Things I loved about Joker

So after watching this movie eight times I have a rough idea of what I love about it. Here’s a non-exhaustive list, straight from my twisted heart (and, um, obviously: SPOILERS).

  • How it starts and (almost) ends with the news. It sets the scene and introduces the theme of trash and rats. It may be banal, but I also like that there’s trash bags everywhere throughout the movie. It just makes it feel grounded in a real world.
  • How Arthur puts on his face, completely isolated and self-absorbed, like he’s not a part of that world. Also the way he physically punishes himself for not being happy by stretching his mouth into a smile. (And of course, echoing it at the end with blood.) But he really looks like he hates himself for not being able to smile for real. Ouch.
  • The squirting flower: I didn’t see that at first, but had it pointed out to me. It makes me think he needs to cry but can’t, so he uses the flower instead. (I know there are other interpretations but that’s mine.)
  • Every moment before he starts laughing and he’s trying to keep it in. Always different, always convincing, always heartbreaking. He conveys how physical and overpowering it is, and how helpless he is against it.
  • The ominous beat that starts the moment he looks up after saying “crazier out there”. Overall I love how he vacillates between moods. I mean, one minute that soft voice of his, especially “Yes ma’am” when he talks to the social worker, like a little boy, and then suddenly he looks at her like a wolf, like there’s a dormant danger inside him.
  • The journal. So disturbing. So real. Like another character in the film along with the music. And and and! I didn’t get this until my eighth viewing, but: “I’ve used it as a journal but also as a joke diary.” OMG. He’s telling us some things in the story are real and others aren’t, they’re just jokes, funny observations. Bravo on that brilliant piece of symbolism/foreshadowing.
  • The way he bangs his head against the glass wall of the phone booth, and it echoes how he banged his head against the window in the door to the observation room – if indeed that’s what it was. The clock being at 11.11 in both rooms could indicate that the white room is his head and what we’re seeing is his state of mind as he talks to Kane. I mean it’s one possibility, and I’m all for possibilities.
  • About the banging of his head… is he simply used to the pain and perhaps even relives it this way, or has he caused his own brain injury? Nah… He couldn’t, could he? But I love that the movie makes me ask it.
  • The way he tries to interact like other people and fails, like when he mirrors Sophie’s gun-to-the-head gesture but does it creepily and doesn’t realize.
  • The way he’s more “normal” in his imagination, when Sophie knocks on his door and he’s genuinely remorseful about following her and then cracks an actual funny joke.
  • The contradictions of his mother. In the letter she says Arthur is a little sad, but on the other hand she’s never seen him cry and calls him Happy. She’s told him (so he says) that his purpose in life is to spread laughter, but then she says, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Talk about mixed messages.
  • Names. They sort of throw doubt on some things. Like the doctor named Stoner – can he be trusted? Or the social worker named Kane (Cain)? But they can also highlight things, like Fleck – being a tiny fleck in a big world, and Penny being the smallest money unit. Ha, and yet: Arthur being a king’s name (a king with a humble background).
  • The way they talk on the news about needing a Pied Piper (I think?) for the rats. Well, hey presto.
  • “Rats! Oowaah!” Oh… no, sorry, that was my other obsession. Gotta keep my red-suited men with face-paint separated.
  • Doesn’t he have gigantic pupils during the scene where he watches Murray’s show and imagines being there? Is he high? Is every scene where he has big pupils in his imagination? If so, I think he never went to the benefit.
  • The way he laughs differently when it’s not his affliction, for example his insincere laugh when they make fun of Gary. Also when he tries to fit in at Pogo’s and his mocking laughter on Murray’s show.
  • The way he laughs at the wrong things in Pogo’s and then takes a cue from everyone else and laughs with them, but he doesn’t understand the joke. The heartbreaking dedication of taking notes at that club, trying his best to learn the trade. His heartbreaking spelling.
  • Dancing with the gun, and how he almost points the gun at himself. Like a danse macabre. And then he points it at the chair, which foreshadows killing both Murray, because that’s where he sits when Joker is rehearsing for the show, and his mother, because that’s her chair.
  • How the camera revels in his emaciated body. Actually a lot of times it feels like the camera pulls you into some kind of sick voyeurism, perhaps especially in the fridge scene, because he’s supposed to be alone when he climbs in there, but when the camera moves you’re reminded that you’re watching, and what you’re watching is so private. It always makes me think about how we like to ogle people.
  • And in the very next scene, we’re ogling him as he touches himself. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Those guys in the subway… they’re so perfect. I feel like I know them. They’re a distillation of a type, and just perfectly scripted, cast, dressed, and acted. And I love that the singing one uses the pole to dance around (echo of Bruce).
  • The way he looks at the woman leaving the subway car, still laughing but looking scared and abandoned, it’s just so poignant because he sees himself as the potential victim, not her, and when she leaves he’s alone with the bullies.
  • How he reacts for once when the subway guys attack him – he looks wild like an animal, desperate, and kicks at one of them, and then when he’s on the floor you can see him bare his teeth before he shoots them.
  • How clueless and panicky he looks when he gets up after killing the first two guys – like a cornered animal that’s just fought off its attackers and doesn’t know where to go from there, and his gun arm is all over the place because he’s trying to pull himself together.
  • His hair. No reason, just a kink. I like it throughout, but in this scene it’s goddamn delicious. So whoever held the comb, thank you.
  • The way he really looks like a predator when he goes after the third guy. Fixated on one goal: to eliminate a problem. And how we see him through the passing train windows. Genius.
  • Also, the sound in this whole sequence, wow. It builds the mood perfectly, together with the flickering lighting.
  • The way he reacts after killing the third guy. Just this odd face, as if he’s not sure what’s just happened but he knows the danger is over, and then a quiet “shit” and a tinnitus tone. So unique, and so right.
  • I’m not sure about this one, because it’s subtly done if it’s done at all, but I have a feeling the makeup changes slightly depending on his mood. Like the angle of the eyebrows? Bravo if that’s the case.
  • The way he still runs as if he’s got clown shoes on even when he doesn’t.
  • The way he points the gun briefly at his head in the subway – his death wish comes out all the time in minute details like that. Oh, and speaking of death wish, he’s always hovering near EXIT signs! How many EXIT signs are in this movie?? He’s always on his way out. And then he tries to get in via an exit… I mean honestly. So good.
  • And I mean… yeah, the bathroom scene. How liberating it feels. How he’s having this spiritual moment in such a filthy place.
  • How he’s shot from behind when he goes to Sophie afterwards. “Every camera angle involves a moral decision” (Jean Luc Godard), and yeah, you’re making me want him. Sorry not sorry.
