Tudor Ghost Story Contest Winner 2012
By Debbie Fenton
April 1536 The River Thames London
I wait patiently, at the agreed meeting point, cloaked in black velvet like the night sky above me. I am shaking; terrified the thud of my beating heart will give me away. Every sound, every footstep, I fear I am being hunted. I think of the deer in Greenwich Park, and how much I thrilled at the chase, bringing the beast down, no thought for the beautiful creature, trapped, alone and seeing its end unfold before it. The sound of the river lapping up against the shore does nothing to steady my nerves and I tie the cord of my purse tightly around my fingers and release it again.
I hear some church bells ringing in the distance and I know the time has come. Out of the dark night emerging from the river mist appears a small boat rowing towards me. It is being steered by a shadowy hooded figure, the sight like a grim reaper sends chills down my spine and I put my hand up to my mouth to stifle a whimper.
The figure beckons me to step forward, curling his spindle like finger. ‘My Lady?’ he offers in a deep gruff tone. I do not answer, fearful I may be handing myself over to my enemy. I strain my eyes to look at the haunting man. His face is hidden by a large hood, his body concealed in a jet black cloak. ‘My Lord Rochford has sent me,’ he continues and gestures to the seat opposite him in the rocking boat. His voice is strange and unworldly, it frightens me but the mere mention of my brother’s name gives me small comfort and I trust that this is the man that George has sent to take me to safety. He offers me his hand, but I don’t take it, the thought of touching a strange man who is not a kin to me is unthinkable. I sit opposite him and pull my fur-lined hood over my face, the air on the river is bitter and I do not want this man to see the face of a fallen Queen. I swiftly hand him my purse and catch a glimpse of his hands, which are scarred and worn, as he begins to row down river.
The water passes by twinkling like bejewelled silk. I look back at Greenwich palace with its torches alight; I know what my dearest brother has done for me. Tears begin to well in my eyes, and the view of the city becomes blurred. These last weeks I have lived in fear, wretched to the pit of my empty belly, what will become of me, Queen Anne Boleyn? How can I fight this threat without knowing in what form it will come. I am certain it is me that is to be dealt with, so it is me that must flee to safety. My power and influence have crumbled to dust and that is all I have left to throw at my accusers.
I have not seen my brother to arrange this plan, my only contact has been a note placed under my privy chamber door. Written in his own hand but not signed, I have no choice but to believe he has sent it to me. I am to be taken to Tilbury where I will meet my next guide who will give me safe passage to France, the home of my youth, my supporters, and my friends. I know they will welcome me and accept me as one of their own, cheering and clapping to see Anna home. I smile at the thought of this merry scene and the boatman seems to nod as if he knows what I am thinking, I lower my head and regain my composure. ‘Is it far now?’ I enquire in a blunt manner to let him know I am still his mistress. He does not answer but continues to row at the same pace. His hands are rough and weather beaten, as if he has been rowing up and down this river for a thousand years. My thoughts return to George and I wonder if I will ever see him again.
I can see the lights of Tilbury as we get closer to the shore, and the boat comes to a halt on the shingle. ‘What am I to do now?’ I whisper to the man as I carefully get out of the boat. The hunched figure does not answer me and begins to row away. ‘Please, do I wait here?’ I cry out nervously. ’Please tell me what to do, I beseech you.’ The boatman just points to a patch of land not far away and disappears into the fog as if he had never been there at all.
I feel warm tears rolling down my cold cheeks; I have never felt so alone. I settle myself onto a patch of grass and look across the river as it flows out to sea and wait. I think back over the last 10 years and I wonder how my life has changed, how can my triumphs have turned so bad that I fear for my safety, I shudder at the thought of what will happen to me if I stay here. But my poor darling Elizabeth, who will take care of her now I am gone, how can I protect her from across the sea? I must, I must get away it is the only thing to do. My enemies will not stop till they see me down in the gutter, disgraced and I dare not think it, dead.
My anxiety rises and I rock myself as if a child again. Who will help me now, somebody please help me. I look up to the sky as if to beg the lord for his guidance and in the distance I see a bright light coming towards me. It is golden in colour and as it journeys closer it grows in strength and glistens until it is covering me from head to toe in a resplendent glorious light. I grasp my chest and draw breath; I have never seen such a beautiful sight. I rise to my feet and remove my hood; I want to be bathed in this healing light.
I hold out my arms inviting the light to come towards me, smiling at the site manifesting before my bleary eyes, for in the distance I see a hundred ships sailing out at sea. Their sails bright white, bearing the red cross of Saint George. Galleons bobbing up and down carrying victorious men cheering and punching the air and making merry. What is this sight to behold, what great occasion has happened before me? I walk towards the glorious spectacle to get a closer look and I see at the head of the galleons is a ship carrying a lady leading all the men triumphantly. She is magnificent, regal, and resplendent. I feel a deep connection to this woman with tumbling red hair loose about her shoulders and I reach out as if to touch her.
I gasp as I meet her gaze for the eyes staring back at me are my own. It is Elizabeth, my crowned Elizabeth. All grown and majestic, she is leading a victorious army out at sea, she is ruling an empire. My tears of desperation turn to tears of joy, as I marvel at my darling daughter, the Queen of this land, above all men, above all others, feared by her enemies adored by her people. What a woman she has become. But what of her mother? A runaway, a coward, the concubine who disappeared too afraid to fight her enemies and accusers. Divorced and disgraced, hiding with the French nuns. This is no mother for the future Queen of England; this is no example to set to my dear child. I must prove my accusers wrong, I must stay and fight, I must show Elizabeth her mother was good, beyond reproach. To leave now is to admit guilt. I must tell her my story and not leave it for wicked tongues to fable the truth.
The vision fades and the flotilla of ships disappears into thin air and the darkness of the night returns once again. I set about straightening my hood and wipe my face with a renewed vigour and determination to stay here and fight. I owe it to Elizabeth and her great future. I hurry back to the shingle and I am surprised to see there waiting for me the mysterious boatman that delivered me here.
‘Back to the palace madam?’ he suggests confidently.
‘Yes,’ I say, surprised that he knows my every thought. ‘And make haste,’ I order him. I must clear my good name and not become a ghost on the page of a book, forever searching for peace. ‘Row valiantly my good boatman, for your Queen, for England, and for Elizabeth.’
I know what I must do, and no man can surely harm me now.