"THE AMAZING BEST SELLING AUTHOR ALISON WEIR"
(Broadway to Vegas, September 2012)
Those Tudors were an amazing group. Sex, murder, mistresses, intrigue. A dysfunctional family if there ever was one. But, oh, so interesting.
Riveting as brought to life by best-selling author Alison Weir, who spoke with Broadway To Vegas about her own interesting life, as well as the antics of those who flow from her prolific pen. Her history books, and latterly historical novels, mostly in the form of biographies about British royalty from the Tudor period have made her a best-selling author.
The Tudor period was dramatic, vivid with strong female personalities. It is also the first one for which there is a rich visual record, with the growth of portraiture, and detailed sources on the private lives of kings and queens.
Weir has sold more than 2.3 million books: with more than a million of those sales coming from the United States. She is also the 5th best selling historian in the United Kingdom. The top four are Antony Beevor, Stephen Ambrose, Simon Schama and Peter Ackroyd.
Weir's fourth novel, A Dangerous Inheritance, is the stand-alone sequel to Innocent Traitor. It tells the story of Lady Katherine Grey, and is a suspenseful tale about one of history's most controversial mysteries, approached from a new angle in an intriguing sub-plot, with a hint of the supernatural. The paperback edition of Alison's latest biography, Mary Boleyn, was published in America on September 4, 2012.
Weir specializes in writing about a century of raw power and rude humor. As to whether any of the relatives of figures in her books have contacted her with their opinions, Weir replied: "Anya Seton's daughter contacted me after I had written an appendix about her mother's novel, Katherine, in my biography of Katherine Swynford. She was happy with my portrayal of her mother and said I'd got it mostly right!"
Some people not only appear to have it all, but make it look so easy. Underneath the success is a lot of talent and tenacity.
Meet the personal side of Alison Weir. Born and bred at Westminster, London, she has also lived in Norfolk, Sussex and Scotland, and now resides in Surrey.
'My parents split up when I was young, and my father died many years ago," Weir told Broadway To Vegas. "He instilled in me a love of classical history when I was a child, and introduced me to the works of Robert Graves and Mary Renault."
Weir has been interested in Tudor history since the age of fourteen, when she read her first adult novel, a rather lurid book called Henry's Golden Queen, about Katherine of Aragon. She was so enthralled by it that she dashed off to read real history books, to find out the truth behind what she had read, and thus her passion for history was born. By the time she was fifteen, she had written a three-volume reference work on the Tudor dynasty, a biography of Anne Boleyn based partly on contemporary sources, and several historical plays. She had also started work on the research that would one day take form as her first published book, Britain's Royal Families.
Alison was educated at the City of London School for Girls and the North Western Polytechnic, training to be a teacher with a major in history. However, she quickly became disillusioned with trendy teaching methods. Before becoming a published author in 1989, she was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother.
It should come as no surprise that super-mom Alison Weir did what a lot of mothers are required to do - rise to the occasion.
From 1991 to 1997, while researching and writing books, she also ran her own school for children with learning difficulties. "My son has special needs and we couldn't find a suitable school for him," she told Broadway To Vegas. "So, I set up my own!"
She's been married to Rankin Weir since 1972, and they have two children, John who was born in 1982 and Kate who came along in 1984. "My husband was a civil servant until 2001; since then, he has worked for me. He is the bedrock of our lives - I couldn't do this without him," she stressed. "My children, indeed my whole family, are all marvelously supportive."
Alison Weir will take part in a book reading and signing of Captive Queen on September 28 to benefit the The Friends of Northampton Castle, a volunteer group established to publicize the castle and provide information about the history of the site and the castle itself. In July 2012, FONC commissioned a 3D reconstruction of the castle which has been published on youtube. Thomas Becket was tried at the castle in 1164.
Being an organized pack rat can be important to a successful author. "I save most things, and yes, I have used a huge amount of my earlier research in my books," she said answering a Broadway To Vegas question. "I'm now rewriting two early novels, and am about to base a book on England's medieval queens on research I did four decades ago."
In the 1970s, Weir spent four years researching and writing a non-fiction biography of the six wives of Henry VIII. Her work was deemed too long by publishers, and was consequently rejected. A revised version of this biography would later be published as her second book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
In 1981, she wrote a book on Jane Seymour, which was again rejected by publishers, this time because it was too short. Weir became a published author in 1989 with the publication of Britain's Royal Families, a compilation of genealogical information about the British Royal Family. She revised the work eight times over a twenty-two year period, and decided that it might be "of interest to others".
What Weir's writing has done to encourage an interest in history is magnificent. However, she hasn't attempted to get her books turned into movies or a PBS special because, frankly, "Normally, broadcasting companies approach me."
Those who are successful authors of romance novels know there is a formula. What about historical fiction? "It all depends on your publisher, and editors vary widely in their opinions," she answered. "I was given a lot of excellent advice (e.g. show, rather than tell), so I do bear that in mind, but by now it's virtually become second nature."
As to whether she has a favorite character that she'd would like to spin off into a series of books, Weir replied: "Not yet, but I'm thinking about it! A female detective who solves historical mysteries would sing to me!"
Weir's writings have been describing as being in the genre of popular history, which has attracted criticism from academia.
Weir is not apologetic. "History is full of wonderful stories and amazing characters. I feel very privileged to be able to bring them to life in both my non-fiction books and my novels. In both cases, I feel that an author has a responsibility to be as true to the facts as is possible. And in an age in which history is increasingly perceived to be 'dumbed down' in schools, on television and on film, we can all learn from a study of the past. We can discover more about ourselves and our own civilization.
