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.

Standard
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter sixteen

Alice

I passed in and out of consciousness. Once, long enough to name my son, Joseph; another time to see Eliza at my bedside.

“Stay with us, Alice,” she pleaded. “Don’t leave me.”

“Rebecca,” I whispered, my throat like sandpaper. “Joseph.”

“I have them, Alice. We’re looking after them.”

“But, the cholera. In Bedern, but not here. You shouldn’t be-”

“It came to Petergate a few days ago. It’s spread to most of the city now. Once we heard that, and that you were sick, Thomas couldn’t keep us away.”

Knowing that, despite the cholera, my children were in safe hands, I allowed myself one more question before letting my dreams take me again, “Am I dying?”

“No, Alice.” I heard. “We’ve got you. You’re not going anywhere.”

 

This time I woke to muffled sounds and Eliza was no longer at my bedside. I was feeling stronger, better. I hadn’t vomited in several hours, nor did I lie in my own filth. I had been aware of sheets being changed and my body being sponged down, but knew only too well that my nurses must have been fighting a losing battle as far as cleanliness went. I was still too weak to move, but had somehow attracted the attention of someone in the room.

“Ma?” I said.

“Oh Alice. It’s me. I’m here.”

“Water,” is all I could manage. Very carefully a beaker was lowered to my mouth, and although much of the contents escaped over my face, it felt like a gift from God. My tongue felt large and ungainly in my mouth, and I struggled to swallow. Finally, despite my thirst having been far from sated, I found the energy to speak once more.

“What happened?”

“Cholera is what happened. That filthy pestilence came. I thought I was going to lose you, my baby.”

Her words brought a jolt of memories flooding through my head.

“My babies?” Ma looks away from me. “My babies?” I cried. “What of Rebecca and Joseph?”

“Eliza is taking care of Joseph.”

“And Rebecca?”

“She- she was taken from us yesterday.”

“Taken from us? By the doctors? To the cholera hospital?”

“No, girl. She was in suffering, and God, in his kindness, released her from that.”

Many people turn to God in times of distress; I find that I turn away. I had no use for Ma’s platitudes, however kindly meant. My baby, my daughter, the child that was for me, had left this world before I had even got to know her. I cursed the man that brought sickness into this city.

“Can I see her?”

“You know that we must bury the dead before twelve hours have passed.”

“She is gone?”

“Yes.”

“But I didn’t even get to say goodbye to her.” If I had had any water left in my body, I would have wept. Instead, my tear ducts stung with unwept promise. “Where is she buried?”

“The cholera pit.”

“Not in Holy Trinity?”

“Your Thomas wouldn’t allow it.”

“My Thomas?”

“No. The rector, William Lund, said he’d make an exception seeing as how she was so small, but Thomas forbade it.”

“What did he say?”

“It makes no difference now.”

“What did he say, Ma?”

“He said that she had to go where all the other victims went, the depraved and sinful; into the pit where they belonged. He said she weren’t no child of his. Blue eyes, he said.”

Hearing those words, his words, worked faster and better than all the soothing words Ma might have found. My husband, and quite likely, Rebecca’s father as well, had condemned her for simply not having his colouring. I was the only Haxby to have fair hair but my pa didn’t see fit to send me away. Every woman knows a bairn is often born with blue eyes.

“Is the pit consecrated yet, Ma?”

“Not yet, Alice. It will be though. It will be soon. Everyone’s for it.”

“And Rebecca, was she- was she baptised?”

“Eliza made sure of that. Took both of them to Holy Trinity the moment you fell ill. Baptised in the sight of the Lord. You’ve no need to fear for her soul.”

“It’s not my soul I fear for. Now let me see Joseph.”

“I dare not, Alice. You’re still too weak, and, well, we think he can’t last much longer.”
“Then it makes no difference. Bring me Joseph, Ma.”

 

I held him until his little body cools and even then, I cradled him close and refused to let Ma take him from me. Another child gone; God was punishing me. He must have been, and I need not have looked too far for the cause.

I was everything my husband called me, and more. I only hoped now that the twins had been Samuel’s. Believing that, I could believe they had gone to a better place.

 

As the sun cruelly announced another day, despite the tragedy in this house, the city official knocked on the door and Eliza persuaded me to release Joseph. According to the laws first passed when the pestilence arrived, every victim had to be buried within twelve hours of death; they had to be buried at least one foot below the surface – an impossibility in most graveyards – and their bodies were not allowed inside a church.

Several months from the first sign of the disease, there were no burials in graveyards, all had to be transported to the cholera pit outside the city walls; all had to be buried in pitch-cloth and many feet below, before being covered in lime; all clothes of the victims had to be burned; and all houses of the victims fumigated and whitewashed.

I had nothing to remember my children by for Thomas had not even allowed a headstone to be placed. I had not seen him since the day he had declared our children bastards, although I had no real sense of how long ago that was; a week? Two?

I had no wish to see him, and yet, there was no other place for me. I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t return to the Tukes, and if I left the house, I would have been on the streets. I might even have ended up there if Thomas had thrown me out, yet to do so would have been to invite public scandal.

 

Ma returned to the Bedern the day Joseph was taken, but Eliza stayed with me, sleeping on a pallet at the foot of the bed until I was strong enough to walk. Still there was no sign of Thomas. Eliza told me he was drowning his sorrows. I didn’t doubt that but soon I had to face him. My chance came that night; the night that Eliza left for home.

 

The door to our bedroom slammed back against the wall and my husband staggered in, using the wall for support. The candle still burnt and I was lying in a clean nightdress on top of clean sheets, the room was freshly whitewashed and the smell of lime still lingered.

“There you are, wife.”

“Thomas,” I said.

“Better, I see.”

“As you see.” He stumbled against the bed and stopping only to remove his filthy boots, climbed beneath the covers.

“I am come to share your bed again, wife. As is my due. Maybe this time I can make sure the children you carry are mine this time. Slut.” He tried to roll over on to me, but with his vast bulk and hampered by the beer he had drunk, he ended up on his back, as impotent as an overturned beetle.

I looked at him with disgust. I had lost two children, and I was still sore and bandaged below from giving birth to them. I would not let him touch me, tonight, or any night. I was risking his highly developed sense of his own reputation against my self-respect. He would not throw me out; to be publicly pronounced a cuckold.

I didn’t doubt that he would try to make my life a misery, but what could he make me feel that I did not already feel? I would live under the same roof as this man, for I had no other choice, but I would be his wife in name alone.

“Come here,” he slurred.

“No, Thomas. I will not.”

“You dare disobey me? After all you have put me through?”

“I grieve for our children, husband.”

“Our children? Our children? They were the bastard offspring of some other man, and I’d have not raised them. It was God’s judgement that they died. Cholera is his punishment for the sick and depraved.”

“God’s punishment? He would not be so cruel.”

“No? If I’d been more fortunate, you would have died too. Whore that you are. But as you’re here, and you are my wife, I’ll take my pleasure of you.”

“Try, husband. Try to heave your fat drunken belly on top of mine. You’re a pathetic excuse for a man.”

“You’ll pay for that, bitch.”

“Perhaps, Thomas. But not tonight, I think. I bid you good night, sir.”

I couldn’t bear to share the same bed as him so I grabbed hold of the edge of one sheet and hauled it out from underneath him. The pallet was light and easy to lift, even so, by the time I reached the kitchen, I was sweating. I had not left my bed in weeks. I knew Thomas would make good on his threat. He would punish me in the morning for my behaviour. I prayed that he was too drunk to remember.

 

A sharp kick to my sides woke me. I saw that Thomas, far from forgetting the night before, was in a fouler mood than ever.

“Get up, wench.” He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me roughly to my feet. I saw Simon cowering the corner of the kitchen. “You dare to speak to me that way? Listen to me, and listen well. You are my wife. Wedded in church, blessed by a vicar and consummated in the eyes of God. And I will do with you as I see fit.

You will not leave this house without my permission. You will not receive visitors, not even your family. You will clean this house, you will cook my meals and you will submit to me in every way. I am not a man to be made a fool of. Disobey me and you will wish you had died along with your bastards. Do I make myself clear, Mistress Alice?”

Every other word was punctuated with a blow and after the first, which saw me crumple to the ground; I curled in a ball to avoid the worst.

“I have the keeping of you, and you will do exactly as I wish. If I want to fuck you over this table right now, it is my right. If I want to beat you within an inch of your life, it is my right. If I want to lock you in a room with only bread and water to teach you some respect, it is my right. Never forget that. Now get up, put some clothes on and make me some food.”

I limped upstairs, taking each step as slowly as I dared. My fresh shift was now covered in blood, but I had not a spare. I threw a dress over the top, rolled woollen stockings up my legs and laced my feet into shoes. My hair I pulled back from my face and fastened a neat cap in place. Already bruises were beginning to show on my cheeks and lip. But I deserved this. I knew I did, and the physical pain was almost a relief to block out my mental anguish.

The days blurred into one, and Thomas was as good as his word. Eliza was forbidden to visit me, and I, her. Simon was now sent out to pick up groceries and such, and I wondered what the shopkeepers must have thought of the arrangement. An apprentice selecting meat? Unheard of.

The quality proved this; tough cuts of meat, offal not fit for the table and gristle were all that filled the stew pot. Thomas beat me whenever I displeased him, which was regularly, and once again, I couldn’t bear to look Simon in the eyes. I was ashamed of what I had become.

 

One day, I slipped out and walked to the pit. It was a terrible sight. Although much lessened, the disease was still present and almost daily carts were brought to the place where bodies were wrapped in linen and thrown side by side with a priest to say a few words if you could find a few coins. Most couldn’t.

Mothers brought their children there to watch the spectacle. It was grotesque but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I wondered where Rebecca and Joseph were buried. The ground was still unconsecrated. I sent up prayers to a God I no longer believed in, but still felt rightfully punished by.

Thomas punished my absence with blows that no longer shocked me, and despite my vow to never lie with him again, a roughness in bed that I was almost become accustomed to. I couldn’t stop him from using me. It scared me that one could become accustomed to almost anything.

I had no future before me and Thomas never ceased to remind me of my past, yet, my senses were awakened one morning.

I realised that I had not bled that month. I crossed my fingers and waited a few more days, but still I did not bleed. When I had all the confirmation that I needed, I once again slipped from the house.

“Eliza, this child can only be Thomas’ and I will not carry it.”

“But Alice, you have no choice.”

“You know as well as I do that there is one.”

“But no! You’ll be condemning yourself.”
“My soul is already condemned. There’s no saving me. But I will not have his child.”

“Will you visit-”

“No. I’ll get some tansy or pennyroyal.” I added, “I’ll only visit her if I have to.”

“And then what?”

“And then I’ll wait.”

 

Neither tansy nor pennyroyal were hard to find. Pennyroyal oil is very dangerous, but the leaves, when boiled into a tisane, were said to be effective. I drank only one brew in the morning, but had enough left for more if the baby proved stubborn to come away.

