She had never wanted to be cruel but it had crept up on her somehow. She remembers how it used to be, how people used to see her- clever Queen Catherine, who had solved the whole problem of Arthur’s death by marrying Henry, good Queen Catherine who advocated for patience and kindness. Charitable Queen Catherine, with her pricked fingers from sewing shirts for the poor; pious Queen Catherine, with her fasting and prayers.
Kindness used come easily- towards anxious serving maids and fumbling pages and to the many many poor souls who would crowd into her presence chamber. Having to bite her tongue back from angry words and sharp retorts to her own husband left her patient by necessity- it was easy to stay calm over dropped pitchers and torn gowns and burnt food, and she would hear the servants whisper about it when they thought she couldn’t hear.
‘So kind…..’ ‘Ever so easy to serve-’
It used to be easy to feel for people, to see the best intentions behind what was actually said and done. It used to be easy to forgive.
It isn’t so easy anymore.
She had held her temper until the end back in her old life, in preparation for the day that she would be a monarch again, had done so to prove her right to the crown, as if she could bring about justice through exemplary behaviour.
The reward for her waiting had never come, for course- she knows that now. The years of loneliness, of hunger and cold, of sickness and of pain, had all been for nothing and now she has nothing left to prove: now she behaves only as the person she is- a wronged woman, a mistreated ex wife, a betrayed ex queen- and there is a certain pleasure in allowing herself to express the bitterness, the frustration that she never allowed herself back then.
Now she can snap, now she can roll her eyes and sigh and say anything she wants to. Once or twice, she catches a glimpse of herself in a window, a mirror and it’s a funny feeling, seeing her old face- the face of the young new queen, fresh out of seclusion and mourning, anxious to fulfill her role to be the gentle mother of this fresh new country- twisted into a sneer.
Sometimes it almost makes her laugh. Sometimes it jars her.
It jars Bessie too, she can tell from how the girl looks at her sometimes- like she’s searching for something that’s missing, like she’s waiting for things to go back to normal after a temporary change
She can tell that it jars Bessie, that is confuses and upsets her, and this gives her pleasure too.
(Anything that causes Bessie discomfort gives her a sort of pleasure.)
She knows she should be happy to have someone familiar back with her- and she had cried actual tears of happiness when she saw Maria again, while Jane and Joan clung to one another tightly enough to leave bruises….but of course it wasn’t that simple.
(Nothing is ever simple.)
Really, she should count herself lucky that Bessie’s presence doesn’t give her the same flashbacks that Maggie experiences from being around Anne….but it’s still hard, it’s still painful.
She doesn’t see Bessie as a headless corpse.
Instead, she looks at Bessie and she sees herself. She sees herself in prayer, desperate, frantic, begging and pleading for a child. She sees herself in tears after each moon’s new blood, trembling with the knowledge that Henry would find out … sooner or later.
She hears the whisperers, discussing her broken barren body- for surely the fault must be with her, did the king not have a son already? She sees the king, his face hard and cold but easily readable as he thinks the same, convincing himself, pulling himself back from doubt or guilt: it’s not him, Bessie proves that, she proves that it’s all Catalina’s fault.
She sees Henry falling out of love with her, drawing away from her- and with him, the love of the country, the respect of the people, creeps away too.
She sees herself shamed- in private, in public, she sees herself abandoned. She sees herself dying, alone, cold and sick and poorly clothed. She sees the end result of Henry’s dying love- and she knows that wherever else blame might lay, the tide began turning against her because of Bessie.
Bless ’ee, Bessie Blount.
Fans were politely asked, via several social media posts, not to use the old phrase even as a joke when Howard saw how Bessie shrunk away from it, but Catalina was glad too.
Hearing it made her feel sick but unlike Bessie, she was not one to crumple in public.
That had always been the girl’s problem- vulnerable, fragile. Once, long ago, it had made her sorry for her- for the child shrinking back and shivering in her stiff new gown, overwhelmed by the noise and crowds of the wedding festivities, barely able to say a word for fear of making some mistake.
‘Who is that girl?’
