Hidden Doorways

By Liah S Thorley

Romance, Historical fiction

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351
13 mins

 

Catherine

Hertfordshire – 28th August 1646

A blank page can be a daunting thing, especially when the words one is about to write may endanger the lives of others. Perhaps I should not begin at all. Yet the quill itches in my hand as though being drawn to the ink, and I find the need to record the events of my life overwhelming. In so doing, I can only pray for the safe keeping of those who have shown me great kindness, and for the child whose weight grows heavier in my belly with each passing day. 

It is a glorious afternoon. The day is bright outside and the room in which I must sit is filled with light and warmth. But there are happenings out there, beyond these walls, that sour the air and strike fear into the best of us. Despite all I have experienced in my twenty-three years of life, I never envisioned that I should face England in the midst of the Civil War, and yet here I am. You may wonder at my lack of foresight on this account and I cannot blame you for it, for surely someone who lived through the events of the last twenty years would have expected such a thing. But there is the rub, dear journal. I did not grow up here. As queer as it may sound, I cannot say for certain from which century I truly hail; I can only say that it was not this. Time, you see, has played games with me, sweeping me here and there and all against my will. I have no understanding of the manner of these actions and never a warning as to where or when I shall go next, only a continual feeling of inevitability that one day I shall be moved on once more. 

Perhaps this sounds bizarre or bemusing right now and my story is a peculiar one, ’tis true. But I shall tell it to you, and I promise it will all make sense. I have learned to keep my eyes, ears and mind open over the years. All I ask is that you do the same. 

Oxford, 1491

It was the first of the month and the year still held the promise of a good summer. By eleven o’clock the sun was glowing high in the sky. As I approached the heavy doors of St Mary Magdalen’s, the sweet scent of damp grass drifted on the breeze and a blackbird serenaded me from the tree by the church wall. Nervous and alone, I paused in the doorway clutching a posy of pink roses. A single thorn remained and stabbed at my palm. As I stepped though the porch into the peaceful cool of the church, a small blue butterfly hovered in the doorway as though about to follow me in, but it changed its mind and fluttered away. I took a deep breath and walked down the aisle towards Daniel More. At that moment my life seemed to be of little consequence to the world, and it never occurred to me that things might not stay as we planned. 

When I first met Daniel I had been a mere fourteen years old and he a little over a year more. He was a student at Balliol College. One morning my father sent me on an errand there: one of the masters had ordered a new travelling cloak and I was to deliver it. I had walked past the building many times and looked out at it from my father’s bedroom window most days, but until then I had never set foot inside. With their closed doors and grand stone facades, the colleges were something of a mystery to the town’s children. And the men who walked their halls did nought to dispel their unfavourable image, stalking about in their rich clothes, conversing in Latin or Greek and frowning down at the locals. Understandably I was nervous when the door creaked back. The only woman to set foot inside, I fancied. But as I walked across the quad the sun was shining brightly and the elegant architecture seemed not at all frightening. 

The porter gave me directions, and I set off down a long corridor. In a room towards the end I could hear voices speaking Latin. My curiosity got the better of me, and I stopped outside the door and pressed my ear to the wood. Thanks to my excellent tutor, Father Thomas, I was able to follow the debate with little effort. So I set the cloak down on the floor and settled into eavesdropping, wishing I could join in. Suddenly I felt a sharp tap upon my shoulder. I screamed in surprise and whirled round to see a tall man squinting down at me. My heart leapt up to my throat so fast that I jumped back and hit my elbow on the door. It swung open it to reveal a spiky, hard-nosed figure, robed in black, heading towards me. In the classroom behind him I could see several young men sitting on benches and all staring in my direction. Most were leaning forward to observe the commotion, but one was sitting back with his hands resting upon his belly. He had a handsome face beneath a thatch of russet hair and pale eyes that glinted in the sunlight streaming in through the window. For a moment I was distracted. He caught my glance and smiled. 

“What do you think you are doing?” The petulant master lowered his face to my level. His features were long, as though stretched upwards by his queerly arched eyebrows. I was trapped between the two men and acutely aware of the brand new cloak now gathering dust on the floor. The one with the anomalous eyebrows sneered at me.

“Well?”  

“Delivering Master Crambourne’s new cloak, sir,” I gulped.

“And that required listening at Master Fallows’ door?” said the other. 

