Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter two


At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time, but with Eliza in better health, and the little ones to help her, it was decided I’d be of more use earning a regular wage in a respectable house. It was Ma who heard of a position with the Tukes; Lord only knew how, but when that woman set her mind to something, it had a way of coming to pass.

Set a little ways out of the city, through the old Bar on Walmgate, 29 Lawrence Street, or more commonly, the Tuke House, was a fine imposing red brick building. Standing three floors tall, it was pleasing to the eye with big windows to the front, an impressive porch with a glossy blue front door with a shiny brass knocker and knob, additional wings each side and strong iron railings set in a stone wall encasing it. It couldn’t have been more different than my home in Bedern. I’d be both glad and lucky to get a place here.

I caught myself before anyone saw me staring like a fool, and searched around for the servants’ entrance, which I found to the right of the house: a gate in the railings with a staircase swept clean leading down to the kitchen and cellars. I wished I had the chance to knock on the door and compose myself, but it was standing ajar to let a fresh breeze through and I was spotted almost at once.

By rights, it should have been the cook to interview me for the job as kitchen maid but it was the housekeeper, a Mrs Nelson, who stood across the scarred and stained oak table in the sweltering heat of the kitchens and addressed me. Apparently there was some misunderstanding. There was no job for me as a kitchen maid, there was, however, an opening for a housemaid.

“A housemaid, ma’am?”

“Mrs Nelson,” she corrected me. “And yes; that’s right, Alice. Mrs Murray, our cook, is training up the kitchen maid Eileen to join her in the kitchen properly; she has no wish to enter into house service,” she said, rather testily, implying that the loss was Eileen’s.

I tried desperately to recall what my ma said about housemaids. I knew they were higher up the pecking order than kitchen maids, and I reckoned that meant a bigger wage too.

“You’re a little old to be starting in service.”

“Yes, ma’a-Mrs Nelson. I’m used to helping my ma. She takes sheets and the like in, but our Eliza is fit to be helping her now, but she’s still delicate, like. They reckoned I was the best fit, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

She nodded, and took my hands into hers, turned them over.

“Strong hands, used to hauling wet sheets around, I’ll be bound. Fine looking girl too; that’ll give Nanette something to think about. No shame in having you above stairs. Flatten that accent off. Yes, you’ll do.”

I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I had even been holding. Never one to mince her words, Ma had said I’d be more suitable than Eliza, not just because I was stronger, but because of my looks. The only one of the Haxbys to have fair hair, today it was pinned in a thick flaxen coil to my scalp, and while my hands may have been chapped from the washing, my skin was clear with rosy cheeks I’d pinched not a minute before, my eyes bright and my teeth my own without a rotten one to be seen.

“Yes; you’ll do. You’ll start Monday.”

“This Monday?”

“Do you have somewhere else to be?” she said, with a hint of a snort.

“No, no; Monday is grand. Thank you very much, Mrs Nelson,” and I bobbed an uncertain curtsey, unsure of what I was to do.

“You don’t curtsey to me, girl, just the family. Now, mind you’re here by the dinner bell on Sunday evening, Alice.”

She saw me looking down at my brown serge dress; my mother’s best but even in that light I could see the patches and darns, as well as the fabric worn thin on one of the elbows, while my shoes were held together with wishful thinking rather than substance.

“You’ll be provided with a uniform, like the rest of the girls. It’ll come out of your wage. A day dress, and one for afternoons and evenings; which you’ll be expected to wear on Sundays, and we’ll get you a pair of good solid leather shoes. Of course, you’ll bring your own stockings and shifts.”

I wondered how we’d manage that. The few items of clothing I did own would hardly be considered acceptable or appropriate attire in this household.

“And you’ll have your day off once a month. Any questions? No. Well, we’ll see you on Sunday, Miss Haxby. And welcome to 29 Lawrence Street.”


Ma organised stockings and a shift almost as good as new; for there they were, sat on top of the bed Eliza, Hannah and I shared, with the rest of my bundle; a bible taking pride of place.

“A bible, Ma?” I asked.

“They’re good folk, the Tukes. Respectable, like, but I don’t want you to be a party to their Quaker ways. Nowt wrong with the way we do things here, if you ask me, and you’d do well to remember that, my girl. This is an opportunity for you to better yourself, and no mistake. You get out of this filth, and don’t you look back.” She gestured to the Bible, “Thought it would be good if at least one of us could learn to read the thing.”

“Ma,” I said. “Don’t be daft. I’ll come back and see you on my day off; see you, Eliza and all the rest of them. I ain’t leaving you behind.”

“Hmmm,” was her response. “You’d best be going if you want to be there in time.”

“Yes, Ma.” I gave her a quick peck on the cheek; we were not a kissing family, nor a hugging one for that matter but I’d never left home before. Never spent a single night apart from my family.

For 19 years I’d fallen asleep to the grunts, farts and the moans of three, four, five, 10 other people; been comforted from bad dreams by the warmth of my sister, Eliza, and done the same for her. But that night I’d be sleeping in a house of strangers.


The work turned out not to be too bad; I’d done worse. Lord knows that having your hands in a barrel of sudsy water for hours at a time will teach you the meaning of pain when you’re left with cracked and bleeding palms that never get the chance to heal up properly.

My day began before dawn but that was no change, indeed, I liked to be up with the sun. Rightly, the work should have been divided almost equally between Rachel, the upper housemaid, or head housemaid as she liked to be called, and myself, but I was not trusted upstairs yet; not to the bedrooms and such. I didn’t speak flat enough; never mind the hours Mrs Nelson nagged me over it. My ‘t’s weren’t what they ought, while my ‘h’s also left a lot to be desired. I’d get it in the end though; I’d be damned if I didn’t.

Instead, I headed down the backstairs from the attic room I shared with Rachel and Nanette, who turned out to be the lady’s maid, to the lower floor where the shutters were opened to let the light break in through the rooms. There was a very particular order in which my work was to be carried out, which both Mrs Nelson and Rachel were keen to remind me of.

“First there’s the shutters to be opened,” said Rachel. “And then you sprinkle some tea leaves-”

“Tea leaves?”

“Don’t interrupt me, Alice. Yes, tea leaves. It gives everything a nice fragrance. Sprinkle them over the floor like this, see? Push all the dust to the fireplace… No, move the fender out of the way first, you silly girl. That’s right. Now, in the summer you’d usually only have to clean the grate when necessary, but in the winter it has to be swept and laid before the family rise for breakfast every morning. Lay your cloth here. Now where did you put your box? You must keep it with you at all times, Alice. A housemaid’s box is her most prized possession.”

I looked disbelievingly at the wooden box at my feet. It contained black lead brushes, leathers, emery paper, cloth, black lead, and numerous other tools for the correct cleaning not just of the grate, but of the entire house. I couldn’t promise, but I was almost certain that it would never become my most prized possession, but I got to my knees as Rachel demonstrated, sweeping the remaining ashes into a pail to go to the kitchen.