With Thomas in the workshop, I was able to hide the vomiting well enough although I hoped that I had swallowed enough to work. The cramps came later in the day: vicious jabbing pains that were followed by blood; lots of it. I created wads of linen and was able to ward Thomas off that night with clear signs of bleeding.

The child remained inside all the next day but I still bled. I could feel myself becoming weaker, and if the bleeding didn’t stop soon, I would have to go for Eliza. Thankfully, on the morning of the third day, I felt something shift inside me, and with a stabbing pain that could only mean one thing, a bloody mess was released from within me.

This time, I had no desire to search the shape for any sense of a child, and besides, I believed I could only have been a few weeks pregnant. There would have been nothing to see. No child. Not yet. I wrapped it in linen, and threw the bundle on to the fire.

It was the smell that did it. Burning meat; rancid and vile. I sank to the floor. What had I done? I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. I cried not only for the bundle in the fire, but for Rebecca and Joseph; the first time that I had wept for them. I cried for myself too.

What had I been driven to? And who had driven me thus? My eyes alighted on the pennyroyal leaves and I reached to throw them, damning evidence, into the fire, but something stayed my hand.

It was Thomas’ fault that I had no gravesite to visit and mourn my children. It was his fault that I was reduced to this squalor. I loathed the man, more than I had ever thought possible. It took a moment to boil the pennyroyal until the leaves were soft before adding them to the stew downstairs. I had no wish for Simon to fall ill so I kept back some for him. I cared not if I succumbed. What had I to live for now? I was become a monster. I would go to hell for certain but it was no more than I deserved; as long as I could drag Thomas there too.

“Mutton stew, Thomas,” I said, ladling a good portion into his bowl. “Fresh bread too.” He tucked in with abandon, as I knew he would, as he always did. I barely managed a few mouthfuls. He had not been asleep an hour when the cramps wakened him. I was lying awake at his side.

“Ugh. Where’s the chamber pot, wife?” I got out of bed and placed it in front of him where he threw up copiously. I watched with satisfaction. My own cramps were no worse than I had expected, and it was not long before I too was vomiting into another bedpan. The whole chamber reeked of sickness.

I hurried to empty the pots, saying, “Let me get you some tea, husband. You must drink.” He fell back against the pillows without a murmur. Using the last of the pennyroyal, I brewed a tisane that I placed carefully into his hands. I had added peppermint to disguise the taste. “For your sickness,” I said. He emptied the cup.

“Now leave me alone, woman.” My cramps were lessened but it was easy to see that he was in some discomfort. I hugged my illicit knowledge to myself and smiled. The tisane worked its magic and much of the night was spent nursing Thomas as he simultaneously vomited and shit himself. A foul task at any other time, I was almost enjoying it. He was completely at my mercy.                         The morning came and his lips were parched, his skin pale, greenish, and covered with a sheen of sweat. I made sure Simon saw me empty the vomit and shit-filled pots outside. I sent him home. I supposed I ought to have sent for a doctor, and a concerned wife would have, but everyone knew my husband was a miserly type of man and doctors are expensive. He had certainly never bothered to send for one when the twins died.

Instead, I begged the assistance of one of our neighbours, Mrs Simpson: a nosy old cow. Together we rolled the weight of Thomas across the bed to change the soiled sheets beneath him. I shut the window and stoked up the fire while she made sure there was plenty of boiling water. We tried to draw the fever out with flannel patches on his forehead and mustard emetics, but to no avail. The pennyroyal had done its job.

When it became clear that Thomas was breathing his last, I asked Mrs Simpson for some time alone with my husband. Smiling sympathetically, she left the room.

“Thomas?” I whispered. “Thomas? Can you hear me?” I received only a mumble in return. “Thomas, you’re dying and I need to tell you some things before you go. Rebecca and Joseph, my twins, my babies, they were not yours. They were never yours. They were Samuel Tuke’s. And the whole city has been laughing at you. Publicly cuckolded. You were a laughing stock, Thomas. A fool.” I told him things I could only hope for, never truly know.

“And this sickness? This sickness that is going to take your life? It is of my doing. Pennyroyal. I gave it to you after I had aborted our baby with it. That’s right, Thomas, our child. I was pregnant. But I’ll not carry a child of yours.” His eyes fluttered as I spoke, but never fully opened, and as his last breath rattled in his chest, I leant closer and said, “See you in hell, Thomas.”

Standard
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter fifteen

Martha

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?”

“Erm, 1824.”

“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-”

“Means what?”

“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.

“Martha?”

“Isak.”

“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.

“But- I-”

“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-”

“No. Listen-”

“And I suppose I just imagined you disappearing without a trace?”

“No.”

“And-”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Hobnob?”

“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.”

“Ok.”

“So, I’ve been doing a bit of research into Alice.”

“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.”

“The impression?”

“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?”

“Burnt Norton?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

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.”
“Excuse me?”

“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.”

Standard
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter fourteen

Alice

We’d known sickness before. In a city where whole families lived in one room and open sewers flowed down many streets it is an accepted part of life. People will fall ill and some will die. Myself, I had nursed the Tuke children through scarlet fever and I was hardly the only one with such a story. For them to lose only Esther was considered a blessing at the time. Yet, when the rumours began to filter through that another sickness was spreading through the city, another far more lethal, I couldn’t act with complacency.

I was within weeks of my due date, and I’d have guarded my precious cargo with my life. Seeing Samuel all those months ago had changed the course of my life once more. I could not say whether the child I carried was his or that of my husband, but I prayed every night that he was Samuel’s.

I returned home that day, soaked again by the rain on my walk back, to find Thomas in a temper, demanding to know where I had been. I never told him the truth, of course; instead that I had been visiting my family, and the next time I saw Eliza, I handed her the precious volumes to keep safe; I couldn’t risk Thomas finding them.

I hadn’t seen Samuel since but those brief hours we shared, reunited, were enough to bring some light back into my life. Knowing that he did not betray me, and that he too would grieve for the child we lost, had lifted me from the cold dark place I had willingly crawled into.

To say I was filled with joy at my life with Thomas Smith was to tell a lie, but I was reconciled; accepting of my circumstances. He was a violent, coarse, crude man, but I was provided for, and with no reason to suspect the babe I carried might not be his, his pleasure at discovering I was pregnant almost touched me.

He had proved a milder man since that day, and I was no longer taken so roughly. I could look Simon in the eyes once more, and that time, my rounded belly was no shame. Neighbours congratulated me, and I was welcomed most openly into my childhood home. No one begrudged me an hour or two with Eliza those days.

But there was a slight shadow; for the first time in my life, I was keeping a secret from her. No one apart from Samuel and myself knew of our brief reunion. I hadn’t dared tell Eliza; not for lack of trust for I would entrust her with my life, but for simple superstitious fear that to speak of such things will be to release them into the world, for anyone to catch at. I dared not. I had simply handed her the books.

And so I carried my babe and my secret alone, and then sickness came to the city and I knew real fear once more.

 

They said some sailors brought it with them from Hull. Hearing of the habits of such men, I don’t doubt it, even today, and certainly, within hours of their arrival, the first people began to fall ill. We might not have afforded a daily newspaper in our household, but news travels fast by word of mouth.

With the first death came confirmation of the worst kind. Cholera was come to York.

 

Months ago, while snow still laid on the ground, it was rumoured that something was afoot when city officials had begun to make their rounds demanding a clean up. We had laughed at them. How do you clean up an open sewer? Where do you put your nightsoil when there are no drains? The river has always seemed as good a place as any for most.

And yet, rooms were whitewashed, as were the pigsties and privies, for those lucky enough to have the latter. Ma had said it wasn’t the first time officials had been to Bedern, but they had scurried away fast enough with their tails between their legs and shit on their shoes. But when nothing followed these incursions into the filthier parts of the city, interest had waned. We should have known that something had spurred those officials on; they never spend money unless they have to.

It was May, Race Week, and a hot day brought with it the stench of sewage, hardly unusual and liable to get much worse before the summer was out; a yearly occurrence, but never one with the whisper of cholera before.

I was unsure whether to count myself fortunate or not for I had a little knowledge of the disease. Samuel’s library was varied and he had let me have free rein. I had thought once I might have been interested in medicine had I been a boy and of means. I remembered only fragments of what I had read but those tightened around my heart like a vice.

It is a dreadful sickness, striking fast and taking those inflicted within days, even hours, as they lie in their own filth unable to keep any fluid in their body. Sacrificing a coin from my pitiful savings, I bought a copy of the day’s Gazette and read:

“The disease has at last manifested itself in our city. The first alarm was on Sunday when a poor man named Hughes residing in The Hagworm’s Nest became ill. He has now recovered and is doing well. The next was Greaves a sawyer living in the same court. He went home intoxicated on Monday night and was a corpse on Tuesday night. Barrett who kept The Anchor in Middle Water Lane was taken to the cholera hospital; a woman in Swan Street (in an advanced pregnancy of an illegitimate child) was the next victim…”

 

Despite the relief I felt that Hagworm’s was far removed from Petergate, the infection of a pregnant woman hit me hard. It should not have come as a surprise to me. Everyone knows a woman with child is at risk, and to be carrying an illegitimate child is to court infection, for, who does cholera target other than the poor and depraved? Or so we are led to believe.

I only knew a few days’ relief for soon we received news that victims were numbered in the Shambles, and the city officials appeared in full strength once more.

Notices were pinned up (a futile effort if ever I saw one for many in the poorer areas barely knew to recognise their own names, never mind struggle with alien words) across the city urging for increased cleanliness from the citizens, and strong-smelling quicklime was dumped in great quantities across the roads, ditches and ancient moats, turning the cobbles and puddles white, while houses with sick inhabitants were fumigated with pitch.

From single figures, the name of victims rose rapidly as the disease wound its lethal way through Bootham, Coppergate, Gillygate, Monkgate and ever onwards, until, inevitably it found its way into Bedern. A note was delivered to Thomas and I in Eliza’s hand begging us not to visit them; she needn’t have feared for my husband.

As soon as he learnt of the sickness, he forbade me from attending them, and for once, I did not resent his demands. I was torn between my desire to help my family, and my need to protect the child inside me. My unborn child won out.

By now, my belly was so big that the birth could only be days away, and I carried myself ungainly. Thomas’ comparisons to a cow were unkind, yet sadly just. The heat caused my ankles to swell uncomfortably in my leather shoes and in the house, where I spent most of my hours, I had taken to wandering barefoot like a slattern.

My back ached from the weight of my belly, my thighs chafed and my breasts were tender. The housework suffered as it took me long minutes to heave my bulk up the stairs and I thought, not altogether joking, that if the pregnancy went on for much longer, I might have to take up permanent residence in the kitchen, where even a restful minute on the stool caused sweat to pour down my face and pool between my breasts from the heat of the stove. An elegant brood mare, I was not, yet Thomas remained pleased with me, and for that, I was hugely grateful, and relieved.

