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Thursday 30 April 2020

A Novel Conversation with Mary Sharnick and Orla

Join Us Every Friday
To be a little different from the usual 
'meet the author' 
let's meet 

woman in black tank top standing on green grass field during sunset

Q: Hello, I’m Helen, host of Novel Conversations, please do make yourself comfortable. Would you like a drink? Tea, coffee, wine – something stronger? You’ll find a box of chocolates and a bowl of fruit on the table next to you, please do help yourself. I believe you are a character in Mary Sharnick’s novel Painting Mercy. Would you like to introduce yourself? Are you a lead character or a supporting role?  
A: Thank you, Helen.  Yes, I am the narrator protagonist of Painting Mercy, the sequel to Orla’s Canvas.  Painting Mercy is the second novel in the anticipated Orla Paints Quartet.  And I would very much enjoy a Negroni. I never tire of the cocktail’s combination of bitter and sweet.  It reminds me of life and how I paint it on my canvases. 

Q: What genre is the novel and what is it about?
APainting Mercy is realistic fiction set in 1975 New Orleans, Louisiana, where the fallout from the Vietnam war catalyses a life-changing development in my relationship with Mercy Hoyt, a presumed orphan airlifted out of Saigon, and an unexpected epiphany about the sexuality of my lifelong confidant, Tad Charbonneau, alters the presumed trajectory of my personal life.

Q: No spoilers, but are you a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’? (Or maybe you are both?)
A: Most certainly both.  Like all other artists, my ego and my insecurity clash regularly. I am alternately generous and selfish, relaxed and demanding.  I’ve been especially horrible to a former lover, the sculptor Diego Godoy.  But to Mercy, so far nothing but helpful.

Q: Tell me about another character in the novel – maybe your best friend, lover or partner … or maybe your arch enemy!
A: Tad is the person who knows me best and loves me unconditionally.  We spent virtually all of our childhood together. When you read about us, you’ll see that we can’t give one another up, no matter the now-messy circumstances we find ourselves in. As I say in the narrative Mary is drafting now, “…we were and are each other’s lodestar, harbor, flag.  Emergency room friends.  Each other’s true confessor.  The one you want to pull the plug and deliver your eulogy when it’s time.”

Q: Is this the only novel you have appeared in, or are there others in a series?
A: I’ve also narrated Orla’s Canvas, and am continuing my role in The Contessa’s Easel and En Plein Air.

Q: What is one of your least favourite scenes you appear in?
A:  A scene in Chapter 31 of Painting Mercy, where my deep selfishness and disregard for Diego is revealed at one of my art exhibits.

Q: And your favourite scene?
A: Although it is a gruesome one, my favorite scene in Painting Mercy occurs in Chapter 5, where the reader learns the terrible self-hatred and suffering of Denny Cowles, childhood friend and Vietnam veteran whose psychological war wounds destroy his capacity for a normal life.

Q: Tell me a little about your author. Has she/he written any other books?
A: Mary has published four books thus far. Thirst, a historical novel of 17th-century Venice, and Plagued, a fictionalized account of 15th-century Michael of Rhodes, were released by Fireship Press in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Thirst is now being translated for the operatic stage by composer Gerard Chiusano and librettists Bob Cutrofello and Mary Chiusano.   

Q: Is your author working on anything else at the moment?
A:  In addition to the last two novels of the Orla Paints Quartet, Mary’s other works-in-progress include a short story collection—Here If You Want to Find Me--and a memoir about her paternal aunt—Wife, Mother, Virgin, Whore?  No, Zia!

Q: How do you think authors can be helped or supported by readers or groups? What does your author think is the most useful for him/her personally?
A:  Readers can post reviews, share author news on social media, invite authors to book clubs (in person and via technology), and, of course, buy our books.  For me personally, on-line conversation about books and the writing process are particularly helpful. 

Q: If your author was to host a dinner party what guests would he/she invite and why? Maximum nine guests – real, imaginary, alive or dead.

Dante Alighieri—His ability to imagine and create an extensive, cohesive universe in exquisite language is unparalleled.  He’s also most opinionated.  I wonder what he’d say about today’s cultural icons after a few bottles of wine.
head-and-chest side portrait of Dante in red and white coat and cowl

Emily Dickinson—I’m guessing she would decline the invitation, however.

Photograph of Emily Dickinson, seated, at the age of 16

Virginia Woolf—I’d be sure to serve a meal like the one Virginia describes at the men’s college, not the women’s!

Photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

William Trevor—Perhaps he will tell the rest of us how he sustains the elegiac quality so prevalent in his stories.


Edna O’Brien—She will add pizzazz, color, and drama to the conversation.  I hope she wears a long red cape and enumerates her lovers.
Edna O'Brien at the 2016 Hay Festival

Flannery O’Connor—It will be a struggle to understand her Georgia-accented words, although she no doubt has important, provocative theses to offer about the Roman Catholic faith. There is potential for feisty debate with the others.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg

Georgia O’Keefe—Ah, simply Ah!


Artemisia Gentileschi—Teach me, Artemisia, how to endure as a woman artist!

WinstonChurchill—So we’re all reminded to “never give up”  and ensured of an aficionado of “spiritual sustenance” best served and toasted in glasses.

Thank you, Orla, it was a pleasure talking to you. Would your author like to add a short excerpt? Meanwhile, would you like a refill of that drink…? I’ll join you I think-- Salute! Here’s to writing a best seller!

CONNECT WITH Mary Sharnick

Follow Mary on Twitter @marysharnick


Maria Callas’ voice as Violetta dove and soared as I dipped my brush. Its timbre helped me feel the depth of character I was after. How I was attempting to show sustained and blatant suffering on the forehead of a six-year old girl whose wrinkled visage was not in the least softened by the glint of sun that lit it in the photograph.
When the baritone joined Callas/Violetta to forge an antiphony of contrasting voices, I turned my brush to the Negro soldier, his machine gun aimed downward rather than at the children. But so close, so dangerously close to the children. His slumped shoulders showed passion gone from him, if he’d ever owned it. Was it someone’s freedom he was supposed to be guarding? Fighting for, killing for? Had he been ordered to keep his machine gun in hand? Perhaps the children would become a threat. Children, for God’s sake! If he was afraid or righteous, his expression didn’t tell. Maybe he was just stoned. Or tired. There he stood, body tilted like a human Pisa, left knee forward, hands by his sides, helmet covering his forehead and eyebrows. He might have been a model for hurry-up-and-wait. And why, anyway, is Mercy in the forefront of the picture? What are her eyes fixed on? Is she witnessing something she is seeing for the first time? Or has she observed the something, or something like it, four, forty, one hundred-forty times? Where is her mother? Off with a client, a Translator Hoyt from Cleveland? Or is she making an honest living in a hospital while she lives with a man she cares for, a Translator Hoyt from Cleveland vanished. Neither the soldier nor the children act. They watch and wait. Their stilled gestures tell me they are not in charge. The soldier’s gun ignores its function. The children’s dirty clothes and smudged faces, their anxious expressions, tell me they are without immediate access to what we Americans call the basic necessities of life. Food, clothing, shelter, love.
Oh, Mercy! I cry and paint. Lord have mercy.