  • “If your dancing doesn’t do the trick, you’re just going to shoot yourself?” Way to sum up the whole movie, unnamed clown colleague.
  • When he honks the horn over his shoulder at Randall. Haha!
  • When he punches out. Wow. And is that a reference to dying as well?
  • I love that he dances on stairs a couple of times before that scene: when he leaves Haha’s and when he gatecrashes the Chaplin movie – where he even has red clothes on! At Haha’s he also dances out into the sun, just like he sort of does in the final scene at the hospital.
  • The way he often looks at the world through bars or grilles. Oh, and even the wallpaper in his apartment is like a fence, with those squares… And when he shoots the wall, is that Joker trying to break free from the cage of that suffocating wallpaper? Seriously, I could write an essay about that apartment. Two TV sets? A double bed? The red flowers and birds on the bedroom walls? I have so many questions
  • He never eats. The one time he has food in his hands he puts it on the table and lights a cigarette instead.
  • How intently he listens to the TV programme that talks about people siding with the killer.
  • Thomas Wayne saying that thing about “Who would do something that cold-blooded? Someone who hides behind a mask.” How it makes me smile because of who his son will become.
  • The way people constantly tell Arthur “it’s not funny”. And Joker finally telling him it is.
  • The way it’s shot, so subjective, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so subjective in a movie. I’m completely in his head. The closest comparison that comes to mind is Whiplash, and what a gut punch that was.
  • The way some scenes are shot like he’s a horror movie villain, but I’m still so much in his head it doesn’t scare me, it just works to make me understand his state of mind.
  • How he walks up those red-lit stairs at Pogo’s, it’s like he’s in hell or something.
  • The way he soldiers through his laughter on that stage.
  • The way he makes this aborted gesture at Sophie after telling his first joke at Pogo’s, it’s genius, I mean that’s how you behave when you know there’s one person on your side, good grief.
  • The way he just says “I hated school as a kid” and then laughs for something like ten seconds, leaving the audience to imagine the horrors of it. You don’t need anything more. That’s how you write a script!
  • The way his voice is muted and the illusion takes over at Pogo’s and Smile plays over everything as he imagines being a success. At least that’s my interpretation.
  • I always get chills when he sees the clown in the car. I think it’s the music.
  • The ambiguity of the scene with Bruce. He’s creepy but also exudes such earnest yearning. And he seems to avoid hurting/traumatizing children? Because he looks at Bruce when he’s strangling Alfred and changes his mind.
  • Actually the way he looks at Bruce the whole time is fascinating. When he first introduces himself, it’s so poignant. So much “future” in that moment, so much background to their mutual obsession… And the way “being brothers” can mean more than blood: that those at the top and those at the bottom are really brothers as humans, but there’s this arbitrary fence between them.
  • When he forces Bruce to smile it makes me think of the line “Why so serious?”
  • Alfred 🙂
  • The little treehouse (?) with the lights that sort of represent Bruce’s pampered childhood, and those lights are echoed at the end (to my mind) when Joker looks out at the burning city.
  • Speaking of childhood stuff, the way he touches Gigi’s things – also totally creepy but maybe he’s just imagining what it would be like to have a normal childhood with toys and loving parents?
  • The way he shifts between childishness, creepiness, depression, suppressed anger, and a million other things so you never know where you have him. Especially the repressed anger… Such relate, wow.
  • The way he punches the air in childish glee at the protests, even though he doesn’t really look like he understands what it’s all about. It’s like he just wants to be a part of something and likes it because he knows they got the idea from him. I also love how it’s echoed later in the film when he laughs in the subway (when all hell breaks loose).
  • The way his appearance contrasts so poignantly with the penguin suit in the cinema bathroom. Talk about clash of worlds.
  • His childish body language in the presence of his father figures: Murray, Randall, and Wayne. His little giggle when Randall calls him his boy in the beginning. When he meets Wayne, the camera (for once) films him a little from above so he looks like a little boy compared to him. Even in full Joker mode at the end, when he waits in the dressing room, he goes all gaga when Murray comes in, that little sort of ducking thing he does, going all humble and fawning like a puppy.
  • The cello. I mean, everything’s been said already about the music, but… that’s how you use a cello.
  • The way the camera mostly stays on his face while he kills his mother, and the sun in his eyes afterwards.
  • The way he calls her Penny instead of mom.
  • His waistcoats. Such shabby elegance. And you can sort of piece together Joker’s future attire from what he wears earlier in the movie.
  • The way the scene-cutting matches the rhythm of the music when the clips show how Sophie was never really there.
  • How his fantasies show what he longs for and lacks. Ouch.
  • The way he’s shot like a horror villain before, during, and especially after breaking into Sophie’s flat.
  • The way I need to brave some of my biggest fears to watch this movie in the cinema again and again: fear of disappointment, fear of other people, fear of the dark and late-night buses. How the need to see it again overrides all that.
  • The symbolism of speeding into tunnels. Maaaan.
  • “Check out this joker.” I mean… genius. How little things like that can shape the future.
  • The way it’s cut. ALL THE CUTS. The sounds from the next scene and/or the music of it bleeding over into the previous one in such perfect ways to create a perfect rhythm.
  • When he’s in the hospital elevator with the thrashing man and he’s superficially calm, just his nose jerking a little to reveal his inner turmoil. How the other man represents his inner feelings. And in the corridor when he waits for the journal, the light flickers a little, echoing how it flickered in the subway.
  • Is there an “above ground/below ground” imagery that I haven’t quite figured out? There are a LOT of stairs, elevators, and tunnels in this movie. I think maybe when he goes up he’s trying to be normal, and when he goes down he’s losing it. Or is it the hero’s descent into the cave? Let’s say it’s both. I love layers.
  • How he looks at the journal through the grille, like a cat waiting to pounce, deliberating with himself if he can pull it off. His gaze is so intense that it pierces through those tiny holes.
  • That whole scene actually. I adore the clerk, he’s so normal, such a perfect foil for Arthur.
  • That he asks what people do to get into the hospital. Does he want to get back inside? Is that the whole point of everything? Behaving in a way that gets him inside again, because he felt better locked up? And that’s why he laughs at the end, because he succeeded in creating the enemy that put him back in there? I don’t know, but I love all the possibilities.
  • The way there are increasingly red things in the background and in his clothes throughout the film – and, most obviously, in the stairwell at the hospital with the journal, where the walls are yellow/orange like his waistcoat and there are red pipes and floor and stairs that sort of frame the orange like his suit will frame the waistcoat, and he’s wearing his mustard yellow jacket over a red cardigan, so it’s a mirror image of Joker’s attire.
