Many Happy Returns
With just one hour to pen this account and Will Shakespeare looking over my shoulder and the beautiful Lucy sitting with her thigh pressed against mine in the dark, cramped Mermaid Tavern on Cheapside, please forgive any errors. There can only be one draft. WS is not interested in my writing but covets my biro and will have it when the hour’s up. In return he’s given me two sheets of his best paper, fashioned he says from rags, on which to write.
Today has been the stuff that dreams are made of and I’ve not woken yet.
I was a delegate at “Shakespeare’s Birthday” evening conference today (Thursday 23rd April 2015) - venue St Mary Le Bow Church. I was curious when replying to the personalised invitation. The central London location was handily close to several sites associated with WS but the corporate sponsors could have hired the equally central Guildhall for a fraction of the annual bonus ‘earned’ by one of their junior executives. This mystery was compounded by the stipulation that all attendees wear the apparel of a Jacobean gentleman/woman. I did my best to comply.
It was a quaint old fashioned scene, lit only by candles; no books or posters or any of the usual paraphernalia of a literary event. On a small stage in the nave, three high backed chairs were in place behind a plain wood table. A jug of water and three glasses on top did give the event an air of normality.
The audience were the usual grey haired bookish lot, some of whom I recognised, two whom I knew personally, but the invitation had sworn me to secrecy so I’ll mention no names. All participants were asked in advance to compose the question they would most like to ask WS given the chance and mine had been selected so I was led to the front row with the eight others chosen.
The event chairman, a broadcaster well-known to the public, but not a known Shakespearean welcomed us. His co-chairman, another media personality, was a physicist from Manchester. I shall call them David and Brian. They can always deny their participation.
David welcomed us in his usual charming fashion, asked us to switch off our mobiles and take no photographs on pain of death.
‘Mum’s the word, tonight’ he said, adding ‘Henry VI part 2.’ The game’s afoot, I thought (Henry IV part one).
David confirmed the date as the 451st anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and told us of recent documentary evidence that WS had celebrated his 51st birthday at the Mermaid Tavern, a stone’s throw from our venue, possibly with other members of a famous literary drinking club, the ‘Sireniacal Gentlemen’.
‘This proximity is serendipitous,’ he said. ‘My co-host will explain the reason.’
Brian told us of wormholes, corridors connecting different times and places, previously theoretical but now proven to be common (six occurring in the London area in the past month apparently). Material bodies such as planets or people bend space-time but a substance called anti-matter deflects space-time in an opposite direction and at matter/anti-matter junctions wormholes appear. Scientists are now able to predict their appearance by tracking accumulations of anti-matter. He paused theatrically before stating:
‘A traversable wormhole opened in the crypt of this church thirty minutes ago and will remain open and stable until ten o’clock this evening. It is a door to the London of exactly 400 years ago today.’
‘We’re wasting time then,’ a wit called from the back. ‘Let’s go and wish Shakespeare many happy returns.’ There followed a burst of nervous laughter. David stepped forward again.
‘We don’t need to go anywhere. Brian’s assistant, Lucy, has invited Shakespeare to come to us.’
The audience fell silent. Footsteps could be heard on the stairs and then a man’s voice quoting from Mark’s gospel.
‘And Jesus answering said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings?
There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’
A young woman, fair haired and prettily attired in Jacobean dress appeared from the shadows, followed closely by a man in a black doublet and hose, with opals sewn into his tunic. His physical features were surprisingly similar to the Chandos painting; a neatly trimmed beard and left sided ear-ring. When he spotted us, he kept advancing boldly, ignored David’s outstretched hand, came centre stage and bowed very low. His face was intelligent, bohemian, rakish; a Depp/Rylance hybrid, a pirate-lawyer in muddy boots.
‘Am I arrested? What sort of tribunal is this? he said.
‘You are not arrested, Mr Shakespeare,’ replied David. ‘We are friends. Please sit with us. We have some questions for you.’
‘An inquisition then?’
‘A conversation only. We will pay you for your time.’
‘Forty shillings is my fee plus a kiss from the pretty lips of the girl who invited me here,’ he said.
The terms agreed, the chairman opened the questioning as he took his seat.
Q: ‘Are you feeling well?’
