Cherry Red Lips by Alison Shiels

The enormous wooden gates creak open and icy wind blasts its way through the passageway conveying a flurry of transitory snowflakes. They flutter downward to the stone floor; such evanescent beauty dissolved to a puddle; nothing remains of their dance.

Two gentlemen and their ladies remove their cloaks and shake off the remaining flecks onto the ground, laughing merrily as they do so. Above their heads swings an iron candle holder. All twelve tallows are lit; the wax drips onto the base and trails of smoke drift upward toward the roof beams. Around the circlet are dangerously weaved strands of ivy, mingled with the season’s red berries. An attempt to bring the spirit of Christmas into this shelter: it only serves to emphasise the bare décor and miserable surroundings.

An inner doorway is unlocked, revealing a somewhat dishevelled looking man holding a lamp at arm’s length. His hair is tied at the back and his left eyelid droops lazily until it suddenly twitches several times. He swings the light toward the little group illuminating their faces; the women’s noses are pinched and reddened; the men appear to suffer no such discomfort and merely dab their beards with a kerchief. An air of expectation emanates from the visitors as they eagerly look to their host. He grins, showing a mouth practically devoid of teeth; the ones that remain are merely blackened stubs, his breath foul and un-cleansed. He attempts a bow, which, to a trained eye, could be construed as contemptuous…
“Welcome your Lordships; Ladies. My name is Stalworth. Please follow me, and we will try taking the chill from your bones; for certain it is our Old Father Thames will freeze this night; of that I am sure.”

He leads them into a small room, wherein a roaring fire blazes in the grate. A waist high pile of logs is stacked neatly in the corner, from which he removes the nearest wood and throws it onto the burning pyre. Sparks shoot upward, soaring swiftly as they fight to escape the confines of the furnace. Several stools are placed around the hearth and the guests each take a seat; the ladies holding their hands up to the fierce heat as they slowly begin to revive. Their host rubs his own hands together, and then crosses the sparse room to a table…
“Before we begin; may I offer some refreshment? Some hot mulled wine perhaps?”
The party all nod in agreement and one by one they are provided with a large crude goblet of spiced wine; cloves and pieces of cinnamon stick float on the surface. The man takes a cup and settles himself at the corner of the hearth.
“May I remind you of our agreement and, of course, my fee, before I commence?”
They all nod seriously. The men take out their pouches and place several coins in Stalworth’s outstretched hand. He looks down at the money; places it in his pocket.

“Should you repeat anything of what I say, or of what you might see, it may not bode well for you. Our young Queen will not look favourably on this matter, so it is best left here where it belongs; you agree?”
A resounding ‘Yes’ fills the room, and they each look to their toothless new acquaintance.
Stalworth continues.
“Of course, it goes without saying, that if any of you should recognise the purveyor of the account I am about to tell, then you will know they are no longer of this life but lived truthfully and without cause for deceptions.”
Staring thoughtfully at his guests, he wonders at these people; these wealthy Lords and Ladies who find time to frequent this residence. They are the third company this Christmas week; he knows this is merely a pastime to them, an amusement; something to while away the hours until the evening’s Court entertainments, wherein much feasting and merriment will be had. He coughs…
“Begging your pardon; nearly forgot; just one more thing…”
All eyes are upon him.
“If, and I say, If it is possible to let you view the exhibit, then I would request you view it as if it were your own priceless possession; it is, of course, unique!”.
They look to each other and murmur in deferential tones.
“Then I shall begin, and a very merry Christmastide to you all…..”

“Of course, no one can remember just when she first started to notice him; how could they? It was early spring, and certainly it was not unusual for young people’s minds to turn to love. The maids were all of a flutter; some spoke of marriages already planned; others of certain gentlemen who had taken their fancy and they had a mind to set their caps at, in the hope of securing a match to which their parents would not object. Yes, they were busy days indeed. Even the Queen’s Ladies- in-Waiting were light of heart; full of the joys of spring; hopeful that their royal mistress and King Henry could now put the dark days of loss and dispute behind them, and move on toward a more amenable companionship.

