Authors: Anna Hope
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom, vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week, they come together and dance.
When John and Ella meet, it is a dance that will change two lives for ever.
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911 at the end of the Edwardian era,
is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.
To John Mullarkey, my great-great-grandfather, 1863–1918.
And for Dave, who proves, every day, that magic is real.
‘The hall is 104 feet long and 50 feet wide, and is fine alike in dimensions and general arrangement. There are dado and frieze in Burmantofts work, string courses, and above these arched windows, which form a further decorative feature. The windows are filled with cathedral glass, and long sprays of bramble with birds flitting about are painted upon it with charming effect. The ceiling is panelled and coved in light brown and gold, and picked out with various tints, all harmonising with the rich hues of dado and frieze, as well as with a magnificent arcaded gallery in walnut. At the opposite end is a large stage, fitted with all requisites in the shape of wings and flies, and accommodation for the band behind the foot-lights.’
‘The garden of humanity is very full of weeds … nurture will never transform them into flowers.’
HE DAY WAS FAIR AND WARM.
She walked slowly, careful
on the rutted earth. On either side of the lane were meadows, and the meadows were filled with cattle, lazy in the sun. Summer flowers grew wild from the cracks in the tumbled stone walls. The land was green. Somewhere at the edge of things she could smell the sea.
Rounding a corner she saw the house: low and long, with three windows at the front. Whitewashed. A house that someone had taken care over. Around it lay a plot of land, where the tall stalks of vegetables grew in rows, ready to be gathered in. Close by stood a barn, where a man was working at the top of a ladder, the sound of his hammer bright on the air.
She stopped. Caught her breath. The man had his back to her, absorbed in his work. He had not seen her yet.
She had not expected him to be here. Somehow she had thought there might be time to see the house, to sense his presence, to wonder if it really was the place.
As she watched him, the ease of his movement, the rise and fall of his arm as he worked, she felt herself grow fearful.
Would he know her, after all these years? Would he thank her, for disturbing his peace?
She looked down at herself. She had taken such care as she dressed this morning, but she was all wrong suddenly: her shoes too tight, the colour of her dress too loud. Her hat too smart for the warmth of the day. It was not too late to turn back. He would never know she had
She closed her eyes, the filtered light of the sun flickering against her lids.
She had waited for this moment for too long.
The man’s hammer had stopped. She opened her eyes and the day burst in upon her.
The man had seen her. He was standing on the earth now, facing out, his gaze steady. She could not read his face. Her heart stalled.
She lifted her chin. Took a breath. He would not see her falter.
She walked towards the gate, and when she reached it, she opened her mouth and spoke his name.
RE YOU GOING
to behave?’ The man’s voice echoed. ‘
Are you going to behave?
She made a noise. Could have been yes. Could have been no, but the blanket was pulled off her head and she gasped for air.
An arched hall stretched before her, lit with lamps. The thin hiss of gas. Plants everywhere, and the smell of carbolic soap. On the floor were tiles, reaching out in all directions, polished till they shone, some in the shapes of flowers, but the flowers were black. She knew then that this was no police station, and started shouting in fear, until a young woman in uniform appeared from the darkness and slapped her on the cheek. ‘There’ll be none of that in here.’
Irish. Ella whipped her head back, tears in her eyes though she wasn’t crying. She knew those Irish girls. There were plenty at the mill. They were mean as hell.
Another woman came, and they put their hands beneath her armpits and began pulling her towards two doors. Ella dragged her feet, but they slapped her till she walked for herself. Both of them had sets of keys at the waist. There must have been twenty, thirty keys there, clanging away. They pushed her through the doors, locked them behind her, and then they were standing at the top of a corridor so long the end was impossible to see.
‘Where am I?’
No reply. Only the wheeze of the gas and the corridor, stretching. They turned to the left with her, through another set of doors, marching her between them, uniforms crackling as they walked. Everywhere the same hard smell of soap, and something else, something wrong underneath.
Then, a last door, and a large room, with a stink like a pigpen, where they dragged her to a narrow, metal-framed bed and shoved her down. ‘We’ll deal with you later.’
Other beds showed themselves in the greyish light, hundreds of them lying end to end. On each a person, but man or woman she couldn’t tell. Heavy furniture lined the walls, which were painted dark. She could see the large double doors she had come in from. Locked.
Was this prison then? Already?