"History belongs to us all, and it can be accessed by us all. And if writing it in a way that is accessible and entertaining, as well as conscientiously researched, can be described as popular, then, yes, I am a popular historian, and am proud and happy to be one."
SAVE NORTHAMPTON CASTLE!
Alison is supporting the Friends of Northampton Castle, who are dedicated to ensuring that the importance of Northampton’s medieval heritage is recognised and celebrated.
VISITORS arriving in Northampton today may be forgiven if they do not realise that the town ever had a castle. There is very little of it that remains to be seen. We hear too often that the castle has been lost, that nothing remains. In fact there is a great deal of it left underground, which could be explored and restored. Northampton Castle was of major historical importance as a seat of Parliament and the fourth biggest castle in the country in its time. but does that mean it should be forgotten?
Erected by Simon De Senlis in 1084, the castle was located on the site of Northampton Station, where the postern gate is still visible. It became an important seat of power, playing host to kings. Parliaments were held there and the castle was the setting for the famous trial of Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was later murdered in 1170. In 1205, King John is known to have moved the royal treasury to the castle, and in 1460 Henry VI stayed there before the Battle of Northampton. The castle met its literal downfall in 1662 when, resenting Northampton’s parliamentary support, the restored monarch Charles II ordered the building’s defences to be destroyed, so that it could not again be used as a castle. Thereafter it was used as a court and a gaol but, as the years went by, it fell into decay. In 1861 the land was finally sold to L. & N.W. Railway and the majority of the castle’s remains were demolished in 1870 to facilitate the building of the station.
Excavations were carried out in the 1960s, and experts now believe that the site could still hold some interesting archaeological finds, with the potential to reveal more about the castle’s past. FONC aims to bring new life to this great period in our local and national history. To find out more or to get involved visit: www.northamptoncastle.com
Across Scotland and beyond, 26 writers have been exploring ways of bringing treasures from the National Museum of Scotland to life in words. At the Winter Words Festival at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in February 2012, a panel of contributing writers, including Linda Cracknell, Jamie Jauncey and (guesting) Alison Weir will discuss how tapping into the rich story of Scotland’s past through objects can connect them not only to social, political, cultural and religious history, but to the powerful emotions of people who lived at the time. Each of the 26 writers had contributed a piece of creative writing (not exceeding 62 words long) in response to the treasure assigned them. Being a guest contributor, Alison was allowed to choose her treasure, and opted for the Leisian gneiss, a rock hundreds of millions of years old. It inspired her to write the following poem, an abbreviated version of which she recited at the Festival.
GOD'S THEATRE: THE HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND
Here in God's theatre
Nature has writ in marvellous words
in one ceaseless brave scenario
the play of the ages,
and with a crooked finger carved the lines
so long ago, in acts too changing for men to stop
and think and listen. For
the hills unit in silent chorus,
the lochs reflect unspoken odes,
primeval echoes down the centuries,
the unsung exit of the last volcano.
And we, the watchers,
do we yet applaud this great performance,
never so divine
as when each new eye doth see it?
Do we gaze in wonder,
dazzled by the vastness of this celestial amphitheatre,
the aweful magnificence of Heaven's scripting, Nature's cast?
Do we tremble, knowing that when we are long gone,
the words, the play, the song -
they still will last?
For more information, go to www.26treasures.com.
Original book proposal by ALISON WEIR
(This book was commissioned in 2001, but never written, because Sarah Bradford, an expert on the Borgias, published an excellent biography, and Alison chose to write about Katherine Swynford instead.)
Say the name Lucrezia Borgia, and it conjures up images of sex, orgies, incest and murder. During the five centuries since her death, Lucrezia Borgia has become a byword for feminine infamy, immortalised in the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Johannes Burchard, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and Guillaume Apollinaire. Yet although her life was touched by notoriety and scandal, when she died in 1519, she was lauded for her piety and gentleness. Hence, she is an enigma: who was the real Lucrezia Borgia?
Lucrezia was born in 1480 in Rome, one of four bastard children born to Cardinal Roderigo Borgia by his Roman mistress Vanozza Catanei. Her three brothers (above) were Giovanni (Juan), Duke of Gandia, the brilliant but infamous Cesare Borgia (born 1475), whose brooding good looks, magnetic charm and ruthless ambition made him one of the most feared and villified public figures of his day; and Goffredo (Joffre), Prince of Squillace. In fact, the corrupt, avaricious and nepotistic Borgias would bring the Vatican into such disrepute that, not only did their name become synonymous with wickedness, but the reputation of the papacy was irrevocably tarnished, which was one of the chief causes of the Reformation.
The Borgias were of Spanish origin (the name was originally Borja or Borya), but moved to Italy in the 15th century when one of their number became Pope Calixtus III in 1455. Roderigo Borgia was his nephew. In 1492, when Lucrezia was 12, her father in turn became Pope, as Alexander VI (below), and it was only now that he publicly acknowledged his illegitimate children by Vanozza. His ambition was such that he desired to match Lucrezia only with the greatest of Princes; before she was 11, he had already turned down two suitors as being not grand enough for her.
Now, he placed her in the care of his celebrated new mistress, Giulia Farnese, and her mother-in-law, Adriana di Mila, who lived with Lucrezia in the magnificent Palazzo di Santa Maria and prepared her for the duties of matrimony. At 13, Lucrezia was ripe for the marriage market, graceful, golden-haired and slender, with teeth like pearls, and her father offered her hand to Giovanni Sforza, the handsome young Lord of Pesaro (below). Sforza eagerly accepted, and the cream of Roman society attended the wedding, which took place in 1493 - not without censure, however, since it was celebrated with a play by Plautus featuring libertines, prostitutes and pimps. Lucrezia was nevertheless apparently delighted with her new husband.