Monday 27 April 2020

Ten Minute Tales : Full Circle by Debbie Young

Ten Minute Tales
For your entertainment
a different Ten Minute Tale* every day

Full Circle
Debbie Young

It may not be the most obvious name for a cat, but the solid ginger barrel of fur that I adopted in my thirties reminded me of nothing so much as the firmly stuffed cylindrical pillow that in my childhood lived on my grandmother’s bed.

I learned a lot of words from my grandmother. I spent my school holidays in the little terraced house that she’d bought off-plan between the wars with my late grandfather, as the London suburbs crept ever further from her East End childhood home.

Grandma shared the house with many items retained from an earlier age. Raising her own children in a time of rationing and risk – her street still bore gaps inflicted by German bombs – she made things last. Though frugal, she was never mean. She just didn’t buy anything she didn’t need.
Her home therefore remained unchanged throughout my childhood, providing an invaluable anchor when I was changing so much myself – the wooden biscuit barrel, the old tea caddy now used for storing sweets, the unkillable tradescantia on the windowsill of the tiny front room.

The only new items appearing were well-meaning gifts from her family. To me each new arrival was an unnecessary intruder, apart from the gifts I bought myself. Most likely my father and my aunts had much the same experience when they were my age.

As to the bolster, it spent its days quietly on Grandma’s bed, waiting until it was time to prop her up to read her book at bedtime. Only rarely was it called upon to descend the stairs. Indeed, I only learned the word bolster when I twisted my ankle playing hopscotch in her garden. 

According to Grandma, elevation (another new word) of the extremity (and another), along with tea, biscuits and sympathy, was her prescription for my cure.

And so I spent the afternoon lying on her sofa with my ankle propped up on the sturdy bolster. To distract me from the pain, she read me stories and then recited the comic poems she’d learned by heart when she was my age. An unscheduled snooze, from which I awoke to find myself beneath the soft embrace of her grey paisley patterned eiderdown, also helped speed my recovery. No wonder Americans call eiderdowns comforters. By tea-time, I was sufficiently recovered to skip down her front garden path when my big brother came to take me home.

So when decades later, a very fluffy stray cat, light as a kitten beneath its soft silvery coat began to insinuate itself into my household, (with Bolster’s tacit permission, of course), my choice of name for the interloper was obvious: Eiderdown.   

Now on winter nights, when both cats sleep on my bed like gently vibrating hot water bottles,  I dream of my grandmother, who was rather bolster-shaped herself, now I think of it. And I’m back in her time capsule of a house, perfectly preserved in my memory, and we’re deep in conversation about bolsters, eiderdowns, elevated extremities and the enduring comforts of home.

© Debbie Young

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Sunday 26 April 2020

Ten Minute Tales : The Atlantic Ocean, June 1709

Ten Minute Tales
For your entertainment
a different 'Ten Minute Tale' every day

available on Amazon
As a little self-indulgence - and because I've been promoting other authors more than myself...
I'm going to post some (chosen at random) excerpts from my own books
today an excerpt from

When The Mermaid Sings
A Sea Witch Voyages additional story novella
by Helen Hollick

Jesamiah Acorne is still a raw-behind-the-ears young seaman - not yet the capable pirate captain that he is to become in the Sea Witch Voyages. He loves the life at sea - but is troubled by visions of the past and a woman who is not, perhaps, a woman...
They chose to take their time and aim for the islands halfway across the Atlantic, the Azores, where trade and treasure ships of all nations – British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish, depending on who was at war with whom – headed to replenish food, water and cargo. Privateers and pirates alike lurked in the islands’ waters, eager for an easy Prize or two.
      With astute interest the young Jesamiah Acorne passed his days by listening to all Captain Taylor could teach him about sailing, navigation, wind, weather and the ocean currents. Listened, as well, to Taylor’s knowledge of their intended destination.
    “The Azores,” Taylor explained, “is a Portuguese-owned volcanic archipelago. Most Atlantic shipping, sailing east or west, head for the island of São Miguel – St Michael – to replenish stores, make repairs and sample the local women and wine. In between us, though, is a little over one thousand miles of unpredictable ocean. An easy journey if wind, weather and tide are clement, not so easy if storms blow up or a wind does not blow at all. I’ve been becalmed for weeks with food, water and tempers fast running out.”
      Before setting off across the Atlantic, Mermaid had dropped anchor for three weeks at Barbados on the edge of the Windward Isles, checking for necessary repairs and provisioning with all that would be needed for the voyage. Despite being uneasy in enclosed spaces – a legacy from his half-brother, along with a dislike of anyone coming up quietly behind him – Jesamiah enjoyed the labour of hauling barrels, kegs, casks and crates. It was good to work below deck as one among the crew, to inhale the heady smells of pitch and coils of new rope and sailcloth, the stronger aromas of spices and pickled and salted food. Good, too, to spend nights ashore sharing laughter and drink with the men, with the intimate personal attention of the ladies.
     With Barbados well behind them, the light winds became lighter, the calm seas calmer. Mermaid had been sailing sweetly, life aboard was pleasant and enjoyable, but with each hour as the day grew nearer noon their progress slowed. From her scudding through the great crests of white-capped rollers Mermaid now ambled along, apparently unenthusiastic about reaching the Azores. Even with every sail set, forming a pyramid of canvas from the largest to the smallest, even with the occasional drenching with buckets of seawater to stir a breeze among the spread of sail, Mermaid made snail’s-pace progress north-eastward. Yet the windless days were no great alarm. They had water, even if it was green and brackish, and food aplenty: eggs from the hens – or meat if one shirked her daily duty too often – milk, cheese and butter from the three nanny goats, Betty, Dolores and Fanny-Anne. Fish in the sea to catch.
     Nor were they idle days for Jesamiah. He had Malachias Taylor’s maps and charts sorted and stored – and studied, the piles of paperwork and documentation orderly, with the Great Cabin itself following a semblance of tidiness, although pristine condition was a forlorn hope where Taylor’s housekeeping carelessness was concerned. And Taylor also taught Jesamiah how to fight. Not the fancy footwork of the rapier schoolroom, but how to fight to win, to save your skin and life. How to fight dirty if needed. Jesamiah had lessons with cutlass, sword and rapier; with long-bladed knife and short-bladed dagger, fist and feet. Swordplay, dagger play, wrestling. Day after day, practice and practice, with Taylor himself and the other men, until Jesamiah was as good as any one of them. Their sessions were at dawn and dusk, when the heat was not so invasive, when the sails dripped with dew and the calm blue sea was as smooth as a looking glass. There was nothing better, Jesamiah had discovered, when a vigorous sparring session was over, their semi-naked bodies slick, sticky and stinking with sweat, for he and Taylor to strip off their breeches and dive from the rail into that blue, blue sea, shattering the Mermaid’s almost-perfect reflection and the quiet stillness with their splashing and laughter. Among the men aboard they were the only two who could swim. The others thought them a pistol short of powder, barking mad for enjoying the feel of the cold sea on their hot skin. Most seamen preferred to keep their bare feet firmly on deck. Who knew what was lurking beneath that deceptive calm?
       When the wind did pick up enough to usher them forward with a slight curve to the sails and a faint cream of froth along the hull, they encountered floating mats of gold-coloured seaweed that enthralled Jesamiah. He had never seen anything like it.
         “The Sargasso Sea stretches for several thousand nautical miles long, by several hundred wide,” Taylor said as they leaned over the rail, staring at nature’s spectacle.
        “Will we get trapped in it?” Jesamiah asked, anxious. “Like a ship in ice?”
        Taylor laughed, patted his shoulder reassuringly. “Nay, lad, the weed floats and parts before the bow as easily as does the sea. We will be fine, as long as we have a wind.” He added the last with a frown, pleased to feel a slight caress of breeze on his cheek.
      Here, in the Sargasso, the sea was even bluer, even clearer. Looking over the side one afternoon, Mermaid braced aback and hove to for the men to haul in a turtle caught for fresh meat, Jesamiah could see his own face staring back at him: black hair plaited into an unruly queue, the fuzz of a beard along his jaw, an embryonic moustache trailing each side of his mouth. Frivolous, he waved at himself, and laughed as the reflection returned the gesture. He could see down and down into the depth well below Mermaid’s keel, one, two hundred feet? Fishes swam there, shoals flashed by full of swirling colour and movement. Then he drew back, his trance-like interest shattered by the shouts of his shipmates as they brought the hapless turtle aboard and called for Jesamiah to lend a hand to get it down into the stagnant water of the bilge. He was grateful for the distraction. He would not be looking, fascinated, down into the clear Sargasso Sea again. Would not be swimming in it.
     His had not been the only face staring up at him from that depth of water, or the only hand waving. Pale skin, blue eyes – as blue as the sea – fair hair as gold as the Sargasso weed, a fish’s tail that shimmered as if covered in a million jewels.
       The mermaid.

