So it’s Shakespeare’s supposed birthday and death day, and I have no witty, well-researched piece to post. What I do have is the long-suffering first chapter of the sequel to Rival Poet.
Yes, there is a sequel. Three, actually. The problem is… well, funnily enough the problem is kind of summarised in the very chapter I’m posting: tired ambition and the drudgery of everyday life that squeezes every ounce of fun out of you. In a way it feels comforting that my imagined protagonist once felt the same way, even though I made it all up. But it never feels like making things up when I write. I only follow dictation, I just set down what the movie in my head tells me to, and when it’s out there, it’s real to me.
As real as a relationship that no one can agree on: did he love her, did he not? I have my own answer, and it all starts in 1582.
He first saw her in a graveyard. Among the headstones and the rain-blackened trees, on the darkest day of September, he saw her. On a day when his ink ran dry and his words were dust in his mouth, that’s when she appeared.
Like the angel he hadn’t known he needed.
It was a Sunday, the one day of the week he was able to breathe. Four years had passed since he first began toiling in Goodman Field’s odorous trade, and most of that time he’d spent shackled to the tannery, acquiring skills he didn’t want. But once a week, he had a few precious hours of freedom, and the graveyard was as good a place as any to spend it.
There was probably some stupid rule about not drinking beer in such a hallowed place, but what the priest didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
“I came up with something new,” he mumbled, ripping chilly weeds from around Annie’s headstone. “You want to hear?” His voice sounded strange in the silence. Too alone, somehow. Too loud. He rubbed his forehead. Tiny pieces of grit scraped his skin and he wiped his face with his wet sleeve. “It’s not much, but I thought you might find it funny. The little love-god lay asleep… No, wait. The love-god lying once asleep…”
Fine rain settled on his skin and moisture from the ground seeped into his hose. He stared at Annie’s moss-eaten name, trying to remember. He must be really exhausted if he couldn’t locate his own words in his mental library.
“Little love-god.” He snorted. “Is that even a good phrase?”
He didn’t expect an answer, of course. Not from a dead girl. But talking to Annie beat talking to anyone else. The non-answers she gave him were more intelligent than anything that made it out of Goodman Field’s mouth. Besides, saying the lines out loud helped him think. The damp, chilly air also helped him think. The stolen mug of beer certainly helped. Actually, just about everything but the urine-infested tanner’s house was helpful.
“The love-god lying once asleep…” he began again, but stopped and sighed. What was the point? These orphaned lines never made it onto paper. No one would ever read them, let alone hear them. After ten hours of wielding a beaming knife, his gimp hand couldn’t even lift a quill, and if he ever broached the subject of poetry with his family, that strained old look would come over their faces. As if they dreaded the subject – as if they thought he still nurtured hopes of university.
Ridiculous. They’d crushed that right out of him and no mistake.
Rearranging his aching limbs, he leaned against the headstone. It was cold and sturdy: something unmistakably real in the misty fairyland of the graveyard. In a strange way it was even kind of comforting. He was about to close his eyes and relax when he caught a movement at the corner of his eye: a woman, moving through the rustling leaves by the gate.
Getting to his feet, he wiped the dirt from his hose, but he couldn’t do anything about the splotches. The woman’s eyes flitted over him and he averted his gaze. It was painfully obvious that he had been sitting on the ground – or it looked like he had pissed himself. In fact, given the beer mug at his feet, that was her most probable conclusion.
Clearing his throat, he made a final attempt to address Annie. “The love-god lay in blissful sleep,” he muttered, “when fourteen nymphs came tripping by…”
It was no use. Why did he persevere? Why couldn’t his mind just leave the words alone and let him crawl to an early death in the fumes of the tannery? Why couldn’t he bury his memories like he had buried his sister? All that dead and festering ambition – what was it good for?
He looked over his shoulder. The woman was standing in front of a grave, her shoulders hunched in apparent sorrow. He remembered when his own wound had been new – when every breath he took felt stolen from the dearly departed. There hadn’t been any room for poetry then.
“A band of nymphs came tripping by…”
He frowned. The presence of another mourner distracted him. The poem would have to wait – or, most likely, join the other scrapped fragments that littered his brain, never to be fully forgotten nor fully realised. Unborn, untethered, unseen. Never to be baptised in the font of a printer’s ink. Especially not Dick Field’s.
