Whispers, behind closed doors

The Great Matter (crop)

Whispers, behind closed doors
by Rosanna Hildyard

Many years ago, back in our green days, we played at the new game of tennis, dressed up for May masques and dared call King Harry’s wife ‘the Spanish woman’ almost openly behind the backs of our hands, our eyes gleaming sideways like Holbein’s drawings. We were careless with our talking as with our dice; there were no forfeits. That was before the monasteries were burned, of course. Confession was a lighter matter, then.

It was the court of Surrey’s verse and Sidney’s satire. We played at jousts and jokes and wrote freely, expecting to take our words back easily. Scraps of vellum floated around corners and love-notes were discovered carelessly left under cushions or scratched on a pane of glass. Gossip spread easy as butter does on hot bread, none of us seeing the knife-edge that turned underneath. Now, I see some of our innocent metaphors intimate towards sadder consequences: ‘as lovely as a rose’ leads to: ‘as thorny as’: ‘as wilted as’: as fucked as a plucked rose. But at that time we poets were jesters and held nothing sacred.

Our court chafed at the leash at the sniff of suggestion. Once, a group of us were slouched in the chapel cloisters waiting for His Grace while he told his sins. I heard a steady, sensuous sighing before I saw her. And, as I leapt up, there she was: walking with her rosary, skirt flirting side to side. I was ten paces away but gaped as she turned and half-smiled, hinting. Small wonder she led us, with even her dress whispering so.

I stopped looking for her when the rumours began to clot and thicken. There was a music-boy killed horribly, later: Smeaton, who’d tickled her fancy with his playing and suffered for it when King Harry needed excuse to be rid of her. They tickled his feet with hot irons until he confessed to witchcraft, perversions, all that they could think of, and then they pulled out his guts like lutestrings anyway: all muted. Speaking our secrets became more solemn than we had ever imagined when the King broke with the Church. Popery was outlawed, and the rumours Anne Boleyn encouraged ended in her silence.

I was Wyatt, once; the quickest wit at Whitehall, once. But these days all I can find to say is that I see no value in whispered confessions, any more, of confidences or of misdeed. No more since men and women have burned at Smithfield for Catholic loyalties, or been beheaded for flirtation. And yet still I think, sometimes, of the Boleyn girl teasing me, when she was fresh-come from France and ripe for excitement and thrilling to the buzz and murmur around her, for surely gossip was nothing but fun?

We learned it is better some words go unspoken. But I am old now, our fire is dying for the night and it is somehow easy to speak in the dark. And I have not made confession for a long time.

Rosanna Hildyard’s essays and fiction have recently appeared in Under The Radar, Review31 and The Poetry School and newspapers in North East UK. She won Oxford University’s The Isis Short Story Competition in 2016, judged by Hossein Amini and Polly Toynbee, and her satirical drama, Ubu Trump, was published by Eyewear in 2017.

Image detail from The Courtship of Anne Boleyn by Emanuel Leutze (1846), Smithsonian American Art Museum 1980.28.

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