Lost Property Office, Norwich: Regulations
- Do not take anything from the office in case it becomes lost again
- Do not add anything to the office in case it becomes misplaced
- If you cannot find the item you are looking for, come back another time
- Leave umbrellas at the entrance
- Always wear gloves
Item, The Road to Yarmouth (1)…
It runs like a lizard’s tail up and down the coast, connecting my first home to my wedding bed. I trundle along it fresh-faced, in a cart, a gown of good worsted covering my skin. I am barely eighteen, but ready to bend like a Norfolk reed to the deal that has been struck.
On one side flat lands emptied by the Black Death wait to be plucked. On the other the dangers of the North Sea. They will snatch you from the beach if you dare walk too close to the surf. But if you know the secret place to wait, they will bring you treasures not seen in England yet – paper, light beneath my fingers, smuggled from Italy or from France.
In years to come I will hold this newfangled thing up to the light and glimpse the fruits of far-away lands floating within its weave: grapes and boars, a constellation of stars. But now, as the cart tips me this way and that, the only treasures I own are my good name and my hope.
Item, The Boundary Wall…
My mother-in-law squats in the old manor at Paston. Out in the countryside, surrounded by dark fields, no one shall stand in her way. She cares not whose land she takes next. Her late husband taught her well.
They accost her in the church, block her path from the pew as she would block their ancient way with her new wall. Behind her eyes a red veil, like the red painted on the plaster above – three kings meeting three skeletons in a wood. They didn’t think to paint a queen, but she is here. Agnes. My new husband’s mother. The woman I must call mother too. She would outlive us all if she could. But I listen and I learn, for I know she will not outlive me.
Item, The Scarlet Gown…
Three years we have been married and I lie alone in my bed dreaming of a gown the colour of blood. I write from Norwich to find out how you are. I have heard you are unwell, but nothing since. You send me caps for the children that do not fit. You forget my request for lace. I beg you to come home, entrust my letters to men who make their way to London where you lie in your bed too.
In the morning I wake and my body feels heavy. I call for a scribe and recite… ‘I would rather you were at home than have a new gown, even if it were scarlet’. But later, in the darkness, candle snuffed, I imagine myself dressed in crimson and I smile.
Item, Elizabeth’s Tears…
In a room hidden behind solid walls, my sister-in-law’s head is broken in two or three places. Blood like her mother’s anger clots her brain. She refuses to marry the cripple, Scrope, thirty years her senior and still no idea how to speak to a woman if the tales they tell are true.
Elizabeth is too afraid to speak the words outright herself. She asks another to plead on her behalf. They send missives to my husband in London that say, ‘Burn after reading’. But he does not. In this family we keep everything, just in case.
When I next see my sister-in-law her face is pale but her head is healed. There are no tears on her cheeks now. The cripple has not got his way. Nor has her mother, the woman I have learned to call mother too.
Item, The Treacle Pot…
Opium, myrrh, caster and herbs. Some even say roasted flesh. This precious remedy stretches from the Greeks to the Egyptians and now to us here, huddled in Norwich against the plague. I don’t go out myself to find a pot, I send men who are dispensable and hope they do not chip the lid and glug it down before they bring it back.
I gag as I open it up – poison to cure poison, the remedy of the rich. If it doesn’t work they can use it to daub my front door, before throwing what is left into the Wensum. The river flows around the city like a serpent curling its tail around its nest. Inside the city walls plague flies through the foetid air, black as the flints on our parish church. You have still not come home, though I have asked and asked.
Item, the Road to Yarmouth (2)…
Almost twenty years gone since I first rode the cart and now I trundle back, five sons and two daughters squeezed out from between my thighs meantime. My dress is tighter around my waist than it was then.
I approach our newest home at Caister – a castle built in brick, four stark towers a warning to anyone who dare come near. Through all the years to come and everything that is writ and counterwrit, I cling to it. What’s mine is mine. That is what my marriage has taught.