On the far side of the Sargasso, the wind gusting with more strength, they sighted yet another ship. Excitement flew around Mermaid’s decks, accompanied by laughter and chatter, with men leaning over the rail to point and look. Was she friend or foe? Was she a Spaniard coming into their clutches laden with treasure? Despite Taylor repeating, several times, that she might be Spanish but she was outbound so would not be carrying gold and silver, no one paid him heed. The disappointment was deep when she was identified as Dutch. Taylor would not touch English, Portuguese or Dutch shipping. Anything else was fair game. Except nothing else appeared to be sailing the ocean blue this June month of 1709.
     An hour after dawn, two days out from the first of the Azore islands, another vessel was spotted – behind them, not ahead, and coming up fast. This time the activity was anxious, not excited. She could be a treasure ship, a trader, another privateer, or she could be someone come to find them and wreak revenge for past misdeeds. Taylor took precaution and had the guns made ready and they set more sail to take advantage of the wind. Mermaid was sleek and fast, but this vessel coming up behind was faster still. On edge, constantly looking over their shoulders or up to the crosstrees of the mainmast where Hench sat on watch, the men were restless. None of them cared a hoot for the risk of a fight, but it was the waiting that gnawed at the nerves and frayed them raw.
      Then a laugh, a hearty cry plunged from the masthead, followed swiftly by Hench descending hand-over-hand down the backstay to the deck, his face split from ear to ear by a wide grin.
        “She’s the Barsheba!” he announced. “It’s Jennings!”
     Whooping and cheering, they stood the guns down, took in sail and waited for Captain Henry Jennings to catch up; one of the best privateers in the Northern Oceans, now that Acorne's father, Charles Mereno, had passed away.
      There was celebration that night, with both vessels hove to alongside each other, and the Barshebas invited aboard Mermaid to partake of kegs of brandy and rum, for singing and merrymaking. Courtesy of fresh supplies donated by Jennings, the smell of roasting meat mingled with tobacco smoke and the stink of unwashed bodies. The carousing reached as high as the stars, and even the moon did not dare show her face from behind a curtain of cloud for fear of watching too closely the antics of drunken pleasure-taking.
        In Taylor’s Great Cabin, the papers and charts had been hurriedly put away, the table pulled out and set for a meal, the linen tablecloth, silver cutlery and dinner service displayed to fine grandeur, despite the plates and serving dishes bearing all too many cracks, chips and scratches. Pork, chicken, fish. Vegetables, sweetmeats, dried fruits. Wine, port, brandy. The conversation and laughter grew louder with each dish served, each glass poured.
       As quartermaster’s clerk, Jesamiah had been invited to join the dinner party, but was awed by the auspicious company and the fact that he was seated almost against the brooding figurehead ornament dominating the far corner. He did not like the thing.
     Jennings was next to Taylor, but with only a handful of diners, was close enough to engage in conversation with Jesamiah, when finally he had opportunity.  “So, you’re Charles’ boy? Jesamiah Mereno?”
     Jesamiah’s skin tinged a salmon pink. “I go by the name Acorne now, sir. Jesamiah Acorne.”
    “Fair enough,” Jennings responded, lifting his half-empty glass in salute. “There’s many of us, for various reasons, using a different name to the one we were christened with.”
       “Especially where avoiding a wife, the law, or service to the Navy are concerned, eh?” Taylor laughed.
      “Indeed,” Jennings answered, “and many another will be following suit when this war with Spain ends, I reckon.” He raised his glass, proposing a toast. “To alternative identities – may they never be revealed!”
     “May they never be revealed!” The cheer echoed through the ship, although none beyond the Great Cabin could hear, for the noise the crew were making was too rowdy.
       A short while later Jennings resumed his conversation with Jesamiah, a friendly smile playing over his features. He was about mid-forty years of age, Jesamiah reckoned, no longer carrying the slender figure of a young man, but not yet running to fat. His eyes held laughter, but there was a sterner side to him behind the smile. A formidable man when the need arose, but perhaps a good friend also?
       “I knew and respected your pa, son. It is a pity you no longer wish to carry his name, but I can see that Mereno could also be a burden to you. Sometimes it is best not to sail too close in another’s wake.”
     Jesamiah made no answer; he was not prepared to whine about his childhood to this man, even if he was a friend of Taylor and his father.
      Jennings carried on as if there were no secrets to be hidden away. “We did everything together, didn’t we, Malachias? You, me, Charles and Morgan – before the drink and the infatuation with that girl blew up into a row.”
    Looking up sharply from the glass of rum he had been studying, Jesamiah blurted out, “Girl?”
     Taking the wrong meaning, Jennings grinned. “Don’t get all heated, lad. I was referring to Morgan, not your father. Oh, Charles was one for the ladies, mark my word,” he laughed, and winked at Taylor. “Weren’t we all back then, when a night in bed meant more than getting some sound sleep?!”
      “Speak for yourself!” Taylor’s guffaw boomed out. “I’m still partial to the company of a woman in m’ bed.”
     “Aye, to keep your feet warm, not your other shrivelled piece!” Jennings tossed back.
      Everyone laughed, but by the time glasses had been refilled and talk resumed, the subject had changed. Jesamiah was left wondering, his question unanswered. Did Captain Jennings mean the mermaid creature he had seen - thought he ad seen?
      Surely not…and yet, he was beginning to believe in her existence.