A: ‘No, not well, I own. My son in law, a physician, has diagnosed phlegm and choler and has prescribed syrup of violets and hartshorn jelly for me. In a few days I will return to Stratford to rest. WS then stood, pulled a clay pipe from his pocket, and lit it from one of the candles. The front row of questioners started from the left.
Q: His education? A: The King’s New school, Stratford.
Q: His first play? A: The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Q: His most popular play? A: A midsummer night’s dream.
Q: His own favourite? A: Hamlet.
Q: On the correct spelling of his name? A: No ‘E’ between the K and the S.
Q: On his whereabouts and employment between 1585 and 1592? A: Lancashire, France and the Low countries, but never Italy. Employed as a tutor, wine merchant, wool-trader, musician and actor. He would have added to this list but was unfortunately cut short by our chairman.
Q: The line in King Lear beginning “Swithald-footed” – What does it mean? A: I do not recollect the line.
Q: His greatest inspiration? A: Plutarch, Chaucer, Holinshed. I was puzzled by this as my own view was that he’d copied these authors and doubted they had been much inspiration but it was then my turn.
Q: Why did you collaborate on your more recent works with Mr John Fletcher? This provoked his most thoughtful response. He took a long drag on the pipe.
A: Methinks the little wit I had is thinning; words I had once so nimble and full of subtle flame belong to others now. My best work is done.
And too soon, it was over. David handed him a leather pouch containing the agreed fee. A round of applause began, but at the same moment three policemen appeared at the side-door of the church. A disturbance ensued and I saw Brian nod to Lucy, who immediately took WS by the hand. No one noticed me following them downstairs. Floating at the far end of the crypt the wormhole resembled an enormous old fashioned television screen at the end of transmission, and as WS and Lucy vanished into its crackling greyness I followed and an instant later was standing on the cobbles of a dark street. I called out and they both turned. Lucy was very annoyed.
‘You shouldn’t have followed,’ she said, but WS was pleased I’d done so.
‘What’s that smell?’ I asked him
‘The Fleet ditch,’ he replied.
Dung and other slime made the road slippery and although the street was busy with people and horse drawn carriages, no-one paid us any attention and we were soon at the door of the Mermaid. It was packed full of noisy, rough looking characters at trestle tables, drinking ale from battered pewter tankards. WS led us to a quieter room at the back. Two men were sitting at a fine oak table, drinking wine. One was asleep. The other addressed WS.
‘The rest of the players have gone to the ‘Three Cranes’ and as you can see Ben has drunk too much. Where did you get to?’
‘To a tribunal to be questioned.’ This information was met with a frown.
‘A mysterious congregation,’ said WS ‘of old men and women, all shiny clean and well-fed, who spoke like lawyers, but dressed bizarrely. They were sad and serious, as if life was a burden to them all.’ WS then introduced Lucy and I to John Donne.
‘Well sir, tell us more than your name if you please,’ he said
‘I am from the future,’ I told him.
‘Indeed,’ he said as if that were commonplace, ‘We talk of that often, do we not Will?’
‘Tell us,’ Donne said, ‘Does Raleigh ever find El Dorado?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘because it doesn’t exist. It’s a fable.’
‘Well tell us something that does happen. Something surprising.’ I rubbed my temple for a moment.
‘The puritan’s shut down all theatres for over ten years.’ I didn’t mention that this would be after they both would be dead.
‘Ten years! We are finished, Will,’ he said.
‘No wonder those inquisitors were so sad,’ said WS. ‘Tell us more.’
‘In fifty years a great fire will destroy this city, but it will be rebuilt greater than before. Men have flown in rockets to the moon. America is the most powerful nation on earth.’ When they had stopped laughing, John Donne asked:
‘And my future? May I hope for any esteem?’
‘Your best work is yet to come, your words never far from the lips of men. You will become Dean of St Pauls.’
They have asked that I write my prophesies down and have provided the paper but first I will give this account to Lucy as she is keen to get back. Perhaps I’ll make it back also, perhaps not. I have two new friends and the night is young. WS wants us all to come back to his house in Blackfriars to continue his birthday celebration.
