Look! There’s the Abbess, starlight giving an edge to the white crispness of her vaulted wimple shaped like the Abbey’s Gothic archway. Do you see another Abbess behind her and another, beyond? Endless Abbesses and arches, stretching through time? This place was already four centuries old when the Conqueror came.
1066. William has invaded, burning and sacking Saxon England. London has submitted. On Christmas Day they crowned him at Westminster.
And now it’s New Year’s Eve. Word arrives: he’s coming to Barking Abbey! There’s consternation in the chantry, apprehension in the apse, terror in the transept. Should we bury the chalices? Lock the cellars, or throw them open? Our grey-eyed Abbess, Alfgiva, imposes calm.
“Prepare the spits: three bucks at least. Pluck the geese and deck the halls. We’ll show him a Saxon New Year.”
“Roland,” she murmurs, fondling my ears, “I depend upon you and my cooks. Hunting’s his passion, I’ve heard.”
New Year’s Day: just a powdering of snow. Joyously, I lead the well-fed company into the Great Forest. Toodle-ooh trills the horn as we follow the stag, the hare, the boar. Towards twilight, after a day of successful slaughter, William and I find ourselves alone in a silent, sinister glade. Yellow eyes encircle us.
“A Saxon trap?” he whispers, drawing his bow. My nose says Wolf! I turn! A grey and hairy shadow springs, almost floats, towards him. I seize the grizzled throat, feel claws grab my haunches; an arrow twangs; the wolf drops. William’s fame as a bowman’s not misplaced! Wolf on saddlebow, we trudge hungrily homeward, chasing the distant kitchen scents of roasting boar.
I’m just a ghost dog now, remembering summers spent half asleep on the Abbey step, plainsong drifting over the hazy cornfields, fishing boats with billowing sails gliding up Barking Creek.