Her Majesty’s apartments were full of laughter; musicians played, ladies danced or gamed with favoured courtiers who, more often than not, brought their own attendants, and it was these young gentlemen who were the objects of desire for the maids who served the Queen’s Ladies. Though always in the background, but just in sight of their mistresses, the young girls were able to giggle and flirt, albeit somewhat disdainfully; for to presume too much would automatically find them returned to their families in fallen disgrace. Therefore restraint was required and reluctantly adhered to, within the boundaries of unspoken Court rules. Of course, some dalliances could be overlooked, especially if it was known there had been agreement between kin, but even these covert whisperings of love were carefully chaperoned; albeit unknown to the hapless lovers’.

Isobel came to Court with her mistress Lady Margaret Coffin, who was one of Her Majesty’s Ladies-in-Waiting. Lady Coffin’s second husband was Her Majesty’s Master of Horse, a position he had earned due to his skills and competence within both the hunt and the tilt. He was also known for his kindness and loyalty, being a man, who never spoke ill of others, his character constant and true. Indeed Lady Coffin was also compassionate and of gentle manner, and it was through her benevolence that she took to her household little Isobel de Lacy, a child barely ten years of age.

Isobel’s family were known well to Lord and Lady Coffin. It had originally been agreed that their eldest daughter, Catherine, should be taken into the Coffins’ care to learn household management skills leading to further advancement, and the possibility of becoming personal maid to Her Ladyship. Sadly, young Catherine had succumbed to the sweating sickness, which came and went with such fierceness; a shock to both families, a young life snuffed out so fast.

The de Lacy’s had a younger daughter, Isobel, whom they had hoped would follow Catherine in Her Ladyship’s favour; but Isobel was different, isolated, strange. No one was quite able to understand quite why she was thus; it was simply that she had always appeared distant, preoccupied; quiet. However, she was also prone to sudden outbursts of temper, often with no apparent cause. So it was a great surprise to the De Lacys’ that Her Ladyship had requested they consider letting Isobel take Catherine’s place in their household. Of course it was agreed; though not without some hesitation on her parents’ part, but Her Ladyship calmed their fears by saying she would take extra good care of Isobel; she was sure there would be nothing to worry about; the child might be a little different, but she was sure that with gentleness and understanding, there was every chance Isobel would become a credit to her family.

So it was that Isobel came to enter the busy household of Sir William and Lady Coffin. Initially she appeared a solitary child; often to be found around the stable yards or near to the kennels of the hunting hounds. This in itself was not unusual; Her Ladyship felt it might help calm the abrupt angry flare ups, which still occurred now and then.
All progressed reasonably smoothly until the incident with the pups…
Tom, the young hound keeper, saw Isobel in her usual place, sitting on the steps near to the kennel entrance. He asked if she would like to see the new litter, which had been born three days earlier; there were seven pups and he was thrilled as usual, wanting to show them off. Isobel followed him into the kennels where the pups lay in little heaps around their mother; a doe eyed greyhound that stretched lazily across the hay.
A shout from the Head Keeper; Tom was needed in the stables straightaway. Isobel turned to leave, but Tom said she could stay a while longer to watch the pups. He left her sitting on a bale of hay staring intently at the litter…

It was eventide when Her Ladyship called for Isobel and asked her if she knew anything about the new pups in the yard; Isobel smiled, looked vacant, and said no, she knew nothing – why?
Her Ladyship advised that one of the pups had been found dead; she was merely asking as Tom had told her he had left Isobel with the pups earlier on. She purely wondered if Isobel had noticed anything then. Again the answer was no, everything was fine when she left; there was nothing she could tell.

Back in her room, Isobel readied herself for bed, letting Lady Coffin’s senior maid Mary, assist her to undress. It was Mary who caught sight of Isobel’s lower arm where an angry red blotch lay, in the middle of which were four deep incisions. They were bite marks.

Lady Coffin did, as she had promised, and kept an ever more watchful eye on Isobel, who certainly seemed to be trying hard to keep up with all she was taught. It did not go unnoticed, and the day arrived when Isobel was brought to her chamber to see if the girl had an aptitude for assisting with readying Her Ladyship for the day. Isobel studiously sat and watched as Mary laboriously dressed Lady Coffin, then deftly attended to her hair; finally, pinning in place the exquisite French hood; a gift from Her Majesty.

