Authors: Malyn Bromfield
© Malyn Bromfield 2016
Malyn Bromfield has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published 2016 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
In memory of my mother, Maisie, who loved to read historical fiction.
Table of Contents
The city gates are shut and the bellman calls the hour yet I have no list to sleep. I do not fear robbers, nor fire, nor a running hare that folks say portends a witch. I am waiting, as I always wait every year on this day. I wait until the time is right; until I am ready. My husband will be busy upon the river until dusk. I will not be disturbed.
I rise from my bed and go into the dim little chamber where Mother used to sleep. I stand by the arrow-slit window, pull aside the hide drape and look out towards the river. A tallow lamp water-star moves steadily across the Thames towards Southwark. My husband never talks about his night-time journeys and I never ask.
I return to my own bedchamber, open the shutters and look out on to the street. Heaps of household garbage and the daily filth from piss pots have rotted for weeks and the stench will turn my stomach sour when the sun is high. Carts, horses and workingmen begin to trudge through the narrow, slimy thoroughfare. London wakes early.
It is mid-morning when I reach under the straw mattress and feel for my rag package. I hold it in both hands and place it carefully on the bed, like a priest taking the host to the altar. I untie the rag and wait a moment before I lift a child’s cap of fine lawn cloth. Such delicate silk embroidery my rough hands could never sew; such costly gossamer linen a child of mine could never wear. The laws of attire forbid it.
There is something else lying on the rag, protected within coarse parchment. Under my ribs I feel my pulse thumping. To possess something others are afraid to own, to remember someone whom it is forbidden to remember, to mourn for someone whose life was ended by a king’s decree; these must be treasonous acts, for sure. For the twenty-second time, once for each year, I unfold the stiff, creaky vellum. Charred flakes flutter on to the bedcover.
There is comfort in ritual. It links the past with the present and with what will come.
I have learned patience.
One glimpse each year, that is all I allow myself. This year, though, I linger. My eyes are artists’ tools. They paint a picture in my memory. I know that before another year has passed the time will come when I must give up my secrets.
It could be a playing card that rests in my palm except that it is circular and bears a portrait of a queen. Her French hood is edged with pearls and she wears a square neckline to her bodice of the kind fashionable some twenty years ago. Her slender neck is bedecked with more pearls, her face oval, her countenance more youthful than when I saw her last, her skin more fashionably pale than the sallow I remember. I marvel at the skill of the artist whose brushstrokes have so faithfully reproduced that regal tilt of the head, those eyes, dark and eager. The left side of the painting is damaged by fire. Part of her headdress and shoulder has burned away. She has been named a whore, a witch, a heretic. I shudder. The painting was thrown into the fire while she still lived.
A sickly, yeasty odour seeps into my bedchamber from the kitchen below where the night-time dough has risen. My father baked bread in the bakeries of a king and now I provide loaves for my neighbours. When we married, my husband promised only one thing; I would have my own bread oven. My father had no son to apprentice and God has not yet granted us a child. But we have White Boy. He has grown into a man in our care: an ancient silver-haired man, older than his years. I hear him downstairs thumping the trestle, kneading another batch of dough with dainty hands that have become his eyes.
The doughy smell gnaws at my empty stomach. A familiar nausea swells inside me and I have to sit upon the bed, close my eyes and take deep breaths to stall it. I wonder if my husband has guessed that there is hope: that we may, after these many years, have our first child. It is three months now. I will not tell him yet. It would be cruel to give hope when there may be disappointment. I will tell him when the time is right. There is a time for everything, our priest has told us so. I clutch my belly and wonder at the frailty of life and the miracle of birth.
I tie the rag parcel and slip it under the mattress. I brush burnt specks from the bedcover into my hand, take them into Mother’s empty chamber and throw them out of the riverside window.
Yes. For everything there is a time.
Soon, a mother will be reunited with her orphaned child.
‘It is almost dusk. Let us tell stories while we await the master’s return.’ White Boy’s fingers sweep across his harp strings.
‘I am no travelling player,’ I say, whilst I stitch the sleeve of a new shirt for my husband. ‘I cannot conjure a story upon demand.’
