My childhood is lying before me, neatly boxed, and waiting almost twenty years for me to come and discover it; and beyond that, my ancestry. I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material but am drawn to the pile of paintings stacked on top of each other against a wall.
They face away from me but turning them, I am granted a glimpse into the past. The only image of James Samuel was lost in the blaze, but I find instead several of Georgiana, his wife, across the years.
She was beautiful, even by today’s standards, with clouds of blonde hair, pale milkmaid’s cheeks with rosy apples, a small pink mouth often portrayed in a moue, and green eyes staring confidently from the frames.
These are not paintings by great masters, and would fetch little at auction, but to me, a woman, who several months ago, lacked even the most basic of family histories, they are priceless. I try to imagine where they might hang in the flat, but as soon as I do, Richard springs into my mind, and right now, he is not welcome, although I will have to face him sooner, rather than later.
More members of my family appear although I cannot place them. I put them to one side to ask Ethel about. She seems like a fountain of knowledge, and I expect what she doesn’t know will never be recovered.
Evie is delicately pawing her way through elegant pieces of furniture stacked every which way. I am no connoisseur, and like the paintings, expect their worth to be more sentimental than financial, but they look beautiful. I have always loved old furniture, far preferring it to the bland white and birch-effect mass-produced pieces so readily available today. This table, and that chair, they have a history, and people have written on them, sat on them, lived with them. There is something to discover here, not merely a factory floor in India. I am enchanted by them, and by the vestiges of Deepdene Hall; my home. I doubt I can ever thank Ethel enough.
Through the window, carefully veiled in white lace, we can see that the day is getting on, and I am conscious of taking up too much of Ethel’s time. We have already spent hours searching through these treasures, and my stomach is rumbling. Besides, today has thrown up more questions, which I feel that my mother has a duty to answer. She is still in York, and if we head back now, there is enough time to see her today.
I also need to pop to the flat and pick up some things. I only grabbed my coat before; I need toiletries, clean clothes and some make up. As we make our goodbyes, a box of books calls out to me from the corner of my eye, as books always do.
“Ethel, do you mind if I take this with me? I’d like to go through it tonight.”
“Not at all, dearie; it’s yours, after all.”
I thank her, and then, without thought, drop a kiss on her withered cheek, dusty with powder, promising to return soon.
On the way home, I send Richard a text to say that I’ll be popping in to collect some things. It is a very formal message, and I never thought to announce my return to my own flat but things are formal between us; unresolved and messy. I have no desire to upset him further so consider it only polite to warn him. Evie drops me at the door and I haul the box of books out with me.
“I’ll call you later,” I say.
“Ok. Just let me know if you need me,” she says, and slowly pulls away from the kerb.
I unlock the front door, and push it open quietly.
“Hello? Richard?” I don’t really expect him to be here as it is still the afternoon, but as I open the door wider, there he is, sitting on one of the chairs, waiting. “Ah, there you are.” I shut the door behind me, and lean against it, placing the box of books at me feet, unsure of how to proceed.
“Hello, Martha. I hope you’re feeling better today.”
“Erm, much better, thank you,” I say, trying to find the edges of the conversation.
“And you’re over your little outburst of last night?”
“My little outburst? Richard, I discovered I had a brother yesterday, who died in a fire, along with the father I thought had abandoned me, and then, on top of that, I found out you knew all along! It was hardly a little outburst.” My hands are shaking and I am trying to control my temper.
“But it was not my secret to tell.”
“You should have told me, Richard. And you had no right to go snooping around in my medical records in the first place.”
“I had every right to know about the girl I was going to marry. I had every right to know about the medication she was on.”
“Actually, Richard, you didn’t. You know perfectly well that what you did was wrong and immoral. In fact, I’m fairly certain you could lose your job over it.”
He gets up from the chair, and walks towards me. I have to force myself to not shrink against the door at my back.
“Oh, it’s like that, is it?”
“Like what Richard?”
“You’re going to get nasty with me. We’ll see about that.”
But his threatening tone, rather than cow me, spurs me to action. I push myself away from the door.
“We’ll see about what, Richard? There is nothing to see about. You were the one threatening to commit me to Bootham Park; you were the one getting nasty. And the fact is you read my private and confidential files, which you had no right to do. You kept an incredibly big secret from me. You married me when I was at my most vulnerable, moved me up here, away from my friends, and then when I lost our baby, you ignored me. I should never have married you.”
