Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, epilogue


I lie in the grass, my hands propping my head up slightly and look at the house in front of me. It is still beautiful, despite the scars from the fire, and holding up the thin sheet of paper with the architect’s sketching in front, I can see the beauty that can grew up in its place. The man beside me, with the ruffled dark hair and black eyes, rolls over on to his side.

“Shall we go?” I say.

“Hang on a sec. I know you were really disappointed that none of those photos showed Alice; I know you wanted to see her for yourself.”

“Oh, Isak; that doesn’t matter any more; besides, I had her own words.”

“But just look at this,” he says, and pulls a packet from his bag.

“We’ve seen these before,” I say, as I shuffle through the images of the empty flat.

“No; look at this one.” He stops my hand at a picture of me, sitting on the sofa; the only one that he took.

“What? It’s just me.”

“Look closely; there.”

“Oh my god,” I say, and goose bumps immediately pop on to my skin. “Is that…?”

“I don’t know, is it? All I know is she wasn’t there when we looked at them before.”

Standing behind me there is a foggy shape, perhaps only discernable as a figure when searching for it; it’s impossible to see any real features, but the longer I stare at the photo, the more convinced I am of her. Isak gives me a moment more, before speaking.

“Are you ready? Your mother will be here in a few minutes, and Evie and Ethel.”

“Yes,” I say. He takes the photo from my hands, carefully slots it back into the file, and kisses me. A deep kiss; long, slow and satisfying.

“Have you got everything?”

“It’s all in here,” and I point to my own bag.

“Let’s go then.”

The long strands of the weeping willow trees have been tied carefully back and the grass around them trimmed. Evie has been busy setting garden torches deep in the ground and they shine like a beacon, drawing your eyes to the little cemetery.

My mother is there already and Ethel also stands close. Other villagers have also made the journey, each clutching a lit candle, the flames dancing delicately in the light breeze. I walk towards the group, and pause to hug my mum tightly.

“Thank you all for coming,” I say, breaking the hushed silence. “It really means a lot to me, to us. We’re here to honour the passing of Giles and Matthew Blenkinsop; both taken too soon. They are greatly missed.”

I bend down and place a single brilliantly blooming lily on each grave. To the left of my brother’s grave is the white rose bush I planted yesterday, its buds still tightly furled, to remember the daughter that I lost. It’s enough that I know she’s there; she is my private grief. I kiss my fingers and touch the leaves before getting to my knees, and turning back to the onlookers.

“We are also here to honour Alice. Not Mad Alice as the rumours would have us believe. But a Blenkinsop in all but name, buried here, next to her son, James Samuel.”

I walk past the graves of my father and brother, further back into the cemetery and to the older headstones, to one with a single word engraved upon it, ‘Alice’.

“This is for you, Alice,” I whisper, as I put another lily down in the grass before her. “This is for Samuel. I know you, Alice, and I will never forget you, but it’s time for you to go. Be at peace.”

The candles and torches around me flicker, slightly, almost imperceptibly, but I hear a voice calling mine, a familiar voice, just once, and then it is gone. I know I won’t hear it again.





Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter twenty three


My childhood is lying before me, neatly boxed, and waiting almost twenty years for me to come and discover it; and beyond that, my ancestry. I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material but am drawn to the pile of paintings stacked on top of each other against a wall.

They face away from me but turning them, I am granted a glimpse into the past. The only image of James Samuel was lost in the blaze, but I find instead several of Georgiana, his wife, across the years.

She was beautiful, even by today’s standards, with clouds of blonde hair, pale milkmaid’s cheeks with rosy apples, a small pink mouth often portrayed in a moue, and green eyes staring confidently from the frames.

These are not paintings by great masters, and would fetch little at auction, but to me, a woman, who several months ago, lacked even the most basic of family histories, they are priceless. I try to imagine where they might hang in the flat, but as soon as I do, Richard springs into my mind, and right now, he is not welcome, although I will have to face him sooner, rather than later.

More members of my family appear although I cannot place them. I put them to one side to ask Ethel about. She seems like a fountain of knowledge, and I expect what she doesn’t know will never be recovered.

Evie is delicately pawing her way through elegant pieces of furniture stacked every which way. I am no connoisseur, and like the paintings, expect their worth to be more sentimental than financial, but they look beautiful. I have always loved old furniture, far preferring it to the bland white and birch-effect mass-produced pieces so readily available today. This table, and that chair, they have a history, and people have written on them, sat on them, lived with them. There is something to discover here, not merely a factory floor in India. I am enchanted by them, and by the vestiges of Deepdene Hall; my home. I doubt I can ever thank Ethel enough.

Through the window, carefully veiled in white lace, we can see that the day is getting on, and I am conscious of taking up too much of Ethel’s time. We have already spent hours searching through these treasures, and my stomach is rumbling. Besides, today has thrown up more questions, which I feel that my mother has a duty to answer. She is still in York, and if we head back now, there is enough time to see her today.

I also need to pop to the flat and pick up some things. I only grabbed my coat before; I need toiletries, clean clothes and some make up. As we make our goodbyes, a box of books calls out to me from the corner of my eye, as books always do.

“Ethel, do you mind if I take this with me? I’d like to go through it tonight.”

“Not at all, dearie; it’s yours, after all.”

I thank her, and then, without thought, drop a kiss on her withered cheek, dusty with powder, promising to return soon.


On the way home, I send Richard a text to say that I’ll be popping in to collect some things. It is a very formal message, and I never thought to announce my return to my own flat but things are formal between us; unresolved and messy. I have no desire to upset him further so consider it only polite to warn him. Evie drops me at the door and I haul the box of books out with me.

“I’ll call you later,” I say.

“Ok. Just let me know if you need me,” she says, and slowly pulls away from the kerb.

I unlock the front door, and push it open quietly.

“Hello? Richard?” I don’t really expect him to be here as it is still the afternoon, but as I open the door wider, there he is, sitting on one of the chairs, waiting. “Ah, there you are.” I shut the door behind me, and lean against it, placing the box of books at me feet, unsure of how to proceed.

“Hello, Martha. I hope you’re feeling better today.”

“Erm, much better, thank you,” I say, trying to find the edges of the conversation.

“And you’re over your little outburst of last night?”

“My little outburst? Richard, I discovered I had a brother yesterday, who died in a fire, along with the father I thought had abandoned me, and then, on top of that, I found out you knew all along! It was hardly a little outburst.” My hands are shaking and I am trying to control my temper.

“But it was not my secret to tell.”

“You should have told me, Richard. And you had no right to go snooping around in my medical records in the first place.”

“I had every right to know about the girl I was going to marry. I had every right to know about the medication she was on.”

“Actually, Richard, you didn’t. You know perfectly well that what you did was wrong and immoral. In fact, I’m fairly certain you could lose your job over it.”

He gets up from the chair, and walks towards me. I have to force myself to not shrink against the door at my back.

“Oh, it’s like that, is it?”

“Like what Richard?”

“You’re going to get nasty with me. We’ll see about that.”

But his threatening tone, rather than cow me, spurs me to action. I push myself away from the door.

“We’ll see about what, Richard? There is nothing to see about. You were the one threatening to commit me to Bootham Park; you were the one getting nasty. And the fact is you read my private and confidential files, which you had no right to do. You kept an incredibly big secret from me. You married me when I was at my most vulnerable, moved me up here, away from my friends, and then when I lost our baby, you ignored me. I should never have married you.”

“You? Should never have married me? I’m the one who took on the challenge of a lonely unsocialised girl on four different types of antidepressants. I’m the one who took you out of middle-class mediocrity, who put diamonds on your fingers and designer clothes on your back.

“I’m the one who sent you flowers every day and you lapped it up, every single second of it. You should be grateful I even looked in your direction. My mother warned me about you. She said you didn’t have what it took to be a Chamberlain; she said you would disappoint me.”

“Well it looks like your mother was right, Richard. I’m not right for you, and clearly I’ve disappointed you, but you’ve disappointed me too.” Seeing the mix of emotions swim across his face, I am filled with sadness and pity for him, my anger disappearing as fast as it arrived. I put a hand on his. “Richard, stop it; just stop it. Let’s sit down.”

My calm voice has an effect on him, and he allows me to lead him to the sofa. “I think we’ve both been disappointed, Richard, and I think we are both to blame for this situation.”

“But, what-”

“Hang on a second, let me finish. We both know this marriage isn’t working, don’t we?” I slide the pave diamond wedding band from my finger, and the cushion cut diamond engagement ring follows. I open up his hand, and place them in the palm. “Here. It’s over now.”

“You can’t just end it like that.”

“I don’t think our marriage even started.”

“But what will I tell people?”

“You can tell them whatever you like, Richard. Tell them you left me, tell them things just didn’t work out, tell them, well, tell them whatever; I don’t mind.” He stares at me, and at the rings in his hand.

“But, I don’t understand.”

“I think you do, Richard. You haven’t been happy, have you?”

“Well, I-”

“Have you enjoyed having me in your life? Honestly? Apart from moving up to York, which you would have done without me, has your life changed at all with me in it?”

“No,” he mumbles.

“We’re not right for each other, and that’s nobody’s fault.”

“Are you quite sure about this, Martha? Nothing I can say will change your mind?”

I consider carefully, “No, Richard. Nothing. And I don’t think you really want me to change my mind anyway.”

“And it’s got nothing to do with that Isak fellow?”

I think, perhaps, that it does, but now is not the time for that gem, “No; it has nothing to do with Isak.”

“Were you very unhappy, Martha?”

“No, not very, but I was lonely.”

“And what will you do?”

“I’ll stay in York, I think. I like it here.”