© Helen Holick

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Saturday 25 April 2020

Ten Minute Tales : Yns Witrin - Glastonbury Tor 455 AD

Ten Minute Tales
For your entertainment
a different 'Ten Minute Tale' every day

available on Amazon
As a little self-indulgence - and because I've been promoting other authors more than myself...
I'm going to post  some (chosen at random) excerpts from my own books
today an excerpt from
The Kingmaking
part one of the Pendragon's Banner Trilogy
by Helen Hollick

©Cathy Helms
May 455 AD 
Yns Witrin (Glastobury Tor) 
Gwenhwyfar knew something was to happen. Not precisely when, but soon, very soon. It was an odd feeling this, something inside niggling like an image vaguely remembered after a waking dream. For the past week she had climbed the Tor each morning, settled herself close by the largest standing stone on the summit and watched. For what, she did not know, just watched.
    It was not a Christian place, this Tor, the Holy Sisters did not like her walking here. Yns Witrin it was called, the Glass Isle. Even in the driest of summers there was always water spread around the foot of this conical hill - sodden places, marsh oozing underfoot, pitted with deeper bog that could trap and drown the unwary. Come winter, or after weeks of rain such as this year had brought, the low flat levels became a plain of dotted lakes and running channels. The brooding height of the Tor reflected in those vast, mirroring waters. An imaged island as delicately translucent and brittle as glass.
     Shrouded in morning mist and with its ancient miz-maze path winding back and forth in ritual pattern up the steep slopes, the Tor squatted over a cluster of little hills, like a matriarch presiding over her mixed brood sheltering within the fall of her shadow.
    It might not be Christian, but it was a revered and mystical place. A sanctum of the Old Ways, of the Mother Goddess and Avallach, God of the Underworld. She danced on the buttercup-spotted or frost-rimed grass. He slept beneath, in his domain of Avalon within the darkness of the hollow hill, waiting for the souls of the dead to find their way by night down the passages into the Other World.
    Once, there had been many who served the Goddess; now the young women went to the Christian Mother. Daughters learnt the litany of the Holy Church, not the ancient learning of a Goddess who was sliding into obscurity. Only three priestesses were left down there at the base of the Tor, their poor dwelling houses built along the shore of the water. Theirs was an ancient, once elite, clan. ‘The Ladies’, they were called: women of the Goddess. With the passing of the three, the Goddess would be gone from the Tor. Forgotten.
    Drawn to this richly spiritual place, Christian people had settled their community among the cluster of hills set on the flat of the Summer Land. They had built their little chapel and crude dwellings; set up their market place and expanded as each year more people joined them. The chapel became a church, the dwelling houses merging together into cloistered orders where men and women could live and work alongside God and Christ. Traders arrived. Farmers brought their produce and cattle to the market and prospered; a tavern flourished to provide bed and food for weary travellers who came to worship at the wondrous-built church, or seek healing or learning from the holy men and woman. Under the Christ God the Glass Isle thrived.
     It may have been very pagan, this Tor that hovered above the mist of a damp spring or autumn morning, or floated on a flood plain of glistening, sky-bright water, but Yns Witrin possessed a pull of awe and inspiration. A place where it was easy to listen to the voice of your God. Within the spirit of the Tor, you could see through the shaded windows of your own soul. And the Tor was a place of the Mother. Whether she were the old Goddess or the Virgin Mother of Christ, she was still the Mother. Gwenhwyfar had been safe here under her protective wing, was calmed and becoming healed of fear and the disgrace of an unwanted and uninvited invasion of her body. Rape carried a powerful backlash of wretchedness.
     To her, this quiet hill was a patient, contented place away from the dark, crowding shadows of horror. A place for the female. A sanctuary where time drifted with the moon cycle and where the earth beneath your feet understood the pain of labour and the joy of birth.
    ‘Have other women stood here, where I stand on this wind-teased summit,’ she wondered. ‘Watching as I watch, waiting as I wait, for a child to be born or the menfolk to come back from war?’
    Probably. The Tor was a guardian shield for women. It was said children were conceived or borne with ease and safety up here. Women’s natural troubles were healed. The Tor, a buffer against the harsh reality of life out there in the bad lands. It seemed so long ago, so far away, that rain-drenched night in Londinium. Yet it haunted her, clinging like stale perfume. Sickly and repulsive.
    She had a vague recollection of how she came to be here. She remembered the shouting and a clash of weapons; fearful desperate faces. Pounding hooves, sobbing breath - her own? Frightened horses bolting. Her arms clinging exhausted to a bay horse, muscles locked, unable to let go until he shuddered, eventually, to a halt. Gwenhwyfar had no idea how far that wild flight had taken her or to where she was taken. Knew only that her body ached and head throbbed. She was unaware of the jagged slash across her forehead, barely recalled the swinging hilt of a sword on a rocking boat that had caused it. The scab had long since peeled itching away, the scar beneath fading white against darker skin.
      The Holy Sisters said she had ranted delirious in fever for several days.
Had an inner sense guided her to them? Or had it been the wandering bay horse with a rider slumped across his withers who had trotted to other horses, eager for company? Whatever, the six women making their way to join the Sisters of Yns Witrin had taken her into their wagon, tended and cared for her. Unsure who she was or where she had come from, and unwilling to delay their journey, they had decided to carry her with them.
In her dazed state, Gwenhwyfar had raised no objection.
    The gentle Sisters fluttered round her, enfolding her in the safe seclusion of their nest, clucking and cooing, thanking the wisdom of the Virgin for guiding a daughter to safety. Gwenhwyfar let their attentions wash like healing balm over her muddled mind, having no energy or inclination to contradict them, relieved and thankful that the Goddess - under whatever guise - had brought her here, once strength and sense began to return, to idle among these gentle women of peace.