“And now you must blacken the grate. No, not the emery paper, that’s only for the bars! Get the tin of black lead. That one. Now lay it on with the soft brush. Get into all the nooks.”

All the rubbing was beginning to bring a glow to my cheeks so I stopped for a moment to roll my sleeves up.

“Alice! What on earth do you think you’re doing? Stop that at once!”

I paused, guiltily caught with my right hand at my left wrist.

“You must never be anything other than perfectly dressed at all times. To fail to do so is a disgrace. The master and mistress have no wish to see you with your arms exposed like a tavern girl or a slattern. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Rachel. Sorry, Rachel.”

“Good. Now, back to the grate. Polish off the blacking, and see how it begins to shine.”

I pulled my head back to observe the effect of the polishing, and while it didn’t shine like silver, there was a pleasing glow to the grate; something to be seen for the effort.

“I have a receipt for Brunswick black which will help move even the most stubborn marks.”

I gave her only half an ear as she mentioned linseed oil, turpentine and asphaltum, instead worked on getting a glow from the entire grate. I have always thought there something satisfying in watching dirt disappear; a useful trait in a housemaid, I think. When it was polished to mine, and Rachel’s, liking, she turned my attention to the lighting of the fire.

“You’ll find Mrs Nelson and I differ in our methods. She prefers the older practice of first laying cinders, followed by paper, dry wood, and finally pieces of coal, before setting light to the paper. By all means try her way. You may find it suits you. I, myself, lean towards a newer, more efficacious technique.”

She got to her knees beside me, for the first time all morning, and with almost a hint of enthusiasm reached into the coalscuttle.

“First, I like to lay some good sized pieces of coal which you mix with cinders, like so. Then you add your wood and another layer of coal, before popping your paper on the top, and then you light in the usual way,” she said, striking a match and setting it to the paper. “See? And now the fire burns from the top downward, instead of from the bottom. It uses less coal this way. Something the mistress approves of, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

I nodded my head wordlessly while trying to hide a small smile; I never thought my mornings would be filled with wondering whether to lay cinders first or coal; at home, a fire was a fire, and there was always a fight to get close to it before it was covered by the great copper pan Ma used to heat up the water for laundering.

One thing was for sure, I was grateful to discover that the laundry was taken care of by the scullery maid; it was no hardship to leave that task behind.

After the fires were lit, there was more dusting and polishing ensuring no surface was left untouched, and that all in the breakfast room was in perfect order for the family. The other rooms of the lower floor now also fell to me: the library, the morning room and drawing room, as well as sweeping the stairs, hall, doorway and passages, while Rachel took charge of the mistress’ dressing room: lighting the fire and bringing up pitchers of hot water, leaving Nanette to dress and take care of the mistress’s toilette.

The butler, Mr Roberts, dealt with the master, it being unseemly for a maid to do so, and no valet being employed; the footman, James, laid the breakfast cloth which seemed a ritual in itself with the tea urn, knives, forks and salt cellars before returning with the milk, cream, bread, butter, hot plates, egg cups and so forth.

The breakfast room bell would ring, and after seeing breakfast served, Rachel returned upstairs to throw up the sashes and curtains. I followed very briefly to empty the slop pails, scalding them with hot water or adding a drop of turpentine if there was stubborn night soil. Once that task was done, I quickly and quietly went downstairs once more leaving her to make the beds, dust and polish.

The drawing room and dining room required even more care and attention in cleaning, and still yet more tools: hard brushes for the velvet pile carpets, a feather brush and soft cloth for the furniture. After this was accomplished, it was time to dress for the day ahead.

Not that I had been wandering around the Tuke house in a state of undress! I laughed at the thought, and Rachel’s face at seeing such a thing. But the blacking of grates and emptying of slop pails could have an injurious effect on one’s clothes and so it was not until these early morning tasks were undertaken that my proper day dress was assumed.

As I climbed the servants’ stairs to the attic again, I reflected that it was not even nine o’clock; I had been awake barely three hours but already I was tired, although I did not quite yet long for my bed. This was different work entirely to that I was used to, but I knew enough that all I lacked was a little time to settle in. I hoped.


Even though I was not yet there long, and I was barely allowed upstairs, I could see what Ma meant; these people, they didn’t live like us. I knew that before, but it was different to see for yourself.

Every day Rachel laid out a fresh shift for Mrs Tuke and took water for bathing while the little ones in the nursery were treated with as much care. I was the eldest, but even I didn’t recall ever having something new to call my own, always hand-me-downs and cast-offs, yet the Tuke children had whole sets of outfits each.

And the food! It had to be seen to be believed! Eight courses, one after another. It fair made you gawp. And these Tukes weren’t even fancy folk. Mrs Nelson said that to see the way they carried on in London was to see something else. I bet Nanette would have something to say and all, if she’d deign to open her stuck up pinched little mouth. Seemed to me that just because a proper lady’s maid has to be French, she didn’t have to be a right little madam too; airs and graces like you’ve never.

But they seemed nice folk, the Tukes. Quakers, like Ma said, though I didn’t have much idea what that meant, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure she did, neither. I soon learnt it meant to live peacefully with others, and to live in a plain way.

They called themselves Friends, and Ma needn’t have worried, they read the Bible just like us, well, if we Haxbys could have read. Rachel told me piety, faith and love were their beliefs, adding with pride that the Tukes were well known in the community, philan-something or others apparently.

Mr Tuke, Samuel, the master of the house, was often called on by his grandfather, William; I’d never seen a man so old. There were whispers that he was over a hundred years old. I doubted that myself, for no man could live so long, and the Bible only allotted us three score years and ten, but he was a decrepit specimen with a nose so hooked he looked like a shrivelled bird of prey.

Despite his benevolent reputation, people tended to make themselves scarce when he was around. A will of iron, you did well not to get caught in his path. He founded The Retreat, which caught up so much of my master’s time; a lunatic asylum. Just the thought of it gave me the heebie jeebies when really I should have known better. There were more crazy people living in the slums of York than The Retreat would ever see, and most of them, were no more evil than you and me, simply lonely, sad and haunted by demons.

I’d not had call to see a great deal of Mrs Priscilla; Mrs Tuke, that was. She kept to her rooms and she certainly didn’t venture below stairs to discuss house affairs with Mrs Nelson. Instead, it was the latter who climbed the narrow spiralling staircase to the ground floor and met the mistress in the morning room once a week to plan out menus, entertaining and the like. But I’d seen her likeness in the portrait hanging in the drawing room; not a handsome woman, to my mind – dark hair that Nanette curled into tight sausages that clustered around her head but were mostly covered by a plain cap, skin scarred by childhood smallpox, thin lips too often pursed, a face already heavily lined, and bushy eyebrows which hung low over her eyes. Like old Mr Tuke, she seemed to have a strong mind of her own, which I couldn’t help but admire until I came to be on the receiving end of it. I should have known better; we all learned to fear her scathing remarks.

