Following 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.
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.”
“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.
When 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.
“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.”
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?”
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.
She didn’t. Neither of them did. As Dick quieted and seemed to sleep more peacefully, they just remained by the dinner table, listening to the storm rage its way through the night.
“So you work here.”
Will heaved a sigh. “Yes.”
Did she hear the world of weariness tied to that one syllable? Her expression was unreadable. “So you know tanning.”
He made a face. “I know the outer trappings of it. I know the language. I know the methods, and every kind of skin. But I’m not a tanner.”
She shrugged. “You’re still an apprentice.”
“Yes, but…” He hesitated. What was the point of confessing? She had no interest in his childish grief. But the night was still dark, and there was nothing to do but talk. “I’m not a tanner at heart.”
“I see.” For a long time she was silent, but he could sense her thinking. Then finally she said, “You write.”
Her eyes. He couldn’t speak. They were worse than a priest’s.
He hunched his shoulders a little, and she seemed to notice. There was the afterimage of a smile, he didn’t catch it until it was gone, but the residue was warmer and colder than anything he had ever known.
“How…?” he croaked.
“It’s just a cramp,” he began, and then realised she wasn’t talking about his handicap. She was talking about his fingertips. “Oh…”
“I recognise the colour of ink,” she said, and this time her smile wasn’t residual, it lingered in full bloom for him to register and savour.
“Of course.” He wasn’t sure it merited quite so much mirth, but his mouth teetered on the edge of an answering smile.
Swallowing, he forced out, “I, uh, there’s, I mean, um…” and other words that didn’t mean anything. She watched him through his meaningless monologue, didn’t seem to mind. Or did she? His usual powers of observation were knocked out of whack by having to speak about himself. Looking down into his lap, at the hand that lay there quill-less but prepared, he made a herculean effort to produce something coherent. “Sometimes I write, yes. It’s been a while, but I’ve… rediscovered it lately.”
Heat poured over his face. What he just said – it sounded too intimate somehow. Like a compliment he wasn’t authorized to give.
A pause, too long. Then: “Well? I’m curious.”
She chuckled. “Your writing. Is it a secret?”
“N…” he frowned. “No.”
“So what do you write?”
He should give a simple answer, but suddenly it was as if he didn’t know. That vast array of carefully weighted words, all in the right place to create an infinite web of significance… but now that her eyes were upon him, waiting, assessing, cutting – he didn’t know.
“Uh… this and that.” It was his voice, but it wasn’t his words. His brain wasn’t in them. “Stuff.”
Again that residual smile. “Stuff.”
He swallowed, breath locked in his throat. Was it his turn to speak again? It shouldn’t be, but he was the first to choke on the silence. Her eyes stayed on him, amusement and deadpan seriousness all rolled into one. The ball in his court, but he didn’t know what ball to reach for, didn’t know the game.
“Love poems?” she urged.
“No.” Too quick, but he resisted the urge to elaborate: it would only make him look more foolish.
She nodded, but didn’t look convinced. He was jarred by the thought of being analysed. For the first time in forever he felt like a presence of soul and mind, not only of flesh and blood.
“The little love god lay asleep.” Agnes cocked her head. “Or what was it?”
Something strained in Will’s chest, like an animal howling to break free. She had heard? She remembered? “I, uh… That was just…”
“A band of nymphs came tripping by.” Her fingers tapped a rhythm on the table. One-two, three-four, five-six, seven-eight. “Maybe you should try the sonnet form.”
“S… sonnet form?”
“Yes. It’s an Italian format with fourtee–”
“I know what a sonnet is!” he burst out, mortified to be so lectured by a woman. How could she possibly know about such things?
She quirked an eyebrow. “You forget that my…” She glanced over at Dick, and a shadow of worry crept back into her face. “That Dick is a printer in the making. He sends me bits and pieces. Apparently there’s a fair amount of English poets turning to the sonnet form at the moment.”
Will was filled with a renewed wish to slash Dick’s arm open. “And who reads it to you?”
Agnes averted her eyes. “I can read,” she mumbled. “My brother taught me.”
“Oh…” Will felt strangely lightheaded. “Yes, well… I taught my sister.”
“The one that…?”
He winced. “No. I never got the chance. My other sister.”
“I wish you could have known her,” he said stupidly, but Agnes didn’t laugh at him.
“What was her name?”
He met her gaze full on. “Anne.”
Her eyes were bottomless in the candlelight. “Yes?” she said softly, and then shook her head and chuckled. “Oh, you mean…”
There was a moment of weightlessness, of timelessness.
“But we called her Annie,” Will said, breaking the spell.
Agnes flashed a strained smile. A moment passed, but neither of them managed to make anything of it. Instead she stood up and walked over to Dick. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she stroked his forehead. Will should leave, should mount the stairs and leave the pair alone, but he couldn’t. He just sat there watching her, reeling from her words and the impossible connections crisscrossing his life. Annie and Agnes; Aunt Joan and Master Jenkins. They all disappeared, all left him. Went home to their husbands, to other towns, to their heavenly father. And for all their printing and their sonnet forms, no poet had ever truly caught that pain with their wordsmithing: the real world, the constant loss.
Words were pointless and dumb.
And yet the five insidious feet were creeping into his mind, quiet and careful as if they thought they could enter without him knowing. Reopening the boxes he had kept shut, raking among the ashes for a drifting ember to blow on. To coax them into that raging fire once again.