‘The Blount girl, Ma’am. One of your new maids in waiting, just arrived I believe.’ And then, in an undertone that Catalina had only just caught over the noise of the great hall, ‘Poor little thing is only eleven- they say her parents couldn’t wait to rid themselves of her.’
Once, it had made her want to take care of her, to shield her.
Now she found Bessie’s vulnerability irritating in its obviousness- one only needed to glance at Bessie to feel sorry for her and so everybody did. There was no sympathy left for those left dazed and scarred by her actions- by her indiscretion.
Just as the country had bent themselves up in sympathy for the poor king shackled to a barren wife- and then to a bitter, clinging ex wife- now the other queens shook their heads over ‘poor Bessie’.
The years of struggle, the aching misery, the humiliation, the discomfort, were all (it seemed) swept away and forgotten.
But she did her best to make them remember.
Somehow though, it was never enough: no matter what she said or did, no matter how she tried to remind them of what had happened to her as Bessie’s hands, she just made herself look worse in their eyes. They never seemed to see that she was hurting, they never seemed to see that she was lonely.
But she was.
(Sometimes it felt like she always had been.)
She’d been lonely as a young widow, lonely as a bride. She’d first noticed Bessie because the girl hadd looked as alone as she felt- standing a little apart from everyone else, eyes on the ground, looking as if she wanted to make herself disappear.
She had done for Bessie what no one had done for her- taken an interest in her, befriended her.
‘And what do they call you, child?’
‘B- bessie. If it please your Majesty.’
‘You are to be my youngest maid in waiting, did you know that?’
‘No- no, your majesty.’
‘Are you excited to come to court?’
The girl had been well-drilled in courtesy- she nodded.
‘Yes, your majesty. I- hope I will be useful. To you, I mean.’
‘I’m sure you’ll do wonderfully well, sweetheart. I’m so pleased you’ve come to serve me.’
‘Thank you. Your majesty.’
She looked so anxious Catalina couldn’t bear it- she put her hand gently on the girls arm.
‘It’s alright, sweeting, you don’t need to be afraid.’
It hadn’t taken much- a few kind words, a smile: the child seemed starved for affection. Before a day had passed, she was following Catalina around like a puppy- not pushing herself forward, not making herself a nuisance, but always lingering on the periphery of wherever Catalina happened to be, always just visible out of the corner of her eye, hands twisting nervously, waiting for an order, any order: to pour a cup of ale, to take her lapdog from the room, to read a letter, to wind wool.
The girl was always so grateful for the merest hint of affection and unlike so many of her other attendants- always watching, always listening for some tipbit that might prove useful gossip later, or else always cozening, always coaxing for some favour they wanted- Bessie was easy to understand.
She just wanted someone who was nice to her- and being nice to her was, Catalina found, very easy. She was a sweet girl, she was thoughtful. Clever enough to make conversation once she got over her shyness. She noticed things.
When a conversation would turn sour and courtly smiles became dangerously stretched, when words grew sharp and barbed, Catalina would grit her teeth and keep calm, as she always did, as she always had done- except now she would find herself grounded by the small hand holding onto her skirts, the small foot nudging against her ankle- and from the seat close to her, she would look up and see Bessie’s worried young face.
Once or twice, the girl even made a little distraction- pricking her finger and causing a flurry as the other ladies rushed to save the altar cloth they were working on from the blood, upsetting a cup of ale to give her reason to break into abject apologies: suddenly the focus would be off Catalina for a minute or two and she’d be able to collect herself, gather her thoughts and be ready once the conversation resumed.
And afterwards- an hour later, a few hours later- she would send her ladies away and call Bessie to her side as sternly as she could manage. And once they were alone, she would pull the girl into her arms and tell her how grateful she was, and Bessie would glow with pride.
‘Did I do well, Catty?’
‘Wonderfully well, sweetheart. What would I do without my clever girl?’
It had never seriously occurred to Catalina that she would ever have to do without her- the thought that she might was unpleasant so she dismissed it. Sending Bessie away would be like having to send away an arm or a leg.