“Yes, you always did like it more than me, with its damned annoying little streets and poky little alleyways.”

“And you, Richard?”

“London for me. There are plenty of consulting jobs down there, and you know how much I prefer the lifestyle.”

“What about your job here?”

“Oh, I’m not bothered about it. You know it was your mother that was keen on the idea? Perhaps she wanted you to find out about Deepdene Hall and all that.”

“Yes, perhaps.”

“You should speak to her, Martha.”

“I have; I will.”

“She never meant to hurt you, I know that much; and she loves you.”

“I know.”

“I loved you too, you know, in my own way.”

“I know you did, Richard, and I, you. I’m sorry that it has to be like this.”

“Oh well; onwards and upwards.”


“I’ll just pack a case and then I’ll be gone.”

“You don’t need to do that, this is your home too.”

“No, I don’t think it ever was. You always liked it more than me. It’s only my clothes here really. The rent’s paid for the year, you know. You’re welcome to stay here.”

My mouth drops open. “Do you really mean that?”

“Well it’s no use to me in London, is it? And I can’t get a refund.”

Despite wanting to throttle him mere minutes before, I can’t help but hug him, and even though I feel him stiffen under my embrace, I don’t let go until he puts his arms around me too.

“You’re a good man, Richard; really you are. And you’ll find the right person for you.”

“I’m not so sure marriage is for me. Much prefer just having a PA. Makes life so much easier.”

I smile at him, and acknowledge the truth behind what he says.

“Let me help you pack,” and he accepts with grace. It takes only ten minutes to put all his essentials into the expensive Samsonite case; the rest Mrs Gilbert will pack up and his current PA will arrange to be couriered to London.

“Goodbye, Martha,” he says as he pauses at the door.

“Goodbye, Richard,” and I stand on my toes and kiss him on the cheek. “And thank you.”

He nods, and shuts the door behind him.


I am utterly alone in the flat. I could call Evie, or Isak, or my mum, but I think that I will call no one. Instead, I will enjoy my own company. In the fridge, I find a bottle of rose, and a packet of Parma ham. The sun may not have gone down, but I decide I deserve some wine; it’s becoming something of a habit.

Coming back into the sitting room, I see the box of books by the door. Using my foot, I push it across the room and into the middle of the circle created by the sofa and chairs. I take a great swig of wine and plant the glass firmly into the carpet and sit down cross-legged in front of the box.

I am calm enough, but a single smell of an old book will always put me into a kind of meditative state. It is the effect of walking into a library, without anyone having to ‘shush’ you. It is the smell of knowledge, of stories and adventures, and of other people’s lives. It is intoxicating, and even with the hint of smoke rising from these books, the calm washes over me, as it always does.

I look at the book I have picked up. It is beautifully bound in crimson leather, a little faded from time, but still impressive, and the gilt lettering on the front proclaims it to be Robinson Crusoe. I open the cover and glance at the front papers, and gasp. Printed in 1719, this is a first edition and must be worth a fortune.

I lie it very carefully back in the box, but not before seeing an inscription in the very front, “Alice, my Girl Friday. Samuel.”

The woman’s name checks me in my tracks; it is touching to think of past lovers exchanging books, a book that I just held in my hands; a bittersweet reminder of my own, very recently changed, status; but suddenly I have to see what’s in the rest of the box. In my hurry, I upend the contents on the floor and reveal a mixture of the old and the new; there are other treasures to be found – a lovely copy of Frankenstein similarly inscribed, and my heart quickens still more – amongst cheap paperback copies of Agatha Christie and orange Penguin classics.

The more modern books I put to one side to shelve later, while the older, more precious editions, I put lovingly on the sofa. I feel there are more, greater, treasures to unearth, and as I delve deeper, I find something different, a manuscript of both bound and loose-leaf handwritten pages tied with a piece of string.

There is nothing on the cover or spine, nothing to denote it at all, but I dash to the kitchen to grab a pair of scissors to snip away the tight knot holding the string, and open the pages.

I read, “At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time…” I let out a sigh, and fall back into the sofa cushions.


At some point, I return to the sitting room, wine, the rest of the books and the whole world forgotten as I curl up with the precious pages in my lap. A mystery is unfolding before me, and I cannot quite believe my eyes.

Finally I have found Alice and as page after page is turned, I try to understand how she came to be in a box of salvaged treasures from Deepdene Hall. The sun has long since fallen and I only shift to flick on a light to read by. Thoughts I had considered mere imaginings and fancies are shown to be true and tears roll down my face as I read of her life.

Once, I pause to pick up the copies of Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein, and open them at their inscriptions. Alice and Samuel. It is remarkable, unbelievable and yet the pieces continue slotting into place.

I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awake with a pain in my neck and the pages spread out on top of me. It takes only a moment for the events of yesterday to burn brightly in my mind. I have to know more about Samuel Tuke, a missing link in the story, and one that I never suspected, for how could I?

It is a moment’s work on the Internet to discover a plethora of information. A great man, by all accounts, and a prominent man of the city: a Quaker, a father, a husband, although not to Alice. I bookmark the pages to read more later, but turn once more to Alice’s diary. I turn to a page dated the 14th of October 1857, and read with a sinking heart:

“My beloved Samuel is taken away from me today, and my heart is heavy indeed. His was not a long illness and I grieve heartily that I could not be at his side, but he passed with his family, as is right. He is to be buried in the cemetery of these grounds. Oh, Samuel, how can I go on without you? What am I to do? I have been in this place more than thirty years and I cannot bear life here without our daily visits. James Samuel mourns you too, as a ward would his guardian but I wish with my whole heart that he could know the true nature of your relationship. He would be so proud to be yours, I think, and to carry the Tuke name. He is the only light in the darkness of today, and yet, he too is far from me. I cannot write more, my heart and my hands are weary.”


I lay down the pages once more, my heart aching for Alice, again separated from her love, and unable to truly mourn for him. I can’t bear for more sadness, and yet I know the story isn’t finished; there are pages still left to read.

“I was taken from The Retreat. A carriage came at night and Doctor Tucker saw me into it with all my belongings, a great trunk of things. He would not tell me a thing, and I feared the worst. With Samuel’s death was his protection of me finally over? But no; James Samuel awaited me in the carriage. I was to be moved, he said. People had forgotten who I was and what I was, and now, with Samuel’s death, it was time. He did not wish for me to spend the rest of my days in The Retreat. As a young boy, he had believed I worked there, but as the years passed he had realised the truth. I had thought he would be ashamed of me, reject me, but he did not. We do not speak of the past, but he remains my true son, and I, his mother. The journey was not long, a few hours at most and I dozed. The sun was rising as we alighted from the carriage and I was amazed by what I saw.

“Oh, James Samuel,” I said. “It is beautiful. What will you call it?”

“Deepdene. It is called Deepdene.”


Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter twenty two


I didn’t start awake as I was already sitting on the hard wooden floorboard, staring at the wall that had been one of my few companions over the last few days. I got to my feet stiffly as Samuel flung himself at me.

“Who is dead, my love? The bairn? But I thought it as a boy.”

“It was; it is; he is. Daniel. But Priscilla; she is dead.”


“Childbed fever. It was a difficult birth, her twelfth. And now she is gone.”

I sat on the bed, in shock. Priscilla was dead, and Samuel was now a widower. I could not stop the unworthy thoughts creeping into my head.

I knew I had to always be there, in that place, but perhaps I could also be with him, as we once were. I pushed the thoughts away. Now was not the time. Now I was cradling the man that I loved, who was in pain. This was the man who saved me from a dreadful death; he deserved everything that I could give him, and more.

“Hush, my love,” I said. “Hush now.” From the state of his features, I imagined sleep had been avoiding him for several nights now.

He had never looked his age before, but there were bags beneath his eyes and a merciless hand had drawn wrinkles across his forehead. My heart ached for him. If I could have taken his pain, and make it mine, I would have done so.

Instead, I held him close and soon, I felt his breathing change. Pushing myself up from my elbows, I saw his eyes had fallen shut and sleep had taken over. I felt my own heartbeat rise. What was I to do?

Although my door was shut, it was not locked from within. Anyone could come in and see. How would I have explained Samuel Tuke, founder, trustee, and board member, asleep in my bed? It would have been to risk both of us. I forced myself to think clearly and calmly. There was no moving Samuel, and I had no wish to. Sleep was the best medicine for him, but I could not stay there in my shift, alone with him.

One of my two dresses was lying neatly on the chair in the corner, and I slipped into it, pulling the laces tight behind my back. Once I was respectfully clad, I came to a decision. Although it was early, I had no doubt that Doctor Tucker would be about somewhere, if only I could find him before someone stumbled upon Samuel.

His office was the hub of the institution and my first port of call. I knocked quietly on the door, and hearing ‘Come’ from within, I entered.

“Ah, Mrs Smith. You’re up early. What can I do for you?” he said, genially.

“Mr Tuke is here.”

“Samuel? Excellent. Where is he?”

“He’s in my room, sir.”

“Your room, Alice?”

“Yes, sir. That is, he rushed in not a moment ago. It’s his wife, sir. She is dead.”

Doctor Tucker sat back in his armchair with a heavy sigh. “Good grief. Priscilla Tuke dead? And the child?”

“Still living, sir.”

“Thank heavens for that. I’ll go to him now, Alice. And thank you, for being so discreet about this.”

I bobbed a little curtsy; years as a domestic don’t disappear overnight, and followed him from the room.

Over the years I had been at the asylum, Doctor Tucker and I had developed respect for each other, Samuel had seen to that. A friend of Samuel’s, as well as colleague, I thought that perhaps he saw more than most in my being there, and I thought that that, at first, explained his hostility to me. Samuel’s conduct, after all, went against everything that he had stood for, and as a Quaker, Doctor Tucker couldn’t countenance his behaviour.

