Wednesday 13 December 2017

THE SUM OF ME – an exclusive short story by Elizabeth Fremantle

I am sadly stepping down from The History Girls at the end of 2017 and have posted something special for my last blog: an unpublished short story about the Grey sisters.

Copyright: Victoria and Albert Museum

The Sum of Me

Elizabeth Fremantle

   ‘Push, harder. Push, faster. Higher.’ His hands are on my back. I am swinging up, up, so high I can see over the wall into the stable block, so high I can see the laundry maids laying out the linens to dry in the far field, so high I am a bird. I soar and dip, trailing sputters of laughter, heart flapping. Then I am down, rolling on fresh grass, still laughing, struggling to fill my lungs. He is beside me with a grin.
   ‘Kitty,’ he says closing his eyes, as if the word is sacred.
   I clasp the back of his neck, drawing his face towards mine, pulling him closer slowly, until I can feel his breath on my skin, until our lips couldn’t be closer without touching, until his eyes merge into one, until my belly fizzes. I can smell him. He smells of the countryside, horses and meadows. Then I push him off, scramble up, back onto the swing.
   ‘Push me again.’
   But he is brooding now, sitting hunched on the grass, cradling his knees.
   ‘Don’t be a misery. You know you are my favourite cousin.’ I smile but he’s not looking.
   Eventually he mutters, ‘But–’
   ‘But what?’
   I swing myself, pushing off the ground with my feet, kicking them up and folding them back, back and forth, back and forth. Heat flowers beneath my dress, under my arms, down my back, down there. He pretends not to watch me, hiding dark eyes behind a fringe of dark hair. I rip off my coif and throw it towards him. He doesn’t catch it and it lands limply on the grass. My hair flies free.
   I imagine seeing myself as he does, watching my hair flung out behind me like a comet’s tail. I am wondering if this is what it feels like to be in love – soaring and dipping, a burning at the core of me.
   He is picking daisies with long fingers. Those same fingers that were trying to stuff themselves down the front of my tight-laced stomacher, last night, where my bud breasts are sprouting. When I press them they feel sore and there is a hard nub inside, like a kernel. My older sister, Jane, says that is normal. She also says I should stop thinking of my body so much and think more of God. How can I help it, when my body is transforming under my eyes? When I reply that God made my body, she tells me I am missing the point.
   Up I swing, hair lifting so a rush of cool air kisses the nape of my neck. I spot Father at a distance, ahead of his retinue, returning from court. A whirr of excitement catches in my throat, spilling out of me in a squeal. I am, if it is possible, more thrilled even by the return of Father, than I am by the thought of my favourite cousin’s burrowing fingers.
   ‘Father’s back,’ I say, jumping off the swing, meeting the ground at a run. ‘Come on, let’s go and meet him.’ But he doesn’t follow and I am glad, because I want Father to myself.
   But he is not alone when I arrive in the yard. The others have caught up. Jane is wearing a face that like a yard of tripe. But Father is gleaming, got up in all his finery. He catches sight of me, barefoot, hair loose. ‘My darling girl.’ He reaches down to me, catching me under the arms, hoisting me up to sit in front of him. He smells different, sweet, smoky, as if court has rubbed off on his clothes. ‘My little favourite,’ he whispers, kissing me, almost on the mouth. His beard tickles. ‘You mustn’t tell the others.’ He always says this. I run my finger over my lips to show they are sealed and lean my head back against his chest.
   ‘What was it like at court?’ I am longing to hear about the King, who is only a little older than I am, who Jane is meant to marry, if Father gets his way.
   Mother thinks different. ‘Between you and me,’ she has said, ‘the little King will marry a foreign princess. England needs allies.’ Mother should know. Her mother was married to a king once – the King of France. It is from Mother that we get our Tudor blood. ‘A blessing or a curse, I know not which,’ she says of it.
   ‘You wouldn’t like it there these days, Kitty.’
   ‘But I would, I would. Will you take me?’ The idea of court makes me want to burst out of my skin – all those people, the ones everyone talks of, all in the same place. ‘Please.’
   ‘I’m telling you, you wouldn’t like it. the King is unwell. It’s grim there.’
   ‘But when he is better you will take me, won’t you – like you promised?’
   Father doesn’t answer, just calls over one of the grooms to help us down. I can see my cousin skulking by the orchard gate. I blow him a kiss when no one is watching and his face is illuminated, briefly. Jane has disappeared into the house with her long face, without greeting me. I suppose she is upset because the King is ill. But Jane is not a sulker and I think something must be very wrong to put her in such a cheerless humour.
   Father piggybacks me, laughing, up the steps and into the hall.
   ‘She is too old for all that.’ Mother is standing in the door with Aunt Mary, waiting for us. ‘She needs to learn how to behave like a lady.’ But I can see that she is trying to hold her cross face together so it hides the smile behind.
   ‘I have news,’ Father says to her, putting me down, saying, ‘run along Kitty. Go and find your sisters.’ He and Mother close themselves in his study. I press my ear to the door but can’t hear anything except the throb of my blood – Tudor blood, a blessing or a curse.
   Jane is on the stairs.
   ‘Don’t snoop,’ she says. ‘You will find out soon enough. Come with me. Let’s find Mary.’
   Mary is our little sister who is the sweetest thing in the world, though she is crookbacked and hardly bigger than an infant, in spite of being almost eight years old. I am so used to Mary being the way she is it surprises me when strangers stare at her. Strangers stare at me too but not for the same reasons – I am stared at because of my prettiness, or that is what Father says.
   So, Mary is the sweet one, I am the pretty one and Jane is the clever one. Truth be told, Jane has all three qualities in abundance and puts us all to shame, or that is the opinion of our tutor. Although she is only fifteen Jane can hold a whole conversation in Greek and writes long letters in Latin about the Bible to scholars in places with funny names like Wittenburg, where the double-yous are vees.
   I cannot read Greek, let alone converse in it, nor Latin. My tutor threw my Lily’s Latin Grammar in the fire the other day with the words, ‘is your head stuffed with feathers, Lady Catherine?’ He shouted it, with more aggression than was necessary. I thought about telling Mother, but then he might have been replaced and, as he is a good deal nicer than his predecessor, I thought to use the situation to my advantage.
   I said to him, ‘I shall say nothing of the book, nor the shouting, on one condition.’
   He looked at me then as if I smelled nasty, before nodding slowly.
   ‘That you stop trying to teach me Greek or Latin and let me practice my music and dancing more often.’
   ‘With respect, I am employed to teach you the languages…
   ‘With respect, sir,’ I cut in. ‘You are not employed to throw valuable books on the fire.’
   We shall see what the outcome is.
   As Jane and I reach the landing, Mother storms from the study. ‘…too young!’ She slams the door, stopping to lean against it, bringing her hands up to cover her face. Jane and I scurry away.
   ‘What is this news?’ I ask Jane. ‘Does it have anything to do with me?’
   ‘You should think a little less of yourself and a little more of God.’ This is the kind of thing she says often, which makes her seem a bore, though she is not – not really. She truly believes we would all be better off for thinking more of God and less about almost anything else. I am sure she is right. But how can I think of God when the world is so full of other things to think of?
   Mother says I am too impetuous and need to learn to behave as befits my position. Father says I am perfect just as I am. Mistress Ellen, our nurse, thinks I am headstrong and Aunt Mary thinks me selfish. I don’t know what I think, from one minute to the next. That is the sum of me.
   I can see by the way Jane’s mouth is pursed that she knows more than she is telling. Perhaps by putting it differently, I will prise something out of her. ‘What is it that could have made Mother so very upset?’
   ‘You shall find out soon enough.’ As she says it she smiles but it is one of the saddest smiles I have ever seen.

