History was being made.
It was being made in the cold and lively city of Glasgow: dug out of archives, translated from handwriting, combed out of the cloud of digitised court records. It was being hammered out in study-bedrooms with Freecycled task chairs. It was refined in pubs whenever Ali Wishaw bought a friend a pint of cider and started an argument.
It was also being made in the charming environs of Cambridge (where, as every English schoolchild knows, History began). History flowed from ancient tongues, and was transcribed by the diligent apostles who sat at ancient feet. It was written up in oak-panelled rooms to make glossy monographs.
Two sets of people were making very different kinds of history.
But from Queens’ College Cambridge, where History began, a bridge was being built.
Papers are invited for the 200th annual conference of the Cambridge Association for History Studies, 5-8 August.
This conference will draw on the legacy of the CAHS. We welcome papers on seminal historical studies (particularly by CAHS members), and on the evolution of the discipline.
We also wish the conference to look to the future of the discipline, at emerging methodologies (including, but not limited to: feminist history; oral history; decolonial approaches).
Please send 500-word proposals to Sophia Johnstone (Postdoctoral Fellow in History, Queens’ College).
Historians are used to reading a dry piece of text and finding it makes their hearts beat faster. In a mostly-empty pub with free WiFi in Glasgow, when the new Call for Papers appeared in her inbox, Ali Wishaw’s heart rattled like a steam loom. It had been forwarded by a friend with the heading: Let’s all go to this in the summer, and roast the smug bastards.
A historian’s eye can draw out the dialogic nature of a single source, and Ali immediately spotted the two voices at work in the Call for Papers. “Legacy” on one hand, “feminist history” on the other. Like a silver platter with a cup of chai latte balanced on top. Queens’ College—the sanctum of elitist History—was opening its doors to the masses.
The timing of the call was perfect. Only a week ago, Ali had been grilled in her viva, and patted on the back and told she was a Doctor. Patted so hard it had shoved her out of academia: no longer a student, not yet a lecturer. She’d begun to job-hunt, knowing she might as well hunt a unicorn. But this conference would host hundreds of delegates. It would be a chance to set out her stall.
She could offer a tight ten-minute paper based on her PhD research (women workers in textile factories in late 19th century Scotland). But her eyes slid back to her friend’s email heading. Should she, instead, roast the bastards?
What would roasting them involve? Telling them some home truths about their whole approach. Ali could do that in a constructive, positive way: show traditional historians the excitement of doing History the way that her and her friends had been doing it. Share the buzz of following a thread through an archive, reading a diary. If she felt like being less constructive, she could tell the traditional historians how outmoded and parochial they looked, to her.
Or something in between coddling and roasting. A sharp critique. Whichever approach she took, she’d need a snappy title.
On a Certain Fruitless Trend in the Discipline of Historical Studies…
No, that sounded like a Puritan pamphlet.
The Death of English History—ugh, so melodramatic. And so hostile they’d never accept it. Better to be subtle.
On the English Approach to the Study of History.
Pithy but modest! Perfect. That would fly right under their radar. The deadline for submissions was that same afternoon; she only had three hours to craft a killer proposal and send it to the conference organiser, Sophia Johnstone (who was probably the horsey granddaughter of a hereditary peer).
Ali noticed the barman eying her with some hostility. Normally, she could pass unnoticed for hours, a perk of being small, but she’d celebrated her viva by dying her hair green which had made her more visible. She would have to buy another drink. Was it too late for a coffee? Was it too early for cider?
Ali typed until her battery ran down and her coffee grew cold.
Professor Geoffrey Manville’s rooms were oak-panelled and book-lined. Sophia had been awe-struck when, as his student, she had sat on a stool in front of his armchair. The panelling and the bookshelves impressed Sophia less, now she had completed her own doctorate. She knew how many books you can own without reading them, or read without understanding them. And oak panelling was more common than IKEA shelving, in this building. Geoffrey’s armchair was made of good durable leather, and remained the same as in her undergraduate days, but Geoffrey’s hair was whiter now, and his jowls saggier. Sophia had seen him drunk, and envious, and needing help to work his computer. Sophia had her own book-lined office (much smaller) along the corridor.
But Geoffrey was still the professor. Every academic needs a mentor, someone prestigious to pull you up the ladder. Particularly Sophia, because black history professors in the UK were painfully rare. Cambridge told Sophia daily that she was an outsider, but at least Geoffrey had taken her under his wing.
“The conference schedule looks excellent,” judged Geoffrey, of Sophia’s proposed running order, as intricate as a Celtic knot pattern. Sophia had been dissatisfied with the usual conference approach: grouping papers by time period, keeping the early modernists far from the Nazi specialists. Instead, Sophia had picked through the proposals and spotted common threads that crossed different eras: rivalry, transition, nationhood. People might fume at having to sit through things which didn’t apply to them. But this conference wasn’t about any one period of history, it was about history itself.
“Glad you put all the lively stuff after lunch,” noted Geoffrey. That had been his sole piece of scheduling advice. She’d picked papers on witchcraft and piracy to keep people awake after they ate the Queens’ College stodge. Geoffrey turned the page and ran his eye over the proposals. “They all look acceptable.” Sophia felt relief lift her shoulder-blades like wings sprouting. “Good work. Good stuff. Except for the Wishaw one. Which is exactly the kind of thing I thought we might attract with that list of yours.”
Sophia remembered arguing about the list: feminist history, oral history, decolonial approaches, and Geoffrey had made a snippy remark about each of them, but let them all stand. Now she glanced at where he was pointing: on the second day of the schedule. The English Approach to History: A Comparative Study—Ali Wishaw.
Sophia had foreseen his objections and practiced her arguments. “I think we have to include papers like that, or we’ll look old-fashioned.”
Geoffrey’s magisterial head bobbed forward like a moorhen. “Why do we have to do anything? It’s ridiculous!”
Sophia nodded in sympathy and offered him a scapegoat: “With so many American delegates attending…”
“I know, I know! Neophile philistines. They’re always offering me work, you know. To be a visiting Chair, or give a talking tour. Even TV! Show-pony stuff. I could do it in my sleep…”
Sophia felt a flicker of fear, but Geoffrey had mentioned his transatlantic popularity before. She was confident he was just swaggering and wouldn’t leave the college. He wouldn’t be able to do History anywhere else.
While Geoffrey rambled on about his options, Sophia’s thoughts returned to Ali’s proposal. It had filled Sophia with remarkably strong emotions: nervousness, as though someone might be listening. Indignation, at the ingratitude; Queens’ College had given the world History and preserved it for centuries, and now lesser historians were jabbing at them with criticism? But days later, when the pain of the jabs had worn off, Sophia had remained exhilarated by the freshness of Ali’s ideas. Geoffrey was clearly experiencing similarly strong emotions, but didn’t see why it was necessary to keep them to himself, and instead vomited them straight out at Sophia. It barely bothered her. She was accustomed to ducking his moods.
And in fact, Ali’s proposal was itself quite unemotional. It offered a comparison of two ways to conduct historical research: the traditional approach, and alternative methods (Geoffrey would call them, unfairly, American methods). Not inflammatory, and less vehement than discussions on a dozen UK and international mailing lists (to which Geoffrey was probably not subscribed). Ali’s proposal had been submitted five minutes before the deadline, which suggested Ali was a perfectionist, or utterly chaotic. Sophia wondered if she would ever tell the author about its inflammatory effect on her and on Geoffrey.
“Alright, we can accept the paper. But can you say something to her, in your acceptance letter? Make sure she’s not going to be insufferable and political about it. You know, she might be trying to get a job. From the Americans. She might show off to them!”
“I’ll tell her that.” Sophia would find a way to phrase a polite request to keep it civil. Just to give Ali Wishaw a sense of context so she could use her own discernment, not to constrain her; she could make her own mind up, whether it was worth attending, and how to present her work. “Oh, and I put Wishaw on a panel with the man from Columbia. The one who’s giving an overview of your career.”
“That’ll balance her out,” said Geoffrey, mollified by flattery. It must be nice to have someone write a whole paper about you, Sophia reflected. Would anyone ever find Sophia’s work that fascinating?
“And it’s the 9am panel, the day after the conference dinner,” Geoffrey observed. “Ha! Nobody will be awake that early, anyway! She can say what she likes.” A happy compromise. “Now, I must be going—time for the evening visit.” He scooped up some pale primrose sheets from the desk. Yellow paper had been, for decades now, the official paper for interviews with Them. Sophia wondered if it made the questions easier to read in the dimness of the windowless chapel. “I hope the conference organising hasn’t been taking you away from your research, too much.”
“No,” lied Sophia, who was a fortnight late submitting her edits for a journal article.
“Good, good. You need to be formulating your questions. So we can get you on the rota, you know, in September.”
Sophia maintained her calm expression. It wasn’t the first time Geoffrey had mentioned adding her to the rota for visits, but he was doing so more regularly, and naming dates. She could be the one carrying the yellow sheets and entering the chapel. September was awfully soon. But then, the preceding eight years of study had felt very long…
Geoffrey donned his jacket. “Oh dear.” He picked up a shabby sports bag from near the office door and tucked the yellow pages inside. “It’ll disturb Them, you know?”
His voice always rose when he spoke about Them. It gave him a note of uncertainty, in contrast to his usual bluster. He also tended to look at the ceiling.
His uncertainty was contagious. As she followed him down the corridor, Sophia asked: “Sorry, you don’t mean that this paper will disturb them?” Could They really be swayed by trends in historiography? Ali Wishaw’s paper was an attempt to undermine Them, but in a very abstract sense—to reduce Their importance, perhaps. To recontextualise Them. Would they even care? They were four hundred years old.
“Oh! God, no.” Geoffrey shook his head and his white mane flopped about. “The whole conference, the dinners, all that. It’ll shake Them up. Any new people in the College, it unsettles Them.” Geoffrey had reached the staircase and rushed down the steps with surprising speed. “Happens at the start of every year, as well.”
“Like in Fresher’s week?” Sophia felt that drag each year, as though gravity had grown heavier. The youngsters were oblivious to the tension, or attributed it to a hangover, but Sophia always noticed.
“Yes! You’re very attuned to it! You’re a proper historian…”
“Why does it disturb Them?” Sophia asked. She was conscious, again, of how little she knew about Them, even after all her studies under Geoffrey. She imagined Them sleeping much of the time. What else could They do, in the dark? Very rarely, if she stood outside the chapel in summer, she could hear music, reed instruments in solemn harmonies. But she never heard voices.
Extracting information from Geoffrey about Them was laboriously slow work. Even now, as they exited the staircase into the grassy courtyard, he went off on another tangent: “The college wants to hold Business Management summer-schools here, you know. O tempora, o mores!” Some academics might have lowered their voices to be tactful, but he strode onward at full volume. Sophia saw that he was still smarting about the Wishaw paper. “Still, things move on.” He waved his hand, encompassing both space and time: the field of History since 1970; Walnut Tree Court, with the windowless chapel taking up one long side; and Sophia at his side.
She knew that Geoffrey saw her as a sign of change, and himself as a generous radical for mentoring her. She was increasingly conscious of herself as a dash of difference within a sea of continuity. The system persisted: students still sat at the feet of professors, serving their apprenticeship, until…
They had reached the door of the chapel, between two arched windows, now bricked up. Geoffrey waved a farewell, toting his sports bag and turning the iron handle of the chapel door. Sophia felt a pang in her stomach, a pulling feeling. Geoffrey was running a little late. They were expecting him.
Students worked patiently until they became lecturers, and then they didn’t have to stop at this door. They were permitted to go in and question the ones who lived inside. Sophia knew she was smart enough, and patient enough, to progress upwards to that peak. But she was unsure how far she would change things as she passed through.
“Times go by turns,” she reminded herself, “And chances change by course, from foul to fair, from better hap to worse.” After a vexing chat with Geoffrey, she had a habit of self-soothing with verses by Southwell. It reminded her of her priorities.
She checked her watch. She could email acceptance messages to all the conference speakers, including the cautionary note to Ali Wishaw, and still fit in some embroidery before bedtime.
Behind the thick stone wall, she listens, craning her neck and tilting her head to catch the sound of the river.
All other signs obscured, she can tell day from night by the noises. By day, the steady thunk of the punt pole sunk in the mud, the splash above, the soprano laughter of youngsters: careful, careful! By night, they pass away, and the river itself is revealed. Burbling, bubbling. She thinks she knows the shape of the stones from the sound of it. Some sharp, forming the chuckling eddies. And beneath that meandering tune, a low flowing note, oh, oh, the sob of a bass flute. She listens so intently and so long that water seems to flow through every limb of her.
She does not think she sleeps.
She thinks of seas and oceans. She misses Drake and Raleigh. She could not bring them with her. Drake, buried at sea in Spain, sunk into the sea in full armour, could not be disinterred. Dee could not save him. Raleigh had died while Dee was distant. So neither man joined her.
She listens to the river turn from the riffle into the run, from high choppy ripples into the smooth hum.
She misses Essex, Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys. Strange to find which people stick in her mind. She misses, more than any single person, the application of authority. Wits pitted, factors weighed. Advisors and supplicants. She misses the sun’s heat not half so much.
The river is the feeble sluggish Cam, not the powerful Thames. One time, when she was rowed up from Windsor, reclining in a barge… And to think of that day is to be lost in a golden chain of recollections. To trail a hand in the memory and let the years flow over it. Her losses incalculable, her victory singular, growing unbearable.
Her own words return to mock her. Her speeches on the duty that God had laid on her: to maintain His glory, and to defend this Kingdom from dishonour, damage, tyranny. She recalls that she told her subjects: it is not my desire to live nor to reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good… Well, has she discovered a lie in that? Because she lives on, but does not reign. And is that for the good of the kingdom, or no? And was that why she made the change?
Her courtiers are sleeping. They hissed their way through evening orisons and now lie prone, twitching. They do not snore. Old men, she laughs to herself, they snored enough in life –sometimes while seated at court, their heads would loll and a wordless grumble emerge. But no snores now, they only click and chitter in their slumbers. They are all long past breathing, except when they draw in air to push out words. Or when Hatton and Dudley play their instruments.
