When the storm has passed, I let my arms loosen and sit back on my heels, waiting for my mum to compose herself and continue with her story.
“I wouldn’t have left Deepdene Hall then, not for anything, but you were taken to hospital for observation, and that’s when, everything got worse. You saw your father and your brother standing beside your bed. You were talking to them, quite happily when I walked into the ward.
“Chattering away like a sparrow, and smiling. I was so relieved that you weren’t hurt, and that the experience hadn’t damaged you so I asked who you were speaking to. You looked so confused when you said Daddy and Matthew. ‘Couldn’t I see them?’ you asked. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, so I said the only thing that was in my head – that Daddy and Matthew were gone, that there’d been a big fire at the house, and that they’d been taken from us, and then you began to scream and scream.
“‘Their faces were melting’, you said. The skin dripping off their bones, and blood, so much blood everywhere. The nurses came, they sedated you and I hoped for the best, prayed for the best. But I knew what you’d seen, and I knew what had happened to Elaine, accident or not. I knew then that we couldn’t stay at Deepdene, not that there was a house to go back to.
I had to get you away from there; away from the Blenkinsops. We couldn’t stay in the village. Ethel begged me to stay, but there was nothing there for us anymore, and I was scared. I was scared for you. I was scared for me. I’d just lost my husband and son, and I was all alone with a young child. I wanted my parents. And so we left.”
“But why can’t I remember any of this?”
“You kept having nightmares, months and months after the fire, and the doctors had given me some sedatives for you, just so you could sleep. Gradually the nightmares stopped, and you never mentioned Deepdene, not once. I was so shocked when a year or so later you asked me where your daddy was. I panicked, and I said the first thing that came to my mind. I told you he’d left us. And then, then it was too late to tell you the truth. And you were happy in Milton Keynes, settled. You never asked about Matthew. You never said his name again until today.”
“Happy? Settled? I wasn’t happy; I was a zombie. I don’t think I’ve known a drug-free life until a few months ago. How could you?”
“I made a mistake, Martha; a big one. But I was still young when they died, and I was frightened. I knew as soon as I’d said the words that they were wrong but I couldn’t take them back. And without the medication you were scared, Martha. You were a scared little girl who wouldn’t leave her room. I thought I was doing the best thing for you.”
“He knew. He knew about all of this. He told me.”
“He didn’t really know, darling. Not all of it. He only knew the bare bones. He’d seen your medical records. He asked me, and- and I told him the truth.”
“You told him, practically a stranger, the deepest darkest secrets of my life? But not me?”
“I thought you’d be safe with him. It was obvious he cared for you. And he was a psychiatrist. I thought you’d be in safe hands.”
“Well, you were wrong, Mother.”
“I know. I know I was. I know what I did was unforgiveable, but still, I hope that you will forgive me.” I have moved back to the other side of the sofa and look at her. “Please, Martha. I’m your mother.”
“I can’t forgive you, not quite yet,” I say, as gently as I can. “Do you see that? Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do,” she says although her eyes are pleading for me to say otherwise.
“I think I can though; I think I will, just, not yet. I need some time. Is that ok?”
“Of course it is, darling. Of course.”
“I need to try to remember for myself. I need to work out who I am.”
It’s Evie who interrupts us.
“I think, perhaps, you’d better leave Mrs Hislop. I don’t want to be rude, but Martha has had a hell of a day.”
To my surprise, my mother demurs without a murmur. Before she leaves, she places a hand on mine.
“I’m so sorry, Martha. Truly, I am. I’m going to stay in York. I’ll be here whenever you need me. You only have to call. I’m here for you.”
I nod wordlessly, and Evie leads her out to the front door, but before the door closes, she stops, turns, and says, “I can understand if you don’t want to talk to me just yet. But if you do have more questions, go and find Ethel McGready. I’m sure she still lives in the village. She’ll tell you everything, and she’ll be thrilled to see again.”
The door shuts behind her, and Evie turns and looks at me questioningly.
“Would you mind if I went to bed?”
“Oh god, Martha; not at all. You need some rest. I’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well.”