I thought, seeing Samuel laugh with me as we struggled over a passage in French, or stroll in the garden an arm’s width apart, that he had seen the joy that we brought to each other, and slowly, little by little, his attitude to me had softened.

I thought that I could trust him. I hoped that I could trust him. If not, I was undone, and my life may have been forfeit.

He had walked swiftly to my room, and Samuel was there, as I had left him not moments before, lying on top of the sheets, his eyes closed and his breathing deep.

“He was exhausted. Sleep seemed like the best thing.”

“You were right, Alice. We shall leave him be, for the present,” and he gently shut the door, ushering me before him.


When Samuel awoke several hours later, I was sitting by the bed with two glasses, one of cool water and one of fresh milk placed carefully on the windowsill. He nodded to the water and I passed the glass over.

“Alice,” he said, after he has drunk deeply, “I must apologise for my outburst.”

“You will do nothing of the sort,” I said. “You suffered a great shock. It was right for you to come here.”

“I must explain myself to Doctor Tucker.”

“There is nothing to explain. I told him all.”

He sank back into the pillow, “What must he think of me? Of us? I should not have rushed to you.”

“Doctor Tucker is a good man. I do not think he thinks ill of you, Samuel. He was concerned for his friend, that is all.”

“I must go now, and return to the children. There is much to arrange at home.”

I bowed my head. Despite worrying for him, I had enjoyed these last few hours when he had once more seemed mine, and mine alone; even if only in sleep.

“I wish I could help you, but I know I cannot.”

“You help me by being here, Alice. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He left me disappointed. By what? Perhaps, as after the death of poor Esther, I had hoped that I could temper his grief in coming together. But the death of a wife is a different thing to that of a child.

It would have been too soon, and disrespectful of his loss. I tried to console myself. I knew there was no future for us, but still I hoped; how I hoped. But was I not disappointed long. He came to me. After the funeral: quiet and modest as a Quaker funeral should be. Clad in his plainest and most sombre clothes, Samuel came to me in The Retreat.

He took me in his arms, and he let out a great shuddering sigh as he entered me. It was a joy to be together again, as we rocked against each other with muffled moans and groans. When he was spent, he laid his head on my breast, and fell almost immediately into a deep sleep, as peaceful as a child, and I held him tight.


Our days resumed their usual routine after Priscilla’s passing. Samuel visited more frequently perhaps, and more and more books were finding their way into my room. One day, he arrived with a small bookcase which he slotted into one corner; the next a beautiful green plant in a simple clay pot; the following, a book of illustrations of York, and so, slowly, day-by-day, my room became a home, and a refuge for us both.

No one disturbed us there, not even Doctor Tucker. I found that I was given more responsibility around the clinic. I helped bathe and dress some of the patients, accompanied others in their walks around the grounds, and aided the nurses with the most basic of their tasks.

I was becoming useful once more, and my life was gaining a purpose. I might have been Mad Alice to the outside world, but here, in The Retreat, I was simply Alice.

No one called me Mrs Smith any more, for which I was immensely grateful. Ma and Eliza continued to visit, and they could not help but observe Samuel when he too paid a call. Ma was tongue-tied in front of him, her usual acerbic words replaced by a muteness caused by gratitude, but Eliza chattered away, yet it was Ma who first commented, “Alice, I do declare you’re looking positively plump, child.”

I smiled, “Yes. I think you might be right, Ma. It’s all the good food and fresh air.”

“And perhaps happiness?” said Eliza.

“Oh, yes, that definitely!”

“If happiness put meat on bones then there’d be a great deal of obese rich people.”

“Which there are, Ma.”

“You know what I mean, girl. Come here,” and she took my face in her hands, turning it from left to right. “Your old looks are almost returned. It’s almost as if…but no.” She pulled my chin back sharply to the centre. “You’re not, girl, are you?”

“Yes,” I said, defiantly. “I think I am.”

“You foolish, girl. Not again! Did you not learn anything from the first time?”

“But it’s different now, Ma!” I protested.

“Different? How?”

“He’s a widower now.”

“Aye, that he may be, but you’re not his wife-to-be, nor will you ever be. You’re a convicted murderess, Alice. You’re confined to this place for the rest of your days. What life could a child have here?”

“I would make a life for it, a good life.”

“How, child?”

“It will be loved and cared for.”

“It will be a bastard.”

“It will not. It will be mine and Samuel’s child.”

“It won’t carry the Tuke name, I reckon.”

“Perhaps not, Ma, but it won’t be a bastard either.”

“Hmmm, we’ll see about that.”

“Samuel is pleased, Ma. He says that no one shall interfere here, under his jurisdiction. I am quite safe, and so is the child.”

“Are you quite sure, Alice?” asked Eliza.

“Quite sure.”

“In which case, there is nothing to be done now anyway except pray for a healthy pregnancy and a good birth. Isn’t that so, Ma?” I clasped my sister’s hand gratefully. She had become my protector. “When is the child due, Alice?”

“Six months or so, I believe,” and I laid a hand on my stomach tenderly.

“And what will you do once the child arrives?”

“It is to stay here, with me. It is not unknown for children to be born here. Insane women get themselves into all sorts of fixes.” Ma snorted. “The child can stay here for few years at least, and then, well, I trust Samuel to do what is right.”

“You love him?”

“With all my heart.”

“And he loves you?”

“I have no doubt.”

“Then you have found some happiness at last.”

“I- I think I have, finally,” I said, and smile at her and Ma, who reluctantly returned it. We sat, three women, in my whitewashed room with sunlight streaming through the windows and the sound of laughter below, and held hands together.


God granted me an easy birth and a healthy son. I no longer thought he wished to punish me. James Samuel, we called our son. He was as blue-eyed and fair-haired as his siblings had been, and as sweet natured as his father.

A crib took its place next to the bookcase, and I sat beside it, spending hours in silent contemplation of this miracle. He was perfect. Ten perfect tiny toes; ten exquisite tiny fingers, soft eyes that stare trustingly, a pink mouth that crinkled delightfully and hair that smelt so delicious I could have carried him around like a pomander.

James was no secret in the clinic; indeed, he was fast becoming a favourite plaything of those I knew I could trust, and proving as good as any therapy. Women pressed him to their chests, while the men dandled him on their knees as he gurgled happily. I was well contented.


“How are you today, my fair Alice?” said Samuel, pausing to land a kiss on the top of my head and leaning over to take James from my arms. “And how fares my handsome son? Growing up fast, I see. Big and strong.”

“Big and strong, like his father,” I said.

Samuel laughed.

“Better he be kind and good.”

“He’s that too. Can’t you see? He’s all things good.”

“A miracle child, is it that we have, Alice?”

“Aye. A miracle child,” and the three of us came together, united by blood.


When the time came to send James Samuel away to school, and it came all too soon, I felt as if my heart could not bear it. Only the thought that it was best for him stopped me from clinging to him. Samuel had chosen an excellent school that would provide the very best grounding, then, when he was old enough, he would move back here to York and attend the school that Samuel and his family had established for Quaker boys.

For many hours we had sat and discussed our son’s future. It was impossible for him to be known as James Samuel Tuke, nor Smith, nor Haxby. Instead, after investing Doctor Tucker with his godparentship, he became James Samuel Tucker.

He had lived a queer life for the first six years; he was universally adored and had hardly a hard word from anyone, and yet, he had been brought up in a mental asylum. He knew that I was his mother, I would not have it any other way, but Samuel was not his father. Instead, he was his guardian, as Doctor Tucker.

We wanted him to feel no shame for himself. He believed merely that I worked at The Retreat, and indeed, those last few years had seemed like that. I was certainly no ordinary inmate. I thought that people had forgotten about me outside of these walls, and I knew that that is for the best.

Eliza brought me tales from Bedern and beyond. Already my name had become myth – Mad Alice – with the truth behind it long since abandoned. Some even say I was hanged, she told me; others that I still haunt the streets after nightfall.

I had become a ghost in this, the most haunted of cities. It was a relief to hear. If I am a ghost, I am no harm to anyone, and have nothing to fear.

The day that James Samuel left, I hugged him tightly. Samuel had had him outfitted in the finest clothes, suitable for a young gentleman; indeed, he was going to the same school as several of Samuel’s Tuke sons. I hoped they would make happy playmates. I held back the tears in my eyes, and smiled as best I could.

“Goodbye, Mama,” he said, solemnly.

“Goodbye, my darling. You be a good boy and learn your lessons.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“And I will see you again soon.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Give Mama a kiss.” A sloppy kiss was planted on my cheek, but the horse and carriage that had drawn up outside the building had already taken my son’s attention.

He was itching with excitement. “Off you go, then,” I said, and sent him on his way with a pat on the behind. Samuel was there to help him into the carriage and a servant put the heavy trunk aloft.

With a flick of the whip, the carriage started forward and I stood there, by the iron railings, watching them get smaller and smaller until they were no more. Still I stood there, until Doctor Tucker came out, and taking me by the arm, led me inside and to tea.

“I shall miss him so much,” I said.

“I’m sure you will, Alice.”

“What am I to do with myself?”

“To do?”

“Yes, here. What shall I do with my time?”

“Why, you shall continue helping me as you have been. You are an excellent helper, Alice; a proper little nurse and I have become quite reliant on you.”

“Yes, but when those duties are done, what shall I do?”

“You shall read, Alice, and walk in the gardens. You will visit with Samuel, and life will continue as it did before you were blessed with James Samuel.”

“Yes, I suppose it shall, but, oh, the days shall seem so long.”

“What would you like to do?”