Normally they wait for the evening’s discourse with the professor before they sleep, but all the courtiers have been fatigued, lately. Walsingham, in particular, is ailing. First his limbs stiffened, and his joints crunched when he moved. Then he fell into silence. Now he is mostly motionless and a sweet smell hangs around him all over his bed.
What ails him? What does he need? Could the professors assist him, or should she summon Dee? Could Dee mend him? Perhaps Walsingham is past help, like Lopez before him.
She takes another breath from shock at the thought. The air howls raw and cold through her throat. Will she lose her companions? She has lost so much, already. No crown, no kingdom, and no duty. Freed of all the labour and nine parts of the glory. All this has been not God’s will, but her will, worked by Dee.
Where is her favourite, this evening? Time is hard to judge precisely. No clock, in here, no sundial. Surely, by now.
The bells of Great St Marys toll. He should be here. The courtiers are keening in their sleep.
A rattle and a click: the iron handle turns, the latch slides open. The weighty door creaks open. The curtains that obscure the door billow inwards. She turns her sensitive eyes away from the flashes of light they let through. Here is the nearest thing to power, now. The nearest thing to guidance and council, to honor and to supplication.
Geoffrey Manville, her current favourite, has brought his yellow papers to consult her.
When Sophia wrote to Ali, she remembered Geoffrey’s warning and included a sentence that didn’t appear in any other acceptance emails: The conference welcomes a variety of scholarly perspectives but is (at present) focused on academic analysis rather than campaigning.
However Sophia phrased it, the sentiment sounded weaselly. She remained anxious until the response came back, thanking Sophia for the good news. Ali’s thanks contained a personal note that none of the other attendees had included: I really enjoyed your recent blog post for the National Portrait Gallery on alterations to Elizabeth I’s portraits.
It was probably just politeness. But when Sophia had to devise a seating plan for the conference dinner, she placed herself next to Ali.
This college, thought Ali, was such a mosh pit for egos.
The dinner hall was a perfect example. In principle it was communal, even egalitarian; three long tables, twenty scholars sitting down each side, and everyone eating the same meal. But the seating plan had been carefully designed: from bigwigs at the top end of each table, down to also-rans at the foot, seated by the door. Ali, very near the door indeed, knew her place and appreciated the draught on this hot summer evening. All the other attendees were swivelling their heads like owls, seething at their relative placements, trying to identify their fellow eaters. Ali could hear them hooting: And who is that person, who, who… The bench was probably made from the planks of a Napoleonic battleship. Stone walls blocked the WiFi. Even the food was antiquated and elitist, slices of meat with vegetables boiled to sludge.
Not ready to talk to the delegates on either side of her, Ali looked over her conference programme. All of the papers on today, the first day of the conference, had buttered up Queens’ College and traditional History. Even if they studied eras where the traditional approach was impossible, they gestured towards it as the ideal, accepting their inferior status.
The conference speakers had lauded Professor Geoff in particular. Ali was used to hearing him namechecked around Glasgow Uni as the bogeyman, the antithesis (show your sources! You need more evidence! You’re not Geoffrey bloody Manville!). Now there he was, up at the head of the table, digging into the mashed potato tureen. It was strange to see him suddenly as both more human, and more divine, as every speaker sung his praises.
And nearly all the papers referred to them.
She recalled the speakers at the very first panel. A beaky, white-haired Professor from Queens College had talked about his conversations with them. Political policy, and what they recalled of it. Parliamentary shouting matches, and what they’d shouted. Leaving the best until last, he told everyone what she had told him. The audience had gasped and fanned themselves, like a swooning crowd at a Grand Guignol theatre.
The whole notion was unheimlich. Of course, every child at school learned about the Queen and her courtiers. But that had been years ago, and for Ali, they were very much a children’s story, vivid and flimsy. She had forgotten most of what she’d learned about them. The waiting staff were delivering small glass dishes of dessert, starting at the top of the table and working their way down. Ali challenged herself to recall the courtiers’ names before she received her serving. Solid old Burghley, like a father to Queen and the realm. Walsingham the spymaster, slippery fish, speaking four languages. Lopez, the physician under suspicion of treason, stolen away from the gallows because the Queen never really doubted him. He’d been Ali’s favourite, as a child, for his dramatic escape story; when she’d returned to the period in secondary school, she’d learned that Lopez’s accusers were antisemitic, a horrible gloss on the tale. Hatton, the PR guy who organised the royal progresses. Dudley, the lover.
Dee wasn’t here, but he was involved, somehow. John Dee, sorcerer-fraud and promoter of Empire.
A small glass bowl was placed smoothly in front of Ali. She thanked the waiter, but he was already gone. Hardly anyone here thanked the waiters.
Ali knew nothing more critical or nuanced about the courtiers. And to be frank, the way they’d been described today refused nuance. It wasn’t History, it was hagiography. Thank Christ, Ali thought, that her own era wasn’t similarly afflicted. That Queen Victoria wasn’t preserved in aspic, somewhere, with Albert and Gladstone, to speak on demand.
Ali would certainly be editing her own paper, tonight, to make her case more forcefully. She’d rewrite it in words of fire, and tomorrow morning unleash mind-bombs on the unsuspecting front row.
Dessert was apparently just a bowl full of cream. Ali peered through the sides of the glass bowl and identified a layer of rum-wet sponge cake.
“Would you like some of this?”
Ali turned to see what was being offered. A bottle of strawberry squirty sauce, sticky-topped and sickly; it made her reel away a little. The woman offering it was young, black, radiating calm from her neat braids to her crisp teal blouse. Ali could have sworn she hadn’t been sitting there during the main course–she would have remembered. No taller than Ali, which was a rarity. Ali checked her name badge: Sophia Johnstone, the conference organiser, who’d sent Ali that prim slap-in-the-face email. Not how Ali had imagined her, but she wanted neither her condescension nor her strawberry sauce.
No campaigning,the email had warned. What did that even mean? Don’t turn up in a slogan T-shirt, throw smoke-grenades into the audience, shackle yourself to the college gates? There was no recognition, in that phrase, that doing History was itself a form of activism.
Sophia had clearly made a place for herself on these weird, uncomfortable benches. What did she have to put up with, to be here? Or was it all one big friendly club, if you worked with them?
“I’m looking forward to your paper, tomorrow,” said Sophia.
“Is it going to be—I mean, how are you pitching it?”
The email rebuke hadn’t been enough. Maybe Professor Geoff had told Sophia to sit here and squash Ali further.
Ali was about to give an angry answer, but felt something brush against her leg. Sophia was wearing a long full skirt, pushed out by petticoats, an oddly retro luxuriance. The cuffs of her blouse, Ali noticed, had an embroidered border of tiny fiery birds.
“Hard to say, really,” Ali said. “I’ve heard a lot of papers, today. I might have to revise mine this evening.”
“Really?” Sophia sounded disappointed. “I did want to include you as a contrast.” My God, she thought Ali had been won over by the other speakers, rather than riled up. “I mean, you shouldn’t be constrained, but…”
“You want to throw me to the wolves?”
Sophia smiled a small smile. “They’re not that wolfish.” She cheerfully ate a spoonful of her cream pudding. “Even the traditional approaches are changing. It used to be completely oral. Then we began to record the interviews, and now we’ve begun to digitise the transcripts.”
“Do you work with them, then?” Ali felt an itch of horrified curiosity. Had Sophia actually seen them, the undying court?
“I’m working on the 16th century, yes. Religious shifts, Catholicism. I’m a postdoc, so I work with recordings and send questions in through Professor Manville. I haven’t spoken to Them, myself, yet.”
Ali would have let it lie, if Sophia hadn’t frowned at that point. Maybe she’d only remembered some admin task: printing signage or buying extra biscuits. But maybe the cute crease between her brows meant something more significant.
Maybe she wanted to escape.
“Do you find yourself,” Ali asked, “Wanting to work on something more relevant?”
“Well, it’s relevant to me. I’m Catholic.”
“I meant something like migration, or…” Why research elite Elizabethans, for goodness’ sake? Why not something more useful?
“I understand the discussions.” Sophia returned her eyes to her pudding. “I know the worth of my work,” she said, with dignity.
Mortified, Ali realised that Sophia had probably been enduring enquiries from white academics all day: What’s your specialism? Is it black History? Why not? Ali thought she’d been on another path, but she’d ended up in the same appalling place. “Sorry. Yeah. So, um, tell me about your research.” The foundational, respectful invitation of academic conversation. An olive branch, extended.
“Robert Southwell. He was a poet, then a martyr. A Jesuit.”
“Mm. Right. Cool.”
“He came back to this country, under pain of death, to try to bring England over to Catholicism again. He hid in the houses of rich families…”
That stirred up Ali’s patchy Tudor knowledge. “In priestholes!”
“Yes! He was caught and kept in the Tower of London for three years.”
“What, was he tortured?” Sophia’s forehead creased up again, this time in distress, so Ali changed tack. “So what do you want to know? What’s next, with you and him?”
“If I serve my time, I may be able to ask some questions directly.”
“What, you might get to talk to him?”
Sophia actually laughed. That was good to hear. It suggested she wasn’t bearing a grudge. “He’s not one of Them! He’s dead. You don’t get to be a martyr without dying.”
“Oh. Yeah. But you could talk to someone who knew him…?”
“Some of them heard him read an address when the Queen visited Cambridge. I might be able to ask Them. Maybe even ask her.”
“It’s difficult, though. I’m working with Geoffrey about how to approach it, if I can even ask, because she liked Southwell, and then he basically committed treason, so we’d have to be very careful…”
“You can’t stay pissed off for four hundred years.”
“You said you. I think you meant I.” But Sophia’s mouth still curved in that small, amused smile.
“Are you speaking, at the conference?”
“No! I have far too much to organise.”
Ali felt a truce had been established. Sophia scraped her bowl. “Do you want my pudding?” Ali offered. Maybe that was too forward.
But Sophia definitely gave it thought. “I shouldn’t, I’ll only feel sick. And they’ll serve it here again, next week. Are you really going to rewrite your paper?” Sophia gathered her skirts, ready to stand.
“Maybe.” Through the dining room door, the outdoors smelled fresh and wonderful. A church bell tolled eight, and Ali wondered if a walk by the river would be a better choice than more scribbling. The small old courtyards of the college were picturesque but claustrophobic.
“You should come and have some coffee with me, first.”
It was said lightly, and Ali was genuinely uncertain whether she was being propositioned. She’d had a couple of fun hook-ups at conferences in the past, including a wild weekend at the Royal Historical Society Symposia. “Um. OK.”
No, surely Sophia was just being friendly. A Catholic, with demurely embroidered cuffs, wouldn’t pick up oiks for sex at conferences. Still, if they were to leave the dining hall together, Ali’s instinct was to be stealthy.
That stealth was foiled by a cry from the top end of the table, from Prof Geoff.
“Sophia! What time is it? Bloody hell, it’s gone eight!” Suddenly Geoff was fighting to escape the dining table, hauling one leg at a time over the bench. Cutlery jangled onto the stone floor. “Why did you let me stay so late?”
He strode up the dining hall towards them. He stepped around Ali, but he literally pushed Sophia aside. His mouth was open; he was drunk, or aghast. He ducked under the lintel of the dining room doorway and bolted out into the courtyard.
Sophia followed him, and Ali followed Sophia.
Outside, Prof Geoff was sprinting across the grass. His legs scissored at quite a pace, and his tweed jacket flashed its lining.
“What was that?” Ali asked Sophia.
“He’s on the rota to speak to Them. I think he lost track of time.” Previously assured, now her voice cracked with panic. “They’ll have been expecting him, They’ll be confused, They won’t know where he is…”
A wave of longing hit Ali. It ached and flowed, it dragged like lust but horrible. It pulled at Ali’s stomach, which tried to empty itself straight away. She swallowed frantically. A banal little sign at her eye level reminded her don’t walk on the grass, but she couldn’t walk at all, and she thought she might vomit. Her innards were trying to crawl, unassisted, towards the chapel.
“You can feel it?” Was Sophia affected? She was able to speak, which Ali couldn’t, but she held her round stomach with her hands. “Oh, it’s worse than usual. They must have been worried when Geoffrey didn’t arrive. Look, he’s there, now. It’ll be alright.’
Ali stiffly raised her head and saw Prof Geoff at the chapel door, turning the handle and slipping inside. Nothing changed. The drag continued, worsened, any attempt to concentrate made it worse. Ali thought don’t walk on the grass, don’t walk on the grass, and waited to pass out.
Then the drag washed away.
A blackbird trilled in the courtyard tree. Every one of Ali’s senses was raw. Her mouth and nose were filled with the thick scent of honey, probably from the flowers of a nearby bush. The ground was still rocking, the sky was purple, and in the aftermath of the pull, Ali was exhausted.
“I can’t be here,” she blurted out.
“Come with me,” said Sophia.
Sophia took Ali’s arm, a very stabilising sensation. She led Ali gently past the crowd of historians emerging from the dining hall. Ali concentrated on not vomiting on them. Then Sophia led her up a staircase and into a miniscule study, maybe ten feet by six, where Ali gratefully sunk into a window seat.
Sophia watched her with care, but without dismay or confusion.
When Ali could speak, she asked: “Does this happen often?”
“Not often. They say that if you can feel it, you’re a Historian.’
“It’s silly, but…” Sophia shrugged. “Every college has traditions.”
Ali didn’t feel like a Historian. She felt like a ball-bearing, rolling wildly on a tilting surface.
Ali looked out through the leaded glass of the office window. Down below in the courtyard, her fellow delegates had left dinner and were milling around, many of them looking green around the gills.
Sophia sighed. “I should help people.” She placed a glass on the seat next to Ali. Ali sipped it and was surprised to find her throat burning—it was brandy. “If you wait here, I’ll only be a few minutes.”