I’ve never dreamt so vividly about Alice before. I swear that if I stretched out my hand, I could touch her. She is fair, although more golden than I; and pretty, very pretty, although her eyes are sad and there are lines etched into her face; I am relieved, even in sleep, when her face doesn’t collapse in flames, and yet sofa beds aren’t really meant to be slept on, as any unexpected visitor will attest, and with the sunlight streaming through ineffectual curtains, I am awake far earlier than I’d like. What I’d really like to do is sleep for an incredibly long time, perhaps forever.
I want to shut my eyes and let me mind drift off into some pleasant place far from the mess that my life is now. It’s not only springs in my back and light on my eyes that disturb me, Alice was the only light moment in my dreams, which once again are full of fire and fear.
The dreamless peaceful sleep that I long for is nowhere to be found. Unable to bear lying still and letting all my thoughts have free rein, I get up and potter to the kitchenette to make myself a cup of strong sweet coffee.
Sometimes I think coffee is a morning’s only saving grace. I am surprised when Evie joins me not many moments later dressed in a tatty oversized t-shirt and knickers. I never thought of her as a morning person.
“Good God, give me some of that coffee immediately.” She drinks deeply. “Bloody hell, what time is it?”
I look at my watch. “Er, six o’clock”, I say apologetically.
“Jesus. I can’t remember the last time I saw six o’clock. Well, I can, but it was approaching it from five o’clock after a heavy night. It seems so much more civilised than actually getting up at this time!”
“Why are you up?” I ask curiously.
“I heard you, and I thought that you might need some company. God knows the small hours of the morning can be a pretty dark place.”
“You know, Evie, I consider myself very lucky to have stumbled upon you.”
“Don’t go all mushy on me, Martha. It’s far too early for that.”
“No, seriously. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
Pouring herself a cup of coffee, she smiles and heads to the sofa bed, plonking herself inelegantly on the corner.
“So what’s the plan, Stan?”
“I think, if you’re free, that is, I think it’s time to find Mrs McGready.”
“I’m there with bells on.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Honestly Martha. At first, I admit, it was all a bit of fun; a mystery to uncover, but now, now I know how important it is to you, and how serious it is too. I’ll help in any way I can. And Isak will too.”
“Yes, you know. That devilishly handsome photographer who we spent yesterday with.”
“I know who you mean, it’s just-”
“It’s just what?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“You fancy him. It’s as simple as that.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? He’s gorgeous. Hell, I fancy him.”
“Don’t worry; you get first dibs.”
“But I’m married.”
“Yes, well, we’ll see about that.”
“Evie! You can’t say things like that.”
“I can, and I just bloody well did. You didn’t stay here last night because of some little spat, did you? No. I thought not. You’re not the same person I met in the library those months ago. Not by half. I bet your Richard has noticed that too. Fine, fine,” she holds up her hands as I start to protest. “We won’t talk about it, not yet. But mark my words, there’s something for you with Isak. Even if it’s just a tasty rebound.” I can’t help but laugh at her, and my laughs follow her as she gets up and heads into the bathroom. “We’ll leave at nine, yeah?”
“Nine? Isn’t that bit early to be calling on someone on a Sunday?”
“Nah. Old people are always up early, aren’t they?” and she disappears into the shower.
We had to wait in the car for an hour once we reached Deepdene as we’d both forgotten that apart from the pub, we had no idea how to find Ethel. When I can’t stand it anymore, and still long before the doors will open, I get out and search for a back entrance. The door is standing ajar and a young lad is peeling a great vat of potatoes.
“Hello,” I say. “Is the landlord around? I’m looking for someone.”
“Who you looking for?” he asks.
“Erm, a Mrs McGready. Ethel McGready.”
“What you want old Ethel for?”
“It’s a bit complicated, but I used to know her years ago. I just want to ask her a few questions.”
After casting his eye over me and deciding I don’t look like much of a threat, he says, “She lives at Number Three on the high street. Blue door. You can’t miss it.”
“Thank you so much,” I say and he returns my thanks with a grunt, already focused on the spuds in front of him.
Number Three proves not to be far, so we leave the car parked on the kerb outside the pub and walk there. The door is painted a rich navy and its brassware shines.