  • The way his laughter is overlaid after Dr Stoner says, “severe trauma to his head”. And the way Dr Stoner tells Penny what happened, almost as if he’s implanting the memory. She is lobotomized, right? The journal said so? Oh, to have a peek in that journal.
  • When he rehearses for the show and mutters to himself and can’t find the right tone or the right words and is clumsy and nervous. Also, the overlaid laughter and reactions from the audience in that scene. And the failed whipping-out-the-gun bit. And just the sheer meta-ness of that scene, because, you know… actors on talk shows. It’ll never be the same again.
  • When he paints his face white and strokes his tongue with the brush. That look in his eyes… so empty, and at the same time not. I can’t explain it. It’s fascinating. And the way his eyes look so black in his white-only makeup, especially when he looks at Gary while opening the door to let him out, so ominous.
  • How he delivers the line “My mom died. I’m celebrating.” I chuckle quietly every time.
  • When he grinds out the cigarette on the wall, and when he sort of hangs off the walls in the same scene and looks up at Randall like some eerie Christ figure. And and and I noticed on my seventh viewing that he actually drew a happy face on that wall with the cigarette! Which reminds me of BBC Moriarty: smiley face, “Why does anybody do anything?”…
  • The way it legit looks like his pulse is drumming its way out of his throat after he’s killed Randall. It looks so real. Again he looks like an animal that’s fought off an attacker.
  • His British accent when he says, “Crazy innit? Me on the telly.” Like I wasn’t already a goner.
  • The fact that his dance isn’t perfect makes it infinitely interesting to watch. It’s like I’m trying to eke out the imperfections, sort of trying to make him move more in synch… I don’t know how to explain it. It engages me.
  • His walk through the subway when he’s gone full Joker. He’s free and theatrical and glorious, and he has no fucks left to give (actually he has, but not at that moment). And there’s something slightly camp about him that I just adore, maybe mostly on the stairs, or is it childishness? I can’t tell.
  • Everything with Murray. Christ. At first he’s like a puppy with him in the dressing room, so humble and fanboyish, but then when he asks him to introduce him as Joker, that’s when he takes back some initiative and subtly confronts Murray about what he’s doing (making fun of him).
  • How different Murray is with him in this scene compared to Arthur’s fantasy! Much more distant and not really there, like he’s heard people fawning over him so much it’s become boring, and you compare that to him saying he wishes he had a kid like Arthur… My heart.
  • “I don’t believe in anything”. And the way his voice breaks.
  • The shot where he listens to Murray making fun of him with that blue light all over his face. I mean… stomp on my heart why don’t you.
  • How he looks like a butterfly fighting its way out of a cocoon when he stands behind the curtain, waiting to enter, and the people next to him look at him like he’s crazy.
  • His entrance on Murray’s show. Really “Here I am, Gotham”. How he’s officially introduced to the city as Joker. Like, how else would it happen really? And his smile looks so different here. His whole appearance is different, so confident.
  • And this is where words start to fail me. The whole sequence at the show is just mind-blowing (no pun intended). The way he vacillates between childish glee and hurt and craziness and fury and irony and pride and confusion and… gah. Is there a feeling he doesn’t go through during these, what, ten minutes? When you have a face journey fetish, this scene is a gourmet meal. Actually the whole movie is one long face journey, and I’m here for it. Plus you need to really watch him closely to see what’s happening to his face beneath the makeup. It gives my brain extra puzzles, and I’m in heaven.
  • A few specific things: the way he looks at the audience like… I can’t even describe it. He looks so vulnerable I guess. And labile. And how he giggles and moves like a child when Murray confronts him about starting all the carnage, and also after he’s killed him. I don’t know, it just gets to me.
  • The way much of it is shot from behind him, such an odd choice but so effective.
  • The way he looks at the other guest when he laughs at him. And the way he tells his joke. Just everything. I can’t… Every single expression on his face in that scene is a treat.
  • That we see Bobby making the cut signal out of focus. Just… so elegantly done.
  • The theme of trash, and Joker finally making the explicit connection between people and trash.
  • The way his sarcastic grimace throws doubt on the line, “I’ve got nothing left to lose.” Like he uses the phrase ironically to explain his actions to someone who wouldn’t understand the real reason.
  • The way he looks at Murray after shooting him. Like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And we remember him looking up to him earlier…
  • How he looks like the iconic Joker when you see him through the camera (on a studio screen) right after he kills Murray and sits bobbing his legs and just looking ominous and slightly out of control and everyone is screaming. That’s the moment for me, when he merges with his future self, so to speak. When he becomes larger than life.
  • When he gets up and really just acts on instinct, it looks so unplanned, the way he shoots Murray again and is about to move away and then steps back and tosses the gun on the desk and walks towards the other guests and sort of just skips about as if he’s going to start dancing but he’s not sure what to do… it’s just perfect. Perfect. I’ve never seen anything so… I don’t even know. I’ve never been able to follow a character’s every whim like that, and it all happens so quickly and I never tire of it, I’m going to watch it a ninth time just to see that scene again. Well, not only for that, but I could pay the price of admission just to see the Murray show.
  • The adverts for cars and beer that play on some TV sets after he’s killed Murray, like that’s part of the problem, talking heads selling a surface that’s just out of reach. Very Watchmen.
  • White Room. Maaan.
  • The way he watches the carnage from the police car, looking like a little kid at a fairground. “Look at all the pretty lights!” And at the same time the fire reflects in his eyes, making him look crazy and dangerous.
  • Just the complete crescendo when they crash the police car and another car crashes into them and flips over with all that fire in the background and Eric Clapton going crazy… like after all this buildup you get this crazy payoff and you’re complicit in loving it. Or is that just me?
  • How he looks like a sleeping child when they pull him out of the car. So sweet and innocent, such a contrast to what he’s caused. And they hold him so reverently. And the fact that the thing with Bruce’s parents happens while he’s unconscious. Also the visual quote when they’re killed. Wonderful intertextuality that leads you to speculate on how this Joker will impact the “official” story long afterwards.
  • The way he doesn’t really cry until he’s in makeup – smile-crying over the policemen and then with Murray and on the police car. It’s his moment of glory and he’s crying because this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. His victory is so hollow, but it’s the only adoration he’ll get, so he takes it.
  • The soft strings of Send in the Clowns at the start of the credits. Like a soothing but ironic balm after this harrowing and wonderful experience. I always have to listen to it even after I come out of the cinema because it’s so perfect.
  • And finally: if you play Let It Go from Frozen over the bathroom dance scene, it fits perfectly. Start it at the moment he drops the bag. You’re welcome.