She wondered sometimes if this was what it felt like to be a mother- although she always dismissed the thought too- she would have her own children one day.
(She would, she would, she would.)
Even then, she knew that she would never be able to have with her own children the relationship she had with Bessie. Her children would be brought up away from court, raised by people paid to do so, in order to turn them into the adults they would need to become. Her children would have their own households from birth- she would visit them and they her but ‘home’ would never mean the same place.
Bessie though was always with her- she didn’t need to worry about the girl’s readiness as an heir because that was never even a distant possibility. Instead, she could worry about other things- how white and pinched the girls face got when she saw her first bear-baiting (ironically something that was meant to be a treat) and how she looked so weary in the days that followed.
(‘Hush- it was just a bad dream.’
‘It’s horrible, Catty- why do people like to watch it so much?’
‘Sometimes people like strange things, sweetheart. Don’t think on it anymore- snuggle down and go to sleep. I’ll stay with you.’
‘Do you promise?’
She could worry that Bessie might be afraid when it thundered (she was) without having to worry that it would make the girl too soft to rule if she let her sit in her lap during storms.
(‘It’s just God, sweeting. That’s all.’
‘It’s so loud, it-’
‘I’ve got you safe, it’s alright. It’ll be over soon.’)
She could indulge her taste for marchpane, her preference for green apples over red without having to spare a thought about whether this indulgence would ‘spoil’ her. She could laugh at Bessie’s distaste for embroidery without having to scold her about necessary skills, she could release her early from her duties just for the pleasure of Bessie’s smile without having to worry that a future Queen should not dedicate quite so much time to music.
She could love without restrictions, without conditions, without fear.
Bessie in turn could admit to Catalina when she wasn’t feeling well- and know with certainty that the admission would result in her being tucked into bed with a cool cloth on her forehead, rather than questions about whether she was attempting to shirk her duties. She could tell Catalina about her progress with her music lessons without fearing that the woman would be bored, she could play her her new songs without being afraid that they would be ridiculed. She could go to her after being scolded by the more senior ladies, and know that Catalina would put aside her work to take her into her arms and reassure her that she wouldn’t be sent away, not ever.
(‘Don’t listen to them, carino. They were just cross.’
‘You won’t let them send me away, will you Catty?’
‘Never, mi amor.’)
It was all spoilt of course, as all good things are.
She didn’t have the option of hating her husband- she supposes it would be different in the modern day- and so it was Bessie she had to blame, Bessie who was sent away (quietly, discreetly.)
And Catalina was alone again.
She was alone- but Bessie wasn’t, it seemed. Bessie had Anna, who had been thrilled to have someone back of her own. She even had Maria, who by rights should have been on Catalina’s side rather than constantly reminding her to ‘be kind’. And she had Kitty too- who always seemed to be there to jump to Bessie’s defence, to shut Catalina down before the words had fully left her mouth. Stepping into the place Catalina had left.
Bessie didn’t need her anymore.
She’s early to the theatre but still the last to arrive, and she lingers for a moment in the doorway- Anne is showing Cathy something on her phone, they’re both laughing…. Joan is frantically making notes, Jane leaning over her shoulder and urging her to take a break. Kitty is leaning back on the couch, talking to Anna…..and Bessie is there, sitting on the floor at Kitty’s feet and tuning her bass. As Catalina watches, she finishes and moves up onto the sofa, shooting a pleading look at the tall pink-haired woman. Kitty smiles, lets Bessie into her lap, wraps her arms around her and says something quietly in her ear that makes the girl laugh.
It hurts to watch: she misses having someone look at her like that…. And when Bessie catches sight of her, it hurts more that the girl seems to stiffen, that she slides from Kitty’s knee and picks up her guitar again, her eyes averted as if she’s waiting for an attack.
Catalina knows it shouldn’t be a surprise- she’s made barbed comments before about maturity, in which the words ‘pathetic’ and ‘childish’ may or may not have come up…. She knows it’s her fault. But it’s still painful, to see the girl who used to adore her shrink away from her.