But after four years, the Pope and his sons realised that they could have made a more advantageous match for her with the influential House of Aragon, who ruled Sicily and Naples. Sforza was now an inconvenience who would have to be disposed of, and it was presently announced to the world that he had been unable to consummate his marriage to Lucrezia because he was impotent.
Outraged and humiliated, Sforza protested that he was a normal man who had 'known his wife carnally on countless occasions'. When it was suggested that he prove it in front of members of the Borgia and Sforza families, he indignantly refused. But he could not withstand the power of the Borgias, who had Lucrezia examined and declared virgin by a panel of matrons, compelled her luckless husband to sign an admission of his impotence, and annulled the marriage. Sforza very prudently fled from Rome, lucky to escape with his life.
Lucrezia had long since become bored with her husband, but she was utterly dominated by her father and her brother Cesare. She agreed without protest to the dissolution of her marriage. It was essential that the pretence of virginity be maintained, so she was sent to the convent of San Sisto on the Appian Way to prepare for a second marriage. When the time came for her to leave, the nuns were sorry to lose her because they would miss the sophisticated and worldly pleasures to which she had introduced them.
It soon became apparent that Lucrezia was pregnant, and certainly not by her husband. Rumour had it that she had taken a lover, a Spaniard who had conveyed letters between the Pope and his daughter whilst she was at the convent. His name was Pedro Calderon, but he was commonly called Perotto. There is no doubt of his charisma or his desire for Lucrezia. Yet her jealous brother Cesare first attacked him in the Pope's presence, then had him thrown into prison for presuming too far with his sister; six days later his body was found in the River Tiber, along with that of Lucrezia' s maid, who was thought to have acted as a go-between for the lovers.
The affair gave rise to sensational rumours. It was said that Cesare Borgia was the father of his sister's coming child. Certainly his love for Lucrezia was abnormally intense for a brother, and probably incestuous, although there is no evidence that it was reciprocated. The rumours were fuelled by Giovanni Sforza, who, anxious to take revenge on the men who had robbed him of his bride, put it about that Lucrezia was the mistress, not only of both her brothers, Cesare and Giovanni, Duke of Gandia, but also of her father, the Pope, who was then 67 years old.
On balance, it appears that the father of the child Giovanni (later Duke of Nepi ) , who was born in Rome in 1498, was Calderon, but Lucrezia would never even admit to being his mother, let alone disclose who had sired him. Although she kept the boy with her, she always referred to him as her brother. Publicly, he was referred to as 'the Roman Infante'. Three years after his birth, the Pope officially declared that Giovanni was the son of Cesare by an unknown woman, but soon he followed this with a declaration that the boy was in fact his own son, again by an unknown woman. It was claimed at the time that Lucrezia herself had requested the Pope to make these announcements as she herself did not know which of them, her father or her brother, had sired her child.
(Above: the sumptuous Borgia apartments in the Vatican)
Later in 1498, despite the scandal, the Borgias achieved their ambition and married Lucrezia to the King of Naples' nephew, Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie. The bridegroom was 17, fair-haired and dazzlingly handsome, and an entranced Lucrezia fell in love with him almost instantly. Cesare welcomed him to the family in the friendliest manner, and the Pope spared no expense in giving the young couple a splendid wedding. In return, Alfonso promised the doting father to stay with Lucrezia in Rome for a year before taking her south to his estates. There was one son of the marriage, called Roderigo after his grandfather.
Before long, however, Cesare's jealousy once more manifested itself, and to such an extent that prayers were being said in Rome for the safety of the Duke of Bisceglie. In vain, for one night, after leaving the Vatican, he was set upon by assassins in St Peter's Piazza. Fortunately, his friends came to his rescue and carried him home, half-dead, to the Palazzo di Stota Maria; his skull had been split open, and he had suffered dreadful wounds to his legs and body. A shocked Lucrezia nearly fainted when she saw him, but rallied to the occasion and nursed him devotedly back to health. She was well aware of whom it was that had ordered his murder.
Cesare Borgia (above), however, was determined to kill Alfonso, and one night in 1501, as the Duke lay convalescing in the Palazzo, he arrived with a gang of cut-throats and ordered Lucrezia out of the room. One assassin, a professional garotter, strangled the Duke before he could cry for help. Cesare afterwards excused the attack on the grounds that Alfonso had threatened to murder him, but no one believed this.
A grieving Lucrezia was sent to the Castle of Nepi to mourn in private for her husband, and shed many bitter tears for his loss. But when her father summoned her back to the Vatican, she dutifully obeyed him, and prepared herself to submit to whoever he might choose as her third husband. Casting off her sorrow, she threw herself into a hectic round of pleasure, devised by Cesare in order to cheer her. Gossip-mongers had a field day exchanging lurid tales of these scandalous goings-on in the Vatican. On one occasion, Cesare was said to have stewn hot chestnuts across the floor of the Pope's apartment, then made naked prostitutes crawl on hands and knees with lighted candles to retrieve them. There were fertility contests, orgies, and obscene masques. It is nowhere recorded, however, that Lucrezia took part in any of these diversions. On the contrary, people were beginning to speak of her piety and her gentleness. But this was possibly mere flattery.
In 1501, Cesare chose to ally his family with the ancient and noble House of d'Este, who ruled Ferrara. But when the then Duke's son, Alfonso d'Este, aged 24, was offered Lucrezia as a bride, he refused to take to his bed a lady of such notoriety. However, his father, eager to ally himself with the powerful Borgias, threatened that he would marry Lucrezia himself if his son did not accept her. In the end, the Pope offered such a fabulous dowry with Lucrezia that d'Este was unable to refuse. A splendid wedding followed, at which the radiant bride was observed dancing with her brother Cesare, who had rid her not only of a lover but also her two previous husbands.