Bridal Bed, chapter 6

Bridal BedFollowing the advice of father’s one-time colleagues, the family made a renewed effort to attend Protestant mass. The state was growing more paranoid by the minute, Archbishop Whitgift was on the warpath again, and it behoved everyone to make a good show or they could end up on some stupid death list.

But that wasn’t the only reason why Will’s life became a series of Sundays. Father joked about his new-found devoutness like a man who had never been young. He didn’t know that Will’s attention wasn’t on the priest. Since the Shakspers no longer occupied a pew at the front, Will could hide among the middle-pew nobodies and quietly observe. Same ritual every time: arrival, slinking into his seat, and then tune out and watch.

Because between the heads of his neighbours, he could see her: smiling at someone, eyes glittering with some jest. She had laughed that way with him, and he had thought it special, but she looked at everyone that way – as if she really saw them, as if she really listened. Served him right for being an idiot. She was out of reach, and he had manufactured her shackles himself.

Next Sunday, same thing. In a matter of weeks, he wasn’t so much attending mass as replaying an identical event over and over, like a child asking for the same old fairy-tale every night, enthralled with the perfection of words learnt by heart. The service droned on as he recorded her movements from a distance, a vast expanse of damp linen and bad breath to protect him while he preyed on her profile. After the service, he hurried out to escape having to exchange polite nonsense, and the space she had inhabited was bright and cold with winter sunshine.

Next Sunday, same procedure. An hour of Protestant prattling he didn’t really hear, and then the flapping of her skirt as she disappeared down the road with her family. Each Sunday was torture, but he wouldn’t miss it. At least they were in the same room. She was there. He counted the seconds, he noted every minute. It was a balance sheet, and he needed more, more, more. Monday to Saturday was a wasteland of fading memories, and only his Sundays stopped the fading. Only Sundays dyed the colours vibrant again.

From time to time he dared to hope that she missed him. He wanted her to notice when he wasn’t there, even though he always was. He wanted to stay at home one Sunday, he wanted her to look up from smiling and laughing with others and notice that he wasn’t there.

But he never stayed home, and if she ever noticed his presence she didn’t give a sign.

It seemed the routine would never change, when one day after the service he ran into her. When he lifted his eyes, his heart seemed to explode in his chest. She shimmered in front of him, like a fairy from one of Aunt Joan’s bedtime stories, like a creature from some other dimension. His memory didn’t lie to him in the dark solitude of his bed: she was the lily, the rose, every damned flower there was.

Moments passed without either of them greeting the other. “How… how are you?” she asked finally, voice low, shudderingly low.

Swallowing down thorns, Will mumbled an answering nicety. Then he motioned towards her hands. “You’re wearing my gloves.”

She averted her eyes. “They’re not yours.”

“I made them.”

“And Dick gave them.”

Will breathed through a throat that was too narrow. The air hurt all the way down and all the way back up again. His fingers twitched a little, fumbling for something more to say, something to keep her chained to him, to never let her leave. But over her shoulder he saw a man by the gate, pale and hawk-eyed, fidgeting and fumbling with his hat as he waited. Her brother?

Agnes made to walk away, and Will blurted, “I thought you’d be in London by now.”

She stopped and shook her head, then frowned. “No.” Then, after a slight hesitation – as if debating the wisdom of what she was about to do – she put her right hand over her left one, pinched the leather and pulled the glove off. Will didn’t understand at first, but then his gaze was drawn to the finger where her ring should be sitting. It was empty. Naked like a defenceless fledgling, cuticles worn and red.