‘Nay, mistress, no story from your fancy. True stories, yours and mine.’
‘Do you have a story, White Boy?’ I ask.
‘Everyone has a story. Even a man with no name.’
‘The master and I found a blind beggar boy with a mucky clout around his eyes, playing his harp by the King’s great gate at Greenwich Palace. That’s your story.’
‘Aye, mistress, that is where my story began. You know the rest.’
I fetch a jug of small ale and two horn goblets from the board.
‘Where shall I start? At my birth? At my marriage?’
‘Let your story begin at Greenwich Palace,’ White Boy says excitedly. ‘Let all our stories begin at Greenwich.’
I fold the shirt and place it in my basket with the scissors, thread and needle-case.
‘I will tell you a story without a beginning; just an ending,’ I tell him as he softly plucks the harp. ‘It is a story about how something extraordinary ended. It is not my story. It is the story of a queen, though few dare admit to remember her. My own story has no ending yet but it does have a beginning. Two stories meeting in time, growing together. Ivy, climbing through branches of may.’
White Boy nods his head. ‘Green and white, the Tudor colours.’
My story begins at Greenwich Palace on a warm May afternoon.
I had spent most of the day tending the King’s kitchen gardens and was taking a basket of herbs to one of the cooks when Mother came running into the great kitchen.
‘The young musician has come for you,’ she whispered. ‘Now see where your sorcery has got us.’
I buried my nose among the mint and rosemary. Mother snatched the basket and put it on a table spread with poultry, where a grubby kitchen boy singed stubborn feathers from the plucked birds with a candle end. She spat on her kerchief and wiped my face. ‘Quickly, Avis, untie your apron and clean your hands.’ She whisked away my straw bonnet and pushed me towards the door.’ Scrape those muddy clogs upon that step yonder.’
‘The whore’s new favourite, the Flemish boy. She has sent him to fetch you. He awaits you at the inner court. Now go.’
I ran through the outer courtyard: past the chandlery, where I would often linger savouring its smell of wax and fresh linen; the scullery, where my cousin, Anthony, and other strapping, great boys were washing piles of heavy iron pans; the scalding house, where chickens were plunged into huge vats of boiling water before being plucked; the bake house, where my father, Peter Grinnel, and the baker boys would be busy kneading or taking loaves from the ovens with their long-handled peels; past the guards outside the confectionary where Mother helped the pudding wife to make wonderful sweet creations for the King’s banquets; past divers other offices, larders, cellars, coal houses, everything necessary for the great court of King Henry VIII.
I found the inner courtyard just as busy as the outer court but oh, so colourful. Two of the King’s privy servants in their bold red uniforms passed so close to me I could have stroked their golden braid if I had dared. Gentlemen courtiers strolled around wearing feathered caps and doublets in hues I had thought only to see in flowers. Lesser servants in Tudor green scurried in various directions like ants. I looked at my own blue, woad-dyed kirtle. Servants in the outer courtyard didn’t wear livery. Nobody important would see us, but we were expected to keep our garments clean. I smoothed my hands down my skirt to brush away soil from the garden. The sun shone upon the beautiful conduit in the centre of the courtyard making the gold leaf glimmer. A stocky water maid filled her buckets, hitched them to her yoke and lugged them away. I rinsed my hands at the fountain and looked around.
A young man was pacing to and fro. He wore woollen hose, an acorn-coloured jerkin and simple bonnet. His head was twitching this way and that, nervously, like a bird. Seeing me, he beckoned then ran on ahead. So nimble on his feet was he, skipping around the people in the courtyard, that I fancied I should have liked to see him dance. I remember his short mantle swinging to the beat of his leathery footsteps on the gravel. I started to run to him but he turned and held up his hand, like you would to a dog to make it sit.
‘Avis, the confectioner’s daughter?’ His brusque manner appeared at odds with his sing-song voice.
He walked towards me pulling a cloth from inside his jerkin.
‘Close your eyes. I have to blindfold you.’
I felt his breath, warm upon my ear as his fingers tied the cloth where my hair hung beneath my coif.
‘I can’t see.’
‘You’re not supposed to. Turn around again, and again. Now walk straight ahead.’