“Me? Like to do? I- I hardly know. It’s not a question I get asked often,” I said.

“I’m asking you now; what would you like to do?”

“Well, I like to help you, and I like to read my books, and I like to spend time with Samuel, of course.”

“Of course. And what else?”

“I enjoy my lessons with Samuel. I enjoy learning new things, and, well-”

“Go on.”

“I enjoy writing.”

“Do you indeed?”

“Yes. I have often joked to Samuel that apart from training as a doctor, being a writer is as great an ambition as I could wish for. Of course, that is all nonsense. I can never be a writer, for, living here, I suppose I am not really alive.”

“Not really alive? How so?”

“I ought to have hanged for my crimes, you know.”

“I know that.”

“So, to be here, insane, I am not really alive, am I?”

“I beg to differ, Alice. As would your son, and Samuel; you’re very much alive.”

“But I can’t write, can I? I mean, not anything that anyone would read.”

“I agree it would not do to draw attention to yourself but there are ways to get published under another name; it is called a nom du plume.”

“A nom du plume?”

“Yes, and until then, you can write regardless.”

“But what would I write about?”

“My dear Alice, you can write about anything you like; the world is your oyster. Write about your hopes and dreams, write about your son, and write about your life.”

“Anything I like?”

“Anything you like.”

“Would people want to read it?”

“It matters not. What matters is, do you want to write it?”


I smoothed a piece of startling white paper in front of me, and dipped the quill into the inkpot. Samuel was sitting behind me in the little morning room where patients sometimes received visitors. He was ensconced in a comfortable armchair, a book in his hands and his head had fallen on to his chest, which rose and fell gently with each breath. It might have almost been a happy family scene from a painting. I stood up, and knelt beside him, placing the book on one armrest, and taking his hands into mine, gently stroked them. He roused, looked down, and smiled at me.

“My dearest girl, whatever are you doing down there?”

“I was just thinking how happy I am, how blessed. We have made a life here, haven’t we?”

“We have indeed.”

“And you are happy, Samuel?”

“You make me the happiest man in the world.”

“We’ll always have each other.”

“Forever, my darling. Now, can’t a man get some shut eye without someone disturbing him?”

“I love you,” I said.

“And I love you too,” he said, rather gruffly and he shuffled position in his chair. He folded his hands across his chest and within minutes, his head was once more nodding to the rhythm of his deep peaceful breathing.

I tiptoed back to the desk, and looked at the blank paper. I had written before; Samuel had taught me all those years before, and yet, this was quite foreign to me; a vast expanse for me to fill as I liked. I put the nib firmly on the sheet, and began:

“At 19, I was considered old to be entering service for the first time…”


Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter twenty one


When the storm has passed, I let my arms loosen and sit back on my heels, waiting for my mum to compose herself and continue with her story.

“I wouldn’t have left Deepdene Hall then, not for anything, but you were taken to hospital for observation, and that’s when, everything got worse. You saw your father and your brother standing beside your bed. You were talking to them, quite happily when I walked into the ward.

“Chattering away like a sparrow, and smiling. I was so relieved that you weren’t hurt, and that the experience hadn’t damaged you so I asked who you were speaking to. You looked so confused when you said Daddy and Matthew. ‘Couldn’t I see them?’ you asked. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, so I said the only thing that was in my head – that Daddy and Matthew were gone, that there’d been a big fire at the house, and that they’d been taken from us, and then you began to scream and scream.

“‘Their faces were melting’, you said. The skin dripping off their bones, and blood, so much blood everywhere. The nurses came, they sedated you and I hoped for the best, prayed for the best. But I knew what you’d seen, and I knew what had happened to Elaine, accident or not. I knew then that we couldn’t stay at Deepdene, not that there was a house to go back to.

I had to get you away from there; away from the Blenkinsops. We couldn’t stay in the village. Ethel begged me to stay, but there was nothing there for us anymore, and I was scared. I was scared for you. I was scared for me. I’d just lost my husband and son, and I was all alone with a young child. I wanted my parents. And so we left.”

“But why can’t I remember any of this?”

“You kept having nightmares, months and months after the fire, and the doctors had given me some sedatives for you, just so you could sleep. Gradually the nightmares stopped, and you never mentioned Deepdene, not once. I was so shocked when a year or so later you asked me where your daddy was. I panicked, and I said the first thing that came to my mind. I told you he’d left us. And then, then it was too late to tell you the truth. And you were happy in Milton Keynes, settled. You never asked about Matthew. You never said his name again until today.”

“Happy? Settled? I wasn’t happy; I was a zombie. I don’t think I’ve known a drug-free life until a few months ago. How could you?”

“I made a mistake, Martha; a big one. But I was still young when they died, and I was frightened. I knew as soon as I’d said the words that they were wrong but I couldn’t take them back. And without the medication you were scared, Martha. You were a scared little girl who wouldn’t leave her room. I thought I was doing the best thing for you.”

“And Richard?”


“He knew. He knew about all of this. He told me.”

“He didn’t really know, darling. Not all of it. He only knew the bare bones. He’d seen your medical records. He asked me, and- and I told him the truth.”

“You told him, practically a stranger, the deepest darkest secrets of my life? But not me?”

“I thought you’d be safe with him. It was obvious he cared for you. And he was a psychiatrist. I thought you’d be in safe hands.”

“Well, you were wrong, Mother.”

“I know. I know I was. I know what I did was unforgiveable, but still, I hope that you will forgive me.” I have moved back to the other side of the sofa and look at her. “Please, Martha. I’m your mother.”

“I can’t forgive you, not quite yet,” I say, as gently as I can. “Do you see that? Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do,” she says although her eyes are pleading for me to say otherwise.

“I think I can though; I think I will, just, not yet. I need some time. Is that ok?”

“Of course it is, darling. Of course.”

“I need to try to remember for myself. I need to work out who I am.”

It’s Evie who interrupts us.

“I think, perhaps, you’d better leave Mrs Hislop. I don’t want to be rude, but Martha has had a hell of a day.”

To my surprise, my mother demurs without a murmur. Before she leaves, she places a hand on mine.

“I’m so sorry, Martha. Truly, I am. I’m going to stay in York. I’ll be here whenever you need me. You only have to call. I’m here for you.”

I nod wordlessly, and Evie leads her out to the front door, but before the door closes, she stops, turns, and says, “I can understand if you don’t want to talk to me just yet. But if you do have more questions, go and find Ethel McGready. I’m sure she still lives in the village. She’ll tell you everything, and she’ll be thrilled to see again.”

The door shuts behind her, and Evie turns and looks at me questioningly.

“Would you mind if I went to bed?”

“Oh god, Martha; not at all. You need some rest. I’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well.”


I’ve never dreamt so vividly about Alice before. I swear that if I stretched out my hand, I could touch her. She is fair, although more golden than I; and pretty, very pretty, although her eyes are sad and there are lines etched into her face; I am relieved, even in sleep, when her face doesn’t collapse in flames, and yet sofa beds aren’t really meant to be slept on, as any unexpected visitor will attest, and with the sunlight streaming through ineffectual curtains, I am awake far earlier than I’d like. What I’d really like to do is sleep for an incredibly long time, perhaps forever.

I want to shut my eyes and let me mind drift off into some pleasant place far from the mess that my life is now. It’s not only springs in my back and light on my eyes that disturb me, Alice was the only light moment in my dreams, which once again are full of fire and fear.

The dreamless peaceful sleep that I long for is nowhere to be found. Unable to bear lying still and letting all my thoughts have free rein, I get up and potter to the kitchenette to make myself a cup of strong sweet coffee.

Sometimes I think coffee is a morning’s only saving grace. I am surprised when Evie joins me not many moments later dressed in a tatty oversized t-shirt and knickers. I never thought of her as a morning person.

“Good God, give me some of that coffee immediately.” She drinks deeply. “Bloody hell, what time is it?”

I look at my watch. “Er, six o’clock”, I say apologetically.

“Jesus. I can’t remember the last time I saw six o’clock. Well, I can, but it was approaching it from five o’clock after a heavy night. It seems so much more civilised than actually getting up at this time!”

“Why are you up?” I ask curiously.

“I heard you, and I thought that you might need some company. God knows the small hours of the morning can be a pretty dark place.”

“You know, Evie, I consider myself very lucky to have stumbled upon you.”

“Don’t go all mushy on me, Martha. It’s far too early for that.”

“No, seriously. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

Pouring herself a cup of coffee, she smiles and heads to the sofa bed, plonking herself inelegantly on the corner.

“So what’s the plan, Stan?”

“I think, if you’re free, that is, I think it’s time to find Mrs McGready.”

“I’m there with bells on.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Honestly Martha. At first, I admit, it was all a bit of fun; a mystery to uncover, but now, now I know how important it is to you, and how serious it is too. I’ll help in any way I can. And Isak will too.”


“Yes, you know. That devilishly handsome photographer who we spent yesterday with.”

“I know who you mean, it’s just-”

“It’s just what?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“You fancy him. It’s as simple as that.”

“No, I don’t!”
“Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? He’s gorgeous. Hell, I fancy him.”

“You do?”

“Don’t worry; you get first dibs.”

“But I’m married.”

“Yes, well, we’ll see about that.”

“Evie! You can’t say things like that.”

“I can, and I just bloody well did. You didn’t stay here last night because of some little spat, did you? No. I thought not. You’re not the same person I met in the library those months ago. Not by half. I bet your Richard has noticed that too. Fine, fine,” she holds up her hands as I start to protest. “We won’t talk about it, not yet. But mark my words, there’s something for you with Isak. Even if it’s just a tasty rebound.” I can’t help but laugh at her, and my laughs follow her as she gets up and heads into the bathroom. “We’ll leave at nine, yeah?”

