It has been some months, but ‘A strange comfort’ is a sequel to an earlier story, ‘Cards on the table.’ About an imagined conversation between Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell.
In this sequel, the tables are turned, and it is Cromwell who faces execution. I have taken a few liberties, but I hope you still enjoy it.
So, without further ado, I give you:
A strange comfort
It is July 27th, 1540, and Thomas Cromwell is in the Tower of London, where he has been since his arrest by a gleeful Duke of Norfolk on June 10th. There was no trial since Cromwell’s enemies used his laws and inventions to hold him – and no doubt they will use the same to execute him tomorrow.
In the early weeks, Cromwell had been industrious, meticulously writing to the King every day. He had hoped to win the King around to spare his life. But gradually, he had grown to accept that his efforts were futile – because without his staying hand, who else would incline Henry to mercy.
The best he can hope for now is that the King’s displeasure is averted from his family and that Norfolk can find places for his retinue of servants. Cromwell knows that everything he has so carefully built up over the years will be dismantled and parcelled out according to the King’s whim.
But on this final evening, Cromwell sits head bowed in silence with his books and papers spread before him on the table.
It is the prickle at the nape of his neck that alerts him.
‘Lord preserve me,’ Cromwell mutters as the hooded figure glides around to face him.
He knows who this is and notes with grim humour that she has been reunited with her head. Though he would have preferred a ‘visitation’ from his patron and friend Cardinal, Thomas Wolsey.
Peering at the figure outlined in tallow candlelight, Cromwell asks, ‘here to gloat, Anne?’
‘Do you recall my final words to you, Cremuel?’
He is taken aback by her voice as it echoes around his chamber. He had not thought to hear it again, but then he had not thought an apparition would speak.
But this one does.
And as her impatience buffets him across the cheek, Cromwell gathers up his cloak and repeats Anne’s final words to him.
‘Be careful, Cremuel; you may be next.’
He remembers at the time he had been anxious to leave behind the stooped and reduced figure of Anne and return to the land of the living.
Though there is nothing stooped or reduced about the figure that dominates his eyeline now.
And as if reading his mind, the figure speaks again, ‘you were in a hurry to depart, but I am grateful you attended me, despite everything that followed.’
Cromwell inclines his head; perhaps she will leave now?
But when he looks up again, the figure has filled the room, and for a moment, all Cromwell sees is dark and shadow. His heart thumps within his chest as she envelopes him and Cromwell almost loses himself.
When things settle, coalesce back into reality, Cromwell has his back pressed against the wall. The cool stone against his palms steadies him. The roughness of the wall’s texture slows his heart.
The figure is seated, head averted, composed, and waiting.
‘What else could I have done, Anne?’
Cromwell eases his body back onto his stool.
‘You promised much and delivered little.’
‘I delivered you,’ Cromwell answers her.
He spreads his palms on the table before continuing, ‘It’s what you didn’t deliver that was the issue.’
The figure turns to Cromwell, and he feels an icy fingertip under his chin, as though his face is being tipped and his soul raked over.
‘What went wrong, Cremuel?’
Tiny shards of wood from the table scratch at the pads of his fingers while Cromwell watches and waits. He does not yet feel the need to account for himself.
‘It was always going to be a matter of time,’ she says.
Cromwell peers at the figure, but he cannot discern any apparent features under the hood.
‘If he can kill a Queen, he can kill a minister.’
Is she expecting refreshments, he wonders?
‘What he makes; he can unmake.’
‘And he has.’
Her satisfaction wraps itself tightly around these last three words.
‘You flew too close to the sun.’
Like Icarus? Cromwell murmurs; the allegory is not lost on him.
‘Have you an accounting?’ She interrupts his reverie.
With a sigh, Cromwell flattens out the parchment in front of him and offers it across. If she can speak, perhaps she can read too?
‘Read it,’ she commands.
Clearing his throat, Cromwell starts to recite from the column on the left entitled my Missteps and Misdemeanours…
‘Reginald Pole still lives; I made a promise I did not keep.’
‘Anne of Cleves, the king, grew impatient; I took too long to free him – I made a promise I should not have kept.’
He taps the parchment lightly on the edge of the table before continuing.
‘I did not fill the King’s coffers quickly enough.’
‘I fell ill at the wrong time – my enemies took advantage of my illness to drip poison into Henry’s ear; he was ever easily swayed.’
‘Is that it?’
Her derision wallops him in the chest.
Cromwell coughs before continuing.
‘I know the location of too many skeletons – too many of the nobility need me dead.’
‘I should have finished off, Uncle Norfolk when I had the chance.’
Her laughter almost knocks him off his stool.
‘You allowed my uncle to outwit and outthink you?’
‘That useless bag of bones?’
Cromwell recalls the glee on Norfolk’s face on the day of his arrest. Why had he not dealt with him properly when he had the chance?
All too late now, of course.
‘There is more,’ he states and starts to recite from the items listed on the right side of the parchment.
‘After seven years in service to the king, I grew weary.’
‘It was time for Henry to grow up.’
Cromwell pauses for a moment, ‘then there was Jane.’
His right-hand rubs at his temple; why did Henry not take better care?
He forgets, momentarily about the figure opposite and whispers to himself, ‘how was Jane allowed to die?’
The figure leans in, her incredulity and disbelief knocking at his forehead. It reminds Cromwell that he had never once attempted to flirt with Anne. For her, no other woman existed – it was incomprehensible to her that the King, no scratch that, any man could prefer Jane Seymour to her. In this regard, it seems nothing has changed.
‘Did you not see the danger?’
Her tone edged with contempt compels Cromwell to defend himself, ‘no more did you?’
‘No,’ she pauses, ‘I did not.’
‘Why are you here?’ Cromwell decides to go on the offensive, ‘I did not summon you. If anything, I would have chosen Wolsey.’
He stands as though to push the spectre back but staggers as a cold blast hits his chest, aimed unerringly at the place where he kept his dagger – unthinkingly, he reaches for it. He searches for his last line of protection before remembering it is no longer there.
‘Because the Cardinal is otherwise engaged,’ she answers him.
But all the spectre does, is fade into the night with, ‘I will be with you tomorrow, right at the end, Cremuel.’
Until next time