I was once a King – or rather, married to one. Wearing a long purple velvet coat and a single daffodil, I picked up a ballpoint pen and wrote a new surname in a Town Hall register. A spike of a word. It was 1971. I thought it was the Law, that you had to take your husband’s name.
Mr King was a fine and mathematical man who wore vegetarian shoes and went on many Marches – against the Bomb, the Hunt and tinned fruit from South Africa. A man of absolute opinions with an imprecise wife uncertain of anything much.
We divorced – by post – two years later. Such a relief to return to the longer, silkier scrawl. Christian name: the one I first learned to write, letter by letter, the one I’ve always lived in. Middle name: Mary. Third name, of Dutch and rural origins: the name of my father.
Another wedding and change of surname, passed in time to the children, so after a second – longer – divorce, I kept it. A short dash linked it to the one I was born with. The names, at least, forever joined together. A bit of a mouthful, a double-barrel, but rarely spoken or written in full. To be found on the inside cover of a new book, across the odd cheque and at the bottom of the last page of the Will at the front of the top drawer of the filing cabinet upstairs.
A few weeks ago, I went in search of another name, hidden high in my local cathedral, in papers usually kept under lock and key. I’m a volunteer there, so a request to see it was granted. The muniments room is at the top of a spiral stone staircase, the steps steep, worn and narrow – the climb a challenge for the older knee….up and up, round and round, until the Keeper of the old books, deeds and documents opened a nail-studded door and took me to a table.
On it stood a book rest covered with a black cloth. On the cloth lay a slim volume with a heavy title: Orders for the Regulation of the Prince’s Household. 1641. Wearing white gloves, the librarian began to turn the vellum pages, the skin with the sheen that can only come from much handling down the ages.
The book itself is a dry affair and hard to read: a series of ‘items’ or ‘instructions’ as to the governance of the Prince’s suite of apartments or ‘Chambers’. A gentleman of the Bedchamber must enter at 8 ‘of the clock’; only persons of high rank may have admittance to the Privy or Presence Chambers. There is no glimpse here of the swarthy boy, 11 at the time, slow by all accounts to shape his letters, even on ruled lines, who loved to ride and hunt with his father. But it’s not the contents of the book I’m interested in. It’s the name that appears above the text.
The papers are put before the King. A small man, with a pointed beard – and a lifelong stammer – lace at his neck and wrist. Next to the papers, a dish of brown oak gall ink and a quill fashioned from a flight feather, the nib freshly cut. This is no Treaty or Petition from the People, no challenge to his Divine Authority….nor is it a Death Warrant, though he’s signed enough of those. So it is his will and pleasure to approve each order and put his name at the top of the page, as is the custom. A light scrape on the calm surface, then again…The letters rise and fall, but evenly, surely. Charles R.
A year later, the Civil War will begin.
It is such a simple signature. Unlike Elizabeth’s, this is no decorative drawing, with underlinings, flourishes, garlands of fancy loops.
When the librarian turned away to close a window, I touched the name with an ungloved hand, then the words below it – and felt a shock, through and through. If it was a step back in time, it was a very short one. A moment at most – just wide enough for the Past – if that’s what or who it was – to touch me back. Then the white gloves returned, firmly closed the book and took it away.
The moment with the book in the library reminded me of another, with a picture at an exhibition.
A gallery in London, 2001, as soon as the doors open, before the crowds, because I want to see a 17th century painting – Dutch, dearly beloved – unsurrounded. I cross a room or two and there it is and my heart stops. A single, sturdy figure is standing before a kitchen table, intent on what she is doing. A maidservant pouring milk, forever.
That moment, too, soon passed – but I can feel it now, the shared stillness – strange greeting – and the man who studied her still breathes – through a picture. Unsigned, undated and perfect.