“Nine? Isn’t that bit early to be calling on someone on a Sunday?”

“Nah. Old people are always up early, aren’t they?” and she disappears into the shower.


We had to wait in the car for an hour once we reached Deepdene as we’d both forgotten that apart from the pub, we had no idea how to find Ethel. When I can’t stand it anymore, and still long before the doors will open, I get out and search for a back entrance. The door is standing ajar and a young lad is peeling a great vat of potatoes.

“Hello,” I say. “Is the landlord around? I’m looking for someone.”

“Who you looking for?” he asks.

“Erm, a Mrs McGready. Ethel McGready.”

“What you want old Ethel for?”

“It’s a bit complicated, but I used to know her years ago. I just want to ask her a few questions.”

After casting his eye over me and deciding I don’t look like much of a threat, he says, “She lives at Number Three on the high street. Blue door. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you so much,” I say and he returns my thanks with a grunt, already focused on the spuds in front of him.

Number Three proves not to be far, so we leave the car parked on the kerb outside the pub and walk there. The door is painted a rich navy and its brassware shines.

There’s no doorbell so I take hold of the knocker and bring it down with a sharp tap against the metal. There is no answer at first. I check my watch. It’s a little past ten o’clock. With Evie at my side, I strike the knocker again, and this time, am rewarded by the door opening an inch, caught on a safety chain.

“You!” I say, recognising the old lady from the pub yesterday. She takes one look at me, and the door closes again in my face but before I have time to panic, it is reopened, this time with the safety chain dangling from the side.

“So you came back,” she says.

“I came back.”

“Still not Martha Blenkinsop?”

“Yes, well, about that. I’m sorry but I barely knew myself.”

“You’d best come in, and you too, I suppose.”

“Evie, Evelyn Granger,” she says, extending a hand.

“Ethel McGready. You’ll be a friend of Martha’s?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she says, as we follow Ethel down the corridor and into the sitting room.

“Have a seat, have a seat.” Gingerly I sit on a sofa, which is patterned in a faded floral print with crocheted antimacassars and Evie takes a place just next to me. “Now you two just stay there and I’ll put the kettle on.”

“Let me help-” I say.

“No, girl. You sit there. I may be getting on in years but I’m perfectly capable of making a cuppa on my own.” She vanishes from sight. “Sugar?” she calls out.

“Er, one for me, please. Evie?”

“One for me too, please.”


“Yes, please; for both,” I say.


“Wouldn’t say no,” Evie shouts back.

Despite being told to stay put, once I hear the kettle reach its crescendo, I get up and find my way to the kitchen. A tray has been laid out with an intricately crocheted doily, on which has been placed three cups and saucers – beautiful things of fine bone china with exquisitely painted sprays of primrose yellow, forget-me-not blue and rose pink flowers each finished with a gilt edge – a matching teapot, silver strainer resting to one side, silver teaspoons adorning each saucer, a bowl of brown and white sugar cubes with tongs, two small jugs, one of milk, the other of hot water, and completed with a plate of carefully displayed custard creams and rich tea biscuits.

“You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble.”

“Well now, it’s not often I have the excuse to make an effort with the tea so I put the mugs away and got the china out. I thought that way you girls could sort your own sugar and milk after all.”

“Here, let me carry that,” and I am relieved when she lets me. I put the tray on the small wooden table in the centre of the room, and kneeling beside it say, “Shall I be mother?” Evie looks at me, and her mouth twitches. Her amusement is contagious and I laugh. “Sorry. I’m not sure where that came from!”

When the tea is poured, Ethel sits back in her armchair, “Now, Martha; we can sit here all day exchanging pleasantries, or we can get down to brass tacks. Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about yourself? It’s been many a year since I saw you last.”

“Well, it’s a long story.”

“They always are, my love; and they’re always the best ones.”

“To be honest, I remember very little about Deepdene. I suppose because I was so young when it all happened. In fact, before I moved back up to Yorkshire with my husband I didn’t know anything about, well, about anything.” Several cups of tea later, the biscuit plate long since cleared and with Ethel interjecting her own questions, I laid out the last twenty years in front of her. “And so, you see, it was the dreams that brought me back here. And now I know what my mum has told me, and I know what I’ve seen with my own eyes, but I still don’t feel I know very much at all. I mean, I don’t even know what my dad and brother looked like!”

“Well now, that can be easily changed,” Ethel says, and gets to her feet. There is a dark wooden bureau in one corner of the room and opening the front, she retrieves a thick packet. “Here you go, my dear. That is your father, Giles Blenkinsop.” I look at the photo she’s handed me, and I see a middle aged man, handsome, as my mother said, with dark hair and eyes staring into the camera. “This’ll be him and your ma on their wedding day.” The photo brings tears to my eyes. They both look so happy and young, and alive.

Once more I am filled with anger that my mother kept this from me, but when Ethel hands me the next photo, the anger dissipates. “Your brother, Matthew. Now let me see, he would have been about three in this photo.” Evie cranes over my shoulder. There is no denying the resemblance; taking after my mother, as I do, his fair hair stands up on end while his blue eyes are gazing off into the distance. “Heaven knows how we managed to keep him still long enough for that to be taken!” says Ethel. “Always rushing around was young Matthew, and you behind him. Look, here’s one of the two of you.” As I stare at the photos, I’m not sure whether it’s my imagination, or my memory, that is throwing up images in my head.

“My mother said something quite odd,” I say.

“Oh yes?”

“It was something that my father had told her, about the Blenkinsops. Apparently, there had always been something a little odd about them, that some of them, not all, but some had seen things that other people hadn’t, or couldn’t.”

“Oh yes, the Blenkinsops were always a queer lot, if you’ll excuse me. Except, I suppose, that’s not strictly true. They say it all started with a marriage to an outsider, a young man by the name of James Samuel. An orphan, he was, but he’d been taken care of, sponsored if you like, by a local well-to-do York family; the Tukes, I believe.”

“The Tukes?”

“Yes, that’s right. Prominent family they was, Quakers. Started The Retreat in York, that lunatic asylum, as well as a number of schools in the area.”

“Of course, I knew I’d heard the name. My husband, Richard, works at Bootham Park Hospital. He must have mentioned The Retreat and the Tukes.”

“Well anyway, James Samuel started courting Georgiana Blenkinsop. She was the only daughter of the house, only child; her brothers and sisters all dying young, as they did in those days. So James marries Georgiana and takes her name, saves the family if you like.

“Not only had they not got a male heir, the Blenkinsops, but they’d not got a penny to rub together neither. James brought money with him, money that he used well, invested well and built Deepdene.

“I can’t show you James, of course. There used to be a painting of him hanging in one of the rooms, but the fire got that, I’m afraid. But he was a handsome man; fair-haired and blue eyes. It’s no wonder Georgiana fell for him. And theirs was a happy marriage by all accounts, blessed with several healthy children, and the Blenkinsop line carried on, only, something had changed.

“James had brought something with him; something different although he, himself, was as ordinary a man as you can imagine, some of the girls had a certain way about them. There were whispers, rumours of ghosts and spirits. Much of it was put down to imaginings, I expect, but those rumours, they never quite went away as each new generation was born. Always the girls, it was.

I used to lay you down in your crib, and I’d come back an hour or so later, and there you’d be, sitting up in one corner, gurgling away to someone or something I had no notion of. Always seemed happy, mind; there were never any tears. Now most people would assume you had a set of imaginary friends, but I’d seen and heard enough by then to think different.

“I didn’t bother your parents with it at first, like I said, you both seemed happy enough, and your father, Giles, he knew all the stories anyway, although he never paid any heed to them.”

“But, but none of this makes any sense.

“No, dear, I don’t suppose it does. Still, it all happened anyway, sense or not.”

“This is all ridiculous,” I say, looking at Evie. “I mean-”

“Have you not been seeing strange things then, Martha? You being a Blenkinsop girl? Things you can’t explain? Things you can’t put your finger on?”

“Well,” I pause, reluctant to give credence to such a ludicrous story, “yes, I suppose I have, but-”

“And what have you seen, dear?”

“At first, it was not so much seen, as heard. Voices, at the very far edges of my hearing, calling to me, but then, then I started to glimpse things, movements, at the very edge of my sight, and now I feel like I know things, things that I can’t possibly know.”

“Well, there you go then,” and Ethel sits back in her chair, satisfied.

“Do you have any more photos?”

“Lord, I’ve got more than photos for you. When nobody came back, I says to my brother, Stephen, you might remember him too; he used to work in the garden, so I says to him that we’d better take what we can in case Martha or Sarah come back. Filled a van, we did.

“There wasn’t much the fire didn’t touch but we got out quite a lot. That bureau over there, that’s yours. And we managed to save a whole load of books. Smell a bit smoky, mind, but nothing wrong with them. Here, let me show you.”

She gets up from her chair with only a little difficulty and walks out of the room. I nod my head at Evie who gets up and joins me as we scuttle out after Ethel. We follow her down the corridor where she stops outside of a locked door.

Reaching for a hand-height dado rail, she picks up a key resting there and inserts it in the lock, opening the door to reveal a room that most people might use as a dining room. This is not a dining room, this is a storage room, and for a split second, I feel like Howard Carter on the cusp of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

It is filled, almost floor to ceiling, with furniture, paintings, crates of books and knick-knacks, and treasures wrapped in newspaper waiting to be discovered.

“This is-”

“All yours, my love. I always knew someone would be back to claim it and I always hoped it would be you.”


Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter twenty


My eyes opened with a start and I moved up into a sitting position immediately. I was not entirely certain of what was going on, but my body and my mind were alert.

