This finger ring with the inscription “I LIK MY CHOICE” (ca. 1550-1650) was found in Chudleigh, Devon, and is now part of the RAMM collections. Read a creative response to the object by Frankie Dytor below.
“I LIK MY CHOIS”
The morning woke abruptly. The house shifted in its sleepy state, unable to lie still against the dust and the sun. Floorboards started to creak; laces started to be tied. It was time to move. I felt for the warm body next to me and it stirred softly, giving small noises of discontent. ‘Time to leave’ I whispered in her ear. She turned over, looking at me with sad, half-closed eyes. Giving a small nod, she pulled the bedding tighter against her, creating a barrier between us. She held my wrist tight, forcing it down, nails gripping into my skin. There was little we could or should say. Noises were coming closer and closer, signalling the end of our time together. The door shuddered, anxious of the duty it had to perform. Glancing towards it and knowing that it would soon have to open, I put my hand lightly under her chin and brought her close to me. ‘I’ll be back’, I said in the smallest voice I could find. Again, she nodded, first with a slight and almost imperceptible motion, then again with more force, so that hair unloosed further from its ribbons. I picked up the stream of linen lying on the floor and started to wind it round and round and round myself. Once bound in it I dressed, until finally cloaked and concealed I could leave.
Out on the street dawn was already receiving visitors. Carts rushed up and down, vendors set up their stalls and the stench was rising. I hurried home taking, as always, a new route. It wasn’t a long way back, but sometimes I would double over on myself, nervous always that a local would spot this cloaked stranger who had such a liking for the street. There wouldn’t be trouble back home so long as my brother hadn’t disturbed the house coming back late at night. In that case, my absence would surely be noticed. But as I returned, slipping in at the back, all seemed still. The day could begin again.
I can’t say that I was much liked by my family. The whole family was swallowed up by the interminable grip of business. There seemed to be little need or room for me. Not being a son, I could contribute little, although I did my fair share in the workshop when required. For the most part I was left alone. They seemed in no rush to marry me off. Cheaper to keep me than to pay another to keep me. I knew, though, that my time was running out. Soon I would have to be given over. It was a horrible thought. On those nights that I was not with her, I would lie thinking about what was going to be forced on me. Sometimes I imagined wildly that my chosen unwanted would not want me either and that we could live two distant, separate lives within the household. Other times I felt with graphic intensity the terrible duty that would be required. On those nights the sheets turned damp from sweat, of cold, dripping fear.
As I dressed for the second time, this time in the inconspicuous clothes of a young woman, I ran the scenes of last night through my mind. She was still on me: her weight, her smell, her feeling. The thought made me half mad with such a confused rush that I had to sit down. The stool rocked uncertainly underneath me. I felt myself to be turned inside out, half wild with despair and pleasure. The situation was so impossible that I laughed with a choke, spluttering quickly into quietness. The room straightened itself up properly again. Time to work.
Work was duty after duty. Task to perform, small, menial, endless. But I had free roam of the streets and I was my own person out of the house. Not being of class enough to limit my movement, as long as I kept my wits about me the streets were mine to perform. I liked best of all to shadow behind beautiful men, noting the swagger of their hips, the placement of the hand, the kick of the boot. I would mime the kick under my skirts, storing it all for later when I could become alive before my love. As my girdle clinked against my legs I would imagine it to be heavier, the weight of a cool sword on my thigh. Always, I was watching. If I could, I went down to the waterside, though this was easier said than done. I so obviously did not belong there that my presence attracted enough attention to cause trouble. But I wanted to learn, I wanted to look. So I trailed through the grime, head tipped down enough to see but catch no-one’s eyes. Calls and whistles soon followed me. I had just enough street sign to gesture a few select obscenities; enough to stun them to allow for me to dive away. I chose my clothes carefully on occasions I wanted to make it waterside.
Within the city, which still seemed vast and uncontainable, I had one lover and one friend. My love was trapped in the day, bound by her wealth to remain indoors. I didn’t know how she could bear to be so observed. My life was invisible. It had only gained shape through her regard, filling in with every kiss, every touch. Without her I could feel that shape flickering. It was ready to lose form without it. I would take only her look, I vowed. I would not be seen by any other. My one friend, a girl from a friendly neighbouring workshop, had an invisible enough life too. She was not like me, but we had known each other for so long things like that didn’t matter anymore. I could trust her, and her me. On more than one occasion I had played the part for her sake, delivering secret messages t to her sweetheart, a sickly-seeming boy with little hopes other than for her.
Today I decided to go and visit my friend. And on my way, the incredible happened. A cart went barrelling down the street, too fast. Someone called out for the driver to be careful at the corner, but it was too late. Two carriages collided, the fall of the horses pulling the second carriage over at a sickening speed, so that all was noise and confusion. The world seemed to explode with things. Wares were suddenly suspended in the air before crashing down in a hopeless wave. Everywhere people seemed to rush about, and the smell of shit and blood newly mingled together in the air. Things spread across the street, turning the road into a living, crawling carpet. Towards me, a single sovereign rolled to me with solemn intent. I picked it up and looked at it. I had never taken anything from the street that wasn’t mine before. But following some impulse of the coin I placed it within my skirts. Turning slowly on my heel, I walked straight out of the scene and through a clutch of streets. My head didn’t turn to the side for an instant. I knew, though, that my cheeks must be flushed as I could feel the heat rising and constricting my sides. My head span. Coins were not normally mine to keep. But this – my fingers itched irresistibly for it – was for me, and my love.
I knew without fully knowing what I should use it for. It was too paltry a sum to buy my independence outright, but it could allow me to realise myself. I headed for the market. I wanted a dead man’s clothes. Before reaching the market, I passed through the streets of the goldsmiths and lingered longingly there. My pound would not stretch far in this district. But at the tattier end, where used items were sold, there I could find what I wanted. It was there, waiting for me. Its shine was the lick of my love’s lips, its soft curves all-feeling. The sovereign longed to be reunited with its brood. I argued for it, pleading for it to be allowed to come home with me. Eventually, wrested from its owner, it was mine. I caressed it all over.
The trip to the market brought its goods too. With pennies left, I was back in my solitary room, pacing until nightfall. In the dark I awoke to return. This time it was for the last time. With a half regretful glance back my old home, I left. Slipping through soft veils of shadow I arrived for her. I found my way through the usual means and soon I was pressed close by the candlelight, feeling for her against coarse linen. She wondered at myself, as I stood proud in my market self. I was anew and for her. My hands found the ring and pressed it over her unsuspecting finger. My betrothed, I told her.
As it had each day before, the morning woke again. This time I left intact. Bound, attired, I promised her I would return. How, I did not know yet, but I would return. I would not let her be taken by another. We chose this together.