“You? Should never have married me? I’m the one who took on the challenge of a lonely unsocialised girl on four different types of antidepressants. I’m the one who took you out of middle-class mediocrity, who put diamonds on your fingers and designer clothes on your back.
“I’m the one who sent you flowers every day and you lapped it up, every single second of it. You should be grateful I even looked in your direction. My mother warned me about you. She said you didn’t have what it took to be a Chamberlain; she said you would disappoint me.”
“Well it looks like your mother was right, Richard. I’m not right for you, and clearly I’ve disappointed you, but you’ve disappointed me too.” Seeing the mix of emotions swim across his face, I am filled with sadness and pity for him, my anger disappearing as fast as it arrived. I put a hand on his. “Richard, stop it; just stop it. Let’s sit down.”
My calm voice has an effect on him, and he allows me to lead him to the sofa. “I think we’ve both been disappointed, Richard, and I think we are both to blame for this situation.”
“Hang on a second, let me finish. We both know this marriage isn’t working, don’t we?” I slide the pave diamond wedding band from my finger, and the cushion cut diamond engagement ring follows. I open up his hand, and place them in the palm. “Here. It’s over now.”
“You can’t just end it like that.”
“I don’t think our marriage even started.”
“But what will I tell people?”
“You can tell them whatever you like, Richard. Tell them you left me, tell them things just didn’t work out, tell them, well, tell them whatever; I don’t mind.” He stares at me, and at the rings in his hand.
“But, I don’t understand.”
“I think you do, Richard. You haven’t been happy, have you?”
“Have you enjoyed having me in your life? Honestly? Apart from moving up to York, which you would have done without me, has your life changed at all with me in it?”
“No,” he mumbles.
“We’re not right for each other, and that’s nobody’s fault.”
“Are you quite sure about this, Martha? Nothing I can say will change your mind?”
I consider carefully, “No, Richard. Nothing. And I don’t think you really want me to change my mind anyway.”
“And it’s got nothing to do with that Isak fellow?”
I think, perhaps, that it does, but now is not the time for that gem, “No; it has nothing to do with Isak.”
“Were you very unhappy, Martha?”
“No, not very, but I was lonely.”
“And what will you do?”
“I’ll stay in York, I think. I like it here.”
“Yes, you always did like it more than me, with its damned annoying little streets and poky little alleyways.”
“And you, Richard?”
“London for me. There are plenty of consulting jobs down there, and you know how much I prefer the lifestyle.”
“What about your job here?”
“Oh, I’m not bothered about it. You know it was your mother that was keen on the idea? Perhaps she wanted you to find out about Deepdene Hall and all that.”
“You should speak to her, Martha.”
“I have; I will.”
“She never meant to hurt you, I know that much; and she loves you.”
“I loved you too, you know, in my own way.”
“I know you did, Richard, and I, you. I’m sorry that it has to be like this.”
“Oh well; onwards and upwards.”
“I’ll just pack a case and then I’ll be gone.”
“You don’t need to do that, this is your home too.”
“No, I don’t think it ever was. You always liked it more than me. It’s only my clothes here really. The rent’s paid for the year, you know. You’re welcome to stay here.”
My mouth drops open. “Do you really mean that?”
“Well it’s no use to me in London, is it? And I can’t get a refund.”
Despite wanting to throttle him mere minutes before, I can’t help but hug him, and even though I feel him stiffen under my embrace, I don’t let go until he puts his arms around me too.
“You’re a good man, Richard; really you are. And you’ll find the right person for you.”
“I’m not so sure marriage is for me. Much prefer just having a PA. Makes life so much easier.”
I smile at him, and acknowledge the truth behind what he says.
“Let me help you pack,” and he accepts with grace. It takes only ten minutes to put all his essentials into the expensive Samsonite case; the rest Mrs Gilbert will pack up and his current PA will arrange to be couriered to London.
“Goodbye, Martha,” he says as he pauses at the door.
“Goodbye, Richard,” and I stand on my toes and kiss him on the cheek. “And thank you.”
He nods, and shuts the door behind him.
I am utterly alone in the flat. I could call Evie, or Isak, or my mum, but I think that I will call no one. Instead, I will enjoy my own company. In the fridge, I find a bottle of rose, and a packet of Parma ham. The sun may not have gone down, but I decide I deserve some wine; it’s becoming something of a habit.
Coming back into the sitting room, I see the box of books by the door. Using my foot, I push it across the room and into the middle of the circle created by the sofa and chairs. I take a great swig of wine and plant the glass firmly into the carpet and sit down cross-legged in front of the box.