So eventually the day came when Lady Coffin announced she was to join her husband at Court and she was taking Isobel with her to attend her needs. The change would be good for the girl, a chance not to be passed by; her parents would be so proud. There was also the possibility of finding a husband who could provide and take care of the strange silent girl, who had just turned fifteen and was of marriageable age. Her Ladyship was certain only good could come from the move to Court and just think; Isobel could possibly even meet Their Majesties.
Only Mary, who begrudgingly had agreed to stay behind, felt a gnawing anxiety that her mistress could not see just who or what Isobel really was. It turned out Mary’s worry was justified…

At Court Isobel discharged her duties with care and diligence. It was easy to see why; each day brought the same repetitive tasks, and Her Ladyship had realised that as long as the girl was kept occupied, she did not tend to sit and dwell on other matters.

The other young girls tried hard to make Isobel feel wanted; they made sure she was always included in their chatter, never more so than when this was about young men, which in fact, it always was. Isobel used to smile and nod her head though she never said very much, seeming to prefer to listen to the others. So it was with some surprise that during one of these chats, and amidst much giggling, Isobel asked who the young attendant to Sir Henry Norris was.

Sir Henry, and Sir William Brereton were keeping company with Her Majesty that day, and both were vying with each other for the Queen’s attention. Sir William’s attendant was having fun winking at the girls, but the other quiet young man seemed smitten with Her Majesty, although he was trying hard not to appear thus. His name was Robin Adair and, like Isobel, it was his first time at Court. A gentle and thoughtful soul, he knew what it was like to be hurt. Left to find his own way after his favoured elder brother was left everything, Robin was forever grateful to Sir Henry for persuading his brother to let the young boy enter his household, rather than stay in a home where he only had a nuisance value.

The other girls and Sir William’s attendant, were trying not to attract the attention of their mistresses, and had moved near to the door of the apartment leaving Isobel alone. Robin had turned to Isobel and asked if she was alright; was she enjoying herself? There was no response; Isobel merely stared at him, turned her head to one side, as if confused. He returned to his seat thoughtful, and then returned his concealed attention to Her Majesty’s face.

Although there were tensions between the King and Queen, which had again been exacerbated by the unfortunate loss of yet another male child at the end of January, things had calmed down again and the Court resumed normality. The Queen continued to hold gatherings in her apartments; few could resist the pull of her personality or her attraction. Her sheer magnetism captured the hearts of many; it was still easy to see how the King had been so enamoured. Of late however secret whisperings were afoot, that she had caught the King through the power of witchcraft, though none dare admit to such conversations. It was just the beginning.

The last day of April dawned; a true spring morning. The Court was in a flurry of activity as preparations began to take place for the Mayday festivities. Lady Coffin and the other ladies-in-waiting were in attendance upon the Queen, discussing her wardrobe for the following day. Her Majesty was full of excitement for there was to be a joust, and though King Henry was not taking part, she wanted to look her very best as she had told her ladies she was of the firm opinion that their marriage was returning to happier times.

Sir Henry had called to pay his respects to Her Majesty. Robin followed him into the apartment and stood near the doorway, opposite the girls. There was a lot of whispered laughter, nudging and shoving left Isobel somewhat apart, though closer to Robin. Together they had decided that although Isobel had denied any attachment, her general demeanour did not attest this to be the case. They could see she was quite clearly smitten though it did seem rather strange the way she gazed at him, almost as if he already belonged to her. There was no mistaking the fact she was infatuated and love sick. However the young man appeared not to notice her yearning; it seemed that he too had been pierced by love’s arrow, though his passion could never be returned.

Robin leaned against the wall, his face flushed, eyes wide in adulation. The Queen was peering into a small casket containing perfumed oils and other cosmetics, out of which she retrieved a small jar. She removed the lid and dipped her little finger inside. To the astonishment of her ladies she gently rubbed a little of the red paste content onto her lips, smiled provocatively and, looking upward at Sir Henry:
‘Now Sir Henry, what think you His Majesty will adore my cherry red lips?’
An embarrassing cough emitted from Sir Henry as he agreed that yes, he was sure she would look beautiful for the King; indeed, there were none who could outshine her. Even the young musician in the corner looked on appreciatively as the Queen preened herself in front of her mirror. Though not conventionally beautiful, Anne Boleyn had a certain allure, a magnetic presence none could deny. Men found themselves drawn to her, like moths to a flame; caught in an invisible net from which they could not escape. It was the same for Robin, caught in the throes of his first real passion, and though he was kind and gallant toward Isobel, it was to Anne that his heart was given.

