Welcome to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from SG MacLean’s new novel, The Black Friar
In Samuel Kent’s Coffee House on Birchin Lane in the heart of the city, all the talk was of Parliament. Parliament holding out against Cromwell, refusing to recognise his right as Lord Protector, threatening to cut the army, wrest it from
‘But they can’t expect Oliver to give up the army,’ said Samuel, the old soldier who ran the coffee house. ‘He can’t govern without it.’
‘Oliver has no intention of governing without the army,’responded Elias Ellingworth, who’d been holding court. ‘Parliament, though, he would happily do without. It cannot be long before he claims Divine Right.’
There was an uneasy shifting on the coffee benches at this, and a lull in the conversation that was shattered only by the arrival of Gabriel, the coffee house boy. He had been at Custom House Key, noting the day’s prices for the merchants who called into Kent’s in the course of the day, too busy to see to such matters themselves. Samuel’s niece Grace had been teaching Gabriel his letters, and he carried the worth of all the stocks of the day in his head, ready to list them on the board Samuel had hung up on the wall. Today, though, Gabriel was out of breath, having run faster than ever all the way back up to Birchin Lane from the river to be first with the news, and there wasn’t a figure still in his head when he got there.
‘Glory be! What on earth is it, boy?’ said Samuel when Gabriel had skidded to a halt at the top of the coffee house steps. ‘Is it an armada?’
Gabriel took a moment to get his breath, shaking his head vigorously to emphasise the import of his news. ‘No.’ Then he hesitated, a new and terrible thought come to him. ‘But maybe . . .’
A merchant, George Tavener, was on his feet. ‘Good Heavens, lad, take a seat and tell us what the matter is.’
A stool was thrust beneath the panting boy, and at last he had gathered himself enough to speak. ‘A monk. Dead a hundred years. All bricked up in Blackfriars.’
Elias Ellingworth, the lawyer, looked at the child quizzically. ‘That’s hardly news, Gabriel. There’ll be lots of old Dominicans buried there. There are places still in London where you’ve a good chance of digging up a monk’s skeleton every time you put a spade in the ground. A few are bound to be turned up now and again at Blackfriars.’
But Gabriel shook his head all the more emphatically. ‘Not a skeleton. Fresh as you or Mr Tavener there. But dead, and all bricked up there since old King Henry put his Spanish queen to trial in Blackfriars to get rid of her, before he could get rid of the monks too.’ His voice became quiet with terror. ‘Now they’re coming back, to get their revenge, Dan Botteler says.’
‘Dan Botteler!’ said a haberdasher, tutting as he put on his gloves ready to go back to his shop. ‘Dan Botteler’s mother dropped him on his head long ago, and he hasn’t spoken a word of sense since.’
The others, having similarly lost interest in the boy’s story, went back to their coffee and their pipes.
‘But what if it’s true?’ Gabriel looked around him, beseeching.
‘You’ll not need to worry about it, true or not, if you don’t get back down to the quayside double quick, to get the prices of Mr Tavener’s stocks.’ Samuel Kent brandished his stick threateningly. ‘Better take your chances with Queen Catherine’s ghost!’
The boy was up and out in the streets again before the laughter from the coffee drinkers had died down.
‘Strange, all the same though,’ said Elias. ‘A body to lie uncorrupted so long. There are ways, I have heard, of preserving them, but behind a wall? I cannot fathom that.’
‘Don’t trouble yourself over it,’ said Tavener, ‘it’ll be all over the Intelligencer by Monday, with every lurid theory you could want.’
‘Yes,’ said Elias, gathering up his papers for his business in the courts, ‘and never a word more said about Protector or Parliament.’
About the author
Shona (SG) MacLean was born in Inverness, brought up in the Scottish Highlands and now lives on the Banffshire coast. The Black Friar is the second book in her Damian Seeker series, published by Quercus, price £13.99