By Sienna Baker -
After the memorial, Thomas Cuthbert was alone. He walked down the street from the reception. It was still morning, but he was tired.
He had expected this. He’d learnt, in his fifty-something years of life, that anything emotionally charged would knock the wind out of him. He had the same experience with hospitals, with war movies. Even, sometimes, with births or weddings. His in-laws had invited him to a memorial lunch in the city square but he seemed completely overcome with exhaustion. He could not even make it home, and so found himself paying the entry fee to an art gallery simply so that he could rest on one of the cushioned benches. He found the first bench he could and breathed, deeply and slowly, as he sat.
Directly across from him, a painting of a young woman, nude, straddling a crimson cloaked horse in what looked like a town square. She leaned back in the saddle, yet looked down at her body, stroking her exceedingly long, dark hair and wrapping it around herself as best she could. The painting was titled in bold letters, Lady Godiva.
He sunk into the painting as one sinks into an old armchair, the red of the mare’s girdle and the glint off the beautiful woman’s white shoulders. At once, the horse’s head turned, and trotted toward him.
“You’re in my way.” Spoke the woman atop the horse, much to Thomas’ surprise.
“You’re in my way.” Thomas oriented himself. The town exuded atmosphere, though was oddly silent. The shutters, gates, doors of all structures surrounding Thomas were closed. The air was biting to the senses, as on a farm. Thomas was, all of a sudden, standing.
“You’re … naked!” Was all Thomas could say.
“Thanks for noticing.” She laughed a full-throated, feminine laugh, then gestured him aside with a flick of her thin wrist. “Come now. They won’t stay inside for much longer.” Thomas stumbled left obediently. Behind where he stood, a palace gateway opened from the other side, and the woman and her horse proceeded through it. The beautiful woman looked behind her shoulder at Thomas once more before the gateway promptly closed, leaving Thomas bewildered. As the gates closed, the bell of a nearby tower rang out, and so the shutters of the town windows once again opened. The townspeople went about their business, except for a group of men who quickly congregated around the palace gate, trying see over it. Eventually giving up, they began to part ways, and Thomas approached one of the last stragglers, a man in high ankle shoes, chausses and a short tucked tunic the colour of mud. He smelled of livestock. “Sorry, are we in Coventry?” Thomas asked.
“Uh, yes.” Said the man, mildly disgruntled, eyeing Thomas up and down. “You all right?”
Right, so at least I’m where I’m supposed to be, Thomas thought. But this was not the Coventry he had just come from. “When … are we?”
“What do you mean, when?” The man asked, eyes narrowing. “You need a doctor? You got spirits? Why are you dressed so strange?” He eyed Thomas’ double-breasted shirt pockets and denim jeans.
“No, no …” Thomas wandered away. The streets smelled putrid. Above him towered construction arches of a cathedral in the making. The streets were wide and cobblestone, lined and peppered with barrels of excrement. The further away from the palace he walked, the noisier it became. Every once in a while a street merchant would come up to him and attempt to sell him something, but Thomas responded that he carried with him no change. There were men in well-kept tunics who walked with debonair and officiousness and there were deferential counterparts in rags who shovelled excrement from the main roads. He looked to be in a fantasy.
Thomas turned back the way he came as he neared the pungent smell and noise of a fish market, the sound of cleavers splitting wood, meat and bone. He knew he had to find a way back to that woman on the horse. She hadn’t been surprised at his strange dress or his sudden appearance in front of her, as if she had expected it. And she seemed to have a caring spirit. And she reminded him of Gia.
But when he reached the palace gateway there were guards stationed outside, and he had no hope of finding a way in. So he waited. He was not a man to take action. Besides, he liked this strange town, and the way its people moved – it seemed alive and moving with a sense of urgency. He found shade under the thatched overhang of a house across from the palace gateway, eyeing everything that went through it.
Several hours later, the late afternoon sun was disappearing. Thomas was not dressed for English nightfall. The cold slowly setting into his bones seemed to engender in him an unfamiliar agitative zest. He collected himself, stood, and decided that if were ever to become a man of action, now was as good a time as any to start.
He walked, as stately as he could, up to the guard on the right of the gateway, as he was slightly shorter than the guard on the left. As he approached, though, through the guard’s helmet, Thomas could see a hardened mouth and distinguished jaw, which made him hope he had not chosen wrong.
“Excuse me, sir.” Thomas said in the most dignified tone he could muster. The guard did not meet his eyes. “I have a very urgent need to speak with the … uh … Lady of the …” – Thomas gestured indiscriminately – “palace.”
“Who sent you?” Asked the guard on the left. Thomas shifted his attention.
“Get out of here before we throw you out.”
Thomas stood dejectedly in place for a few seconds. “No, really, I must speak with her.” He persisted, his feigned confidence having thoroughly run dry.
“Nay, the Countess isn’t having any visitors at this time.” The guard on the right said. Thomas was, at this point, quite confused at whom to direct his queries, although he had just about run out of them. In a completely uncharacteristic and ill-planned moment of bravado, he instead made the decision to run full-force ahead. Taken by surprise, the guards grasped desperately at him as Thomas slipped through the gateway.
Thomas kept running down the boulevard of the palace toward the main entrance. And the guards collected themselves and ran on after him, clanking feverishly behind him. Thomas had not taken into account how long it had been since he’d last ran, and half a dozen yards from the palace entrance saw him doubled over, gasping for breath, a guard at each side.
