Many Happy Returns

Entry by: macdonald

15th April 2016
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.