When he met her eyes again they were filled with unspeakable sadness. “He’s… well, he’s there. In London.”

“Yes?” Will held her gaze, half afraid to breathe but desperate to know. “And… when will he be home next?”

Agnes’s lip twitched. “He won’t.”

“But aren’t you…?”

Agnes shook her head. “Too messy.” Her voice was even huskier than usual, shot through with unshed tears. “He said.”

Will resisted an urge to lay a hand on her arm. “And you’re not going there?” he ventured softly, yearning for an explanation but afraid of hurting her worse than she already was.

Agnes cleared her throat and took refuge in quiet anger. “He finds it too messy to marry a country girl now that he’s so firmly established in London. And to be quite honest, I think he…” She swallowed. “But I shouldn’t speculate. It’s just… the worst part is…” She broke off and fumbled in her sleeve for a handkerchief. “Never mind.”

Will breathed shallowly, inhaling the faint perfume from her gloves, from the handkerchief she was pressing to her eyes. “But you were willing to move to London, weren’t you?”

She shrugged, but whether it meant Yes I was, but he won’t have it or I don’t know any longer, Will couldn’t tell. He stared at her, his mind empty like a dug-up tomb. Should he say he was sorry? If anything, he was happy she had escaped that serpent – but at the same time, who could remain unmoved by such distress? Heart torn by the conflict, he searched for something comforting to say, but it was impossible. How could a mere boy of eighteen console a grown woman? What kind of a deluded fool even toyed with the idea that he had anything to give?

Agnes put on her glove again. The soft kidskin slid over her hand, covering the absence of a ring. “It was a beautiful dream.” She smiled sourly, as if mocking herself.

Will only slowly surfaced to the full truth of what she was saying. Her and Dick’s understanding was off, but she was still wearing the gloves – to retain the illusion? Or because a part of her hoped for something else? The flame leapt up in Will’s mind, impossible to quench. He must take this chance, or regret it forever. She would say no, and they would both go back to their lives and never speak of it again, but at least he would have asked. Would have offered her everything.

Breathing in, he realised the enormity of what he was about to do. He would be destroying his chances of going to university forever. Of course he was already too old, but he knew exceptions could be made in certain circumstances. He could find someone to make his case, to help him, to pay his way. But if he did this, if he asked her this question, even that possibility would be lost. Only free young men were accepted at university. Apprenticeships could be annulled, but marriages couldn’t.

No matter.

He let his voice loose on the air, heard it take shape between them. “Would you consider…. marrying me?”

The look she gave him was blank. “I’m… sorry?”

At that moment the gaunt man from the gate appeared at her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?”

Agnes’s eyes flitted from Will to him. “Just… uh, a minute,” she stuttered. “You go ahead, Bartholomew, I’ll catch up.”

Bartholomew scowled. “I’ll not have my sister walk through the country lanes by herself.”

“So wait for me around the bend.”

Grumbling, Bartholomew shuffled off towards the road.

“Come on.” Agnes took Will by the arm and his heart leapt up in his throat. Meek like a lamb, he let her guide him round the side of the church where no one could overhear or even see them. There was only green all around them. Green, and the storm-cloud blue she turned on him.

Breath hitching in his throat, Will realised she wasn’t happy.

“What are you implying?” she demanded. “That because I’m ready to plight myself to one man, I’m loose enough to settle for anyone?”

Anyone? Will’s heart sank. “Not at all,” he mumbled. “I understand if you’re mourning right now, but if you’re… free to… to choose who you want…” He fumbled among the different wordings available and hated them all. “I’d… like to be considered.” He sounded like a legal petitioner, or a would-be apprentice on the lookout for employment. Someone completely unversed in the art of rhetoric.

Choose?” Agnes snorted. “What world are you living in?”

She made to leave, but Will shot out a hand and stopped her. “One where money can be the slave to love.” He blushed at his clumsiness. How could he bungle this so utterly?

Agnes sighed. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You don’t know anything about me. If I were to marry you…” Will made an involuntary movement and Agnes noted it. “I said if.” She hesitated, gaze caught in his. “It won’t happen, William.”

“But…” He snagged on something in his throat and cleared it to ask, pitifully, “Why?”

Agnes looked down at the ground. “You wouldn’t understand.”

He dared to put a hand on her arm. “Try me.”

She shrugged him off, but she didn’t leave. She was still watching the grass at her feet, and her eyelashes fluttered as if to conceal some terrible emotion. She seemed to be working up her courage to reveal something, something important. Will’s heart was thundering in his ears. Please let it be something in my favour. Maybe she’s just afraid of the age difference? Maybe she…

Agnes drew a deep breath and closed her eyes. “If we were to marry – which we can’t – you would be labouring to feed another man’s child.”

Will blinked. The world seemed to have lost focus, lost meaning. He didn’t understand. “… I’m sorry?”

Agnes’s face hardened. “There’s a…” She broke off, fumbled at her throat, tucked a stray hair inside her bonnet. “There’s a child, William.”

Frosty air snaked down Will’s back as he processed the words. Realisation coursed through him like poison. An image of Dick flashed through his mind. Those confident blue eyes, that snake-like smile – the smile that fooled everyone, that charmed and bound with spells too potent to lift. That man – that evil incarnate – had been… with her?

“Don’t tell anyone,” Agnes begged softly. “Not yet. It will be visible soon enough, but I don’t want…”

Her eyes, her pale face. Will shuddered. The world had turned suddenly cold. What was she saying? Don’t tell anyone. She entrusted him – him – with this awful, awful secret – because he was harmless? Because he was the kind of person a woman could follow into the night without fear? The kind of man – no, boy – that wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less a strong-bodied adult female who knew how to take care of herself. A boy who didn’t even know what to do with the opportunity he had been presented with, alone among the trees behind the church. He could kiss her, put his hand up her kirtle, anything. But he did nothing. He could tell himself he refrained out of respect for her chastity, but that was just laughable. What chastity? She had given herself to Dick Field, of all people. According to any law or religion, she was a whore.