     Once, she had visited the Ladies, going across the spread of the lake to their huddle of meagre dwellings at the base of the Tor. The two she had met had welcomed her, were as kind as the Sisters, but - and this surprised Gwenhwyfar - could offer her no more comfort than the Christian community. Strange, it was the quiet, simple lives of the Holy Sisters that provided the inner peace she craved. The Ladies were brash and gaudy - their bangles jangling at their wrists, the vivid-bright tunics, the startling blue tattooed in writhing swirls on face and arms. Inside the squat building they took her to, a heavy, mind-numbing aroma muddled her mind even more and left her disorientated and distant. They were kind, concerned and eager to help, but Gwenhwyfar sat with them tense and stiff, like a doll carved of wood.
    And something else she realised, as she had punted the little boat back across the lake: they seemed to be living a pretence. A theatre play. Women dressed up as the Goddess’s Ladies, raising their hands to the sky and calling with shrieks and cries for the Mother to hear and help. Not that it had been like that; there had been no wailing or moaning, but the intoned prayer had jarred with a stilted rhythm, which had grated and pierced the ears instead of relaxing and pacifying the spirit as did the chanting of the Sisters.
     Gwenhwyfar would walk on the Tor, but she never went back to the Ladies at the Lake.
       The Sisters led a life of rigid routine revolving around daily chores and prayer. Their speech was quiet but not without laughter; indeed, they laughed often, sharing the many pleasures of their God’s created world of happiness and beauty. In the Sisters’ chapel or about their duties, they would often sing, chanting their praising rhythms to the glory of God. A comforting sound.
     One other reason kept Gwenhwyfar away from the Ladies: Morgause was one of them. She was the third Lady.
    After leaving the Ladies on that one visit, Gwenhwyfar had walked down the sloping path, through the clusters of alder and willow and had met with her, coming up from the lakeside. They had not exchanged words, merely stood, the one eyeing the other, stone-faced, critical. Morgause was dressed as a Lady of the Goddess, her golden hair loose with the blue-painted patterns tattooed on her cheeks, forehead and bare arms. In comparison, Gwenhwyfar, with cloak clutched tight to her breast, was pale, frightened and tired.
      This was the Lady they talked of then, down in the market place and in the tavern; the women with clacking disapproval, the men with shared winks and nudging elbows. She had wondered, Gwenhwyfar, meeting with the two Ladies, what there was in them for the men to be so excited over. They were old, shrivel-skinned, claw-fingered women with creased, toothless smiles. Her Holy Sisters were virtuous, pledged to serve God, not a man’s lusting. The Ladies welcomed the pleasure a man could give. Though what pleasures could be shared with those two crones Gwenhwyfar could not imagine. Not until she stood before Morgause. As young and perfectly beautiful as ever. She had dipped her head and stood aside to allow Gwenhwyfar to pass, honour-bound to a guest of the Goddess. Gwenhwyfar had murmured her thanks and hurried by, barely noticing the child, darker-skinned but with the same golden hair, tucked behind Morgause’s flame-coloured skirts.
    The wind lifted Gwenhwyfar’s loose hair; she liked letting it flow unbound up here on the Tor, it added a sense of abandoned freedom. She would have liked to cast aside her clothing too, run naked over the short, springy turf. But that would shock the dear Sisters too much, and besides she did not have the courage to prance about in the open birthclad. Overhead, a screech of swifts darted, swooping and diving, their calls shrill but wildly exciting. She watched them pass, clapped her hands at their breathtaking aerobatics. As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone, skimming down the side of the Tor and away.
     Gwenhwyfar closed her eyes and breathed in deep, holding the heady scent of morning-damp air, releasing it slowly. Thank God today the rain had ceased. Gwenhwyfar smiled, felt the babe within her kick at her belly.
That was one thing she was grateful for. One solid thing that had given her strength to defeat the evil sense of dirt that Melwas’s stench had left on her. Even had she not known otherwise, the child she carried was too large, too well formed, to have been put there by him. She placed her hand on the bulge, felt another hefty kick. “Ah, babe, you are anxious to see Arthur, your Da? Soon will I send for him and he will come for us; soon.”
     “Talking to yourself? They oft-times say it is a madness sign.”
     Gwenhwyfar swivelled, startled. Morgause leant against another of the standing stones, her arms folded, expression mocking. The child was with her again, a pretty girl for all the grubbiness of skin, hair and dress - and the startling sign of fear that surged, naked, in her wide, dark eyes.
     “Happen it is best to talk with yourself if you know the answers make sense.” Gwenhwyfar spoke to the woman pleasantly; the Tor did not lend itself to bad moods and sour answers. “Aside,” she said with a smile, “I talk to my child.”
     “Ah, your child.” Morgause seated herself on the grass a few feet from Gwenhwyfar, querying with her hand and a raised eyebrow whether Gwenhwyfar minded, although it was not for Gwenhwyfar to say - the Tor belonged to all. Morgause leant her head back, letting the warmth of a sudden burst of sunshine on her face. To the grey-blue sky she said, “Why are you here, Gwenhwyfar of Gwynedd?”
      “I could ask the same of you.”
     Smiling at the neat answer, Morgause indicated Gwenhwyfar’s swollen belly and said, “Except I can guess your reason. Now the great Cunedda has gone you fear Gwynedd might throw you out for breeding a fatherless bastard?”
     She liked hurting, Morgause, enjoyed the pleasure of another’s pain, would poke and stab at vulnerable places and watch her victim squirm under her torture. Animals, children, unprotected adults - few were safe from torment at Morgause’s hand. If she had intended to hurt Gwenhwyfar with this one, though, she failed. Gwenhwyfar had long accepted her father’s death - liked it not, but accepted it. And her brothers would not reject her when she became ready to contact them.
       Morgause sat forward, hugging her knees. “As I recall, Cunedda had a fondness for fatherless bastards.”
      Gwenhwyfar did not miss the inference, said with a lifted eyebrow, “He had a father, though, didn’t he - Arthur?”
      Several thoughts wandered through Morgause’s mind: Uthr, and his son; the love she held for the one, the hatred for the other. The son should have been hers. If she had borne Uthr a son, then... then what? Would Uthr still be alive, would she now be Queen? The thread of Fate would never weave so smooth a pattern. Even had she borne a son, Uthr would still be dead, she would still have come here to seek shelter with the Ladies, become one of them. It suited her to be here. For now, until the time came to move on.
       “So,” she said to Gwenhwyfar, pleasantly, “you come to the kingdom of Avallach and the garden of the Goddess to bide your time before dropping your child.”
