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The house at the Austin Friars is decorated with wreaths of holly and ivy, of laurel and ribboned yew. The kitchen is busy, feeding the living, but they omit this year their usual songs and Christmas plays. No year has brought such devastation. His sister Kat, her husband Morgan Williams, have been plucked from this life as fast as his daughters were taken, one day walking and talking and next day cold as stones, tumbled into their Thames-side graves and dug in beyond reach of the tide, beyond sight and smell of the river; deaf now to the sound of Putney’s cracked church bell, to the smell of wet ink, of hops, of malted barley, and the scent, still animal, of woollen bales; dead to the autumn aroma of pine resin and apple candles, of soul cakes baking. As the year ends two orphans are added to his house, Richard and the child Walter. Morgan Williams, he was a big talker, but he was shrewd in his own way, and he worked hard for his family. And Kat – well, latterly she understood her brother about as well as she understood the motions of the stars: ‘I can never add you up, Thomas,’ she’d say, which was his failure entirely, because who had taught her, except him, to count on her fingers, and puzzle out a tradesman’s bill?
If he were to give himself a piece of advice for Christmas, he’d say, leave the cardinal now or you’ll be out on the streets again with the three-card trick. But he only gives advice to those who are likely to take it.
They have a big gilded star at the Austin Friars, which they hang in their great hall on New Year’s Eve. For a week it shines out, to welcome their guests at Epiphany. From summer onwards, he and Liz would be thinking of costumes for the Three Kings, coveting and hoarding scraps of any strange cloth they saw, any new trimmings; then from October, Liz would be sewing in secrecy, improving on last year’s robes by patching them over with new shining panels, quilting a shoulder and weighting a hem, and building each year some fantastical new crowns. His part was to think what the gifts would be, that the kings had in their boxes. Once a king had dropped his casket in shock when the gift began to sing.
This year no one has the heart to hang up the star; but he visits it, in its lightless store room. He slides off the canvas sleeves that protect its rays, and checks that they are unchipped and unfaded. There will be better years, when they will hang it up again; though he cannot imagine them. He eases back the sleeves, pleased at how ingeniously they have been made and how exactly they fit. The Three Kings’ robes are packed into a chest, as also the sheepskins for the children who will be sheep. The shepherds’ crooks lean in a corner; from a peg hang angel’s wings. He touches them. His finger comes away dusty. He shifts his candle out of danger, then lifts them from the peg and gently shakes them. They make a soft sound of hissing, and a faint amber perfume washes into the air. He hangs them back on the peg; passes over them the palm of his hand, to soothe them and still their shiver. He picks up his candle. He backs out and closes the door. He pinches out the light, turns the lock and gives the key to Johane.
He says to her, ‘I wish we had a baby. It seems such a long time since there was a baby in the house.’
‘Don’t look at me,’ Johane says.
He does, of course. He says, ‘Does John Williamson not do his duty by you these days?’
She says, ‘His duty is not my pleasure.’
As he walks away he thinks, that’s a conversation I shouldn’t have had.
On New Year’s Day, when night falls, he is sitting at his writing table; he is writing letters for the cardinal, and sometimes he crosses the room to his counting board and pushes the counters about. It seems that in return for a formal guilty plea to the praemunire charges, the king will allow the cardinal his life, and a measure of liberty; but whatever money is left him, to maintain his state, will be a fraction of his former income. York Place has been taken already, Hampton Court is long gone, and the king is thinking of how to tax and rob the rich bishopric of Winchester.
Gregory comes in. ‘I brought you lights. My aunt Johane said, go in to your father.’
Gregory sits. He waits. He fidgets. He sighs. He gets up. He crosses to his father’s writing table and hovers in front of him. Then, as if someone had said, ‘Make yourself useful,’ he reaches out timidly and begins to tidy the papers.
He glances up at his son, while keeping his head down over his task. For the first time, perhaps, since Gregory was a baby, he notices his hands, and he is struck by what they have become: not childish paws, but the large, white untroubled hands of a gentleman’s son. What is Gregory doing? He is putting the documents into a stack. On what principle is he doing it? He can’t read them, they’re the wrong way up. He’s not filing them by subject. Is he filing them by date? For God’s sake, what is he doing?
He needs to finish this sentence, with its many vital subclauses. He glances up again, and recognises Gregory’s design. It is a system of holy simplicity: big papers on the bottom, small ones on top.
‘Father …’ Gregory says. He sighs. He crosses to the counting board. With a forefinger he inches the counters about. Then he scoops them together, picks them up and clicks them into a tidy pile.
