Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, my mother used to say.
I don’t need to knit, but what else would I do? Even when my hands are knotted with years, even blind, I’ll still be sitting here by this window, ignoring the strangers gawking from the street, clack, clack, clacking, with my needles until the light fades from the day. Admittedly, I must have more stockings knitted than years left to wear them, but I’d rather listen to the clacking of needles than the clacking of tongues.
Stratford is not the town it used to be. The faces that pass are brazen, scrutinizing me and this house without any attempt to disguise their curiosity. I never asked to be the subject of every passing Mistress Gossip. Just once, I’d like to shout at them, Jealousy is seldom cured!But godliness is an exercise in restraint.
Here is Mary with a taper to light the candles. ‘At last! Mary, fetch me my writing chest from my desk and stoke the fire. Without raising your brows. It may be midsummer to you, but my fingers are stiff with cold.’ Mary is surly at the best of times, and undoubtedly a gossip, but as housemaids go, she works hard and I haven’t the heart to dismiss her. She’s an Arden. A distant relative of William’s. Oh, how the mighty are fallen. It doesn’t pay to be Catholic in this day and age.
‘Thank you Mary. My velvet pantouflesas well if you please. And ask Susanna or Judith to come and sit with me. I have not seen them all day.’
William gave me this writing chest. Inside I have all his letters. I’m not entirely sure why I keep them. They are a catalogue of excuses for the most part: a hundred reasons why he was not able to return home to his family. There is even a sonnet written for me from our early days of courting. Brief though that was. At the time of writing this sonnet, he could not have sold it for a ha’penny, but nowadays, some people would pay a crown, a sovereign even, just for a peep over my shoulder. Knowing he’s gone, knowing his brilliant, shining thoughts will never marry paper again, his status has become legendary. These letters of mine would be squabbled over, my name erased and replaced with another’s in a heartbeat. Imagine the riot if I took them to London and offered them up to the highest bidder.
Here, let me read a few lines:
Dearest fairest dove, my heart’s own … re … repose,
Thy doe-eyed beauty, the Venus of my ... my w... whiles,
Thy gentle hand and face, the … sw … sweetest gracious rose …
Ah me, and so it goes.
My eyesight is not what it was. His handwriting has never beeneasy to discern, but I thought I knew these words by heart. Old age. When he wrote this sonnet he was only beginning to learn his craft, as any craftsman must. An apprentice of words. It was William’s words that saved me in the first place, you know. Not quite so eloquent, but his words nevertheless. Indulge me in this.
There was a day, many years hence, a sultry day, the heat unforgiving, and methinks it was a Thursday because I was walking to Stratford market from Shottery, probably at Joan’s behest. At the time, like the lovesick goose I was, I was dragging my heels because I was pining for … for ... Dear God, I forget his name! Oh, Robert, that’s right. Robert Dibdale! That name still brings a smile to my lips.
So, Robert had been gone for over a month, and I’d not heard so much as a scratch from him. One thing I can say for our William, at least he often wrote.
Forsooth, as I walked along the back lane towards town, the bodice of my gown began to pinch. I stopped in my tracks. No doubt looking like the village idiot, I put my basket of stockings down and ran my hands across my bodice and stomach … Oh the shame!
I remember panic surged like rising flood water. Despite having lost my appetite for food, my gown had seemed tight when I’d dressed that morning. And now I came to dwell on it, the morning before that ... The image of Robert flashed before my eyes: his painfully light body on top of mine, his pressing need for comfort. A moment of weakness.
In a daze, I picked up my wares and forced myself to walk on, up Rother Street to the High Cross. I handed Gilbert my knitted stockings to sell alongside his gloves.
‘You look pale Ann,’ he said, handing over a purse of shillings. ‘Seen a ghost?’
‘It is suffocating hot,’ I said, staring beyond him.
‘Thought you might have seen Will. You’ve heard he’s back in town?’
The news should have made me smile. Perchance I tried. Before he left, William had been teased for the flame he held for me; but he was years younger than I, and no Robert, and though flattered by his attention, I’d rebuffed him. We’d been friends, nothing more.
‘Is he?’ I was too distraught, too tangled up with my own concerns, to be glad of William’s return after a year’s absence.
Distracted, I walked on, up the Mere, breathing in the warm, corpselike stench of the Gild Pitts. My stomach roiled, my thoughts snared: Robert had plucked me at my prime. Or, perhaps, was it I, who had plucked him? In truth, he’d been in a weakened state, his frame of mind much affected by his time in the Tower. I’d thought I could convince him to stay with me, to take me as his wife ... but he was foresworn to a higher love. All too soon, he left for the Catholic Seminary in Rheims, and I was left to rot on the orchard floor like a bruised crabapple.
