This time it’s a trip to Shakespeare’s England. Isabel ain’t your usual demure Tudor miss. She’s struggling to become a writer in a male-dominated world, even if it means cross-dressing, swilling beer and lighting farts. And the man of her dreams only had a bath last week… Warnings: Sex scenes, bad language, terrible liberties with history. 18+
Isabel tossed in her sleep. She was having the dream again.
Isabel sees the woman from behind. She is sitting in a peculiar chair, one spindle from the seat going down onto a brace affair with five wheels on the bottom. She is tapping her fingers on little grey squares and the glowing rectangle in front of her is throwing up words. The machine makes squawking noises every so often.
The woman sighs and scratches her head, then arches her back. She is wearing clothes like Isabel has never seen, a plain jersey and, of all things, trousers. No ruffles, no tight hose. She is dressed like a man in these cerulean blue trousers yet dressed like no man Isabel has ever seen. Her dark hair is loose and hangs to her shoulders.
The man walks in behind her. He’s dressed more or less the same – plain jersey, blue trousers. He places a steaming mug next to the peculiar word device, puts his arms around her and nestles her head to his chest.”How’s it going?” he asks her.
“It’s all clicked.” She smiles, turns her face up to his in smiling delight, and Isabel realises with a shock that the face is her own. “I’ve almost finished the third act. Coffee? Darling, you’re wonderful. I completely lost track of time.”
“You’re going to be the most famous playwright of the twenty first century, Is,” the man tells her. “But you won’t live to see it if you don’t stop and eat sometime. Dinner’s on the table.” Isabel knows this is really a dream at this point. No man would ever cook dinner for his wife.
“You are TOTALLY wonderful!” The woman clicks her fingers on the grey squares a couple more times.
The woman stands up, hugs her man – husband? – and they leave the room, smiling, their teeth unusually white. Isabel gets a glimpse of the room as they leave, bright, unreal paintings on the wall, and somehow the room is very light, an incandescent glow which could never be achieved by candles. She realises it is being cast by a globe hanging down from the ceiling. This is frightening stuff. What IS this dream?
Panting, sweating, Isabel woke up. Unsure, she glanced around and heaved a sigh of relief. The leadlight windows weren’t letting in much sunshine, so it was still early. There were no paintings on her whitewashed walls, and no glowing globe on her damp-stained ceiling. And certainly no spindly chair and word machine, just her armoire and chest of drawers. She was in her own bed.
She threw back the covers and padded in her long, cosy nightgown to the windows, opening them and taking in a deep breath. Taking in deep breaths wasn’t recommended in sixteenth century Stratford-upon-Avon. Isabel coughed at the mingled smells: pee, shit (human, equine and God knew what else) and rotting garbage.
Isabel pondered her dream as she rifled through her clothes to find something that had been recently washed. Being a good daughter she took her turn at the copper but absolutely loathed it…the boiling water, the lye and the resulting red, sore hands.
She was having the dream more often; these days it came every couple of weeks. Always the woman, writing her play. Sometimes the man was there, sometimes she just got a glimpse of the woman, Isabel but not Isabel, living a life females didn’t have. Was it the future? Was it evil? Was it another world to which she had privy?
Isabel couldn’t tell anyone about the dream. If she told a priest she would be condemned as evil, possibly a witch. Or she would be declared mad, and locked up.
Sighing, Isabel dressed in her layers of clothing. It was springtime, and the cumbersome womens’ clothes of Tudor England were a pain in the backside. She envied the woman in her dream, this creature in practical garb who could stand, turn and hug without tripping on long skirts.
Her brother Dick was downstairs, waiting for someone to cook him breakfast. Isabel was the only daughter, with five elder brothers, most of whom were married. Their father was a successful merchant, with a shop in the High Street which sold, among other things, the best and most attractive chamber pots in town.
“You ARE capable of cutting a slice of bread, you know,” Isabel chided. “To say nothing of chucking a bit more wood on the fire.”
“Womens’ work,” said Dick dismissively. “You’ll have to get used to doing it, Izzy. One day some poor bastard will marry you and won’t know what he’s let himself in for. A woman who doesn’t cook, doesn’t clean, writes plays and knows how to read. Woman don’t read and write, Isabel. It’s like sex. You know, if a woman doesn’t sleep with a man she’s a cocktease, if she does she’s a slut. Well, if a woman doesn’t read and write she’s thick, if she does, she’s a witch.”
Isabel snorted, remembering her dream.
“I mean, look at that ad we saw in the printer’s window the other week. The one you weren’t supposed to be able to read, but, being bigmouth, you couldn’t help reading out loud.”
“Only because I read quicker than you do,” Isabel snapped, hacking off a slice of bread out of habit.
“What did it say again? Writers wanted, will pay well. Men with previous writing experience preferred. Apply to William Shakespeare. Men, Isabel, men. Not women. Women don’t, in fact can’t, write plays. How can they know enough about life? It’s a woman’s lot to have babies and keep a house, not to experience life as we men do.” Dick tilted his chair back triumphantly, a big grin on his face.
Isabel balled up the slice of bread until it was a doughy mass in the palm of her hand, walked up to her brother and shoved it into his wide open mouth. Dick made a muffled protest.
“Just be lucky I put the knife down,” she snapped. “I’m trained in my girly duties enough to know how to use it.”
