jan shirley french translator and childrens author

Harry Bone Thief by Jan Shirley


I still wake suddenly sometimes, sweat streaming off me, and remember. Then I come properly awake and remind myself this is now, it’s all right. All right. Safe.
Yes, it was dangerous, that hot summer of 1538 here in Canterbury, but I was young, ridiculously young. I had no idea, none at all.
My father smashed and bloody, unrecognisable, how could I know?

I remember sitting under the kitchen table and people were talking, just the usual mutter mutter going on somewhere, but I was miles away inside my head, sailing a warship across towards France. I would find those Frenchmen, blow them out of the water, drown them. She was a three-master, I remember that, and I had to make sure we were all at our posts, wide awake, the sheets taut, sails pulling, guns ready. We were running before a fair wind, white horses dancing, and the ship lifted and smacked down again, lifted and smacked. I eased my grip on the tiller. Then I caught sight of my sister Ellie’s bare feet dangling close by my nose and saw a brown hen’s feather lying on the floor near my hand. I picked it up and was just going to draw it across the sole of her foot when I heard a shout. My older brother Peter, yelling – and that wasn’t like him -
‘Father, no!’ Then nothing. Then Peter again - ‘How can you even think of it? The danger!  All of us. Even little Lucy. You and me, we’ll be killed, both of us, King Harry will hang us, and Clare and the little ones, they’ll die too, they’ll starve to death. No one to work for them, no money, no food. All of us dead. Is that what you want?’ 

All of us dead?
I listened, but Dad didn’t say anything. All I could hear was my uncle, Brother Joshua from the Priory, angry. He and Peter are the same sort of age, nineteen or so that summer, they never agree about anything. Peter wants the new religion from Germany, that Luther thing, and Uncle Josh would fight to hell and back for the old one in Rome, for the pope, the holy father. Now I heard Joshua blazing away at Peter -
‘What a fool you are, can’t you see it? The king’s men are coming! King Harry’s men! We’ve no time, they’re on their way, and we’ve got to save the Saint! Save him any way we can! And if your father will help …
Well, I’d heard enough, that was nonsense. Everyone knew that Saint Thomas was the one who did the saving, he didn’t need it. He was up there in heaven, great and glorious, could go anywhere, do anything. You had a broken leg? Ask the Saint. A bad fever? Ask the Saint. Your aunt has gone mad? Ask the Saint. Pigs and chickens and cattle too. Cats? Don’t know, maybe. But what rubbish Uncle Josh was talking, ‘save the Saint’ indeed! I stopped listening and drew the feather across the sole of Ellie’s foot. She yelled and jumped up.

*          *          *          *          *          *

‘They’ll rack you to pieces and burn you dead and you can go and sit in heaven with your halo twinkling!’ cried Peter, ‘but it won’t be just you, it will be all of us!’
‘Oh no,’ said my father. ‘I’ll manage better than that. Get on with that length of beech, it’s nowhere near smooth.’
More silence.
The door to the kitchen was open, and I could hear my mother and Ellie talking. Mother was remembering King Harry from way back.
‘I saw him, you know, before he began to hate Saint Thomas, when he came here to pray at the Saint’s shrine. What a different world it was! He was still married to Queen Catherine, of course, and he brought her nephew with him, the emperor, and I saw both of them quite close. I was only little, about ten, and I thought I’d never get to the front of the crowd, but then people noticed how small I was and let me through. And there he was, all golden and glowing and smiling! So tall too. I thought he was wonderful.’

*          *          *          *          *          *

Ellie stopped to get her breath but I ran past her onto the wide open space,  the wheel loft. It’s where the treadmill stands, a huge wheel, and three men get inside it and walk and walk, and so it keeps turning round and powers a pulley so that we can lift stone and timber up from the floor of the Cathedral miles below. All this stuff gets hauled up and brought in through a big opening in the loft floor. But the trapdoor was closed and locked and the wheel was standing still. I liked seeing it working.
I ran to it all the same and was just climbing inside when of course I heard my father’s voice,
‘None of that, boy! Stay clear!’ So I did. Father took the basket from Ellie and asked her why ever she’d brought me, and she laughed and said,
‘No one brings Harry, he just comes.’
‘So he does,’ said my dad. ‘Harry, sit down and stay in one place!’
I curled up close to Peter and looked hopefully at his cold sausage.

*          *          *          *          *          *

I settled myself comfortably on the shingle. A vessel was just coming in on the tide, the Merry Lass from Dover. She danced a good bit, making her entrance, but no harm done and I watched them bring her alongside and tie her up. She’s a neat little ship, carvel-built of course, and I wouldn’t mind signing on there.
Then, switching away from the Lass, I caught sight of something strange under a breakwater quite near me. I saw, I thought I saw, two eyes, just that. Deep in a dark corner under the breakwater and staring straight at me. I leant forward and stared back. Animal or human? Then a face came into view around the eyes, a small, pale, miserable face, and the eyes were all wet – with tears?  I opened my mouth to speak but shut it again. Was this a goblin? Some sea monster? A boy?
There was still half a slice of pie in my hand. I held it out towards the creature and kept very still.
It crept out on all fours, almost like a dog, but put its hand out. It was a child, very young. It held out a hand for the food and I put the pie into it and watched. He – it was a boy – took it quite gently, bent his head and sniffed at it, then crossed himself and began to eat. It was gone in moments. Then I gave him the bread and he ate that too.
So young, so little and shivering! And dumb I thought at first, absolutely dumb, couldn’t speak, but then I realised he was just plain terrified. Frozen up with fear. Not dumb, because he did speak once, told me his name. Lipperty Jack, that’s who he was, he said so, but that was all he did say. ‘Lipperty Jack’, once, and then nothing more. I told him I was Harry Wright, I chattered on about Rye and Canterbury and riding here on Cobby and – oh, it was all getting nowhere, and he just seemed to shrink, get smaller and smaller and still kept shivering.

*          *          *          *         *          *

I remembered Mother taking Ellie and me to visit the shrine, the Saint’s tomb, one day last summer, and all the jewels blazing and all the people praying. I think it was Ellie’s birthday. Not long before Lucy was born.  Mother hung a little gold and pearl cross there among all the other things people had given when they wanted help for something, and she prayed to Saint Thomas for a safe delivery and a healthy baby. Our Saint, and he cares about us.
I remembered another time when I was quite small myself and I’d wanted to touch one of the treasures hanging on the shrine and Brother Bernard, who is tall, thin and fierce, smacked my hand away and gave me a telling off. I hadn’t been going to hurt it – it was an old old walrus tusk, once belonged to an Icelandic chieftain, people said, and I used to think of him in his furs bobbing about in a little boat among all those ice floes and seals and things. What could have brought him to Canterbury? To pray to the Saint for something, I suppose, or just on his way somewhere else, perhaps to the Holy Land, to fight the heathen for Christ. Hot sun and the blazing light shining on polished steel, heavy horses struggling over the loose sand, pennons fluttering as the knights lowered their lances for the charge.
And now King Harry would have that little cross and the walrus tusk and everything else, all that treasure. How could he possibly need it? And how soon were his men coming?