Ali watched the scene from above: Sophia emerging into the crowd, taking charge, making an announcement that Ali couldn’t hear. Pointing and miming to patiently give individual delegates directions, probably to their rooms or to the pub. Listening to the distressed. Then moving alongside those who were standing very still, facing the chapel, the lodestone of that terrible pull.
It had been so appalling, but Sophia clearly found it commonplace and was working to tidy it up.
Ali turned away from the window, drank the brandy, then stood. Sophia had dispersed most of the delegates, and Ali didn’t want to see her when she returned. She also didn’t want to lock Sophia out of her own office by accident, so she used a stack of the familiar grey-covered English Historical Review to prop open the door.
Ali scurried round the edge of the courtyard, avoiding Sophia and the remaining delegates. She ducked into the adjoining quad, which was even more chocolate-box pretty, with cloisters running along the sides.
“Hey. Hey!” Someone was calling to her and she automatically ignored it. Then she remembered that this was a scholarly institution, not a Glasgow street. She nodded to acknowledge the young man, who loomed tall in the gloom.
“Ali Wishaw, right? We’re on a panel together! Tomorrow morning!” His accent was American, perhaps New York. “I’m Joel.”
“Oh! Right. Hi.”
“You want to walk?” He fell into step beside her. Ali could see a way out of the quad ahead of her, an archway, and she headed towards it, hoping to escape the college for a while. Joel spoke more softly. “You felt that, didn’t you? The pull.”
“Don’t remind me.”
‘They say it’s awe.” He radiated too much energy for Ali, exhausted, to deal with. She tried to see his face to determine if his intensity came from glee or from malice. “I asked one of the Queens’ College historians. He said that’s what the study of history’s based on: just awe at how small we are, and how old everything is. And it makes you want to puke. What do you reckon?”
This wasn’t Glasgow, but Ali’s street-smarts were still in operation. She noticed that Joel was daring her to disagree with a high-status man who she’d never met. He’d probably report what she said to the other historian, too: Hey, Ali Wishaw reckons your traditions are creepy trash. A real hold-your-coat merchant, Joel was. Ali did have an opinion: that feeling, that hideous traction, wasn’t awe. Or if it was awe, that wasn’t the essence of History. History wasn’t about being gobsmacked by longevity. But Ali didn’t need to share her thoughts with Joel. “Hmm. Interesting.”
“Stuck up, genuflecting elitists,” said Joel. “All of them. How can you study history when you don’t like ninety-nine percent of people?”
This struck Ali as odd, because as far as she remembered, the tall American’s paper was all about one English historian. “But you’re talking about Geoffrey Manville, tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“I am indeed. It’ll be delightful.”
Walking through the archway, Ali prayed that she wouldn’t enter another courtyard. Thankfully, she found herself on the bank of a river facing a small bridge made of cannily angled wooden beams. Floodlit, the structure seemed web-like and not sturdy. Ali stopped to breathe.
“Not coming into town?” asked Joel.
Escaping the college was tempting, but not with him for company. “I need to go to my room. Edit my paper.”
Joel gave a small bow and strode off across the bridge, waving as he went. “Get some sleep, eh? You’ll want to be wide awake for the panel!”
By the time Sophia had reassured the final confused delegate, Geoffrey had come out from the chapel. He looked as flustered as when he entered, pink in the face and brushing off Sophia’s questions about tomorrow’s keynote.
By the time he marched away, the light had died in the courtyard.
Sophia hurried up the stairs to her office, but found Ali gone. She felt a disproportionate sadness. A line of Southwell’s sang in her head: Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow. Was she heated? Was her heart aglow? That would be premature and inconvenient.
She looked over her notes and assessed the triumphs and hitches of the conference so far. Her head hurt from a day of shifting between scholarly exegesis and topping up the water jugs.
Her work concluded, her walk home begun, she let herself wonder as she passed the chapel: were They sleeping? Had They been angry at Geoffrey for his lateness? Punctuality, after all, was the politeness of princes (although that was attributed to Louis XVIII, long after Their time). It wasn’t the first time he’d been late. Would they ever reject Geoffrey for his carelessness, would he have to step aside? Surely They wouldn’t hurt him…
And being self-aware, she could identify when she was disguising a fantasy as a concern, and walked faster, and turned her mind to other things.
She is unused to contradiction. Geoffrey, tonight, arrived late—late! In a fog of wine. Unworthy to her reputation. And then after a brief exchange, he left her disappointed. His rejection is bitter, like herbs for physic, and she chews on it in the dark.
Why is Geoffrey, her favourite, failing her?
She recalls another of her old aphorisms: to wear a Crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it. She finds herself wondering: is she still glorious to see? Perhaps Geoffrey cannot bear her.
Her clothes, at least, remain radiant. She is cloaked in brocade and embroidery. They used to leave dresses for her, but after a century, she could not fit them over her limbs, nor could her hands work the fastenings. Her ladies in waiting are long gone; Dee could not preserve Catherine Carey or Lady Knollys. So instead, she asked for cloaks, which she could draw on over her bulging back. Fine craftsmanship, from what she can make out, silk floss wild roses and cloth-of-gold glinting. She touches her tongue to the sharp metal spangles. She imagines they might be iridescent, like beetle wings, and this pleases her.
But fine cloaks are not sufficient to hide the changes Dee has wrought, building over centuries. These are her true garments. They are a cerement. They are a carapace.
She has never seen herself clearly, not since her retirement to this place. No mirrors in the chapel, and little light. Her courtiers, who might function as a mirror to her condition, slide and scuttle in the dimness. But they are not Princes. A Prince may change differently from her subjects. Her body was once one and the same with England’s body. Dethroned, she has diverged.
Her body has expanded in places, in places contracted to pointedness. She felt, rather than saw, when her hands sharpened. She had, in her first confinement, played the virginals to pass the time. That became impossible, and she found she scratched her face whenever she touched it. But then her skin had thickened to protect her from carelessness.
Of late, her back has seemed to extend outwards. She cannot reach to feel it, but when she shifts her bones, they are part of a greater new structure: her ribs arch out like the chapel’s rafters, her shoulder-blades flex like a ship’s rigging. She cannot lie on her back to sleep, and gradually she has ceased sleeping.
This form she now has, she fears, shapes her thoughts, too. They swell in places, and in others sharpen to a spike.
Perhaps these changes lie behind Geoffrey’s reticence, this evening. When she told him that her remaining courtiers sickened, he was all concern. Then she offered him the greatest prize, to replace them and stand by her side in twilight perpetuity. She offered to call for Dee and prevail upon him to work the change.
The Queen curses her own weak vanity. In the college chapel where nobody comes, except select historians, she whispers: Dee, what have you done to us? What have you made from me?
Across the continent, she feels him turn his attention her way.
She summons him: my philosopher, come back to me.
Ali looked out at several empty rows of chairs. The 9am panel had attracted only a handful of sleepy attendants. Were these the indifferent ears who would receive Ali’s bombastic call to arms?
She had re-written her paper while tipsy on brandy, fighting remnants of nausea. Righteous ire had flowed from her fingertips, rage at the discipline of History as a weird sect, even a form of brainwashing! She had jettisoned big chunks of reasonable text, stuck together the remaining pieces with the glue of invective.
Now she was about to deliver the paper with her fury ebbed, her sickness redoubled, and a brandy hangover kicking in. Was she really about to castigate a bunch of people she’d only just met? She knew enough to know she didn’t understand this place, these people. What she’d perceived last night as a secret society could just be ordinary backslapping. And these people might be able to give her a job, or withhold one. She had submitted thirty-two job applications, so far, while making ends meet by shelf-stacking in the University library. None had called her to interview.
She caught sight of Sophia, replenishing a stack of programmes, and felt glum for a different reason. An attractive woman had invited her to coffee, last night, and Ali had run away.
“Man, I was hoping you’d be a draw.” Her co-panellist interrupted her reverie. It was the American, even taller than he’d looked last night. He had fashionable heavy spectacle frames and a phenomenal jaw. “A crowd-puller.”
Ali pretended to count up the audience. “Well, everyone I can see has come to hear me.”
“Ha! Sucks to be me, then.”
Prof Geoff was in the front row, relaxing at a slant across two chairs. At ease and in control again, recovered from his embarrassing dash out of the dining room last night. An American prof seemed to be him asking a favour: he was leaning towards Geoff, imploring, repeating amazing, fantastic, while Geoff was clearly delighted and stringing him along with hand gestures and small smiles: What, me? Too kind! Say more…
“That’s Stanford,” murmured Joel, proud of his gossip. “That guy’s come here to poach Manville, you’ll see.”
Ali had more immediate concerns about Geoff. She’d mentioned him in passing in her first draft, then beefed up her critique during her late-night re-write. That seemed rash, now that he was seated ten feet away. She turned to a late page and struck out a couple of paragraphs with a biro.
‘Having a change of heart?” whispered the American.
Thankfully, the panel chair clapped her hands and warbled a welcome for the early risers. And a warmer welcome to the panellists. Ali Wishaw, independent scholar, take it away!
Ali looked down at her paper and saw it as an unheimlich mishmash: whole pages of high-minded, splashes of ridicule, an incoherent rallying cry. Littered with scholarly references like tank traps in case anyone thought she wasn’t up to the job. It was a shambles, but it was all that she had, and she ploughed into it.
“I want in this paper to contrast two ways of ‘doing History’…”
The opening half of the paper was solid enough. First, Ali conjured a picture of a group of historians labouring away in archives. They were using archives she knew, in Glasgow University library. She tried to keep her tone studied and neutral. “These historians always underpin their discussion with a description of the sources they draw on, and their limitations.”
As they should, because what else is history but the scrupulous consideration of the value, and the limitations, of sources? She’d added that rhetorical question, a bit of bravado, last night. She hopped over it this morning. Like a kebab, it had been more appealing when she’d been drunk.
Then Ali moved on to boggier ground. “Another group of historians have been working on the same time period, using direct discussion with historical figures.”
Them. Historians spoke to them, the hidden Queen and her men who lived in a bricked-up building, less than two hundred yards from this room. “Historical figures” was just a euphemism. Other speakers had used a more unctuous note when talking about them, but Ali heard her voice grow indignant.
“If we treat these two sources as equivalent…” Which they aren’t, but let’s be polite. “Then one might expect the two sources to receive a similar treatment.” She coughed. “They do not receive similar treatment.” This was it, this was the nub of her argument. If they were historical sources, why not treat them like any other source? “The traditional sources are not equally interrogated.”
Ali’s brain stuttered on that single word: interrogated. It was a perfectly ordinary phrase, a cliché in the study of history: interrogate your sources. But for traditionalists, the sourceswere real human people, and you shouldn’t interrogate people. She thought of the poet Southwell, in the Tower of London, put to the question. Did the historians who visited the courtiers threaten them? Why else would the courtiers even answer their tedious enquiries about sumptuary laws or taxes? Were they forced to talk?
Ali caught her attention drifting and fastened it to her notes. ‘Interrogate’ reared up again in the next paragraph, but she managed to say ‘evaluate’, instead.
“The historians working with historical figures, rather than archives, did not contextualise the statements, or evaluate their limitations. Statements from direct historical figures are treated in a way unlike other historical sources—their veracity is rarely questioned, even though (as Smith’s disagreement with Wyatt in 1994 showed) they can contradict one another.”
Can contradict. Often contradict. She’d gone back and forth on that one. It wasn’t her era, she was a long way from home.
Ali risked a quick look up from her notes. Prof Geoff was studying his phone, the nonchalant bastard. Sophia had taken a seat, and gave Ali a nod of encouragement when their eyes met. Sophia’s presence was an extra pressure on Ali’s lungs.
Well, you can’t keep quiet about something because speaking up will make someone sad. This critique wasn’t just Ali’s opinion; everybody was thinking it, up in Glasgow, at least. Every student pub was full of it, whenever they had a traditional historian as a visiting speaker: what was all that stuff for? Why are they so deferential? It was like they just wrote down whatever they heard, they didn’t analyse it at all! And often, and incredulously: Do they call that History?
Most other communities—the whole of American academia, in particular—conducted History on very different lines. But those communities were content to head off in other directions, found new journals, and let Queens’ College and its lineage die on the vine. The new historians wrote rousing manifestos for new methodologies, but they never drew comparisons to the English approach. They didn’t spare it a backward glance.
Nobody set the two traditions against one another, not bluntly. That had been left to Ali: newly qualified, “independent scholar” (unemployed amateur) Ali. Nobody else said: why does this persist, like an obscure hobby, like tapestry or topiary? Why does it have so much funding and prestige?
Ali noticed that she’d clenched her toes.
The final section approached, the one most heavily edited as the fumes of brandy had lingered. “I wish to use this paper to call for…”
What should she call for? Last night, she’d wanted an end to the praise of dead history. To stop taking the word of them as Gospel, to stop listening to them at all. Resisting that sickly pull. Close down this whole bloody College. And the University of Pécs in Hungary, where one of the Habsburgs was mured up, and the Jagiellonian University in Poland where Countess Báthory still resided—all the places where Dee had travelled, bestowing his terrible gift. But surely none of those universities were quite so single-minded, so insufferable, as Queens’ College.
Now horrified curiosity had replaced last night’s rage. Ali wanted to interrogate so many things and people. To ask Sophia: what the hell are you doing here? What makes you stay close to them? Is it that pull in the guts? To ask Prof Geoff: why was panic on your face, when you ran out of the dining room, when you’re usually so smug? What would they do to you, if you stood them up?
Ali wanted everyone in the room to ask one other: why are we taking this so calmly, and what the hell is going on?
Ali cleared her throat for her final sentence. “I wish to use this paper to suggest an exchange between the two approaches to the study of History, which might bridge the gap and enrich both of them.”
Ending not with a battle cry, but with a whimper.
“I’m happy to answer any questions,” Ali said, and wasn’t. The grudging applause barely covered the sound of people grumbling.