She crouched at the top of the bed, breathing hard. Her cheek was throbbing. She lifted her fingers to it; it had split where the men had punched her earlier, and was pulpy and thick. She pulled the rough blanket up over her knees. Someone nearby was singing, the sort of song you’d sing to hush a baby to sleep. Someone else crying. Someone muttering to themselves.
A humming started up. It seemed to be coming from the next bed, but all Ella could see of the woman in there were her feet, soles like peeling yellow paper, until she sat up straight like a jack-in-the-box. She was old, but wore her hair in bunches like a little girl. Thin, tallacky flesh hung slack on her arms.
‘Will you come with me?’ the woman said.
Ella inched a little towards her. Perhaps she knew a way out. ‘Where to?’
‘Germany.’ The woman’s eyes were wet and gleaming. ‘We’ll dance there, we’ll sing.’ And she started up a wordless tune in a cracked childhood voice. Then, ‘At night,’ the woman said, in a loud whisper, ‘when I’m sleeping, me soul comes out – creep creep creep like a little white creature.’ She pointed at Ella and smiled. ‘But you must let it be. It comes back in the morning, right enough.’
Ella brought her fists over her eyes, curling away from the woman into a small, tight ball. Someone was banging on the walls:
She would have joined in. Except she didn’t know where that was.
She stayed awake through the night, but couldn’t have slept if she’d wanted to. Her cheek flamed, and as soon as one of the women stopped bleating another one started up, bawling, singing, chelping to themselves:
But that’s it, where the spiritscomeintome
As the sky started to lighten, the chorus got louder, and Old Germany in the bed beside her was the loudest of the lot, a terrible songbird greeting the dawn. A bell clanged at the top of the room. But there was movement at least, something happening, Ella could see a woman at the far end, dressed in uniform like those who had brought her here last night, and she slipped out of her bed, walking fast down the middle of the room. ‘I’ve to speak to someone.’
‘What’s that?’ The woman was plump, her face thick with sleep.
‘Someone in charge.’
‘I’m in charge.’ The woman smoothed her uniform out over her belly. She lifted her watch, began to wind it up.
‘Where am I?’
‘You don’t know?’ The woman smiled at the round face of her watch as though the two of them were sharing a nice little joke. Another bell rang, louder, somewhere outside the room. The women began to swarm and press themselves into lines. Ella put her thumbs in her palms. For a moment she was back at work – seven in the morning and everyone rushing up the hill so as not to be late, not to have their pay docked – the metal-tasting panic in the mouth. Jim Christy, the pennyhoil man, standing at the gate, waiting to shut it in your face on the stroke of seven.
‘You should wait till you’ve eaten something.’
She turned to see a tall pale girl at her elbow.
‘Never fight on an empty stomach.’ The girl had a quick, easy smile. ‘Come on.’ She touched her on the arm. ‘I can show you the way.’
Ella shook her off. She didn’t need friends. Especially not in here.
She followed the crowd into a large, echoing room, where the women were taking seats on benches set before long wooden tables. One side of the room was all doors, and at each of the doors stood a woman with one of those sets of keys. The other side was all windows, but the panes were tiny, so even if you broke one you’d only get your wrist through.
‘Sit down.’ She was given a shove by a passing woman in uniform. A bowl clattered on to the table before her.
‘Porridge,’ said the pale girl, who was sitting on the other side of the table. ‘There’s milk. Here.’ She lifted a large pitcher and poured some for herself, then did the same for Ella. ‘The food’s not so bad.’
A young, dark-haired woman sitting beside Ella leant towards them. ‘It’s mice,’ she said, pointing towards the porridge. ‘They put them through t’feeder.’ Her face was grey and sunken. She seemed to have no teeth.
Ella pushed her bowl away. Her stomach was cramping with hunger, but if she ate here, then it was inside her. It was real. And wherever this was, it wasn’t real.
‘You’ve hurt your cheek,’ said the pale girl.
‘You should get it seen to.’ The girl tilted her head to one side. ‘I’m Clem,’ she said, and held out her hand.
Ella didn’t move.
‘Your eyes look bad too.’
‘They don’t look grand.’
‘Can I take yours?’ Mouse-woman’s breath was hot on Ella’s arm.
Ella nodded, and the woman curled the bowl towards her.
There must have been five hundred women in there, and it was noisier than the mill with all the machines going. An old lady on the other side of the table was crooning to a rolled-up shawl, rocking it in her arms, shushing it, reaching out with a finger and touching it. A uniformed woman walking up and down the lines stood over her and rapped her on the shoulder. ‘Give over with that rubbish and eat your food.’