I stumbled on, not caring where I was going, the sour taste of bile in my throat, my stomach cramping. I found myself on the banks of the Avon, sinful thoughts lapping at my conscience. I was overwrought. Soon, too soon, the child would show and I would become laughing stock of town, the butt of every scornful jest.
Uttering feverish prayers, I wandered along the riverbank, thanking the Lord my father was no longer alive to hear of my disgrace. But what would I do? Fie, the shame and humiliation! What would Joan say? Would she throw me out of house and home? How would I show my face at church?
A violent shudder passed through me and my knees buckled. In front of me, the water flowed, glistening, shushing and sloshing over rock and stone. Perhaps I should bury my troubles on the river’s bed. I told myself to put aside temptation, but the river’s voice was deep and hypnotic. I imagined its touch, as soothing as a mother’s cool hand against my fevered brow. I was fighting against Satan himself, when I heard an anguished expletive.
‘The Devil may take me!’
Not from my lips.
Startled, I looked up and saw a man on the far side of the river, a little way off.
My heart sank. I noted the flagon in his hand, the man swaying like a drunken sot. It was only as he hurled the flagon into the water that I realised who I was looking at: William, no longer a boy.
And then, without warning, the blithering idiot pitched forwards, head first. There was an almighty splash.
‘William!’ I leapt to my feet. The river had swallowed him like a minnow.
A moment later, his body bobbed to the surface, but he was floating face down, inert as a stick being swept downstream.
I yelled. I stamped. I pointed. I expected him to lift his head at any moment, but nothing. I looked about and shouted. ‘Help! A man is drowning! Help!’ But the only person in earshot was myself.
Discarding my basket and lifting my skirts, I raced along the bank in his direction and succeeded in getting ahead.
‘God’s teeth!’ I cried, jumping in, intending to obstruct his path. At least, that is what I told myself afterwards. That I knew not how to swim seemed to have momentarily slipped my mind.
The iciness of the water took my breath away. It was bottomless. Its currents fought with my skirt and petticoat, tying them around my legs; no longer the benevolent solace of moments before, this was malevolent.
I went under, swallowing mouthfuls. Time paused and I thought only of myself. Wasn’t this what I wanted? A way to put an end to the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child? But under the water was quiet as a catacomb, and its muffling embrace terrified the life in to me.
No! Oh Lord God! Preserve me!
And God answered my prayers.
Unexpectedly, I was snagged by an old tree trunk that had fallen half across the river. I latched an arm around it, gasping for breath. Hanging there, like a pig on a butcher’s hook, my trotters trussed up in my tangled skirts, I prayed thanks my head was, at least temporarily, above the surface.
Which was more than I could say for William.
His body lurched into view. I grabbed ahold of his sleeve with my left hand and managed to drag him towards me, and into the lee of the fallen log.
There was a gash on his forehead and a swelling lump. I prayed aloud because surely the Good Lord would still be listening. And then, just to be sure, I began to holler, screaming so my voice near tore out my throat.
No-one appeared, but William coughed, spluttered and opened his bloodshot eyes. He stared at me with an expression of stupefaction and then dire mortification. He coughed and coughed some more, spewing brown river and brown ale. Then, in a whirl of limbs, he scrabbled out of my arms and along the trunk. Grimacing, he stretched and grabbed an overhanging root. With his feet somehow braced against tree and clay bank, he reached a hand back for me.
That moment was God’s work. A small miracle.
The rest of the details are a little hazy, but I recall his hands grappling parts of me he never should have touched; I was beyond caring as he manhandled me onto the grass bank above.
Together we collapsed on our backs in the long grass, chests heaving, trying to suck air into our water-logged bodies. We might have been man and wife lying abed, and that thought started me laughing. But I laughed so hard my stomach hurt and then remembering my condition, began to cry.
William must have thought me hysterical with relief.
‘Ann, are you quite well?’ he asked, struggling to raise himself onto an elbow.
Over the years I’ve found it’s men who often ask the stupid questions, and yet they declare we women are the brainless ninnies. This question trumped them all, but I was in no condition to respond. For how long I went from laughing to weeping, like a petticoat flapping in the wind, I’m uncertain.
William was patient. At some point he interlaced his fingers with mine. ‘It is good to see you again, Ann,’ he said, squeezing my hand. ‘You haven’t changed.’
Of course I had, more than anyone except me knew. I turned my head away, more tears oozing from my eyes, wishing he were Robert. In truth, I think I had swallowed an excessive amount of river water and needed to expel it from my body.
When my crying finally subsided, wiping my eyes with a sodden sleeve, I squeezed his hand back in a silent gesture of thanks. ‘I’m happy you are home, William.’