But Lucrezia was soon to be removed from the orbit of the dangerous Cesare. After her wedding, she bade a final farewell to her father and brother: Pope Alexander was to die in 1503, Cesare Borgia in 1507. Lucrezia had by them embarked on her new life as Duchess of Ferrara; her husband succeeded to the title in 1505. She brought to the marriage a magnificent dowry of sumptuous clothes and jewellery, exquisite works of art and luxurious furnishings. She and Alfonso d'Este (below, left and centre) made their home in the Castle of Vecchio. Against all the odds, the taciturn, promiscuous d'Este was charmed with his bride, whose grace and modesty would always captivate him.
Yet the gossip persisted. Before long, Lucrezia's name was being linked with that of the poet, Pietro Bembo (above, right), who may have been her lover. It was said that his erotic poetry was inspired by the passionate hours he had spent in her bed; some evidence suggests, however, that their relationship was entirely platonic. Nevertheless, Lucrezia's husband's suspicions were sufficiently aroused for Bembo to deem it wise to remove himself to Venice in 1505. Then there was the tragic Ercole Strozzi, another young poet, who wore his devotion to the Duchess like a heart on his sleeve. There was the most appalling scandal when Strozzi was found dead in the street, hacked to death with a dagger. Lucrezia's enemies accused her of having him killed out of jealousy, as Strozzi had been about to marry another lady. Others said that he had been silenced to prevent him from revealing just how often, and in what manner, Bembo and himself had enjoyed the Duchess's favours.
Lucrezia further angered her husband when she brought to Ferrara Roderigo, her son by Alfonso of Bisceglie, and the mysterious Infante Giovanni, who were both brought up with the ducal children. When Roderigo died in 1512, Lucrezia was devastated, and retired for a while to a convent before being reunited with her husband. Giovanni lived until 1548.
As the years passed, the old scandals were forgotten, and thanks to the efforts of the poets and men of letters whom she patronised, or who admired her, Lucrezia Borgia's image metamorphosed into that of a godly and virtuous matron, without spot of sin, merciful and kind, and a gracious patron of the arts. When she died in childbed, of puerperal fever, in 1519, bearing her eighth child, her husband the Duke deeply mourned the passing of his 'dearest wife'. She was buried in the convent of Corpus Domini, Ferrara, where he was later laid to rest beside her (above, right).
So what is the truth about Lucrezia Borgia? Was she the notorious femme fatale of popular rumour, or was she indeed a virtuous woman much wronged by those about her? Today, many think she was more sinned against than sinning, and that she was the innocent victim of ruthless, unscrupulous men. There is plenty of evidence that the truth may be rather different, and that the original verdict of historians on Lucrezia Borgia is the correct one.
(Film stills are from The Borgias, B.B.C. TV, 1981)
A ghost story
`I can`t find anywhere suitable,` Beth sighed, scrolling down Places to Stay in East Sussex. `A lot of these hotels don`t have websites. I just don`t want to take a chance. It is our anniversary, after all.`
Joe bent over her shoulder.
`That place looks nice,` he suggested, pointing to a stately Georgian pile done up as a hotel.
`Far too expensive,` Beth reproved.
`Fair enough,` Joe agreed placidly. `I`d rather keep some money for the meal. That place there has a good restaurant, it says.`
`Nouvelle cuisine,` Beth sniffed. `I looked up the menu.`
`I like that one,` Joe said. The photograph showed a pretty pub with hanging baskets.
`So do I, but it`s only got a three-star rating. Wait – look at that!` She pointed to a picture of an ancient beamed inn. `That`s lovely!`
`Yes, but go back for me and look up the website for the other place first,` Joe urged. Beth clicked.
`Too dear for what it is,` she said. `I`ll go back to that old inn.` She tapped at the keys, then tapped again. `That`s funny. It was on this page, I`m sure, below that one.`
`You`ve gone back too far,` Joe told her.
`No, it was here. It`s just disappeared.`
`Perhaps they`ve taken it off because it`s full.`
`Do they do things like that? Can they?` Beth was often confused by modern technology. Joe shrugged.
`Okay,` he said decisively, `here`s the deal. We drive down to Sussex and take pot luck. When we see a place we like the look of, we can go and check it out before booking.`
Beth brightened. `That`s a great idea. We could go early, to allow ourselves plenty of time.`
Joe kissed her. `Can`t wait!` he muttered, nuzzling her ear.
They left the main road before Lewes and drove south across country towards Battle. It was a warm, drowsy, late-August day, and England was basking in sunshine, its landscape a tapestry of greens and vivid florals. By three o`clock, they had inspected and rejected three hotels, and were becoming the tiniest bit demoralised, for they had hoped to check in with time to spare to visit Battle Abbey and enjoy afternoon tea in a quaint little café nearby.
As luck would have it, they saw the sign just north of Battle. White wood, with black-painted letters. The Fighting Man. First left. Historic Inn offering Good Food and Accommodation. Slowing the car, Joe looked at Beth.
`Shall we try it?`
`Why not? It sounds lovely – but let`s see!`
They turned left and drove down a shady lane until they saw a pub sign depicting King Harold pierced with an arrow through the eye. It stood on a well-kept green in front of a beautiful old timbered building with a brass-studded oak door and diamond-paned mullioned windows glinting in the afternoon sunshine. Through a brick archway to the right, they could see chairs and tables in a sheltered walled garden.