Lucy, the nursemaid, said to me, “It’s not so much that you’ve angered her, but that you’ve let her down. I’ve never felt so mortified in my entire life!”

Not a woman who suffered fools gladly then. A strong Quaker herself, like Mr Tuke, she eschewed the fancy fashions of the time. No swagged sleeves and scarlet dresses for her, much to Nanette’s dismay, yet, the severe black and navy woollen gowns that I saw being washed were of the highest quality, her linens expertly woven, time was still taken to rag her hair, and there were even lace collars from French convents. A sort of luxurious modesty was practised. Mind you, I couldn’t and didn’t complain; despite the money for my own dresses coming from my wages, the name Tuke ensured that the fabric I was sent was better quality that anything I’d ever owned before or since.

Anyway, clothing aside, there was a bleeding great lot of Tukes, and it took me a good few weeks to get them sorted in my head, but not as many as I’d left at home, thankfully. If you’d not got old Mr Tuke visiting, his son Henry was, while Mrs Tuke entertained her sisters and other female Friends, with a capital F, daily.

As for the children, Hannah was the eldest, and at only eight, a child very much still. Young Henry was the heir, and a more opinionated five year old I’d never met, which was to say, I’d never actually met him at this stage, but Lucy said he was a right so-and-so. Mind you, our James could probably give him a run for his money, the cheeky sod. Maria was next, then Sarah, and Priscilla (after her mother) and another one just out of her belly, the oddly named Gulielma. A quintet of girls, with only one boy to rule the roost, but, if the rumours were to be believed from Nanette, Mrs Tuke’s courses hadn’t been seen for a month or so. Another baby on the way perhaps? Maybe a little brother for Henry to play with, Lord knew he needed one.

Lucy had her hands full in the nursery, and I couldn’t say I was sorry to be relegated far below stairs. I had had enough looking after our lot.

Despite the Tukes numbering eight, 29 Lawrence Street didn’t boast a great staff, but that was another lot of names to get in my head. Ruth, the scullery maid was at the bottom of the pecking order, followed by Eileen, the kitchen maid, and then myself. The upper housemaid, Rachel, was next and we both answered to Mrs Nelson, the housekeeper. Rightly Lucy, the nursemaid should have answered to a governess, but one hadn’t been appointed yet, and I suspected Lucy, who knew her letters and numbers, had made her own bed when she showed her learning. She was in a sort of limbo, Lucy.

Nanette should really have answered to Mrs Nelson too but that would never have happened in a month of Sundays; far too uppity, that one. A day in Bedern would soon change that, which was as unlikely as me becoming a lady. Then there was Mrs Murray, the cook, who rightly wasn’t anyone’s Missus, but all cooks and housekeepers took the title. I doubted there was a Mr Nelson on the scene, either; certainly not one I saw.

Jefferson, the gardener and Parkin, the coachman, were both outdoor servants, but answered to Mr Roberts, the butler, as did James, the footman.

It took me almost a month to be properly sure of who everyone was and where they all went. By rights, considering our master’s position in society, Mrs Nelson told me we should also have had a tweeny, a valet, a steward and several more housemaids, a governess and a matching set of footmen. Heaven knows where we’d have fit everyone! As it is, I shared a tiny attic room with Nanette and Rachel, while Eileen and Ruth bunked up next to us, Lucy slept in the night nursery with the children, and Mrs Murray and Mrs Nelson both had their own rooms.

The men slept across the corridor but I’d no call to know their sleeping arrangements, nor had any wish to, Rachel reminded me, if I wanted to keep my position.


Whatever Mrs Nelson said, once I’d grown accustomed to them my duties there seemed much less arduous than helping Ma wash clothes all day long. Days took on a routine as I shook Rachel awake, who slept harder than our Eliza, while Nanette dozed a while longer in her narrow bed and threw mumbled French curses at us.

Little Ruth was always up an hour since, poor lass; stoking the kitchen fire for Mrs Murray and boiling the water for the breakfast, and the family. There was just enough time for me to pour some cold water from the jug into the chipped bowl in its iron stand and throw it under my arms before putting on my first dress of the day.

I learnt more each day and had less need for Rachel’s guidance; soon I’d be trained enough to help her but in the meantime she grumbled loud and long about her extra duties. Personally, I couldn’t see that flattening my vowels would make a difference as my role was to be neither seen nor heard. Anyhow, until Mrs Nelson deemed my ‘h’s and ‘t’s acceptable, I did as I was told, only venturing upstairs for the slops, and to change into my morning dress while the family was at breakfast, and besides, from dawn long past dusk there was plenty that kept me occupied. It was not long before the end of my first month drew near, and with it, my day off.


It had been raining for days, but whatever the weather in the morning, nothing was going to stop me from taking off through the city to see Eliza and Ma. That day hadn’t been a bad day, far from it. I was getting into the rhythms of the house and finding my place there. I thought I could even sense a softening in the attitude of Rachel, and perhaps a friend in Lucy. I had much to tell my sister and closest confidante.

As it was my day off, either Rachel or maybe Ruth would have to take care of my duties, including laying the fires in the morning. I was conscious that the coalscuttles were low, and Ruth was only a little thing. She was wiry, but I bet it took me half the time it did her to get the coal hauled up there. No harm in helping out now, was there?

It was past midnight and the rarely glimpsed Mr and Mrs Tuke had dined hours before, while the children had long since disappeared to bed. It was only the servants left awake, but all had retreated to their rooms, their heads sensibly hitting their pillows, or a few precious moments snatched to themselves, and I was the only one still dithering, Rachel having dragged her weary legs upstairs several minutes before.

Gathering some coal would take only a few minutes and I was too excited to see my family tomorrow to sleep just then. The scuttle in the breakfast room needed a full top up as did the drawing room – the most favoured room of the house, it got through a lot of coal, and I was on my third trip up the stairs before I reached the dining room. It still smelled of their supper.

Being only the two of them to dine, a plain supper had been served of green pea soup, roast fowl garnished with watercress, gravy, and bread sauce, followed by cold veal and salad, and finished with a cherry tart. Mrs Murray had even made some cherry tart for us as well although below stairs we ate plainer still; sometimes though, the smells of their fancy dinners with blancmange, lobster salads, pigeon pie and strawberry ices, I swore they could almost sustain you. My ma would have laughed at that.

I breathed it all in. Whatever the smell, even in July, it was a damn sight better than Bedern. With only the library left, I glanced at the bucket at my feet. There was only a third left but in this weather there had not been a great need for fires in there. It was only Mr Tuke who used it anyway. A third should have been more than enough, and I’d no wish to go downstairs again.