‘Indeed, you seem delighted.’
I knocked our joined hands against his thigh. ‘You startled me. Trying to jump across the river, in greeting … And I thought you had drowned, you silly boy!’ I said, hoping to make light of our situation.
He flopped back down and was silent for some time. ‘Methinks, it would have been better if you’d left me to it.’
His words appalled me. Not because the idea was sinful, but because it struck a resounding chord.
‘What has happened Will? Was life up north so very disappointing?’
He sighed. ‘Up north was fine, but I have been in London. It is like a prison full of cutthroats and cutpurses and the lowest of the low. Battalions of men who want nothing more than to witness your undoing.’
I shivered and gripped his hand tighter. Robert had not told me what he had been through in the Tower, but his silence told its own story. Just last week, news of Edmund Campion, a fellow Jesuit, being hanged, drawn and quartered had reached us in Stratford. And to think I’d been prepared to throw life away because I was too afraid to face a few unkind words. Were it not for William, I might now be submerged, staring blankly at the marbled surface of the water, never to breathe the lightness of air again.
And yet here we were. I was not sure who had saved whom.
‘Perchance this was a baptism of sorts,’ I said, gazing at the woad sky overhead. ‘Perchance heaven can wait.’
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe I felt compelled to confess, or be given a second chance. And William was more honest and trustworthy than any priest in these parts. I poured out my soul to him, not stinting on the details. I confessed to losing my heart and my righteous path, giving my body to a man who had chosen God over me. And finally, I admitted, I suspected I was with child.
William did not so much as flinch. As I talked, and the steam rose from our clothes, he listened. He’d always been a good listener. Observant. The sort of man I should have loved.
‘God moves in mysterious ways, Ann. It might be that he brought us together today for a reason.’
We lay there longer, unspeaking, both lost in our thoughts.
‘I’m ruined,’ I whispered to myself.
‘I should like a son,’ announced William. ‘Very much.’
I may have wept some more.
He got to his feet, held out his hand and pulled me up. ‘I would like to marry you. If you would have me as your husband, I shall talk to your father.’
He’d evidently not heard that piece of news. ‘Father died Will. It’s my brother, Bartholomew, you’ll need to ask.’
He blew out a breath and dipped his forehead against mine. ‘I’m sorry. How is Bart?’
‘Bartholomew’s married. I’m sure he’ll agree to our … when he finds out I’m …’
‘Why tell him?’ He kissed my hand. ‘Why tell anyone? But would you want me for your husband? You’ve always sent me packing in the past.’
I wondered if I was a witch to accept his offer. I wondered who had made him miserable enough to attempt killing himself. He came from a family I knew well, a good family. William had prospects. We would be secure. We could live in town. No more tending to sheep and broken fences and knitting until my fingers were raw.
‘The past is done. The future unknown. And you, William, are heaven sent. But betrothed? Truly?’
What did I have to lose?
But Robert was soon to be ordained as a Catholic priest and I had to be strong for my unborn child. My conscience did not trouble me further than that.
‘I say, yes. Thank you. I would be honoured to be your good wife.’
His smile seemed forlorn.
We walked back into town, holding hands, trailing water, and tongues have not stopped wagging since.
Susanna, when she was born, was a fierce distraction.
Of course, my conscience needles me now and again. Was hiding the truth a sin? William got his precious son when the twins were born, but only for a short time: the plague took Hamnet. Was that our punishment?
After our son’s passing, I thought we should never see William again. We became a household of women: Susanna, Judith and I.
I taught my girls to knit from a tender age.
Sometimes, I wonder if it was us who drove William away. Or was it the pull of someone else? He said he could not abide the infernal clacking of needles. He complained he could not concentrate, or write a word. The noise of our knitting was torture.
For me, every excuse was like a dropped stitch.
I encouraged him to go, expecting him to remember how much he hated London. I wanted him to realise he was happier in Stratford living with his family, making an honest living from gloves, than imitating life with his plays, or writing fripperies for courtiers.
Forsooth, I never for a moment imagined he’d be so successful. Who could have foreseen the Londoners’ appetite for drama, especially from Stratford-spun William Shakespeare?
A plague on all of them!
I awake with a start, crick-necked.
Where is everyone? It is bitter in here. And dark as a grave outside.
‘Susanna! Judith! Mary!’
What is the use of hollering in this big house. It’s as hollow as a tomb. I might as well be buried already.
I edge closer to the fire, but it has sunk to little more than ashes: a feeble, red glow.
Perhaps if I feed it these letters of William’s … I have read them a thousand times and a thousand more, and forsooth I am grown weary of them. If I can get me no human warmth, perhaps a pyre of words will warm my toes.
‘God speed, my husband. Fare thee well.’