And so, in the sticky warmth of that spring afternoon, I heard my clumsy working clogs crunch on gravel, stomp on cobbles and clatter on stone flags. After each few steps he would make me turn around and around until I was quite dizzy.
‘I shall be sick if I have to spin again,’ I complained.
‘Pray do so outside, if you must. It would be bad manners indeed to vomit in the royal apartments.’
It was a relief when he told me to wait and I took great gulps of fresh air. I heard a rattle of iron against iron; a heavy key releasing a lock. A door creaked and I remember wondering why such important people didn’t keep their hinges well oiled. Only much later did I realise that if something is supposed to be a secret you have to pretend it isn’t there. I started to step through what I imagined was a doorway and tripped. His touch, light upon my shoulder, broke my fall.
‘Take a step up then wait.’
I heard the door close and the big key turn, felt a sudden coolness and knew myself to be enclosed within stone walls. Where was the musician? I could neither hear his footsteps nor his breathing. Was I locked inside? I pulled at the blindfold and thrice called his name. He barely touched my hands when he pulled them away and whispered to me to keep my eyes covered and show some respect for a member of the royal household, if I pleased, and address him as Master Smeaton. My ladies and gentlemen at court used his Christian name. Such familiarity was not suitable for a garden maid. He told me that we were going to ascend a spiral stairway so I must take each step carefully. Expecting him to guide me I held out my arm and struck my hand on rough stone. I cried out at the sudden pain on my knuckles and my voice came back to me louder than I thought I had spoken.
‘Shut your trap, foolish wench,’ he hissed into my ear.
His voice broke with a little piping sound. He’s younger than he looks, I thought, not quite a man. And there’s no need for him to be so puffed up and unpleasant. He’s lowly bred like me. Everyone knows that his father is a carpenter and his mother is only a seamstress whereas my mother pastes gold leaf upon King Henry’s puddings.
‘Put your left hand on to the wall and tread carefully,’ he said.
I spread my fingers against the wall. With my right hand I felt the spine of the spiral stair so I was careful to place my feet against the wall to my left where the steps would be wider. My footsteps echoed like the tolling of a great church bell.
By and by he told me to lean against the wall and keep still unless I had list to fall down the steps. Keys rattled again and another lock opened.
‘Turn right. Come, come, with haste, wench.’
I heard rushes squash beneath my clogs, doors without locks open before me. I smelled warm sun upon fabric that I fancied to be a rich, bright arras. An iron key turned another lock and I knew myself to be again within a cold place. Warm fingers untied my blindfold. I reached to check that my coif was straight and sucked my grazed knuckles. Before me was a plain arched door.
The musician removed his bonnet, ran his fingers through his dark, curly hair, knocked gently and disappeared inside.
I was in a kind of corridor. There was no window. A single torch in a wall sconce gave enough light to reveal bare, stone walls. My heart was beating fast when I thought about who was inside that door and what she might ask of me. I had no time to prepare myself. The musician returned and beckoned with impatient fingers.
I passed through the doorway and he grimaced and stepped aside as if I were a vile person with rank smells about me.
I curtseyed, three times, just as mother had taught me, hoping that it was low enough. I could smell the kitchens and the garden on my skirt; pig fat, smoke and soil. No wonder the musician shuns me, I thought with shame.
I did not dare to look up, so my first glimpse of her chamber was the stripey rush matting on the floor. This did not prepare me at all for the bespattering of colour when lifting my head a little more I saw a carpet of blue, purple and gold. Scattered all around, as if they didn’t matter, like scraps left for the dogs after supper, were wonderful velvet cushions embroidered with flowers of divers colours. Later, when Mother asked me about that chamber and all that was within it, I could only reply that it was like stepping inside a stained glass window.
I was beginning to feel uncomfortable crouching on the floor when she told me to rise. She was sitting at a table playing backgammon with a gentleman. He looked towards me, frowned and went to stand by the fireplace.
Her hands rested upon her stomacher, well raised enough for me to know that her pregnancy had passed the uncertain early months. For a while she didn’t speak. She patted the playing pieces as if planning her next move. Then she turned towards a settle by the window and I saw the musician sitting at his virginals.