I shuddered as the first man raised one of his eyebrows even further towards his receding hairline.

“Listening at my door? Well, Master Collins, can you think of anything that would interest a young girl in my classroom?” 

“Not a thing, Master Fallows.”

“Sorry, sir, I had not meant to listen. I... was simply interested.”

The men exchanged an amused glance. I could feel the eyes of the russet-haired boy upon me and my cheeks began to burn, not from my situation, but from the heat that rushed through me under his gaze.

“You speak Latin, do you, child?” smirked Master Fallows.

“Yes, sir.” I stammered.

“Well now, impertinent and educated. What will become of women next, will they all speak out of turn and begin to educate us?” He laughed at his own jest. 

The handsome boy winked at me and the gesture gave me courage enough to speak. I bobbed a short but polite curtsey, looked straight into Master Fallows’ narrow green eyes and said,

“One day, sir, we just might.” 

I have no notion to this day where such an idea came from. It was contrary to everything I knew. But somehow, deep inside me, I knew I was telling a truth.  Master Fallows almost staggered backwards. I saw my champion behind him attempt to stifle a guffaw and I struggled to hide my grin. The other students, like the masters, were staring at me open-mouthed, and for a moment I thought I would be sent for a whipping. But Master Fallows just wafted his hand as though I were a bad smell and said,

“I suggest, young lady, that you learn to hold your tongue before it gets you sent to the stocks. Now, Master Collins, would you be so kind as to relieve her of her delivery so that the scholars may continue with their education?” He stressed ‘education’ with every element of sarcasm he could muster. 

Conceding, I bowed my head and sheepishly dusted off the cloak. As I was led away I risked one last glance at the handsome boy and found he was still looking my way. There was a desire in his eyes that he would not get the chance to act upon until several years later. 

***

By the time Daniel and I met again, I was seventeen and running my father’s business. My loving parents, William and Hannah Harris, who had taken me in from the streets at six years old, had left me alone in the world once more. Hannah died from the sweating sickness when I was nine, and my dear papa was taken by consumption a little after my seventeenth birthday. His passing left me despondent. He had been my world, raising me better than any real father could, teaching me his trade and allowing me the indulgence of a superior education, something most out of the ordinary for a female. Perhaps he gave me too much freedom to think and speak for myself, but I cannot regret any of it, not even now. Upon his death William’s home, guild rights and tailor’s business passed to me. This rare state of independence for a woman should have been a blessing beneath the pain of his loss. But I am ashamed to admit that I wasted it with the follies of a silly young girl. I allowed myself to be persuaded into bed by a pair of strong arms and the sweet whisperings of a handsome man. 

Daniel was an apprentice at Trimble and Blake’s, a highly reputable law firm in Oxford town. When he came to order a new tunic I knew him at once as the boy from the classroom, and he knew me. His smile was flirtatious, with just the same amount of brazen cheek as I recalled. He was taller and his countenance even more confident. Instantly I was his and I did not hesitate to step out with him when he asked. I was by no means the only girl with whom Daniel had formed an attachment, or smuggled into his rooms, though I was perhaps the most naive. By the time I turned eighteen I was with-child. 

Father Thomas intervened on my behalf. His blue eyes were like glass – I could always read his mood – and when I confessed my predicament I could see at once how disappointed he was. Yet, in his never-failing compassion, he never voiced those feelings. Instead he summoned Daniel to a meeting and persuaded him to marry me.  It is curious when we compare our expectations of a situation with what actually transpires, and my marriage to Daniel most certainly did not follow the presumed path. Perhaps I had hoped that we would grow to love each other, or perhaps I simply thought we would get by and manage. What is certain is that when we wed I believed we would settle into a faithful life together. That we had been forced into the situation did not give me any cause for concern. As I said my vows that June morning, neither of us could have imagined the truth. 

To begin with there was great passion. Daniel was as loving and kind as I had imagined, and I tried to be a good and obedient wife. But I was sick throughout my pregnancy. That I felt fat and uncomfortable was all quite natural, yet the nausea was un-abating. I lost weight rather than gained it. I began to look gaunt and pale and I found my spirit and my work began to suffer from my weakened state. They say a woman’s temper runs high like a fever when she is with-child and I was the perfect example of such. As time went along an insane fear possessed me. 