The American panellist, laying out his papers in front of him, leaned a little towards her and murmured: “You can’t imply she’s dead. The Queen. The historians here hate that.”
Ali stared at her notes as her mind raced. Had she said that? “I didn’t!”
Her co-panellist reached over and circled a phrase on the penultimate page of her printout: living people. Ali had contrasted “living people” to “historical figures”, meaning the Queen and courtiers.
What a low-key screw-up. How should she have referred to them? Were they properly alive? If the historians wouldn’t tell anyone how it worked, what they were, wasn’t it understandable if people jumped to morbid conclusions?
By the time she came out of her panic, the American was introducing himself as Joel, from the University of Columbia, and beginning his paper.
Every sentence of Joel’s paper rang out as though he was cracking his knuckles, rolling up his sleeves. “I’m referring, of course, to the work of the eminent Professor Geoffrey Manville: if not a founder of the field, then certainly the current carrier of the flame.”
It made Ali reckon she should have put a bit more theatricality into her own presentation. No, maybe it was a bit too pantomime.
“I wish to grapple with Professor Manville’s latest book, a thrilling defense of Elizabethan England’s international policy, with input from the man of the hour: Francis Walsingham!’
Ali looked out to see if the delegates were entertained. It was certainly waking people up. Geoff had stretched out his legs, delighted to have someone energetically eulogise him. Sophia turned to a fresh page of her notebook.
“I want to pick up on my fellow panellist Wishaw’s argument…”
Ali had never previously heard herself referred to by surname, like a proper academic. Thrilling, but also felt weird to be de-personalised, to become just a point on a map of a discussion. And it didn’t mean that Joel was going to agree with her. He might be about to lambast her for inaccuracies.
“…her argument about the contradictions in the sources. If you set Professor Geoffrey’s discoveries against the written records of the period, several conflicts are suggested.”
That set off an alarm. He was using the passive voice! Never use the passive voice. Conflicts are suggested: well, who suggests them? Joel, the tall American, suggests them, but he’s already holding his own conclusions at arm’s length. These old things? Not mine! Prof Geoff was listening with his eyes half closed, benevolent and unconcerned.
“I was lucky that my University acquired a number of letters,” continued Joel, “between the minor noble William Chernock and his wife, which function as a kind of diary for the period in question. These were categorised early in the 19th century as domestic records and of no political interest, so they have not previously been analysed by any historian of the period.”
A pristine archive? That was cool. Although Ali had no idea how common it might be to turn up a load of moth-eaten Tudor postcards.
Geoff straightened in his seat.
All delegates’ eyes were on Joel, now. “Chernock was also an enthusiastic correspondent with several other nobles, whose letters he sent to his wife for safe-keeping. The first half of this paper will outline differences between these contemporaneous records, and information gathered from Walsingham by Professor Manville. These are only a few of many. I’ll keep it brief, and just draw out a few of the worst exaggerations, underestimates and misreadings.”
One delegate twisted in her seat, better to see Prof Geoff react. The woman next to her tutted, to discourage it. You can’t watch a man being called a bad Historian. It was a discipline where people rarely even called one another “mistaken’. It was almost unheard of to say: this professor is deluded, or a fraud, or a liar… Ali shifted her gaze away from Geoff. Then she saw Sophia, hand resting on her chest, as though stilling her heart. The crease between her eyebrows had reappeared. That was even harder for Ali to look at. She turned to watch Joel, instead.
“This paper will suggest that the source of Professor Manville’s historical insights may have reached a point of diminishing returns. With their means of preservation still largely a mystery, it may be impossible to say for how long these historical personages can retain their utility.”
An actual gasp from delegates, at that. Joel was implying the Queen was over the hill.
“The second half of the paper…”
Jesus, thought Ali, wasn’t destroying Prof Geoff enough?
“…looks at the implications of this disjunction for the entire English approach to History, as my colleague has called it.”
Now he was keeping his language scrupulously neutral, when he could have said: I’m going to slice you people to bits, and make you applaud it! That was what Ali had wanted to do, last night, and she’d lost her nerve this morning, but now this big lad with splendid jaw was going to do it for her. He was pushing an iceberg into the path of the Titanic. “I’d like to thank my co-panellist who has started to explore these issues,” he acknowledged with a nod to Ali. No problem, mate, any time.
Of course, this was just pyrotechnics in a closed room. Joel wouldn’t risk trying to publish his ideas in an academic journal.
“Oh, and I do welcome questions,” Joel remarked. “Because I’ll be revising my paper this week and making it available on my blog…”
Goosebumps crept across Ali’s skin and she tried to keep herself from grinning. This was amazing.
Professor Geoffrey Manville kept his place all the way to the end of the paper, but bolted like a rabbit during the muted applause. He had to pass Sophia to get out of the room. It was the second time in two days that he’d pushed past her, face blank with panic. Her own face was burning from sympathetic embarrassment.
Sophia followed Geoffrey. She had to. She wanted to leave him to lick his wounds, but he was due to make a short address before dinner, and if he was too angry, she’d need to find another speaker. And tomorrow he’d be delivering the keynote! Surely he’d have recovered his composure by then. She knew she could catch him just before he called into the chapel, at ten, for his morning visit to Them.
As she paced down corridors and under arches, Sophia berated herself for not realising that the American’s paper had been a Trojan horse. She should have looked at his blog, and discovered that he was an iconoclast. It had been so frustrating to be in the audience, knowing that the paper must be full of distortions and inaccuracies, but unable to debunk any of them. Sophia was looking grimly forward to the corrections Joel would have to publish, and his inevitable climb-down. The idiotic man.
It was ridiculous that Geoffrey had been so wary of Ali’s paper when, in the end, Ali’s work had been restrained, even rather touching. Ali had wanted to bring some of the tools from her kind of history over into the Sophia’s kind. You could see it as a sort of clumsy gift. None of her arguments had been destructive, or wrong-headed…
The bells of Great St Mary rang out. Sophia had left it too late to speak with Geoffrey, it was already ten—past time for Geoffrey’s appointment with Them. And as she reached Walnut Tree Courtyard, she saw him on the lawn. It was odd that he wasn’t carrying any yellow papers, or his bag. It was odd that he was standing, motionless.
A wave of yearning poured out of the chapel, sweeping over Sophia. Geoffrey remained still, only swaying a little. He was listening to that pull in a way that he would never listen to her, completely attentive. But still, he didn’t enter the chapel.
Sophia thought for the first time: what if all the American’s arguments were true?
Sophia’s call broke the spell, catching Geoffrey’s attention. “Ah! Sophia! Hello. I can’t…”
He shouldn’t shout his business around the college. Sophia hurried closer and lowered her voice. “Geoffrey, are you alright?”
“Oh, can’t go in. Can’t do the thing she wants, can’t do it.” He was muttering.
“You need to go in.”
“It’s not forever! Just for a while, just until… In fact, what an opportunity for you.” He perked up and flung out one arm, like a waiter. “You go, Sophia, you go in.”
She found herself turning to face the chapel. The pull was strong, and she was used to following Geoffrey’s commands. “No! I don’t have any questions ready. I’ve never been in there.”
“You’ll be fine! You’re very clever.”
Sophia tried to say: I wasn’t looking for reassurance. I was refusing.
But Geoffrey was already walking away. At first, he leaned at an angle, struggling as though pushing into the wind. The further from the chapel he got, the more freely he moved, until he strode out of the courtyard. Into Cloister Court, towards the river, towards the boundary of the college.
Sophia watched Geoffrey for far too long, frozen in disbelief, until he passed under a stone archway and was lost to her sight. He wasn’t coming back. Pain swelled in her chest, an unbearable musical note.
Sophia knew what she had to do: contact one of the other faculty, one of the other men on the rota, to ask them to deputise for Geoffrey. Any of them could do it. But they would all be at the conference, and she could hardly move.
The need intensified, pulling at Sophia’s diaphragm, stretching it like hot toffee.
In Geoffrey’s stead, she staggered to the chapel.
No time to relish what she had often imagined: turning the iron ring handle, opening the creaking door. A sudden smell of honey rushed out, so thick she turned her head aside, then breathed through her mouth to avoid it.
Sophia stood inside a tent of black cloth, an antechamber inside the door. Could she leave the door open, in case those who resided inside were angry?
A voice behind her. Turning back, her eyes already dark-adapted, she winced to see Ali haloed in the doorway.
“What’s happening? I saw Geoff run off. Is he OK?”
“I don’t know!” Sophia whispered. “That’s not important now. I need to visit Them. They were expecting Geoffrey, but…” She realised that the sense of longing had diminished. They had heard the door open, they knew someone was coming to attend them.
“Wow. What are you going to do?”
Sophia had no idea. She only intended to calm them, but how? She had no plans. She hadn’t chosen to come here. She’d been summoned.
She couldn’t leave the chapel door open for delegates to see and wonder about. She beckoned Ali inside the chapel and shut the door.
“Is it alright for me to be here?” Ali asked, less cocky than usual.
“They’re already disturbed. There’s a rota, a routine. I’m not part of it. You can leave, if you like.”
“Oh, no! I’m staying.”
Struggling gently with the heavy curtains, finding the gaps, Sophia pushed through into a space of arched darkness.
She’d thought the chapel would be divided up with walls, or even wood stalls. She’d thought They would have privacy in their community, like monks in their cells. But the chapel, as far as she could see, was one vast space.
“What’s that smell?” whispered Ali.
“Honey? Or blossom?”
“It’s more like cat’s piss.”
Enough light came in from tiny slits in the roof to see the boldest shapes and tones. The floor tiles, for instance, had a pattern of black and white diamonds. Something broke the pattern—something lying on the floor, broken. What was down there?
The sound of clicking, in the shadows. They were keeping their distance.
A voice came, a gruff woman’s voice. Sophia recognised it from the recordings she’d studied.
“He requires your aid,” the voice commanded.
Ali was ahead of Sophia, kneeling on the floor by the fallen man. “He’s—oh, God.” She sprung to her feet again. Sophia tried to touch her, to keep her still and to reassure her. Ali yanked herself away.
“I touched his neck, I tried to find a pulse, it’s…”
The woman’s voice came again. “Move him to his bed.”
The recordings never captured the rasp of her voice, the fear it engendered to hear a large creature growl.
Sophia could see more and more of the space, shapes in shades of cocoa. Four beds on either side of the nave, like a dormitory. Most were empty, one other had a lumpy occupant. The nearest bed was too far, they shouldn’t drag an injured man that distance.
“We can do that,” Ali called out.
“Can we do it?” whispered Sophia.
“It’s horrible. But he’s not heavy.” Ali knelt down again.
Sophia joined her in crouching and patted the man to find his torso, then his arm, and a junction for leverage. His jacket was stiff with embroidery. Sophia wasn’t strong, but she got a grip and hauled, and so did Ali.
The man rose at their touch, lighter than he should have been. The two women dragged the man up between them and hauled him to the bed, legs dangling like a marionette. His collar brushed against Sophia’s arm. It felt curved and sticky, like the outer layer of a horse chestnut bud. He moaned and Sophia flinched, but she was holding him too firmly to drop him.
They laid him onto the bed. His lightness, limpness and thickly ornamented coat made it less like assisting a man and more as though they were spreading out an embroidered coverlet.
“We thank you,” said the Queen. Other tongues rattled their gratitude in the shadows.
Sophia let go, stepped away. She gulped in the sickly air and looked for the Queen. She had to be standing further in, in the nave of the chapel. There was a figure there, but it was hard to make her out. Cloaked, certainly. Hooded, perhaps. Stiff drapery distorted her silhouette, made it look like she was wearing a cumbersome backpack. And—apart from this fallen man—it was impossible to see her courtiers. Were they frightened of the newcomers, or repulsed by their friend’s incapacity? Did he have some contagious disease? Plague, Sophia thought, and her skin prickled with imagined fleas. No, that was impossible.
“Does he need a doctor?” Ali whispered. But would a normal doctor know what to do? And Lopez was a doctor–couldn’t he help?
“We need wine and meat,” the Queen snapped. “One of the scholars must bring some.” They never normally ate, Sophia was sure. Why would they need food, now?
“Professor Manville can do that, this evening,” Sophia said.
“Manville is a recreant who disdains my favour. He is unworthy of the honour I have shown him.” It was a remorseless judgment. “You may leave.”
It would be disrespectful to turn her back on the woman. And she didn’t trust the others. Sophia stepped backwards without turning. Her thin soles told her the floor tiles were uneven, and she risked only small steps, one foot almost touching the other.
She didn’t curtsy.
She reached out to find Ali, to tug her sleeve and tell her that they should leave. But Ali had already gone.
As soon as Sophia emerged blinking into the sunlit courtyard, a shadow fell across her. Around her crowded the senior faculty, a wall of sombre suits. When Sophia managed to open her eyes, she identified three Readers, a Chair, and a couple of Emeritus Professors.
They muttered—at last and come on, then—and Sophia found herself hustled up a staircase and into Geoffrey’s office.
As soon as the door closed behind them, the questions began. “What were you doing in there?” barked an Emeritus. “You’re not on the rota, surely!”
“Where’s Geoffrey gone? Did he send you in there?”
“Did you hear that paper? Did you invite that awful American?”
Coming so soon after the murmurs of the chapel, their demands jabbed at Sophia. She tried to back away from the men, but there was a chair immediately behind her, so she could only retreat by sitting down. She collapsed into its arms. The chair felt uncomfortable, firm leather and knobbly buttons. It was Geoffrey’s armchair. It tilted under her.
“Give her air!” cried a Professor, and she heard a whooshing sound: someone had flung open a sash window.
The interrogation paused. Sophia’s collapse had subdued the academics’ rage. The men settled on stools and perched on desks, like a murder of crows.
Sophia stared round the room, making sure she had identified them all. She saw them, normally, in committee meetings and corridors, where they were collegial to one another and frosty to her (the humble postdoc). They’d never attempted an informal conversation with her. Seeing them so agitated, even distressed, was the most human they had appeared for years.