And so the seeds were sown. Whatever thoughts were in Isobel’s mind, no one could have foreseen, least of all Robin, who happily accompanied his master to the tiltyard in readiness for the May Day joustings. The loges were decked out with spring flowers, as were the maidens who sat some way behind the Queen and their own mistresses. His Majesty appeared his usual bluff and hearty self, cheering as each knight rode their horse in combat, the crowds clapping and shouting. Everything seemed normal; the sun warm, a gentle breeze wafting sweet scents across the tiltyard. It was a happy day…

Of a sudden, there appeared a messenger. He strode swiftly down the steps toward His Majesty, to whom he whispered something, which must have been of some import, causing the King to rise quickly and leave the loge, without a backward glance.

You all know what happened next and I need not describe the dreadful days that followed; the days that ended with the death of a Queen. But I must finish my story…

Poor Robin; he was lost. His master executed for a crime Robin knew for certain he had not been guilty of. Sir Henry had simply been a good friend to the Queen; he had been someone in whom she could confide; someone who understood her lightening changes of mood and temperament; someone who cared for her as a doting father watches out for a daughter, but nothing more than that, nothing more than kindness. It had shocked Robin so much he had taken refuge in the stables where he was able to vent his fury alongside Sir Henry’s groomsman Gerald, whose broad shoulders, though burdened with grief, were able to support the young man until his anger subsided.

It was there, on the day of the Queen’s own death that Isobel had sought out Robin. He was alone, kicking his heels against a bale of hay whilst he waited for Gerald to return with instructions as to what they were to do next; Sir Henry’s household was being assessed for the King to do as he wished. Uncertainty as to their positions had forced Gerald to seek out help, Robin had no interest; it had ever been the same.

He had looked at Isobel disinterested; his love was dead, he could not believe it. His Queen; the woman who had captured his heart from the very moment he had first seen her. To think of her on that scaffold, kneeling upright and praying, praying so hard, then the sudden blow to that perfect neck. It was too much for him; he bent his head and wept.

Isobel merely bent her head to one side and stood silently, coldly, watching him cry. The only look on her face was one of amazement, not of compassion. Her mouth turned downwards in a contemptuous smile, her eyes cold, soulless, calculating. She dipped her hand into her pocket and fingered the precious article carefully. It was her gift to him.
She whispered his name sweetly, softly ‘Robin’ …
He raised his head wearily; thought she had come to comfort him, thought she was his friend. He had not reckoned on her total and utter obsession with him. An obsession that had grown into a malicious and manic fixation once she became aware of his youthful passion for the Queen. But it was alright, she knew how to make him love her and it was the Queen herself who had given her the tool to make him hers…

He looked at her uncomprehending, not able to take his gaze from her face. It was what she wanted, that look. He belonged to her, Isobel … the Queen.
“Ah, my sweet Robin; Like you now my cherry red lips?”
For a few moments he gazed in horror at Isobel as she stood staring eagerly at him. She was holding a small vial in her hand, which she turned upside down. A thick glutinous ruby liquid dripped onto her finger which she then proceeded to smear over her mouth, all the while humming a tune, which Robin associated with poor tortured musician, Mark Smeaton when he played for the Queen, a lifetime ago.
Unable to comprehend what he was seeing, he watched in a daze, as with the last of the liquid, Isobel tilted her chin upward and then wiped a narrow red line around her throat. She cast the vial on the ground and laughed out loud, her voice echoing around the stables, causing many to come out to see what such disturbance could be.

Robin reached out to catch her hand, shaking his head questioningly whilst asking what this all meant, what was she trying to do, what had she done? Isobel began to sway gently from side to side, never taking her eyes away from his face. He was hers; no one else would have him. She had seen him watching her every move, yearning, imagining, wanting… So, she had become one with his passion. There was now only one life.
She began to tell him exactly why it was thus, why it would always be this way, for had he not heard her? Surely he had. Well, never mind, she would show him how, how he could have her lips; it was simple really.