I noticed my husband began to pay less attention to me. I would see how he smiled and flirted with other women. I had not been jealous of his ways before we wed, yet there it was, burning beneath my skin. Each time a pretty girl passed us by I watched how she would look at my husband, how she would always catch his dazzling eyes and how he would always, so very gentlemanly, bow and doff his hat. I tried to hold my tongue, but free as it had always been, I could not.

“Has it not occurred to you that I might feel rejected by your flirtations?” I sobbed one evening as my husband left the room to retire early to bed, rather than sit up with me. 

I recall the exhausted look upon his face as he turned and replied, “Mistress More, you show me great disrespect on a daily basis by standing alone in that shop, pinning tunics upon other men.”

“I am a tailor! Tis the nature of my work.” I was astounded at his assertion.

“Work, oh, yes. And how can you be a good mother when you conduct yourself in a man’s world?” 

“How ridiculous! Many women work in such professions. You knew my way of life before you bedded me.” 

There was a pause. I knew he could turn the argument against me. The fire spat a cinder onto the hearth. Daniel twisted his lips into a sneer. 

“Other women are not so quick to snap at their husbands,” he growled.

“Who?”

"Mistress Blake would not dream of making such accusations.”

“Or of protesting against those made to her,” I yelled. Mistress Blake was the unassuming wife of his employer.

“Quite right. And you should take her example and refrain from impolitic discussions with men to whom you are not married.” 

I was livid.

“Tell me husband, what do you accuse me of?”

“I know not what you do whilst alone with other men.”

“I am not alone, Master More. Bessie is always here.” Bessie was our housekeeper and had lived under the same roof with me since my mother’s death. She was, at that very moment, asleep in her room, not ten feet from where Daniel was standing.

“The company of a servant is hardly chaperone.” 

At this I stood, so quickly that the air rushed around me and blew out the candle at my side. My head became light and I swayed back. 

“She is an honest woman!” I cried.

“Perhaps she is...” 

Outside, some students wassailed their way back from The Catherine Wheel to the gate of Balliol. Daniel turned to look through the window.

“But it is the manner of your conversation to which I refer.”

“My conversation? Confess your meaning, husband!” I was crying bitterly now.

His shoulders sank and he rested his forehead against the glass. I slumped back onto my chair in a sweat. When he turned to look at me, he found me pale and shivering. 

“Nothing, I meant nothing, I simply cannot comprehend why you behave so. Why you cannot be like other women,” he sighed, his temper quelled. “I am tired and so are you. I’m going to bed.” 

As his footsteps sounded on the stairs I closed my eyes, the fight gone.  

***

As time went on and my pregnancy progressed I began to feel certain that the child’s arrival would be the answer to all, that one look at our babe’s face and my husband’s heart would melt. The day a woman first feels her child move inside her is the most magical moment she can ever experience, and when those movements were enough for Daniel to rest his hand upon my belly and feel them too, the look on his face gave me great hope. 

“Quick, quick, place your hand here.” I urged. Daniel had just come to bed, though I had been resting for a while. Sleep has never been a faithful friend to me and I had been watching a spider crawl across the ceiling, criss-crossing from one corner to the other, for quite some time. A foot or an elbow aimed a second swift jab at my infant’s prison wall. “Quick! Before it stops.” 

Daniel groaned. 

“Here,” I said again, taking his drooping hand and pressing it gently against my growing belly. The child obeyed her mother and seemed to turn on her head. Daniel sat upright as though a broomstick had been shoved up his spine. He stared first at my belly and then at me. 

“I feel it! My good lord, I feel it!” 

He was shaking his head, his eyes wide like a small child at his first fair. Our babe kicked again as though she knew he was there. I could not help myself, I began to cry and when I looked up at my husband, I found tears in his eyes too. He kissed me with such great tenderness, and in that moment I was certain that his wandering eye would soon rest firmly upon his wife, and once the child was born my heart could finally be still. 

Sadly, moments like this remained rare. Increasing bitterness spread between us like a contagious fever. Daniel began to blame the sickness of my pregnancy on my work. He told me I was doing too much and wearing myself out, so I took on an apprentice to ease the burden. I sat for hours doing less and less until I thought I would run mad for lack of occupation, but nothing prevented the accusations. I am by no means innocent in all of our troubles, and I take responsibility for my part, but I cannot blame myself entirely. I must skip ahead here, dear journal, for this was not a happy time in my life, and for once I should like to forget a vast deal of it. There is one day, however, that I must take you to, for I believe it was the moment that changed it all. Forgive my hand, for I tremble as I write.