It was amidst the news of the disease spreading to Goodramgate that I was brought to bed. I had thought to have Eliza and Ma with me at my confinement, but was instead tended by a local midwife on whom Thomas had spared no expense, perhaps motivated by guilt at his continued insistence that my family were not to visit us while cholera was still rife; more likely to protect his heir.

The heat from the midday July sun was stifling and I longed to have the window open, but this was forbidden, and a fire was built up in the grate instead. After Simon had brought the great copper bowl from the kitchen and filled it with water, both he and Thomas were banished downstairs by the midwife; an unnecessary pronouncement for the former scuttled off as fast as his legs could carry him, and the latter had yet to make an appearance. I imagined him either in the kitchen with a pint, or the pub with several. I couldn’t say that I blamed him. As the pain increased in my belly, I half wished I could join him. Drinking certainly seemed to take Pa away from the trials of everyday life.

The pains were coming stronger and faster now, and I knew, from helping Ma that it couldn’t be too long now. I also knew that first babies could take the longest, although, was this really my first child, I wondered. By the time Ma was on Maria, I’d swear she slipped out like a puppy. Mind you, that’s what having thirteen children will do to you. I was the first and I bet I didn’t come easily.

When the midwife told me to push, I did and it was a relief to have something to do, something to push against to fight against the pain. I screamed out. It’s unladylike to do so and I had never heard Priscilla Tuke do so in all the time I was with them; four babes in all, but I’m no lady and never had pretensions to that.

“That’s right, love,” said the midwife. “You scream out. Let your husband know what he’s put you through.”

I felt a tightening down below, as if I was going to explode, and with the next push, I knew that the head had passed through. Stretched beyond belief, it was a blessed relief to push the rest of my child out from me and into the midwife’s capable hands, who briskly cut the cord and then laid the sticky red bundle on my chest.

“A boy, Mistress Alice,” she said. “A healthy baby boy. But it’s not over yet. There’s still the afterbirth to be delivered. That’ll come in it’s own time. Now let me clean up baby for you,” and my son was taken away from me.

I watched as he was tenderly sponged down and wrapped tightly, before being placed in the cradle, a makeshift thing provided by Eliza many weeks ago. A son. I could not believe it. After carrying him inside me for nine months, I had a son. Samuel’s son, I hoped, I prayed.

“Come now, let’s get you finished. Push, Mistress Alice; push one last time for me.” I did as bidden and was rewarded with an excruciating pain that shot across my belly. I had never known pain like it and screamed accordingly. “There now, Mistress; the worst is over.”

“It feels different,” I panted. “Wrong.”

“Wrong?” she repeated and put a firm hand on my stomach before slicking her hands with oil and slipping up inside me. I felt a sharp tug and screamed again. “Not the afterbirth,” she said, under her breath. “You’ve got another bairn coming there.”

“Another?” I said.

“Another, and he’s lying funny.”

“A breech?” I asked. I knew what a breech was. Ma had had one with our Philip. He didn’t last more than a few minutes once delivered, and for a while, we wondered if Ma might follow him. “What can you do? Will it be alright?”

“Aye. I’ve delivered breech before. Don’t you worry, Mistress; we’ll have this baby out of you in no time but first, I need to twist him. I’m not going to tell you a lie; this is going to hurt. I’ll put my hands inside you, and I’ll be looking to pull him the right way. Now take a big breath; that’s right, and bite down on this.” I slid the wood into my mouth and tried to calm the rising panic in my chest. “Scream as much as you like, it won’t make no difference to me.”

Her cold hands slid into me once more and almost immediately I felt a brutal yank from deep inside. I clenched my hands into fists and closed my eyes. I wished Eliza were there. I felt as if I was being torn apart and with one final agonising wrench, the hands came free and with them, an immense pressure was lifted.

The arms that held up my second child were covered in blood to the elbows, and this time, the baby was taken away immediately. I was too tired to lift my head and watch it being washed and wrapped. With a slithering that felt like I was voiding my bowels, the afterbirth slipped out from within me, and exhausted, my head dropped to one side and my eyes closed. I didn’t even know if the child lived.

I was wakened by the sound of crying, not the cries of a week-old baby, but the soft, almost pathetic, mewing of a newborn when it has been so cruelly ripped from warmth into the cold brightness of this world. I shifted my position, and attracted the attention of the midwife.

“Ah, there you are, Mistress Alice. You’ll want to be seeing the bairns.” She placed one bundle on one breast. “This is your son.” And another to his left. “And this is your daughter.”

“A daughter? I have a daughter?” I was filled with joy. Ma always used to say that sons were for the fathers but daughters were for the mothers. And I was blessed with both. Another shift caused me to wince in pain.

“You’ve torn down there, my love. But nothing a few days rest won’t fix as long as that husband of yours keeps his hands off you. I’ll go tell him the good news, shall I?”

Without waiting for a response, she shuffled out of the room, and left me alone with my babies, my twins. They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Both topped with a fluffy down of whisper-fine brown hair, their skin was the smoothest thing I had touched, and their hands, with tiny grasping fingers each with their own miniature nail, seemed like miracles.

Cries abating, and as drowsiness overcame them after their epic battle, I fell in love with their pale blue eyes; unfocused and soft, they reminded me of my new role as their protector. How defenceless they were. I thought, already, that I would die for them, and I pressed my nose on to their scalps and breathed in deeply. It was heaven, but heaven was interrupted by the arrival of Thomas, who threw open the door with a bang, causing two pairs of sleepy blue eyes to start open, and two pink perfect mouths to open in harmony.

“I have a son!” he exclaimed and strode briskly to the side of the bed. “A son!”

“Yes, and a daughter too.” I smiled at him, determined to let nothing prick my bubble of happiness. “Would you like to hold one of them?” I offered up the boy, knowing this to be the real source of his elation. “What shall we name them?” I said. Thomas was cradling our son close to his chest. One hand cupped the small head, the other laid flat taking the weight of the body, and if I hadn’t known otherwise, I’d have said that it is natural for him.

“Thomas,” he said. “After his father. Young Thomas Smith. I’ll train him up to take over from me. Smith and Son. A fine sounding name.”

“Thomas,” I said. The name was not disagreeable to me. I would not have suggested Samuel. “And our daughter?”

“You name her, Alice. It is your right.”

“Rebecca,” I said. “A good strong Christian name. Thomas and Rebecca Smith.”

Thomas let his son’s tiny fingers clasp one of his own, and he studied him with love, but as I watched, his back stiffened, and he roughly thrust the baby back into my arms.

“Blue eyes?” he said.

“Yes, Thomas. Blue, and Rebecca’s as well. See.”

“Blue eyes and dark hair.” I suppose new motherhood had dulled my senses for it took me a second to realise what he was saying. “And you with brown eyes and fair hair? And I with brown eyes and red hair? Not a blue eye between us.”

“But-” I stuttered, and was interrupted by the midwife.

“Master Smith, babes are more often than not born with blue eyes. They change as the weeks go by.”

“Hold your tongue!” he snarled. The atmosphere changed the room in an instant. “Let’s see then, shall we? Let’s see if the child’s eyes turn brown like his father, or stay blue; a sure sign his whore of a mother is up to her old tricks. I said I’d raise your bastard once before, but I’ll not this time. Not if you strayed while living under my roof. No bastard boy is going to be called Thomas.”

“But, we had decided. He is yours Thomas. I swear to it. They both are yours.” I would have sworn anything to protect those babes, even that the blue eyes, in which I prayed I saw their real grey-eyed father reflected, were only a passing colour.

He pressed his face up to mine, his anger caused spit to escape as he said, and “The boy will not be called Thomas; understand?”

The babies were scared. I could feel them squirming on my chest, and soon their cries would join my husband’s.

“But what shall I call him?”

“It’s no concern of mine, Mistress Smith. You call the bastard what you will,” and he swept from the room, slamming the door behind him.

Standard
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter thirteen

Martha

I capitalise on my newfound confidence by spending the next day outside the flat for as long as I want. My first port of call is to the Castle Museum. As I arrive a tour group is just leaving from the reception so I slide into the back. As fascinating as the painstakingly kitted out reproduction Victorian Street is, it’s too late in time to bear any resemblance to the world Alice would have known, and it’s the old prison cells beneath the museum that hold the most interest.

Incarcerating both men and women, conditions were dreadful, and yet, depending on the true date of Alice’s arrest, if it happened at all, would dramatically alter the conditions in which she was kept. If 1823, as some sources seem to suggest, then she would have been in the old prison, the part that I stand in now with its bleak stone walls, damp impregnating the walls, and wardens often impregnating the female inmates.

But if in 1825, a new prison had been built in a Tudor Gothic style. Said to be the strongest building in all of England, it was built entirely from dark grey gritstone lending it a particularly forbidding appearance.

Nothing remains of this newer prison, but I can imagine that it was, in many ways, as grim as the old, and with executions taking place just outside in the courtyard, being brought here before trial must have really felt like the end. There must have been little hope in these walls.

In one corner is a little machine that looks rather like a cash dispenser. Closer inspection reveals it to be an online database, not unlike the one online in which visitors can search for names, specifically those of their family. I suppose there’s nothing quite like knowing there’s a sheep thief in the family.

After checking once again that Alice Smith comes up blank, I tentatively type in ‘Chamberlain’, and am rewarded with an entirely clean slate. Richard will be thrilled. ‘Blenkinsop’ reveals itself to be equally as blameless, although I would have been grateful for any snippet of information there, even a crime.

Lastly, reluctantly almost, although I can’t control myself, I type in ‘Martha’. A sad tale appears of Martha Chapel who was executed for murdering her illegitimate child by mangling it with her hands immediately after its birth in 1803. She went to the gallows protesting her innocence to the end, claiming, left alone to deliver her child, any harm was inflicted in panic.

Reading, I can feel the blood pumping in my ears, and my chest constricts with anguish; poor woman, poor child. After all those ghost stories too. Perhaps it is too soon for this; I am still too raw myself. Perhaps I might have found myself in a similar situation?

The thought is too hideous to consider and I force myself to brush it aside. Steadying my hands against the machine, hogging it despite a small child pushing at my elbow, I take a deep breath and try to clear my mind. But before I leave, I still have to ask a member of staff about the execution records online.

 

“I believe all of the records are on there for you to search,” says the middle-aged man I’ve collared. “Were you looking for anyone in particular?”

“Alice Smith,” I say. “I looked yesterday but couldn’t seem to find anything. And today I can’t either. There are plenty of Smiths but no Alice Smiths, and none around the dates I’m searching.”

“In that case, I’d say that she wasn’t here then.”

“But I’ve read, and been told, several times that she was,” I insist.

“I suppose you could speak to our archivist,” he says, a little doubtfully.

“Perfect.”

“You’ll have to make an appointment, mind, and even then, she might not be able to help you.”

“That’s fine, thank you,” I say, and take the business card he proffers.

“Oh, and you might find something in our gift shop.”

“Something?”

“Well, you know, a book or something.”

“Right, thanks.”

Leaving the unhelpful man behind, I venture into the gift shop, which, needless to say, was already on my to-do list. To not visit the gift shop is sacrilegious. A quick scan of the bookshelves reveals only one possible candidate: Tyburn Tales: The Criminal Chronology of York Castle.