She stomped out of the room. Dick, sighing, checked that nobody was around to see, cut some bread, stoked the fire and cooked himself an excellent slice of bacon.
Isabel knew the ad in the printer’s window backwards. In fact, she could probably write it backwards too, but that was something she’d never tell a living soul. Writing backwards was the sign of the devil. She kept a journal which was written in what she termed “mirror writing” – you could only read it by holding it up to a looking glass, but none of her family was bright enough to think to do that should they ever find the journal.
Isabel was currently working on two plays, one of which she was certain would be good enough to get herself employment. The advertisement had bugged her all week. There was only one thing she could do – pretend she was male. At seventeen she was whiplash thin; she didn’t have the feminine figure men preferred. Dressed in some of Dick’s old clothes with a hat pulled down on her head she’d pass for a boy.
She rescued her play from its hiding place behind her armoire: The Lovers of Venice, a Tragedy by I. Armstrong.
It was good, damned good. Strong words, good characters, and a storyline guaranteed to get the audiences emoting for all they were worth. Fellatio and Chlamydia, two young lovers from feuding families in the fashionable and romantic city of Venice, who end up topping themselves in desperation.
Would this William Shakespeare character think it was any good? Nobody had really heard of him or knew what he did. Maybe he owned a theatre. Maybe he was a publisher.
Isabel licked her pencil and got writing. As soon as she’d finished, she’d seek out Mr Shakespeare and see what he thought.
“Fellatio: Hark, what light from yonder window breaks? ‘Tis east, and Chlamydia is the sun!”
Inspired by her dream, Isabel scribbled on, not hearing her mother shouting for her to help in the shop, or the sounds of the street below – people shouting, horses clattering on the cobbles. Even the smells wafting in through the window didn’t worry her. She was the woman in trousers, writing about Venice.
* * *
One month later, Isabel sat in a public house sipping ale with The Boys. She’d snuck out of her room after supper and climbed down the roof, unsure and uncaring about how she’d get back in. She was dressed in her brother’s trousers (which stank), her brother’s jerkin (which also stank), gloves with material stuffed in the fingers so her hands looked bigger, a pair of Dick’s old boots which had received the same treatment, a shapeless hat pulled as much over her head as possible, and artful smudges of dirt on her cheeks.
She had had three meetings with the eminent Mr Shakespeare and his paid writers, and had, to her joy, been accepted wholly as Bob Blacksmith, teenage male. This was her second visit to the pub and she was learning a lot more about Life. For instance, she hadn’t realised until now you could light a fart. One of the other writers, pissed to the gills, had just lit up his fifth of the night.
The others roared with laughter. “One more for the road, Roy! See if you can get it longer than your dick this time!”
“Wouldn’t be hard!” yelled someone else, and they almost fell off the benches in hysterics as Roy rolled on his back, farted, and lit up a flame that almost scorched the underside of the table.
“Put that in your next play and let’s see the leading man do it!” grinned Roy from the floor, showing yellow, decayed teeth. They all laughed harder. Isabel joined in, trying desperately to achieve a low-pitched laugh. She’d done pretty well with her voice so far.
Roy, getting up, farted again, very loudly.
“Obviously our Will hasn’t been up YOUR arse yet then!” jeered one of the writers. “You’d be making a hissing sound. Like poor old James!”
Isabel’s ears were on stalks. The young man next to her, a rather shaggy dark-haired individual called Ben who, she noticed, kept a bland look on his face most of the time to hide what appeared to be considerable intelligence, grinned.
“One of the problems with Our Will, I understand,” Ben said to Isabel. “You’d better be careful. I’ve heard he likes young boys.”
Isabel, understanding, turned bright red. She thought of Shakespeare himself, with his prim mouth, slightly watery, beady eyes and too-elegant fingers – a jerkin-lisfter? “But…but isn’t he with Anne Whatsherface?” She was so startled she used her normal voice, and groaned inwardly.
Ben didn’t appear to notice, but his eyes flickered. Bugger, thought Isabel. This smart bastard misses nothing. “Means nothing, Bob. It IS Bob, isn’t it?”
“Well, Bob, if you drop your pencil, kick it out in the street before you pick it up. I do. Look, this lot are pissed are parrots. They’ll get chucked out of here on their arses soon. I suggest we hoppit before that happens.” Ben arched one eyebrow at Isabel. Bugger, she thought again. He was quite attractive really. If she wasn’t Bob Blacksmith she’d flirt like hell.
“Right.” They looked at each other and drained their ales, Isabel struggling to gulp hers down and spilling half of it down her clothes. What the hell, she thought. They already stink. And guess what, I’m drinking just like a bloke!
Roy was about to light another fart and the landlord was approaching with a menacing look on his face when Ben and Isabel galloped out the door.
“Aren’t you hot?” said Ben pointedly, staring at the gloves. “It’s not cold tonight.”
“Bad circulation,” muttered Isabel, drawing her moth-eaten scarf up over the lower half of her face.
“Bad circulation my left bollock!” snorted Ben, pulling the scarf away and ripping the shapeless hat from Isabel’s head. “You’re a bloody girl!” For good measure, he pulled off her gloves and smiled slightly as he felt the scrap material padding out the ends of the fingers.
Isabel teetered between slapping his face and going into flirt mode. She did neither, and ended up glaring at him.
“So, prithee fair maiden,” said Ben mockingly in a carrying actor’s voice, “Pray tell your motives, else your deception be revealed.” He smirked, which sent Isabel’s temper skywards.