I opened the door to the library, heaved the bucket across to the fireplace and was down on my hands and knees about to start refilling the copper bucket set to one side when a muffled cough stopped me in my tracks.

“Please be James,” I thought to myself. “Or even Mr Roberts.”

I turned my head ever so slightly, and Lord help me, but who should have been in one of the high-backed wing chairs but Mr Tuke himself; the master. His head was slumped on to his chest, starched white collar biting into his neck slightly, arms folded tightly with shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and legs crossed at the ankle revealing pale woollen stockings.

Still dozing, although my entrance had disturbed him, I was in a quandary. Instructed to remain invisible at all times, we were the hidden clockwork of the house, and Mrs Nelson had been very clear that the family were only to be aware of our presence should they demand.

If there was one thing Mr Tuke, a reserved Quaker gentleman, respected throughout the city, didn’t need, it was to be caught snoozing in a chair with his stockings on show, jacket-less with his arms bared by the new housemaid.

I shouldn’t even have been in there, doing that now, anyway! I knew that I needed to make my exit as quickly and as quietly as I could, but instead I stayed on my knees and examined him. It was the first time I’d seen him up close, and who knew when I’d get another chance.

He was handsome, no one could say otherwise, and far removed in looks from his beak nosed grandfather. I would have placed him no older than 35, with a full head of thick curling brown hair that was kept long as fashion dictated but neatly tied behind at the nape. Full eyebrows framed his face, although what colour his eyes were could have been anyone’s guess, tightly closed as they were.

His face was relaxed in sleep, his cheeks smooth without a popular moustache. I found I was glad about that. Yes, he was definitely well made. Sat in the chair he gave me little indication to his build, but from the few glimpses I had had of him in the distance, I knew him to be tall, although not overly so, and without any great breadth in his shoulders. Unlike our James or even William, who was only seven, there was no hint of the labourer in him. He was unmistakably a gentleman born and bred, as his hands bore witness: smooth and lined only with age and design, rather than wear.

Even I, unused to quality, could see the fineness of his clothes, despite their plainness; the woollen navy jacket slung carelessly over the nearby settle with a thick white cravat thrown on top, his beautifully embroidered brocade waistcoat, its twin rows of golden buttons undone revealed more of the cream linen shirt beneath, leading down towards the woollen breeches, not yet upgraded to the more fashionable trousers, and stockings woven of the finest cream wool.

He even smelled like a gentleman, not that I could put my finger on how, probably it was simply the smell, or lack of, a clean person. I’d never seen anything like him.

As if aware of my scrutiny, he stirred again slightly, and I realised my situation. I had to get out of the library. I prayed I could get to my feet quietly, but feared that my new shoes, which, even after a month, I’d yet to wear in properly and were causing agonising blisters to form across my toes and the back of my ankles, would betray me once more (having already caused disgrace earlier in the week as the combination of them with the polished marble flooring of the hallway saw me fall head over heels).

Using the palms of my hands, I put first my left, and then my right, foot beneath my knees, and pushed myself up, hoping the creaking of my knees was only discernable to myself. My bottom rose in the air, and as I straightened my back, I heard the sleeper clear his throat. Hoping against hope that God was still on my side and that he was merely disturbed, I reached for the bucket and was about to leave when his throat was cleared once more.


Silently cursing, I turned around as slowly as I dared, wasting time until my inevitable dressing down. I faced the wingchair and while I lowered my eyes respectfully, I refused to hang my head like a dog waiting for a whipping.

However, as the silence grew between us, I couldn’t resist raising my eyes. He was smiling, I’d have sworn it, and even though I knew it was not my place to talk, and by doing so, I was committing a far greater crime, I couldn’t help myself.

“Mr Tuke, sir. I’m very sorry for disturbing you. I thought the room was empty, you see, and- and I can assure you it will never happen again.”

In my haste, I dropped my ‘h’s, and it was that that brought colour to my cheeks; the thought that I was disgracing myself. My words trailed off. His silence was unnerving and yet the smile still remained, and his eyes, grey I then discovered, were smiling too. Finally, he cleared his throat again and I had to stifle the urge to offer to get him a glass of water.

“Well, it seems you know who I am, but I am at a disadvantage. Who might you be?”

“I’m your new housemaid, sir.”

“And am I to know the name of my new housemaid?”

“Alice, sir. That is to say, Miss Haxby, sir. Or Alice. Or, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re to call me.”

This time I did hang my head with my cheeks burning brightly.

“Alice,” he said. “I shall call you Alice.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well Alice, it is time I went to bed, and you to yours, I suspect.”

“Goodnight, sir,” I said, and bobbed a small, decidedly wonky curtsey. Before he left the room, he gathered his discarded jacket and cravat into his arms, buttoned his waistcoat, and as he left I thought I caught a chuckle, and the whisper of my name.


Fiction Friday – Mad Alice, chapter one

Hello there, my dears. I seem to be all about the series these days, and today is no different – welcome to Fiction Friday.

Regular readers might be aware that before Christmas I made a vow to finish the initial draft of my third novel before the end of the year, but then an unexpected visit to hospital (boo) and a new job (yay!) took precedence.

I’m still hankering after that story, and I’ll get back on it in the fullness of time, but I thought I might share this with you in the interim.

Called Mad Alice Lane, it’s very heavily inspired by my home city of York and my love of history, and it’s the first time I a) finished a first draft that I was semi-proud of, and b) had a favourable response from a literary agent. They asked me to make some amends and get back to them, but, even now, almost a year later, I didn’t really know how to go about making the amends they’d suggested. Part of me is hoping that by sharing with you guys, I might see how to a little more clearly. And the other part of me would like to share something that while flawed, I’m still proud of and think has value.

And so, each Friday, I’ll be sharing a new chapter. I do hope you enjoy, and please please please feel free to comment – good and bad. I’ll also be uploading Wattpad so if you spend time on there, drop me a line! Thanks x



I count down the seconds until the alarm clock goes off; seconds until Richard gets up and leaves. It is not yet six o’clock and another December day has arrived. It’s still dark outside but soon the soft grey cashmere throw will already be losing the heat of his body. I lie perfectly still listening as he prepares for the day ahead. There is no need to open my eyes for his routine never changes; the duvet will be pulled straight, the pillows fluffed, and the hideously expensive throw will be neatly folded. Putting on his freshly pressed suit and professionally laundered shirt is a matter of minutes, the Windsor knot which comes so easily after years of diligent practise is achieved in a heartbeat. Breakfast is a bowl of muesli; the bowl, spoon and cereal packet put in place by myself the night before, although he alone must venture to the fridge to discover the milk.

Barely straining my ears, I hear the soft click of the front door closing. I wish I could go back to sleep for the whole day stretches in front of me, yet in a few moments I remember that today is my birthday. I switch the bedside light on, and swing my feet out from the bed, an identical twin to that pushed against the opposite wall and so recently vacated. I’m not so worried about the overnight emergence of wrinkles and lines; it is instead my stomach that demands my attention.