(She hates herself. She hates Bessie. She hates herself.)
At the same time…. She can’t look at the girl without feeling sick, angry, scared…. and the hurt spills out too easily, in scowls and jibes.
She’s angry at Bessie for being hurt so easily. She’s angry at herself for the same reason.
She hurts. Bessie hurts. It’s a cycle, it seems.
So she leaves the dressing room, sits in her car until two minutes before the show begins, throws on her costume and doesn’t look at anyone for the rest of the day.
It’s easier if she doesn’t have to see the person she has become reflected in their eyes.
Every day she wakes up with the same thought at the back of her mind- today she will do better, be better. Today she will rise above things…. But then inevitably things will start to spiral and veer off track- her alarm clock won’t go off, her yoghurt will be gone from the fridge, someone will use up all of the hot water- and the petty annoyances will use up all of her good will and her good intentions and before she knows it, she’s snapping and snarking and Bessie is looking up at her with those big eyes of hers, looking so wounded- and shes failed again, she’s ruined things again….
But there will always be tomorrow.
Which is why when she comes into the dressing room on Sunday afternoon to pick up a forgotten jacket and sees Bessie sprawled on the floor, pale and not moving, her first thought is one of freezing, paralyzing regret: I left it too late. I left it too late and now she’s dead and it’s all too late…..
It’s too late, it’s too late, it’s too late-
It’s like a switch being turned: Bessie is dead, Bessie is dead, and I did it all wrong, I did everything wrong, God help me, I did it all wrong-
She’s on her knees by that point- she’s begging, praying, the way she used to when she felt her womb quicken: Lord, please let me not lose this child…. The same panic, the same desperation.
(It doesn’t occur to her that she should not feel this way, that Bessie- if she ever truly was- can surely no longer be called hers’)
It’s too late, it’s too late-
But Bessie’s hand, when she takes it, is warm-
She wonders if shes imagining it- she does, sometimes: she could feel her son kicking even as the midwife confirmed that he had surely died in her belly, she missed her blood when she was sure that she had taken…. But then Bessie gives a tiny sign, her eyelashes flutter-
It isn’t too late.
The thought is as terrifying as it is relieving: she isn’t dead and- oh God-
Bessie isn’t dead but if she had been, Catalina surely would have condemned herself to hell many times over for her treatment of the girl and what sort of horrible person must she be, where does that leave her now-?
And then Bessie moves again, moans weakly, and she’s snapped back into action- except she isn’t really sure what action is meant to look like.
(She remembers Cathy, a while back, reading a book about about what to do in crisis situations.
‘You never know what might happen- there are so many more things that can happen nowadays-’
‘You know they won’t all happen to you right?’ Catalina had teased from the other end of the sofa and Cathy had frowned and moved her feet from her godmother’s lap.
‘Fine but don’t come crying to me when you’re not prepared for something…’
‘Does it tell you how to deal with reincarnation?’ Catalina had quipped, taking the feet and taking up the nail polish again, while Cathy huffed and pouted.)
How she wishes she had listened now- except maybe she had taken in a bit, because she knows not to move her…. Not yet anyway, not until she knows she isn’t really hurt.
She’s breathing, at least- she’s conscious-ish….
‘Bessie?’ It feels strange saying the girl’s name without the sharpness that she usually ends up using. ‘Bessie- can you hear me?’
The bassist is moving a bit more now and she’s about to tell her to lie still when a fit of coughing jerks her up: it’s a bit painful to listen to, and to watch, she’s wracked by the spasm, and instinctively Catalina wraps an arm around her shoulders to support her.
It’s the first time she’s touched Bessie for…. A while. A long time.
When it passes, Bessie sinks back against her: her eyes are glassy, unfocused, and she’s not just warm, as she first assumed, she’s hot. She’s too hot.
She feels a moment of surprise- how has the girl managed to get herself this sick so quickly…. But then she feels a pang of guilt.