I looked around me. I was in a small room, painted entirely white, from the wooden floorboard to the plaster ceiling. It was a far cry from the cell I had occupied for the last few months. Tentatively I stretched my arms to see if shackles still bound them but they moved freely, coming to rest in front of me. There were still raw red marks on my wrists but they were clean.

In fact, my entire body was clean; both in look and smell. I was wearing a simple white linen shift, not of fine quality, but of good sturdy fabric with a ribbon that tied tightly at my neck. There was no mirror, but I put a hand to my head, which no longer felt as if it was crawling alive with lice. My hair was unmated and lay soft and smooth against my scalp, caught together at the nape of my neck by a tie of some sort.

I got up from the wooden bed, complete with thick woollen sheets and a soft horsehair mattress, and went over to the window. It was barred with iron, but I could still see out on to a green park where, in the distance, carriages passed. I thought I knew where I was: The Retreat.

I remembered the trial, piecing it together in my head. I remembered the twin relief and horror to look up, recognising a voice and seeing Samuel standing there, facing the judge, then to look down at myself, covered in grime, smelling of a pigsty and accused of murder. The shame of it made me wish the ground would open up and swallow me whole, and then, when the judge passed sentence – that I was to be taken to The Retreat and not to the gallows – it seemed as if the ground did open, and I remembered nothing more.

The force of the recollections caused me to sit down on the bed once more with a thump. I had escaped the gallows, despite killing my husband. It was painful to think of those nightmare days with him, but I was saved from doing so by a key in the door.

I drew the sheets over my legs to gain some sort of protection but let them fall when I saw the face that entered. Samuel.

He looked uncomfortable and awkward, and had yet to meet my eyes. I had to speak first.


“Mrs Smith.”

“Mrs Smith?”

“You must be feeling a little disorientated. You fainted after the judge passed sentence at your trial. What do you remember?”

Although I had crossed my legs leaving ample space on the bed, Samuel pulled a chair towards him and sat on that.

“What do I remember?” I asked, confused. This was not the Samuel I knew. I was wrong-footed; adrift.

“Yes, Mrs Smith. What do you remember of the trial?”

“I remember it all, Mr Tuke,” I said.

“So, you recall you stood accused of murdering your husband, and that you faced death?”

“I am aware of it, yes.”

“And that you have been brought here, under my protection, as you have been declared insane?”


“And you understand that you are to remain here for the rest of your days? That although you have been spared a death sentence, the law demands retribution for your crimes.”


“You will never leave this place, Mrs Smith.”

I was unable to take his coldness anymore, “Sam-” but I was interrupted when the door swung open once more.

“I see you were quite right in your assessment, Samuel,” said the man, who had entered. “She is perfectly calm but clearly not cognisant of her crimes. She could not have faced the noose.”

“Mrs Smith,” said Samuel. “This is Doctor Tucker. He will be overseeing your care.”

“Doctor Tucker,” I said.

“I hope you realise you’re a very lucky girl,” he replied, in a patronising tone. “Without Mr Tuke here vouching for your current state of mind, and your former excellent behaviour, you’d be waiting for the hangman right now.” I nodded; there seemed little I could have said. “Samuel, I shall see you later,” and with that, he swept from the room, leaving Samuel to shut the door quietly behind him.

“We will be alone now, for a few minutes,” he said. “Tell me, Alice, tell me the truth, did you kill your husband?”

“You know I did, Samuel.”

“But why, Alice? Why?”

“You vouched for me, you know why.”

“I know only what your family and the young apprentice told me. I must hear it from you.”

“My husband, Thomas, was a cruel man. He beat me, but that I could have borne; many men beat their wives. He was fat, he was old, he was smelly, and I was in love with you, Samuel. After I lost our child, I was heartbroken, but you helped to heal me once more.

“I will always remember those few hours fondly, but I became pregnant once more. I could not say in all honesty if the child was yours or his. Cholera was in the city, and I gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. But Thomas would not own them. And they died while I lay stricken with fever. He had them thrown into the common pit; their tiny bodies wrapped in linen, covered in pitch and lime and set on fire. Without my sister and Ma, they would not even have been baptised.

“He was an ungodly man, and I grew to hate him. Once I recovered, my life grew worse. I was a prisoner in the house, allowed no visitors and was there only to do Thomas’ bidding. When I became pregnant again, I knew it could only be his child but I wouldn’t have it. I couldn’t have it; do you understand Samuel? After everything that had happened, after everything that he had done, I would not have his child. And so, I took a tisane of tansy.”

“Oh, Alice-”

“No, Samuel. Judge me if you must, but do not pity me. I deliberately tore that child away from my womb, and then, after, when I realised what I had done, what Thomas had brought me to, I knew that I could not live with him for a moment longer. There was some tansy left, and I cooked it into a stew. We both fell sick, but when I recovered, he died.”

“But why did you call for the constable?”

“Because I knew I had to atone for my sins. And I could not bear the thought of Thomas’ death to be judged as cholera and he to be buried in the same pit as my poor babies.” I stopped speaking and a silence fell between us.

Samuel took my hands in his. He turned them over, and ran a finger gently upon the marks made by the manacles. He lifted my wrists to his mouth, and placed a kiss on each, as light as a feather.

“Can you forgive me, Samuel?” I said, daring to break the silence.

“It is not for me to forgive you, Alice; that is for God alone.”

“I am not asking this of God, I am asking this of you.”

“You are the same woman that I loved from first setting eyes on you, you are the same woman that I loved when we lay in an embrace, and you are the same woman who carried my child. Alice Smith, I will love you until the end of time.”


He got up from the chair, sat on the bed, and pulled me, none too gently, into his arms. He grasped me tightly, and I cried: great big tears escaping from my eyes to be soaked up in the folds of his waistcoat and jacket. I was safe in his arms. Nothing, and no one, would ever hurt me again; of that, I was certain; not while I had Samuel’s protection.

Pulling back, he rained kisses on my mouth and I eagerly responded. When the initial hunger was sated, he gently eased himself away from me.

“I will always love you, Alice, but nothing has changed between us. I am married to Priscilla and I must honour that. This is my clinic, and there must be no hint of anything untoward between us. I would never forgive myself if anything jeopardised your future here. And although Doctor Tucker was listening earlier, I meant what I said. You will have to stay here for the rest of your life, and you will be determined insane, any decision otherwise will see you walk to the gallows after all. You are safe in here, but this is the only place I can guarantee that safety.”

“But how will I act? How will I live?”

“Have no fear. Your madness is not judged to be a raving sort but instead, a disturbance in your mind that has affected its growth. You are not judged to be responsible for your actions.”

“And I am to stay here? Locked in this room? Until I die?”

“You will only be kept in this room until you are deemed fit for the company of others. Doctor Tucker has seen you know, and I think it will only be a matter of days, perhaps a few weeks, until you are allowed to go about as many of our calmer patients are.”

“But what shall I do with myself?”

“I will bring you books, Alice. We can resume our lessons, if you would like.”

“I’d like that very much.”

“And you may have visitors, once a month.”

“So I may see Eliza and Ma?”

“You may.”

‘I’m not sure that they will want to see me.”

“You misjudge them, Alice. It was Eliza who came to me after your arrest.”

“But Eliza didn’t know you and I had been reunited.”

“It seems you had told her enough, and she is a clever girl, Alice. She knew.”

“You think they will wish to see me?”

“I have no doubt of it, my love. But now, I must leave you. There are other patients who require my time, and I cannot be accused of favouritism. At least, not just yet.” He pressed a kiss on my forehead. “I will return, Alice, with books and some writing paper. Do not despair.”

I was left with the whisper of his kiss and promise lingering in the air.


He was as good as his word and the following day he appeared with a stack of books in his arms: The Complete Works of Jane Austen. I did not recall these from his library so I thought he must have procured them specially.

“The books I bring you are monitored, Alice. These are deemed acceptable for a female mind. Ann Radcliffe is too volatile at present, although I am permitted to bring you a copy of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. I thought you might prefer these though. I believe you had spoken of Miss Austen before?”

“Yes, I have heard of her writing, but this will be the first time that I can read it for myself. I am truly grateful, Samuel.”

“I cannot stay and read with you today, Alice, but I am unfamiliar with Miss Austen’s novels so perhaps, you can tell me all about them on our next meeting?”


I devoured the novels hungrily and even when the time came for my door to remain unlocked, I spent the first few days on my bed reading. I was not ready to face others yet and with the door closed, no one, except the doctors, ventured in.

I was proving to be a model patient, or perhaps, inmate. Everyone knew that Samuel vouched for me, but that was not so unusual. He had stood witness in other trials, although not always successfully. He was universally known as a good man. His interest in me, as a former servant, was not remarked upon and I began to see a life of sorts for myself here.


When Eliza and Ma visited, plenty of tears were shed.

“Your father refuses to own you, Alice,” said Ma. I was not surprised, nor was I disappointed. We were never close, and it was he who sold me to the highest bidder, Thomas, even if it was my own faults that brought me to that position. “And I don’t think it’s right for your brothers and sisters to come visiting.”

“I understand, Ma. I really do. It’s you and Eliza I care about. That’s all.”

“He’s a good man, Mr Tuke.”

“He is, Ma.”

“He saved you.”

“I know.”

“Although I warned you often enough about gentlemen taking advantage, didn’t I?”

“You did, Ma, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything that has happened. What are people saying about me?”

“That you’re as crazy they come.”

Eliza interrupted, “They’re calling the ginnel where your house is Mad Alice Lane.”

“They’re not?!” I said, unsure of whether to be shocked or amused.

“And Mad Alice, you’ll stay, if you have your wits about you.”

