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Fire and fleet and candle-lighte

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This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.

Journeys north in the cold. Our disappearing Lady of Walsingham. Eliza Barton, the holy maid of Kent. Holy wells. Swearing the saints in their niches. All saints and all souls and which are which. Purgatory. Liz and Grace and Anne.

When I wept that day at Esher - my wife lately dead and my daughters, the ashes cold in the grates, the wind howling through every crack - then the dead souls came out of purgatory, blowing around the courtyards and rattling at the shutters to be let in.

After his run in with Dorothea, he goes to Rafe for comfort. His greyhound pup Rafe. He wants to sink himself in, moaning raw, slake himself in Rafe’s wet mouth. His body is become quicklime. He could tup him like a woman. Rafe, flourishing with pleasure like a new bride, even when he is tired. Yielding under him, still lanky but not like a boy is lanky. This is the man. He winds his hands in his hair and pulls him closer helplessly.

He thinks back to that night in the garden, his own little Eden. Et in Arcadia ego. That night, when he walked back to the house through the blood-warm air. For once there are no hallos, just a boy opening the door and turning away. He climbs the stairs and pushes open their door. Light spills out, and the sound of flies and moths buzzing in the corner around the candles. Their window is open to the night air – no baby to worry about here. He closes the door behind himself and makes himself look directly at them. Rafe is unlacing his wife; she looks over her shoulder at him as he comes in. He reaches out for her, ready to pull his hands back. She leans her head with its heavy coil of hair into his hands. He starts to take it down, pin by pin, twist by twist. He collects the pins in his left hand as he works, and then looks around for somewhere to put them down. He does not want to step away from her right now. The chest at the bottom of the bed – that isn’t where they live, but it will do. Her hair is a shining chestnut thing, like silk damask woven with roses that are just visible when you turn it against the light. He is thinking of a hood he should have made for her. Maybe Henry will ask her to serve again; he should remember to ask whether that is something she would like.

He, Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal, bruiser, cheat, erstwhile small, quick man with a thin, lined face and dark, deep robes, a man whose cock is aching at the thought of her small hands, her alabaster belly and hips. He cards his hands through her hair and she sighs, purrs even. She is the mouser to Rafe’s greyhound. He tugs a little and she gasps; he kisses the spot where her neck becomes her shoulder. He imagines pulling her hair just a little more while her lips are wrapped around his cock, and he shudders, pushing his codpiece against her, though he doubts she can feel it through her skirts.

Rafe is watching him over Helen’s shoulder. His face is almost unbearably soft, but his eyes are dark with lust and he is fumbling between palming himself and getting Helen undressed. Her bodice comes away, and then her skirts, and Rafe hands the pieces off to him – he, Cromwell, jack of all trades, clothier. You’d think he was a Groom of the Body. But there are Helen’s milky sloping shoulders, and he sets to work, licking and kissing up her neck, behind her ear, blowing on the wet places as she sags back against him. Rafe is out of his doublet, he’s hopping on one foot dealing with his hose, and then his shirt is up and over his head. The fine hair on his chest is redder than what’s on his head, that on his legs likewise, and the curls around his cock are bright copper. He, Cromwell, is distracted from Helen by the sight. He can feel her chuckling as he stares at her husband.

He had been about to ask Rafe if he might bite her, mark her breasts, but now he wonders if he might need to get her permission instead, because wild, possessive passion for Rafe is surging up in him. He wants to get Rafe laid out on the bed and put his mouth on every inch of him – the long, bony feet, the jointed, ink-stained clerk’s hands, the delicate arches and calves and slender thighs so pale the veins show blue on their insides. He wants to nip at the little pouch of fat on Rafe’s stomach and nuzzle along the trail of hair there. He wants to suck his fingers and press kisses to his pulses – at his wrists, under his jaw, in the crease of his groin. He would like to kiss him before they fuck.

 

Execution day is verdant, lush, hot enough that the trees and grass glow emerald. Crom is gone up to the Tower; he has mounted the scaffold. God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of trumpets. Augmentation, ascension. Recension. How many different histories have I made?

If a man has six brothers and a wife, but he dies, may his next brother wed his wife? You could say that it is a sacred duty to care for the woman - and to care for the kingdom, which is also a woman, also a wife. But if the second brother dies, too, and the third weds the widow and then dies, and so on down to the last brother, when he is dead who is her husband in heaven? He hears the question in Archbishop Cranmer's voice, and Henry calling him a fucking Pharisee in response.

But who will take his hand and lead him from the scaffold  - Liz? Anselma? He thinks about the last time he wanted a woman and decided it wasn't worth it, no one was worth it, we all die too soon. And here he is, about to have all the time in the world.

 

Let us have an England that is quiet. Let's imagine him, Cromwell taking a few moments of rest and solace with Rafe. Then let's have an England where he does not wear himself out for Henry, living less and less while he augments, until he is dead before he is arraigned.

Here is a country full of everyone, a Venice, a story starting all over again. We don't merely sit on chairs in the hereafter. We don't forget time, because that would be forgetting ourselves.

The marrow of the crowding dead's bones is molten with grace. It's lucky he doesn't believe in works, but what a waste, he thinks. I did so many so effectively. Even the nasty ones.

Heaven is at Launde. Does the estate of the dead overlap with the living? Or are there two versions, parallel. Is one trapped, unmoving, unreal? Or is it realer? He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall. There was a woman in Norwich who took ill and dreamed the whole world was as small as a hazelnut, but infinitely safe because of God's grace. God's grace is a colder word for his intimacy, his love. We are safe because we are loved. How absurd.

So again: let's have an England where we feel loved. Let's see where that gets us, opening the bedroom door at Launde Abbey and stepping out. The sun is coming up thick and gold like honey. The prior's house has been reglazed, and there is a window in this hallway. He is bare under his shirt, legs thick and hairy, cock lose to the air. The ghost of Rafe runs his hands up the backs of his legs and nuzzles at the inside of his thigh.

The woman in the bed behind him yelps when sunlight hits her. "God's wounds, Thomas, go out or come back in. You're worse than a cat." So he turns back to the bed and leans over her, kissing her neck, and she sighs and pulls him down over her. He scoots down the bed, pushing her shift up her thighs, her belly, following its hem with kisses.