***

One damp October afternoon I was sitting in the shop, stitching the hem of a lady’s gown. The smell of the street was seeping in through the gap beneath the door and the sun was sending grey daggers of light through the workshop. I set down the dress and rubbed my tired eyes. Without warning, panic struck me so hard that I leaped from my seat and ran. I bolted from the shop as best as my round belly allowed, crossed the street and through the doors of St Mary Magdalen’s. 

Father Thomas was kneeling before the altar, his pale hair gleaming like a halo in the streaming sunlight. Crossing myself, I watched him pray. When he slipped his rosary into his pocket I walked towards him and sank down upon a nearby bench. 

He turned to me with a start.

“Catherine, are you unwell?” 

“Shall I be a good mother?” I muttered.

He stayed there for a moment and stared. Then his eyes crinkled around the edges as his mouth slipped into a sympathetic smile. The smell of incense drifted up from his cassock as he rose and came to sit by me. 

“I mean to say, I do not seem to be managing as a wife. If I cannot make myself good and obedient to my husband, how can I be a good mother to this child?” I rested my hand on my belly. The priest slid his cold fingers over mine.

“My dear girl, I have known you since you were six years old and had the honour of being your teacher from not long thereafter. You were a bright and studious child and you have grown into a clever and strong woman who has born life’s trials better than most. You have many virtues, though patience is perhaps not your best. If you can find patience and trust in God to guide you, he will show you the way.”

The pain that had been scraping at my back since dawn took a tighter hold. I cried out.

“What is it?” he asked urgently as my hands clenched around his.

“It cannot be, it is not time.” 

I doubled over in agony. 

“The child?” His fingers were turning white in my grasp but I could not release them.

“It is too soon, weeks too soon,” I gasped. 

Father Thomas waited patiently until the pain eased. Once my composure was regained he tried to assist me to stand. I managed only a few steps before I collapsed onto all fours. He called for help as I attempted to breathe. 

The floor was hard and cold and the pain pierced my knees leaving bruises that would mark me for weeks. But I did not notice then, nor care. No one had told me how it would be. I had never attended a birth. I knew not what the gruesome puddle was that flooded from me, all streaked with blood and staining the stone beneath. I gripped at my belly as it contracted around my poor child and shoved her towards the world before her time. It was apparent I could not be moved. 

Father Thomas never left my side, holding my hand through my screams until the midwife came. By the time she had been fetched I was propped against the bench, my legs spread wide and the babe crowning. I think then Father Thomas was grateful to be relieved of his duty, for he was shaking and his face ashen as he got to his feet. The midwife looked at him with a thin-lipped expression that could only be taken as the worst kind of acknowledgement. 

It is strange what one can recall from such an event. The same birdsong I had heard at my wedding was bleeding through the window openings, and the bell in the tower creaked with the strength of the north wind. The St Christopher pendant I had worn all my life seemed to weigh heavy at my neck. I tugged it outside my gown, but when Father Thomas offered to remove it I refused to permit him.  Women began to congregate. Not so many as was usual to attend a birth, but there were faces all around me just the same. Once they were there the priest hurried off to fetch my husband. 

By the grace of God alone, I did not perish along with my child. I cannot tell you how long it took, for it felt like only a moment and yet an eternity. I recall how the sun moved from one side of the church to the other, crossing my face and warming my skin, then leaving me to grow cold. The pain furred my head and racked my body with screams that could not have been mine. There may have been times when I was not conscious at all, yet I felt every second of that agony. 

My daughter left me before she left my body, for she never drew a single breath. I lay there, my legs as white as milk, streaked scarlet with my own blood, and my heart barely beating in my chest. They lifted her up and severed her from me. I wanted so desperately to hold her, to gaze at her face just once. My only glimpse of my stillborn child was of the blue-tinged arm that hung from the swaddling as she was carried away. I had to beg them even to tell me the sex. I named her Anne.