“Bugger off,” hissed Isabel. “And give me back my bloody clothes!”
“Not bloody likely until you tell me what you’re doing writing for William.”
“Earning money as a writer. He’d never employ me if he knew I was female. I want to be famous.” Isabel glared at Ben.
“He’d never employ a female because firstly, Anne would get jealous and secondly, Willie only gets turned on by boys, a fact Anne hasn’t picked up on yet, so girls are pretty useless to him,” Ben grinned. “What’s your name, anyway, when you’re not being Bob?”
“It suits you far better than Bob,” Ben said. “But you’ve got yourself into a hornet’s nest, and it’s really no place for a girl.”
Isabel’s hand itched. She drew her arm back but Ben was quicker, and caught her in mid slap.
“Don’t even think about it,” he warned. “You don’t know the full story. It’s dangerous. Shakespeare’s dangerous. You don’t want to hear half of what’s been going on. Cut your losses, Isabel, and get out while you can.”
“I DO want to hear!” Isabel hissed, aware of passers-by throwing interested glances at them. “And if it’s so bloody secret I suggest we go elsewhere and you can tell me.” She grabbed her hat and shoved it over her shit-brown hair.
Ben sighed, finally shrugged, and began to walk. Isabel, without the constraints of long skirts, was easily able to match his stride.
“Poor James used to write for our Willie,” Ben said conversationally as they wound their way to the edge of town. “You heard them talking about him tonight.”
“James wrote two plays. Shakespeare bought them with the promise of producing them for him. Instead, before James knew it, the plays had a few changes – not many, maybe a character or two renamed and the play itself called something else – and were being put on as being written by William Shakespeare, a man hailed as the finest playwright in the kingdom. James went to Shakespeare to complain. He was shown a piece of paper he’d apparently signed which agreed that Shakespeare could claim the play as his own, and that if James protested Shakespeare would claim he was homosexual – he’d even had some sketches done to prove it. Which James wasn’t, incidentally. Poor bastard just got shafted up the bum by Shakespeare one dark and stormy night before he knew what had hit him. The day after he confronted Willie they dragged his body out of the Avon.”
“Bloody hell,” said Isabel.
“Of course, Shakespeare said James had a drinking problem and fell in the river when he was pissed. James was my cousin. My younger cousin. He never drank. He told me the whole story, including the fact that Shakespeare had bought his silence on the first day by shafting him one up the arse and then threatening him to shut him up. The day after he told me this whole shitty story was the day they found him in the river. And you can’t tell me it was suicide. James was too bolshy. You’re a smart girl. You can work it out.”
“Bloody hell,” said Isabel again. Bugger, couldn’t she think of something else to say? Then… “Tonight…. Roy’s celebrating because Shakespeare’s going to put on one of HIS plays!”
Ben nodded. The bland look had vanished and Isabel, in the soft light thrown by the cloudy night, got an impression of a superior intelligence to the vapid Shakespeare himself lurking beneath the surface of Ben Johnson.
Isabel said slowly: “And he’s told me he’s very interested in what I’ve done with The Lovers of Venice.”
Ben nodded again. “He also likes my little effort: Ralph Pulls It Off. Which, incidentally, I only wrote as a joke so I could get to meet this bastard.”
At that moment the clouds decided to drop their load. A scatter of raindrops fell and then the heavens opened, and within a minute the dirt track Isabel and Ben were strolling on had turned to mud. Rain pelted so hard Isabel’s ancient hat was no use at all.
Gasping, drenched in less than thirty seconds, Isabel looked wildly for shelter.
“There’s a barn over there!” Ben shouted above the pelting rain, and grabbed her hand. Isabel felt a shock run through her at Ben’s touch, and then she and Ben were sprinting like crazy, ripping open the barn door and flopping, panting, onto the warm, dry hay. Despite the fact it was spring, Isabel was soaked and cold and started to shiver. Instinctively she huddled closer to Ben, who was putting out the warmth of a fireplace, and slipped, unthinkingly and unknowingly into flirt mode.
“You know,” she said conversationally as she snuggled up against Ben’s jacket, which smelt of horse, beer and unwashed wool, “They say there’s not much else to do on rainy nights except play cards.”
It was very dark in the barn. Isabel felt Ben’s grin rather than saw it. “Haven’t got any cards.” Ben put his arms around her and enveloped her in his shapeless, smelly clothes. “There’s something else you can do on rainy nights and it’s much more fun than cards.” Hesitantly Ben began to unfasten Isabel’s awful clothing.
Isabel, unsure of herself – she’d never undressed anyone bigger than her five year old nephew before but surmised rightly it was the same principle on a larger scale – fumbled with Ben’s buttons. Undressed, Ben was much, much bigger than her nephew in every department.
Ben smirked. He said smugly: “You can suck it if you want. I only had a bath last week!”
Isabel finally gave in to her impulses. She slapped Ben as hard across the face as she could.
* * *
In the end, after the slap, it had been wonderful. Ben was obviously used to women belting him one and took it in good heart. They rolled in the straw like otters in water, giggling. And after the giggling, when things got serious, the hay made a gentle mattress and, better than a bed, soaked up the wet patch.
Sated and curiously happy, Isabel curled up against Ben, pulled some warm hay over them both, and slept a dreamless sleep.