Hadn’t she snapped at bessie for making too much noise during rehearsal yesterday morning, accused her of playing up her ‘cold or whatever’ for sympathy? Hadn’t she rolled her eyes when the girl stumbled in late, hadn’t she sighed irritably at the sight of her curled up wearily in Kitty’s arms during the break, thinking that she really needed to tell Howard to stop being so soft with her?
(She’d ignored the little sharp stab of memory, of Bessie curling up to her like that, hiding her face in her neck and clinging to the sleeve of her gown so tightly that it would be left creased.) (Her arms definitely hadn’t suddenly felt empty.)
‘Are you alright?’
It’s not a lie, the girls forehead is on fire… but she sighs, manages a faint smile, at the feel of Catalina’s cool fingers on her hot skin.
‘Feels good, Catty-’
Her breath catches in her throat.
When has she last heard that nickname?
She knows really that it’s just another symptom of sickness, like the fever, like the fainting (she’s sure she must have fainted- no blood, nothing broken)- proof that Bessie must be really, really out of it…. But she still feels a little glow of happiness, all the same.
She never thought she’d hear Bessie calling her that again- she’d assumed things had gone far too far- and she takes the girl’s other hand. Squeezes it.
‘I’m here. It’s alright.’
She figures she can risk moving the girl now- it’s no use shouting for anyone because it’s not like there’s anyone else there and it would only strain her voice…
Also- she doesn’t really want to leave Bessie alone on the floor while she fetches someone.
(What if she thought she was being abandoned again? What if-)
So she does the only thing she can do- scoops the bassist into her arms and gets to her feet- she’ll get to the reception where she left her bag and phone, she can call for help then- but she has to take a minute to adjust herself, to get used to the weight in her arms.
(She hasn’t carried anyone in a while, although she didn’t used to have to think twice about it: she remembers carrying Bessie to bed after weariness made the girl stumble, scooping her up out of the throes of nightmares to comfort her, lifting her up when she fell and twisted her ankle, while calling for someone to bring ice- she remembers how Bessie had gripped her hand when the physician went to work on wrapping it, eyes wide and biting her lip so hard it bled.
‘Doesn’t it hurt, carino?’
‘I want to be brave for you Catty.’)
Before she’s taken two steps they’re interrupted by footsteps- the door is pushed open: Joan’s arms are full of bags and papers, as usual, she’s holding a green and white Starbucks cup and Catalina internally winces when she wonders how much caffeine the music director must have had already.
From the look on Joan’s face, it’s as if she thinks Catalina has killed the girl or something and she’s a bit offended.
‘She’s sick- I think she fainted-’
‘Oh- yeah, she said she wasn’t feeling well….’
‘And you just left her to it?’
Joan’s face creases in annoyance. ‘You were the one who told her to be quiet when she was coughing earlier! If anything, this is on you- you know she’d never want to make you angry by making a fuss!’
And she knows Joan is right- that’s the awful thing.
When Catalina doesn’t snap back, Joan looks up- she seems surprised at the emotion on her face and a little nervous too: she clearly hasn’t had enough coffee to deal with both a sick Bessie and an emotionally fragile Aragaon.
‘Ok- I’m going to call 111 and see if they recommend us bringing her in’ She goes to feel Bessie’s forehead and she whimpers, shrinks away.
Catalina holds her more tightly- she has a sudden desire to push Joan away for frightening Bessie.
‘ Shhhh, it’s alright. It’s alright-’ she takes a deep breath, it’s not like Bessie will remember. ‘-mi amor.’
The words are strange on her tongue after so long but it feels good to say them anyway.
They send an ambulance, since no one can say for sure that Bessie didn;t hit her head- when the paramedic takes her from Catalina, Bessie rouses enough to cling as much as her feeble strength will allow.
It isn’t hard for the man to peel her hands away so he can check her over, and Catalina knows he’s right to do so but it still makes her heart hurt when Bessie starts to cry and plead for him not to touch her.
God knows what she’s imagining is happening.
She stays as close as she can, she tries to think of the right thing to say that will comfort the girl, half delirious as she is.
‘I’m right here, sweeting- I’m still with you-’
When the man finishes- Joan is filling in the other queens in the hallway with the last of her dying phone’s energy- Catalina hold out her arms to take Bessie back.