The Queen was in The Tower awaiting her execution, and taking care of Her Majesty’s last needs and requests was Isobel’s own mistress, Lady Coffin. It was not difficult therefore for Isobel to convince the Constable of the Tower, Master William Kingston that she must attend now and again in order to provide her own mistress with comforts to help her through this dreadful time. So it was that Isobel had become a regular sight in and around the rooms of death. Everyone was in too much agitation to worry about a young girl merely concerned about her own mistress’s welfare. The final act was about to take place…

Isobel had taken her place near to the side of the scaffold. The guards were used to seeing her around and did nothing to move her away. They had more important duties on their minds. The hour had arrived and the Queen was brought to the place of death. Her Ladies disrobed her and she stood, a lonely proud figure who gave a generous speech at the end, praising her King and master. She had then knelt upright, all the while praying, praying… then she was gone.

The Queen’s Ladies had rushed forward to cover the body and wrap the head. It was then that she, Isobel, had darted out from the crowds and, as she knew would happen, Lady Coffin cried to her for help in the removal of the remains. It had been easy to take the small vial from her pocket; to catch the copious amounts of blood that dripped everywhere. It had all been so simple and now he could still have his Queen, he could kiss her cherry red lips. She was his forever. Isobel started to laugh. She never stopped, even as the guards took her away”

Stalworth rubbed his hands together over the dwindling fire. A sad smile played on his face.
“So, Your Lordships; Ladies; Am I to take it you still wish to see the exhibit?
The company looked to each other. They had been quietened, chastened; one by one they warily nodded their assent.
“Then please follow me and… do not stare for too long at anything”

He led them out from the warm room, back into the cold dank passageway; the floor sloped downward and the wall sconces produced an acrid smell, which made the Ladies produce their kerchiefs and hold them to their noses. Every now and again they passed a small doorway with bars across the top. Disturbing sounds emitted from within these cells; crying, moaning; praying …
Stopping at the end of the passageway, Stalworth turned to face the last cell, and then lifted his light upward beckoning the visitors to crowd around the doorway. They jostled each other into position then peered inside…

A straw pallet covered with a canvas cover and a sack of chaff for a pillow lay on the floor next to a small wooden stool upon which sat a woman. She would have been no more than thirty six or seven years of age and in her hand she held a small comb, which she was using to unpick the tangles from her hair. All the while she was humming a tune; it was a tune the visitors recognised for it was still sung at Court, especially now at Christmastide… Green Grows the Holly; So Doth the Ivy …

Stalworth placed the light on a small shelf and from his inner jacket pulled out a set of keys. The singing ceased and a voice called out …
“Master Keeper I see there are visitors again. They are most welcome. Pray; let them stay awhile. Tell me: is there news of my sweet Robin? I think it long since I saw his face. I must make myself ready for I am certain he will be here soon.”
The visitors were silent and gazed at Stalworth as he placed a finger over his lips for quiet. Out of his pocket he redeemed a small earthenware pot, and then motioned them to take a step backward whilst he unlocked the heavy door and stepped inside.
All was quiet for a moment, until the woman’s voice was heard again.
“Thank you Master Keeper. I am of the opinion we shall see dancing tonight; I will instruct dear Mark to play for us, for I am sure my Robin will be with me awhile”.

The song began again and Stalworth closed the door softly, locking it behind him.
One of the Ladies could not resist asking what was in the little pot.
Stalworth replied:
“Only pigs’ blood Your Ladyship, only pigs’ blood. Our exhibit believes herself to be the late Queen Anne. I procure it for her in order she may make herself ready for her imagined lover. It has been the same for the past twenty three years; every single day. Come; I shall light your way out of this accursed place. Again, I wish you a very happy Christmastide.”
They are led back through the passageway and out of the gate into crisp fresh air. Over the stone archway the words read ‘Hospital of St Mary Bethlem’. The snow is still falling and there is dancing to look forward to. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth loves to dance, just like her mother. The visitors turn to look back at the dark forbidding place they have just left, to where Isobel sings for her Robin, believing she is Anne Boleyn, waiting for a kiss that will never come.