I lift the expensive nightie above my waist, gathering the end and looping it down between the neckline to create a kind of crop top. I face the mirror, before turning to the side. There is a definite swelling now, the bump standing clear. I tentatively stroke it and send shivers across my skin. I’m growing a human. It seems so foreign that it could almost be happening to someone else. I’m not sure what to think about it, this peanut inside of me but at least it means the days ahead of me, great swathes of time lying unclaimed, will not be spent entirely alone.

There was so little time between our meeting and marriage that everyone assumed I was pregnant, but they were wrong; it simply seemed like the obvious thing to do. Richard was a visiting professor at Oxford, and I, a soon to be graduate. He was looking to settle down, and I was flattered by his attentions. Handsome, successful and charming, he had no shortage of admirers, but it was on me that he turned his gaze. He wooed me during a heady month of dinners in expensive restaurants and daily bouquets of flowers. My flatmates were envious, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do after university, and with one simple proposal Richard solved that problem. My mother was pleased; I was pleased she was pleased. An intimate wedding followed, only 200 of our closest friends and family, and everything in the best possible taste. There was an announcement in The Times. The bride and groom honeymooned in the Seychelles. A few short weeks after, I discovered I was pregnant. Richard was pleased; I was pleased he was pleased.

It’s been two months since then and only two weeks since we moved from our elegant townhouse in Fulham up to York after a promotion that thrilled Richard. I wonder if he has remembered today is my birthday and it is the work of mere seconds before my eyes alight on a tasteful bunch of cream roses, which almost fade into the muted décor of the room. A card leans against the crystal vase, and I slip it from its envelope, feeling its luxurious heavy weight, its silky smooth surface and discreet whiff of class: an export from London, his personal stationers. “Darling M,” it reads. “Many Happy Returns. Rx ” There is a tiny spot of black ink underneath his initial. The roses, already expertly arranged, a delicate blush bloom to their very hearts, are scentless.

I hear the front door open, announcing the arrival of our daily, Mrs Gilbert. Such an antiquated notion and I’m usually a fan of times gone by, but in this I feel uncomfortable and yet Richard insists. Indeed it was specified as part of his contract; not only a flat be found for us, but also some local help. Efficient, brisk and respectable, Mrs Gilbert is everything a daily should be, and I have yet to warm to her. I can’t bring myself to face her unarmoured and in my pyjamas. I dash to the en-suite, and send a jet of hot water spurting from the showerhead.

I’m fortunate that I don’t have to wash my hair every day. Reaching almost to my waist, it would take hours to dry and style; hours of solitary staring in a mirror. Instead, I grab the shower cap that hangs on the back of the bathroom door and stuff the long blonde strands inside. Adjusting the settings as hot as possible – Richard prefers his showers tepid – I breathe deeply. I shiver in pleasure and pump some shower gel into my palms before rubbing it all over my body – my small breasts, across my collarbone and around my narrow neck, then sweeping over my jutting hipbones and the foreign bump that is my stomach down my legs and to my rather bony feet.

Bony; I suppose some might describe me as that, but I’m vain enough to hope that with my height they’d opt for willowy instead. The heat of the water brings the clear blue veins at my wrists to the fore, my skin pale and almost translucent with delicate spider thin silver lines threading their way elegantly from left to right, remnants from my teen years. The delicious scent of subtle citrus fills the air, breaking through my reflections and I swallow its warm headiness. Richard insists on luxury concoctions and I am still so used to the cheapest pharmacy brands for them to bring instant pleasure. Reluctantly turning the jets off, I wrap a thick soft white towel, a mate of the high thread cotton bed sheets, around myself.

I sit on the vanity stool and survey the dresser, filled with more bottles from the most prestigious skincare brands – Clarins, Lancome, Estee Lauder – with care, I select first a cleanser, then toner and moisturiser. Early on in our relationship, Richard gifted me with a spree at Selfridges, which included a session with some chatty beauty therapists. I know more about my skin now than I thought possible, and when Richard arrived to collect me several hours later and handed his credit card over, the cashier twittered with envy. While money might not buy you friends, it certainly buys you the best of everything else. My skin has never looked so good. I add a spritz of Jo Malone’s Lime Basil and Mandarin perfume, approved and selected after long consultation. I’ve never worn much make up but was persuaded to see the positives in a light foundation, sheer blush, expertly groomed eyebrows and a slick of jet black mascara. Already, as Mrs Chamberlain, I have my own routine, as entrenched as Richard’s.

I open the wardrobe and select a pair of dark jeans. Although I know that Richard prefers me in dresses, I decide that I can change later before he comes home, and besides, the jeans are designer. I add simple white t-shirt, whose price was as much as a month’s rent at my university flat, and a chunky knit mohair jumper in a soft grey. I slide my engagement and wedding rings back on, both exquisitely beautiful and faultlessly tasteful. I am unused to wearing diamonds.

Even now, I still catch myself staring into the depths of my engagement ring mesmerised, and when I am unaffected, I see other women staring greedily. Out of habit rather than any sense of disorder, I draw the curtains, securing the tiebacks, smooth out the duvets on both beds, fluff the pillows, fold the throws, place any dirty laundry in the basket, and hang the damp towels back in the bathroom. The only disorder I’m attending to anyway is my own; Richard is meticulous in his possessions. I puff my own pillow up a little higher. Thin watery rays of sunshine are beginning to filter through the grey clouds and I cross my fingers that the day will prove fine. Taking a deep breath, I open the bedroom door and head towards the kitchen.

“Good morning, Mrs Gilbert,” I say, edging around her to reach the kettle.

“Mrs Chamberlain,” she replies with a tight smile that doesn’t and has never yet reached her eyes. Her sleeves are rolled up to the elbow, house shoes on her feet and an old fashioned apron tied around her capacious middle. She should look inviting, homely even, but instead she unnerves me. “Is there anything particular you’d like me to do today?”

“Erm, no. I think my husband will have left a note,” I reply, more a question than a fact, looking deeply into the bottom of the mug to avoid her eyes and the disdain I think I can see there.

“Yes, he has. Is there nothing else you’d like to add to it?”

I am saved from answering by the ferocious boiling of the kettle, and gratefully pour it into the mug, dunking a teabag on top and plunging two spoonfuls of sugar into its depths. I reach to the fridge for some milk and when I reappear, Mrs Gilbert has gone, her bucket of cleaning products with her. I sigh in relief. I have no idea how to interact with her; she is a foreign concept to me.