“He did… that, and then left you?”

“Yes.” A mere whisper. “But don’t–”

“You’re not preparing to defend him, are you? I mean… you must name him! You are going to name him, aren’t you? When you deliver… you must name him as the father.” Make him marry you, Will’s mind added, and the pain was a lance through his soul.

But unbelievably, Agnes shook her head. “I can’t do that.”

Will grew desperate. It was one thing to lose her to Dick, and quite another to lose her completely. “If you don’t name the father, the midwives won’t assist you. You’ll be cast out. You could even die in childbirth.”

“I know that,” Agnes snapped, angry shield in place again. Her face was hard, but her eyes gave her away. There was fear in them. Fear, grief, and resignation. She had chosen. She would save Dick and lose herself.

Will just stared at her. It was too much to take in. “Does he know?”

Agnes shook her head. “And don’t tell him, William. Please. Don’t tell a soul.”

The sound of her. The anguish. Will knew he had no choice but to obey. On impulse, he reached out and took her hand. She started, but he held it fast. A moment of agony, of panicked hesitation. But even knowing, he would renew his offer. It was all he could do for her, for himself.

Holding on to her hand, he crushed it in his until he didn’t know if he would be able to let it go. “I won’t let you suffer such ill-treatment,” he began, voice steady, even cold. Let her hear the truth of it in the rock-hard finality of it. “I’ll still marry you if you’ll have me.”

At first nothing happened. She just frowned at him in utter bewilderment, her mouth half open as if trying to form words, her eyes wide and riveted on him. Then, just when he was about to repeat his words, she gasped. “I have to go.”

Stabbed by the sight of her walking away from him, he flung his heart after her. “Agnes, I’m asking you to marry me!”

She turned abruptly. “Do you even know what you’re saying?” She sounded aghast.

Will forced it out past the trembling in his throat: “I’ve never been more certain in my life.”

She shook her head. “But it’ll be his…”

“Nobody needs to know that.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “You’re mad.”

“I know.” A boisterous, crazy laugh that had nothing to do with mirth bubbled out of him. “But if that’s the only way I can save you from the shame of… of…”

“Of giving birth to a bastard?” she filled in, mouth twisted in self-loathing. “Yes, it doesn’t sound very nice, does it?”

Unable to move towards her, Will remained where he was. “You may have given up your treasure to an unworthy man, but that doesn’t make you unworthy.”

“He’s not–”

“If it’s a sin, you make it look like virtue,” he said. “It may be a blot, but beauty without a foil doesn’t exist.” He was delirious now, speaking words he didn’t know where they came from, in a tone so pitiful he felt all his pretence at masculinity melt away. Well, she could have it. Without her, he had no use for it. “Don’t throw away a constant heart.”

Agnes looked as if she was about to laugh at him. Averting his eyes to protect himself from the sight, Will just waited. After an eternity, she made the tiniest motion. He looked up, and caught what almost looked like a nod.

He stopped breathing. “What…? Are you saying…?”

She nodded again, more clearly now, but her face was pained, bloodless. “I can’t wait for him forever,” she said. Then she looked suddenly terrified. “If your offer is genuine?”

“Of course it is.”

“Then I’ll accept your proposal. But William… I won’t…” She closed her eyes briefly. “It will not be a marriage of the… the kind you’re thinking of.”

Will didn’t know what she was talking about, but he didn’t much care. How many kinds of marriages could there be? She would be his, wouldn’t she? She was saying yes?

“I won’t… I won’t give myself to you,” Agnes forced out. “Do you understand? The condition for this match is that you won’t make any physical demands on me. At all. It’s a theoretical agreement. An entry in the church ledger, a shared house, shared finances, nothing more. Can you handle that?”

Will was lightheaded with confusion. She thought they could live together as man and wife without living together as man and wife? It was a contradiction in terms, and yet he found himself bowing his head in acceptance. There was nothing else he could do.

Agnes attempted a wan smile. “Then… I will go with you to church and patch together this sorry affair.”

She turned to leave, and Will took a step towards her. “But…” He broke off, unsure of how to broach such a delicate subject. “Shouldn’t we…?”

“Kiss?” She smiled. “No.”

Will swayed on his feet.

“I told you. Don’t expect any physical favours. That’s not what this is about. Because I don’t…” She made a face, a touch of sympathy in her eyes.

“… love me,” he filled in, his voice a whisper.

“Not in that way.”

The words entered like barbs, but he let them sink into the softest part of his soul, made himself feel it to the full. Any other man would make the preposterous promise and expect to break it, but if he made it, he knew he must keep it. His word was all he had.

“But…” He swallowed. “Is this it? I mean, is this… binding now? I’ve never… Have you… promised?”

For a moment, her cheeks twitched as if in smothered amusement. Then she stepped up to him, took his hand, and gently squeezed it. “I take thee, William, for husband.”

Will’s throat closed with the immensity of that phrase, those time-honoured, well-worn words that were now personal and intimate. He could hardly get them out himself, so unyielding was the tightness in his chest. But if it was the last thing he did, he must say them to her. “And I… take thee, Agnes… for wife.”

She smiled sadly. “Please call me Anne.”

Her Protestant name. The name Dick preferred to call her. Will felt his cheeks flood with blood and vowed never to take the word in his mouth.

Then his wife-to-be let go of his hand and walked away, hurrying to catch up with her brother. Dizzy, Will was left standing in the leafy graveyard, two very different feelings contending for supremacy in his chest. She was to be his, and yet not his. She loved him of sorts, but she loved Dick more. His dearest wish was fulfilled, and left hanging.