There’s no doorbell so I take hold of the knocker and bring it down with a sharp tap against the metal. There is no answer at first. I check my watch. It’s a little past ten o’clock. With Evie at my side, I strike the knocker again, and this time, am rewarded by the door opening an inch, caught on a safety chain.
“You!” I say, recognising the old lady from the pub yesterday. She takes one look at me, and the door closes again in my face but before I have time to panic, it is reopened, this time with the safety chain dangling from the side.
“So you came back,” she says.
“I came back.”
“Still not Martha Blenkinsop?”
“Yes, well, about that. I’m sorry but I barely knew myself.”
“You’d best come in, and you too, I suppose.”
“Evie, Evelyn Granger,” she says, extending a hand.
“Ethel McGready. You’ll be a friend of Martha’s?”
“Yes, that’s right,” she says, as we follow Ethel down the corridor and into the sitting room.
“Have a seat, have a seat.” Gingerly I sit on a sofa, which is patterned in a faded floral print with crocheted antimacassars and Evie takes a place just next to me. “Now you two just stay there and I’ll put the kettle on.”
“Let me help-” I say.
“No, girl. You sit there. I may be getting on in years but I’m perfectly capable of making a cuppa on my own.” She vanishes from sight. “Sugar?” she calls out.
“Er, one for me, please. Evie?”
“One for me too, please.”
“Yes, please; for both,” I say.
“Wouldn’t say no,” Evie shouts back.
Despite being told to stay put, once I hear the kettle reach its crescendo, I get up and find my way to the kitchen. A tray has been laid out with an intricately crocheted doily, on which has been placed three cups and saucers – beautiful things of fine bone china with exquisitely painted sprays of primrose yellow, forget-me-not blue and rose pink flowers each finished with a gilt edge – a matching teapot, silver strainer resting to one side, silver teaspoons adorning each saucer, a bowl of brown and white sugar cubes with tongs, two small jugs, one of milk, the other of hot water, and completed with a plate of carefully displayed custard creams and rich tea biscuits.
“You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.”
“Well now, it’s not often I have the excuse to make an effort with the tea so I put the mugs away and got the china out. I thought that way you girls could sort your own sugar and milk after all.”
“Here, let me carry that,” and I am relieved when she lets me. I put the tray on the small wooden table in the centre of the room, and kneeling beside it say, “Shall I be mother?” Evie looks at me, and her mouth twitches. Her amusement is contagious and I laugh. “Sorry. I’m not sure where that came from!”
When the tea is poured, Ethel sits back in her armchair, “Now, Martha; we can sit here all day exchanging pleasantries, or we can get down to brass tacks. Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about yourself? It’s been many a year since I saw you last.”
“Well, it’s a long story.”
“They always are, my love; and they’re always the best ones.”
“To be honest, I remember very little about Deepdene. I suppose because I was so young when it all happened. In fact, before I moved back up to Yorkshire with my husband I didn’t know anything about, well, about anything.” Several cups of tea later, the biscuit plate long since cleared and with Ethel interjecting her own questions, I laid out the last twenty years in front of her. “And so, you see, it was the dreams that brought me back here. And now I know what my mum has told me, and I know what I’ve seen with my own eyes, but I still don’t feel I know very much at all. I mean, I don’t even know what my dad and brother looked like!”
“Well now, that can be easily changed,” Ethel says, and gets to her feet. There is a dark wooden bureau in one corner of the room and opening the front, she retrieves a thick packet. “Here you go, my dear. That is your father, Giles Blenkinsop.” I look at the photo she’s handed me, and I see a middle aged man, handsome, as my mother said, with dark hair and eyes staring into the camera. “This’ll be him and your ma on their wedding day.” The photo brings tears to my eyes. They both look so happy and young, and alive.
Once more I am filled with anger that my mother kept this from me, but when Ethel hands me the next photo, the anger dissipates. “Your brother, Matthew. Now let me see, he would have been about three in this photo.” Evie cranes over my shoulder. There is no denying the resemblance; taking after my mother, as I do, his fair hair stands up on end while his blue eyes are gazing off into the distance. “Heaven knows how we managed to keep him still long enough for that to be taken!” says Ethel. “Always rushing around was young Matthew, and you behind him. Look, here’s one of the two of you.” As I stare at the photos, I’m not sure whether it’s my imagination, or my memory, that is throwing up images in my head.