`Wow!` Beth breathed. `Isn`t that the one we saw online? The one that disappeared?`
`I`m not sure, but I think we`ve hit the jackpot,` Joe smiled. `Let`s investigate.`
He parked in the deserted car park on the left. The sun was beating down, and the air seemed unusually heavy – and still. They walked to the door, which opened at a touch. It led into the bar, but instead of boasting the predictable horse brasses, ladderback chairs and chalk boards typical of a country inn, it was smart with beige walls, sleek, dark wooden tables adorned only by large unlit candles, and high-backed chairs upholstered in aubergine tweed. There were beams, but they looked modern. Blue LED lights illuminated the rows of bottles and glasses ranked behind the bar. The room was empty.
Joe leaned across the bar and called, `Hello!`
`Look, here`s a menu,` Beth said. `Mmm, this looks good.`
There was a thudding as if somebody was running down carpeted stairs, and a man in his thirties entered the bar from its further end. He had spiky, ruffled short hair and an earring, and wore combat trousers and a white T-shirt. He appeared to be a little out-of-breath, but his smile was friendly.
`Good afternoon,` he welcomed them. `Can I help you?`
`We were wondering if you have a double room free for tonight?` Beth inquired. Her eyes were drawn to some raw red patches on the man`s neck and arms. She looked away quickly. It was rude to stare.
`Of course,` he smiled. `We have two. Would you like to see them?`
`Yes please,` Joe replied. Their host led them through a doorway and up a narrow, uneven staircase carpeted in soft beige. Upstairs, three doors led off the landing. One was closed.
`There`s no one else staying, so you can take your pick,` the man told them.
He pushed open the nearest door, and again, Beth noticed the angry skin on his arms. Then her attention was distracted, for the room was delightful, painted in restful cream and furnished with a four-poster, tasteful antiques and good toiletries. Somebody had evidently taken a lot of trouble restoring this place. But there was a strange, sour scent in the room, and the bed looked as if it had been made in a hurry…
Beth wrinkled her nose, and looked at Joe. He made a face.
`That`s an odd smell,` he remarked.
`I can`t smell anything,` their host said, looking puzzled.
Beth turned away and walked into the second room. It was done up in soft lilac tones and smelt of fresh lemons.
`I like this one,` she said happily. `What do you charge?`
`Normally ninety, but you can have it for seventy-five, as it`s just the one night.`
`Done!` agreed Joe. `Pay me on the way out.` With a smile, he opened the shut door and quickly disappeared through it. As it closed behind him, a girl`s giggle could be heard. Beth raised her eyebrows, and Joe grinned.
They unloaded their small case, then drove to Battle Abbey as planned, congratulating themselves on fi nding such a delightful place to stay.
`I`m surprised it`s not on the internet,` Beth said, as they stood on the ridge of Senlac gazing down at the peaceful meadows where the Conqueror`s Norman hordes had gained their bloody victory.
`Perhaps it`s only recently opened. Be grateful it`s not online – a place like that would be mobbed.`
`There was an odd smell in that first bedroom,` Beth said. `Like charred wood – and something else that I couldn`t identify. I couldn`t wait to get out.
Anyway, that menu looks delicious.`
When they got back to The Fighting Man, they bought some drinks and took them outside, enjoying the mild breeze as the sun set in a fiery haze of glory. When the glasses were empty, they rose and, by unspoken mutual consent, went upstairs, where they lay down on the bed, luxuriating in crisp white sheets and downy pillows - and in each other. At seven-thirty, they showered in the black-tiled en-suite with its fluffy, snow-white towels, and dressed for dinner.
Before they went downstairs, Joe pressed a tiny box into Beth`s hand, and she found inside a delicate gold heart pendant on the slenderest of chains.
`Happy anniversary, darling,` he said, taking her in his arms once again and kissing her.
Their host was waiting to show them to an intimate corner table near the open fireplace, which was filled with fresh flowers. The candles had been lit, and the lounge bar looked warm and inviting. But strangely, there were still no other patrons in evidence.
`Where is everybody?` Beth wondered. `A lovely place like this…`
`Probably a lot of competition around here,` Joe observed. `Or the food`s rubbish!`
`I hope not. You know, it`s almost eerie. Not quite right. I can`t put my finger on it.`
`You`re imagining it. I like the sense of peace here – it`s relaxing.` He winked at her.
`Is it normally this quiet?` he asked, as they ordered the wine – a fruity Verdicchio.
`It`s unusual for this time of year,` their host shrugged, `but it`s a Monday night, of course. Come the weekend…`
`Have you been open long?` Beth asked.
`My girlfriend and I bought the place just over a year ago,` he replied. `The idea was to offer something different from the usual pub grub and “olde worlde” atmosphere. But it`s been a struggle, I don`t mind telling you. People around here don`t go to pubs for fine dining. I wish we had more customers like you! Now, are you ready to order?`
The stuffed mushrooms were delicious, and the blackened Cajun salmon that followed was a dish to die for. As for the brandy syllabub…
`That was superb,` Joe said, folding his napkin.
`We must come here again,` Beth enthused.
Their host took their plates and their order for coffee, then came back with two small schooners of Limoncello.
`On the house,` he beamed.
Back in bed, beneath the waffled cream blankets, Beth and Joe lay replete with good food and wine. Just as Beth suddenly felt a great tide of desire, Joe reached for her ardently. God, she thought, some while later, it hasn`t been this good in years! What`s got into us? In fact, it hadn`t been that good ever. It was almost as if they had been taken over by something that was no part of either of them. Could this place have something to do with it? As dawn broke, however, she dismissed this idea as pure imagination. `It must have been the wine,` she told herself, smiling.