He looks up at last. ‘That was a calculation. It wasn’t just where I dropped them.’
‘Oh, sorry,’ Gregory says politely. He sits down by the fire and tries not to disturb the air as he breathes.
The mildest eyes can be commanding; under his son’s gaze, he asks, ‘What is it?’
‘Do you think you can stop writing?’
‘A minute,’ he says, holding up a delaying hand; he signs the letter, his usual form: ‘your assured friend, Thomas Cromwell.’ If Gregory is going to tell him that someone else in the house is mortally ill, or that he, Gregory, has offered himself in marriage to the laundry girl, or that London Bridge has fallen down, he must be ready to take it like a man; but he must sand and seal this. He looks up. ‘Yes?’
Gregory turns his face away. Is he crying? It would not be surprising, would it, as he has cried himself, and in public? He crosses the room. He sits down opposite his son, by the hearth. He takes off his cap of velvet and runs his hands back through his hair.
For a long time no one speaks. He looks down at his own thick-fingered hands, scars and burn marks hidden in the palms. He thinks, gentleman? So you call yourself, but who do you hope to mislead? Only the people who have never seen you, or the people you keep distanced with courtesy, legal clients and your fellows in the Commons, colleagues at Gray’s Inn, the household servants of courtiers, the courtiers themselves … His mind strays to the next letter he must write. Then Gregory says, his voice small as if he had receded into the past, ‘Do you remember that Christmas, when there was the giant in the pageant?’
‘Here in the parish? I remember.’
‘He said, “I am a giant, my name is Marlinspike.” They said he was as tall as the Cornhill maypole. What’s the Cornhill maypole?’
‘They took it down. The year of the riots. Evil May Day, they called it. You were only a baby then.’
‘Where’s the maypole now?’
‘The city has it in store.’
‘Shall we have our star again next year?’
‘If our fortunes look up.’
‘Shall we be poor now the cardinal is down?’
The little flames leap and flare, and Gregory looks into them. ‘You remember the year I had my face dyed black, and I was wrapped in a black calfskin? When I was a devil in the Christmas play?’
‘I do.’ His face softens. ‘I remember.’
Anne had wanted to be dyed, but her mother had said it was not suitable for a little girl. He wishes he had said that Anne must have her turn as a parish angel – even if, being dark, she had to wear one of the parish’s yellow knitted wigs, which slipped sideways, or fell over the children’s eyes.
The year that Grace was an angel, she had wings made of peacock feathers. He himself had contrived it. The other little girls were dowdy goose creatures, and their wings fell off if they caught them on the corners of the stable. But Grace stood glittering, her hair entwined with silver threads; her shoulders were trussed with a spreading, shivering glory, and the rustling air was perfumed as she breathed. Lizzie said, Thomas, there’s no end to you, is there? She has the best wings the city has ever seen.
Gregory stands up; he comes to kiss him good night. For a moment his son leans against him, as if he were a child; or as if the past, the pictures in the fire, were an intoxication.
Once the boy has gone to bed he sweeps his papers out of the tidy stack he has made. He refolds them. He sorts them with the endorsement out, ready for filing. He thinks of Evil May Day. Gregory did not ask, why were there riots? The riots were against foreigners. He himself had not long been home.
As 1530 begins, he does not hold an Epiphany feast, because so many people, sensible of the cardinal’s disgrace, would be obliged to refuse his invitation. Instead, he takes the young men to Gray’s Inn, for the Twelfth Night revels. He regrets it almost at once; this year they are noisier, and more bawdy, than any he remembers.
The law students make a play about the cardinal. They make him flee from his palace at York Place, to his barge on the Thames. Some fellows flap dyed sheets, to impersonate the river, and then others run up and throw water on them from leather buckets. As the cardinal scrambles into his barge, there are hunting cries, and one benighted fool runs into the hall with a brace of otter hounds on a leash. Others come with nets and fishing rods, to haul the cardinal back to the bank.
The next scene shows the cardinal floundering in the mud at Putney, as he runs to his bolt-hole at Esher. The students halloo and cry as the cardinal weeps and holds up his hands in prayer. Of all the people who witnessed this, who, he wonders, has offered it up as a comedy? If he knew, or if he guessed, the worse for them.
