Oars ease through the tan water. There is the occasional dull thunk as one of the wooden blades clips the side of the barge, but little else disturbs the foetid heat. The boat is not moving fast and the crowds on either side of the river are keeping pace. If one were unaccustomed to this ritual, an observer might mistake their shouts for cheers.
The woman stands at the prow, barely a breath of wind to stir her hair. If she raises her gaze just so, it is as if she is flying over the Thames, east and towards the sea. There is salt hanging in the warm air even now, a chance to flee, the lure of a dive into the murky water and a swim for her life. Perhaps she could make it to the bank, treading water amongst the sewage and the scum until nightfall. Maybe, amidst the sparse, guttering torches, she could creep ashore. Perhaps she could slip into the shadows of Southwark or into Eastcheap, finding her way past the empty bear baiting pits and the drivers sleeping underneath their wagons.
That is no way for the baying, foaming mob to remember her though. She does not want to live in their memories as a slithering, decrepit thing, crawling for cover in the hope of a life between hovels and haylofts, never more than a careless word from capture and humiliation.
White stonework looms. The crowd’s hollering crescendos. The woman steadies herself as the barge turns. All her life she has been taught that small things have consequence – the coquettish turn of a head in a dance, the playful glance up through a mask at a ball. So is it now. She must be steady as they look their last upon her. The arms of Traitors’ Gate swing open, obsequious in their grace. The Queen’s colours already hang high above her from St. Thomas’ Tower, limp in the afternoon fug.
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 a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order