I poke my head out into the sitting room, and seeing it empty, tiptoe across the room, place the mug on a side table and perch on the edge of the sofa. I should very much like to have something to do with my time yet from our very first day here, Mrs Gilbert undertook all the cleaning, a task I’m happy to be rid of to be honest; but also the daily cooking, which, I’m rather fond of, in my slapdash kind of way; while Richard’s new PA is arranging the house hunting, a job I’d happily take on. There’s no question of my getting a job; not only does a history degree, even a double first from Oxford, equip me with little vocational skills, Richard earns more than enough for both of us, and now there’s a baby growing inside me. Switching the television on, dismal news, frenetic chat shows and children’s cartoons greet me. I switch it off again immediately.

I glance at the clock on the walls. It is barely past nine o’clock. Far too early to go back to sleep again, besides, I could never do that with Mrs Gilbert still here. I usually wait until later, post-lunch, for a nap. Richard won’t be home until six, at the earliest. Nine hours to kill. If I factor in the nap, that leaves me with eight. If I take a bath, re-do my make up and choose a dress before Richard arrives, then I have about seven hours left. 420 minutes. 25,200 seconds.

My eyes fall on to the bookcase in front of me. The flat was fully furnished when we moved in, it’s only a temporary thing until Richard chooses a proper house for us but to be honest, I’d be happy never to leave. Nestled down a side street, it is a gem and every historian’s dream: grade II listed, the first impression you get as you enter through its impressive wrought-iron gates is a white and black timbered building, as sprawling and complex as only an old building can be.

Tiled in striking red, there is an elegantly paved courtyard with luscious green grass in a sun-trapped corner. There is no lift, and our flat is on the top floor, the penthouse, if you will. Richard moans about such an inconvenience but he will only have the best, and the penthouse is the best. The front door opens into a low-ceilinged timber-framed room – the sitting room, with crisp white painted walls, bookcases on every wall, two fat cream sofas and a matching armchair, a glass topped coffee table and clearly designed skylights flooding the room.

The kitchen is similarly decorated with white units and shiny black granite work surfaces. All the appliances are new and top of the range, and most of them baffle me, as I’m sure they do Mrs Gilbert. The master suite is painted a soft grey with twin white wooden beds and matching bedside tables, dressing table and wardrobe, and the en-suite leads off with its power shower, stark white porcelain and heated floor. There is a second bedroom, as yet, unused, with darker, heavier furniture and a large double bed.

I couldn’t wish for a lovelier flat, and the icing on the cake, is a small door leading from the kitchen. Instead of opening out into the expected pantry, a narrow set of stairs pull you upwards. The outer door pushes open, not into an attic space or converted loft, but a wonderful roof garden, of tiny, yet miraculous proportions. Terracotta pots have been placed all round the edge, and while they are desolate in December, I can imagine their glory in the summer. There is a small gas BBQ in one corner, and a wooden table with four chairs takes up the majority of the space. When you stand, and look to the north, the towers of York Minster gaze impressively back – a privileged sight. I don’t think Richard has been up here yet. Darkness has always long since fallen when he arrives home, and our weekends have been spent in socialising with his new work colleagues.

Apart from the sitting room, I think the roof garden is my favourite corner. When the sun shines, I could happily curl up like a cat and soak up the rays. I turn instead to the bookcase in front of me, like the other across the room, it is filled to bursting with books placed every which way. I’m surprised Richard hasn’t set Mrs Gilbert on to it before now. It might not be the most thrilling way to spend my birthday, but at least alphabetising the lot will take a few hours. I hope.

I haven’t even reached ‘C’ before I hold the book in my hands, ‘A Walk around the Snickelways of York’. It is an oddly shaped book which was what first attracted me to it, pondering whether to shelf it horizontally or vertically. About as thick as a monthly magazine, its A5 cover is badly faded although I can make out a red border, and some bullet points highlighting ‘snickets, ginnels, alleyways, courts, yards and footstreets’. It proudly boasts it has featured on BBC and ITV, as well as being in its sixth edition. I turn to the flyleaf, printed in 1993; it is only a few years younger than myself, although the first edition was a whole decade before. It’s a book that on any other day I would have replaced and moved on, but today, on my birthday, sat with piles of books around me and hours lying in front of me, I look at it with interest. The introduction, handwritten, promises that ‘history is simply left to emerge piecemeal from the snickelways’ well-trodden past: a past embracing diverse centuries and lifestyles, majesty and misery, inspiration and squalor.’ I need read no more; I am already hooked.

Since moving here, I have suggested several tours to Richard who distains tourists and their diversions as only a Londoner can. My new city is as unknown to me as the Amazonian jungle, and yet far more appealing without poisonous frogs and scuttling spiders. I am struck by an idea. Grasping the book tightly in my left hand, I walk briskly to our bedroom, anxious to take action before inspiration vanishes.

Mrs Gilbert is nowhere to be seen, and I grab the butter soft leather bag from the side of the dressing table. On impulse, I step further into the room, open a drawer, and scrabble around at the back before pulling my hand out, victorious, camera clasped. At the front door to the flat, I pause and take my navy pea coat from the stand, another of Richard’s purchases; he has an excellent eye. I would usually have gone for black, not that I would have looked in the designer section of any department store, but the softer navy he selected brings some colour into my cheeks while the blue of my eyes, subtle at the best of times, is brought to the fore. I wrap a lighter blue scarf around my neck; the perfect match to the coat, and I can’t help admire my improved reflection in the mirror by the door. The man has taste.

Taking the cowards’ way out, it is only as the door is almost pulled to, that I say, “I’m just popping out for a bit, Mrs Gilbert.”

I race down the two flights of stairs, like a child, fling open the main entrance and step out into the crisp chill of the December day. The coldness hits me physically and I come to a standstill before I bowl into a group of warmly clad tourists. I pause to take a deep breath and feel the cold air rush deep into my body and savour the experience. I clutch at the wall behind me overcome with heady oxygen. This is the first time in two weeks that I’ve left the flat on my own, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

I reach into my handbag and pull out the reason for all this, the book, and flick through the pages, which fall open to a tantalisingly named ‘Lady Peckett’s Yard’. I let my eyes linger for a moment but I force them back to the beginning. If I am to follow this tour, and I don’t know what else I am doing, then my starting point for today is to be Bootham Bar. I know enough that this street I’ve thrown myself out on to is Low Petergate, but that’s where my knowledge stops. Thankfully the book has charming hand-drawn maps; I can only trust that despite its years they’ll still be fairly accurate.

Five minutes later, the imposing stone structure of Bootham Bar, at least I hope it’s the Bar, towers in front of me. It’s not a bar in any modern sense of the word; instead an immense gatehouse rises, wedged in place between parallel rows of shops, a gateway to the medieval city. It stands as tall as any of the modern buildings, about three storeys, its stone walls sometimes golden, sometimes tinged with green damp.