Promising a carefully compiled list of prison documents, ancient papers and other authentic sources, including details of the crimes, trials and executions of every murderer, highwayman, rogue and rebel ever to swing from the York Tyburn, I hand it over to the cashier.

 

My next stop is the library and the parish records. Evie isn’t working on the reception desk, but by mentioning her to a woman upstairs in the archives, I soon find myself sitting at a solid wooden desk with a large green book in front of me: the records for Holy Trinity, Goodramgate. In spite of knowing otherwise, I also asked after Deepdene’s records, but was disappointed.

Armed with one name only, Alice Smith, I set to with vigour on Trinity’s archives. Fortunately, my degree has equipped me with the ability to decipher old-fashioned handwriting, or I might find my self-imposed task nearly impossible.

Dismissing anything earlier than 1800, arguing that for a woman to be described a ‘young’ she can’t have been more than 23 or 25 when she was executed, it seems at first that my efforts are to be thwarted.

If there was no husband and she was simply imprisoned for being insane, then you might expect to find a record of her baptism as Alice Smith, but if there was a husband, she was probably baptised under a different surname. Plenty of Smiths turn up, all of which I duly note down, but no Alices; and none with a different surname either.

The cramped scrawl takes time to read, and there are pages of entries before I stumble upon something with potential. In October 1824 I find “Thomas Smith, shoemaker, of Petergate, and Alice Haxby, of Bedern, banns, by W.L, he signs, she signs. W: Charles Haxby, Elizabeth Haxby.”

One entry. No more. And nothing concrete to indicate this is my Alice except a feeling. It is her; I know it is. And if it is, she was from Bedern. I can’t help a shudder run down my spine. I wonder if it was a hovel when she lived there? Perhaps she knew the stories of the abused orphans? So many coincidences. And there is no wonder her baptism isn’t recorded: Bedern is in a different parish to the Holy Trinity.

I check the date again – October 1824. She can’t have been executed in 1823. That, at least, is one story to cross off my list. Although, 1825 still remains a possibility, despite not turning up in the castle registers.

The record also reveals that Alice signs, meaning she signed her own name on the marriage certificate. Many of the people married in that year, male and female, simply made their mark. Was she educated? Or could she only write her name?

I presume the witnesses are her parents; it’s not an outrageous assumption to make that they would attend their daughter’s own wedding, and they give me a new lead in hunting for Alice’s baptism. I scrabble on the shelves for the Bedern parish records but after five minutes, I accept defeat.

“Oh, you won’t find many baptisms for Bedern; the chapel there had been taken over by the Minster by that time,” says the archivist sitting primly at her desk, a far cry from Evie. “You’ll find the parishioners were incorporated into Holy Trinity.”

“But I can’t seem to find a baptism and I know she existed. Here,” I say, pointing at the marriage entry. “Look, Alice Haxby, of Bedern.”

“Not all children were baptised at that time, you know.”

“I know, but, I don’t know how to explain this, but I think she would have been.”

The woman gives me a sideways glance. “If she was baptised, she would be in here,” she says, pulling the heavy book of Holy Trinity records towards her. “Married in 1824. Hmmmm. Have you searched the whole book?”

“I started at 1800.”

She tuts, “You need to go further back than that. They didn’t marry all that young then… Right, here you go.”

“What?” I say. “You’ve found her.”

“Right here,” and she places a finger on the book.

“But-”

“If you’re going to search for people, make sure you do it properly.”

My thanks freeze in my throat, but I force them out anyway, eager to read the text hidden under her figure.

“Alice,” I read. “‘1799 Dec 1, Alice d Charles and Elizabeth Haxby of Bedern. labourer by W.L.’ What does ‘by W.L. mean?” I ask.

“That would be the initials of the officiating clergy. There’ll be a key somewhere.”

I flip the book open to its front.

“See there, William Lund.”

“So the same man who married her to Thomas?”

“It would appear so. They were small communities then, close, her parish priest would have known her as well as any, I would imagine.”

I stare back at the entry. To see it here, in black ink, is to have further proof that she existed. Pulling a fresh sheet of paper in front of me, I start a timeline. She would have been 25 when she was married. I wonder what Thomas was like. I wonder if they were in love.

Now I have her maiden name, more and more baptism entries pop out at me: Elizabeth Haxby in 1800 through to Maria in 1818.

And in between the births, there are deaths too: Grace Haxby, born in 1805, buried less than a year later, a Thomas too, and a Maude. Thirteen children born and five of them buried before Alice, the eldest by this account, marries.

Everywhere I look today there is death; particularly that of children, of babies. It was a hard time to be a woman and a mother. Alice’s mother must have been exhausted.

“Martha,” comes a welcome voice behind me, before dropping to a whisper to repeat my name. “Whoops,” says Evie, with a smile, as the archivist glowers in her direction. “Sorry, Myra. I suppose I’m just not naturally quiet.” She turns her attention to me again. “Fancy a cuppa?”

 

The library has its own little café serving a more than passable cup of coffee and array of muffins. Feeling the need for a hit of sugar, I add two white spoonfuls to my coffee, and balance a double chocolate muffin on my arms as I join Evie on the comfy looking purple sofa she’s snagged us in one corner.

“Found anything good?”

I fill her in on all I’ve uncovered today as she absentmindedly leans over and breaks off chunks from my muffin.

“That’s awesome, Martha. And how did you sleep last night after our spooky ghost walk?”

“I was out like a light,” I say. “Although…”

“Go on.”

“It’s going to sound daft, but after you left, I stayed for a little bit and had a proper look at Holy Trinity’s graveyard-”

“And saw the ghost of the bad Sir Percy?!”

“Nope, but-”

“But what?”

“Stop interrupting me and I’ll tell you,” I say with a laugh.

“Sorry,” she says, looking chastened. “I’ll be quiet.”

“Good. So, I didn’t see Sir Percy, but I sort of saw… something. Just out of the corner of my eye,” I rush on. “Nothing definite, and certainly nothing I could put my finger on. Like a flash of movement, you know, and it was in Mad Alice Lane.”

“You saw her?”

“I don’t know if it was her. It was probably just a trick of the light, or something. I mean, we had just been on a ghost tour. I bet most people were seeing spirits everywhere after they left.”

“Maybe; maybe not.”

“And,” I pause, unsure how to go on.

“And?” she coaxes.

“It’s not the first time it’s happened.”

“That you’ve seen a ghost?”

“Evie, we don’t even know if it was a ghost.”

“But that’s what you think, right?”

“I don’t know.”

“And you reckon you’ve seen one before?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” I place my hands on my tummy, and weigh up the thoughts whirring in my head. I like Evie. I know Evie. And I think she’d understand. “Erm, did I tell you about my baby, Evie?”

“You have a baby?”

“No, I guess that’s the point.” I rush on before she can interrupt or offer condolences. “When Richard and I first moved here, I was pregnant. About four months or so. And then, one day, while I was exploring, I was in the Minster actually, I had a miscarriage; well, not really a miscarriage but an ectopic pregnancy. It was all quite complicated.”

“Oh God, Martha. That’s awful.”

“Thank you. Well, it was awful, and I still think about it every day. I try not to, but it’s harder than you might think.”

“No, of course. I mean, I understand. Well, I don’t understand but-”

“Evie, it’s ok. I know what you mean. The weird thing was when it was happening, and… well, ever since really, I’ve been hearing voices.”

“Voices? What kind of voices?”

“I don’t know. Normal voices.”

“Yes, but whose?”

“Not people who are really there, let’s put it that way.”

“Like imaginary ones?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Like ghosts?”

“Uh huh.”

“Really?!”

“I think so, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going crazy!”

“No. No. Don’t say that, Martha. I believe you.”

“I used to take a lot of meds though.”

“Did you? Like what?”

‘Oh, I forgot you study psychology. Umm, fluoxetine?”

“Prozac?”

“Yeah.”

“But you’re not taking it now?”

“No.”

“But you reckon you started hearing the voices and seeing things after you stopped?”

“Oh God, you do think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“No, not at all. I think it’s fascinating. I mean, let’s face it, Prozac is there to calm people down. I always felt that can deaden the senses, if you know what I mean.”

“Believe me, I do.”

“Well, maybe you were only able to access these, erm, what would you call them, emotions, after you’d stopped drugging yourself?”

“Definitely, except, it all seemed to start when I was losing the baby, I heard a voice then; lots of voices actually, but one that really called to me. The others sort of felt like overhearing a hubbub of conversation, but that first voice, it was like it was speaking for me only.”

Silence falls between us, and then Evie reaches out and wraps her arms around me. We stay there for several minutes, not saying a word, as I feel her heart thump against my chest, and her breathing in my ear. It’s the closest I’ve been to someone in weeks. “Oh, my love,” she says, as she pulls back. “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” I whisper, and wipe away the tears that have fallen on my cheeks with a sleeve.

“And since then? What have you heard?”

“That same one in particular that seems to be calling for me. I keep hearing my name, over and over. And then there are the dreams, and the flickers, but when I look, there’s nothing there, and sometimes, sometimes I just feel like there’s someone there, but there’s not.”

“Do you see things when you’re at home?”

“Sometimes. Again, it’s not really seeing anything, more of a sensation. And then there’s the voices again.”

“So who do you think it is that’s calling to you?”

“I think it might be Alice.”

“Alice? As in Mad Alice?”

“As in Mad Alice.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Well it makes sense, don’t you think? I’ve never experienced anything like it before, and then I move into her old house, and bang – I’m hearing things. Plus, in my dreams, I think she’s called Alice.

“I guess it makes sense.”

“Maybe. Or maybe I’ve finally lost it.”

“Hush. I don’t think you’re going mad.”

“Richard does, or, at least, he would do, if I ever told him any of this. He doesn’t know I’ve stopped taking my meds. He’d be furious. He likes a calm controlled wife,” I say, with a bitter laugh.

“He sounds like a peach!”

“Oh, he’s not all bad; not at all. It’s just, well, that’s another story,” I say.

“So what are you going to do?”

“About what?”

“About the ghosts, you numpty. About Alice!”

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

“I have the most brilliant idea.”

“Oh yes?”

“And you must absolutely promise to say no if it doesn’t feel right to you.”

“Ok.”

“I have this friend, a photographer. He’s a bit off the wall, like me. You’ll like him. Well, he mostly focuses on boring wedding stuff to keep the money coming in, but he loves history. He’s always on his hands and knees crawling around old buildings. We’ll still go to Deepdene as we planned, but in the meantime, why not get Isak around to see if he can capture anything on film?”

“Isak?”

“Yeah; my photographer friend. He’s really good, really nice, and I bet he’d love the chance to do this sort of stuff.”

“This sort of stuff?”

“Photograph the dead.”

“But Evie, I haven’t really seen any-”

“Martha, aren’t you interested?”

“Yes.”

“And don’t you want to know more?” I’m not so sure but I say yes anyway. “You can always change your mind, whenever you want to. Let me give him your number, then you can sort things out between you.”