The music was slow and quiet.
‘No, no, Mark, we need merry music at this most happy time.’ She turned to me and gestured towards a row of stools. ‘Pray, be seated little maid.’
She was no fair beauty: not pretty at all and very proud of herself with that decided chin and the way she held her head. Her curved hood was set back a little from her forehead, showing off her hair, black as charred wood and tinged with veins of auburn where it caught the light. Mother would be shocked to see King Henry’s new queen showing so much hair, I knew she would. The Spanish Queen Katherine had always kept her hair modestly hidden inside her big gable hood.
One of the stools beside me was piled untidily with cloth, needles and thread as if someone who had been sewing had left in a hurry. Of course, I thought, remembering the very privy nature of our business.
For a while we listened to the music.
Her slender fingers played the tune upon the table, deftly, like spiders’ legs. She was looking all around at the greatness of her queen’s palace and those black eyes, they capered all around that chamber. They just couldn’t get enough of everything they saw. Neither could mine.
Colours were everywhere from the floor to the ceiling. Everything that could be painted, woven or embroidered was full of bright detail: the carpet on the table, the stone fireplace, the leafy design on the musician’s keyboard. Even the window bars were painted scarlet. Busy tapestries where great white horses reared and little dogs ran about amongst leaves and flowers, glistered with gold and silver thread.
After a while, I began to fret that if the Queen didn’t ask me to do what I had come for soon I would be too mesmerised by the music and the tapestries to do it properly.
She must have noticed my discomfort because she asked the musician to play quietly and came to sit beside me on one of the stools.
‘So, you are the little cunning wench who has the sight.’
A foreigner’s voice with an unfamiliar lilt; a singer’s voice, like a mellow lute playing for lovers in evening candlelight.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer.
‘I have heard about your special gift,’ she said lightly, with a little laugh that faded almost as soon as it began.
Teasingly, her lips pursed and moved into a hint of a smile, but a real smile nevertheless, one that showed in those lively eyes and I understood how the King had fallen in love with her and thought that I could almost fall in love with her myself.
‘Come, come, little maid, I think you have something to tell me.’
I studied her hands, now calmly resting in her lap. She caught the little finger of the right hand with her thumb so that it was hidden. Was it true, what the kitchen folk whispered, about her sixth finger, the sign of a witch?
She patted her bodice in rhythm to the music. A mother in waiting, like any other mother. I was calmer now. I was ready for her question.
Yet still I could not speak.
The gentleman by the fireplace laughed. ‘You’ve put a spell on her Nan,’ he said.
‘Be silent brother, she snapped. ‘These are women’s matters.’
I had guessed that they were brother and sister. They had the same zealous black eyes and proud stance but his hair was lighter, the colour of chestnuts, new and shiny from the shell. I thought that he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen, but I didn’t like him.
She turned to me, speaking softly as if to a little child.
‘Your name is Avis?’
I nodded, suddenly aware that I had no idea how I should address the King’s new wife. She was always the whore to Mmotheother.
‘Your mother is a servant in the kitchens I understand?’
‘In the confectionery, Your Grace. She helps the wife who makes the puddings for the King’s banquets. ‘
‘And very fine puddings they are too,’ the man broke in.
I blushed at the mocking tone of his flattery and scolded myself for the pride which had stopped me from telling the Queen of my father’s humbler position in the bakery.
The Queen spoke to her brother in a foreign language as if she chastised him. He glared in my direction.
‘She won’t talk if you frighten her,’ the Queen said and smiled at me.
I stroked the wheaten-coloured cloth on the stool beside me and found it as coarse as my father’s working smock.
‘Are these the King’s shirts?’ I blurted out.
‘My ladies and I sew shirts for the poor. It is done in kindness, where we see a need.’ She leaned towards me with sudden intensity. ‘We do not seek salvation from our charity. We know that God will judge us by faith alone. Thus do the scriptures tell and thus should you understand, Avis.’
I thought it might be dangerous to talk about religion now that King Henry had broken from the Pope in Rome, which had made father so very angry and sad. I decided to stick with the needlework.