She woke to find the sun streaming through the gaps in the planks, making stripes on Ben’s face. He had a proprietorial arm flung across her, and she found that rather nice. He also had a hard-on, which she found even nicer.
“Wha…what?” Ben woke, startled, to find Isabel perched on top of him. “Christ, this is the best dream I’ve ever ha – I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“Not at all,” Isabel assured him. He woke up very, very quickly.
Outside the barn cows were lowing, mooing and, from the grunts and shuffling hooves, kicking each other. Shocked, Isabel heard a cheerful whistle.
“Bloody hell! The farmer!”
“Fuck!” said Ben, using the newest swear word in the English language. “The clothes! Where are our bloody clothes?”
Isabel yelped. Not a thread to be seen! “They’ve fallen down in the hay!”
Desperately they started flinging hay over their shoulders, burrowing in the warm green depths.
“Found my hat!” whispered Isabel triumphantly.
“That’ll REALLY cover you up,” jeered Ben, scrabbling frantically as the whistling got louder. “Get down! Quick!”
The barn door opened as Isabel and Ben disappeared deep into the hay, peering anxiously at the farmer. Oh shit, he had a pitchfork.
Still whistling cheerfully, the farmer forked a mound of hay barely inches from Isabel’s leg and flung it to the cows outside, not noticing he’d uncovered something brown and smelly.
“My jerkin!” Isabel snatched it up and dragged it deep into the hay,
The pitchfork came dangerously close again, jabbing Ben lightly in the leg. Ben swore almost silently. Another forkful of hay uncovered Ben’s trousers, and they both had to stop from giggling.
“Whassat noise?” The farmer peered myopically into his barn and scratched his head. “Bloody mice! Where’s that bloody cat gone?” He dropped his pitchfork and stomped outside. “Furball! Here puss! Furball!”
“Quick!” Ben hissed.
Isabel found Dick’s trousers and one boot. Ben discovered his jerkin and then, by sniffing like a dog, his coat.. They dressed in a furious hurry, finally unearthing their boots with the pitchfork, flinging hay left, right and centre.
“Huge mice,” grinned Isabel, surveying the wrecked hay pile as they crept out of the door.
“He’ll need a bloody big cat!” Ben commented, and they got the giggles again, running across the muddy fields like children, jumping cowpats and sliding on the wet grass.
Later, back in Ye Olde Potty Shoppe, wearing womens’ clothes and persuading customers that buying a bigger pot meant you didn’t have to get up in the night to empty it, it really was worth the extra money, Isabel found it hard to believe the last twelve hours.
Her parents luckily hadn’t noticed she’d been missing. Used to her spending every spare minute in her room scribbling, they’d merely yelled for her and then philosophically eaten her share of breakfast.
“I’d like a giant sized chamber pot, please, I’ve got a huge dick.”
Isabel swung around and almost dropped the most expensive pot in the shop. “Ben!”
Ben grinned. “I had to have another bath this morning. A cold one. Can I see you tonight?”
“Yes, but I think we’ll have to find another barn.” Isabel was aware she was grinning like an idiot, but couldn’t do anything about it.
Isabel’s father walked in from the back room. Armstrong by name, armstrong by nature, he was a big bugger, built like a human mountain, with legs the size of hams. Isabel always reckoned he was the reason her suitors usually gave up after one date.
Ben appeared to be made of stronger stuff. Wearing his carefully bland face, he held out a hand. “Ben Johnson. I’d like to court your daughter, Mr Armstrong.”
The human mountain frowned so hard Isabel expected an avalanche. “Bugger off out of my shop if you’re not buying anything.”
Three minutes later, bearing a chamber pot he hadn’t really intended to buy, Ben headed for the door. He called over his shoulder to Isabel, “I thought that went rather well, didn’t you?” as Mr Armstrong lifted him up bodily and threw him out the door into the street. “Come around about seven, shall I?” The door was firmly closed in his face.
“Where do you meet them, girl?” grumbled Mr Armstrong. “I set you up with the squire’s son and you drag some bloody nobody in the shop after you.”
“Last time you spoke to the squire’s son he was so scared of you he pissed himself,” objected Isabel. “He’s awful…smelly, scrawny little creep.”
“Aye, well, piss is good for business. Squire’s family always have had weak bladders. Buy a lot of pots, they do.” Mr Armstrong looked reflectively at the window. Ben’s face was pressed up against it, his nose squashed against the panes and his mouth blowing condensation on the glass. He looked slightly less intelligent than the village idiot. “What’s this one do then?”
“He’s a writer,” said Isabel proudly.
“No money in writing,” grumbled Mr Armstrong. “Unless you’re William bloody Shakespeare. Mebbe we can train him to sell pots if it comes to anything.”
“Oh, Father!” Isabel flung her arms around the mountain. “Thanks! He’s ever so nice!”
“Must have SOME money,” Mr Armstrong said. “He bought the most expensive pot in the shop.”
Ben’s eyes widened. “You scrub up rather well when you’re not being Bob!”
Isabel smiled briefly, suddenly a little shy in front of him. She wore her best clothes, a deep burgundy silk gown with ruffles everywhere and lace at her throat. “You don’t look too bad yourself.”
Which was true. Ben had combed his rather unruly hair into submissive tidiness. He was dressed in clothes that looked too expensive for a poor, budding writer to wear, including, and Isabel stifled a giggle, the tights that were fashionable these days. “Nice legs!”