Perhaps in the morning I will buy refreshment from a rosy cheeked milkmaid and dodge the carts delivering ale and hay and coal to take a walk to Chelsea or a boat taxi across the Thames. I hope there are no heads on poles at the southern end of London Bridge. In the afternoon I’ll return to Blackfriars and pay sixpence to witness WS speaking his own lines in Hamlet. He intends to play the ghost himself and has promised me King Lear before he returns to Stratford. In the evenings I’ll watch the city gates being locked and return here to meet the rest of the club. And then perhaps go back to Stratford with him and meet Ann Hathaway and convince WS to publish his first folio himself before he dies. I get the impression he is interested more in the performance of his plays, than in re-reading or recording them but come what will, come what may.
Post script 15th April 2016
The above is a full transcript of what was penned in my presence in the Mermaid tavern last April. I was anxious to leave as ‘Brian’ had warned me the wormhole would be unstable by ten pm. The writer gave me the paper and said he would follow, and when I reached the other side of the wormhole I found Brian waiting anxiously for me. Only thirty minutes passed before the wormhole vanished. But today Brian has informed me that another will form near Stratford on Saturday the 23rd. I have agreed to search for our missing delegate and try to persuade him to return with whatever WS mysteries he has solved. After that day I see no reason for him to stay as for WS there will be no more happy returns.
"Mind the door" said the shopkeeper as Jimmy pushed his way into the shop. He put the bag of clinking bottles on the counter.
"How many this time, you monkey?"
"Only a dozen Mister Wright," Jimmy smiled as he acknowledged the cheerful nickname.
"Lucky for you there's thirsty people hereabouts" said Wright "Now tell me how much you
"That's twelve at tuppence returns, so that's two shillin' "
Each week the same exchange occurred, Jimmy collected empty Corona lemonade bottles and claimed the "Returns" from the shop.
Everyone in Barnsley knew Jimmy. When the war finished, the local authority had a problem finding a place for him. An orphan from the bombing, he became a liability which no family would take on, at that time. Nine years old and small for his age, he was passed round the town several times. It was not deliberate cruelty, but the lack of resources; rationing and austerity made people turn away. He was just another problem too many. He ended up in the children's home, but they couldn't keep track of his whereabouts and soon didn't try. He became his own man and liked it that way.
It got dark as he left the shop and he fingered the two silver coins lying heavy in his trouser pocket. It felt good. Down the street he went, into the fish bar and waited in line for his order of "penny crispings," the local name for the odds and ends left over when the batch of fish and chips had been fried. He scooped the hot bits from the paper cone hungrily. As he sat on the kerb outside, he could hear the voices of people in the queue as they waited their turn.
"She's a miserly old witch," said one man, "I only asked her if she wanted her winders cleanin' and she got huffy wi'me, the old hag!"
"Same as before," said the next man, "Hasn't bin out for years, daft old bag!"
Jimmy guessed they were talking about the old lady at Number 24 -the house with the dirty windows and overgrown front garden - he passed it every day on his way to school, that is, every day he decided to go to school, which was not often.
Next day, he peered at number 24 as he went passed. It seemed as dark and blind as a mole.
Ragged net curtains hung awry at the windows and no light in the hall. He took a quick look down the side of the house to see if any bottles were there.
"Get out of my garden!"
A shrill voice caught him by surprise and he ran back to the front of the house, tripping over himself as he reached the corner. On the step stood an old woman. She had a broom in her hand and held it like a weapon - two hands gripping the handle like a sword. She was thin and grey, dressed in a pinafore of the same colour. Her eyes were red rimmed as if she cried a lot, but she gazed at him fiercely.
"I just wanted your empty bottles," he realized this would not do. "I give 'em to the shop regular." He could think of nothing better at short notice.
"What's your name, boy?" she advanced towards him and he stepped back but she blocked his way to the street.
"Jimmy, Jimmy Fraser."
"Where d'you live then?"
Jimmy guessed she wanted to report him or tell his parents but he quickly gained confidence since he knew nobody cared a jot about him.
"I live in the Home down Surrey Street."
She stopped and leant on the broom looking down at him. He tried a grin to see if that would
work but her expression hardly changed. Then she turned and climbed the front step. When she got to the top, she looked at him and said,
"Well? You better come in and look for yourself"
Jimmy looked past her through the open door. The hall was a dark cavern leading to a flight of stairs.
"I'll be going," he said and began to make his way towards the street, not running but moving as quickly as he could.
She called him back.