My poor girl. How is one supposed to bear the loss of a child? I know not and I do not think I shall ever understand. She had not even a chance to open her eyes and take in the world around her. How is that right? Losing her is a pain I shall feel like a knife in my chest each day that I wake and breathe. Now another child stirs within me, and the joy of that feeling brings with it the stark fear that such a thing could happen again. Forgive the stains upon the page, dear journal. I could not prevent my tears. 

Father Thomas wept by the altar as the women cleaned me and made me decent. Once I was fit to be seen it was the Father who lifted me and placed me in my husband’s arms. It is perhaps fortunate that I fainted the moment the fresh air hit my face, and I knew nothing of the hours that followed.

Michael

Oxford - 13th May 2012

The kettle was boiling with increasing urgency, sending a spiral of hot steam up the window and coating it with condensation. Michael put down his slice of toast and flicked off the switch. He leant forward, wiped the window with the tea towel and sighed. Upstairs the ageing floorboards creaked. He looked up in surprise. He had not expected his wife to rise so early. But then the toilet flushed and the footsteps made their way back across the landing. Michael ran his hands over his face and rested his elbows on the worktop. Three years to the day and it felt like only yesterday. A knife-sharp pain twisted in his gut as he fought back tears. 

“You OK, Dad?”

Michael turned to face his son. Paul’s sock-covered ankles were showing beneath his grey school trousers. Must remind Imogen to buy some new ones, he thought, he grows so damned fast. He put his arms around the boy and hugged him tightly. 

“Ouch, I can’t breathe... Dad!” Paul gasped, patting him on the back.

“Sorry,” Michael said, releasing his son. “Just be good and don’t be late home today, will you?”

Paul picked up his dad’s toast and took a bite.

“She doesn’t blame you,” he offered. 

Ignoring the toast theft, Michael looked at his son’s ocean-blue eyes and ruffled his dark hair. 

“I know, son. But I do.” There was a pause as he watched Paul munch on the toast.

“She would be nine today,” he added. “Is, Dad, she is nine today.” Paul poured hot water from the kettle into his dad’s coffee mug. “You always say she’s still out there somewhere, and I believe you.” 

Michael forced a smile. “I just wish I knew where,” he replied. 

Paul took a swig of the coffee and looked up at him.

“You will find her. Mum thinks so.” 

“Thanks, son.”

Something dropped through the letterbox in the hall. It ought to be birthday cards for Catherine, but it wouldn’t be. Michael wondered if any of her friends even thought of her now. 

Paul seemed to read his mind. 

“I saw Millie and her mum the other day. She’s having a birthday party on Saturday. She said she wished she could share it with Cat, just like before...” His words petered out.

Michael recalled the streamers, frilly dresses, High School Musical playing on the MP3 player and the birthday cake iced in bright Barbie pink. He thought of his younger child’s pretty little face beaming up at him as she and her best friend blew out the candles. That had been her fifth birthday. Her sixth he had tried to block out. 

Paul glanced at the ceiling. 

“Is Mum taking a sicky again?” 

Michael took a deep breath. “Too many anniversaries today. 

“You’re going to school, though.” 

“I know, but your Mum has to deal with things in her own way. Let her be.”

There was a knock on the front door. Paul swallowed the last bite of toast and grabbed his book bag from the kitchen table. 

“See you tonight, Dad.”

“See you...” he called as Paul vanished down the hall, the front door slamming shut and sending a vibration through the walls and rattling the crystal vase on the hall table, “...later.” 

Michael sighed again and shook his head. It was going to be a very long day. Perhaps it would be better if Imogen went to work; the kids would surely distract her. Perhaps I should stay home with her, he thought, but he knew she wouldn’t move all day and he needed distracting, even if she didn’t. He dropped another slice of bread into the toaster and peered out of the window to the bottom of the garden. The outhouse stood dark and louring behind the blossom-covered apple tree. He checked his watch: 8:15. Not enough time. 

The toast popped up. Taking it out, he buttered it, picked up his briefcase and made his way to the front door. As he passed his study he glanced in. There were papers everywhere, sketches, calculations, books left open and the photograph of Catherine. Next to the frame stood the brass Eiffel Tower paperweight she had insisted on bringing back for him when Imogen took her to Paris, six months before she disappeared. Upstairs his wife stirred. He considered popping up and saying goodbye.

He put a foot on the first step but Imogen saved him the time.

“Try to have a good day,” she called.

“You too, love,” he yelled back with a forced smile.



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