“Shurrup or I won’t take you out!” growled Ben, raking his fingers through his hair unconsciously and promptly returning it to it s usual shaggy state.
“Nice manners, too.”
“You’re asking for it!”
“Oh dear,” said Isabel, not in the least concerned, “Does that mean we go straight to the barn and you don’t show me off to all of Stratford?”
“Straight to my house,” Ben corrected, taking her hand.
“A gentleman of property, no less,” mocked Isabel. “A house AND a chamber pot!”
“And a bath. Don’t forget the bath.”
Ben lived in three rooms in a newish, half-timbered house. The rest of the house was inhabited by his landlady, a cranky old bitch who seemed to smell of soup, and (Isabel counted wildly as she walked in) at least 27 cats. The place stank.
Isabel stared in disbelief. “If you live here, how did you afford those clothes?”
Ben grinned. “Won ‘em in a gambling game. Look, they don’t fit that well, especially round the crotch. Maybe I should take ‘em off.”
Isabel shoved him. “After dinner. I’m starving.”
A pot of steaming stew hung over the fire, and books littered the drawing room. Two goblets and a flagon of wine sat waiting on the sideboard. Unlike the rest of the house, Ben’s rooms were clean and civilised, and Isabel was impressed.
Over the stew, which Ben had cooked himself and which was rather tasteless and not terrifically edible, they discussed Shakespeare and his nefarious dealings.
“I’ve written down everything that’s happened in my journal,” said Ben. “Everything I’ve observed, everything James told me, all my investigations. Once I’ve proven Willie to be a cheat, a liar and a murderer, I’ll take my story to the world.”
“So you could call what you’re doing investigative journalism,” Isabel said thoughtlully, chewing hopelessly on her mutton and wondering how and where she could dispose of the tasteless mass in her mouth.
Ben gave her a quick, appraising glance. “That’s a good name for it! I know this sounds corny, but would you like to come to my bedroom and see my journal?”
“It’s usually etchings,” said Isabel, pushing back her chair and surreptitiously ditching her mutton into the fire, “but I thought you’d never ask!”
* * *
“So, Bob,” said Shakespeare softly, “I’d like you to stay back and discuss your characters with me.”
“I- I can’t,” muttered Isabel, moving around the desk, clutching the sovereigns she’d just been paid. Shakespeare followed, breathing rather quickly.
“I’d like to talk about Fellatio,” Shakespeare went on.
I’ll bet, Isabel thought, moving faster.
“Fellatio interests me a lot,” confided Shakespeare, rubbing his hands. “For a young man, you show a lot of insight, which comes across in your writing Have you had experiences yourself like Fellatio?”
For a playwright, his English was shocking, Isabel thought, galloping for the door. “Must go,” Isabel said in her deepest voice, and fled, slamming the door behind her.
The writers’ group was meeting again that night, with Shakespeare in attendance. Isabel didn’t know whether to go or not. Now she knew what Shakespeare was capable of, she felt more like fleeing the country than working on her play. In the end it was decided for her. It was the one night her parents DIDN’T get drunk in front of the fire, but insisted on having that most dreaded of occurrences in the Armstrong household, a conversation.
“So, Dick, when are you going to stop fooling around at the brewery and come back and work at the shop then?”
Isabel covered her ears. Her father’s original conversation opener never failed to start an argument.
“Can’t get free beer at the shop,” Dick pointed out. “There’s lot of piss at the shop but not the kind I’d drink.”
Mrs Armstrong put down her darning needle and surreptitiously moved all the knives out of reach.
Isabel began to edge towards the door.
“And where are you going, miss? Not to meet that layabout writer of yours! Sit here and tell me, what do you think of the new range of porcelains we got this week?” Mr Armstrong took a long pull from his pint pot but, Isabel thought sadly, too little too late.
Sighing, she sat down and tried to ignore Ben frantically pulling faces at the window behind her father’s head. Ben gave up after fifteen minutes and made signs that he was going to the writers’ group at the pub (hand signals of scribbling followed by lifting pint pots…about ten of them).
Much later, after her father and Dick had picked each other up and thrown the other across the room, making the ceiling beams quiver, Isabel was able to escape to her bedroom.
She had the dream again. The woman playwright with the peculiar machine that generated words, working busily, tapping at the machine and then pacing around the room muttering to herself. She still had Isabel’s face, which Isabel was quite used to by now. Obviously she herself was the woman but that didn’t explain the glowing light in the ceiling or the bizarre black box that showed people’s faces and scenes from a terrifying land where buildings towered high into the sky, taller than the tallest cathedral, and people rode in brightly coloured carriages that weren’t pulled by horses. Isabel tossed in her sleep. Maybe she WAS going mad! Then the man entered the room again, and Isabel woke with a thudding heart as she saw his face for the first time. The man was Ben.
“What about this, then?” said Ben. “I’ve been trying my hand at poetry. Willie’s into something called sonnets. Bloody hard to write, but he’ll pay a sovereign for a good one.
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:…”
“Bit harsh, isn’t it?” said Isabel.
“Well, Willie doesn’t like women anyway. It’s my little dig at him. What I’m inferring, and he doesn’t know I’m inferring, is that he doesn’t find women attractive and would much prefer a bloke. For instance, he knocked back this one:
There was a young lady from Hollocks,
Who indulged in quite frivolous frolics,
To a young man said she,
Come sit beside me,
And I’ll give you a suck on the bollocks!”