The Professor who’d called for air, an immensely tall and hawklike man, pinched the bridge of his nose, and continued more calmly. “We need to locate Geoffrey, first and foremost. Do you know where he is?” Polite, but the way you’d speak to a frightened child, rather than to a colleague. A particular insult, as this office was where Sophia and Geoffrey talked about their work, for hours each week (although mostly Geoffrey talked, mostly about Geoffrey’s work).
Sophia shook her head.
“Running off in the middle of the conference looks like an admission of guilt.”
Sophia wasn’t sure if the Professor was applying pressure to her, or thinking aloud. “I honestly don’t know.”
‘We need him. Everyone’s at lunch, at the moment, but there’ll be questions if he’s not here soon.”
“Do we really need him?” piped up a Reader, impish and curly-haired, leaning on a desk’s edge.
“Of course! It’s not just him, under attack. It’s the College’s reputation.” A general showed approval. A consensus began to emerge: Geoffrey should give a robust defence in his keynote, they should all read his notes in advance to check for any more trouble…
“Hmm. Perhaps.” The impish Reader became even more arch. “You know he’s been flirting with overseas universities for a while, now, telling them I couldn’t possibly, how much could you pay me? Perhaps he’s better off skipping the country.”
Sophia suspected that the panic of the Professors was the only reason she was being allowed to listen in on this gossip. She felt she should raise her hand to ask to speak. She tucked her hand under her thigh and spoke anyway. “Is it true?” The wrong question for a pack of historians. “I mean—is there evidence to support what the American claimed? Are there actually that many inaccuracies in Geoffrey’s work?”
The impish Reader nodded with relish. “Oh, yes. The Yank has put scans of the documents on his blog. Geoffrey’s been careless.” A scandal, his tone suggested, but perhaps an opportunity for another middle-aged man to step up, maybe even himself. Would the faculty fall into seething competition? A fragment of disputed Shakespeare popped into Sophia’s mind: And other ruffians would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes feed on one another.
“Or perhaps it’s not Geoffrey’s fault,” said the hawk-like Professor. “Perhaps it’s part of a larger decline.” He turned to Sophia again, less accusatory, more curious. “What was happening in the chapel? Did your audience with her proceed as normal? Were there any signs of confusion?”
How much to say? The Professor seemed to be hinting that They were losing Their memory. Should she speak of the sick courtier? How would these scholars react? She should ask for help, for him, at least. That was only fair. “One of Them isn’t well.”
The chair snapped his fingers. “Did you see which one? It’s not—not her?’
“Not her. A courtier. Black hair, I think?”
Several of them nodded, pained but less surprised than Sophia had expected. “Grim,” one of them murmured. “This will be as grim as last time.”
“Has this happened before?” asked Sophia.
The tall Professor appeared to make a quick decision. “Well, yes. Lopez has been dead for a year.”
Lopez was dead. Sophia felt astonishment, grief for someone she had never met who was supposed to never die. Then could the others die, too?
The other men let out grunts and tuts. Sophia wasn’t an insider and shouldn’t have been told.
One of the other academics picked up the refrain. “If it’s Walsingham—don’t you see, that would clear Geoffrey? All the major mistakes were related to Walsingham’s accounts. Walsingham could have been suffering from a disturbed mind, deteriorating with illness! I mean, we’d have to frame it carefully…”
Before the conversation could continue on that tangent, Sophia interrupted. “Can we get a doctor for him?” Had they called a doctor for Lopez?
The impish Chair said, less flippantly than before: “She won’t let anyone treat them. I’m surprised she let you see him!”
“She asked for food.” Sophia remembered it as she spoke. “Wine, and meat.”
The men continued talking over her. “Where’s Dee when you need him?” one of them remarked, as though Dee was the photocopy repair person, not an Elizabethan magician.
“When was he last here?”
“1943. Heading for Berlin…”
“We don’t know he survived the war.”
“Or which side he was on!”
“Oh, surely not…”
The Professor leaned in again, speaking lower. “She let you help. You’re acceptable to her. You can go this evening, when Geoffrey would have gone.”
Sophia was back on the rota.
“One of these people can show you the process. You must try to find out who it is, the sick man.”
“May I take food?”
He shook his head. “Too risky.”
“But she asked…”
“She’s never asked for it before.”
To face her empty-handed was a terrifying prospect. But then Sophia felt a more familiar tug of anxiety, so mundane it was almost soothing: conference admin. If Geoffrey didn’t return, someone would have to give the pre-dinner address. Here were all the likely candidates, the senior staff. Her eyes rested on each of them, squabbling and gesticulating, and she tried to picture them greeting the delegates graciously from the top end of the dining room.
The Professor clapped his hands abruptly to signal an end to the gathering. The historians trooped out of the room, down the stairs en mass, heading for the afternoon conference session.
The impish Reader fell into step beside Sophia. “I can tell you about the procedures, if you like? I’ve got a little list. I’ll send it to you.” He still sounded sly, but he was now seeing some advantage in assisting Sophia. “And Geoffrey’s kit is in the sport bag by the door: the notebooks, and the voice recorder, and the kneeler cushion.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Chin up! This is quite the opportunity, you know. And if Geoffrey’s out, you’ll need to make yourself popular.”
What could this vexatious man know about Geoffrey? Sophia focused instead on the sight of the flock of professors spreading across the quad. She remembered Geoffrey’s complaints about the conference, the visitors disturbing the residents. “Is the courtier sick because of the conference?”
“I doubt it. They’ve been unwell for some time. You’re not blaming that paper by the American, are you?”
Sophia was uncertain. There were strange strong connections between the college and the chapel, a deep dependency. And now there was a disharmony.
The Reader, getting no reply, continued. “They’re not fairies. They don’t need us to believe in them.”
It was intended as an insult, but instead it made Sophia recall: Elizabeth had been a fairy in the eyes of the poet Edmund Spencer. Not a flimsy winged thing, but an enchanting and inspiring leader: that greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond…
They’d crossed the quad and reached the other side. Sophia declined to take the door when he held it for her, lingering in the open air.
Where was Geoffrey? And what did it mean, if he was missing? For years, his presence had been a promise to her, that she’d succeed at the college and get onto the rota. Now, she suddenly had more opportunity than ever before purely because of his absence. Two visits in one day!
Southwell knew all about reversals of fortune. The lopped tree in time may grow again, most naked plants renew both fruit and flower. But who was the lopped tree, herself or Geoffrey? Times go by turns.
Sophia decided she would give the pre-dinner address herself.
Geoffrey is late. As fiercely as she inveighed against him earlier, she still expected his visit, this evening. What delays him? She stands by Walsingham’s bed and pores over the possibilities. Geoffrey is fickle, Geoffrey is unwell, Geoffrey is dead.
Walsingham stirs, moans, crackles on the bed.
Geoffrey is fickle. That is the least likely. He has promised fidelity and that is easy, but more deeply than his vows, she has trusted his need. He needs her words, coaxes her to the point of impudence, begs her for another sentence, another recollection. Tell me the price of wool, tell me about trade with the Netherlands. Hunger in his voice. Surely with so much need, she has his loyalty?
But when she offered him a higher status, he bowed very low and left very quickly.
Perhaps Geoffrey is unwell, then. But a substitute scribe should have been appointed to take care of his visits. Another of the grey-faced men who preceded Geoffrey and are occasionally interspersed with him.
Walsingham grunts. He smells cloyingly sweet and is not whole. She draws away a little. An unfamiliar scourge worries at her insides: hunger.
How small the two scribes had been, who had scrabbled around Walsingham’s body today. How startled, and how young. Neither had been carrying the usual bag of tools. Is it likely that the college had sent girl children to serve her? Or had no preparation been made, at all? Oh, that was humbling. She feels the neglect as she no longer feels the cold. This is worse than Geoffrey’s absence: this suggests a collapse of the whole order.
Walsingham twitches on the bed, rears up as though he might choke from a bone lodged in his throat. She pushes at him with her arm-joints to nudge him onto his side, which calms him. Why is she doing the work of a nurse?
She senses a glistening in the air, a buzzing at her ear, and knows why Walsingham is writhing: Dee has come.
Something, if not a voice, whispers: “Most gracious lady.”
He calls her sovereign no more at her own request.
Before she turns, she pictures him as the slight and solemn man who would kiss her hand and advise her for hours. She must use her memories to address him as a man; there is now not enough remaining of him to speak in a casual fashion.
“My philosopher, welcome,” she says, as she turns.
He stands, or abides, at the apse of the chapel. He is all movement, his matter now as restless as his intellect, forming and reforming. He is a column of smoke, or a spiral of sand; if the windows of the chapel were suddenly unbricked, the light would pass through him and he would cast no shadow. He is all shadow.
Discorporate, he nevertheless speaks, or makes his thoughts known to her. “God keep you from all evil and encumbrance!” He has said as much before; she sometimes suspects she only senses Dee’s mood and her memory supplies the words. He is enquiring with circuitous civility: what evil, what encumbrance, is near? Why has the Queen summoned him?
She gestures to Walsingham, now shaking continuously. “Do you know what ails him? And can you help him?”
His voice is the fluttering of moths’ wings. “Time. And I cannot.”
A hot sting of anger and loss wells up in her—have you not conquered time, old sorcerer?—but she forces it down. Foolish to think that Dee would prescribe oil of hypericon to hold the scraps of poor Walsingham together. Her diligent Doctor, with his long face and sad eyes, is gone. She watches his form grow straight and dense, then sway and disperse again.
“What is within my power that I may do for you?” he offers. He is still her man.
“There is a scholar, Geoffrey Manville. I want him as my courtier. Lopez has passed, Walsingham is passing, their places stand vacant.”
No answer. Does he need reasons? Does he feel curiosity?
She would not justify herself to anyone else. “My men all sicken. I would not be alone.” She pauses, because she has been alone for years. Her courtiers are no longer dashing, erudite, artists and scholars. Charming Geoffrey would rattle as badly as the others after a century or so. “And I wish to have my legacy.” This is true, also. She has no heirs of the body. Instead of descendants, these professors are her continuity.
Although legacy, too, is a precarious thing. Dee might be recalling how the children of these courtiers fared. Burghley called his son a spendthrift sot, fit only to keep a tennis court. Walsingham had married his daughter to the Queen’s favourite—poor judgement! The favourite had fallen out of favour and required beheading.
“They misused you abominably behind your back,” whispers Dee.
His faithfulness restores her cheer. “Well, there was never promise made but it was broken or kept. Perhaps Geoffrey will prove neither company, nor legacy.” But what choice does she have? She must persist. “Still, I wish it.”
She feels, finally, Dee’s agreement. He will find Geoffrey and extend to him her high favour and gracious great clemency.
That settled, she speaks another troublesome truth to Dee. “I have been hungry. After many years of wanting nothing, I hunger so much. Do I sicken?”
“You do not need ordinary meat.”
He shows her rather than tells her. She recoils, but understands. She has changed, and could continue changing. If she chooses it, her servants would continue to serve her; themselves transformed, their bodies will aid her in her transformation. That is what her hunger means, and where it leads.
“And if I changed, where would I go?”
Dee says nothing. His remarkable mind can imagine her metamorphosed, but not see a place for her beyond this confinement. She hears the sigh of his unstinting movement.
Beyond the chapel walls, an ordinary human laugh. Someone on the river, relishing the sunlight, borne along by the burbling flow. Free-moving, out in the world. At that notion, the Queen feels something quiver under the rigging of her back.
She considers the vision Dee offered. She has a choice; she defers the decision. She will not eat, for now, but wait to see if Geoffrey accepts his elevation. She craves his loyalty. A remnant instinct: loyalty to a monarch is a virtue and strengthens the realm, but now she is dethroned, fidelity has no intrinsic value. Her desire for it is vanity.
“Happy are they,” says Dee, “that can perceive, and so obey the call of the mighty lady opportunity.”
He spirals and dilutes like ink in water. He is departing, turned entirely to the task of finding Manville.
If Geoffrey declines, the Queen realises, she does not know how to turn Dee aside.
The short welcome speech, before dinner, was delivered by Sophia Johnstone. Ali, with shaking hands, checked her programme: it should have been Geoffrey up there, wine-flushed and pompous. Instead, Sophia was thanking people for their engagement, calm and keen and frankly magnificent. She wasn’t at all shy, and Ali guessed she’d be like this when she lectured, secure in her expertise, knowing the worth of her work. She made a few remarks about how inspirational the day’s papers had been, garnished with little details to make the praise more sincere. No mention was made of Geoffrey’s flight or the heresy of Joel the American. Everything was fine and dandy, nothing was hideously awry.
Ali glanced round the room and saw a few snow-haired professors viewing Sophia with approval. Sophia would move up the ladder at Queens’ College. There were no friendships here, no solidarity, but instead a suffocating hierarchy. Geoffrey had left a vacuum at the top and Sophia was being sucked upwards.
Ali felt, under her palm, the flat table-top. She tried to forget the brittle-tough skin of the fallen man’s neck. Looking for a pulse, finding a curved surface like a sticky paper shell. Had the encounter not bothered Sophia at all? Was she well practiced at setting aside shocking things, putting on a professional face? My God, had she seen worse?
Well, good luck to her. Ali would return, gratefully, to Glasgow, submit job applications, stack shelves and try to avoid nightmares. Sophia would stay here and ascend to being white-haired and long-winded. She would probably be making the same speech in forty years’ time to another self-satisfied crowd: I remember the first occasion on which I addressed this conference… And behind her, giving her authority, the croaking crone in the chapel.
“Not eating?” Sophia had sat down on the bench beside Ali. “It’s beef Wellington,” she added, as though that might persuade Ali.
“Neither am I. Um, I have to visit Them this evening…”
To the chapel smelling of incense and cat piss. Ali felt her mouth dry up in disgust. “Jesus. Good luck with that.”
Sophia drew back a little. Ali realised that it had been an invitation: Sophia had been asking Ali to go with her. Offering Ali an opportunity, or perhaps asking Ali for a favour? Ali had rejected both before she’d understood.