“So…” He swallowed, unsure of how to go on. “He sends you poetry?”
Agnes nodded. “Trophies, of a kind.”
She shrugged. He waited for a reply, but got none. Just now they had felt so close, almost intimate, and now a chasm yawned between them.
He really should leave.
But he couldn’t tear himself away. He wanted to sit here in this cramped room for an eternity, listening to her silence. If this was heaven, he could live with it. A tattered collection of furniture and pewter dishes, drenched in a faint smell of urine. He didn’t need the promised euphoria. Her presence was enough, her presence and the itchy worry it ignited in him. He wasn’t happy, but he was alive as hell.
“Isn’t Dick younger than you?” he asked, and immediately regretted it. “I mean… He lives in London.”
Agnes gave him a look that said it was none of his business, but then she mumbled, “Once we’re married, I’ll move there.”
“Why?” It was out before he could stop it. “Don’t you prefer Warwickshire?”
The question was too tinged by his ridiculous despair. She must hear it.
But Agnes just sighed and stared at the black window. “Is it that obvious?” Then she looked down at Dick again. He was snoring lightly, regularly. “Well, London is where he lives,” she said dully. “It’s where he has his career.”
“So you’re giving your heart to someone who leaves you crying in a Stratford graveyard in order to pursue his career in the capital?”
Agnes glared at him, and he didn’t blame her. Who was he to question the economic alliances of his neighbours? He wasn’t even a major yet. He was only eighteen, with nothing to his name but a failing family business and a handful of poetic ashes.
“I wonder that you’re not ‘pursuing a career in the capital,’ as you put it,” she shot back.
The words, so sudden, grabbed him by the throat. “I don’t… I…”
“You’re a man of letters too.” She smiled tartly, almost seeming to laugh on the word ‘man’. Will stared back at her and couldn’t even stutter a protest. “And you admire him, don’t you?”
“You don’t take your eyes off him.”
“I… uh…” Will shook his head at the preposterous claim. “That’s really not–”
“Is it because you think he’s smarter than you? Is that the fascination?”
Will fell silent. Her gaze skewered him, he was a fish on land. Desperate convulsions in his chest, air supply dangerously low. Or high? Was he breathing too fast? He wanted to look away so he could find his voice, his self, but her eyes held him hostage.
Images from school, black spots in front of his eyes. The charmer, the nemesis. The way Dick managed not to alienate anyone with his intelligence, but make it work for him instead. His hubris that turned out not to be hubris, just a correct estimation of his prospects. Because he had the makings of a career now. A career that had nothing to do with piss and blood and beaming knives.
Agnes pursed her lips. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”
But I want to. Will’s fingers twitched in that familiar way, wanting a quill. He was restless like an anthill and tender like a bruise. All this time, and no one to confide in. This endless stretch of years, and not a word of confession. Was she right? Did he long to kneel at the feet of intellectual authority?
He would have kneeled for Master Jenkins.
But he didn’t just want to kneel. He wanted to be kneeled to. He wanted to bow his head in respect for a mind on a par with his, and then to surpass, to outdo, to conquer. He wanted to be blinded with awe and then blind the awe-inspiring one in return.
But for that person to be Dick? The thought was caught in a tangle of memories and hate. All Will had ever had from young Goodman Field was resentment and torture. He couldn’t think about it without disturbing that old snake pit of despair, that feeling of utter isolation, because time was meaningless. Your wounds could heal and the thin white line cover them like nothing had ever happened, and then suddenly you passed that way again, the place the blow was dealt, and rrrrip the bloody fronds gaped wide as if you never left. Life saying fuck you and your fake fucking recovery. Fuck moving on, and fuck anyone who thinks they can one-up my backwards timeline.
We’re all just one step away from bleeding to death.
His hands declenched, because apparently they’d been balled into fists for quite some time. A series of nail-cutting half-moons dotted his skin, like a reflection of his inner wounds. His soul was marked by history, by the razor-sharp edges of Dick’s life brushing his, and the blood had dried in secret slashes. It felt right that such imperfections should be outwardly visible, if only for a minute. Like pock marks of the heart.
“What if I’m not good enough?” He whispered the words.
Agnes cocked her head. “For what?”
He recoiled from the enormity of the answer he couldn’t give, not under any circumstances. He had already said too much. Instead he muttered, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll stay here and work. Someone has to.” His father’s words, moulded to almost fit his mouth.
But it was too late. “And what if you are good enough?”
Will stared at her, at this stranger who was suddenly acting the priest in a confessional. “What if I am?” he sneered. “What if I’m smarter than Dick, smarter than Master Jenkins, what if I was meant to go to university? How does any of that matter now? I’m a tanner’s apprentice. I’m stuck for seven years in this hellhole. I’ve missed my chance, and no one will ever know what I had to say, because everyone’s so bloody busy experimenting with the bloody sonnet form!”
Heinous words, ridiculous. Embarrassing and pompous. Hubris in the extreme. And yet they fell into place like pieces in a puzzle, each bit linking to the next in a perfect pattern. He held his breath, afraid to have provoked some jealous Norn of fate, to have jinxed his entire existence, but nothing happened. No hell-finger reached up to strike him down, no chasm opened at his feet.
Agnes just reached out a hand towards his, and he flinched. “Forget it.” His voice was tin against stone. “I was joking.”