“Well, the other writers loved it!” protested Ben defensively, expertly ducking the glass of water Isabel had thrown at him.
“I’ve sent it to the newspaper, anyway. Might get a couple of coppers from them. Pity you missed the writers’ group. We discussed my deep and meaningful epic, Ralph Pulls It Off.”
“Ah!” Isabel had read some of Ben’s play, and wasn’t surprised to find it erudite, witty and extremely well-written. “Do tell!”
Ben pulled a face. “Not really good news. Willie wants to change a few things. Firstly, the name of the play. Wants to call it Twelfth Night, which I think is a bit boring. Wants to set it in flippin’ Italy. I tell you, he’s got this thing about Italy ever since he bought your Fellatio and Chlamydia play. Worst of all, he wants to change Ralph’s name to Malvolio. Can you believe it? Mal-bloody-volio! I ask you!” Ben’s nose wrinkled in disgust.
Isabel burst into peals of laughter.
“I’m glad YOU think it’s funny,” grumbled Ben. “Not only does he want to turn my masculine hero into a ponce, but I get a sense of deja vu. This is what happened to James.”
Isabel stopped laughing. “Yes, you’re right.”
“And you, my sweet, were the subject as well. Apparently you walked out on Willie and he was asking everyone at the meeting if they knew whereto find you. He’s besotted. Salivating whenever he mentions the name of Bob Blacksmith. To say nothing of your play. He’ll keep it in Venice, but….he’s changing its name to Romeo and Juliet. So you can guess what your leading characters are going to be called!”
“Oh, shit!” said Isabel. “Thank heavens he paid me in cash. I need never see him again.”
“You’ll have to be careful. We both will. He’s got our plays, now he’ll get us.”
“Then why are you writing bloody poetry?” snapped Isabel. “Why are you risking getting closer to him? I don’t want you to get thrown in the river too!”
“Hush.” Ben pulled her closer. “I won’t get caught. He’s going away tomorrow for a couple of weeks to talk about setting up some theatre or other. I’ll break into his house and get whatever I can about James and anyone else he’s done away with, we’ll make the information public – anonymously, of course – and then he’ll be hanged.”
Isabel nestled against Ben, not fully convinced that his plan was totally foolproof. She felt a fierce, overwhelming warmth spread over her and identified it with a shock as love. She couldn’t bear it if he got injured or killed, would strangle Shakespeare with her own hands if anything happened to Ben. She didn’t know how Ben would react if she told him how she felt, so she murmured “Je t’aime,” into his rough woolly sweater.
“Je t’aime aussi,” Ben responded quietly, and Isabel jumped. “Didn’t know I spoke French, did you? It sounds better in French anyway. Try it in English and compare.” He kissed her hair.
“I – I love you.”
“That wasn’t so hard, was it? I love you, too, Isabel Armstrong.”
As Isabel reached over to snuff out the candles in anticipation of a night to remember, there was a loud rattling at the window.
“Johnson! Ben Johnson!”
“Shit!” said Ben, buttoning up his trousers. “Who is it?”
“Fred from the writers’ group. Roy’s dead!”
Isabel jumped as if shot. “Ben!” she hissed. “He’s the guy whose play Willie bought a few weeks ago!”
“I know,” said Ben grimly, going to the window.
Fred’s red-nosed face was crinkled with concern. “They dragged him out of the river about an hour ago,” he told Ben. “They think he was drunk. He wasn’t THAT drunk when he left the pub.”
“I’m sure he wasn’t,” Ben agreed. “Maybe he lost his footing. It’s been raining.”
“Aye, bloody shame, that, just when he’d sold his play and Shakespeare was going to put it on for him.” Fred wiped snot from his nose absently, using the back of his hand. He sniffed. “He carried those sovereigns on him all the time since Shakespeare paid him t’other week. Ever so proud of them, he was. Not in his pockets now, though. I suppose they’re at the bottom of the river.”
Or back in Shakespeare’s pockets, Isabel thought angrily. She wondered what agreement Roy had made with the bard, and whether a copy of it, sodden and unreadable, was still on his body.
Then she thought of her own sovereigns, hidden under her pillow, and shuddered.
* * *
Shakespeare had left for London. Hidden in the bushes, Ben and Isabel had watched him wave goodbye to Anne and mount his sleek chestnut horse. He was accompanied by an overladen manservant on an equally overladen and not nearly so sleek brown pony.
“Watch carefully,” Ben suggested. “I’ve had a theory for the last couple of weeks Anne’s getting her pleasure elsewhere. She’s suspected Willie’s having it off here and there so she thinks she’ll have some fun too.”
“Where do you hear all this?” Isabel wondered.
“Here and there,” Ben grinned. “All stuff for the journal.”
Sure enough, half an hour later Anne, disguised with heavy scarves and carrying a large bag, came out of the house very surreptitiously. She glanced left and right, saw nothing to be afraid of, and scurried down the street.
“Right,” said Ben firmly. “We go in there tonight.”
“Why not now? There’s nobody around.”
“It would be just our luck if her maid was there. My sources tell me her maid slacks off when Madam’s away too. No, it’s better under cover of darkness. And be prepared, we may have to make a run for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to get out of town right away,” Ben said. “There’s too much happening now for my liking and I can’t confirm or deny that Shakespeare isn’t working alone. For all we know some of the other writers might be in this with him. Roy was a big bloke. Shakespeare couldn’t have handled him by himself.”