Only the close household is at supper tonight. Little Mary stifles a yawn next to me and stretches her twisted spine, first one side and then the other. I reach out and rub my palm over the hunch of her shoulders, where she is knotted into a firm, tight mound, running my fingers down to loosen the lacing that is designed to keep her in shape. In my head I have the picture of Tom watching me from the orchard gate, making my heart bloat like a sponge in water. I catch his eye across the table. I cannot eat. Love makes you lose your appetite, everyone says so. Father takes a deep breath, as if he has just come up from under water, and raps on the table with the hilt of his knife.
   ‘I have important announcements that will affect us all.’ His eyes are dancing and he has a high colour. I can’t take my eyes off him. He looks so very splendid in his crimson outfit edged with gold, like a hero from ancient times. ‘Jane, stand.’
   My sister gets to her feet.
   ‘My eldest daughter, our very own Lady Jane, is to be named as heir in the king’s new devise for the succession.’
   We are all suspended in astonished silence – Maman looks distraught; Uncle John’s face is unreadable; Aunt Mary dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief; Tom’s mouth is an O; Little Mary looks bewildered; Father looks like the cat who licked the butter; Jane looks at her hands. I am thinking that this means I will be the Queen’s sister, but Jane’s voice echoes in my head: you should think less of yourself and more of God.
   But how can I think of God when I am thinking about being, after Mother I suppose, the greatest lady in all the court, sister to the Queen – me.
   Father continues. ‘This is not to be talked of until the official announcement is made. If I catch any loose mouths amongst you I will personally run you through with my sword.’ There is a general mumble around the table. ‘I have more good news,’ Father’s moustache is twitching, keeping a smile at bay. ‘Catherine, Mary,’ he says lifting his hands palms up. We both stand as if he is our puppeteer.     ‘My girls are to be wed.’
   Tom is stock-still, like that man from the bible who looked back when he was not supposed to. I fear he might burst into tears. I want to take his hand and run from the room, run all the way back to this afternoon when we were playing on the swing, run all the way back to last night when we were discovering parts of each other that had never been touched.
   ‘Lady Jane shall be wed to the Duke of Northumberland’s boy, Guildford Dudley.’
   Jane’s lips are pressed together tightly and her hands are twined together, knuckles white. I have never seen this Guildford Dudley and, as far as I know, nor has she, but I do know that Northumberland holds the reigns of all England – Father says it all the time.
   ‘Lady Catherine shall be wed to the Earl of Pembroke’s eldest, Henry Herbert–’
   ‘Who’s Henry Herbert?’ I blurt. My head is thrumming so I can’t get whatever is in it to make sense. A thought emerges slowly: what use is being the Queen’s sister if I am married already.
   ‘Quiet!’ snaps Father, pinching me hard at the nape of my neck where the bruise will not show. ‘And Lady Mary… she is still too young for marriage, of course, but will be betrothed to our cousin Arthur Grey.’
   It is me who gasps loudest. Cousin Arthur is a great uncouth fellow with a pike-wound in the face. We used to make up stories about him, to put the frights up each other after dark. Little Mary’s face is pale and damp as a dish of rennet and mine cannot be much better.
   ‘The ceremony,’ continues Father, ‘shall take place in three weeks at Durham Place.’ His hand is resting on my shoulder. It is a dead weight. Tom’s hand is over his mouth. Jane’s hands still cling each other. Mother’s fingers pick angrily at the pearls on her gown.
   ‘… our daughters to be pawns in Northumberland’s game of chess,’ I hear her mutter under her breath. ‘Come girls, to bed,’ she says, her voice full of false brightness, herding the three of us towards the door, where Mistress Ellen is waiting.