“The Earl will have your head on a spike for this!” Growled the guard gripping his left arm. A few metres away, the doors opened. The woman who had strode through town naked on a horse stood looking at Thomas again, now fully clad in a green and gold-laced tunic.
“Oh, let him go.” She said. Thomas grunted in agreement.
“Uh, but Countess …” one of the guards started, “we caught him trying to break into the palace!”
“He was doing no such thing.” The Countess said, approaching the three. “I’ll show him out. Besides, I was just about to go for a walk myself.”
The guards faltered. “Well … that’s highly unusual, Countess.”
“Okay.” Said the Countess. “Whose business is it of yours?” She offered her arm to Thomas, who took it, still mildly breathless. The pair walked out of the courtyard together.
“Well, that was stupid of you.” Said the woman once they had passed the gates of the palace. “They would have killed you.”
Thomas felt very pleased with himself that he’d managed to both evade death and score a meeting with the Countess, and thought that perhaps taking action wasn’t that bad after all. “Where on Earth is this?” Thomas asked. “I feel like I walked into a medieval fair, except I don’t remember doing it.” The Countess remained silent. “One minute I was in the art gallery and then I was here.” All of a sudden, the shutters flew open on the upper level of a marketplace house.
“Countess!” Exclaimed an exuberant man from the window. The Countess looked up at him and smiled.
“Thank you! Thank you!” She nodded at him and turned her eyes back to the path, keeping her even, meticulous stride.
“Who was that?” Thomas asked. “What was he thanking you for?”
“Oh, I managed to pass some tax relief today.” She said. “That’s what this afternoon was about.”
“You had to ride naked through town for … tax relief?”
She nodded, as if it was simple. When Thomas did not respond, she said, “My husband told me he would not release his subjects from heavy taxation unless I rode through town nude. So I did.”
Thomas was struck by this. “Quite the humanitarian.” He said.
“Well, I issued a proclamation telling everyone to stay indoors while I did so.” She mitigated.
“Who are you?”
“Countess Godiva, wife of Earl Leofric.”
“It’s a traditional name. It means gift of God.” Her eyes flickered up. “What was your wife’s name?”
“How do you know about my wife?” Thomas asked defensively. The Countess was silent. “Her name was Gia.” He said eventually.
“Gia. Meaning God’s gracious gift.”
“Yeah.” Thomas said.
The Countess smiled and looked up at the silver vaultings of the cathedral they were passing under. “When did she pass?”
“What’s the deal?” Thomas asked. “How do you know all this?”
“I think you know that.” Countess Godiva said coolly. “Come. Let’s find somewhere to sit. I know a place.”
The Countess led Thomas to a large stone bridge over a fast-flowing stream, black in the night. The rush of the water calmed Thomas somewhat. On either side of the bridge, there was life. Suspended over the water, Thomas felt suspended in time, the noise and havoc and movement almost out of earshot.
“What is this?” Thomas asked. They sat on the stone fence, legs dangling. The Countess only shrugged.
“It is whatever you want it to be.”
“See, just before this, I was looking at a painting of a woman who looked exactly like you.” Said Thomas, trying to prompt a less cryptic answer. “She was beautiful, like you. And she was riding naked on a horse. But it was a painting.”
“How do you know it wasn’t real?” She said simply. Thomas could not answer this at first, and was surprised at his inability to do so.
“You know, you remind me of my wife.” Thomas said eventually. “She had long dark hair, like you. She had the same eyes. She spoke gently. She was kind.” The Countess nodded.
“Maybe that’s why you came here.” She said.
“I did choose this, didn’t I?” Thomas said at last.
“How long ago did your wife pass?” The Countess asked. It appeared to Thomas that she already probably knew.
“Two months.” Thomas said. “The memorial was today.” The Countess nodded gently. “What’s happening to me?”
“You’re dying.” Countess Godiva said plainly. The Earth stilled around them both as they sat.
“Is that my choice too?” Thomas asked softly.
The Countess shrugged. “Possibly. Perhaps you just didn’t want to live without her. But possibly not: after all, these things happen.”
They sat together, looking over the stream. The sky was a cloudless black, the moon waning to an almost imperceptible sliver of white. The Countess put her hand over his.
“You have to go back.” Said Countess Godiva eventually as they both stared ahead, into middle distance, hovering between action and inaction.
“I know.” Said Thomas. “But I don’t want to.”
“I know.” She said.
“I don’t want to feel it.”
“I don’t want to die without her.”
“I know. But you have to.” She said. “There is no other way.”
“Why can’t I stay here with you?” He asked.
“You’d just be avoiding the inevitable.” She said. She took a hand to his face and stroked his cheek gently. He stood after a time and took one last look at the beautiful woman’s porcelain face before turning and crossing the bridge to the other side. As his heels crunched into the stones, closer and closer to the end of the bridge, the clean white of the art gallery walls came into his peripherals.
Thomas sat in the gallery again, looking across at the painting of the Lady Godiva, losing breath from his chest like the ebbing of a tide. He lay down on the cushioned seat as deep, thrumming aches permeated from his heart to the rest of his body, down his spine, his legs and arms, into the sinew under his fingers and within his neck. His last movement was to position himself so as Lady Godiva and her horse were comfortably in his vision, the chestnut of her hair, the blush in her cheeks, the white of her body.
Sienna Baker is an eighteen-year-old Australian writer from Sydney. She enjoys writing short and flash fiction across almost all genres. Her work has otherwise appeared in the Australian Young Writers Showcase (2020 edition).