It’s too much of a coincidence to think Evie’s Isak, this Isak, isn’t the very same photographer I’ve met already. I haven’t seen him since I lost the baby. To be honest, I haven’t given him a single thought, but now I do, I find I’m indignant.

Was it he who called an ambulance and looked after me? Did he come to the hospital with me? Richard certainly never mentioned him, but neither did any of the nurses. What did he do? Call an ambulance and then dump me on the paramedics? Or leave someone else to make the call while he got away as fast as he could to wash my blood off him? I don’t know how sure I am that I want to photograph the dead, but I do know I want to see Isak again, even if it’s just to give him a piece of my mind.

Standard
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter twelve

Alice

Almost every woman I know has lost a child. It is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, it’s more common than bringing one alive and kicking into the world, and even if you manage that miracle, to have a child reach its adulthood is considered good fortune. The fact that I had lost my baby troubled no one but myself; even dear Eliza was concerned only for me, I feared. I knew my husband cared not, and Ma thought it a blessing. After all, it was only a bastard child. And no one mourns for them. But I did.

Daily I found myself at the church of the Holy Trinity, sometimes without even knowing how. There was a bench in the graveyard placed for reflection and prayer. Sometimes I sat and stared into nothingness, other times I wandered from gravestone to gravestone, but always careful never to go close to the sight of my child’s own burial.

I must never forget that what Eliza and I did was an act of blasphemy. No bastard child, no unbaptised child, can be laid to rest in holy ground. I feared that to linger over the spot would be to bring unnecessary and dangerous attention to it, yet I knew that I was not the first mother to have committed such a crime. I would do so again.

When the weather was miserable and to sit outside would be to draw unwelcome notice, I gravitated to the church itself. Before my wedding, I had never known its interior. It was not my local church; I had no call to be there, yet I found the uneven flagstones and the unyielding hard wooden box pews a comfort.

To feel the cool surface as I sat was to feel grounded somehow and even the white-misted air that escaped my mouth, regardless of the outside temperature, brought succour. It was fitting to sit amongst the dead, the icy cold and austere interior when I had been brought lower than ever before. If the sun broke through the clouds and the glorious stained glass window in the east was brought alive in dancing rays of brilliantly alive colour, I would leave. I could not bear the sight of it and I would return to my duties across the street.

Duties that must not be forgotten and my husband saw to it that they weren’t. Every morning, as before, I rose before him to prepare his breakfast, often crossing paths with Simon, the apprentice, whose eyes I could not bring myself to meet, as he stoked the fires.

Every day I cleaned the house from floor to ceiling; every midday I presented Thomas with a plate of hearty food and Simon with his smaller one, while I chose not to partake. I knew I was becoming smaller, my husband remarked upon it. He did not even grant me an evening’s reprieve from his ministrations after I miscarried, only commenting on how pleasant it was to tup a wife who no longer looked like a pregnant sow.

An unfair comment, as at barely four months my stomach had only boasted a small round to it, but my heart grieved for the flatness that was indeed clear to see a mere day later. After all the fuss it had caused, my baby had left this world with barely a mark. And yet, it was only several weeks later that Thomas began to complain of the new angles in my body. My breasts, which had once shown themselves full of promise, were shrunk close to my chest, while my ribs and collarbones stuck sharply from under their thin skin covering.

There was no looking glass in the house, but reflections bore the truth of his remarks as cheekbones I had never known had stretched my face, gaunt hollows taking the place of rounded rosy cheeks. I had lost my looks, and my hair, so thick and golden, had begun to shed with every brush stroke.

I continued my wifely duties as best I could, not for the sake of the fat sweating pig that shared my bed each night, but for my own, with the knowledge that if I did not, I must surely go mad.

But despite my best efforts, Thomas was becoming increasingly infuriated by me: whenever the urge took him, he used me like a whore. I disgusted him. I was not the woman he had married. Even with a bastard in my belly, I had been lusted after for my fine looks, I had bettered myself by working for a fine family, and yet, within a few short weeks, I had been reduced to a haggard shell.

I couldn’t contradict him, and my silence, where once there would have been spirited retorts, angered him more and soon my arms were covered with raging red bruises which barely had time to fade to blue and purple before the next ones appeared. I sat on the bench in the churchyard, risking his wrath for my disappearance, and wondered how my life had ended there.

One day, as I sat, a soft rain began to fall. It was a gentle rain that if I closed my eyes and imagined as deeply as I dared, I could envisage as an embrace from someone, anyone. I lifted my face to the sky and prayed for some comfort or some advice.

Eyes shut, the world became alive to my senses; I could hear a bird trilling in a nearby tree, and the voice of the vicar from within. I fancied I could even hear the sound of the rain as it bounced off the grass beneath my feet, and as I listened closer, I heard another sound. Another voice.

“Alice,” it called.

The rain had intensified and indeed, now I could hear it bounce off the slats of the wooden bench, but when I opened my eyes, there was not a soul in sight, but still, I heard it.

“Alice.”

I craned my neck behind me, but no one. It was more persistent, more demanding and I knew that I must find the source. The rain was falling fast now, as insistent as the voice I heard and it blurred my vision.

From inside the church, the vicar appeared and beckoned me inside. We have become friends, of sorts, Rector Lund and I. I took a step forward to comply, as unthinkingly obedient as I had become, and yet, there was the voice, to the other side, away from the church.

Wrapping my shawl tight around my head, I quickly walked, not towards the church, nor towards the alleyway that would have brought me back to Low Petergate, but to the other, the second, that led me on to Goodramgate itself. I turned left almost immediately and was at Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate within moments.

I could no longer hear the voice but it was of no matter. I knew where I was going: down Fossgate and Walmgate until I reached Lawrence Street. I had to see Samuel. I had to tell him of the death of our child. He had to know.

 

By the time I reached the house, I had removed the shawl from my head. Sodden with water, it offered little protection against the elements, and long strands of my hair had fallen down on to my face in my mad dash across the city. It was exactly as I remembered; little wonder since it was barely two months since I left. How could so much happen in a month?

I stood on the street looking up at a house I was once privileged to call home. I never entered through the front door, not once in four years, but then, I never expected to. The delicate pale blue of the entrance hall was not for the likes of myself, except to sweep and mop its floors. I understood that, and even after Samuel and I became intimate, I never fooled myself that I might once be mistress of this house. I knew my place then, and I wish that I knew it still, but my mind was racing like a frightened horse.

I couldn’t stop staring at the façade and wondering what was going on behind the walls. Was Samuel even there? The clock on the church tower over the road proclaimed it to be a little after three in the afternoon. It would be a rare day to find him at home at that time.

My heart, temporarily buoyed, sank deep; deeper than I thought possible. My journey – my mad foolish, impulsive journey – was in vain. What could I have hoped for? – A joyous reunion? Yet I knew that it was he who had sent me away; he who had condemned me to my miserable existence while he returned to the sour safety of his wife. He could not want me now, even if he hadn’t betrayed me; and he certainly wouldn’t want me turning up on his doorstep in full view of his family dressed in clothes shamefully ragged.

Tears which had become so commonplace to me now mingled with the rain on my cheeks, and the salty taste on my lips brought vivid memories of a time when it was sweat, not tears, that ran down my cheeks as Samuel and I made love in the very room not a stone’s throw from here. Seeing the house now, seeing truly what I had lost and for what; nothing; was crueller than I could ever have imagined. Part of me raged and I was tempted to throw myself at the house, railing at Samuel and his treatment of me, but what would that prove? Who would that help? I forced my eyes from the house and turned back towards the city, its medieval walls in sight.

I heard my name called but I knew, as before, it was merely a figment of my mind. Samuel’s voice did not summon me from across the city. It was my own fancy, and a stupid foolhardy one at that. I didn’t search for the voice; there was no point. Even when it became stronger, louder, I continued onwards. It was only when a hand grasped my arm that I swivelled around.

“Alice,” he said. “Did you not hear me calling for you?”

“Samuel,” I said, before correcting myself. “Mr Tuke. I- I feared it was only my mind playing tricks on me, sir.”

“It was not your mind, Alice; it was I. Indeed, it is I.” He sounded forced, formal, and unsure of himself. He released my arm from its grip, and gingerly placed a hand underneath my chin, gently forcing my head up and my eyes to meet his. “Why did you leave me, Alice? Why did you go?”

“I-” I stammered, and found myself unable to answer.

“My wife told me you had gone to nurse your sister, but I felt certain that if Eliza had been sick, you would have told me of it. I felt certain of it, but then, when you didn’t return, as the weeks passed, I feared that perhaps you did not want to return, and I’m afraid I grew angry with you, Alice. I thought perhaps it was for the best, for you to leave and never return-”

“But Samuel,” I cut him off; passion had overtaken me. “I was told to leave. I was dismissed; my services no longer needed, by your wife, by Priscilla. She found out about us. I was disgraced.” I pulled my head from his hands, the shame of the situation made me turn my eyes away. “I thought it was you who had sent me away.”

“And I thought it was you who had left me.” He tried to pull me into his arms and I ached for his embrace yet I was painfully aware of our surroundings.

“No, Samuel. Not here; we cannot embrace. I am a servant in disgrace. You are the respected master of the house.”

Looking taken aback at the vehemence with which I pronounced these words, he took an uncertain step away from me, hands lying impotent at his side. As he did so, his eyes raked across my body, taking me in, in my entirety.

“Alice,” he said, a look of horror dawning on his face. “What happened to our child? What have you done to our child?”

“We cannot have this discussion in the street, sir,” I said, again.

“Then you must return with me to the house.”

“I can never return to the house,” I said.

“Priscilla is visiting this afternoon, with the elder children and I daresay, the younger are safely in the schoolroom. You shall have no trouble, I guarantee it, but Alice, I must know about the child.”

It was the desperation in his face that decided me; that, and knowing that he would share in my pain and misery upon hearing the truth. At last, I would be able to grieve with the father of my child. I headed towards the servants’ entrance.

“No, it must be the main,” he said.

“But what if someone should see us?”

“Far more chance of that if we use the back stairs,” and he held open the front door. I slipped inside and wondered if the grandfather clock looked as imposing to all visitors. He quickly ushered me into the Library. “I shall tell Roberts that I am not to be disturbed. You have nothing to fear.”

He returned in due course, and my fears were further allayed when I saw him turn the key in the lock. He gestured to the chaise longue but I was ashamed to sit on it in my sodden clothing. Instead, I took the footstool and was immediately conscious of a cruel parody of our former roles but there was no use moving once more; Samuel took his accustomed seat in the wingback chair.

“Tell me everything, Alice,” he said, and I began. I missed nothing out, from my dismissal at the hands of his wife to my recent marriage to Thomas. Samuel displayed little emotion until I came to the loss of our child. “A boy?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It came too soon and was too early to tell, but boy or girl, I would have loved it,” I said, fiercely. “I did not rid myself of it. The baby was mine, was ours, Samuel, and I held on to that when sometimes there seemed no other light thing to hold on to.”