I am in a borrowed dress; it is the finest I have ever worn, but it is too big. It belonged to some Duchess who is in the Tower. Or that is what I overheard Mother tell Mistress Ellen, ‘My girls wed in such haste they must wear the cast-offs of a disgraced duchess.’
   The dress was altered a fortnight ago but I am thinner now and Mistress Ellen has had to fold the excess fabric and pin it together to make it fit.
   A great crowd has assembled at Durham Place and all their eyes are on us. I have dreamed of moments like this – me in a magnificent dress, all the court gathered to see me, all except the King that is, who is too sick to leave his bed. I have heard it whispered that he is dying, and though it is treason to even think that thought, I cannot help but remind myself that when he is gone my sister will be Queen.
   I may well have dreamed of moments like this, but it is not as I had imagined. No – I am thinking of Tom’s distraught face as we parted. My heart is shrinking and my breath wobbling, eyes watery. Jane gives my hand a squeeze, ‘it’ll be over before you know it.’
   But we both know this is only the beginning of it, that she will be in the bed of Guildford Dudley, and I will be at some place called Barnard’s Castle, in the care of my new husband’s family, before the day is done. We walk forward slowly together. I mustn’t think of Tom or I will lose my composure altogether.
   A scowling boy takes my hand, placing a careful kiss on it. So this is my one, I suppose. Jane has not offered a hand to hers. He is robust looking, not handsome, but with something that is not unattractive either. Jane keeps her gaze off him.
   My one is pallid as porridge and beaded with dew – I was warned he had been dragged from his sickbed to wed me. But he wears a fetching green doublet and his eyes are green to match – green like the jade dragon that sits on father’s desk. He smells of almonds and has a curl of dark hair that falls forward over, which he flicks back with a toss of his head. His jade eyes take me in and he appears, all in one moment, to come to life, like a drooping flower just watered. I feel better, suddenly.
   He links his arm through mine and as we approach the altar, he leans in close to whisper, ‘you are the most exquisite thing I have ever seen.’ Something I do not recognise uncoils in the root of me and my favourite cousin is forgotten.

© Elizabeth Fremantle
No part of this short story is to be duplicated without the permission of the author.

Elizabeth Fremantle's latest novel The Girl in the Glass Tower, is published by Penguin. 
For more information about the author and her books see


Tisserande said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this, thank you so much. I just love your style of writing, it makes that time so immediate - I am there, with them. Looking forward to your new book!

Liz Fremantle said...

Thank you so much!