“My mother said something quite odd,” I say.
“It was something that my father had told her, about the Blenkinsops. Apparently, there had always been something a little odd about them, that some of them, not all, but some had seen things that other people hadn’t, or couldn’t.”
“Oh yes, the Blenkinsops were always a queer lot, if you’ll excuse me. Except, I suppose, that’s not strictly true. They say it all started with a marriage to an outsider, a young man by the name of James Samuel. An orphan, he was, but he’d been taken care of, sponsored if you like, by a local well-to-do York family; the Tukes, I believe.”
“Yes, that’s right. Prominent family they was, Quakers. Started The Retreat in York, that lunatic asylum, as well as a number of schools in the area.”
“Of course, I knew I’d heard the name. My husband, Richard, works at Bootham Park Hospital. He must have mentioned The Retreat and the Tukes.”
“Well anyway, James Samuel started courting Georgiana Blenkinsop. She was the only daughter of the house, only child; her brothers and sisters all dying young, as they did in those days. So James marries Georgiana and takes her name, saves the family if you like.
“Not only had they not got a male heir, the Blenkinsops, but they’d not got a penny to rub together neither. James brought money with him, money that he used well, invested well and built Deepdene.
“I can’t show you James, of course. There used to be a painting of him hanging in one of the rooms, but the fire got that, I’m afraid. But he was a handsome man; fair-haired and blue eyes. It’s no wonder Georgiana fell for him. And theirs was a happy marriage by all accounts, blessed with several healthy children, and the Blenkinsop line carried on, only, something had changed.
“James had brought something with him; something different although he, himself, was as ordinary a man as you can imagine, some of the girls had a certain way about them. There were whispers, rumours of ghosts and spirits. Much of it was put down to imaginings, I expect, but those rumours, they never quite went away as each new generation was born. Always the girls, it was.
I used to lay you down in your crib, and I’d come back an hour or so later, and there you’d be, sitting up in one corner, gurgling away to someone or something I had no notion of. Always seemed happy, mind; there were never any tears. Now most people would assume you had a set of imaginary friends, but I’d seen and heard enough by then to think different.
“I didn’t bother your parents with it at first, like I said, you both seemed happy enough, and your father, Giles, he knew all the stories anyway, although he never paid any heed to them.”
“But, but none of this makes any sense.
“No, dear, I don’t suppose it does. Still, it all happened anyway, sense or not.”
“This is all ridiculous,” I say, looking at Evie. “I mean-”
“Have you not been seeing strange things then, Martha? You being a Blenkinsop girl? Things you can’t explain? Things you can’t put your finger on?”
“Well,” I pause, reluctant to give credence to such a ludicrous story, “yes, I suppose I have, but-”
“And what have you seen, dear?”
“At first, it was not so much seen, as heard. Voices, at the very far edges of my hearing, calling to me, but then, then I started to glimpse things, movements, at the very edge of my sight, and now I feel like I know things, things that I can’t possibly know.”
“Well, there you go then,” and Ethel sits back in her chair, satisfied.
“Do you have any more photos?”
“Lord, I’ve got more than photos for you. When nobody came back, I says to my brother, Stephen, you might remember him too; he used to work in the garden, so I says to him that we’d better take what we can in case Martha or Sarah come back. Filled a van, we did.
“There wasn’t much the fire didn’t touch but we got out quite a lot. That bureau over there, that’s yours. And we managed to save a whole load of books. Smell a bit smoky, mind, but nothing wrong with them. Here, let me show you.”
She gets up from her chair with only a little difficulty and walks out of the room. I nod my head at Evie who gets up and joins me as we scuttle out after Ethel. We follow her down the corridor where she stops outside of a locked door.
Reaching for a hand-height dado rail, she picks up a key resting there and inserts it in the lock, opening the door to reveal a room that most people might use as a dining room. This is not a dining room, this is a storage room, and for a split second, I feel like Howard Carter on the cusp of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
It is filled, almost floor to ceiling, with furniture, paintings, crates of books and knick-knacks, and treasures wrapped in newspaper waiting to be discovered.
“All yours, my love. I always knew someone would be back to claim it and I always hoped it would be you.”