And his time in the tannery was at an end. Years before his time, he was about to enter adulthood.

 

Bridal Bed, chapter 5

Bridal BedWhen Goodman Field came home the next day, he found his future daughter-in-law waking by his son, and his apprentice huddled in a corner. Dick was sleeping peacefully, his skin tone approaching normal and the new rag around his arm pristinely white.

“So he’s home to conclude the bargain, eh?” Field grunted as he doffed his hat and cloak. “Well, I’m glad we can get that whole engagement business over with. I suppose you’re already at it like Sir Lucy’s rabbits, eh?”

Agnes’s eyes widened, but Field had already turned his back – perhaps for the best, Will realised, because Agnes’s shocked headshake was more fervent than persuasive.

They’ve done it! his mind screamed.

No, don’t be stupid. She wouldn’t do such a reckless thing. Not when Dick has several years left of his apprenticeship. She wouldn’t give herself to a man who can’t marry her yet.

Would she?

“More business for your old man, then,” Goodman Field grinned and clapped a hand on Will’s shoulder. “We’ll be needing an engagement gift.”

“Oh… Yes, I suppose you do.”

“Although the wool and the money-lending pays better, no?” Field chuckled. “Well, I’ll not pry into other men’s affairs. We all have our flaws, and if we were to punish every petty crime, we’d have a country peopled exclusively with lawyers, and that’s a bleak prospect, wouldn’t you say?” He winked. “Now, go home to your father and tell him we have an urgent order: a pair of lady’s gloves, with a pretty poem to go with them.”

Will glanced at Agnes, but her eyes were blank, empty. As if their nocturnal conversation had never taken place. As if she hadn’t remembered his poetic stumblings from the graveyard, as if he hadn’t told her about little Annie.

Despair coursing like a chill through his veins, he grabbed his damp cloak and left.

When he came home, the house was in an uproar. Little Ned had hidden in the shed the whole night and made everyone panic.

“William! What are you doing home?” mother asked irritably, face red from crying.

“There’s an order for a pair of gloves,” Will muttered, instantly needled by the atmosphere. “For a lady.”

“Gloves? Huh, that’s all we need.” Mother glared at her husband, who rose from the table and strode off towards the hall.

“Fine, I’ll be in the workshop then, shall I?” Opening the door, he called over his shoulder, “What are her measurements?”

Will looked up. “Measurements?”

Father turned. “You didn’t ask for them?”

Will opened his mouth to reply, but where his thoughts usually were, there was only a dense fog. Measurements? Such a banal, everyday detail, and father wanted him to apply it to the woman who had recited his own nascent poem back at him? He wanted Will to sum up her essence in a series of numbers? To calculate the shining darkness of her hair, to put a yardstick to the depth of her eyes? He, who couldn’t even capture it in words?

“I’ll… uh, make the gloves myself.”

Father scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. You compose the poem, I’ll handle the work.”

“No, I’ll do it.”

“Listen.” Father sighed. “We can’t afford to waste skins right now. Our products must be perfect at first try. If you use up a skin for a pair of botched gloves that I have to remake–”

“I’ll make them, damn it! I know her measurements… in here.” Will meant to gesture at his head, but his hand rebelled and settled over his heart instead.

Father groaned and went into the workshop.

“I’ll make them,” Will repeated, going after him. “Please.”

But father was already collecting his tools, eyebrows dipped in displeasure. “Who is this woman anyway?”

“Ag…” Will stopped. Swallowed. “She’s the daughter of Richard Gardner-Hathaway. Of Shottery. She’s marrying young Goodman Field. Richard.”

Father gave him a sceptic look. “And you want to make the gloves.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Will hesitated. Father was too attentive, too… perceptive? Clearing his throat, Will strove to keep his voice light. “I need to develop more skills than tanning. One day I’ll take over your business, not Goodman Field’s. I need to know both tanning and glove-making. What better time to start learning for real?”

“What better time? You mean the best time for that is when this Shottery woman is getting married? William, is there anything I should know about?”

No.”

Father’s lips tightened. He wasn’t convinced.

“I want to make them because they’re for… for my friend.” The word tasted like iron in Will’s mouth. “You know I went to school with Dick.”

Father pursed his lips. “Everyone seems to be mad today,” he muttered, but when Will walked over to the box of templates, he didn’t stop him. Acutely aware of being watched, Will rummaged among the soulless representations of hands large and small, wondering how any one of them could possibly match the reality of Agnes’s living form. But he had to remember, had to snare in logic the magic that was Dick’s future wife.

What had her hands been like? Small and girly or large and womanly? He closed his eyes and summoned her from the darkness of the tanner’s midnight dining room. Her brave smile, her understanding eyes, her hands working the pestle… Heat spread in his face, his scalp. Their basic structure had been… slim but plump. And her fingers were quite short. In another flash of memory, he saw her curl them against her mouth for warmth.

It really had been cold for a September day.

Opening his eyes, he stared down into the box in front of him. The templates were all wrong. None of them could hold a candle to the real thing. He would have to improvise.

But father was still watching, and Will chose a template that roughly corresponded with his mental image. When it became apparent that he would not ask for help of any kind, father turned on his heel and left. Breathing out, Will allowed himself a look out of the window. The afternoon was dull and dark, no sunlight to ease his way. So apt. He should write a poem about it.

Snorting at his own silliness, he leafed through a box of skins, but soon stopped. There was something… a memory, trying to surface. His eyes lost focus as he stared at the layers of brown and beige, none of them good enough. But there was one skin that might fit: the discarded one, from the very beginning of Will’s apprenticeship. Goodman Field had scolded him, even mother had scolded him for it. Too small, they had said. Worthless. Good for nothing. He had meant it to become a present for Annie, but he had never got around to it, and now she would never need gloves again.