After a hearty late breakfast, served at the same table, but this time with the sunlight flooding through the ancient windows, they paid their bill.
`Do come again,` the proprietor said. `It`s been a pleasure to have you.`
`We certainly will,` they said, and thanked him, then went to collect their case from the room.
`Just leave the keys on the bar on your way out.`
They did just that, along with a ten pound note in recognition of his warm and friendly service.
They were in no hurry to return to London, but spent the day in Hastings, wandering around the castle and the caves and enjoying fish and chips at a little seafront restaurant in the Old Town. They were still singing the praises of The Fighting Man, and when it came to the time to drive home, Beth was thoughtful.
`Joe, are you in any hurry to get back tonight?`
`No. I`ve brought some manuscripts home to read. I wasn`t planning to go back to work until Friday. Why?`
`Well, I thought we could go back to that place for one more night. It was so lovely. And I don`t have any appointments tomorrow.` Beth was a speech therapist, with her own private practice.
Joe looked at her delightedly.
They drove back to Battle, dusk settling around them, until the trees were black silhouettes against the red-gold sky. North of the town they took the road that led the way they had come the previous day, and watched out for the white sign.
`I`m sure it was closer to Battle than this,` Joe puzzled, after they had driven about three miles and it was growing quite dark.
`Perhaps we missed it.`
`I`ll turn round and go back,` Joe said, but they still did not see the sign.
They stopped at a garage to get petrol and buy water.
`We`re trying to find a pub called The Fighting Man,` Joe told the plump lady who was swiping his credit card. `Do you know it?`
`I did,` she said.
`Did?` Beth asked, startled at her use of the past tense.
`Nice place it was. And the couple that bought it spent a lot doing it up.`
`Was?` Joe echoed.
`All gone now,` the woman went on. `They`re still sorting out the insurance, I heard. There wasn`t a will, you see. It was all in the local paper.`
`Burned down a year ago this month. Terrible tragedy. Those poor souls. They were ever such a happy couple.` She leaned forward. `Faulty wiring. It was the middle of the day. Found them in the bedroom, you know. In that four-poster bed.` She gave them a knowing look and shook her head sadly.
`Burned down?` Beth cried. `It can`t have. We stayed there last night!`
`That must have been somewhere else,` the woman said.
`Yes,` Joe put in, folding an arm round Beth and steering her towards the door. He was trembling. `We must have got it wrong. Sorry to have troubled you.`
When they got outside, Beth was shaking too. The raw patches – the burns – on the man`s skin; that smell of scorched wood; the silence; the emptiness; the giggling girl hiding upstairs, waiting to return with her lover to that terrible room, on this first anniversary… and that inexplicable burst of passion. They were all starting to make bizarre, horrible sense…
`This is crazy!` Beth wailed. `She must have been wrong.`
`Wait!` Joe fumbled in his shoulder bag. `Look! The credit card receipt. It says The Fighting Man, Northiam Lane, by Battle. Come on, we`ll find someone else to ask.`
As they drove back towards Battle, they passed an A.A. man, sitting astride his motorbike in a lay-by, drinking coffee.
`Excuse me, do you know Northiam Lane?` Beth called.
`Keep going, it`s next on the right,` the AA man replied.
It was, but there was no sign that they could see, and the road was well-lit.
`That`s odd,` muttered Joe. Beth shivered. Suddenly, she didn`t want them to drive down that lane, didn`t want to discover what lay at the end of it. But Joe was accelerating forward, his face set, as it always was when he was nervous and didn`t want to show it.
There was no welcoming pub sign. Just a roofless ruin of blackened bricks, jagged timbers and rubbish. A makeshift barbed-wire fence had been erected around the site, with a notice saying Danger, Keep Out. The whole place was repellent, sinister. Where only last night there had been warm lights and laughter, there was now just a tragic silence and the dark, windy sky.
Joe moved forward, flashing the torch he always kept in his pocket for emergencies.
`No!` Beth cried, her instincts telling her to run.
But Joe had seen something.
There was no door, although its frame remained. A little way inside lay what was left of the bar. There was something on the floor. His feet crunched over the ash and the rubble.
`Joe, be careful!` Beth warned. But Joe did not heed her. He bent down and picked up something, then something else. Then he turned to face her and held out his hand. His face was shadowed in the torchlight, but she could sense the tension in him.
`We were here,` he faltered, his voice unsteady. `Look. The keys. And my ten-pound note.` They lay there in his trembling palm.
(Published in Woman and Home, 2009)
MURDER IN THE DARK
Tasha was very emotional on Christmas morning.
`I know, I know,` soothed Aunt Grace, rocking her in her arms. `It`s hard for all of us.`
`I can`t bear the thought of Christmas without her,` Tasha sobbed, tears streaking her mascara.
`I understand, my love, I do,` Grace commiserated. `I couldn`t bear to be at home that Christmas after my mother died. We went away, remember?`
`Yes,` Tasha sniffed, disengaging herself and dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. `You were very brave, you didn`t break down.`
`I did exactly what you`re doing, I did my crying in private before the festivities began. Best to have it out, then you can face the day.`
`I don`t want to spoil it for everyone,` Tasha said. `The children are so excited. And Anne has worked so hard for us.`
`We`ll do our best to enjoy it,` Grace told her. `We`re all grieving underneath, but your Mum wouldn`t have wanted us to be sad. She would want us to enjoy ourselves and not feel guilty.`
She patted Tasha`s hand.
`She`s here with us in spirit, I`m sure,` she assured her. Tasha smiled weakly.
Anna and Harry hugged them in the doorway.