“What happened-” he struggled over the words, and I longed to take him into my arms and offer comfort as I had done when Esther was taken from him. “What happened to the child, to the body?”

When I explained that the child had been buried in the graveyard at Holy Trinity, I was worried that he might disapprove, knowing his orthodox Quaker ways, but he only said, “It was done rightly, Alice. It was the right thing to do. God will be watching over. I only wish- I only wish that I could have been there for you. I only wish that you had not, are not, suffering as you are now. This Thomas Smith, he is a good man?”

I didn’t wish to tell Samuel of the intimate details of my marriage; not for propriety’s sake but for my own; the shame at being so used and my own fears that Thomas’ treatment of me led to the loss of the babe. Instead, I led him to believe it was a simple miscarriage. But even without divulging the full extent to which I was fallen, I could still take comfort from our shared grief at the loss of our child.

“He provides for me,” I answered. “And he would have provided for the child, I think.”

“And do you- do you care for him? What of these bruises, Alice?”

In all our time together, not once did words of love pass our lips, and with reason: to do so would have been folly. We both knew we were indulging in something that could never exist, not truly, not once exposed to the real world. Our affair offered us a respite from the toils of everyday life, yet I had loved Samuel, and I still did, far more than I thought possible. The love I felt for him was as strong as the revulsion I felt when Thomas touched me making my skin crawl where once it danced.

“My life is hard now, Samuel, harder than before, but Thomas took me in when no one else would. I do not care for him, but I owe him my life, I think.” And I realised that I did. For all my distaste of the man, he offered me a roof and food when even my family would, or rather, could not. If I had not married Thomas Smith, I did not know where I would be now, and I said as much.

“I wish,” he said. “I wish that you could come back and all would be as it once was.” The first piece of whimsy I had known from the man.

“That can never be, Samuel. You see that, don’t you?” And when I looked into his eyes, I realised that he did, but there was something else there, something other than grief and regret.

“I have missed you.”

“And I, you.”

In another move that surprised me, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me with passion on my forehead, my cheeks, my neck and when I felt his tongue pressing against my lips I responded as a dying man might to the offer of water.

“I know you are another man’s wife, Alice. I know that; and still I cannot stop myself.”

I collapsed into him, my arms flung tightly around his neck and I pulled him as close as I could for I never wanted to let him go again. We surfaced for air but immediately returned to our embraces, all thought of the household and the world beyond the locked door banished.

It was I who reached for the strings of his breeches first. His kisses had only inflamed my passion, not sated it. I could not have enough of the man I loved. My whole being was poured into that very moment, but even then I knew that it must be the last time. There could not be another.

As we lay in each other’s arms, sweat cooling on brows and with a feeling between my thighs much different from that inspired by my husband, he turned to me and whispered in my ear, “I love you, Alice Haxby.”

“And I love you, Samuel Tuke,” I said, feeling both a great lightening of my heart, and a sinking of my stomach, for I was no longer Alice Haxby, but Mrs Smith, and his words had a finality to them. He was not a stupid man. He knew that this must be the final time we met too.

“Samuel, I know we must not see each other again; I understand that, but can I ask one favour of you?”
“Anything.”

“I left here without my books. Would you please return them to me?”

“I don’t even have to search for them. Your boxes are here; their presence was a balm to me. Here; take them.”

“I cannot take all of them, but I will take the most precious.”

Unseen and unsuspected, I slipped out from the front door, pressing several copies close to my breast; a different woman from the one that entered, but, I wondered, a better one?

 

Standard
Writing

Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter eleven

Martha

“Excuse me?” says Evie.

“I used to live here,” I repeat.

“But…”

“I know. I can’t explain it either, but I know I used to live here, at Deepdene Hall. Look,” I say, and point to a room in the top left of the building where the second floor once was. “That was my bedroom. No; really, it was. And that,” I point to a window on the ground floor. “That was the grown up Drawing Room. I wasn’t allowed in there.”

“What else do you know?” she asks.

“It feels like more and more is coming back every second.”

The sight of this once-magnificent building, now reduced to an unloved shell is heart breaking, and I can feel tears welling up. Not very long ago, I would have faced this house and stood impassive, feeling, well, feeling very little. The emotion, the pain I feel now is preferable to that.

“I have to get closer,” I say. Evie grabs the sleeve of my coat.

“Hang on, it could be dangerous. You’ve no idea what state the building’s in.”

“Evie,” I say, and turn to look at her. “I have to get closer.”

While the front of the house with its stained golden limestone skeletal façade draws me in, a stronger instinct sees me walk past the Grecian portico with the tantalising remnants of a beautifully moulded frieze towards the rear of the house.

I’ve seen the front in the photo and it’s what the photo didn’t show that is now fascinating me. The sides of the house run metres back and as they do so, it seems that the damage decreases; several red brick arches still rise majestically from the ground and in some places, glass has survived in the windows, now broken and jagged.

I am desperate to go inside, but something is pulling me back, an emotion more potent than excitement: fear. Not fear for myself but of what I might find inside. I still can’t say how I know I lived in this house. Nothing makes sense.

My earliest memories are of living with my grandparents and mum in their pleasant semi-detached house in Milton Keynes. And while I was able to point out my bedroom to Evie, I have no memories of being there.

I am recalling facts to which I have no anchor other than instinct. I feel sure that the room was painted blue, but how I know this is a mystery. My skin is prickling, my hair standing on end and the fear takes over. I shouldn’t know this place, but I do. I shouldn’t know paint colours, but I do. The only person I can turn to for answers is my mother.

This is all too much to take in. To see the house like this, its bare bones on display, shockingly neglected and yet feel a connection to it, one that I can’t make sense of, is too much. I have to get away; to get to familiar ground.

Evie shows remarkable restraint on the drive home. I know she must be bursting with questions, yet she is considerate of the shock I’ve just received. She hands me a muffin as I get back into the car, saying only, “Sugar. You need sugar,” and then turns the radio on to play quietly in the background.

As we near the city, she asks, “Where can I drop you?”

“Oh, er, here is fine,” I say, hardly taking in my surroundings; my mind, a blank.

“Don’t be silly. I’ll drop you at home.”

Despite the daytime pedestrian zone, she braves the angry glares of tourists and locals alike (as well as a likely fine) to drive right to the door. Richard would have been proud.

“Here you go, my love. Would you like me to come in with you?”

“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”

I get out of the car and head towards the passageway before stopping and turning back to Evie.

“Thank you so much for everything today. I’ll,” I pause, “I’ll be in touch. I promise. I just-I just need to get some things sorted in my head.”

“Don’t worry about it. This is huge; it’s only natural you need time to process it all. Look, you have my number, and you know where to find me. Ok?”

“Ok.”

“And Martha?” she says before she rolls the window up. “Take care of yourself.”

I watch the car pull slowly away, dodging the same tourists she infuriated a mere minute ago, and steel myself for the conversation, or should that be confrontation, ahead.

 

I’m feeling so confused that when I see my mother sitting quietly on the sofa reading her book, I simply blurt out, “I’ve just been to Deepdene.” I let my words hang in the air and watch as she slots a bookmark into place, closes and places the book on to a side table.

“Deepdene,” she says, finally, after several minutes have passed.

“Yes, Deepdene Hall. Tell me about it, mother.” Her calm has shattered my own, and both the volume and the pitch of my voice rise. “Tell me about the home I had no proper memories of until today. Why did you lie to me? I asked you about it!”

“Oh, Martha. It’s complicated.”

“It’s complicated? Is that all you have to say? It’s complicated? I should bloody well think it is!”

“I’m not sure I can explain-”

“Try,” I interrupt. “Just try. Please.” My voice has softened, and I can see that my mother, my implacable controlled mother, is struggling, with emotions and to express herself. “Just try, please, mum. Tell me about Deepdene. Tell me about my home.”

She sighs and runs a hand over her hair, smoothing invisible strands into place, then pulls it down her face, stretching her features and covering her eyes.

“It was a lifetime ago,” she begins, “a lifetime ago.” She drops her hand to her lap. “A lifetime ago, Martha.” She straightens her back. “It doesn’t do to dwell in the past.”

“Mum, you owe me this. This is my past too. I need to know.”

“No, Martha, you don’t. Some things are better left alone.”

“You can’t be serious. You’re honestly not going to tell me about this- this incredible revelation?”

Her mind now made up, her features are once again tranquil.

“No, Martha. I’m not.”

I stare at her in disbelief, and anger; anger that quickly makes itself known.

“Then I have to ask you to leave.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me – leave. Pack your bags, you’re no longer welcome here.”

“But- but I’m your mother. I’m here to look after you. I-” Her tranquil mask has slipped once more and she appears genuinely dismayed.

“I didn’t ask you to come here. Richard did. If you have nothing to say to me, then I have nothing to say to you, except I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee, and I expect you to be gone by the time I’ve finished it.” Seeing no movement, my anger and heart harden. “In fact, I’ll help you pack,” I say, and walk briskly through to the master bedroom with its twin beds.

My mother’s suitcase is sitting neatly by the end of the bed, and throwing it open, I grab every item of hers that I can see and dump them inside. From the en-suite, I take her toothbrush and wash bag, both of which are chucked unceremoniously on the top.

“Right; there we are,” I say. “If I’ve missed anything I’ll send it on. I’ll call you a taxi to take you to the station immediately. I’m sure there’ll be a train back to Milton Keynes in the next few hours.”

I know I’m being cruel, but I don’t care. My unflappable mother is staring at me with her jaw slack and mouth hanging open. She has never seen me like this; timid obedient Martha with barely two iotas of a personality to rub together, and bizarrely, I am feeling energised by this encounter.

I can feel the emotions bubbling up inside me, and it’s a joy to feel something, anything! I can’t restrain the smile that starts at my mouth and reaches my eyes, and I imagine that must hurt my mother even more. Let it.

The taxi arrives five minutes later and after handing the driver a crisp ten pound note and my mother’s suitcase, I turn on my heel without even a perfunctory attempt at a goodbye, and shut the outer door of the snickelway behind me.

 

Of course, it can’t last, this temporary euphoria. There is no denying that my mother is keeping secrets from me; secrets that I have a right to know about. A few years ago I might have called my grandfather and asked him; we were always very close, but he’s gone. I have no one to turn to. Richard is out of the question. My phone is sitting on top of the kitchen counter, and instinctively I dial Evie’s number and hold my breath until she answers.

 

She’s at the door within thirty minutes.

“So, tell me, what did she say?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Pretty much. I mean, she admitted that I was right, that I did know Deepdene. She even said that we’d lived there once and then she clammed up. She refused to say anything more, so I-”

“So you?” Evie prompts.

“So I asked her to leave,” I say, a little worried about her reaction.

“Well done, you,” she says. “So then what?”

“Well, then I helped her pack… to be honest, I sort of just threw everything in her suitcase, called a taxi and hustled her out of the door. She’s probably still waiting for a train at the station now.”