Isabel’s eyes widened. “What about me?” she began angrily. “You’re just going to bugger off and -”
“You’re coming too – aren’t you?” Ben kissed her, ignoring the catcalls from children in the street. “I don’t want to go without you.”
“But my parents….the shop….” Isabel floundered. “How will I tell them?”
“You mightn’t have time,” Ben suggested gently. “A note on your pillow might be best. We can come back here when the heat’s died down.”
Isabel nodded. In reality, she wouldn’t miss the drunken snoring and flying pots and pans (and that was just her mother). She wouldn’t miss the shop, with its rattling chamber pots hanging from the ceiling like giant pint pots. She wouldn’t miss Dick’s laziness or her father’s temper. She could pack the belongings she cared about in one bag.
“Meet you at nine, outside your window.” Ben gave her one final kiss outside the shop, and chamber pots clinked against each other as Mr Armstrong threw open the door so fiercely it almost fell off its hinges.
“Get in here, girl! Squire’s coming in with his son this afternoon. I want you in your finery. Squire’s son’s a better catch than some would-be writer!” He glared at Ben.
“Last chance to marry the squire’s son,” mocked Ben in a whisper.
“You’ll keep.” Isabel pulled a face and went quietly into the shop, glad it would be the last time she’d have to serve there.
By dinner time Mr Armstrong was in a foul mood. The squire – or his son – hadn’t shown up, they’d sent a mere footman, who drooled at the sight of Isabel and hadn’t brought enough money with him.
Dick had pilfered some ale from the brewery and he and his parents proceeded to get smashed. Isabel drank a goblet to keep them company, but was determined to stay clear headed. Besides, she was feeling a bit sick, and fought to keep her food down. It was no use, though – she bolted outside and threw up, shaking and trembling. “Nerves,” Isabel said to herself, excited and frightened at the thought of breaking into Shakespeare’s house and bolting far away.
By eight her family were snoring at the table, and Isabel crept upstairs to pack her things. At nine Ben threw pebbles at her window, hard enough to crack the glass.
“Shut up and catch this!” Isabel threw her bag down and, dressed as Bob not just for convenience, but because she’d be less noticeable when they were travelling, shinned down the side of the building.
Ben had a horse.
“Where did you get that?” Isabel looked at the horse suspiciously. She wasn’t mad keen on horses. This one was big and hairy and placid; it nuzzled her hair and dribbled on her clothes.
“Won him in a bet.” Isabel suspected this was Ben’s standard reply and it meant “fell off the back of a cart”. He gave Isabel a leg up and jumped up behind her. “Can you ride, by the way?”
“Oh, shit! Look, you steer with the reins. I’ll work the legs. That’s it.” Giggling, they trotted to Shakespeare’s house. Ben left the horse happiily cropping the daisies in the garden.
They crept around the back, trying each window. “Gotcha!” said Ben with satisfaction, sliding a knife into the kitchen window and unlatching it. He gave Isabel a push and then followed her inside.
Stumbling in the darkness, they felt their way along the walls to Shakespeare’s study.
“Door’s locked!” hissed Ben, rattling the handle.
“No problem.” Isabel flourished a big ring of keys. “One of these is bound to do the trick.”
“Where did you get those?”
Isabel grinned. “They were sitting on a bench in the kitchen when we came in. You said the maid got lazy when nobody was around.”
The door opened on the third key. Moonlight flooded in through the windows and provided a clear blue light. Shakespeare’s study was a mess: papers everywhere, papers in the fire grate, papers on the chairs. Isabel made straight for the desk and found, to her satisfaction, one of the drawers was locked.
“He obviously keeps the hot stuff in here,” she murmured. She borrowed Ben’s knife and waggled it around the lock and the top of the drawer. After a few minutes and a lot of swearing, the drawer opened. Ben and Isabel grabbed a handful of paper each and moved over to the window.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Ben whistled. “This is dynamite! He blackmailed Roy by framing him for robberies.”
“I’ve found the stuff on James,” Isabel said quietly, and handed it to Ben.
Ben swallowed. “That’s it, then. Let’s get out of here.” He took all the papers, folded them and stuffed them inside his shirt. Carefully he shut Shakespeare’s desk and locked the office door.
“I’ll get the bastard,” Ben promised as he helped Isabel back over the window sill.
“Shit! The horse!” Isabel peered around wildly. “Bloody thing’s taken off!”
Ben swore and looked helplessly for hoofmarks in the mud.
“This way, I think!” hissed Isabel. Fresh hoofprints led towards the river. They jogged, Isabel gladder than ever she was wearing comfortable clothes.
It was harder now to see the hoofprints; the mud was churned where people, horses and carts had made their way to the river and across the stone bridge.
“Don’t tell me the bloody thing’s gone over the bridge,” groaned Ben. “He’s probably heading off home, wherever that is.”
“Looking for something?” A voice materialised out of the shadows, followed by the sly watery eyes of England’s most famous playwright. “A horse, perchance? An equine fair and fleet of foot?”
“Actually a carthorse dark and clumsy,” Ben retorted. “Run, Isabel!”
But Shakespeare was too quick, and he had reinforcements Before she knew what had happened Isabel had been grabbed roughly by someone she didn’t recognise and, kicking and screaming, had been thrown into the river.