Irked by the thought of his childhood enemy, he shivered once and started walking towards the gate. Wet leaves squelched beneath his feet, trying to suck him under, to make him join their deceased ranks. As he passed the mourning woman, he quickened his steps so he wouldn’t have to greet her, but he couldn’t resist a furtive glance. There was something so… odd about her. Against the grey backdrop of headstones and trees, her skin was a flash of lightning. She should be sunkissed and crinkly after a summer of working. She was obviously a farmer’s daughter, and yet her features had something of the haughty noblewoman about them.
As if he had any idea what noblewomen looked like. The few he had seen had been too far away to afford any deeper analysis.
Stopping just inside the gate, he looked back. The woman stood with hunched shoulders and bowed head in front of a stone that was overgrown with ivy. Her hair was pulled back in a loose bun, but a few strands had slipped free. Stirring in a slight breeze, they made her face look dead by comparison. As if she had just stepped out of a grave of her own.
Will hesitated with his hand on the latch. Was it heartless to leave her without saying anything? Then again, what could he say, stranger that he was, to make things better? If someone had died, he didn’t possess the skill to bring them back. Meddling could only make things worse.
Aware of being watched, she glanced at him: a forbidding scowl, a challenge: What do you want? Embarrassed, he turned to leave – but stopped again. They had made contact now. It would be rude to just go. She would think he was a weirdo. She would go home to her family and tell them what an insolent man she had seen in the graveyard. Or worse, she would paint him as a simpleton.
Walking back the way he had come, Will paused at a respectful distance. Making his voice soft and low, he asked, “How are you?”
A stupid question. Her whole appearance screamed grief.
Squaring her shoulders, she looked up, but not at him. She stared into the foggy distance like one searching for a lost ship. “Do we know each other?” Her voice was a husky alto.
“No.” Will shifted his weight. “I’m sorry, I thought I’d…”
Her eyes swerved to him. Blue like nothing he’d ever seen. Blue like Dick’s eyes were blue, a dangerous colour full of superiority – but also sadness. Or was that just his poetic mind searching for soulfulness where there was none?
“Who was it?”
Her eyebrows dipped briefly. Then she looked down at the stone. “Oh… He was my father.”
“I’m… sorry,” Will tried, grimacing at the phrase. But that was what you were supposed to say when someone had died. I’m sorry. She must have heard it hundreds of times. Will certainly had, and each time it meant less. Perhaps it was better to say nothing. Perhaps the useless formulas were just an escape from awkwardness, a soothing of the conscience: if you said the words, you were rid of a debt owed to the griever.
“Um…” The sound of his hesitation shivered in the premature dusk. “How long has he been gone?”
“What?” Two patches of deepening scarlet appeared on the woman’s cheeks, like roses flowering in the snow.
“How long ago was it… that you… lost him?” Will gulped stupidly. She frowned at him, as if he had touched on some terrible secret. Blushing, he gestured at the grave.
The woman’s jaw set. “A year. Why?”
Will tried to breathe in through a sudden tightness in his throat. He should go, but her face held him prisoner. Her hair was so dark, and yet her skin was cold and pale – like a lily in twilight. His gaze slipped to her lips: a startling rosy-warm hue in the middle of all that solemnity. Like a summer bird in the dead of winter.
He looked at the headstone. ‘R’ something. R… Richard. Richard Gardner, alias something that was hidden behind a vine of ivy. It sounded vaguely familiar. Maybe father had done business with the man at some point. Will considered moving forward to remove the ivy, but decided against it.
“What’s your name?” he dared to ask instead.
The woman pursed her lips. “Why should I tell you?” Almost immediately, she looked contrite. “I’m sorry. It’s just… What’s the point of names? They’re just words. Like… promises.” She made a resigned gesture at nothing in particular. “Air.”
A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold crept down Will’s spine. “And yet words make up our whole reality,” he said, against his better judgment. This was no Master Jenkins, educated in the world of ideas. If he waxed philosophical, he would only confuse her.
Sure enough, she gave him an odd look. “What do you mean?”
Will shook his head. “Nothing.”
“You had a point. Tell me.”
