First lives club: Pretend Blood, A short story by Margaret Atwood

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It sounded strange but harmless: a group of men and women who believed that they had lived before as kings and queens. But was it more sinister than that? Read this short story by Margaret Atwood, and Tudor history will never seem the same again

Marla got into Past Lives through Sal. They were friends at work – they often had lunch together, and went shopping, and sometimes to movies, with nothing unusual being said.

But one day Sal confided to Marla that in a past life she'd been Cleopatra. The reason she was telling Marla this was that she'd just got engaged – out came a hulking diamond – because she'd run into a man through an internet chat site who'd been Marc Antony, and they'd got together in real life, and needless to say they'd fallen in love, and wasn't that wonderful?

Marla nearly choked on her coffee. First of all, if Sal had been Cleopatra she herself had been the Queen of Sheba, because Sal wasn't exactly anyone's idea of Miss Sexy Ancient Egypt – she was thirty-five and tubby, with a pasty complexion and an overbite. Also, Marla had seen that play – a long time ago, granted, but not so long that she didn't remember the death of Marc Antony, and also that of Cleopatra, what with the asps in a basket.

"It didn't end very well, the first time," she managed to croak out. It was cruel to laugh at someone else's nutty illusion, so she managed not to do that. Anyway, who was she to laugh? Nutty illusion or not, the Cleopatra thing had got results for Sal.

"That's true," Sal said. "It was awful at the time." She gave a little shudder. Then she explained that the good thing about having a past life was that you got the chance to return to earth as the same person you'd once been, but this time you could make things come out better. Which was why so many of the Past Lifers were historic figures who'd had tragic finales. A lot were from the Roman Empire, for instance. And kings and queens, and dukes and duchesses – they'd been prone to trouble because of their ambition and other people's jealousy of them and so forth.

"How did you know?" asked Marla. "That you were Cleopatra?"

"It just kind of came over me," said Sal. "The first time I saw a pyramid – well, not a pyramid, a photo of a pyramid – it looked so kind of familiar. And I've always had this fear of snakes."

So has half the population, thought Marla. Better you should have a fear of Marc Antony: you're marrying an obvious wacko. Most likely a serial killer with a bunch of former Cleopatras stacked up in the cellar like cordwood. But her scepticism faded when she actually met Marc, whose name in this life was Bob, and he turned out to be perfectly nice, though a lot older and richer than Sal; and darned if Sal and Bob, or Marc, didn't get married after all, and take off for a new life in Scotland, where Bob lived. The climate there wasn't very Egyptian, but that didn't bother Sal: there were many sad parts about her past life she'd just as soon forget, she told Marla, and spending too much time in Egypt might be depressing for them both. Though they did intend to take a vacation there for a bit of nostalgia. Sal wanted to revisit her ancient barge trips, because those had been pretty splendid.

Before leaving for her new married life, Sal told Marla the name of the internet chat site – PLAYS, for Past Lives And Your Self – and said Marla should give it a try: she had a feeling in her bones that Marla too was an Old Soul. Anyway, said Sal, Marla had nothing to lose, meaning she wasn't getting any younger, and unlike Sal – the new Sal – she had a dead-end job and no man in sight. Marla hadn't missed that gloating subtext. It irritated her.

***

It took Marla a while to seek out PLAYS, and she felt like an idiot even considering it – with my luck I'll meet Jack the Ripper, she thought – but she finally went online. It cost $50 to join, and then you had to read the rules and pledge to abide by them. No duels with former enemies, for instance, and no questioning anyone else's identity, not even if there were two or three of someone. There were several Anne Boleyns, for instance, but the claimants got around that by being Anne at different times of her life – while courted by Henry, while pregnant, while waiting in the Tower to get her head chopped off. The feelings you'd have during such phases would be very different, so each set of feelings might have come back into a different present-day person. That was the PLAYS rationale.

Once you'd swallowed the initial premise, or pretended to – which was what Marla herself did – Past Lives turned out to be surprisingly entertaining. Sort of like a virtual masquerade ball: by being someone else, you could be more truly yourself. At first Marla held back, and merely listened in while other people exchanged historical factoids and favourite recipes – syllabub, sack posset, stuffed peacock. She watched friendships form, she watched flirtations – Henry the Fourth with Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marianne Evans with George Henry Lewes. Couples went off into private cubicles where they could have one-on-ones. She longed to know what happened to such pairings. Sometimes there would be an announcement – an engagement, or a wedding, like Sal's – but not very often.

To participate more actively, as she now longed to do, she needed more than a password: she needed a past life of her own. But how to decide which one? Marla suspected by now that PLAYS might be merely a kinky dating agency; even so, it could be crucially important who she chose to be, or to have been. She didn't want to end up playing Eva Braun to some psychopath's Adolf Hitler, though this duo had in fact flitted briefly across the screen.