For ten years the bricks belong to me, until a siege forces our people out. Three dead. Two wounded. I lie awake at night remembering the vastness of the hall, tapestries now ripped to the ground and trodden by men with muck upon their boots.
Item, A Husband’s Grave…
You come home at last, stiff and cold, carried on a plank of wood, the dirge of sixteen monks following in your wake. They drop you off at the parish church we re-designed together, black flints glimmering in the Norwich sun. I meet you there one last time and we recommence to the priory at Bromholm for a feast that will go on for days. We rid the county of every last chicken, of every last egg and gallon of its milk. I take a taste of it all. Nothing passes your lips. We are fat by the end, you a little more concave.
We put you under the ground within the priory walls and I wait for our son to build the memorial you deserve. I re-read your letters and imagine you still up in London, still petitioning, still hanging around the Court. It is I who must take up cudgels on your behalf now. Anoint your sons. Admonish your daughters. Lock myself inside your disputed manor houses until I am forcibly removed. Your mother is still alive, out there on the land by the sea. She moons over your grave, while I stay in Norwich and count what we have left.
Later, you will be dug from the black Norfolk earth of your youth and taken down the road to a more modest place. A square-towered church, unassuming in the dip of the land. Snowdrops rage across the ground. Lumps of stone with dates carved several centuries ago, now softened and obscure, stud the grass. None of the stones are yours. Just like all our manor houses, our memorials and our lands, you have disappeared. The priory at Bromholm nothing but a stubby pillar of flint rising from a farmer’s field. The monument you were promised, never even begun.
Item, The Lovers’ Vows
Our daughter is older than we were, now that her time has come. Her betrothed is her elder again, by seventeen years. He has watched her grow and crawl upon the grass. He has touched her head and let her play amongst the tools of his trade. Nobody has seen them for what they really are – a man and his lover. They are a too familiar sight – a servant and his master’s girl.
We were still teenagers when I was plucked from Mautby to meet you, the man who would become my life. We spoke carefully, in the tongues we had been taught, words that would not tear asunder a deal that had already been sprung. You bought me a girdle to wrap around my waist. I named two sons for you, before I had a daughter of my own to hold.
But this man writes to our girl in secret. He dreams of her lying beside him on sheets made of lawn. He watches as she picks crab apples in the dawn, then takes them and grinds them down for ink so they can write their secrets some more.
I plead with the bishop, but it is too late. They have spoken the words and nothing can sunder them but the grave. I hear them as I watch the doves flying to and fro from the cot, their whispers like the rustle of the birds’ wings. Inside a darkened room they speak the words we would never have dared.
I do. I do. I do.
Item, My Lost Granddaughter…
Illegitimate. Bastard. An empty box on the family tree. A line down a generation that never was. Some people, when they draw us out on a map, don’t even bother to include her name. Constance, daughter of my first born son. They never mention her mother, or her surname, they give no dates. She didn’t shout down the generations as I have done. She whispered instead. Constance, lost to the river of time, my blood running through her veins. She should have written herself down as I have tried to do, every little thing cemented with red wax. That way she would be impossible to ignore, as I am now.
Item, the Road to Yarmouth (3)…
This road is my lifeline, the artery that connects me to my past. Now that I am old the cart traverses it once more, returning me to the ground out of which I first grew. When I am dead they will bring me to the church and bury me, inside or out. Then I will be gone, like all the other ordinary things that have made up my life: staves and worsted wool; eels and victuals; gunpowder and men’s hearts; three yards of purple camlet and a runlet of malmsey with which to drown the losses our family has suffered and celebrate the gains we have made.
In time my grave will vanish, the last of my ancestors concealed by the pews. And the road will slip away too, snatched by the sea, barely a whisper of complaint. One must swim if one wants to take that ancient route now, crushed plastic washing alongside, a mouth full of salt.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis
First published on 26.org as part of 26 Writer Norwich