        “I come to share the peace of the Holy Sisters.”
     “Hah!” Morgause snorted with amusement. “That pathetic bunch of nanny-goats! What would they know of bastard brats? It is in my mind you hide away here lest your brothers discover your condition. You ought to have had it aborted.” Morgause ran her hands across her own flat belly. “We of the Goddess know how to keep a womb empty.” She giggled, a crude sound full of suggestive pleasure. “Though men try hard to fill it.” Scornfully she added, “I doubt your Sisters know anything of such matters. Would scream ‘rape’ should a man dare catch a glimpse of an ankle beneath that drab garb they encase themselves in.”
       “The nuns are good, kind women - do not mock them.”
      “What, all of them?” Morgause was massaging her toes, wriggling each one between her fingers. The little girl had wandered some way off, was absorbed in picking daisies and threading them into a joined chain.
      Watching her, Gwenhwyfar said, “She is a pretty child, your daughter.”
      “What makes you assume she is my daughter?” Morgause laughed.
    Cocking her head to one side, Gwenhwyfar studied the little girl. She was dressed in a rough-spun tunic, sleeveless, reaching a little below her knees. A shabby bandage was bound about her right hand. There were bruises, Gwenhwyfar noticed, on her arms and legs. A lot of angry bruises, but then children were always falling and hurting themselves. “I say it because twice now I have seen her trotting at your heels and because, although she has not your delicate skin, she is very like you.” And someone else?
    Lifting her shoulders Morgause made light of it. “So she is mine. The Goddess smiles that she has another to follow her path.” She gathered up her skirt, folding the cloth back to her thighs, and stretched her bare legs to the sun. She threw Gwenhwyfar a sly sidelong look; eyeing her bulge, assessing how far the babe had grown. “Who is the father? Or can you not name him for fear of decrying his wife?”
      Gwenhwyfar replied, indifferent to the taunting, “I have no intention of fighting with you, Morgause. It is no business of yours to know. I could as well ask who fathered your girl.” She added with a twist of returned spite, “Or do you not know?”
       Morgause watched the child a moment through slit eyes. A stupid girl who answered questions in a mumble and had downcast eyes, a runny nose, a bottom lip that trembled most of the time and clumsy hands that dropped everything. She still wetted the bedding. Punishment seemed to have no effect, even though it was becoming more severe. Take this morning. The idiot child had spilt scalding porridge all over Morgause’s gown. She had immediately plunged the girl’s hand into water boiling in the cooking pot; doubted whether even that punishment would have any effect. The child would be as clumsy some other time, some other way. A tiresome, disappointing weed of a brat.
       With a sigh, “She is nothing like her father.” Morgause scratched at an itch along her inner thigh and lay back, her hands tucked behind her head. “It is as well he does not know of her. He would be disappointed.”
        “I think my man will be pleased with mine.”
      Morgause learnt much from that. The father, whoever he was, knew nothing of the coming child. Also, Gwenhwyfar was not certain of him. She took that to mean there had been some passing affair, torrid meetings of a night, a sharing of lust, and now the man had gone. Back to his wife? Probably. It usually went that way.
    “That is just as well,” Morgause said, climbing to her feet and straightening her skirt. The sun was becoming blanketed by a thick bank of cloud. It was darkening in the west, more rain coming. It was time she went. She looked north across the flood plain, north to where, somewhere, the Goddess was still held in awe, where this Christian God had trod no lasting footprint. The Ladies were revered in the far north, were welcomed. A gifted Lady could soar high among the Picti people. Could, if canny, fly as high as a queen. Aye, it was time she went from Yns Witrin.
       In passing she said with unexpected good intention, “The Goddess has a place for girl-children should yours be born female. She does not need to know a father’s name, would welcome yours to her bosom.”
       “As would the Christian Virgin.”
      The kindness disappeared. “Hah! That is not how I heard it.” Brushing at a grass stain, Morgause came to stand before Gwenhwyfar. “You would fare better under the Goddess, she is in need of new servants.”
      So that was why Morgause was being so friendly this day. Gwenhwyfar had wondered. She held her tongue, for Morgause spoke the truth of it. The nuns were kind-hearted, well-meaning and loving, but a few had tutted and mumbled over her condition. When Gwenhwyfar first came there had been guarded questions, met with a polite silence. They knew her name, that was all, but of her parentage, her home, and the father of the child Gwenhwyfar had said nothing.
       Was that something moving out there on the plain?
     She had deliberately not informed anyone of her whereabouts. That they would be suffering pain she realised, but it would be a short, soon mended hurt. Her own hurt, for the time being, came more important. She was not ready for the harassment of the outside world, was not ready for the sympathy and swamping affection that, however well intentioned, would drown her severely cracked spirit. The Sisters gave her those things, but in a distant, impersonal way. “Soon,” she had promised herself, “I will send a messenger soon. When I am ready to take up my cloak and go out into the world again; but for now I need time for my wounds to heal, here within the peace and privacy of Yns Witrin.” And suddenly she received the welcome knowing that ‘soon’ had come. She was ready to turn aside from tranquillity and face reality.
       “I must be getting back,” Gwenhwyfar said, rising to her feet. She took a few paces down the slope, stopped to say, “I shall tell Arthur, the Pendragon when I see him that you are here, Morgause.”
       Morgause laughed, hands on hips, head tossed back. “So he may avoid the place? Do not bother yourself, I am leaving. I need somewhere more...” She paused, smiled - wicked, Morgause’s smile could be - “Beneficial,” she finished.
      She watched Gwenhwyfar go; watched, too, the horsemen, for that knot of clouded shapes was definitely horsemen. The girl had come up, was standing a few inches from her mother.
      “I met with Gwenhwyfar when I had the Pendragon,” Morgause said to the wind. “Not this Pendragon, I speak of the father.” She clasped her arms about herself. The wind was growing chill. “He was a man worth the having.” She looked down at the child who stood wide-eyed with fear, thumb stuck in her mouth. A patch had spread on her skirt where she had wet herself.
    “Love of the Mother!” Morgause snarled. “Uthr Pendragon was worth the having, but by the pleasure he gave, were you?”