Swallowing down stupid emotion, Will crossed the hall and ran upstairs to the room he used to share with Gilbert. Mother called to him about something he didn’t give a shit about, and he closed his ears to her grating voice as he rummaged through the linen cupboard. The skin was still there, at the very back, pushed away by more pressing daily concerns. There it was: soft, lightly coloured, and without a single blemish.

And very, very small. Will remembered the sneer on his Goodman Field’s face, and for a moment he almost understood him. Just one look told him the template would be too big for it.

In its present state. But this was kidskin. There was always a margin of possibility with kidskin.

Back in the workshop, he rolled it tightly and wound a damp piece of cloth around it. The stale old stench of urine oozed out, teased back to life by the moisture. The pungent odour would still cling to the finished product, but by then it would be glossed over with perfume, just like the sordid affair it was meant to celebrate.

A twinge in Will’s chest made him gasp for breath, and he caught himself on the workbench. What was he doing, making the gloves that would bind Agnes to Dick? His fingers cramped on the edge. He wasn’t aware of moving, of folding in on himself, until the unyielding wood pressed into his forehead. This can’t be my life. It’s too stupid. If I saw it on a stage I wouldn’t believe it.

And yet he couldn’t crumble. He had work to do.

As darkness fell, he lit a candle that would have father grumbling in the morning. Then he unrolled the piece of kidskin and proceeded to stretch it as hard as he had ever stretched a skin. He was on fire, glowing with a zeal that felt like a disease, and for every laboured breath he pulled at the skin to the point of ripping.

Time passed somewhere outside his fever. If he grew tired, he didn’t notice.

Clutching his aching back, he finally straightened up. Sweat ran down his face and he wiped his hands on his hose. The first and most physical part of the work was done, but he was far from finished. Putting the template on the skin, careful not to place it against the grain like he had often done when he still lived at home, he cut along the edge – unbearably slowly, afraid of making the tiniest mistake with his useless hand. He blinked away sweat from his eyes and held his breath to minimise the trembling. Where he knew her fingers were narrower or broader, he adjusted the knife, departed from the rules of the trade to accommodate her uniqueness.

As if he had the slightest inkling what he was doing.

We can’t afford to waste skins right now, he remembered father’s words. And Will couldn’t afford to make a subpar product for Agnes, no matter that it was a symbol for her joining with Dick. When the gloves were done, her fingers would rest against this softness he was cutting now. He would get to almost touch her through his handiwork.

Having cut the pieces, he sat in a corner and began the arduous work of stitching it together. Normally his mother and sister took care of the sewing, of course, but with these gloves he had to do everything himself. While he worked, the candle slowly burned down. The needle, illuminated golden, trembled in his cramping fingers. He squinted, eyes dry from his sleepless night, and struggled to attach the difficult thumb parts.

When the sun finally rose through pink and yellow skies, the gloves were finished. Far from perfect and stained with his sweat, but done.

With a groan, he rose from his chair and found mother’s box of embroidery things. All the colours of the rainbow nestled side by side, like Arachne’s threads, and he let them caress his fingers: pink, purple, white. Twines of silk to match the nameless shades in Agnes’s skin.

The lily and the rose: nor red, nor white.

How often had he heard men praise the indefinable colour of a woman’s cheeks but never understood it? Now his brain was hatching words that leapt and swirled, like the flowers that would snake and coil around the gauntlets of the finished gloves. The words longed to touch, to hold her essence in unworthy syllables.

Violet, thou sweetest thief of love.

He blushed at his own nerve. Did he already call her thou in his thoughts? And yet how had they introduced themselves? With first names. Only the strange mood of the misty graveyard could explain such a breach of custom.

Surfacing from the memory, he looked at the threads in his hands. This was something he had never done. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that made him stupid, maybe something else, but he did attempt to start embroidering the gloves even though his hands would no longer obey him. The threads frayed and broke and tangled, and the result was so woeful that he threw the gloves across the room and burst into angry tears, and that was how Joanie found him.

“Will? What are you doing here? What’s the matter?”

He covered his face, but there was no hiding from the evidence. “It’s the bloody gloves. I’ve ruined them!”

There was a surprised silence from Joanie. Then the sound of her steps, a rustle as she bent, and then he heard her stifle a giggle.

“Don’t you dare!” he growled, but he sounded pitiful rather than stern. He was just so exhausted.

“Why don’t you leave the women’s work to us?” Joanie sat beside him and leaned into his side just like Annie had used to do. “You’ve never embroidered in your life.”

Will wiped his eyes. He must be in a really bad way if he gave way to childish tears for a couple of stupid gloves.

“What did you want the pattern to be?”

“Oh, you can’t even tell? Great.”

Joanie perused the miserable stitching. “I’ll do it for you if you give me a hint.”

“It’s supposed to be bloody flowers and stuff!”

“I see. Well, the first rule of embroidery is not to cover too much of the leather with… well, with bloody flowers and stuff, as you call it.” Joanie caught his eyes as if to imprint on him the importance of this one lesson. “You need to leave some space between the decorations. Otherwise, when you look at them, you can’t see anything, because there’s just too much. You know? The pattern suffocates itself.”

Will nodded sullenly. It made sense. “So can you help me?”

“I said I would.”

“But aren’t they ruined already?”

Joanie smiled. “Not at all. I’ll have them ready for you by this afternoon.”

His sister was true to her word, and the gloves turned out very pretty. When Will saw the finished product, his chest seemed to shatter.

Father delivered the gift together with Will’s poem, pointedly written in the sonnet form, and according to the report it was very well received. Dick went back to the city and Agnes went back to Shottery, and though Will’s hands were still sore from his work on the gloves, there was nothing for it: he too went back to his duties. Back to the chains, back to the limbo of tanning.

Because dark-haired angels and London careers were not for him.