Ali felt the brittle, broken courtier under her hand again and scratched at her palm. She allowed her rejection to stand. As an olive branch, she asked: “What was she saying about Geoff being ungrateful? What was that all about?”
Sophia ignored the question and shook out her linen napkin. She began, rather furtively, to pile slices of beef onto the cloth. “Might I have yours, if you’re not…?” she asked.
“Yeah, help yourself.” It wasn’t unusual for Ali to raid food from a work buffet, sometimes enough to last her a couple of days, but she couldn’t imagine anything worse than picking over these rich dishes when they’d gone cold. “Are you really going to eat that later?”
“I’m going to take it to her.”
That put Ali off eating even further. She pushed her plate towards her companion. Sophia loaded the napkin with more meat, then stashed her hoard in an ugly sports bag at her feet.
“Could you not ask the college catering people to fix something for you?”
“I don’t want anyone to know. The others—the faculty—told me not to do it. Oh, she wanted wine as well…”
From the bag, Sophia brought out a stylish steel water flask. She stood it upright on the bench next to her thigh, unscrewed the stopper, and poured her glass of wine into its open neck, glugging musically. Then Sophia reached for Ali’s glass, but Ali held onto the stem. There was no way she wanted to end this day sober.
‘You have returned,” announced the woman. Her voice was not loud, but nevertheless hammered on Sophia’s sternum, like a bass note from an amplifier. “So Geoffrey is dead.”
Sophia stifled her shock. She put her hand to a nearby stone pillar to steady herself. She nodded to show she had heard, then she realised her nod would be invisible. “Madam.”
“Well? Is he dead?”
“I’m sorry, Madam, I thought you were telling me.”
The woman actually chuckled in hoarse barks. “I am Dee’s creature, not his kin. I have none of his arts. I see no further than these walls.” Which was more than Sophia could see, but perhaps her eyes would adapt. “Is there no news of Geoffrey?”
“Dee will tell me where Geoffrey is, when he finds him.”
“I apologise, your—Madam.”
Don’t give her a royal title, the Reader had warned her. Nothing irks her more. She has given up her throne. She and England are no longer one and the same.
But don’t forget to call her Madam.
“You had returned here instead of him,” she said. “So I believed that Geoffrey was dead. What is your rank?”
“I’m a postdoctoral researcher, Madam.” Her questions had the force of commands. Was that royalty, age, or whatever Dee had done to her?
“A scholar. Higher than a student, but I must study further to become a professor.”
“That’s not so good.” She was dispirited and Sophia felt Her disappointment press on her heart. “Has my star fallen, that they send me a low-ranking woman?” She spat out the last words.
Sophia sighed without intending to. It was only a heavy breath, but it set off a reaction, other sighs answering her from deeper into the audience chamber.
Sophia waited for the sounds to die down. Then she said, cautiously: “Women are held in higher esteem, now.”
“So they tell me,” said the woman. “But they have never before sent me a woman.”
It would be easy to promise her a man. A high-ranking man, as high as she liked, a Regius Professor. But Sophia thought of how the faculty had pushed her in here, as a sacrifice or a stopgap, and held her tongue.
The Queen spoke, instead. “Duxbury comes to speak with me, and Faure, and Frost and Elton…”
The names came out in a string, like the response to a hypnotic trigger. Sophia recognised names from the history of the Cambridge Association for Historical Studies, names of men a century dead, threaded in with Geoffrey’s contemporaries. Here was the Queen’s uncanny recall, the habit and gift on which the reputation of the college was based. On which Sophia had staked her profession. Dee’s process had changed something. Changed memory from a fallible facility to something durable, almost mechanical. Until you spoke to Them, you wouldn’t believe it.
It was reassuring, in that sense, but deeply unsettling in every other.
The list of names continued. There was nowhere for Sophia to look, no focus for the voice. She stared towards where the altar would have been and thought she saw a face, but then that pale patch bled away into other blotches, and when Sophia shifted her eyes there were faces in impossible profusion. She closed her eyes, and the blotches remained. She wanted Ali at her side, again, to be able to steal a glance at her and see her raise her eyebrows: What the hell? Her incredulity would have steadied Sophia.
So this was what it was like, talking to Them. Well, listening to Them. Sophia hadn’t imagined it this way. She saw her life stretch ahead of her, as she heard her predecessors stretch behind her in a long procession. Kneeling here, hearing this dull litany, wasn’t how she had imagined History.
Near to Sophia, a man retched. The woman stopped reciting.
Sophia rested her hand on the sports bag. “I brought meat and wine, Madam.”
“Ah…” She’d been insistent about the food, but now sounded uninterested. “Try my man, take them to him.”
As Sophia got to her feet, she tried to recall where the bed had been, where she and Ali had laid the man to rest. She could use the chequered floor tiles to guide her. She progressed in a straight line forwards, then three paces or so to the left. She felt the bed nudge against her leg, embroidery scraping her calf and the bag of meat at her side.
“Madam, I cannot see to offer him the food.” Or to feed him, but the thought of that made Sophia flinch.
Something rustled close. Someone stood beside Sophia, towering over her. Bulky, but with a hint of long and spindly arms.
“Put the food on the bed.”
Sophia fumbled at her bag, unzipped it, and drew out the napkin of beef. It was oily and stained with gravy. She wanted to place it on the bed but feared to reach out. What if her hand brushed against something, someone?
Down, first, then. Sophia dipped one knee in a curtsy, extended her hand as minimally as she could, and placed the package beside the ailing courtier. She repeated the movement to lay the water flask there also. Then she shuffled aside, away from the bed. The floor was sticky and caught at the soles of her shoes.
As Sophia stared at the floor tiles, the inhabitants of the chapel drew nearer. She heard cloth rustling, cloaks brushing against themselves, but no footsteps, only scratching. She thought she saw shapes, bending, all around the bed. Sophia heard the sound of chewing, and then a wet choking, a disgruntled cough. Walsingham was rejecting the beef.
Then some metallic scraping. The screw-top flask was being passed around, proving hard to open.
“I can do that,” Sophia offered, although the last thing she wanted was to hear the wet gurgle of wine being poured into an unwilling mouth.
Nobody replied. A clank rang out as the flask fell to the floor, then rolled away ringing. Sophia did not attempt to retrieve it.
“I asked you for food, but it will not sustain us,” the Queen sighed. “He will be gone by Michaelmas.”
“I’m sorry.” Gone, as in dead? Or left by some other route? Sophia’s mind’s eye threw up vivid pictures: Geoffrey, running away. Wings flapping, ravens leaving the Tower of London. If the courtiers left, the college would certainly fail.
Sophia reminded herself that she was here to obtain a piece of information. To clear Geoffrey’s name. “Is the sick man—who is…”
“My advisor, Walsingham. He deserves rest.”
Sophia pictured a spider, winding itself into a cocoon. “May I do anything for him?”
“We can perform every office he requires. No priest. Each of us made confession before Dee acted upon us and have not sinned since.”
That forced Sophia to think further ahead: what would they do, after Walsingham died? The light and sticky body Sophia had hauled to the bed—what would a coroner even make of it? What had the college done with Lopez? She forced herself, again, to focus. None of this was her problem to solve. It would be the problem of the other historians.
“Now: you would speak with us?” growled the woman.
“Pardon me, Madam?”
“You have questions for us?”
“No, I…” Sophia was only here to pacify Them, to keep the routine, not to sneak in her own questions. But questions were a part of that routine. “Do you want to answer questions?’
“Sit, you,” the Queen instructed.
The Reader had told her that she would invite Sophia to sit after a while. “Sometimes five minutes. Sometimes six months.” But there would be no chairs, so she should take Geoffrey’s bag of supplies. Sophia thrust her hand into the bag. Geoffrey’s cushion was near the top, and she dragged it out and slid it under her knees. Then, fumbling with her fingertips, she found Geoffrey’s yellow paged notepad and a pen.
“What do you seek to know?” asked the Queen.
This was the moment for which Sophia would have been carefully prepared by Geoffrey, over weeks: to frame the question, to learn the protocols, to—goodness knows, stitch her own knee-cushion. And the moment was suddenly within her grasp. And Geoffrey was in disgrace and missing, and the moment might not return.
“I seek to know about Robert Southwell,” said Sophia.
“Young but sharp. Nose and wits. Dark in his hair and eye, he could have been Italian. An English man Italianate, eh? Eh?”
It sounded like a test of her wits, so Sophia finished the proverb. “Is the Devil incarnate, Madam?”
“Heh! Southwell had Italian eyes. It was no wonder that he stole off to Rome. Where did I see that cropped dark head of his?”
Sophia thought of the Southwell engraving, his hairline swooping in to a graceful widow’s peak, his head inclined gently. Big eyes, dark eyes, indeed. She had seen them in a cross-hatched engraving, the ink ochre with age. This woman had seen them in the flesh.
There was a susurration all round her. As if the thought of flesh had roused Them.
A man’s voice called out: “Your progress, Your Majesty!”
“My progress! Remind me.”
They spoke. At least, Sophia thought they did. It was a weird noise, one voice starting inaudible, others chiming in, at times in synch and at times at odds. Sometimes it broke down into murmuring and churning. It sounded a little like the recordings Sophia had heard, but stilted and snagging.
“Yes,” said the woman. “Yes, it was then.” She heard Them, and she apparently understood Them. And she repeated snippets of their recollections, intertwining them with Her own.
She talked of Robert Southwell. But she talked, also, of the people around him. The conflicts in which he grew, the changes of the age, his supporters and the subtle influences on his mind. She talked of the weather, that year, the trade with the Netherlands, the mood of the parishes in the East of England. Things too small for a queen’s notice, but she had come to hear of them, or was hearing now, from Her courtiers.
The other voices grew louder, more distinct, and joined Her. They cracked, They croaked, sometimes in chorus and sometimes in conversation. Such a trove of information. Sophia, eyes still dimmed, had a vision of a library, shelves receding to infinity.
Then the Queen spoke of Southwell again and how she had loved his verse. Her voice grated in Her throat but she spoke like a girl enchanted. She spoke of the web of the Jesuits: how they wrote and hid and thrived, eluding those who sought them. She spoke of poetry and treason.
Sophia had taken ballet classes as a child, she knew how to ignore pins-and-needles in her limbs for a higher cause. Sophia forgot what she knew and what she had never heard, forgot to take Geoffrey’s notepad out from his sports bag. She sat back and basked in the sound.
Then the Queen’s tone changed. She was asking Sophia a question. “Mentalis restrictio. You know it?”
‘Yes!” Of course. It was theology, a Jesuit theological position. It was the idea that lying was morally acceptable in some situations. Was the Queen accusing Sophia of lying? Lying about Geoffrey, perhaps?
But no, her mind was still on the wrongs of the past. “The knots they tied themselves in, to excuse their lies and save their souls!”
Sophia thrilled to the roots of her hair with the Queen’s indignation. She could report to Ali: you can stay pissed off for four hundred years.
“Such contrivances. When they have all gone to hell.” For a moment, Sophia wondered how she knew. Then the woman added: “If God so wills. I wonder if Dee knows? You may leave.”
Sophia reeled out into the dusky quad and closed the chapel door behind her, hand lingering on the iron handle. It was wonderful, it was horrible. Would it ever happen again?
Sophia flinched, fearing another grilling by the faculty, but the voice came from down near the grass. Ali was sitting on the ground, up against the chapel wall. She’d been reading her phone and its glow lit up her face. “You OK?”
It was past nine. She must have been waiting for an hour, out here. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” Then her legs made her a liar and buckled. She found that it was easiest to sit next to Ali. “Ow! Too much kneeling. Sorry. Have you been waiting for me?”
“Yeah. Just to make sure you were OK. Was it weird?”
That was a certainly a good place to start. “It was weird. Very much so. She said that Geoffrey was dead…”
“Yes! I thought she knew, or it was a kind of prediction. But it was only a question. Then she asked why they’d sent her a woman.”
“And she made you kneel on the floor?”
Sophia still held Geoffrey’s sports bag, tucked under her arm. She squeezed the squashy mass for comfort. “I knelt on the floor. I don’t know if I had to. I didn’t want to disturb their routine any further.’
“She abdicated! She shouldn’t have people kneeling to her.” Ali folded her arms, irked, but her logic was off.
“Would you kneel to her if she was still queen?” Sophia risked a joke. “Are you a secret royalist?”
“No! Wow, though. I’ve actually met a queen. An ex-queen.”
“You have indeed.”
“She didn’t sound very Elizabethan.”
Sophia snorted with laughter despite the chapel wall behind her and the things it contained. They both laughed at the paradox: this woman, of all people, didn’t sound Elizabethan enough.
“Well, I suppose she must have modernised,” Sophia reflected. “Picked up phrases from the people who spoke to her down the years.”
Ali made her voice rasp and assumed a regal air. “Voicemail. Airmiles. Booty call.”
“Stop it! She might hear.” Sophia spoke sharply because the idea troubled her. How many new terms had leached into the Queen’s vocabulary? How many new concepts had those terms smuggled in? That could change how she articulated her memories. Could it even change whatshe remembered?
“So, is this your job now?” asked Ali. “Are you replacing Geoff?” Ali sounded even-handed about the prospect despite her obvious reservations.
“I wasn’t trying to. I was trying to help Geoffrey.” And now Sophia had confirmation that Walsingham was dying. Geoffrey could use that to excuse himself: a sick courtier had given him bad memories, but it hadn’t been Geoffrey’s fault. And the Cambridge model of History was still, by and large, reliable. “But I realised something while I was listening.” It was hard to articulate and she was afraid that Ali would laugh at her. But they were in the open air, Sophia’s office was close; if Ali laughed, Sophia would simply walk away. If her legs would carry her. ‘It’s not a history by one person,” Sophia said. “It’s a limited perspective, but there are definitely competing accounts in there.
“It wasn’t about one person, either. I asked about Southwell, and they told me—all kinds of things, social things, economic things.”