“Ma, that doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t you sass me, my girl. You know what I mean.”

“I know. I know. So Mad Alice, eh? It has a certain ring to it,” and I smiled. “Does anyone mourn Thomas?”

“Not round those parts. Of course, everyone says what a wicked thing it was you did, and how you should be punished, but it was no secret the man he had become. And most people saw you lose your twins.”

“And what about the twins, and the burial pit?”

“Well, you know it’s consecrated now. There’s no more burials though. The sickness has gone, it seems. Praise God. But your Mr Tuke, he’s arranged for a headstone to be placed there.”

“Really? For the twins?”

“Not just for the twins. That’d set people talking more than they are now. It’s for all those lying in the pit, but we know, Alice, we know it’s for them. It’s a fine headstone, beautifully carved. It’d soothe your heart to see it.”

“Why didn’t he tell me himself?”

“Well now, happen he didn’t like to. Happen he thought we, your family, had the right to tell you.”

“I must thank him.”

“Aye, that you must, girl. It’s time for us to be going. I’ve left Hannah with the washing and Lord knows what state it’ll be in when we get home. You know what our Hannah is like, all fingers and thumbs. I tell you what, having a mad sister has brought her down a peg or two. And bloody, excuse me, a blooming good thing too; silly child. Eliza, come along now.”

Ma got up to leave, pausing briefly to pat my hand with hers. Eliza waited until she had left the room and pulled two books out from underneath her dress, one of my old ones from the Tukes.

“Here you go,” she said, and placed a copy of Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein in my hands. “I know these are your favourites.”

“Oh, Eliza. What would I do without you?”

“I think you’d find a way to get along quite nicely. You’re a survivor, Alice. Make sure it stays that way.” She kissed me on the cheek and left me feeling like the younger sister, not the elder. When had she grown up, this baby sister of mine?


Within months, I was even allowed to walk in the grounds. On a glorious spring morning, it seemed like a real gift to feel the grass beneath my feet – I had taken to walking barefoot everywhere. The one advantage of being thought mad was that, with care, one could do as one liked. The books that Samuel brought me have changed too; he also brought all the books he’d gifted me months before.

I was building up quite a library along the sill of my window and that brought me even more joy than being outside. Austen’s novels lay at the very left, with the rest following neatly alphabetised.

Pamela was brought, as promised, and was dismissed as pious drivel, but other, far more interesting books had made their way into my hands from both Samuel and Eliza who continued to secrete my former treasures on each visit.

Remarkably, Samuel had taken it upon himself to teach me French. The cause? A marvellous satire from Voltaire, entitled Candide. I must admit; it was slow work. I did not find it was easy as learning to read and write English, but Samuel was a patient teacher and it meant we could spend more time together.

His endeavours were approved by the board in the name of improving a sinful mind. In this way, hours passed by happily. His wife, Priscilla, sometimes came to the institution, to read to the less fortunate. She never visited me and for that I was heartily grateful. She could not be ignorant of who I was and how her husband had helped me. Whether she knew I once carried his child is one thing, but she certainly dismissed me for an inappropriate relationship with her husband.

The year I was brought to The Retreat she was pregnant once more, little Esther left to memory, and a son, Samuel Junior, was born. Samuel was overjoyed, and for a while, his visits decreased, but soon he returned to me.

While I might have harboured a desire to be the woman carrying his children, only a cruel person would have denied him his pleasure. Yet, he was careful not to share too much of this child with me, knowing that it had only been months since I had lost two of my own. It was still a raw wound to me. I no longer carried Rebecca and Joseph around with me. I had not since I first woke up in The Retreat, but they had not gone from me, and not a day went past that I did not think of them.


I thought that my life would have continued at this pace quite happily. It was a gentle life, in my white room with my shelf of books, and a garden below. Not a bad life at all. Lonely, at times, and sad too, but I had nothing to be displeased about.

Time passed slowly but easily: Eliza became engaged to the baker’s son. She shared her secrets with me monthly, and I cautioned her not to make the same mistakes as I did. She had learned that from me, at least. Visits from the doctors were regular but few. I was no longer considered a risk to anyone, but remained, resolutely insane.

I could now read Candide, in the French, without the aid of Samuel, although not without the aid of a dictionary, and Priscilla was once again pregnant, and it wouldn’t be long before the babe was due.

I awaited word of the birth. I could not help but live through the lives of the Tukes sometimes. I knew the family intimately. Yet when no word came for a week, and then two, and still no sign of Samuel either, I grew concerned.

I asked Doctor Tucker, and was informed that Mrs Tuke had indeed given birth, to another son, Daniel; and yet, no Samuel. I dared not draw more attention to myself than necessary. I wrote him a letter before screwing it up viciously and starting anew. On the fifth attempt, I was happy with my words, and labelled an envelope accordingly.

Yet the letter sat on the sill. Who had I to give it to? Only Ma and Eliza and they were not due for several weeks more. And Samuel. So I sat at the window, and I waited.

I counted the days. It was eighteen. The longest I had been without him since I arrived. Each hour seemed like an eternity. For almost the first time, I felt as if I might truly be insane. I stared at the white walls and patterns started to make appear. I stared longer, and harder, and soon whole scenes appeared before my eyes.


It was one morning, a few days later and far earlier than usual, when the door to my room burst open.

“She is dead, Alice.”


Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter nineteen


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

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

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

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

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

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

“You offered him money?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not any more, Richard, and still…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘What did you expect her-’”

“You knew?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Evie? I’ve left Richard.”

“Shit. I’ll come and get you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you have, had, a brother?”


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

“Apparently so.”

“And your mum never mentioned any of this?”

“Honestly, I knew nothing about it.”

“But Richard did?”


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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But how will you find her?”

“I’ll ask in the pub.”

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

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

“Stop stalling, Martha.”

“I’m not. Really; this is important.”

“What did you find?”

“Thomas Smith’s grave.”


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

“But no sign of Alice?”


“And no indication that he was murdered.”

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

“The plot thickens.”

“Doesn’t it always?”




“Martha. I’m so-”

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


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

“Where are you now, Martha?”

“I’m at Evie’s.”

“And where’s that?”

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

“You’ve been here all these days?”


“But why?”

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


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

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

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

“Tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs McGready?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“In Deepdene Hall, I suppose?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, you love a psychiatrist.”

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

“Where are the children?” he asked me.

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

“And Ethel?”

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

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

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

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


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

“Things like what?”

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

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

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

“So what’s all the fuss about?”

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

“I didn’t know you had a sister.”

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

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

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

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

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

“But what about the fire?”

“That really was an accident.”

“Really? You think that after Elaine died?”

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

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

“I don’t think so, Martha; not now.”

“Not now?”

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

“So what happened to my father and brother?”

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

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

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

“It was too late,” she whispers.


Fiction Friday – Mad Alice Lane, chapter eighteen


Watching my husband breathe his last was the most satisfying thing I had seen in a long time. I nudged him, pinched his nose and then placed a piece of glass beneath his nose to see if he had any breath left but he was truly gone; for good; or bad.

With Mrs Simpson outside, I was left with two choices. Did I play the grieving widow? Or did I confess my crime? Undoubtedly they would hang me for what I had done. I had no illusions on that account. And yet, there was still cholera in the city. Many had died like him, and still more would.

But if he was diseased, his body would be thrown into the same pit in which he had caused my babies to be put. He would be alongside them, in body although certainly not in spirit. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. That was all that I needed to make my mind. I called Mrs Simpson back into the room.

“You must call the constable,” I said.

“The constable, Mrs Smith? What in heavens for?”

“My husband has been poisoned.”

“Been poisoned, you say?” She looked at me curiously. “What makes you think that, Mrs Smith?”

“Because, Mrs Simpson, I poisoned him myself. And good riddance!”

She gasped aloud. “You wicked, wicked thing.”

“You’re quite right, Mrs Simpson. Quite right. Now please go and get the constable.”

“No shame at all. No remorse.”

“None, I’m afraid. Very shocking, I know. The constable, if you please.”

My neighbour scampered out of the room as fast as her arthritic limbs could take her, and I heard the key turn in the lock. I wouldn’t have ordinarily minded being locked in a room, after all, I had become quite accustomed to it, but being stuck with Thomas galled me more than the smell of sick, piss and shit.

I was surprised when I heard the key turning again, not more than ten minutes later. She must have run like the devil himself was on her trail, or, more likely, sent poor Simon. Although the key had turned, it was a few moments before the door itself was pushed open, and seated as I was, I had a perfect view of it inching wider very slowly.

I was right; it was Simon’s head that first peeked through. He saw me watching, let out a squeak and the door slammed shut again. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s alright, you know,” I said. “You can come in. I won’t hurt you. It was only my bastard husband that I thought to see dead.”

The door was pushed open more rigorously this time, and it was a young man who walked in, not the constable; probably just a watchman, I’d have wagered. He was struck still for a moment as the smell of the sickroom hit him full in the face, and I saw him blanch. Not much older than Simon, about my age perhaps, and I took pity on him as I saw him shrink back.

“Don’t worry. It’s not cholera. It’s tansy that did for him. Ministered by my own fair hand, as you see,” I said, and gestured to the mug on the pallet nightstand, with the dregs still inside. “You’re quite safe.”

Whether it was my words, or some inner courage he managed to plumb, but he straightened up and walked over to me.

“You’ll come with me, Miss, er, Mrs Smith.”

“Of course.”

He had nothing on him but the heavy wooden truncheon used to beat unwilling captives, but as I stepped towards him as willingly as a lamb, his uncertainty returned.


“You should probably take me to the parish constable. He’ll know what to do.”

“I know my job!” He said indignantly and stretched himself to his full 5 foot 6 inches. “Come along now.”

