Sometimes I have no strong sense of where I want to go with a story… I need to characterise my uncertainties; have characters take charge of their fates and not leave it to my vacillations.
So – I START DRAFTING: here is an opening gambit; unfinished; hopefully not unpolished. I’d appreciate thoughts, criticisms, suggestions…
Stephen J Kimber
Mesvieux Hall, Oxfordshire,1606
A sweaty horse, the man sent to keep lookout all a lather, fumbling out of the saddle, worried more by haste than the horse, the whispered conference with Squire Mayview, then the words, after the squire climbs the stairs: ‘they’re coming.’ The squire looks at him, standing, sacramented, haloed by light from the window. Mesvieux Hall light, a good catholic home, built now some 300 years, and squire Mayview, Anglicized Mesvieux, looking at him.
The man who would die as Nicholas Owen returns the squire’s look as if bewitched. In his head other words – you expected this, you know what to do, you know how to find the key to the hole – but he seems frozen by actuality.
‘Quick father, they are coming now. You need to go in the hole.’
Down the stairs again, leaving behind the light, taking the sacraments with him, towards the kitchen, a false wall and a fumble at two rosettes, one to be turned, the other’s seamless pronounced boss pushed in and turned also, another way, more fumbling and then the hole and darkness – inside which he knows is a thin mattress, enough to lie down on for many hours if needs be – and the squire hands him, as he goes in, a dark loaf, dried herring and a jug of water, after he has taken in all his sacred documents and clothes and left – so they all pray – no notion of catholicism in this house.
And the door closes and he hears their horses’ hooves upon the cobbles in the courtyard and the guttural sounds of hunters’ commands. And he knows it is him they hunt, a duplicate truth.
It is the smell of fish which does for him, the man whom they think is Owen; the dogs they bring in, heavy slobbering beasts, seeming almost many headed like Cerberus when they find him and bite and throw drool, the smell of fish and, perhaps too, loaves. He could almost smile.
A cottage in Dublin,Ireland, 1607
Nicholas Owen had moved himself, for reasons of privacy, with the quill, ink pot and parchment he was carrying, to what may have been constructed as a larger than normal priest hole in some catholic Lord’s house back in England, one not built by himself, though, for it would have been too difficult to disguise and thus too easily discovered by the priest hunters that still prowled not only his homeland but also, now, Ireland. He was not-quite-secreted in the gatekeeper’s cottage of Leinster House and now occupied a space where he sought – indeed needed – to write. He considered the urgency of this need: the account he must write of the failed gunpowder plot was to be smuggled out and into safer hands than could be secured in this reformist land. And it was needed yesterday – much grief was being done in the names of outraged protestantism.
The space he was in felt reassuringly small and tucked away and thus put Owen in mind of what he had built for the salvation not only of many a lord but also of himself. And Nicholas, seated, first steepling his fingers in that characteristic both of about hands moving into prayer and of about one who was inclined to think deeply (each of these actions almost identical in Nicholas’s mind) then took up his quill, dipped it into the ink pot and committed these opening sentences to parchment.
My name is Nicholas Owen; which claim is proven by the appended seal at the end of this document. This is of course from Fr. Edmund Campion’s ring – which the authorities knew was always in my possession but failed to locate on the man who has died in my place at the tower. Those who read this text and are privy to known facts re our mission in England will also recognise my hand in it. They will know the truth.
Owen paused, both to push back the lock of hair that always was intent on falling into his eyes and to think some more. His lock of hair he called a sinner, because it represented a vanity in keeping it long to hide a receding hairline, and because it did not obey his will and was forever falling down into his eyes. The truth, he thought, the truth… if this is known will it help us recover in England?
I doubt it, Nicholas thought.
His wayward hair had sinned again and he pushed it back up, dipped his quill and readdressed the parchment…