I am calm enough, but a single smell of an old book will always put me into a kind of meditative state. It is the effect of walking into a library, without anyone having to ‘shush’ you. It is the smell of knowledge, of stories and adventures, and of other people’s lives. It is intoxicating, and even with the hint of smoke rising from these books, the calm washes over me, as it always does.
I look at the book I have picked up. It is beautifully bound in crimson leather, a little faded from time, but still impressive, and the gilt lettering on the front proclaims it to be Robinson Crusoe. I open the cover and glance at the front papers, and gasp. Printed in 1719, this is a first edition and must be worth a fortune.
I lie it very carefully back in the box, but not before seeing an inscription in the very front, “Alice, my Girl Friday. Samuel.”
The woman’s name checks me in my tracks; it is touching to think of past lovers exchanging books, a book that I just held in my hands; a bittersweet reminder of my own, very recently changed, status; but suddenly I have to see what’s in the rest of the box. In my hurry, I upend the contents on the floor and reveal a mixture of the old and the new; there are other treasures to be found – a lovely copy of Frankenstein similarly inscribed, and my heart quickens still more – amongst cheap paperback copies of Agatha Christie and orange Penguin classics.
The more modern books I put to one side to shelve later, while the older, more precious editions, I put lovingly on the sofa. I feel there are more, greater, treasures to unearth, and as I delve deeper, I find something different, a manuscript of both bound and loose-leaf handwritten pages tied with a piece of string.
There is nothing on the cover or spine, nothing to denote it at all, but I dash to the kitchen to grab a pair of scissors to snip away the tight knot holding the string, and open the pages.
I read, “At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time…” I let out a sigh, and fall back into the sofa cushions.
At some point, I return to the sitting room, wine, the rest of the books and the whole world forgotten as I curl up with the precious pages in my lap. A mystery is unfolding before me, and I cannot quite believe my eyes.
Finally I have found Alice and as page after page is turned, I try to understand how she came to be in a box of salvaged treasures from Deepdene Hall. The sun has long since fallen and I only shift to flick on a light to read by. Thoughts I had considered mere imaginings and fancies are shown to be true and tears roll down my face as I read of her life.
Once, I pause to pick up the copies of Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein, and open them at their inscriptions. Alice and Samuel. It is remarkable, unbelievable and yet the pieces continue slotting into place.
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awake with a pain in my neck and the pages spread out on top of me. It takes only a moment for the events of yesterday to burn brightly in my mind. I have to know more about Samuel Tuke, a missing link in the story, and one that I never suspected, for how could I?
It is a moment’s work on the Internet to discover a plethora of information. A great man, by all accounts, and a prominent man of the city: a Quaker, a father, a husband, although not to Alice. I bookmark the pages to read more later, but turn once more to Alice’s diary. I turn to a page dated the 14th of October 1857, and read with a sinking heart:
“My beloved Samuel is taken away from me today, and my heart is heavy indeed. His was not a long illness and I grieve heartily that I could not be at his side, but he passed with his family, as is right. He is to be buried in the cemetery of these grounds. Oh, Samuel, how can I go on without you? What am I to do? I have been in this place more than thirty years and I cannot bear life here without our daily visits. James Samuel mourns you too, as a ward would his guardian but I wish with my whole heart that he could know the true nature of your relationship. He would be so proud to be yours, I think, and to carry the Tuke name. He is the only light in the darkness of today, and yet, he too is far from me. I cannot write more, my heart and my hands are weary.”
I lay down the pages once more, my heart aching for Alice, again separated from her love, and unable to truly mourn for him. I can’t bear for more sadness, and yet I know the story isn’t finished; there are pages still left to read.
“I was taken from The Retreat. A carriage came at night and Doctor Tucker saw me into it with all my belongings, a great trunk of things. He would not tell me a thing, and I feared the worst. With Samuel’s death was his protection of me finally over? But no; James Samuel awaited me in the carriage. I was to be moved, he said. People had forgotten who I was and what I was, and now, with Samuel’s death, it was time. He did not wish for me to spend the rest of my days in The Retreat. As a young boy, he had believed I worked there, but as the years passed he had realised the truth. I had thought he would be ashamed of me, reject me, but he did not. We do not speak of the past, but he remains my true son, and I, his mother. The journey was not long, a few hours at most and I dozed. The sun was rising as we alighted from the carriage and I was amazed by what I saw.
“Oh, James Samuel,” I said. “It is beautiful. What will you call it?”
“Deepdene. It is called Deepdene.”