“Good for you. I know it may seem tough, and I don’t really know much about the situation, or even you really, but you deserve to know the truth, especially about your own past. Now what?”

“I don’t really know. I feel like I’ve reached an impasse. Apart from my mum, there’s no one else I can ask. I thought, maybe, that if you didn’t have anything else planned, and if you wanted to, that is, that maybe you might fancy driving back out there?”

“Are you kidding? I’d love to. This is turning out to be a bigger mystery than any of those ridiculous books I read.” She looks at the clock on her phone. “It’s probably too late to go back out there today. I know it doesn’t take too long to get there, but it’ll be getting dark soon and it’s probably not the best idea to be wandering around an abandoned and fire damaged house in the pitch black. Don’t worry though,” she rushes on, seeing my slightly crestfallen face, “we’ll go back as soon as we can. I’m not working on Saturday. We can go then. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Right, not for nothing do I work at a library,” she says, pulling an A4 pad out of her sloppy handbag, shortly followed by a chewed up biro. “Don’t get me wrong,” she gestures at my tablet, “I bloody love those things, but somehow, you can’t beat good old pen and paper.”

“A girl after my own heart,” I reply, and we share a smile.

“A kindred spirit.”

“Like Diana and Anne,” I say, almost without thinking.

“Exactly! Good old Green Gables,” she says. “I knew when I met you at the library that we’d be friends. Let’s get down to business. What do we know?”

As I had done a few days ago, she writes Deepdene in black capitals in the middle of the page and encircles it. Then follows it with my name – Martha Chamberlain. “And what’s your maiden name?

“Hislop.”

“And your mum’s?”

“That is hers, she changed back to it after my dad left.”

“Right. So what was his name?”

“Giles. Giles Blenkin-”

“Blenkin-what?” she asks.

‘Blenkinsop,” I say. “That can’t be a coincidence.”

“What?”

“Hang on. I’ll be right back,” and I dive into my room where I left the few print outs I’d made from my library visit the other day. “Look,” I say, and thrust the copy of the newspaper article in front of Evie.

“Where am I looking?”

“Here! Listen. ‘More than 30 fire fighters battled’, blah blah blah, ‘injuring two of its inhabitants,’ blah blah blah, ‘The hall, which was built in the mid 1800s, is the family home of the Blenkinsops.’” I look up triumphantly. “The Blenkinsops!”

“Jesus, Martha. So that means, your family, well, it can’t be a coincidence, can it?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, but I’ve always been Martha Hislop and I’ve never known my mum as Mrs Blenkinsop, just Hislop too.”

“What else does it say?” she returns her gaze to the crumpled sheet of paper in her hands.

“Not a lot more really. I mean, there wasn’t anything else about the fire. Not that I could find anyway.” I’ve also brought the print out of the Wikipedia entry. “This is everything.”

“There has to be more than that,” she says. “I refuse to believe that a bloody great country pile burnt down with two people injured and that’s the last we hear of it; maybe a hundred years ago, but not today. It’s nose to the grindstone, my dear.”

“But I’ve already searched everywhere,” I protest.

“Not everywhere,” she says. “What about the parish records?”

“They’re not online, and I couldn’t find anything in the library, and aren’t they just births, marriages and deaths?”

“Maybe, but they’re a starting point, and it’s not unusual for them not to be online, unless they’re central York parish records, most churches still keep them themselves. We have to find out which parish Deepdene is in. I bet you anything we can find out more there.”

Evie, clearly a much better researcher than I, needs only a few minutes on my laptop to find out the church we need to target. “Look, they even have their own website. Yes, you’re right, the records aren’t online but I’m sure if we give the vicar a call, he’ll let us come by one day.”

She adds, “I can flash my York University I.D., and you can flash, well, whatever the good Lord gave you, although I don’t know if that’ll help much in this case! Now, on to the Blenkinsops themselves. What have you found?”

I angle my tablet in her direction, “I can only find John Blenkinsop, and I think he might be a little old.”

“‘John Blenkinsop,’” she reads. “‘Born 1783 was an English mining engineer and an inventor of steam locomotives, who designed the first practical railway locomotive.’ Granted he may be a little old, but it’s a step in the right direction. He was from Leeds. It’s the right area, sort of. Maybe he’s a relative? And you know, Martha, there are other websites than Wikipedia, you know. It’s not the fount of all knowledge.”

“He never married, so he can’t be a relative,” I retort.

“Get back to your research, girl,” she says. “Come on, chop chop.”

 

We spend the new few hours amusing ourselves with my potential relatives, from Arthur Blenkinsop, a Labour MP, to Christopher, an Anglo-German musician, and Ernie, a footballer.

To Evie’s great mirth, Bertie Blenkinsop is revealed to be a ‘softie’ and enemy of Dennis the Menace, but later on in the day, we stumble across both Blenkinsop Castle and Blenkinsop Hall.

“It looks like the Blenkinsops were quite a big family in Northumberland,” Evie says. “Look, there’s a castle up here. And listen, ‘Blenkinsopp Castle is a fire-damaged, partly demolished 19th-century country mansion incorporating the ruinous remains of a 14th-century tower house located above the Tipalt Burn approximately one mile from Green head, Northumberland. It is a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.’”

She scans the page in front of her. “It wasn’t in use by the early 19th century, and it was only in 1877, that William Blenkinsopp Coulson built the mansion house, and then basically sold all their estates. It was a hotel in the 20th century but in 1954, a fire caused major damage and a lot of it was demolished.”

“Do you think they have anything to do with me?”

“I’m not sure. They’re Blenkinsopp with two ‘p’s, but I bet there’s some sort of connection there.”

 

It isn’t too long before Evie and I hit another dead end with our research. Too much to suppose a connection with every Blenkinsop we uncover, yet too little concrete evidence to proceed in any direction leaves us both frustrated; Evie the more so.

“I can’t believe that there’s nothing more written about Deepdene Hall somewhere! I mean, it’s a bloody great Regency mansion, not a mews flat in some poky little village somewhere. It has history! It was burnt down in an unexplained fire, for God’s sake. Are you sure you don’t fancy confronting your mother again?”

“Not any time soon,” I say.

“Fair enough. I don’t blame you one little bit. The only thing I can think of doing right now is to get back to Deepdene as soon as we can and see what we can uncover there.” She looks at me, and pokes an elbow into my ribs, “Oh, how lovely it must be to be a lady of leisure, able to go wherever you want, whenever you want.”

“Overrated,” I say. “Highly overrated.” Although I’ve known Evie a short time, her infectious personality has led us into a friendship closer than any I’ve known in a long time and I’m enjoying her banter. It is an essential ingredient in my life when everything else seems so dark, and she is rapidly becoming the only person I feel I can turn to, and trust.

“And you’re forgetting, not only would I not even have found it in the first place without you, I don’t have any way of getting there, without booking a bloody expensive taxi with a driver who thinks I’m probably batty!”

“Cheapskate. It’s always the rich who pinch the pennies the most.”

“Watch the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves,” I intone gravely. “A great favourite of Richard’s.”

“He sounds like a hoot.”

“Well,” I say, almost reluctantly, “He has his good points too.”

“I can see that,” she says, gesturing at the flat. “This place is gorgeous. I’d kill to live in a flat like this.”

“Oh, he hates it here,” I say.

“Really? How come?”

“Too small, too old, too many corners and beams, and not any parking for his BMW.”

“Barmy. Utterly barking. I think it’s fabulous. You can really imagine that people once lived here before, you know? It’s got such a sense of history.”

“Although I doubt they were sitting on cream sofas,” I say.

“True,” she admits. “I’ve always wondered though, who Alice was.”

“Excuse me?”

“Alice. You know, Mad Alice. The name of the snickelway.”

“God, I’d forgotten about her. When we first moved here, I noticed that and wanted to find out more, but then, somehow,” I can’t help but look at my stomach. “Other things got in the way.”

“There’s a story about her,” Evie says. “I can’t remember all of it, but there was something about being hanged for being insane, which was actually a crime then. She was quite young apparently, this Alice. I wish I could remember more. I vaguely remember it from one of those ghost tours I went on when I was little. Friend’s birthday or something.”

“Not a happy ending then?”

“Not by those accounts, no. Mind you, back then, whenever ‘when’ was, there weren’t many happy endings all over, I gather. Can’t you just see her, here, living in this very room?”

“Poor thing,” I say. “I wonder what really happened.”

“Hey! That’s an idea!”

“What is?”

“Well, we can’t find out any more about your mysterious Blenkinsops here, and Deepdene is going to wait, so why not find out about Alice? Let’s go on one of those ghost tours.”

“What? Now?”

“Why not? Have you got anything else to do?”

“Erm,” I look around at the flat, now empty of both my mother and my husband. “My diary is wide open.”

“Right then. Wrap up warm, it’s going to get cold.”

 

The air is just as bitter as Evie said it would be, and I tuck my cashmere scarf closer to my chin.

“Now, they’re a few of those ghost tour things; the tourists bloody love them. Do you mind which one we go on?”

“I’m just following you,” I say.

“I think there’s one that meets near here, down by the Shambles. Let’s walk and find out.”

Any uncertainty we have is dispelled when we come upon a man dressed in a black frock coat, black top hat resting on his head, and silver topped cane resting lightly in his hand. Quite a large group has gathered around the man and his companion, likewise attired.

“Gentlemen and gentlewomen, welcome to this, the definitive ghost tour of York, Europe’s most haunted city. First things first, the money.”

After taking a fiver from each of us, and strapping a brightly coloured band of paper around our wrists in return, we follow our guide as he leads us first to Stonegate and a house supposedly haunted by a young girl who fell head long down three flights of stairs, breaking her neck and perishing. With the sad, rather than gruesome, tale related we walk to our next destination, our group’s path crossing that of a rival’s, whose leader sports a gigantic piratical hat, complete with a profusion of feathers. I catch a snippet of his tale, and am disheartened to hear a different one to ours.

“Don’t look so glum, chum,” says Evie, catching sight of my face. “There are plenty of ghosts to go round. We can jump on his tour another time. We’ll get to Alice, don’t you worry.”

“And now, we bring you to one of the city’s sorriest tales. See that tiny window there? Those lucky, or unlucky, enough have claimed to see the face of a young girl, crying and scratching at the glass, begging to be released. Alas to no avail, for when the child lived here, plague had stricken the city, and when one of her parents fell ill, the house was quarantined. No one could come in or out. And one by one, each member of her family lay dying, except the girl, who recovered. But she was the only one. And locked in a house which could not be opened. Unheard, and abandoned, with the bodies of her decaying family around her, she eventually starved to death.”

Evie slips a hand into mine. The guide falls silent. He paints a vivid picture. When he moves on, with the more eager of the group following at his heels, Evie and I hold back, until it is just the two of us, looking up at the tiny pane of glass crisscrossed by wood.

“It’s not so very hard to believe, is it?” she says.

“Sadly, no.”

“Come on, or we’ll miss the next one, although, by the direction he’s taking us, he’s only going to tell us about the Roman soldiers, and I could tell you about that!”