He frowned at her, but she only looked back with that serious look in her eyes. Solemn, even. “Um…” he stalled, shifting his weight again. “Well, words are… For me at least, they’re important.” He meant to stop there, but she waited for him to go on, and the silence grew unbearable. “They sort of… frame the world. Like pictures. They’re a structure we imprison reality in, so we know where to look.” Grimacing at his ineptitude, he tried again. “I mean, they’re sort of the glass we look through, to see the world.”
“A glass, and a frame,” the woman summarised.
“Like a mirror.”
He hesitated. “Well…”
“And even though the mirror shows the world, it can never be a perfect reflection. Because it’s the opposite.” She turned back to gaze at the headstone. “What you thought you saw, or heard, was the complete opposite. And whatever you wanted to see outside of the frame… the words hindered you. They forced you to look in that deceptive mirror.”
Will didn’t feel the cold anymore. His skin was buzzing like summer bees. His head was clamouring. Remember, she’s just a woman, he admonished himself, but he couldn’t keep quiet. “And yet a mirror shows the world in a truer way than anything else we have. It’s a truth, if a bit skewed.”
“Is it?” Her eyes glittered in the drizzle, as if a ray of sun had escaped from behind a cloud and been caught, sparkling, in her irises. “Maybe noblemen’s glasses are. The spotted piece we have at home…” She trailed away, and the sparkle died. “Yes. Maybe it was accurate at one time. Maybe I believed what was actually a truth, but then it turned into a lie.”
Will had no idea what they were talking about anymore, but he didn’t care. In fact he didn’t care if he was even part of the conversation, as long as the woman went on murmuring her opaque soliloquy under the grey sky. Her words were a natural kind of rhetoric, an echo of Virgil, if rough like a farmer’s hands. It was a speech of opulence and calluses, of jewels in dirt.
“What truth?” he dared to ask, and at once the well ran dry. He saw it in the way she drew herself together, the way her body closed.
“Who are you here for?” she asked.
“Oh, er…” Will closed his eyes briefly, searching his mind. “Annie. My sister.”
“How awful. Was she young?” The woman looked at his face. “Yes. Of course she was.”
“It was a long time ago,” his mouth assured her. “I still talk to her, though.” He stopped, embarrassed. What did he mean by such a confession?
“Yes…” Her eyes lost focus for a moment. “I sometimes talk to my father, even though he died a year ago.” She snorted softly. “A ‘year’. Another word that we’re just supposed to believe. It’s real, it’s a fact. But what does it even mean? It can mean anything.”
Will nodded. “A year is a mathematical category,” he said, eager in a way he hadn’t been for a long time. “Made up of months, or weeks, or days, however you want to look at it. That’s the calendar, set down for us by our forefathers. But as an experience… a year can be the blink of an eye or an eternity of grief.”
The woman made a face. “That definitely rings a bell.”
A moment passed, and then the bone-numbing doom of the church bell rang out across the graveyard, and they both jumped. Gasping a laugh, the woman glittered at Will again, and the transformation was like something out of Ovid – from sombre pallor to a swarm of butterflies, all fluttering for him.
“How appropriate,” she giggled, stern woman banished as if she had never been there.
Will was unable to battle an idiotic grin. “God smiles on our conversation.”
She snorted. Then she dropped her gaze to take in his bedraggled appearance, the mud on his breeches, his unshaven chin, and uncut hair that lay plastered to his temples. His fingers twitched with the need to defend himself, to explain why he looked like a vagabond, but before anything remotely intelligent could surface in his turmoiled mind, she said, “I’m Agnes. Well, to my family I am.”
She held out her hand. It was narrow yet plump, and very cold when he took it in his. He hardly dared press it for fear it might break, and yet there was a strength in there that belied its apparent frailty.
“William,” he whispered his full name, wondering at the absence of surnames. As if they were both characters in a poem or a play, no need for familial demarcations or proof of respectable descent, just two people in a graveyard touching hands, touching eyes.
“Well, I’m sorry, I have to…” Agnes gestured at the gate, and Will’s chest contracted in secret panic. Don’t go. He could stand here in this grey wasteland for an eternity. If this was heaven, he could live with it. A damp collection of gravestones and trees with a faint smell of rot. 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.
A pale smile was all he got for his wordless plea. Powerless to stop her, he followed her with his eyes as long as he could see, but she never once looked back. Agnes Gardner alias something or other. Will’s heart lurched in his chest. Stay out of it, you fool.
But of course he knew he wouldn’t.