© Helen Hollick

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Friday 24 April 2020

Ten Minute Tales : Westminster Abbey 1064 by Helen Hollick

Ten Minute Tales
For your entertainment
a different 'Ten Minute Tale' every day

available on Amazon
As a little self-indulgence - and because I've been promoting other authors more than myself...
I'm going to approach the looming end of our series with some (chosen at random) excerpts from my own books
today an excerpt from

Harold the King (UK title) / I Am The Chosen King (US title) 

Westminster – June 1064
England was at peace, Malcolm of Scotland had reneged on his treaty of homage, raiding over the borders into Northumbria, but Earl Tostig  had handled the situation with diplomatic negotiation, and had signed a new treaty. Mind, there were some in Northumbria, the older warriors, who grumbled that he ought to have attacked in return, taught Scotland a lesson as old Earl Siward would have done. They were the men who held no liking for the King’s favourite though, the ones who would stir trouble whenever excuse was offered them.
   As Harold had intended, Wales was too occupied with internal wrangling between her fledgling princes to turn an eye towards England. Norway and Denmark were busy also, with their seesawing political arguments. Apart from seasonal pirate raids – an ongoing hazard for any coastal village or river-accessible settlement – peace had wafted over the whole country like a pleasant, hay-scented summer. Except there was no peace for Harold’s spirit. The new-awakened lure of adventure, action and excitement bucked within him. He was bored by the routine inactivity of King Edward’s court.
   Although a chill breeze was blowing off the river Thames – the wind often became more inclement with the flood tide, Edward insisted on personally inspecting the rising grandeur that was his abbey and expected those at court to accompany him. Leofwine, Harold’s younger brother, arriving at Westminster, had been invited to visit the building site almost before he had risen from his knee on greeting the King.
   “But you must see my abbey!” Edward declared. In his enthusiasm, he leapt to his feet. “It is now more splendid than ever I had imagined it would be. Come, let me have my cloak fetched, I shall show you straightway!”
   “We shall all go!” Edith, the Queen, trilled as she ensured Edward’s cloak was tucked around his body and his cap fitted snug over his silvered hair, and, “Do you want your gloves, my dear? You know how your hands chap from the cold.” Treating him more as an ageing father, Edith had found her niche as the dutiful wife who looked to his every daily need, tending his apparel, cutting his meat, warming hands and feet, rubbing salves into his aching knees.
   Edward contentedly basked in her various attentions; it was all he had ever wanted, someone to mother him. He patted her arm, smiled an aimless, distant acknowledgement, talking all the while to Leofwine. “You will be most surprised at how far the work has progressed – why, it actually begins to look like an abbey at last! You younger ones, you must come also,” Edward added, waving his arm at the children. “The fresh air will put colour in your faces.” He threaded his arm companionably through Leofwine’s. “We have been having problems with the labourers: every so often they decide to stop work for one trivial reason or another – the ramps are too steep and slippery, the conditions too wet. Yet I am paying them good wages, they get hot food once a day and I provide a Christian burial for those unfortunates who, through their own carelessness, meet with accidents. Only the other day a man stupidly stood right under a hoist – the rope had frayed and the stone that was being lifted…well, he was crushed instantly. Dear Leofwine, you should have heard the wailing from his widow! We told her it was his own fault for standing where he did; I gave her a penny from my own purse, that seemed to satisfy her.” Edward, talking rapidly, stepped through the doorway and out into the sunlight.
   Edith, her own cloak secured, ushered the younger children before her, smiling at the Lady Alditha who had made ready with the rest of the assembly. She was a quiet creature, obviously ill at ease at court, but then, few had made her welcome, unable to forget her father’s outrageous acts of treason, or the fact that she had been married to a heathen Welshman. On several occasions Edith had overheard the women whispering between themselves about it – she refused to be drawn into ignorant conversations, but privately she did wonder if it was true what they said about a Welshman’s manhood, that it was…Edith frowned, or was that a Jewish man…? She flushed. Whatever, she ought not be thinking of such details.
   “My dear,” she said, reaching her hand forward to take Alditha’s within her own. “You are still so pale. Come! You will walk with my brother Harold, I am certain he can bring a smile to your cheeks.”
   With a single, almost careless nod of assent at his sister, Harold held out his arm for the lady, noting her dipped head and blush as she took it.
   The two demure sisters, Margaret and Christine, walked, hands folded within their long sleeves, behind the Earl of Wessex. At seventeen and fifteen, these two daughters of Ædward the Exile had grown into pleasing young women, the youngest the image of her mother Agatha, who had passed into heaven less than a year after their father had so ill-fatedly died on arriving in London. Both had expressed a desire to dedicate themselves to God, although as their guardian Edward had made other plans for Margaret. A promise of considering giving her hand to Malcolm of Scotland had been a sure way for Earl Tostig to tame the Scots’ lust for border warfare. Their twelve-year-old brother Edgar, the ætheling, once outside in the courtyard, made off at a run with Harold’s sons Magnus and Edmund, whooping and hollering. The children loved to explore the building site, though they often annoyed the workmen, taking full advantage of the knowledge that no one would dare protest at their squawking nuisance.
   The King took great pleasure in having the younger folk around his court, their laughter a contrast to the sombre faces of his councillors and lords. There would be over-much sobriety, he often declared, were it not for their gaiety. Edith would agree with him, though never did she forget that were it not for his own refusal of intimacy, her children would be among those who romped together like inexhaustible hound pups.
   “So, my Lady,” Harold said as he strolled with Alditha, “I am ordered by the Queen to make you laugh. What would you prefer? That I tumble a few acrobatics or shall I recount an inane jest? I know several. I could perhaps sing. My cracked voice would raise a smile to the most solemn of faces.”
    “I thank you, but I am well content.”
    “The Queen does not think so.”
   The Queen, Alditha thought, can go boil her arrogant, interfering head in oil. Said aloud, “The Queen is most sweet. She has personally ensured that my every comfort has been attended to.”
   Harold guffawed. “It is entirely possible that you are the only living person to refer to my sister as ‘sweet.’ Our own mother would describe her more as sour vinegar; and if she is interested in your welfare then I assume it is because she has some private motive.” Harold guided Alditha around a pile of horse dung. They could hear Edward ahead, his high-pitched voice berating those responsible for not sweeping the courtyard.
    “Oh, she has a motive,” Alditha answered, glancing sideways at the man beside her. “She is decided to find me a husband more suitable than the one I had before.”
    “That ought not be too difficult! Gruffydd was a toad. We can surely find you a frog or a tadpole.”
   When Alditha did not smile, Harold bent his head closer to hers and said with exaggerated seriousness, “It was a jest. You are supposed to laugh.”
    “Why? It was not amusing.”