She’s right, and we re-join just in time to hear of a worker in the cellar of a great house understandably startled to see an entire legion of Roman soldiers march past with their legs cut off at the knee. It was only when the cellar was further excavated that the Roman road, exactly knee depth beneath the current floor was discovered.

“Is that true?” I whisper to Evie.

“Apparently so. It only happened in the sixties. The old guy, Harry, who saw them, he’s still around. Swears by his story.”

“So what’s next?” I ask. “You seem to know most of these stories as well as he does.”

“Some of them have a habit of staying in your head,” she says.

“But not Alice?” I ask, sadly.

“So it would seem. Sorry about that. But we’ll soon get to the bottom of Alice’s story. I have no doubt! Well, I’d say, by the route he’s taking, we’ll be going to Bedern next.”

“I remember that!” Evie looks questioningly at me. “When we first got here, I did this sort of walking tour thing, and I remember coming here. It creeped me out.”

“I’m not surprised. It still creeps me out. The area was basically a slum, and a pretty bad one at that. That building there, well before it was built, there was kind of an orphanage school place, and at some point, it was run by a really nasty piece of work, a drunk. He used to starve the children.”

“A running theme,” I add.

“A running theme,” she agrees. “And beat them as well, of course. Like most drunks, he could present a charming exterior to those with power, but rumours soon started that several children had actually died at his hands. The bodies, it was claimed, were stored in a big cupboard in the cellar of the building, and he bribed a gravedigger to do the dirty for him, but when he was finally investigated, no bodies were ever found.

“When the old place was torn down, excavators had a pretty scary time of it; one guy felt a tap on his shoulder but there was no one there when he turned, but, when he was undressing that night, he noticed bruise marks of where the ghostly fingers had touched him. Eventually, a pit was discovered, filled with the skeletons of children.”

“God, that’s awful!”

“Yup. People say you can hear their cries at night, or sometimes they slip their hand into yours as you walk past for some reassurance.”

I shiver, and clench my fist against intruders.

“So many ghostly children.”

“Well they were vulnerable,” Evie says.

The group in front of us screams as a man dressed in a ghoulish mask jumps out of an alley as they trickle past.

“They don’t really need the theatrics,” I say. “It’s bad enough on its own.”

“Yeah, but it’s more tragic than scary, you know? They want their punters to leave with a bit of a thrill, not on a downer.”

“I guess, but I can’t help feeling it cheapens the stories, somehow.” Evie nods. We stop in front of a grand stone fronted theatre. “What now?”

“I’m not sure.”

Our guide, standing on a stepladder he has been carrying around with him to ensure we all get a good view, begins, “We all know the stories of monks who got up to all sorts, but this time, it was a naughty nun. This used to be part of St Leonard’s Hospice, a medieval hospital where nuns cared for the sick. This nun got a bit carried away in her duties, and wound up pregnant.

“Terrified of what would happen to her, she fled, but was unluckily captured. When her superiors found out her crime, they decided to make an example of her. Forbidden from spilling blood, instead, they simply walled her up alive and left her to die. The Grey Lady, as she’s become known, haunts the theatre which now lies here-”

“Ugh,” I turn away, sickened. “Did they really do that kind of thing?”

“I guess they probably did, although whether this particular story happened is another issue entirely. Look, maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.”

“No,” I say, firmly. “I’d have just been sitting in the dark on my own stewing otherwise. At least this way I know there are people a lot worse off than me!”

 

Over the next hour, we’re taken past haunted alleyways and told more gruesome tales but none of them hit as hard as those first few. I suppose there is only so much terror one can take, and I’m about to think we’ll have to endure another night like this on another tour to gather any more information on Alice when our guide starts to lead us back in the direction of my flat. He stops us right outside.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Evie stage whispers to me, and grips my arm.

But instead of turning to Mad Alice Lane, the guide turns the other direction, to Holy Trinity Church.

“There are two ghosts associated with this church, but the most famous is Sir Thomas Percy who had the misfortune to fall foul of Elizabeth I. Foolishly involving himself in a plot to oust his queen and replace her with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, and still more foolishly, getting himself caught, he was hauled to prison, where his head and body parted company with the help of an axe.

“His head, as was a traitor’s right, was stuck on a pike on top of Micklegate Bar for all to see, but in the dead of night, a loyal supporter stole the head, and returned it to the graveyard here for burial in holy ground. Unfortunately, a second man, less loyal than the first, then reclaimed the head for a reward, returning it to the authorities. Now, poor Sir Thomas Percy wanders the graveyard desperately in search of his head.”

On cue, a headless man emerges from the gloom scattering the listeners near and far with shrieks of mirth, and the tour disperses.

“That’s it?” I say. “Nothing about Alice, and we’re so close!”

“Maybe he knows the story but just hasn’t told it tonight. Come on, let’s ask him.”

We approach the guide who is neatly stowing his folded stepladder away.

“Did you enjoy the tour, ladies?” he asks, still in his guide patter.

“Er, yes,” says Evie. “Very much. We were just wondering one-”

“Two,” I interrupt.

“Er, yes, two things.”

He looks at us patiently, and Evie turns to me.

“You said there were two ghosts associated with the graveyard, but you only mentioned Sir Percy.”

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” he looks rather crestfallen. “I keep meaning to take that part out, it’s hardly an interesting story, but you know how it is with a script – once you’ve learned the lines, they tend to stay with you.” I stare back at him, waiting for the answer.

“So, the second ghost?” Evie prompts.

“Not much to tell, I’m afraid. People simply claim to have seen a woman dressed all in black walking around the graves.”

“And that’s it?”

“Apparently she scans the names of some of the graves, and also looks at the ground as well.”

“Oh.”

Eager to please, he offers us some more, “She only started to appear after the Second World War, so people think she’s looking for someone who died during then.”

“But the graves are all much older than that, aren’t they?” I say.

“Are they? Oh. Well, ghost stories…” and he shrugs his shoulders.

“Do you know anything about Mad Alice Lane?” asks Evie, taking over, and I point to the snickelway across from us to emphasise her words.

“Yes, I do remember something about it, although, like this story, there’s not a great deal to tell… Like most of them, there are several versions.”

“Tell us them all, please,” I say, touching his sleeve lightly with my hand. He glances uncertainly at my fingers, and I withdraw them. “I live there, you see.”

“Oh. Well, let’s see, you see how it’s also called Lund Court? It wasn’t always known as Mad Alice Lane before that. Until proper city maps were drawn up, names shifted a lot, changing several times in a single generation, before Alice Smith apparently lived there, it was officially nameless.”

“Nameless?”

“Yes.”

“So difficult to trace?”

“I would imagine so, but then again, maybe not. York’s not a very big place, and it wasn’t then.”

“Then?”

“When Alice lived here. Early 1800s it was, I think. Some people say that she was just a crazy old woman who used to jump out at people from the shadows; you could be executed for being insane then, and that’s what happened; others say she murdered her husband and that’s what did for her in the end. Whatever it is she did, she certainly left her mark.”

“And that’s it? That’s all you know?”

“That’s all I know, I’m afraid. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another tour leaving in ten minutes.” With old-fashioned charm, he touches the brim of his hat, hoists the stepladder on to his shoulder and walks away in the direction of the Shambles.

 

“So that’s it then?” I say. “That’s Mad Alice?”

“No, that’s just everything that he knows. And we didn’t know her surname before, or when she lived here.”

“True.”

“It’s a start, and it’s something to do until I’m free to go to Deepdene with you.”

“You’re right.” I say, and mull the idea over in my head. The name of the snickelway had certainly caught my attention earlier, and with a project to focus on, perhaps my thoughts won’t stray so much to my peanut? Besides, as Evie had jokingly pointed out, I am a lady of leisure; what else will I do with my time?

“Christ. I’d better get going,” says Evie, suddenly. “It’s pitch black already and I’ve still got some research to do tonight. Hey ho, the show must go on, despite other, far more intriguing, distractions. I’ll see you at the weekend, Martha. Then it’s Operation Deepdene, all hands on deck!”

She casually throws her arms around me in a hug, and walks off into the darkness while I stand alone, except for strangers, with my home and Alice’s on my left, a graveyard on my right.

A strong iron gate bars my way into the graveyard and I press my face between the bars. It should be eerie, but like so many of the stories of tonight, it is simply sad and rather lonely. There is no black clothed figure walking from headstone to headstone, and certainly no beheaded nobleman. I turn away reluctantly, almost mesmerised by the black, and as I do so catch a flicker out of the corner of my eye.

I spin my head to face the snickelway home, and then scour the street. It has emptied. I peer as hard as I can into the gloom trying to make out what caught my attention. Perhaps another flicker, but I’m not sure. I narrow my eyes, and step closer, and stifle a scream as a hand is placed on my shoulder.

“Martha,” says Richard, looking surprised to see me. “Where have you been?” He guides me down Mad Alice Lane and through the courtyard to the front door. “Where’s your mother?” he says, as we walk into the flat, he puffing slightly at all the stairs.

“She’s left.”

‘Left?”

“Yes. On a train this afternoon.”

“What? Why?”

“Let’s just say we had a disagreement and leave it at that.”

“Oh,” he says. “Oh.” He looks rather stupidly at me, but for once, I don’t feel forced to elaborate. “Oh, right then. I suppose I’ll move back from the hotel.”

“If you like.”

“Oh.” He hangs his navy cashmere coat carefully on the stand by the door and sets the briefcase at his feet. “Supper?”

“I expect Mrs Gilbert has prepared something for you, Richard. It’ll be in the fridge as always.”

“Oh. Have you eaten already?”

“No, but I’m not hungry. In fact, I have some work to do.”

“Some work?”

“Yes,” I say, taking sneaky pleasure in his bewilderment, both at my manner and my words. “Some work.”

 

My laptop is still whirring faintly, and armed with a surname and some idea of date, it isn’t long before I uncover some more about Alice. One blog, last updated years before, gives me two specific dates of her supposed execution at York Castle – 1823 or 1825, yet, when I click on the latter’s website and search the archives for hangings, there is no record of an Alice Smith.

I widen my search to include the entire history of the castle, but still nothing. It’s far too late to call the staff there and ask if the online record is a complete one, but I make a note to do so in the morning.

I wonder if she was hanged under a different surname. Another search reveals only one Alice involved in an execution, yet this is Alice Riley, whose throat was slashed by her estranged husband; an Alice Harrison was transported in 1774 for stealing three silver spoons; three further Alices – Cooper, Whitehead and Banks – were the victims of theft, while several more were proclaimed debtors. 22 people of the name ‘Smith’ were executed, yet all, unhelpfully, men, and none in the right year anyway.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the stories are just that, stories. Rather like my investigations into Deepdene and the Blenkinsops, I have hit a brick wall, and yet, unlike those, a list is starting to form in my head about what I can do about that: there are the parish records to uncover, surely living in such proximity to Holy Trinity, Alice must have been a parishioner there; and then there is York Castle itself. There are concrete records I can get access to, for free, in the morning.

Standard