“It would be hard to listen to Them and think that you were hearing from one person. Or that you were hearing about one person. You’d have to work quite hard to listen to that and make it about One Great Person talking about another Great Person.’
Ali unfolded her arms as she pondered. “But that’s how Geoff writes?”
“You’re saying that this whole approach to History—it’s not Them, it’s Geoff?”
“Perhaps. It certainly didn’t start with Geoffrey. But I think the historians have been holding up a kind of lens…”
“Maybe the Queen was different with you.”
“Maybe she’s changing.”
“They don’t change. That’s the whole point.”
“The guy on the floor was changing.” That was tasteless, but not untrue. “What will you do?”
Walsingham was dying. History was false, or failing. Geoffrey was absent without leave and was Dee somehow pursuing him? Sophia suddenly wished Ali would stop talking. She shouldn’t have shared her doubts so openly. The next thing Ali said would probably be another criticism. Sophia stood, brushing off her skirt. She’d go to her office where she could sit alone with her awe.
Ali reached upwards, asking to be pulled to her feet. Sophia took her hand, and for a moment they moved in perfect balance, Sophia leaning back to bring Ali to standing. Then Sophia moved away again. She didn’t want to be holding hands if Ali was going to mock her.
“This is all fucking amazing,” said Ali, grinning. “Tell me more.”
“Do you want a drink? We could go to your place and have a drink.”
“Yes!” Sophia hauled up Geoffrey’s bag so it bounced on her hip.
“I could take that,” offered Ali chivalrously, and Sophia had begun to slip the strap from her shoulder when she sensed they weren’t alone in the quad.
“Sophia!” It was a hiss. Not dissimilar to the courtier’s hiss, but it came from under the walnut tree. The only light shone from a handful of office windows which decorated rather than illuminated the courtyard. But the speaker was unmistakably Professor Geoffrey Manville. “Come here!”
Sophia walked towards him automatically. She began to mentally list what needed to be fixed, as she would normally do for any meeting with Geoffrey: she should assure him that the dying courtier was Walsingham, that Geoffrey could clear his name. She could ask him where he’d gone and why. As she grew closer, something slowed her legs until they seemed to be moving through treacle. What was it? Reluctance. She didn’t want to tell him or ask him anything. She didn’t want to go any closer.
Sophia stood stock still in the middle of the lawn. Small birds in the walnut tree chirped with a sound like wheezing.
“Have you been to see Them?” Geoffrey called. “Is that my bag? Bring it over here, will you?”
Sophia took the bag by both handles, swung it back to give it momentum, and let it fly over towards Geoffrey. It thudded to the turf somewhere near his feet.
“Will you give the keynote?” she asked. In a whirl of bewilderment, the conference planning remained. There would be a hundred people in a lecture hall tomorrow and Geoffrey would be expected to speak.
“There’s no point,” he murmured.
“You’ve hardly been gone. Nobody will really even notice if you come back now. And Walsingham is ill!” She should go closer to prevent anyone else from hearing. She lowered her voice but didn’t move. “He’s dying. That was why your work had mistakes, isn’t it? His memory was fading.”
Geoffrey shivered. “Dying, yes. That’s why she wants me to stay with her. To replace Lopez and Walsingham.” His voice was high-pitched with panic. “And now she’s set something on me. Something’s following me. I need to leave here, I need to get away entirely.”
“You can’t!” The surge of selfishness surprised Sophia. Geoffrey had to stay here and smooth her path.
“It’ll kill me, I think, if I don’t.” Sophia remembered the rustling of robes, imagined them closing in. “Can you help me?”
A familiar request. “How?”
“I don’t know! Ask her to call it off?” Geoffrey coughed. “Also, I don’t know if I can get back to my rooms in college, not for any length of time, so I wondered if you might pack up my things and send them on, wherever I eventually settle…”
Sophia bristled. Another thankless task, loading all his hardbacks into boxes, choking on dust, finding fragments of mummified orange peel. The kind of thing she always did for Geoffrey because his time was so important, and he’d do so much for her, one day.
Behind her came a cry from Ali. “There’s something wrong!” Fear in her voice. Sophia spun round. “There!”
An unnatural movement drew Sophia’s eye, something sliding down the path at one side of the quad. Man-height and hooded, his shape impossible to determine. He moved like oil on water, floating and swirling, turning the corner and heading for Geoffrey.
“Oh, God! No!” Geoffrey cried.
A sudden sharp light cut across the grass. Ali had pulled out her phone and was using it as a torch. The beam picked out Geoffrey first. He was lifting up his bag to head height and hurling it at his pursuer.
Even with Geoffrey’s fear propelling it, the bag made a lumpish missile. It sailed out of the beam of light, losing height. A muffled thump, as it struck something, but Sophia couldn’t see what it hit. The light beam followed too slowly to illuminate the newcomer. It only showed the patches of wavering distortion that followed in his wake. Uninjured, he flowed across the grass towards Geoffrey.
Sophia knew: it was Dee. Alchemist and astronomer, doing his Queen’s bidding. John Dee, more swarm than man, come to transform Geoffrey Manville into a courtier.
Geoffrey shrieked, transfixed, then tore his eyes away and ran. Ali’s torchlight shone on his back, like the headlights of a car running down a pedestrian. His white collar was the last thing visible. He was running in the same direction as the last time he’d fled, out of the quad, out of the College, towards the town of Cambridge.
Dee cascaded after him. The light didn’t know what to do with him. He dissolved from one spot and thickened in another like a murmuration of sparrows and did not stint in his pursuit.
“What the fuck is that?” asked a young man’s voice, an American, from the other side of the quad.
Sophia didn’t respond. She could feel Dee’s presence in her body, like the drag of the royal summons but utterly chaotic, one hundred impulses buzzing and roiling. Stay and run, weep and celebrate, embrace and devour.
Ali called to the American: “Geoffrey Manville.” The easier answer.
“Ha! Did he come back just so he could run away again?” It was that man who’d given the paper about Geoffrey, Joel. His bravado was cracked. He kept babbling, to talk down what he’d seen, to make it small. Sophia stopped listening.
“Hey, Sophia…” Ali was walking over to her, but Sophia wanted to go home on her own. She needed solitude more than company. She tried to tell Ali that, but the words were all missing, and all she could do was listen and not listen to the American, monologuing in the gloom.
Ali settled herself in the back row of the lecture theatre for Geoffrey’s keynote. She was here in part from morbid curiosity: how would they patch over the embarrassment of his absence?
As if to punish her for schadenfreude, Joel sat down in the chair next to her.
“Good morning!” he said, with weaponised good cheer.
“How’s it going?”
“Shunned at breakfast,” he boasted. “Because of my paper.”
“What did you expect? You may as well have pissed in their quad.” She recalled his frantic tone, last night, and wondered if had actually pissed in the quad.
“I didn’t expect Professor Manville to go feral.” He made it sound like a soap opera recap. Ali despaired. He was the person at the conference with which she shared most academic common ground, and he was an arsehole.
Suddenly, Ali heard Sophia’s voice further down the aisle. She was surrounded by older academics, all stooping to discuss with her, including that beaky prof from an earlier panel. She held a sheaf of papers and her clothes looked crisper than ever. Remarkable, given her shock when they’d parted last night.
Ali tried to make out their conversation. Sophia was requesting, then insisting. The men responded: refusing, dismissing. One voice rose above the others: “There’s no need for you! No need!” They were blocking Sophia’s route to the podium.
“I need to introduce the speaker,” Sophia explained. “I organised a replacement keynote.”
“Geoffrey has been in touch,” declared the beaky professor.
“With you? This morning?”
The professor pointed and there was Geoffrey, striding into the lecture theatre in a clean jacket with his hair smooth and bright. Smiling affably at the delegates. He was wincing at the lights, but he didn’t look like a man who’d spent all night on the run.
“He didn’t tell me anything,” said Sophia.
“Well, now you know,” observed the professor, and the historians swept onwards to their seats in the front row.
It was good news, of course, that Geoff had returned to the college. That Dee apparently hadn’t overtaken him, that he hadn’t thrown himself into the Cam. But his return had apparently meant demotion for Sophia, poor woman.
Ali waved to her. Sophia spotted her, gave a tiny thumbs-up, and crossed the theatre to sit next to her, on the other side from the American. The stiff folds of Sophia’s skirt spread into Ali’s space, brushing her legs. It didn’t look ridiculous to Ali anymore.
“It’s all fine,” Sophia said. “He’s safe, he’s here.”
“Are you OK?”
“Oh, yes. And you?”
Ali briefly relived the emotions of last night: uncertainty, waiting by the chapel wall; joy, as Sophia’s hand rested for a moment in her own; terror, as the beam of her torch had squirmed away, refusing to reveal Geoffrey’s pursuer.
“I’m a bit hungover,” she admitted.
“Dame Pleasure’s drugs are steeped in sin…“
Ali started to protest, but Sophia stayed her with a wave of her hand—Geoff was ascending the stairs to the stage.
Geoff favoured the room with a leisured grin. It said: let’s pretend I’m listening. I am History! But do amuse me by tussling for my crown. He unfolded his notes, a good dense hour of chat, by the looks of it.
“It’s been quite a conference,” he said. He was trying for a roguish touch—you naughty delegates—but his delivery was a bit too rigid to pull it off. “I’m happy we were able to bring you all together: esteemed elders of the discipline, sharing some of the most important discoveries of their careers! And up-and-coming people.”
People. Ali had rarely been so thoroughly insulted. The American, next to her, rolled his eyes. Geoffrey appeared, if anything, sharper than he’d been for the previous days of the conference: he had less bluster, was more precise in his enunciation. He wasn’t looking at his notes at all. He made emphatic chopping gestures with his hands and turned his head from side to side to view the audience. A little stiff, perhaps, and very upright, very quick.
“I’m glad that you’ll be the first to hear my news, that I will be doing my own part to bridge the gap between the English model of History and the approaches of the New World. I will be taking up the Griffiths Chair at Stanford University in the new academic year.”
His voice cracked on the final words. To Ali’s ear, he sounded panicked, but the attendees broke into loud applause, which restored Geoffrey’s smile. Next to Ali, Joel the American was rocking in his seat and swearing. But Ali couldn’t turn to enjoy his expression because on the other side, Sophia was deflating.
Her mentor, her guide, was leaving.
He was the one who was supposed to help her up the ladder. Now he was jumping off the ladder and there were too many missing rungs.
Ali wanted to put a hand on her knee to calm her, but that would be too much. She wrote at the top of her notebook, in large letters: ‘YOU OK?’ and angled it towards Sophia, but couldn’t catch her eye. Maybe the best help she could offer was that she’d sat at the back and lured Sophia to join her; now, Sophia could hide here and didn’t have to join in the applause.
Prof Geoff’s paper seemed to last years, and Ali made ready to slip out of the lecture theatre as soon as it ended. As soon as he wrapped up, the place became a river in flood: delegates seething down the aisles, trying to reach Geoff and congratulate him. To escape in the opposite direction would be simple. Ali turned to Sophia, prepared to offer her a firm arm and moral support, whichever helped her out of there.
Sophia was gone. Already three rows away from Ali, she was picking an argument with a beaky prof. Ali wriggled around the crowd, getting close enough to eavesdrop.
“But has anyone told Them, yet?” Sophia was asking.
“Not yet. Give it time, it’s only just been announced.” His eyes were fixed beyond her, on Geoff and his maelstrom of flattery.
“When will They know?”
“Why would They need to know?” He was irritated enough by the question to look down at Sophia. “It won’t change anything for Them. We don’t keep Them informed of current affairs.”
Sophia stood her ground. “I’ll do it myself, this evening.”
The Professor shook his head. “We’ve redrawn the rota. I’ll be taking the shift this evening. Oh, there is one thing you could do…” He leaned down a little to bestow his special mission.
“Do you know where Geoffrey’s bag of materials ended up? Did you leave it in the chapel? We couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“Ah, it’s our Scottish delegate.” The Professor suddenly looked over and skewered Ali with his gaze. He’d caught her listening in. “You know, Sophia, you might want to think about some of the Scottish universities.”
The crease between Sophia’s eyebrows deepened. “Are you suggesting I leave the College?”
“No! Only that—yours is a three-year post, isn’t it? We all appreciated Geoffrey making a case for you, but he won’t be here when your post concludes, so…” The Prof spread out his hand, as if demonstrating it was empty, no jobs there. “You want to plan ahead, you’ve got—what, eighteen months left, here?”
Ali seethed. The Prof had so perfectly summed up the callousness of the academic job market. You must always be making back-up plans and powerful friends, or be left on the scrapheap.
“You’d be the cream of the crop at somewhere like Glasgow,” the Prof added brightly.
Which was so clearly intended to offend Ali that she couldn’t stay quiet. She was only a library shelf-stacker, but she put on the airs of a Dean. “Actually, I think we’re looking for very different skillset.”
Ali was pretty pleased with that, but the Professor was already turning away, impervious. Then Sophia pushed past her, face crumpling up. Oh, hell. Of course the awful Prof would brush off Ali’s retort while Sophia would take it as an insult.
Ali ran after Sophia. She banged into historians of all stripes: civil war types packed into the corridor, a cluster of mediaevalists standing in the doorway. Ali elbowed them aside. Apologies formed in her head, not for the protesting delegates behind her, but for Sophia. The apologies were pretty weak, but she hoped they’d firm up when she saw Sophia. Like when you start to type without knowing what you mean to say, and the words come out right.
Sophia was running the same way as Geoffrey had run, across the chapel courtyard, through the small arch in the opposite corner. Ali charged after her and emerged into the courtyard lined with cloisters. Ahead of her, Sophia’s skirt was a flash of bright colour in the sun.
Under another archway, and suddenly they were both standing on the web-like wooden bridge.
At least Sophia had stopped on the crest of the bridge. She was bracing both hands on the rail and looking down at the water.