"Look! I got you some bottles anyway." She held up three bottles of different sizes. He could see that only one was a tupenny Corona bottle.
He stepped up to her and took all three quickly as if she might snatch him with her withered hands like a witch in a storybook. She nodded and went inside,
As she closed the door she called out, "There'll be more next week."
He ran down Surrey Street towards the High Street and dumped two of the bottles in a bomb site. The Corona bottle he stashed in his secret hiding place.
When he got back to the Home it had gone seven o'clock and the Warden shouted at him for being late, but he didn't care; he was rich, with money in his pocket.
He kept away from number 24 for days while doing his rounds, but something brought him back to the house the following week. Was it the mystery of the old house? Was it a dare he made with himself? Or something to do with the isolation which he shared with the old woman? He persuaded himself he might get more bottles to swop and thought it worth a try. This time, he rang the bell. There was no answer. He rang again and heard the sound of shuffling feet approaching the door.
"Go away!" her voice was shrill but weak.
"I come for the bottles," he said, "you told me to come back."
The door opened and he could see the outline of her frail body against the gloom of the interior.
"Yes," she said "I've got a few here and you can have them."
She turned and he hesitated, then followed her inside. She went into the front room and sat down in a worn old chair and picked up a bag from beside the chair.
"Here you are" and handed him the bag with four bottles in it.
"Them's not all Corona," he said, "I can't swop 'em if they're not Corona."
"Well, that's your job isn't it? You've got to sort them yourself."
He agreed and then in a moment of silence, he looked round the room. On a table beside the chair were two photos of a young man in air force uniform.
"Is that your family?" he said, filling the awkward silence.
"He was called Jimmy, like you, but he didn't collect bottles!"
He picked up the bag and thanked her. She remained in the chair, as if the effort of getting up was too much, and he went out of the house and shut the door.
By the time Friday came round, the Warden discovered he had been to school that week on just two days. He asked for an explanation but Jimmy kept his mouth shut and stood with his hands behind his back.
"This has got to stop!" The man bent down over and stared at Jimmy but the boy looked away as if ignoring him.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you, boy"
The man shouted and flecks of spit formed in the corner of his mouth. Jimmy looked at him.
His eyes show no expression and he said nothing.
"You'll stay in for the whole of the week end - d'you hear? - Now get out!"
Jimmy nodded and left the room.
Saturday came, The Warden went home and the staff slacked off. No one took the trouble to check on Jimmy, so by Sunday afternoon, he slipped out and took his collection to the shop.
"Well," said Mister Wright, "you're late this week. Has the town run dry?"
Jimmy smiled his best cheeky grin, and said, "I was a bit busy this week."
He counted the cash for the bottles and bought himself some biscuits from the broken
Biscuits Tin which were not on ration.
The next week was Wakes week and the town went mad. Every street had a party and the pubs stayed open from 11 in the morning till midnight. Parades and Union Rallies took place every day and the neighbouring towns joined in. Jimmy busied himself, he collected all sorts of bottles -beer bottles - cider bottles and, of course, plenty of Corona bottles. He spent a long time separating the penny and tupenny returns from the rest. Then he did his rounds of the pubs and off licences to collect. He saved the Corona ones till last, knowing that he was sure of his money. He collected his cash and forgot about number 24 till he made his way back to Surrey Street. It had been ten days since he last went there.
He ran up the steps and rang the bell. He rang again and heard the familiar slow steps approach the door.
He called out "It's ok Missus, it's Jimmy!"
She opened the door wide and he saw she had tears in her eyes.
"I thought you'd forgot me," she said, "and I kept your bottles."
She smiled and he realized he had never seen her smile before.
"Well it's been Wakes week an' I've been collecting all over," he said.
"Tell me how many you got," she said.
A strange feeling of pity for her came over him, as if he was her nurse or friend. He had never felt this before. He had found someone who needed him.
"Shall I come in then?" he asked, and she led the way into the parlour where he had been before.
She sat in her old chair and he told her about the fair and the rallies that he'd seen that week. She gazed at him with close attention, her sad eyes wide with interest. When he finished, she pointed to the bag by her chair.
"I expect you don't need these then," she held out the bag to show three Corona bottles inside.
Jimmy grinned and said, "They'll do! I can put them in the shop next week but not today, 'cos he's paid me already."