The man looks at her oddly. ‘It’s ok, I’ll put her on the stretcher’
‘I want to hold her’
‘You don’t need to though.’
‘She wants me to.’
He quirks an eyebrow. ‘She won’t remember, you know- no need for you to do your back in.’
She thought she’d mostly forgotten how to be a queen but it’s still there, it seems- just lurking below the surface, waiting to be needed.
‘Are you telling me what I may and may not do?’
‘Then I’ll thank you to mind your own business.’
Reluctantly he lets Catalina scoop Bessie back into her arms- she doesn’t really wake up but she presses herself as close as she can, hides her face against Catalina’s shirt.
Still he apparently can’t resist a final comment- or maybe he just doesn’t value his life.
‘Just seems unnecessary. She’s not a baby, is she?’
It’s only the arrival of the ambulance that saves him from Catalina’s tirade about professionalism and compassion and basic decency- half whispered, so she doesn’t disturb or frighten the bassist in her arms.
She holds Bessie’s hand in the back of the ambulance and watches her chest rise and fall with each shallow breath, counting them.
She’s not stupid. She knows a second chance when she sees one.
She’ll make things right again- no matter how long it takes.
She’s had enough practise being patient, after all.
In the lonely years of back then, Bessie had sometimes found herself playing a game in her head: the worst thing that could happen.
On dark lonely nights, she’d imagine catastrophes- floods and fires, plague and pox- and wonder which might bring Catty back to her.
She’d imagine Catty rescuing her- and it would, temporarily at least, help her forget about the fact that with every day that passed without a word, the chance of any sort of reconciliation grew fainter and fainter.
She’d imagine Catalina’s hand over hers. She’d imagine her voice, how it would sound after a year. Five. Ten. She’d imagine Catalina looking at her with the same soft look she used to have. She’d imagine Catalina calling her ‘Mi amor’ as she used to.
Of course, it was only ever a game, a child’s game, and she’d never played it in her new life since it had long ago stopped being comforting.
Which is why she’s angry at herself for letting her subconscious indulge in dreams like this- she’s sick, she knows she is, she cant help it… she doesn’t need to be tortured by old memories, by fantasies that will never happen.
Although it’s odd really- she remembers Catalina holding her hand but now the fever dream has added rings that she’s sure Catalina never wore back then- slim, shiny, modern- and when she’s lifted into dream Catalina’s arms and held against her chest, it’s the modern smell of laundry detergent she smells instead of the rose-water-and-cloves that used to be in her dreams.
She blames her fever- she never dreams of modern Catalina since it’s too painful. She knows it will hurt when she wakes up, when she has to reconcile the woman with the cold eyes with the woman she’s imagining, who’s arms are so warm, who’s still somehow able to make her feel so safe.
(She looks worried though, she sounds worried- is she crying? This is odd too. Catalina has never cried in her dreams before, she’s never looked scared like she does now.)
Dream Catalina calls her mi amor but there’s no trace of the old Spanish accent- it’s being said with the voice Catalina has now, even though that would never happen. Distantly, she hears beeping, and then shouting, far far away.
It frightens her- are they shouting at her- what’s happening? Is she in danger? She tries to move, to speak-
But then she’s pulled closer, there’s a hand on her cheek.
‘It’s alright, sweetheart, don’t be scared. I’ve got you.’
Then more quietly: ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ And more firmly ‘We’ll be alright. Everything will be alright.’
She isn’t really sure what’s going on but it doesn’t matter- she’s too tired, too tired- odd since she knows she must already be asleep.
It’s a very strange dream.
‘It’s alright, mi amore.’
She burrows further into the arms of dream Catalina- a dream, but so warm, so safe- and lets herself relax.
She’ll enjoy the dream as long as she can.
‘Stay with me?’ She thinks it’s her own voice she hears.
(She doesn’t want to have to wake up ever.)
She feels a kiss, pressed again the top of her head- except her dream Catalina has never worn lipstick until now, she’s sure….
It’s such a strange dream.