`Come in, Tasha – you look great! Mum! Lovely to see you! And you, Dad! Merry Christmas!`
`Happy Christmas!` echoed Lucy and James, their teenagers.
`Aunt Tasha, let me help you put your presents round the tree,` Lucy offered, relieving Tasha of two bulging carrier bags.
`Grandad, come and see my new computer,` invited James.
`Harry, can you organise some drinks, please?` Anna asked. `Mum, will you look at this turkey? See if it`s cooked. I think it`s about done.`
Within half an hour, champagne had been served, the decorations had been admired and canapés handed round. Christmas dinner was on the table at one forty-five, and everyone agreed that it was one of the best ever. Anna breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. Everyone was aware that beneath the genuine merriment there was a deep sense of shared loss, but the day had its own momentum and they were carried along by it.
The afternoon was given over to the opening of presents, amidst delighted oohs and aahs and the occasional groan. At six o`clock, Anna prepared a tray of tea cups and brought in the Christmas cake.
`We have some party games planned for afterwards,` she smiled. This was a family tradition.
`We`re playing Murder in the Dark!` James announced.
`Yes, but not yet,` his mother told him. `We`re saving that till last, as usual.`
After wine had been served, they played Consequences, amidst much giggling, Pennies on a Plate, Musical Statues and Charades, then Lucy organised a film quiz. By the time that finished it was nine o`clock.
`Murder!` cried James impatiently.
Anna fetched the prepared envelopes.
`Right, can I just recap on the rules, for the benefit of those who repeatedly ignore them?` she grinned, looking at her son. `You each take an envelope and look at the card inside. Don`t let anyone else see it. If you find the card with a D on it, you are the detective and must say so. If you find the card with an M on it, you are the murderer, and you keep quiet about it – James!`
`Can I just say that the game works best if it`s played in silence?` Grace put in. `Tasha and Lucy, no giggling!`
`It`s creepier if everyone is quiet,` Anna said. `Now the detective must hide in the downstairs closet and shut the door. Then we put out the lights and everyone else wanders around the house or finds a place to hide. The murderer looks round for a victim. It`s best if you prolong the tension for a bit, or the game is over too quickly. When the murderer strikes, he or she gently touches the victim on the shoulder and whispers -`
`You`re murdered!` James interrupted.
`Thank you, James,` his mother said tartly. `The victim falls to the floor, or whatever, counts to three and then screams, and when the detective hears the scream, he or she comes out of the closet, tells everybody to stay where they are and puts on the lights.`
`You forgot to say that, between whispering You`re murdered and the victim screaming, the murderer makes his or her getaway,` Harry added.
`Thanks,` his wife smiled. `The detective then locates the body, looks around to see where everyone is, then calls them into the sitting room for questioning. Everybody but the murderer has to answer truthfully. Then the detective makes an accusation. If he`s correct, the murderer must own up and the detective is the winner. If he`s wrong, the murderer keeps quiet and we play the game again. Everybody got that?`
`Yes!` came the chorus.
`Okay, everybody take a card.` Anna passed them round.
`I`m the detective,` Harry said, and disappeared in the direction of the closet.
`Lights out!` cried James, and hit the switch.
One by one, everyone left the room. Tasha, who had drawn a blank card, thought the house looked eerier than she had expected in the dark. She angled her way past Lucy in the hallway and crept into the kitchen. Someone was standing behind the door.
`Anna, is that you?` she whispered. There was no answer.
Her uncle walked silently past her as she slipped away into the dining room, which was still redolent with the aroma of Christmas dinner. There in the corner Tasha could just make out Anna, and wasn`t that Grace crouching down by the table? She could smell her aunt`s perfume. Through the double doors to the sitting room she espied the bulky shape of James seated in one of the armchairs.
Uncle Mark must be the murderer, she reckoned. He was the only person walking around. Stalking was the more appropriate term!
Then something struck her. Who was it who had been hiding behind the kitchen door? She had passed Lucy in the hall, and Uncle Mark had come into the kitchen as she herself had left it to walk the few steps to the dining room, where she had found Anna and Aunt Grace. James was in the sitting-room chair and Harry was in the closet. So who had been in the kitchen?
She remembered the stillness of that figure, which had slightly unnerved her. Had it been just a shadow? She must go and find out.
She padded stealthily out of the dining room and back towards the kitchen, but just outside the door, Uncle Mark came up behind her, tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, `You`re murdered!` before flitting off into the dining room. There was no time to look behind the kitchen door. She collapsed to the floor, counted to three and screamed.
`Everybody stay where you are!` Harry yelled, emerging from the closet and switching on the light. He smiled down at her. `You make a very glamorous corpse!` he told her.
He looked into the kitchen.
`No one there,` he said. Of course, Tasha thought, whoever it was could have moved. I must have been mistaken.
Harry was checking everyone`s positions and telling James that he looked very suspicious sitting there with that smirk on his face.
`Right, everybody, come into the sitting room!` he ordered. Tasha got up and made her way through. Harry began questioning everyone.
`Did you see anything?` he asked Grace and Anna.
`Someone came rushing through the dining room at a rate of knotts,` Anna said. Uncle Mark gave her a surreptitious wink.
`I saw that too,` Grace said, refraining from looking at her husband. `They went into the sitting room.`
`Where I found James in that armchair and Mark crouched down by the sofa,` Harry observed. `Lucy, where were you when you heard the scream?`
`I was hiding behind the coats by the front door,` she told him.
`Hmm,` he said. `James, I accuse you!`
`Wrong, Dad,` grinned James.
`We`ll have to play again,` Anna said. Everyone got to their feet.