She made a croaking sound and he realized she was laughing, it must have been something she'd not done for a long time.
"Well, will you be back next week?"
"Of course, this is my regular round now isn't it?"
Again, he saw the glint of tear in her eye and he turned away embarrassed.
"Well, I'll be off. See you next week."
He skipped out of the room and down the steps.
As the weeks went by, he came back to the house on a regular visit. Every time there were Corona bottles to collect and he never asked himself how the frail old lady drank so much lemonade. He lost his fear of the dark house and sat down with her to listen to her stories about her son and the war. Her name was Missus Thomas. He told her about life in the Home and how old he was and when his birthday was due.
The house never changed. There was dust everywhere and occasionally he saw mice in the kitchen, but he didn’t care. Nobody called, except hawkers, and she would peep through the scrappy net curtains and shout at them. Jimmy liked that. She asked him to do little errands and he combined them with his daily rounds so they became part of his regular routine.
When the spring arrived, he spent more hours away from the Home and the Warden reported him to “The Authorities” as a “delinquent.” A council official took him away and he was sent to a Boys Reformatory where they tried to “reform” his character with occasional beatings and confinement.
On the day of his birthday, he decided enough was enough and slipped over the wall.
When he arrived at Number 24, he was surprised to see the front door ajar. He pushed in and called “Missus Thomas” in a loud voice. From the back room a weak cry brought him to the kitchen. Missus Thomas was lying on the floor and held out her hand to him.
“I slipped,” she said,
This particular little girl loved monkeys. Not just liked them, she loved them. She adored everything about them. She had toy monkeys, she read books about monkeys, she watched television programmes about monkeys, she talked endlessly about monkeys. She was a veritable joy to be around, for those with any interest in monkeys.
One Saturday morning in the February of 1981, the girl was watching Multi-Coloured Swap Shop when she saw the most amazing thing ever. So amazing that she stopped talking completely for a whole five minutes; a feat that was never repeated. She stared at the screen, mouth hanging open, tears of joy brimming in her eyes. The object of her sudden and overwhelming desire was on the screen, and appeared to be staying there for the episode. Not Noel Edmonds. To the right of Noel Edmonds was the most beautiful cuddly toy the girl had laid eyes upon in her six years on the planet. It wasn’t just a monkey, no, no, no. It was TWO monkeys. Two monkeys sewn together in a permanent loving embrace. Cuddling monkeys.
Of course the little girl dragged her parents straight over so that they too could bask in the majesty of the cuddling monkeys, a pleading look in her tearful little eyes. Fortunately with her seventh birthday a matter of weeks away, it took only a small amount of badgering for her parents to agree to find cuddling monkeys for her. Unfortunately this was in the days before internet shopping. The monkeys were proving elusive. No Google, no swiping through Amazon Prime options, not even a lazy #AskTwitter to assist.
The parents trudged around shop after shop, looking for the one gift that would make their little monkey obsessed princess truly happy. Monkeys could be found in any toy shop. Monkeys of all shapes, sizes and colours. No twin cuddling monkeys though, and they knew that individual monkeys would not be good enough. They had to be cuddling, like the monkeys Noel had such little interest in when he was sitting next to them.
The couple cast the net further afield, calling friends and family from around the country and begging them to check local toy shops in the vague hope that the cuddling monkeys might exist somewhere. Twin cuddling monkeys were finally found in a small gift shop in Bristol by an uncle on a business trip, and duly entrusted to the postal service.
Finally, the big day arrived. The little girl made a beeline for the gift her exhausted looking parents had tenderly wrapped in glittering purple paper with a matching bow. She gleefully tore the paper to shreds to reveal the slightly shimmering soft brown fur of the most exquisite pair of cuddling monkeys that had ever graced the earth. She loved them with her whole heart immediately, her green eyes drinking in every detail of their beautiful little faces. “I’ll call them Twigley and Bigley!” she proclaimed. Everyone looked confused, but chose not to question the name choices. The rest of the day passed in peaceful happiness, as all birthdays should.
The next day, the little girl realised that the one thing better than a pair of monkeys sewn together was two separate monkeys. She fetched the scissors from her mother’s sewing kit and performed a quick and effective twinectomy.
The moral of this tale is that I’ve always been a bit of an arse, really.