If I woke this morning asking myself what I would write today, that question was painfully answered at about 11:20 when I was sitting at my desk, dealing with work emails, then doing a Greek lesson, and listening to the 42-minute Classical Music Interlude (the whole Autobahn album by Kraftwerk) I was playing on Radio Stradbroke. My phone flashed at me, and all I saw was Hilary Mantel. I knew in that moment what the news would be, stopped my Greek, clicked on the link, and saw the brief news article in full. I announced her death to my listeners ten minutes later when the music had stopped, and cried on air. What had already been a bad day had turned into an even worse day.
We have lost a genius. One of the best novelists, if not the best, of the 21st century, of any century. Someone with an eye for detail, an understanding of the hidden nooks of history, a feeling for the intricacies of the present, and for the conflicting motivations of the human beings that peopled the real world and the worlds of her books. For me, in the Wolf Hall trilogy, she took the stream of consciousness technique that James Joyce so brilliantly invented in Ulysses to new heights (and mostly with punctuation marks, even if the lack of punctuation makes Joyce’s streams just so much more real than fiction), putting us into the brain of someone we knew, before we even started reading the books, would be beheaded at the end of the third, yet another victim of yet another mercurial monarch in this country that has been so bruised and abused by monarchs.
What makes the Wolf Hall trilogy so extraordinary is that Mantel gave a voice to a man who has been misunderstood and consigned to being a footnote in history by far too many. Thomas Cromwell was actually a true reformer, a man who tried to redistribute wealth, tried to make the legislature more equitable. And this is the thing; for some reason people expect other people to only exhibit one characteristic, to be either entirely good or entirely bad. And yet real life doesn’t work like that; none of us are so one-dimensional. And neither was Cromwell; he kept some (a lot) of the wealth he was working on redistributing, he was as hungry for power and influence as the next person in those days, he wasn’t above putting the frighteners on people who got in his way or in the way of his plans, not above manipulating truth. And yet, he was generous with his charity, generous with his mind, with his thoughts. Henry VIII regretted his decision to have him killed a week after he was beheaded.
We have lost an artisan of the written word, a sharp observer of human and societal mores, a woman who knew what words mean and what power they have. As she said in 2013 – The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write. Or not.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 218
Again, a primitive instinct tells Aggie to run, but her art tells her not to. She carries on walking, not too slowly, not too quickly, picking her way through the streets until she gets to Marion’s house. The outside light is still on, and she thinks she can see a light through the curtains of the front room. She taps gently on the door. There’s no answer, so she taps again.
Finally, Bill opens the door. ‘That was quick.’
‘It was too simple,’ Aggie says as she steps inside.
Bill closes the door, bolts it, follows Aggie through to the back room where they’d been sitting and planning earlier. Marion is pacing the room, her face pale.
‘What’s the matter?’ Aggie says.
‘You don’t know then,’ Marion says, looks at Aggie closely.
‘You didn’t do it then?’ Marion’s voice has recovered all that initial sharpness Aggie noticed at the airport, has lost all that saccharine sweetness.
‘What are you talking about?’ Aggie says.
‘The President,’ Marion says. ‘He’s been assassinated. By someone on his own staff. Some intern or another.’
‘What?’ Aggie’s breath falters. She sits down. ‘I should have known. I should have stopped him.’
‘Stopped who?’ Bill says.
‘Valentine. Valentine was in there,’ Aggie says. ‘I saw him, saw him … kill a young woman, in the room where I found the files.’
‘You saw Valentine, here in Washington?’ Marion says.
‘He’s supposed to be in Moscow.’ Marion sits down, reaches out for her glass of wine, stops, shakes her head. ‘No, not sensible.’ She looks at Aggie. ‘Come on then. Tell us what you saw.’
So Aggie tells them about the tunnel, about the primitive staircase down to a deeper level, about the wood panelled room, about the files, the chair, the cuffs, the unnatural light, how the mechanism removed the young woman’s brain, about how Valentine put what Aggie suspects is the latest version of the control device into that woman’s head. She doesn’t mention the file she found, nor the acronym, nor what Valentine called the woman. ‘And then they went back upstairs. And I was so close to stopping him, but decided there was nothing I could do because it might jeopardise what I was there to do, because if I’d been caught, the trail would have led back to you. I should just have done it.’
‘Hang on,’ Marion says. ‘You can’t take the blame for this. This was never meant to happen.’ She folds her hands up under her chin. ‘This means either that Cassandra is lying to all of us, or that she genuinely thought Valentine was somewhere in Moscow, and that she could kill two flies with one stone. It also suggests that there’s someone in the White House other than Valentine feeding the President and people on the outside false information.’
‘But who?’ Aggie says. And she wonders if it was so easy to get in there because someone knew she was coming and was going to frame her.
Distrust distorts the room.
A knock on the door.