“I can’t think, in there,” announced Sophia. Would she jump? The physical risk was minimal as the water was at a summer low and would hardly cover her knees, but her anguish was real.
“Hey.” Ali edged closer along the bridge and extended a hand to Sophia’s shoulder. “It’s OK. We’re not in the college anymore. See?” She pointed to the other bank, which supported a building made of concrete tubes, a world away from the high brick chimneys of Queens’ College.
Sophia’s voice was baleful. “No, those are all Queens’ buildings as well.”
“Oh. Bad analogy.” Ali remembered that she’d followed Sophia to apologise. “I didn’t mean what I said, I was just trying to be a dick. Not to you. To that other guy, the professor who was being a dick.”
Sometimes the words refuse to come out right. But Sophia did smile wryly. “I know. But you’re not wrong, are you? I have a set of skills related to a set of people—historical figures—who are…” She broke off and looked up and down the bridge and bank, checking for listeners. She lowered her voice. “Dying. They’re dying.”
“All of them?” It was more shocking that the queen might be dying, perhaps because Ali had heard her speak.
“I don’t know.”
Ali tried another run at the apology. “You’re a historian. I mean, you know your stuff. You could totally come to Scotland and work there.” Having no affiliation and no leverage, that was a cheap offer to make. “Honestly, I think you’d like it. You wouldn’t be losing anything, you’d be widening your frame of reference. Listening to more voices. Everything’s available, nothing’s sacred.” Ali wondered if that was a persuasive argument given that Sophia was pretty much a priestess.
Sophia was still staring at the water. “You think we sit at the feet of the dead.”
Ali tried to remember if she’d ever made that accusation. It was catchy and not wrong. “I mean, all History’s about listening to the dead, isn’t it? But that doesn’t have to be morbid. It can be about giving them life again.” That sounded even more macabre. But Sophia looked her way, finally, so the idea must have resonated with her. “You’re a good historian,” Ali repeated, “and you can do it without Geoffrey Manville. Or whoever’s in there.” A glance back to the college, and its absurdly cute brick walls hiding monsters.
Sophia did, at least, seem to consider. Then asked: “Will you come with me, to speak with Them?”
“But I’m not on the rota!”
“Ha! You’re such a conformist, secretly! Why would you care about the rota?”
Ali had other objections. Why would Sophia even want to go back in there? Was it a power play? Perhaps Sophia was trying to set herself up as the Queen’s new favourite while the faculty scrambled around her. Did she mean to cling on here, try to get a lectureship? Did she want to write bad history in this charnel house forever? That smarted, but—Ali reasoned to herself—Sophia had been enmeshed here for years. One conference paper and a couple of days of discussion were trivial by comparison. The idea of her moving away needed time to percolate. Ali could stand beside her for one evening. “Alright. I’ll come with you.”
Then Ali remembered exactly where she and Sophia would be standing together, and shivered.
“This is not timely.” The Queen, from her shadows, chastised them. “You have no permission to come to me.”
That hit Sophia’s breast-bone like a blow. She turned her stagger into a curtsy while she regained her poise enough to answer.
Ali was right beside Sophia, their arms touching. Ali didn’t curtsy but gave an awkward nod of the head. An instinctive royalist. Sophia would tease Ali about that, later.
“Forgive me, Madam,” Sophia said, “but I have news to share with you.”
“It is no matter.” She was peevish, now, rather than angry. “Speak with me. The Professor they sent to me was tedious.”
Sophia and Ali had slipped into the chapel half an hour after the Professor had left. There had been no guard on the chapel door; the college trusted tradition to keep out intruders. The Queen had been eating when they entered. Her hunger must have returned. Sophia could just make her out: standing but bent by the bed where Sophia had left the wrapped beef, head down, hands held to her face. Sophia heard the squelch of meat being pulled apart, the snapping of her teeth.
“You have news of Geoffrey?” demanded the Queen with her mouth full.
The chapel smelled worse than Sophia remembered. There was stale beef and the tang of wine. The musky honey scent rolled towards Sophia in waves. How thick the smell was, despite the room being so draughty and the ceilings so high.
Sophia cleared her throat. “Geoffrey Manville is to leave the college and go to America, to a University there.”
Sophia had expected thunderous anger. But there came no response at all.
Sophia did not dare to move more than her eyes. She tried to make out shapes, to determine which of them were courtiers. Why was she seeking them? Did she hope they would support the Queen, or restrain her? Sophia kept miscounting the shapes. Were the courtiers moving? Was Dee here?
“Coward,” spat the Queen.
Sophia didn’t argue. She had protected Geoffrey from a lot over the years: inconvenience, and criticism, and the consequences of his own actions. But wasn’t about to justify his actions to the Queen.
“Another courtier lost to me. All my courtiers, gone.” The Queen’s voice softened, and she added an afterthought: “He will have a hard time in the New World…”
Sophia wasn’t sure. Geoffrey would be cut off from the source of his history, but nobody would be expecting new work from him. They’d let him rest on his laurels: big dinners with college donors, maybe a prestige edition of his most famous books. A touch of spite prompted her to ask: “Will he, Madam?”
“A hard time anywhere, because of what Dee has done to him.” Sophia searched her memory of the keynote for any sign. His stiff hand, shielding his eyes from the light. A rigid spine, when he’d slumped for years. A coincidence.
“Jesus, did that thing catch up with him?” Ali asked.
“He is Dee’s creature, now, whether he returns to me or not,” replied the Queen.
With that, she fell into silence again and resumed eating, making a wet noise with her open-mouthed chewing. She ate without any sign of enjoyment, begrudging the effort. Sophia felt Ali slip her hand around Sophia’s forearm, a comforting pressure. The sound of chewing paused. “And you, child. What will you do?” The Queen’s sudden scrutiny was disconcerting. She’d dismissed Sophia, only the day before, as a low-ranked woman. Did she now care what would happen to Sophia? “You were Geoffrey’s favourite!” the Queen cried. It was not sympathy but an accusation. Sophia saw she should distance herself from disloyal Geoffrey, but couldn’t think how.
Then Ali squeezed Sophia’s arm. Sophia thought: what would Ali say? Something sharp. “Not anymore, I’m not.”
I made the Queen laugh, Sophia thought. Whatever happens after this, I stood in front of the Queen and I made her laugh.
Sophia felt an impulse, electrifying, and spoke before she planned it. “I could stay with you, Madam.” The words extended her exultation. In a split second, she saw her future: she didn’t need to trudge to the end of the queue, to argue with the faculty for every crumb of knowledge. She would be here, with her Queen, serving her—serving History. Ali’s fingers on her arm jabbed her, but couldn’t keep her from offering. “I would be honoured.”
“You are not needed, child.”
Her electric joy ceased, plunging her into numbness. Sophia had been judged by thefaculty, so recently: you are not wanted here, the long-feared truth. And now that was confirmed by the highest authority.
Then Ali’s hand moved along her arm, not jabbing her but rubbing, trying to massage some sense of worth into her. Ali’s face pressed gently against Sophia’s shoulder. Perhaps it was to comfort her, or to let her know that Ali was shaking her head, silently advising her: don’t offer again, let it go, it wouldn’t be right.
The Queen stirred. It was impossible to make out her shape or distinguish her from the bed, but she raised what might be her head, and then continued to extend her great height.
“I have changed. Again.” She sighed. “Dee’s work, again. Or perhaps I wrought it myself.” Her words came framed by rasps and clicks. “The lopped tree in time may grow again, eh?”
A quote from Southwell. The Queen had remembered. The Queen remembered everything. Sophia completed the couplet: “Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower.”
“And have I been renewed? Fruit and flower?”
It was not, Sophia felt, a question directed at her. Or at Ali, whose head still rested against Sophia’s shoulder.
“Fruit trees can outgrow their strength,” the Queen continued. Her outline became sharper, detached itself from the bed, shifted towards them. The Queen was on the move.
Ali dragged on Sophia’s arm and Sophia allowed herself to be pulled aside, even while thinking: you mustn’t run away, when the Queen approaches you! But the Queen kept the same stately pace, moving down the nave, not perturbed by their relocation. Perhaps not coming towards Sophia at all.
The Queen walked both too smoothly and too unevenly, rolling and stalling. Under her cloak, Sophia could make out the great curve of her back; it resembled a rowing boat, slung behind her to carry it.
No other figures stood forward from the depths of the chapel.
The Queen paused. “Am I required? Am I necessary? Does my abiding here still serve the country?”
It was too huge a question to answer. In the silence, Sophia heard sounds from outside the chapel walls: the trundle of wheeled suitcases, elaborate cries of farewell from delegates, taxis beeping their horns. The conference was ending. The Queen had been disturbed by visitors, as Geoffrey had suggested. Sophia should try to calm her down.
“There are other people,” interrupted Ali. Her voice was high and strained, but clear. “There are other people writing history. They look at laws, state papers, financial accounts. And art and architecture. And poetry!” Sophia wished Ali would stop. Who knew how much her ideas would unsettle the Queen? “They read people’s letters and diaries…”
“Gossips!” The Queen finally spoke. Amused, thank goodness. “Go on.”
“That’s it, that’s all. Just that people have found other ways to do the work of History.”
“So I am no longer necessary?” No chuckling, now.
“It’s not the same, though!” Sophia insisted, terrified. What might the Queen do, thinking herself redundant?
The Queen raised an arm in front of herself. She did so slowly, as though surprised by her own flesh. It was a long arm, and it had several joints. None of them, Sophia thought, resembled an elbow. “We are not the same as we once were,” the Queen proclaimed. “The times have changed, and so have we. Your time is not a time for Princes. What did your Italianate poet say, of grass?”
Sophia struggled to place the line, for a moment. “About trampling grass?”
“Yes! Tell me.”
“We trample grass and prize the flowers of May, yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.“
“Yours is an age of grass. More grass than flowers.” She was accounting herself a flower. “More geese than swans, too, ha. What did your poet say, of death?”
It was one of Sophia’s favourite poems, but she would never have quoted it to the Queen. It was not about mortality in the abstract, but about Southwell’s own execution for treason against the Queen. Moreover, it was a verse that spoke of triumph, and suggested he had got his own way despite the Queen using her last argument against him.
But the Queen had commanded Sophia speak and the words sat ready on her tongue. “Rue not my death; rejoice at my repose, it was no death to me but to my woe.” Sometimes the poem made her cry. She hoped she would not cry. “The bud was opened to let out the rose, the chains unloosed to let the captive go.“
The Queen moved across the final chequered tiles to reach the door. A shiver, a twist, passed through her. The cloak slipped from her shoulders to lie in a rippled heap on the floor. Something cracked and opened wide, at her back; the bud was opened to let out—what?
It was Ali who moved quickly forwards, averting her eyes from the Queen, drawing aside the door curtain. That meant that Sophia had to work the next part: turning the twisted iron handle, pulling the door inwards. At the last moment, her nerve failed, and she hid herself behind the door.
The monarch continued to sweep onwards, out of their sight.
By the time Ali and Sophia dashed out after her, the Queen was no longer on the ground, but uneasily airborne. The twilight courtyard thrummed with noise; her huge translucent wings moved so fast they droned like a helicopter. She was careening wildly over the lawns, unsteady, heavy; how had she even got aloft?
Cries of fear rose from the delegates on the lawns as she barged between them. Ducking and trying to run, they stumbled over their luggage. The wise ones dropped to the grass and stayed low.
Four feet up, the Queen was swinging back towards the chapel door, threatening to blunder into Sophia, who ran behind a buttress to escape her. The droning sound was close and unbearably loud. Sophia covered her head. But the Queen didn’t crash into Sophia or into the chapel wall. The thrumming diminished and Sophia risked looking around. The Queen had pulled up short and spun away.
Six feet in the air and hovering with more control, the Queen made a circuit of the courtyard. There was no recognition from the crouching delegates, only terror. They are seeing the Faerie Queen, great Gloriana, Sophia thought. They would rejoice if they knew it. But the way the strange form dipped and dived was hideous.
For one heart-stopping moment, the noise of her wings cut out and she dropped through the air. Screams filled the quiet. Then the deafening whir restarted and the Queen regained her height. Up again, up further; ten feet above Sophia’s head, passing the bricked-up windows of the chapel. Two more laps of the quad, ascending gradually, and Sophia walked, dazed, out from her shelter to marvel at her. The Queen’s final progress. Her silhouette skirted the crenelations.
Not a human shape at all. Had Dee done this? How long had it taken, the transformation? Had it been inevitable?
Then the Queen was released from the confines of the College and became a buzzing dot against dusk-red clouds.
She sees no less well as night falls. She sees the two girls in the courtyard, long after they have lost sight of Her, their arms around one another’s shoulders. All else is chaos, and the people round them run like frantic ants.
The courts of the College lie like misaligned tiles: Walnut, Friars, Cloister, Old. No longer her home, the chains have been unloosed. The world has been so small, for so long, but now it is open to her and as high as it is wide.
She senses Geoffrey Manville below her in the College as a hectic bright spot, as a pang of loss. But Dee’s changes are already working within him: he is her kin and may join her yet. Or maybe not. She thinks again of Essex, her former favourite. Those closest to Princes, when they decline in character, rarely go gently, but hurl themselves into corruption. Maybe Geoffrey will, at some point, require beheading.
She sees how the power of her own wings moves her, every small effort lifting her higher. No more stiff-limbed effortful crawling. And she would not forsake her liberty to wait for him. The bud has opened to let out the rose.
The honeyed taste of the changed flesh of Walsingham and the others fills her mouth. When she next stops, she will clean her jaws.
She is too high up to see the river, now, but she knows its note. She has listened to it for four hundred years. She follows it North as it deepens. She will follow it to the Ouse and to the ocean.
Copyright 2023 E. Saxey
About the Author
E. Saxey is a queer Londoner who works in universities and volunteers in libraries. Their first collection of short weird fiction is Lost in the Archives from Lethe Press. Their debut novel Unquiet, a Gothic story which wanders into folk horror, was published by Titan Books in July 2023.