  “No, but women are obliged to flatter the male ego by politely acknowledging our attempts at wit.”
     “We are more likely to laugh at your absurdities.”
    The quick retort came with a hint of a smile; Harold caught it, raised a finger. “There, you see, already I have pleased the Queen. You have smiled.”
    “I assure you it was not intentional.”
    “No matter whether ’twas or not. A smile well suits you.”
    A pinkness grazed Alditha’s cheeks at the flattery. She had spoken only half the truth when she had told him that she was content. What was contentment for a young widow? She was of noble birth, with her own land and entitlement. Her brother Eadwine was Earl of Mercia, a county that had once been a kingdom in its own right. Marriage with her was of potential value to any man who sought a means to step on to the dais of power. Her future consisted of but two choices: marry a man she would probably despise, or enter a nunnery. Neither would be of her own, free-willed choosing, but a woman such as she did not have the luxury of free will or choice. She despaired of the shallowness of Edward’s court, the gossip, the blatant pushing and shoving to reach a higher rung on the hierarchical ladder. The hypocrisy of it all! An improvement on living as wife to Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, however.
     “Truly, my lord Earl,” she said, “I am content, and if it pleases you and the Queen, than I shall smile more often.”
    Pleased at achieving his mission, Harold squeezed her cool fingers, his face shadowing into a frown as he caught a glimpse of his eldest son’s glowering expression.
    Goddwin stared with intense hostility at his father, his unblinking eyes challenging Harold to declare an interest in the half-Welsh woman. He could not see why his father was so drawn to her – huh, that was not true. No man whose pizzle was in working order could deny her beauty. Her dark hair, heart-shaped face, willow-thin figure and the way the light danced in her eyes…jealousy, an evil goblin that so easily wormed its way into the soul and mouldered there. He adored his mother, could not understand or accept what Edyth had always expected: that one day Harold would set her aside and take another wife into his bed.
     He had not wanted to come to court with his father; there was much to do on the estate that Harold had granted him as a wedding gift. That roan colt was ready for breaking to harness and the chestnut mare who had experienced difficulty with her first foaling needed careful watching. Goddwin preferred horses to people. People always expected too much of you: witty conversation, merry jigging to dance tunes, interest in their personal problems. Horses wanted only to please, to be fed, watered and groomed, to have their feet regularly trimmed; horses never held a grudge or made prejudiced judgement. You knew where you were with horses.
     Harold met that jealous stare, lifted a questioning eyebrow, to which Goddwin ducked his head. They had quarrelled so often of late, father and son. Since Harold had brought this woman out of Wales, in fact. The Welshman’s Whore, the court called her behind her back, save for two nights past when Goddwin had overheard an inebriated conversation conducted by two men of Edward’s household. Harold’s whore, they had said, cackling in that suggestive, crude way. Harold’s whore.
    Angry, Goddwin turned abruptly away from the gaggle of men and women around the King. Let them prattle about his damned abbey. Goddwin would have none of it. Fortunately, Edward did not see him go.
    The ground ascended gently from the palace, slowing Edward’s initial exuberant pace and bringing the breath puffing into his lungs. Perhaps it was his increasing age that made the slope seem the steeper? Next birthing day he would be sixty years of age and they told him often that he ought to take more rest. Piffling nonsense! He might be missing a few teeth and his sight be more blurred than once it had been, his hearing not so sharp, but he could still sit a horse and gallop with the rest of those young whelps when a stag was running. And his mind was alert, his bladder and bowels controlled; he was not yet the dotard they claimed him to be.
     Ahead of the party, the east end of his abbey stood in all its splendour, a vast, soaring structure of Reigate stone, the sun’s rays striking down through the wind-hustled clouds, highlighting the lantern tower as if God Himself were pointing out its wonder.
     The square, lead-roofed tower stood six storeys high, rearing into the sky above the crossed section of north and south transepts, the army of surrounding roof turrets standing like a cluster of guardian sentries. The tiled roofing, above apse, transepts and upper part of the nave, had been set in place as soon as the walls had risen to keep the stone and timber structures below dry. Once the rain was kept out, work had progressed rapidly.
     From this eastern approach the holy place looked almost complete, for as was traditional with cathedral and abbey constructions, building ranged from east to west. The height of the northern transept, immediately ahead of the royal party, successfully hid the slower progress to the western end – which consisted of the half-built northern wall of the nave, one tower flanking the western entrance completed but for its roof and its potential twin standing as a single storey of stonework. There was still much to be done.
    They stood a moment, the group of onlookers, heads tipped back, gaping up at the great height of the tower, marvelling at the diminutive figures of men clambering over and along the higgle-piggle of scaffolding, not one of them seemingly concerned about the distance down to the ground. For many of those watching – save for those fortunate few who had made pilgrimage to Rome, or visited the grand new cathedrals that were springing up all over France and Italy – this was the tallest building they had ever seen. It was certainly impressive.
     Edward entered through the cavern in the north transept that would, one day, be the northern entrance door and proudly led his audience into another world. The square tower was borne over the crossing by an elaborate array of unobtrusive stone arches, like the branches of a gigantic oak supporting the canopy above. Spiralling stairs reached up inside, set in artistic symmetry against plain walls that rose to the carved beams of the roof. Windows, set at especial angles, allowed in wide shafts of sunlight that harboured a myriad of floating, dancing particles of dust. It was a beautiful church. Uncluttered by unnecessary ornamentation, its clean lines gave an overpowering sense of length and height, a continuity of unbroken space stretching from one end to the other that, when finished, would cover more than 330 feet in length. The nave would support six double bays per side – two longer than the cathedral of Jumièges. Arches, each resting on plain cylindrical columns below a triforium stage with a gallery surrounding the vaulted aisles, and above that, the clerestory shadowed below the eaves. Further windows pierced the solidity of the lower walls, bringing light cascading down into the enclosed space. The abbey of Westminster was to be long and high, but there would be no gloom within. God’s house, lit by God’s hand.
      Allowing sufficient pause for gasps and a crackle of admiring applause, Edward passed the raised steps that would lead to the main altar and thrust out his arm to indicate an open space. “Here,” he said extravagantly, “is where I shall be laid to rest. Close to the bosom of God, where I shall sleep in peace within the sanctity of this glorious place.”
    His audience nodded; no one dared comment that the abbey of Westminster with all the banging, hammering, lifting, straining, chiselling and shouting was, at this moment, anything but a place of peace.

© Helen Hollick

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