I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a variance on my usually strict Philippa Gregory only historical fiction diet. Mantel writes in a way that isn’t as easy on the eyes, that demands a lot more attention. It works – mostly. Though I’ll admit, I still prefer the easy elegance of Gregory’s work, I have tried to imbue a little of each writer in this short piece. All the while trying to indulge my own style. The only thing I’ll say is that I regret there isn’t more dialogue (my favourite thing to write) in this extract. And, perhaps there needs to be more of a punch at the end as I’d like to read this out as part of my LiveWire event at Dundee Uni’s Postgraduate Conference.
The hand was heavy. He’d learned about bears in St Petersburg. Although they had bears in England and the Low Countries and Spain and Italy; it was in Russia that he learned the true meaning of what a bear could be. The power. The aggression. The lethality. The hand that came down heavy across his cheek is how he imagined the swipe of a bear’s paw to feel.
“Never again,” the words were stolen and twisted – muted – in the din of the tavern. A glass fell as John took his father’s slap across his cheek. It shattered on the cold, stone floor and John heard it as his own bones breaking. A lady fell from her stool, it was only ten in the evening but she’d been drinking since the ten twelve hours before and had surprised herself for having not fallen sooner. A great whale of a man laughed as he sucked at the marrow within the large slab of bone he’d been suckling for well over an hour. The jeer of derision as the lady’s skirts fell over her shoulders sapped away at the potency of his father’s words. “Understand, boy?”
“Yes,” John said to the floor, a trickle of ale coiling like piss around his shoes. He didn’t want his father to see him cry.
“Send him back out, Matthew,” his mother, Dorothea, said coolly from her place by the window. An old man and his daughter had been saying goodbye at the table John’s parents now sat at. The tears in the old man’s eyes promised her as a bride, only a few days before she was due to be wed. John had watched as he’d stroked his daughter’s fingers and promised her that if her new groom ever caused her any distress, he’d be on the first wagon to Norfolk, ready to sort the brute out. His mother had noted the scene a good few minutes before he had, and no doubt she’d calculated an awful lot more than he had too. But with icy proficiency and a sly look at the innkeeper, she’d evicted the father and daughter from their farewell nook and sent them out onto the cold, London streets.
“To where? Master Tavendish knows his face now, where else is there to send him?”
John’s mother regarded her husband with a look of bland indifference. John didn’t know how they did it – he dreamed of witchcraft and Satan’ry, but never gave grace to a waking thought about such things – how they spoke without moving their lips. An age passed. Then two. And a third. Just enough time for the woman to pull her skirts back down around her waist and slap a man who’d reached too high up her thigh and refused to pay her back with a drink.
For all his hatred, his anger, ambition, spite and numbness, he loved the boy as only a man can his only son. He knew his wife did too, although she could be so callous and wretched that it drew him up short and chipped away at the solid stone nugget in his heart that was his unconditional love for her. He snatched at the pint before him, glugged what he could before ordering another with a wave of his hand. Dorothea sipped at weak wine, her eyes watching her husband as he battled with himself. She knew her forces within him would win, would conquer, but still, she found it fun to watch.
“Get a barge, boy,” he said after draining most of his fresh pint. “Find Oldman if he’s by the fish yard, if not, pick a man with an empty boat and a hole in his shirt – they’re in no position to barter.”
“A barge?” John said, lifting his head from the patterns he’d watched swirl in the ale at his foot.
“Aye, a barge. Take it to…” the word caught in his throat. “Hampton.”
John wasn’t sure, though if he’d listened to the instinct in his gut he surely would have been, but the people around him grew quieter, their ears straining to hear why a merchant’s boy would have any call for going to King Harry’s palace.
“Hampton, father?” John tried to gulp, but his mouth was too dry.
“You heard,” his mother whispered.
“Aye, Hampton. There’s a man there. He’ll find you. Get to the stables, or the kitchens, find yourself a place and he’ll find you.”
“A place? Father, I can’t. Not there. Not with Queen-“
Again, the hand was the swipe of a bear. Blood burst free of his nose this time, splattering in the ale and making it a dark red. Every eye found another place to look. John steadied himself. Letting his blood drip. Drip. Drip. He caught his breath on the third try. Greedily, desperately – he took it in.
“There’s no Queen until he says so. Talk like that and you’ll find yourself quickly on the chopping block. You say nothing about Queen this or Sister that, understand? Just find a place and he’ll find you.”
John wanted to ask who. The question was hot and uncomfortable in his chest. It rattled at his ribs and made his mind swim with fear. But he knew better. So he took the shiny coin his father held out in his palm and spun on his heels. He didn’t know whether or not to say goodbye – so he didn’t.