There’s worse places t’be security, I’ll grant you that. I could be pushin’ punters around outside some shithole of a nightclub or standin’ in front of the East Upper Block of the New Den getting bottles lobbed at my head. Instead, I start my shift to the sound of choristers warming up for evensong. My first hour is spent sayin’ goodbye to punters as they wind out of the abbey, shafts of sunlight streamin’ through the stained glass and surroundin’ me like I’m Mary Magdalene herself. Not a bad way to earn a living, really.
All things considered, though, Westminster Abbey is an odd place for someone of my political views.
A list of my after-dark charges does not make for encouraging reading. Let’s kick things off near the altar, where we’ve got a collection of blokes-who-thought-they-knew-best. Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots (not a nickname I’d be proud of) split his time between slaughtering people in the Holy Land, in Wales, and in Scotland. Everyone’s gotta have a hobby, right? Shuffle along clockwise around the altar and you’ll find Henry the Fifth, a true warrior king. It ain’t immediately clear why the qualities required to be a warrior should overlap with those needed to run a country, but he draws the crowds nonetheless.
Even if we put a likin’ for blood down to male medieval tastes, things don’t improve when we move into Henry the Seventh’s chapel. The Last English King to Win the Throne on the Battlefield (why is this a good thing?) lies in repose to the north of the abbey. I’d like to think if I’d been responsible for the upbringing of a man so dismissive of women that he divorced two of his wives and lopped the heads off another pair, I’d have had the good grace to bury myself in an unmarked grave. Not so, for Mr. Tudor. Proud as punch, he is.
But these were men of their time who won their crowns at the tip of a sword, I ‘ear you say. Unfair to judge them by modern standards blah, blah, blah. Alright, we’ll take a walk to Poets’ Corner, shall we? Surely here we can be sheltered from penis-waving antics and red-blooded male stereotypes, right? Surely here lie the enlightened, the cultured, right? Wrong.
Ted Hughes? Cheater.
Byron? Sex scandals comin’ out his ears.
Dickens? Left his wife and child for an eighteen-year-old when he was forty-five.
More like philanderers’ corner, now I come to think of it.
This building that I wander at night is choc-full of blood and balls. Cromwell, Pitt, Burns…the list goes on. There’s enough buried testosterone in this building for a hundred years’ worth of Soviet athletes to get their fix. When monuments to women are allowed they are treated as oddities, as subject to male values, tucked away in shadowed alcoves. Elizabeth the virgin queen. Mary, Queen of Scots, the great seducer. Even the Bronte sisters are seen in the light of their brother Branwell, freaks because they outshone ‘im rather than huddling together in his shadow.
What, you may well ask, is my interest in this imbalance? It’s to lend an ear to the ladies, of course, girl to girl. In the quiet of the abbey in the small hours I can ‘ear ‘em, their whispers echoing between the choir stalls, just as urgent, with achievements just as important, and done in spite of the other sex rather than with their support. They speak to me, these women. They murmur through their marble lips that I’m just like ‘em, sidelined and ignored because of how I was born rather than what I’ve achieved. I may not speak pretty like some of the tour guides, but I can talk about the tomb of William de Valance as good as any of those posh boys. That’s what Jane Austen and George Eliot tell me, at least when I can hear them over the talking around the altar. Christ, but those medieval kings do gossip.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order