She surprised herself by plunging into Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots. She'd had no prior interest, she didn't have any preparation for it – she chose it because both their names began with M and she'd once had a crush on a man named Stewart – but once she was in, she found herself getting caught up in the part. After she declared herself, she started receiving messages from several Elizabeth the Firsts. "Were you really plotting against me?" said one. "We could have been such good friends, we had so much in common." "I so much regret what happened," said another. "I felt terrible about the whole beheading thing. It was all a mistake." "The lead coffin was not my idea," said a third. "Well, anyway, your son inherited. And your embroidered elephant still exists. So it's not all bad."

What lead coffin? thought Marla. What embroidered elephant? She went off to read up. You did learn a lot on PLAYS – it was an education in itself.

***

Marla kept up with Sal via email. At first the bulletins were short and bubbly. She and Bob/Marc had a lovely house, the garden flourished so well in that climate, Bob was so attentive, and so lavish. In return, Marla proffered her newfound Queen Maryness, though she was a little miffed when Sal didn't respond with the enthusiasm she'd expected.

Meanwhile, she got several rude messages from a John Knox, and met a David Rizzio – in the flesh, they went to a concert – who turned out to be gay but fun, and she turned down dating invitations from several Darnleys: the man had been a snot in his past life and surely wouldn't be any better now. But she accepted an Earl of Bothwell who'd looked like sort of a hunk, and had three martinis with him in a lava bar, and had almost got raped.

She felt she was beginning to understand the character of Mary from the inside. She was also leading a more interesting and varied life than she'd led in years. Still, despite that, nothing much to show.

***

After a silence of several months, she got a doleful email from Sal. Bob/Marc had fallen off a boat, on the Nile. He'd drowned. His arthritis, or else a crocodile, may have been involved. Sal was heartbroken: they never should have gone back there, it was bad luck for them. Would Marla like to come over on her vacation, to Edinburgh, just to be with Sal at this difficult time in her life? She, Sal, would pay for the ticket, she had lots of money now. Anyway, Sal thought Marla might like to see the ancient city where she herself had undergone such extremely crucial experiences, once upon a time.

Marla quickly accepted. Her vacation was two months away, so she had time to bone up. She bought a couple more history books of the period: she had a sizeable collection by now. There was nothing about those casket letters she didn't know – forgeries, planted by spies and enemies. She remembered with anguish the murder of her Italian secretary, clever David Rizzio, though she had mixed feelings about her useless husband Darnley being found dead in the garden after they blew up his house, the poxy shit. Not that she'd known about the explosion plans in advance. Naughty Bothwell!

She was looking forward.

However, she gathered from the tone of Sal's emails that Sal wasn't as keen on Marla's visit as she'd been at first. Tough, thought Marla. I'm not turning down my chance to see the old stomping grounds once again.

***

Sal met her at the airport. At first Marla didn't recognise her: she was thinner, and she'd had her hair changed – she was a strawberry blonde now. She'd definitely had something done to her nose, and her chubby underchin was gone, and her teeth were whiter. Her make-up was laid on with a trowel. Marla knew the clothes were expensive, but she couldn't tell how expensive: they were well beyond Marla's range. The total effect was striking. Not what you'd call beautiful, thought Marla grudgingly, but striking. Beyond a doubt. You had to look at Sal twice, as you'd look at a parade.

Sal gave Marla a hug, teetering forward on her massively high heels, and said coolly how nice it was that Marla could visit. "The Earl's in the car," she said as they walked towards the exit. "You'll like him, he's a sweetie!"

"The Earl?" said Marla.

"Of Essex," said Sal. Marla stopped.

"The Earl of Essex?"

"In a past life," said Sal. "His name's Dave, in the present. Dave McLeod."

"What are you doing with the Earl of Essex?" she asked. "Which Earl of Essex?" She was getting a bad feeling.

"Well, as Elizabeth the First," said Sal, "I feel I owe it to him. To make it turn out better this time around. After all, I did sign his death warrant, although I loved him passionately. But what choice did I have?"

"Just a minute," said Marla. "You're not Elizabeth the First. You're Cleopatra!"

"Oh, Marla," said Sal. "That was then!" She laughed. "You can have more than one! It's a game! Anyway, we're cousins now!" She linked her arm through Marla's. "Cousin Mary! Too bad we never met, in the old days. But carpe diem!"

Evil witch, thought Marla. I was innocent, but you had me killed for treason. Then you tried to get out of it by saying you'd been fooled. She had a vivid memory of the humiliation she'd felt when her red wig had come off as the executioner hoisted her severed head. And then her dog had run in under her skirts. What a farce.

Dave, the Earl of Essex, was a red-faced, white-haired Scotsman who'd been in the construction business. He was older than Bob/Marc had been, and Marla was willing to bet he was richer. He pried himself up and out of the car to shake Marla's hand.

"She's my little Gloriana," he chortled, patting Sal on her designer bum, winking at Marla. "And I take it you're our long-lost Mary!"

Watch your back, Marla wanted to tell him. Don't drink any syllabubs. Don't go on any barges.

