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The Ages of Man

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Hal is seven years old when he is first brought to court. His father leaves him behind, to go in to see the King on his business, and Hal gapes up at the walls of the palace, watching the pennants snap in the wind. He is tall for his age, but extremely thin, as though his limbs have been stretched on the rack.

“Hey!” someone shouts. Another boy is crossing the forecourt toward him: he seems no older than Hal, but smaller and stockier, with a bully’s heavy brow and Northern vowels. “Hey, toothpick! Where did you come from?”

Hal draws himself up. He is the king’s cousin, a good archer and an excellent Latin scholar. He will not, he decides, be spoken to in that manner. “I’m Henry Monmouth,” he says, “and I’d rather be a toothpick than a Scotsman’s bastard.”

In the next moment, Hal realises that he may not have quite thought this through. The other boy is on him at once, fists and elbows, shouting, “You take that back, you lily-livered ginger son of a whore!”

Hal musters all that he’s had of military training, but that was formal exercises with bow and wooden sword, not this hand-to-hand scrapping on the cobbles. Dust gets into his mouth and his eyes; he tastes blood where one of his new teeth breaks through his lip. The other boy is like a whirlwind, kicking him and pulling his hair, and it is all Hal can do to get a knee to his bollocks, dislodging him momentarily with a grunt of pain. Ha, Hal thinks. Dirty tricks.

“Now, what is this?” asks a voice, languid, but so resonant as to cut through the din of the fight and every other sound in the courtyard. “Must we be judge of two contentions in one day?”

The boys break apart, scrambling to their feet. It is the sun come down, Hal thinks at first, his eyes dazzled; then he sees that it is only a man, young though bearded, in robes of white and gold like a painting in a church. Hal’s father stands by his side, mouth set in a frown; he is, Hal notices distantly, wearing only one glove.

“I fear this is my son, your grace,” his father says, like one who has tasted something bitter. “Not so well staid as I would he were.”

Hal flushes to the roots of his gingery hair, struck with indignation and embarrassment. The other boy is arguing that Hal insulted him first, which is frankly untrue, but Hal stands silent and stares at his feet. He won’t wrangle and he won’t excuse and he won’t apologise; for the first time in his life, he simply refuses the terms of engagement.

The King chucks him under the chin, gently; ruffles the other boy’s hair. “Plantagenet,” he said, as though pulling the names from the air. “And Percy. We like your spirit, our young Harrys. But you must fight for your King and not against each other,” he adds, and it seems now that he is talking to Hal’s father. “Shall you make peace if I command it?”

“Pax,” Percy says, holding out a blunt-fingered hand. “I am sorry I pummelled you.”

Hal takes his hand as though he is gripping an adder. His lip is still bleeding. “Pax.”

“You see,” says King Richard. “That was not so difficult.”

When Hal’s father is exiled, soon after, it is the King who takes him in, makes a pet of him, sends him sweetmeats from his own table, demands that Hal recite verses and brings him to Ireland, all as if Hal was one of his prized monkeys. Returning from exile, Hal’s father looks at him with suspicion, as though he were turned into a monkey in truth. And Hal has cause to remember Richard Plantagenet, who was a king from the time he was a child, and to wish Bolingbroke long life with particular fervour.

*

By the time he is fifteen, Hal has learned to hold his drink, to rob a purse, to lie with a woman. He has realised that, though he might be a good shot and an excellent Latin scholar, he must set out to make himself liked, and boys are not liked for their excellencies. He flees his tutors and works at his books by night, as though it were the blackest crime, and when he’s asked about his wasted looks the next morning, claims to have spent the hours carousing. His father will believe anything of him; it is the one respect in which he is credulous.

By the time he is fifteen, Hal’s father is the King of England and Richard is dead.

Sometimes his nighttime studies are difficult, when he would much rather be the carefree rioter he claims to be, or simply sleep and forget. Still, Hal is up with a candle, studying the lineages and mistakes of long-dead kings, when he hears the door creak open behind him.

“Who’s there so late? Reveal yourself or I’ll summon the guards.”

“It’s only me, John,” Hal answers, hastily closing the book. “You are too wary.”

“Father says we must be vigilant,” his brother tells him, “for there are many in the realm who’d do us harm.”

“Father sees King Richard’s ghost behind every arras.”

Barefoot in his nightgown, his boy’s face already chiselling away into sternness, John might be one of those royal ghosts himself. Though only three years younger than Hal, he seems to come from a different age entirely: he does not remember what it is like not to be a prince. He does not see the role the way that Hal does, as a mummer’s costume to be donned and flung away at will: John is a prince in truth, every inch of him. He would make an excellent king – alas for him, that he has an elder brother living.

“You are ever from home, Harry,” John says, and he sounds so like their father in that moment, if their father were not judging but only sad.

“I know.” The darkness and the silence make him admit it. “I haven’t been a good brother to you.”

“You have,” says John, as though nothing on earth would ever make him deny it. “But I would I knew you better.”

There is a thing, Jack Falstaff will pronounce one day, by the name of pitch: this pitch doth defile. “When I know myself better, then you shall know me, John,” says Hal, and leaves his brother guessing at riddles.

*

He is twenty-one years old when he is crowned, and knows that his apprenticeship is over. Though he had thought himself weary of his old life, he finds it curiously difficult to set aside: it is as though he must alter himself from the bones outwards, to laugh at different things and take pleasure in different things. For some time, he does not laugh or take pleasure at all – unless it’s when alone, on horseback, with the wind in his face.

He had thought it would be a game, to emerge as a king fully-formed, like a player from behind a curtain, to general startlement and applause. Instead, it is his father’s death and the end of all games.

When the barbers shave him each morning, they present him with a looking-glass, so that he may admire their handiwork. The face distorted in the glass is a fool’s face, lax and pleasant, with a fool’s guileless blue eyes. He remembers the trick Richard had played with a mirror, the day he was deposed. Like Richard, he must speak of himself in the plural now, and often feels that he is indeed two persons, Hal and King Henry, neither more than shades.

He sends the barbers away and lets his beard grow, hoping it may turn his face into that of a king.

One night, he returns late to his chambers to find that there is a woman in his bed. She is quite young, snub-nosed but pretty, her hair loose and the sheet pulled up to her chin; her face is vaguely familiar, glimpsed somewhere about the court.

“What do you do here?” he asks blankly, startled out of thoughts of troops and accounts and ships at Southampton.

“My – my father thought that I might be pleasing to you, your grace,” the girl says tremulously.

“Did he,” he says. “Why is that, do you think?”

“He knows you – use women...” Well, so he has, and they were whores, too, though he likes to think that they went to bed with him for pleasure. He paid them, of course, as he had paid Falstaff and Poins and the rest of them: good honest fellowship.

“And so he would pawn a maiden’s honour for preferment.” She does not answer. He reaches down, curious, and brushes the backs of his fingers against her cheek; watches her shiver in fear and then will herself to stillness. A woman’s honour, it was said, was all between her legs, lost once and forever; a man’s could lie in his oaths or the strength of his sword, could be tarnished or washed clean.

“Go home, sweetheart,” he tells her. “And tell your father that I am not what I was.”

He does not sleep after she leaves, cannot bring himself to overwrite the warm imprint of her body on the sheets. The moon without is nearly bright enough to read by, though he does not read either, but sits by the window with one knee drawn up, remembering other days. He is not what he was, that’s true enough, but the anointed prince Henry the fifth of his name is a stranger, his face barely recognisable on new-minted coins.

Well, wars have stamped worse men anew. Perhaps, by the time he returns from France, he will know who this Henry Plantagenet is.