There was no carriage waiting outside. I had hardly expected there to be one, instead, I was marched, with a watchman on each side, to the lodgings of the constable, who, to his credit, did indeed appear to know what to do.

Heavy iron cuffs were placed on my wrists, and I found myself at the Castle in less than an hour. It was decided that it was at York Castle that I would be tried so at York Castle I would be detained. I cared not. A prison is a prison, and I had been living in one long before then.

I was placed in a cramped cold cell made of stone. Rivulets of rancid water ran down the walls but I was fortunate that there was a window, albeit barred with iron. I shared the cell with seven other women, all awaiting trial.

There was a single wooden bed in the corner, and a bench stretched across one wall. We took it in turns to sleep, although I, accused of petty treason, that is, murder of my husband, found it difficult to sleep with the iron cuffs.

There was no water to clean ourselves and food was brought but once a day: a thin gruel with hunks of stale bread. Vile filth-covered straw lined the floor and rats made themselves our neighbours.

Being brought so low would once have wrought a terrible change on my mind but then, knowing the crimes I had committed, for I knew them to have been so, I was resigned. I let the minutes, hours, days wash over me. I took no interest in the other women, or the coming and goings of our gaolers. I saw, but didn’t care, when one woman offered herself to a guard, hoping not only for more gruel, but that she would conceive a child, thus granted her a temporary reprieve from the noose. I had no need of more children. I had Rebecca and Joseph with me.

They nestled on my chest. I crooned lullabies to them and cradled them close; these children of mine, who would have been reaching their quarter-year. Every night, as darkness fell, I would put them to bed, and every night, like good babes, they would sleep the night through; and in the morning, I’d waken them to suckle at my breasts. I worried my milk had dried up, and despite knowing the gruel was almost worthless, I begged the guard for extra to feed them. All I received were blows and laughs.

At night, with the children sleeping, I heard voices. Were the same voices that led me back to Samuel all those months ago? I hardly knew. The first time, I started from my sleep, and looked around immediately for Eliza, but she was nowhere to be seen. Soon I learned not to be afeared of the voices; mostly there was the voice of a young girl, her tone well mannered and soft. In real life, I should never have mistaken her for Eliza. Eliza with her dropped ‘h’s and ‘t’s, just like me. Sometimes she cried with me, this girl; sometimes she called my name.

One night, I knew as sure as anything that the girl was Martha. I knew no Martha, but that was her name. Perhaps she had told me. Perhaps I just knew. When I looked down at the dirty bundle in my lap where I wrapped my children, and when I spoke to Martha, I knew that my mind had gone; untethered by my sorrow and guilt. You didn’t need a mind to nurse your dead babies, and you don’t need a mind to dangle from the gallows; only a neck to loop the noose around.

Other nights, Martha was nowhere to be found, and I wept instead for Eliza; pounding my fists against the walls as if that might bring her to me, instead of angry words from the other women. I wept for Samuel too. I would never know who was the twins’ father, but the thought that I had lost more of his precious children, brought my soul as low as I thought it could ever be.

I scraped my nails against the stone floor and gained some small sense of satisfaction when I drew blood from where my nails had been. My body was foul and stinking; crawling with lice and fleas and coated in a thick patina of human waste and dirt. Cholera was as rife within the prison as without, and yet, this time, I escaped while others perished. No one cared who succumbed or who fought through. The rushes were never changed, the buckets hardly emptied, and fresh water unheard of. A dead prisoner only deprived the hangman of his fee.

I had no sense of time. As the weather grew colder, I thought perhaps Christmas was coming, but there was nothing to celebrate.

One day, the mood was different in the prison; tense, unsettled and vibrating with energy, we could hear noises coming from the cells beyond, even through the thick stone walls. I drew my filthy shift tighter around the twins, to shield them from what was to come.

The key turned in the iron lock, and the heavy wooden door swung inwards. The assizes had arrived. It was time. A bucket of water was placed in the cell. Months ago, we would have fought for our turn, instead we shuffled up in silence and I was able to wipe my face as clean as the dirty rag provided would get it.

I made sure the twins looked as presentable as I could too. We were all led from the cell along with several other women from other cells, iron shackles making a great clamour. We were all to be tried together in the same court and by the same counsel. I was the only murderess in the midst; others were there for stealing a bolt of fabric or counterfeiting coins; regardless, we’d all hang from the new drop in the Castle grounds if found guilty.


The courtroom was truly magnificent. It even put the Tuke House to shame. Duck egg blue walls were lined with high wooden benches, each filled with serious looking men. The ceiling was decorated in a delicate white stucco and long windows cast bright light across the room; cruelly it not only reminded me of the Tuke House, the light also showed my dress to be more filthy than I had possibly imagined. There was shit crusted to the bottom and large sweat stains lay under my arms. The water had not helped much, and to see the grime and blood under my destroyed fingernails would have given Ma a heart attack. She was always ever so strict about clean hands and nails. No one would trust a laundress with dirty hands, she reckoned.

We were shuffled into an iron pen to one side of the room, and face the judge’s bench. It lay empty, and it was a full thirty minutes before he made his entrance. All the men rose but we women were already on our feet, and would remain so until sentence was passed.

One by one, the cases were called, and one by one, sentences were passed: transportation, transportation, hanging, transportation. This judge was not a kind one and one by one, women wept as they were led back into the dark prisons below. Soon, I was the only one remaining, and my case was put forward.

“Alice Smith, aged 24, stands accused of the wilful murder of her husband, Thomas Smith, by poison.” The prosecution spoke. “Alice Smith was married to Thomas Smith in the year 1823 at Holy Trinity Goodramgate, York. A constable was summoned to the premises of the prisoner and the deceased after the prisoner confessed to the crime of poisoning her husband to her neighbour, Mrs Simpson.

“John Hindle, a local surgeon, examined the body of the deceased on the 26th of October, the day on which the inquest was held. He opened it, and was enabled clearly to ascertain the cause of his death. The stomach was in a very putrid state; the coats of it much corroded and inflamed. He attributed the immediate cause of Smith’s death to herbal poisoning, which would produce all the effects that he observed. He discovered by tests the poison to be tansy, or tanacetum vulgar, also known as Common Tansy, Bitter Buttons, Cow Bitter, Mugwort, or Golden Buttons.

“Sarah Parker is a herbalist at York and has seen the prisoner before. She approached her several times, and remembers a meeting on Friday the 23rd of October. She wanted some tansy, which she gave to her after an inquiry. She said she wanted it to treat abdominal cramps. She is quite sure the prisoner is who she sold it to.

“Catherine Simpson is the neighbour of the deceased and prisoner, on Low Petergate, York. She was fetched by the apprentice of the deceased on Monday the 26th of October to the house of the deceased. The prisoner told her Thomas Smith was ill and needed nursing. She was also told that the prisoner had also been sick. She nursed the deceased who was crying out, folding his arms across his bowels while the prisoner made several tisanes for his relief. It was in these concoctions that the poison was to be found. Later that day, the deceased passed away. After which, the prisoner confessed her crimes and asked for a constable to be called.

“George Farrow is the watchman of the area. The prisoner was in his charge from Monday the 26th of October. He brought her to the Castle forthwith.”

After all this evidence is given, his Lordship, the judge addressed the court. I was called upon for my defence and was about to speak when another voice cut across. A voice I recognised; a voice that caused me to wish I were hanged already. Samuel Tuke’s.

“I speak for the defence of this woman; the prisoner, Alice Smith,” he said.

“And you are, sir?” enquired the judge.

“I am Samuel Tuke, proprietor of The Retreat and former employer of the prisoner.”


“Alice Smith, then Alice Haxby, came to my household at the age of 19. She stayed with us for more than four years, in which time she proved herself to be a valuable and loyal member of our household. When she left to marry Thomas Smith, it was a great sorrow to myself.

“Since that marriage, she has suffered untold miseries, first a miscarriage, and second the loss of two children to cholera. I have here, the deceased’s apprentice, Simon Blunt, who will attest that the deceased beat the prisoner cruelly. I put forth to you, your Lordship and the honourable men of the Jury that the prisoner be judged as insane, and henceforth, not responsible for her actions or crimes. I propose that her care be entrusted to my lunatic asylum, where she remain for the rest of her life, being a danger to herself and those around her.”

“Alice Smith. Do you have anything to say in your defence?” asked the judge.

I was primed to say that I was guilty of the crime, primed to admit to my sins and be judged for them, but I looked into Samuel’s eyes and I saw something there, a pleading.

I had no real wish to die, only to be left alone with my children. If I hanged, I would leave them behind, with no one to care for them. I was already free of Thomas, and perhaps now, with Samuel’s help, I would be free to end my days peacefully.

I remembered his talk of The Retreat and it was a far cry from the dank cell I had been in. So instead of a defence, or instead of stating my guilt, I stared at the judge in silence until nudged by a watchman, said, “I leave it to God, and my conscience, sir.”

The jury retired and it was only six minutes until they returned.

“We, the jury, find the prisoner, Alice Smith, guilty of petty treason, and murder.” A murmur went round the assembled crowd and I saw Samuel grip the bench in front of him tightly. I met his eyes and tried to send him a message of gratitude, love and regret, but as I did so, the jury continued.

“We also judge the prisoner to be insane and as such, sentence her to spend the remainder of her days in The Retreat.” Hearing these words, I was filled with relief. My knees buckled beneath me, the blood drained from my face and I fell upon the floor of the dock.

The gaoler raised me to my feet and I heard in a blur the judge pass the sentence, demanding I be taken from the Castle prisons to The Retreat with immediate effect. I sagged in the gaoler’s arms and let the darkness flood over me.