Read by Miranda Harrison
When I think of him, it starts with his shoes. Italian leather, I can tell from the tongues. He must have been friends with a sailor to have acquired them, because I can also tell by the way he holds his legs that he is horseman rather than seafarer.
He wears black stockings. His breeches are short, shorter than the fashion, but they suit him. As does the collar, stiff, square, lovely white and gaping as if he has ridden carelessly through some forest. Which he may well have done for all I know. I always remember the mischief in his face, as he stood staring through the window of the animal emporium at a long-necked thick-lashed ziraph, like he could just get on its back and spur it away.
A poet then? The way he looked at ships – at the section of the Thames that broadened – it was with a hunger that I haven't seen in any sailor.
'Is it yours?'
I thought for a moment he meant the beast and was mocking me. But when he didn't laugh I saw he was pointing at the shop. How I could have taken his money and run, and sometimes in my more bitter moments I wish I had. Then at least I'd have a shilling to show in return for the gifts I've given him.
When we are adrift in the nightless Arctic, I think of the chill on the first night when he made us sit at an outside table in the beer gardens, so that he could watch the ships. Back then I was a boy to him; he paid more attention to the skippers, asked them about light and coastline and birds.
'Eyasses,' one of them said, of the baby hawks we carried back from Arabia to sell to falconers. He liked the word. 'Little eyasses.' He said it over and over.
I saw his currency then.
When would I have time to love him? Not there in the docks, where the ships gave off a stink of whaleskin and tar and men too long alone. Not in the liberties where we walked, under the Ludgate, in the sorry gaze of pitched traitors' heads stuck on spikes. Devils, watching.
And then I was at sea once more, in my slops and my own Italian shoes I'd bartered for a basket of English wool. When he waved me goodbye after that first meeting, he said, 'How can you sail, so uncertain, into the night? Into sea creatures, renegados, pirates?'
I tried to disguise a shiver as a shrug and said, half-looking over my shoulder at a boisterous group of men trying on masks, 'Let he that hath the steerage of my course direct my sail.' I looked up to God just as one of the men slapped another on the shoulder and shouted, 'On, lusty gentlemen!'
The next time I saw my poet I wasn't even off the bow of the ship. He seemed like a fixture there at the Wapping docks, staring as if he was cast in black iron. This way, I later learned, he soaked everything in. I wondered if he ever slept or where his chambers were or when he rehearsed the plays he spoke so shyly of.
Time stands still when you snatch gusts of it in other countries, their time, their different ways of walking, talking, smelling. The rest spent on a blank sea grey page with nothing but the edge of the earth on all sides. So you wonder how it is that people move on back home.
His ruff was flashier this time. Square and bright as a pearl, the corners high, reaching into the ginger fleece of his beard. We sailors, of course, don't follow fashions. We change when it pleases us. Something Spanish today, black lace, a gaudy pin, a crucifix to be worn near the heart. Or German trousers, looser, covering to the knees. Sailors don't follow fashion because we bring the fashion.
Oh he recognised me. I knew from his eyes. 'I'm parched,' I said. It was true, my voice was filthy salty
'I can counter that.'
Somehow it was easier to talk this time, shored up in a Bankside tavern drinking cheap sherry.
'Yes of course I've been to Syracuse.'
'Tell me what the merchants wear there.'
I described it all. I told him about Castle Elsinore, where we delivered a pair of peacocks that later, I heard tell, froze to death in the cold grounds.
'And were you ever in a storm?'
'Oh yes, the roughest. My ship was shattered. We were picked up by a galleon who turned out to be benevolent plunderers.' How did he know what of this I fabricated?
'And you plundered with them?'
'They would approach a ship from behind the wind,' I said. 'You won't appreciate how hard that is to do.' He looked put out. 'Dame Fortune has an outrageous streak in her, to turn favour when it pleases.'
'Well,' he said, 'she's a woman, isn't she?'
I went on. 'They had no muskets, no cannons. But more skilled marksmen you could never imagine. They used whalegut slings, and bone arrows they'd filed down. They'd aim for the skipper's heart, or the first mate. That way no damage was done.'
We walked late and the evenings blurred into one. He blindfolded me and spun me, and I only knew where he'd led me when I smelled the sawdust and heard wood creak. And it reminded me so much of being in the underbelly of a ship; sailing through worlds, drifting into somnambulance in green mists and waking up somewhere the words and dreams were different.
'The theatre,' I said. 'We're in the theatre.'
'No,' he corrected me. 'We're in the Globe.'
As he unfastened the ribbon behind my head his fingers were clumsy and nearly knocked my cap off, and later I found he'd left a smear of ink hardening in my hair.
We were in the tiring house and as soon as I clapped eyes on those rows of silk and lace and floor length French velvet costumes I saw what it was possible to become. He reached into the rack, wrestled out a thick cochineal brocade dress, stiffened into a flat waistband at the stomach. 'Try this.' He saw me hesitate. 'Go on, you'll fit. It's meant for a boy.'
