing?” I ask, already anticipating the answer.

“That’s what I thought too, of course. And I was happy to leave it at that. Children have imaginary friends all the time, and they grow out of them in due course, but Ethel, she brought me your drawings.”

“And?”

“Your friends looked different, for a start. Ask a five year old what a Tudor doublet and hose looks like and you’ll not get very far, but ask a child to draw what they see, and you’ll get a better idea. How could either of you possibly know what clothes looked like several hundred years ago?”

“Books,” I interrupt. “Or paintings. It’s not very difficult to copy what you see in a book.”

“But you knew about more than their clothes; you could tell us their names, and where they lived.”

“In Deepdene Hall, I suppose?”

“Oh no, Deepdene Hall was never that old. It was only built in the late Georgian period. No, these children lived on the estate before then, and you two could describe it, in detail, despite there being no pictures of it surviving.”

“But again, surely that’s just imagination.”

“Stop being difficult, Martha. I know it’s hard to hear, I know you’ve had a hard time recently, but you yourself told me about the voices you’ve been hearing. Why is it so tough for you to believe that you heard and saw people as a child?”

“Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why. Because things like this don’t happen in real life; because only crazy people hear voices; because that’s all I’ve ever been told; because that’s why I’ve been taking medication for almost my entire life. I can’t believe it, because despite of everything I’ve heard and seen for myself, you’ve spent years and years telling me the opposite. And now, now you’ve turned around, and you expect to believe that I saw ghosts as children?”

“Martha,” my mum sighs. “I don’t know what you saw. Ethel certainly thought it was ghosts, but without telling your father, I visited every specialist in the area to see if there was something physically wrong with you.”

“Are you saying that this is my fault? That somehow all of this is my fault?”

“No, Martha; I’m not saying that at all. I would never say that. Please, just hear me out.”

“Fine. So what did you specialists tell you?”

“Nothing. No one found anything, ever. You were perfectly healthy. We consulted psychiatrists-”

“Oh, you love a psychiatrist.”

“-And they all said it was normal for children to make up playmates. But you still worry, Martha; you still worry. And then I finally told your father; I needed some reassurance. I was a vicar’s daughter. You might think that gives me a nicely ordered view of the world, with life and death neatly separated, but my father, your grandfather, you know what he was like. He always believed there was more to death than meets the eye; always had a slightly non-Christian view about it all. I couldn’t help remember. When I told your father, he was silent for a long time. Then he gave a huge sigh and his whole body deflated.

“Where are the children?” he asked me.

“In bed,” I said, impatiently. “As they always are at ten o’clock at night.”

“And Ethel?”

“Gone for the night. What is going on, Giles?”

“I’m a Blenkinsop, and the Blenkinsops have been here in Yorkshire and Northumberland for as long as anyone can remember; a good strong family; a rich family too, with estates across the county; a family to be proud of. But you know what they say about goings on behind closed doors. Like every family, we’ve had our secrets.”

“Secrets? What? Like priest holes behind the fireplaces?” I tried to bring some lightness back to the conversation.

“If only it were that simple, my love. Did I ever tell you about my great-great-grandfather? He built this house, but he wasn’t a Blenkinsop. No, he was something else but you see, at that point, there weren’t any male heirs so when he married my great-great-grandmother, he took her name, and so the Blenkinsops were saved. That’s him there,” he pointed to a handsome oil painting hanging from chains in the ceiling. “James Samuel Blenkinsop. Well, rumour has it that the Blenkinsops weren’t quite as saved as they thought. Oh, James brought with him money and prospects, to a family that only had its name, but he also brought something else, something strange. The women of his family saw things.”

“Things?”

“Things. Things that shouldn’t have been there.”

“Things like what?”

“I don’t know. I’ve heard the stories all my life, and always thought it was absolute rot. Lifted straight from the pages of a cheap thriller. Nothing more than that, but my mother, she wasn’t so sure, but, of course, like you, she only married into the family.”

“Giles, are you saying that your family can see ghosts? Are you actually telling me this and expecting me to believe it?”

“Sarah, I hardly know what I’m saying. I’ve certainly never seen a ghost in my life; not even a suspicion of one. Can’t say I even believe in them. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Your body goes into the ground, and that’s that.”

“So what’s all the fuss about?”

“My sister, Elaine, she believed in the ghosts, you know.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She was younger than me. Quite the apple of my parents’ eyes, but I didn’t blame her for that. She was a lovely girl. Rather delicate – a dose of polio growing up – but full of life.”
“What happened to her?”

“She changed. I was away at university, but she became withdrawn and melancholy. One of the maids, a confidante of hers, later said that Elaine had complained of seeing and hearing people at all hours. She started taking sleeping pills, and then one morning, our mother found her; she’d taken too many pills and never woke up.”

“Oh, Giles; that’s terrible. But, well, are you saying that your sister had her accident because she saw things that other people couldn’t?”

“No; not exactly. Listen, I’m not really sure what I’m saying, at least, I don’t think Elaine died because of what she thought she was seeing and hearing; I believe it really was an accident, but something had changed her in those last few months.”

I pressed and pressed him for more of an answer, but he could tell me nothing. I admit it, I was scared, and so was he. But what could we do? How could two grown adults discuss the possibility that one of their children is seeing ghosts? It sounds ludicrous now, and it sounded ludicrous then. I grew wary of the house, and I was scared for you.”

“But what about the fire?”

“That really was an accident.”

“Really? You think that after Elaine died?”

“Eventually a report was released blaming it on one of the workmen that we always had on site keeping the old place standing; a cigarette that wasn’t properly extinguished. The house was an accident waiting to happen.”

“So do you think I’m an accident waiting to happen?”

“I don’t think so, Martha; not now.”

“Not now?”

“You know I’ve worried; I’ve always worried. I tried to do what was best for you, always.”

“So what happened to my father and brother?”

“I remember that night so clearly. We woke to the sound of an alarm beeping madly. I rushed to your bedroom and the curtains above your bed were already ablaze. I don’t know how we’d slept through it for so long. Scooping you up in my arms, we fled the house. Giles, your father, had gone for Matthew, and I stood there, outside, waiting for him to come out, to join us.

“I still don’t know what happened to this day; why he didn’t get out; why he didn’t follow me. I tried to go back in but the fire fighters were there by then and they wouldn’t let me. The fire had taken a strong, ferocious grip by then. It was too late; too late for our belongings, too late for the house, and too late for your father and brother.”

I tried not to interrupt my mother as she recounts her tale, letting the memories flood out of her, but now, she falters, brings her hands to her face and cries. I can see her whole body is racked with pain and grief, and even though I’m in shock, even though I don’t know what to think about everything I’ve just heard, I can’t watch her cry like this, alone; like a wounded animal. In one move, I am right next to her on the sofa, my arms pulling her tight into my embrace, my lips on her hair, as I try to help share this burden for her.

“It was too late,” she whispers.

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