***

Sal was no longer in mourning for Bob/Marc. In fact she barely mentioned him, apart from saying that this particular segment of her past had now been "resolved". Her main object in having Marla visit appeared to be showing off. Her house was vast, and so were the grounds around it, and so was the garage in which she kept her several Mercedes, and so were the closets in which she stored her extensive wardrobe: there was a special walk-in for her shoe collection. She had a lot of jewellery, as well. Just like Elizabeth the First, thought Marla: her clothes were always better than mine, even before she was keeping me cooped up in those draughty, damp castles, with nothing at all to spend on decent cloaks. So cheap of her. Vindictive. Jealous of my charisma. Dancing around in luxury, while I sat embroidering elephants. Neglected. Laughed at. So unfair.

The next day Essex/ Dave was visiting his grandchildren in Stirling and getting together with a friend, one of the many William Wallaces; so, after her hair appointment in the morning and an argument with her crabby Scottish gardener, Sal took Marla to see Holyroodhouse.

"Don't be too disappointed," she said. "It's a bit of a tourist trap. It won't be what you remember"'

Marla thought the building looked vaguely familiar, but she'd seen a lot of pictures of it. So much is since my time, thought Marla. It's too clean. We never used to bother much with that. She didn't like the long gallery, with all those portraits of Stewarts – going back to Adam to show how noble they were, said Sal with a dismissive laugh – and all with the same big noses. Whoever'd done the arms hadn't been paying much attention: if extended, some of those arms would dangle down to below the knees.

Her own portrait was awful – not pretty at all. But everyone had raved about her beauty, back then. Men had strewn themselves. She remembered Bothwell, his burning eyes, his kidnapper's passion ... it ended badly though. And he could have done with a toothbrush, thought Marla in her present mode. We all could, back then.

"There's some resemblance, don't you think?" said Sal. "You know, you should try auburn, for your hair. That would bring it out more."

They went through more rooms, Sal's heels clacking annoyingly. Not too sensible for sightseeing, thought Marla. Purple. Jimmy Choos, as Sal had pointed out.

They went upstairs. They saw more furniture. They looked at pictures. Marla kept waiting for a frisson of recognition – something she'd known, something that was hers – but there was nothing. It was as if she'd never lived there.

"Here's the bedchamber," said Sal. "And the famous supper room." She was watching Marla, with a little smirk. "Where Rizzio was murdered," she added. "Your so-called private secretary."

"I know," said Marla. Now she really did feel something. Panic, despair ... she'd screamed a lot. They'd held a gun on her, while poor David ... He'd hidden behind her, but they'd dragged him out. There were tears in her eyes now. What if it was all true, and she'd really been there somehow?

No. Surely not.

"They used to do the pretend blood with red paint," said Sal, laughing a little. "But people kept chipping it off, and anyway it looked so fake. It's much better now, with brown varnish. See, over here."

Sure enough, there on the wooden floor were some realistic-looking stains. On the wall beside them was a plaque – not claiming exactly that the varnish was Rizzio's actual blood, but pointing out that this was the spot where he'd been stabbed 56 times and then thrown down the stairs.

And those were the very stairs. Marla was shivering now. It had been a terrible shock, and her six months pregnant. She could have lost the baby. They'd taken off David's lovely clothes, like the robbers they were. And his jewels. Stuck him naked in a hole in the ground.

"Tell me," said Sal. "Was it true? That you were sleeping with him? That ugly little music master?" She seemed not to notice Marla's tears.

Marla got control of herself. "How could you even think that?" she said. "I was the Queen!" Now she felt anger. But she kept her voice low: there were some American tourists over by the four-poster bed, examining the embroidered hangings.

"A lot of people thought it," said Sal teasingly. "You were really hot, back then. You didn't exactly restrain yourself. The French Dauphin, then Darnley, then Bothwell, and who knows who else? So why not Rizzio?"

"He was gay," said Marla faintly, but Sal went right on.

"They said you were quite the slut. You should get into that mode again, have some fun for a change. If you lost a few pounds..."

"You put them up to it," said Marla. Had she read that somewhere? She felt her hands clenching into fists. "You paid them! Those conspirators! You wanted me dead, so you could have everything!" Queen bee, she thought. Her and her shoe collection, and her fucking fraudulent rich old Earl of Essex. And her fleet of Mercedes. She took a step towards Sal. Sal took a step backwards, wobbling on her high heels. Now her back was to the stairwell.

"Marla, Marla," she said nervously. "Don't get carried away! It's a game!"

Not a game, thought Marla. She didn't consciously mean to push so hard. Sal went over backwards, down the stairs. There was a screech, and an unpleasant crack. Tit for tat, thought Marla.

"It was the shoes," she said afterwards. She was sobbing uncontrollably by then. "She turned her ankle. She shouldn't have been wearing them, not for sightseeing. I told her!"

***

The Earl of Essex was dismayed at first, but Marla helped him through the mourning period. "Poor Gloriana," he said at last. "It was vanity killed her. She was always too stuck on herself, don't you think?"

Then he confessed that, like so many men, he'd secretly fancied Mary all along. Although he'd never met her in the flesh. Until now.



"Pretend Blood", by Margaret Atwood, is taken from Crimespotting: An Edinburgh Crime Collection (Polygon, £12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69, call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600030.

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