`Can I just ask something now that I`m alive again?` Tasha interrupted. `Who was hiding behind the kitchen door?`
`I wasn`t,` Anna replied.
`Nor me.` This was Grace.
`Or me,` said Lucy.
`I ran along the hall and back into the sitting room,` James told her. `I was in the chair all the time after that.`
`I went into the kitchen but I didn`t hide behind the door,` Uncle Mark revealed.
`Then who was it?` Tasha asked uneasily. `That accounts for all of us.`
`Are you sure someone was hiding there?` Harry asked.
`I think so. It was very dark and I could just make out a shape behind the door. I asked if it was you, Anna, but there was no answer.`
`Probably just a shadow, or a trick of the light,` Harry said.
`Probably,` Tasha agreed, not wholly convinced.
`Let`s play again,` Lucy urged, and gave out the envelopes.
`I`m the detective this time,` James announced.
And I, Tasha noticed, am the murderer.
This time she went straight to the kitchen and looked behind the door. It was clear that there was no one there, and no shadow that could have passed for someone. Her heart began to pound. So she had not imagined it.
She looked about her. The house, cloaked in darkness, looked unduly sinister. There was a dark figure walking purposefully down the passage towards her. Harry. He loved winding people up. She sidled away into the dining room, where she could hear measured breathing but see no one. She searched around and saw Lucy standing tautly in the gap between the dresser and the wine rack.
The others were in the dark sitting room. There was Anna, half-hidden behind a curtain, Grace sitting on the sofa and Mark standing just inside the door at the far end. Too many witnesses. She would try to corner Harry in the kitchen.
She slipped through the double doors, tiptoed out of the dining room and entered the kitchen, just in time to see Mark move into the utility room beyond it. There was no rush. Prolong the game, Anna had said. Mark could wait a moment. In the meantime, she felt drawn to look behind the door again: she had to check just one more time to see if there was anyone standing there after all, or any clue as to what she had seen. She knew she hadn`t imagined it.
The figure was there, just as before. A dark, still shape, its features and form hidden in the gloom - but, in some strange way, not frightening. Then there was a movement. She could just make out a hand reaching out, and was filled with a wonderful sensation of being comforted. Dear God, it could not be…
`Has anyone been murdered yet?` cried James, crashing out of the closet. `I thought I heard a scream.`
`It was cats fighting outside,` came his father`s voice. `Go back in.`
James disappeared and quiet descended. But the figure had gone. Tasha stood there, shaking yet thankful. Her mother had been with her after all this Christmas. She knew it.
Grace, keeping a watchful eye on Tasha, noticed that her niece looked happier, less strained than she had these past months. And since Tasha was cradling her amazing experience to herself, wishing to cherish it in private before exposing it to the scrutiny of her family, Grace could only conclude that it had been good for the girl to get involved in the party and the festivities. Life had to move on, after all.
They broke it up around one in the morning, and Grace and Mark, who lived in an apartment block just along the road, walked back home with Tasha, struggling under the weight of all their gifts. Once through the front door, they deposited their bags in relief in the spacious vestibule that doubled as a dining room.
`I`ll make some coffee,` Grace offered, and Tasha and Mark sank down thankfully at the table.
Grace went through into the hall and thence to the kitchen, where she plugged in the kettle and unhooked some mugs from the stand. Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone going into the living room opposite.
`Put the lamps on, will you?` she called.
But there was no answer. Both the hall and the living room remained in darkness.
`Who`s there?` Grace called, going into the living room to check. But it was empty. She could hear Mark and Tasha chatting in the dining room.
That`s crazy, she thought. I distinctly saw someone. Then suddenly, she knew she was not alone in that room, that there was someone there with her, even though she could not see them. And she knew exactly who that someone was, and – like Tasha just hours earlier – knew that they had come to offer comfort. She was suffused with the feeling. Everything would be – was – alright. That was what her sister had come to tell her.
The bonds of love, she reflected, are stronger than death.
(Published, as guest writer, in Kaleidoscope: A Showcase for Sutton Writers, Eastbourne, 2009)
POEMS BY ALISON WEIR
Within a Kentish garden Hever lies,
A noble pile that cradled once a queen:
Fair Anne Boleyn, her name was, and her prize
Proud Henry, who oft visited this scene.
These bowers bear the print of her soft shoes,
These flowers she once dipped her skirts to smell,
While here King Henry's suit she did refuse
Because, she said, she would be married well.
He turned the world asunder at her whim,
And took her from sweet Hever to the court,
And married her, and took her unto him,
But then did God withhold the son he sought.
The spell cast in a Hever garden broke;
To others did the King address his suit,
And left his Queen in loneliness to mope
And strum her mounting fears upon a lute.
And of this coil the dreadful plot was born,
Whereof the world did whisper much in shock:
And in the Tower, on a bright May morn,
Queen Anne Boleyn faced death upon the block.
Now Hever lies deserted, overgrown.
Its old walls left to crumble in the sun:
Pale remnant of the splendour it had known,
A showpiece for the centuries to come;
While Anne, the brightest star that it has owned,
Lies headless in her grave so far from home.
(Alison Weir, 1979)
LINES FOR THE BLACK QUEEN
I see that gaudy court
In all its splendour;
I see the women sweep
In veiled surrender,
The King in velvet robe
And diamond shimmer,
The Queen in satin black
With eyes a-glitter.
I see them move as pawns,
The chequered chessboard weaving,
The knight, the bishop grave,
The knave, the coward sneaking.
I hear the cry for aid,
I join in heartless chatter,
The shameful apprehension
Of a player.
I smell the evil greed
That, lusting, weaves discord -
And I see naught but blood
Dripping on the sword.
(Alison Weir, c.1970)