The Truth About Titus Oates

by Kate Braithwaite. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award 2011

November 1679

First they tie him to a chair.

The chair is nailed to a rough platform of wood and juggled up onto the shoulders of six willing men ready to be paraded through the streets of London. Horses trample past, obscuring my view, filling my ears with snorts and the hard smack of hooves on the cobbles.  Men bellow orders as they shuffle and stir the procession into shape. I have never seen such a profusion of purple, such glorious rich deep velvets. All around us young men are shrugging on priests’ clothes, grabbing crucifixes and altar books from a cart brimful of goods.

My plan is to stand very still and not panic. I promised Henry and William I would not. My fingers rub the smooth ivory tip of Martha’s rattle and grip it tight. I want to touch something of her, keep her close. I will not panic. I know it is not my living, breathing, husband Nat they’ll burn. This is only a straw man, just an effigy, thank God. But I cannot drag my eyes from it, all the same.

He – it – wears tight black breeches and a many-buttoned waistcoat. It sports a grubby neckerchief and a long dingy coat that has seen better days. They have given it stockings even, although only of wool: worn, nubby and poorly patched, with threads left dangling. Worst of all are the wig and hat. Its wig hangs limply and is matted with some tacky grime while the hat looks as though it has been kicked across the cobbles before being crammed upon his head. Probably because it has.

They are not his clothes, I know that. Nat’s clothes, those he left behind, are in our house, folded and cleaned in readiness. Oh, but these are like! That is his cut of coat, his colour of wig, his careless necktie. My husband has been studied most diligently.

Where his face should be there is a painted mask. The body is tightly bound to the chair but the head leans at an impossible angle. They have slung a crude sign around his neck with his name, Nathaniel Thompson, painted on, although surely no one in the crowd could have any doubts. Someone has even put a quill pen in one of his hands and rested piles of papers and books on his knee and around his feet. All so easy to burn.

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