The cardinal lies on his back, a crimson mountain; he flails his hands; he offers his bishopric of Winchester to anyone who can get him back on his mule. Some students, under a frame draped with donkey skins, enact the mule, which turns about and jokes in Latin, and farts in the cardinal’s face. There is much wordplay about bishoprics and bishop’s pricks, which might pass as witty if they were street-sweepers, but he thinks law students should do better. He rises from his place, displeased, and his household has no choice but to stand up with him and walk out.
He stops to have a word with some of the benchers: how was this allowed to go forward? The Cardinal of York is a sick man, he may die, how will you and your students stand then before your God? What sort of young men are you breeding here, who are so brave as to assail a great man who has fallen on evil times – whose favour, a few short weeks ago, they would have begged for?
The benchers follow him, apologising; but their voices are lost in the roars of laughter that billow out from the hall. His young household are lingering, casting glances back. The cardinal is offering his harem of forty virgins to anyone who will help him mount; he sits on the ground and laments, while a flaccid and serpentine member, knitted of red wool, flops out from under his robes.
Outside, lights burn thin in the icy air. ‘Home,’ he says. He hears Gregory whisper, ‘We can only laugh if he permits us.’
‘Well, after all,’ he hears Rafe say, ‘he is the man in charge.’
He falls back a step, to speak with them. ‘Anyway, it was the wicked Borgia Pope, Alexander, who kept forty women. And none of them were virgins, I can tell you.’
Rafe touches his shoulder. Richard walks on his left, sticking close. ‘You don’t have to hold me up,’ he says mildly. ‘I’m not like the cardinal.’ He stops. He laughs. He says, ‘I suppose it was …’
‘Yes, it was quite entertaining,’ Richard says. ‘His Grace must have been five feet around his waist.’
The night is loud with the noise of bone rattles, and alive with the flames of torches. A troop of hobby horses clatters past them, singing, and a party of men wearing antlers, with bells at their heels. As they near home a boy dressed as an orange rolls past, with his friend, a lemon. ‘Gregory Cromwell!’ they call out, and to him as their senior they courteously raise, in lieu of hats, an upper slice of rind. ‘God send you a good new year.’
‘The same to you,’ he calls. And, to the lemon: ‘Tell your father to come and see me about that Cheapside lease.’
They get home. ‘Go to bed,’ he says. ‘It’s late.’ He feels it best to add, ‘God see you safe till morning.’
They leave him. He sits at his work table. He remembers Grace, at the end of her evening as an angel: standing in the firelight, her face white with fatigue, her eyes glittering, and the eyes of her peacock’s wings shining in the firelight, each like a topaz, golden, smoky. Liz said, ‘Stand away from the fire, sweetheart, or your wings will catch alight.’ His little girl backed off, into shadow; the feathers were the colours of ash and cinders as she moved towards the stairs, and he said, ‘Grace, are you going to bed in your wings?’
‘Till I say my prayers,’ she said, darting a look over her shoulder. He followed her, afraid for her, afraid of fire and some other danger, but he did not know what. She walked up the staircase, her plumes rustling, her feathers fading to black.
Ah, Christ, he thinks, at least I’ll never have to give her to anyone else. She’s dead and I’ll not have to sign her away to some purse-mouthed petty gent who wants her dowry. Grace would have wanted a title. She would have thought because she was lovely he should buy her one: Lady Grace. I wish my daughter Anne were here, he thinks, I wish Anne were here and promised to Rafe Sadler. If Anne were older. If Rafe were younger. If Anne were still alive.
Once more he bends his head over the cardinal’s letters. Wolsey is writing to the rulers of Europe, to ask them to support him, vindicate him, fight his cause. He, Thomas Cromwell, wishes the cardinal would not, or if he must, could the encryption be more tricky? Is it not treasonable for Wolsey to urge them to obstruct the king’s purpose? Henry would deem it is. The cardinal is not asking them to make war on Henry, on his behalf: he’s merely asking them to withdraw their approval of a king who very much likes to be liked.
He sits back in his chair, hands over his mouth, as if to disguise his opinion from himself. He thinks, I am glad I love my lord cardinal, because if I did not, and I were his enemy – let us say I am Suffolk, let us say I am Norfolk, let us say I am the king – I would be putting him on trial next week.
The door opens. ‘Richard? You can’t sleep? Well, I knew it. The play was too exciting for you.’
It is easy to smile now, but Richard does not smile; his face is in shadow. He says, ‘Master, I have a question to put to you. Our father is dead and you are our father now.’
Richard Williams, and Walter-named-after-Walter Williams: these are his sons. ‘Sit down,’ he says.
‘So shall we change our name to yours?’
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