She gasped with the coldness of it, and the fierce current as the Avon, swelled by recent rains, ran south towards the sea. Her clothes, her boots and the sovereigns in her pocket dragged her down. She thrashed her arms.
“Ben! Ben! I can’t swim!” Isabel was dashed under briefly. She pushed her head up, coughing, to realise Shakespeare’s accomplice was trying to hold her down with a long tree branch. She caught a fleeting image of Ben grappling with Shakespeare, and papers flying everywhere, and then she was under again, eyes open, seeing a world of rushes and weeds, breathing water.
Then the pressure lifted, the branch went away and Isabel, choking and gasping, surfaced long enough to see Ben being thrown in too. She lacked the breath to scream; her lungs were full of water. The greedy current carried her as she lost consciousness, face down in the water.
The dream again, the woman asleep – dead? – at her machine, the man shaking her, saying, “Wake up! Wake up!” Isabel believed at that moment death was the dream, and she drifted, uncaring, closer to the woman in her dream, then she was back to reality. As the dream-woman woke up and Isabel also surfaced, she realised what the dreams had meant and felt a certainty about her life and her future. Ben was holding her up feet first, shaking her, saying “Wake up! Wake up!” and water was draining from her lungs.
Isabel coughed and coughed until she was breathless. Cold and soaked, she lay panting on the riverbank.
“Thank God,” groaned Ben. “I thought you were dead!”
“So did I,” said Isabel weakly. She pushed her hair out of her face. “Where are we?”
“Not far enough away. Look, can you get up? We’ve got to keep moving. They’ll be over the bridge looking for us, making sure we drowned.”
Slowly, dizzily, Isabel got to her feet and promptly threw up for the second time that night. Her boots were missing and –
“My sovereigns! I lost them in the river!”
“Hush. It’s not important. We’ll get money somehow.” Ben ripped off a sodden piece of his shirt and handed it to her. She wiped her mouth. “I lost most of the papers, too. I’ve still got one or two but I fear the ink’s run pretty badly.”
“Your journal?” Reason was beginning to return to Isabel.
“Soaked, too. It might recover. I wrote in pencil when I couldn’t afford ink.” Ben put an arm around her and began to lead her downriver. They were both shivering.
Hoofbeats plodded behind them. Instinctively Ben dragged Isabel behind a tree, but the horse was riderless and rather familiar, green slobber dripping from its mouth.
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” breathed Ben, grabbing the bridle.
“What?” said Isabel.
“Just something James wrote. Can you get up behind me?”
Grunting, Isabel heaved herself up. The horse quivered as cold water dripped onto his flanks.
“Where shall we go?” said Isabel, holding Ben tight.
“London’s pretty big. We could easily get lost there for a while. And I’ll find someone to sell my story to.”:
“London it is, then. The three of us.”
“Three?” said Ben, confused. “I wouldn’t say this horse has enough personality to count.”
Isabel patted her still-flat stomach, smiling as she nuzzled Ben’s back. “I wasn’t talking about the horse.”
Isobel Armstrong looked around the room with satisfaction. All that hard slog at the word processor had paid off. Her play, The Truth About William Shakespeare, had received immense critical acclaim and she’d even been offered film rights for a staggering sum of money. Already headlines were calling her The Greatest Twenty First Century Playwright.
Around her the First Night party buzzed. High on adrenalin, the actors were getting rapidly drunk and the socialites smiling almost grimly now at the relentlessly flashing bulbs.
Isobel had dashed off her play in record time, and sometimes couldn’t say why or how she’d done it. Fuelled by dreams set in a long-ago century was the truth, but who would believe it? The play had almost written itself, with Isobel waking exhausted some mornings having spent the night in Tudor Stratford. The nights she didn’t dream produced days of writers’ block and brutal edits.
Isobel was wavering on her feet. First Nights were terrifying and glorious. You either won your critics over or they hated the labour of love you’d spent months working on. The triumphant success of the night had overwhelmed her, and now all she wanted to do was go home, take her hair down from the awful tight configuration the society hairdresser had welded it into and have a long, dreamless sleep.
She spied Ben across the room. Despite his best intentions, he was unravelling: tie loosened, shirt slowly coming adrift at the back, dark hair mussed up from his unconscious gesture of running his hands through it. He was holding forth with a fellow journo, waving around a glass of scotch in a very perilous fashion. He’d been incredibly supportive, cooking for her when she was on a creative bend and wouldn’t even stop writing if the house burned down around her, putting up with her terrible tantrums when the words just wouldn’t flow, and being a bastard critic, picking hell out of her literary allusions and her historical research. Tonight was a double celebration for them: Ben had, the day before, been given an award for his latest investigative series on crooked politicians.
She drained the last of her champagne. It tasted sour, which meant it was time to leave. She wound her way through the throng, smiling at the “Dahling”s and “Bravo”s, and, at last, slipped her hand into Ben’s.
It was hard for her to believe they’d only been together six years. Sometimes it seemed like six hundred.
Author’s note. Like most stories, this came to me as a “what if?” I figured I may be breaking a few copyright laws and be in the running for a libel suit regarding my slurs on Shakespeare’s sexuality. Then I thought, what the hell… you can just about anything about anyone when they’re dead!
© Copyright 1998, Caroline Sully
Reproduction without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.