'Can I try the bishop's robe instead?' How coy could I sound? Instead of terrified.
He reached across to my brow, pressed his palm flat, then smoothed it. There was curiosity in his eyes and I felt for a moment like a pebble or trinket, like the ziraph he had looked at with mischief. 'I cannot imagine fatigue here,' he said. 'A flaw, a wrinkle.'
'All right,' he said. 'The bishop's robe.'
He helped me into it, and his hands, his inky hands, lingered at my collar.
And I burned.
Then there was the time we rescued a bear. There was a pit across the way from the Globe. It was after a baiting, and the thing was half stuck through a gap in the fence, still chained, weals on its nose and a broken scream. With sticks to guard us, we yanked till its belly dug through, and plop, it was ours.
'What in the name of God and the devil,' he said, 'am I to do with a bear?' He examined its face. Its eyes were remarkably human.
'Put it in one of your plays.'
We tore along the bank of the river, from Southwark to Lambeth, hair streaming. I had the chain in one hand, and the bear pursued us.
Six months at sea. When I returned this time, the salt and the sun had left their mark and I was both scrawny and dun.
He was there, staring. Every day, he said, he'd come. My hand was the first thing he touched. 'What do you smell of?'
I was ready not to hide any longer.
'Perfume,' I said. 'Arabian perfume.'
When he met my eyes, it was with new understanding.
I don't know whether the rooms we went to were his. There was another man there at first, sitting on the bed. They exchanged a few words, until the man got up, selected a volume from the shelf and closed the door behind him.
I started with my shoes. Slipped my feet free. Then breeches, stockings, shirt, until I was in my shift; a vain silken piece I always wore, right next to my body, to keep the scent close. To remind me every day that I am a woman.
I took away my cap, the pins from my dense black curls. He said nothing. Not even when I was bare-breasted in front of him.
He had on a starched ruff that day and I remember he struggled to take it off. The rest of his finery was easy in comparison, slid away like sealskin. He was paler than me and the ginger in his beard threaded down his body, now gold, now dark. I couldn't describe him the way I wanted to, but he made me think of all the sweet things I had ever tasted, touched or seen. An oyster, freed from its shell, apricots in hazy coats, damson flesh. A tall elk standing in the snow.
Afterwards, he took up my shift and slipped it on. It clung to his lean body in different places to those it clung to on mine. I wore his stockings and the iced lace ruff, and we lay moulded by the threads of each other's fabric. Bound.
I went to his play, noted the reference to Elsinore, to slings and arrows. Told him. He smiled, as if that was reward enough.
It was only when we were casting off, and I was back in my slops and jacket, sea-ready, steeled for a voyage to the Arctic, that the skipper said, 'Don't see so much of Will these days.'
I kept my smile tight, a locket, locked in my heart.
'Still, I s'pose his wife must want him some of the time. Back in Stratford. S'pose he sees less of her than some of the sailors do of their molls. Oh yes, and his three bonnie children, too. Can't remember their names.'
My heart fell out of me then, pierced, down into the dockside grit. And I never picked it back up.
When I look down upon that blank grey page that rocks in opposition to the ship, I think how desperate and beautiful and how strange it would be to extinguish into nothingness, melt into it like the elusive flame inside an emerald.
Slings and arrows. But better to be at the bottom of this sea than floating on the sea of troubles we toss ourselves into, back on land.
I stare until I make a mirror. I see both a young boy and a dark lady. And my rage is not for the lie, the terrible lie he told, or the truth he didn't mention, or his double love. But for the things he took from me; words, objects, stories. Gave back nothing in return. Where am I in all the body of his work?
I take off one shoe then the other – shoes that will forever link me to him in my mind. Unslip my silk shift from my shoulders and pull it off through my shirt. The threads that took his odour and his heat. I stuff it tight into one shoe, bind both together with sea rope, and in the tongue of the other I leave a note; 'Love is such stuff as dreams are made on.'
I bind them and I throw them.
And of course I hope they will float on currents back to him. But instead they eddy only for a second, then sink, pulled down, spiralling until they are a speck of cloudy mist.
© Lucy Ribchester, 2014
Lucy Ribchester lives in Edinburgh. She has an MA in Shakespearean Studies from Shakespeare's Globe, and in 2013 received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. Her first novel, The Hourglass Factory, will be published by Simon & Schuster in spring 2015.
Miranda Harrison: Actor and voiceover artist. Recent theatre includes Romeo and Juliet (Nurse; Leicester Square Theatre). New writing roles include In A Moment (Karen; ADC Theatre); Autumn Leaves (Julie; Barons Court); three roles for experimental company Le Nouveau Guignol; and numerous rehearsed readings. Voiceover clients include BBC Children in Need and educational audio publishers.