I am facing it from the interior, and so walk through the arch to see it as it would have been viewed by an approaching visitor to the city. From this angle, without any buildings at the side to distract, it is more imposing still. Atop stand three stone figures, and beneath them are three coats of arms, which I can’t quite make out; thin slits, in the shape of a cross, appear either side, perhaps for archers, and at the base is the great stone arch through which I’ve just walked. A car can easily pass through its width, and there are pedestrian arches on both sides as well. Hanging from the top of the great arch is a vast wooden door, studded with metal and reinforced across the back. It may only be a replica but it gives a very good idea of the strength of this gatehouse.

To the right I can see there is access to the city walls but I’m keen to stay true to the book, it’s the only sense of order I have at the moment. The Bar is described as the most ancient of the old entrances into the city, and a plaque tells me that it has been a gateway, of some sort, for nearly 2000 years, indeed it is almost on this site that the porta principalis dextra stood, the north western gate of Roman York, Eboracum. It takes little imagination to see the hustle and bustle of centuries long past unfold before my eyes and I allow the history to come alive, all 2000 years of it.

The unexpected sunshine has brought tourists out in their droves, and although I am happy to concede I am one, of sorts, I’m relieved when the first proper instruction in the guidebook directs me under the Bar and left down a tiny alleyway hidden by a pub appropriately named ‘The Hole in the Wall’.

For a few seconds I am plunged into darkness but an instant later I find myself alone in a yard – Precentor’s Court – with elegant townhouses set on all sides. It is an oasis of calm, and I obediently take some photos from the recommended viewing spots. The Minster rises majestically in front of me, providing a new view of the west doors. It is breath taking; on a whole different scale than the Bar I’ve just left behind: vast and dwarfing everything around it, especially the throngs of tourists I can see once more. Fortunately they have no notion of walking this way, and I am left luxuriously alone. The stone of the cathedral has a whiter quality than the Bar, with some blocks clearly replaced. The craftsmanship is intricate and impressive with each great wooden door encased in not one, not two, but six increasingly large stone arches.

The windows are made up of hundreds of panes set with lead, their coloured glass glinting invitingly. The tower before me, with flags fluttering in the wind, rises up two hundred feet or more; its twin just out of sight, hidden by the red brick of the townhouses and the sparse branches of a spreading tree. I’m almost tempted to abandon my nascent project and head straight into the mighty building, but having now decided on a course of action and being a natural stickler for rules and plans, I walk past the glorious edifice and into the Dean’s Park as directed by the book I still clutch in my hands.

An expanse of green stretches – the Minster taking up one whole side, the other surrounded by more beautiful stone buildings, a tantalising glimpse of the city walls, and what I can only think are the remains of either the Roman fortress or the Archbishop’s Palace, which was once here, now decorated with memorials for fallen soldiers and wreathed in poppies.

No doubt heaving in summer with sun worshippers, in the December chill, I have it almost to myself, apart from a groundsman diligently vacuuming up fallen leaves in a perfectly straight line and another tourist in the far corner. The closer I move to him, the further he moves away until he has receded into a black blob in the distance and I read another plaque attached to the side of a beautiful stone building to the north of the church; this one proclaims that Richard III invested his son as Prince of Wales here on the 8th September 1483. The vastness of time is revealed, more than five centuries, and yet this building, now the Minster library, still remains. It is intoxicating, and once again I have to remind myself of my self-ordained purpose.

I skirt around more clerical houses, out of the park and along a quaint cobbled street. The Treasurer’s House, a National Trust property, pops up on my left. A snippet of information jumps from the page of my guidebook, a hint of a ghost story, some mysterious Romans, but frustratingly it says little more and it too is added to my mental list of future explorations, before I am led along what once was a Roman road.

I pass a boutique hotel, which advertises cream teas in its panelled Long Gallery surrounded by the memories of a duel fought long ago for the honour of a lady. I weave the ancient streets of York leaving the tourists behind, the formers’ attractions abandoned for better advertised ones, and I’m grateful. I enjoy my own company, but, with a hand on my tummy, I remind myself that I am no longer alone, and won’t be again for many months to come. The thought cheers me; a surprisingly positive reaction poking its head through my puzzling ambiguity since the news was first confirmed.

I turn my attention back to the guidebook, handwritten notes accompany the maps detailing the history and highlighting various points of interest. Coming out into the open, modern buildings housing charity shops and restaurants jar my experience, and I scurry across the busy road to regain sanctuary against the damp shaded stone of a medieval building. This is the Bedern area, and the building I am leaning against was once a glazier’s, but the text in my hands hints at a darker past: an orphanage, and Irish immigrants living in poverty and disease.

I am easily affected by the words and this does not feel like a happy place. In this city, every building and street seems to lay claim to at least one ghost story, and others argue that this is the most haunted city in all of Europe. There are ghost walks and tours advertised on every hoarding, and, if I can persuade Richard, I intend to make one my next port of call. I find ghosts almost as fascinating as history itself; the idea of long dead, or not so long dead, people, spirits, unable to find peace. Sometimes I think of them as a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of the past if only we could connect to them. Other times I think I’m a fanciful fool.

Fanciful or not, the eeriness of this solitary dark passageway does not escape me and I look around eagerly for my exit. As I do, I spot a person in the distance, too far away to make out clearly, but something its movement suggests it is the same one from the Dean’s Park. Perhaps he is following the same tour. But then again, perhaps it is not a tourist at all. London instincts, not my own, make me decide to skip the next back alley in favour of returning to the crowded street I just left.

Consulting my guide, I see that I can pick up the route without too much hassle, if I can find Goodramgate; confusingly not a gate at all, but a street. It doesn’t take too long to locate a signpost and I am on my way again. King’s Square is quickly traversed, heaving with buskers competing with each other, even on this cold day, circles of tourists gathered round in circles, cameras flashing.

On my left, the famous Shambles are calling to me like a siren, the picturesque overhanging houses looking straight out of a film set, but I am urged instead to St Sampson’s Square, home to redundant medieval church. Converted into a senior citizens’ community meeting place, I sneak inside and after a whispered discussion with a lady on the reception, am allowed to pass into the garden outside, still paved with the gravestones from the last few centuries.

More snickelways beckon – Three Cranes Lane and Swinegate – each increasing in tourist traffic, ducking my head to pass under the last part of the passage until unexpectedly I find myself on Low Petergate again, abuzz with bodies. I turn a circle trying to orientate myself. The Minster stands on my left, as it does when we leave the flat, and the shops are familiar. The entrance to our flat must be somewhere close by. I step out into the road, and spot it, nestling one doorway along. I look to the head of the snickelway I’ve just exited and see a stark black and white sign reading Lund’s Court.

Our address is Lund’s Court, we must once have been part of the same settlement, but underneath the lettering there is some smaller writing proclaiming – formerly Mad Alice Lane. The name sends a shiver down my spine. Although I prefer Mad Alice Lane to Lund’s Court any day I’m not so sure I want to live there.

Who was Mad Alice, I wonder? The guidebook is more illuminating telling the sorry tale of Alice Smith, who lived in the lane until 1825 when she was hanged at York Castle for being mad; a sorry tale indeed. Hanged for simply being mad. I wonder how long I might have survived.

Although home is a mere stone’s throw, I am not ready for it. I look at my wristwatch and am amazed to see that lunch has been and gone. I’m not hungry, I find I hardly ever am, but I’m conscious of the peanut inside me so I dart into one of the sandwich shops around and grab one of the few remaining pre-made offerings – a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. It seems decadent enough for my birthday, and I eat half propped against a narrow bar at the window watching the world go by; the remaining half I carefully wrap in several layers of tissue, anxious not to mark the interior of the designer handbag I have slung over my shoulder.

I take a look at my book; my next port of call is Hornpot Lane, almost directly opposite Mad Alice Lane. It is unprepossessing, slightly wider than some, hedged on both sides by tall red brick buildings, and without the book to guide me, no doubt I would have passed it over; indeed, I have faced it directly every single time I’ve left the flat and never given it a moment’s notice before now. A metal plaque, the city is littered with them, decorated with flowing italics states that a thirteenth century church, Holy Trinity, is down the passage, and after twenty yards or so, behind a low archway, lies a surprise.

Another hidden treasure, its white stone glowing in the weak sun, and as I walk up the grassy path to its doors, I am taken by the gravestones lying at all angles. I’ve always been fascinated by them and their inscriptions of people who lived long ago; more often than not forgotten by anyone but the parish records, and even then, incorrectly recorded, more likely than not. Normal, everyday people with normal everyday lives who vanish as if they’d never lived. I stop to photograph the moss-covered remnants ignoring the empty beer cans that lie strewn around. It baffles me that others don’t see these places as I do. I reach the heavy wooden door of the church, which is propped open and duck inside.

I’m not a religious person; the potential was there, I think. I’ve always been orthodox but any faith I had was lost the day that my grandfather, a vicar, had a stroke on the operating table. A wonderful man, kind, good and generous, his body woke up but his mind never did quite return. I found I couldn’t, and still can’t, reconcile myself with a God who would let that happen, however mysterious the ways in which he works.

But there’s something about churches that moves me. Apart from certain modern monstrosities, I have yet to see an ugly one. The stone speaks to me in a way that brick doesn’t; it speaks of times past and there are moments, less fleeting with each year, that I swear one palm laid flat against the cold hard surface would evoke a cacophony of potent images from centuries gone by. It’s a bewitching thought; a tantalising one, and one I can’t help but put to the test furtively from time to time.

So despite my agnosticism, I won’t say atheism, churches have become a refuge for me, a clichéd safe haven.

Entering the church, I am immediately hit by the chill. Not quite cold enough to see my breath outside, now it appears in faint white puffs, but I’ve always preferred the cold to the heat, and there is something fitting about a church being so. I pull my jumper down to cover the fingers of my hands, lifting them up as I blow hot air and wander around.

My fingers trail over the edges of the sturdy wooden pews; the wood feels markedly warmer than the air around me and I breathe in deeply, searching for a long forgotten smell of incense, and perhaps a whispered aside through the years. Lying in one of the corners is a single stone coffin. Out of place in modern life, yet a very real part of the medieval; a constant living fear. With a carved space for the head, broadening for the shoulders and tapering to the feet, it looks barely large enough for a teenager, never mind a fully grown adult, and I am overcome by the urge to get in it, just to see.

Instead, I lay my hand gently on the rim, close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing once more searching for the past, begging for something to come to me. Nothing. Foolish to be disappointed but I am; its sharpness surprises me and I have to blink rapidly to stop tears forming. I feel that, if only the conditions were just right, if only I was to find myself in the right place at the right time, then I might cross a boundary. Into what? I barely allow myself to think, to dream.

I shake my head and turn to leave. As I do so, I catch sight of a tourist. I would swear the same one from Dean’s Park and the alleyway I ran from. My heart races as I consider the possibility that he has been following me, and yet he is engrossed in his photos, not noticing me at all, and as I watch, he drops to his knees to capture the unevenness of the stone paving. His camera is old and I realise with surprise that it’s not digital. An unusual choice for a tourist, but, as I spot a camera bag complete with separate lenses and a tripod, not so odd for a professional photographer. He intrigues me; if you count our first meeting in the Dean’s Park, then in the alleyway and now this, it makes the longest relationship I have had with someone in this city apart from my husband and Mrs Gilbert.

His skin is dark, far darker than anyone else’s in these dreary grey months. Some Mediterranean blood perhaps? That would explain the dark, almost black, hair slicked back in a quiff. Several days’ worth of stubble dots his cheeks, and his nose looks slightly crooked, like a boxer’s and his lips have a lovely defined cupid’s bow.

His whole demeanour is casual, unplanned; this is no businessman on a lunch break. His eyes, which are a curious almost black, meet mine and I instantly look away; embarrassed to be caught staring so blatantly, but I am unable to resist and when I look again, so is he. I let a small smile reach my lips and he returns it with a large grin.

“Hi,” he says. I wince and look around guiltily as his voice echoes off the stones. “Hi,” he repeats in a whisper, which, if anything, pierces the air more than his normal voice.

“Hi,” I reply as he peels himself off the ground. I let my guard down and my smile reach my eyes.

“Isak,” he says.

Challenge Betsy, Writing

Challenge Betsy – The Novel…

One of my biggest goals is to be a published author – one of the has a ‘glossy and pleasingly weighty hardback sitting on a display table in your local Waterstones’ kind of author. I’ve written a few books already – one under the guidance of No Plot No Problem / NaNoWriMo, which was a hearty tale of smuggling and lusty wenches. The emphasis of the challenge is quantity, over quality – you have to write 50,000 words in a month. Oomph. So I figure I was allowed some Mills and Boon-esque shenanigans.

Since then, I’ve written another novel – Mad Alice Lane – which I submitted to Curtis Brown and had a really favourable response (e.g. they want me to make some edits and come back to them). I’ve also got pages and pages of ideas whizzing around my head, but as every published writer will tell you, having the idea is the easy part, the hard part is writing the damn thing.

So, I’m toying with another book at the moment; working title Live in Five – a very chatty women’s lit book about a young graduate struggling to make it in the television world (anyone who knows me well will spot the autobiographical elements pretty easily!). Now, I’ve always been someone who works well with a deadline, and with some accountability, so I’ve decided to set myself another writing challenge – this time, I have until the New Year to complete my first draft of the book. This means writing, a lot of writing, every single day. Geez Louise.

This time, I’ve abandoned the traditional approach of a planned plot and character synopses, instead, I’m just going to go with it. And each day, at the end of every day, I’m going to update my progress to the blog. Bear in mind, it’s going to be incredibly rough, with no editing whatsoever, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts and comments.

So, watch this space…