I am juliet, p.11

I Am Juliet, page 11


I Am Juliet

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  My words were smothered as a grimy hand covered my mouth. I tried to bite, but he held me too fast. The first man was still grinning. He untied his hose as the other held me down, his stinking body sitting on me, his filthy hands at my mouth.

  Why did no one come to help me? Hadn’t the people in the inn heard me cry out? Perhaps they heard pleas for help most nights. Had the poor man who had lost his head cried for help before the Montagues sliced it off?

  Footsteps ran towards me. A voice called out, ‘That you, Gripper?’ It was a woman’s voice, rough, a woman of the streets, maybe even the tavern wench whose laughter I had heard that Sunday.

  ‘You go back to your business, woman.’

  ‘What happens outside this tavern is my business. You leave her alone. She’s just a girl.’

  Gripper grinned, showing two yellow teeth. ‘A rich one.’

  ‘An’ you got her gold. Be off with you or I’ll tell Big Margie. You’ll get cold tongue instead o’ hot pie if she hears o’ this.’

  Suddenly the filthy hands were gone. The weight lifted off me too. I heard the men’s feet tramp away, carrying the chair that could take me to Mantua, the coins in Nurse’s purse, the pearls.

  I pushed myself to my feet. I would walk to Mantua. I would eat roots and leaves, and drink from the streams. I looked at my rescuer. Her dress was mud-coloured, and so was she. She could have been my age, or forty.

  ‘Thank you. Oh, thank you,’ I told her.

  She grinned. I saw she had three teeth to Gripper’s two. ‘Oh, you ain’t got no need to thank me yet, duckie. Off with that skirt. And those sleeves.’

  ‘I … I don’t understand.’

  ‘Saved you from rape, didn’t I? And the pox, which lasts longer. I know them men. I reckon you owes me more than your pretty clothes.’

  ‘And if I don’t give them to you?’

  I could run from her. I was young, strong. She looked half-starved.

  ‘Then I give you this.’ A knife glinted in the flicker of the tavern’s lamps. ‘I’ll cut your face first, will I? Pretty thing like you. No man’s goin’ to want you to wife with a scarred face. And I’ll cut off a finger, then a slice across your breast.’

  My fingers fumbled at my skirt, pulled off my sleeves. The wind bit cold, carrying with it stink and hopelessness. I hesitated at my last petticoat and my camisole.

  ‘All,’ she said. Her voice was rock.

  ‘Please …’ It was all I had, a plea to a tavern drab.

  The woman-girl hesitated. She slipped off her ragged cloak. ‘Fair trade, eh? You get your life and this. I get your silks.’

  I clasped her dirty cloak and turned my back, my hands trembling. I slipped the cloak over me, covering my nakedness as the last petticoat fell to the dirt. The cloak covered my breasts as I undid the ribbons of my camisole. It hid his ring, my Romeo’s ring.

  No hope of reaching Mantua now. But I still had his ring. And I had Friar Laurence’s plan.

  I would live. And we would be together.

  My hands shook. My body felt like it had been ripped by icy claws. I stopped, and shut my eyes till I saw Romeo’s face within the darkness. I would not cry. I could not go on if I began to cry.

  I opened my eyes and felt for the garden wall. A foothold, and another … Slowly I hauled myself up onto the cushion of my petticoat. If the glass ripped my flesh, I did not feel it. The wind mocked my nakedness. Only last night, its touch had been warm, the fingers of love. The wind did not care. Even the friar would not stand and admit he had married us. The roses were showy skeletons below me in the garden. The stench of muck covered their sweetness. No one was true. Except my love — our love. It was the one thing pure in the whole world.

  My trembling fingers found a tree branch. I had to force them to hold on. Had to force my body to move. My foot reached for a lower branch and missed. My body slid. The cloak tore, and so did my flesh. But all I felt was cold, not pain. And then the ground, hard against my hip and shoulder. I lay there. I could not even breathe.

  At the other end of the garden a voice shouted, ‘Who goes there?’ Darkness moved within the darkness. A house guard.

  I found a breath and called, ‘’Tis I, Juliet.’

  I thought the guard would come closer; see my nakedness, the muck, my hair. But he knew my voice; thought, perhaps, I was wandering among the roses, dreaming of tomorrow’s wedding.

  ‘Goodnight, my lady.’ He hesitated, then added, ‘And all joy for your wedding tomorrow. Your lord father is giving every man a golden guinea and a keg of ale to drink your health.’

  What use were wedding wishes to me now? But joy — yes, I could accept that wish. Tears stung my cheeks, or was it blood?

  I said softly, ‘Remember me in your prayers.’

  ‘Yes, my lady.’ The guard sounded puzzled that a girl should be thinking of prayer before her wedding. Perhaps he heard the exhaustion in my voice.

  I let out my breath as his shadow travelled across the gravel to the next courtyard.

  I glanced at the balcony. Was the ladder still there? Had Nurse looked in on me, and seen it, and drawn it up? Was she even now confessing all to my mother?

  No. The ladder hung there, limp and waiting. I crawled till I could reach a branch, to help me to my feet. At last I stood upright, the stinking cloak around me. I walked, step after step.

  It took me a year to climb. Ten years. My bones were milk jelly. After an eternity I leaned over the railing and half-fell onto the balcony.

  I let the stinking cloak drop to the floor. I looked at it, then slowly bent and picked it up. I staggered to the privy hole and threw it down.

  I washed in the ewer. I washed and washed to try to remove the stink from my skin, my hair. I dared not call for more water. At last I washed with rosewater, even my hair. Finally the stink was gone.

  I was too tired to wait for my hair to dry. Let it dry while I slept. My fingers shook. I looked at them: scratched, the nails broken. They were not mine. No wonder they did not obey me.

  I managed to pull up the golden wedding skirt, to pin it onto the shreds of chemise. I slipped my arms into the ripped sleeves without bothering to pin them. What would Nurse and the Joans think when they saw the ripped dress, my torn fingers, the bruises and scratches upon my body? Would they think I had stripped off my wedding dress, then flung myself around the room?

  I didn’t care. My body could do no more. My only hope was poison.

  Nurse and the Joans would dress me to lie in state in death. They would arrange my hair. They would do it all. When I woke in my love’s arms, his cloak would keep me warm, and his love too.

  Sleep. All I had to do now was sleep. But this would be no sleep. This would be death, until I woke.

  I lifted the vial. Its opening stared at me, a single evil eye. What if the poison didn’t work? Would I be married tomorrow morning?

  No! The knife lay on the table next to my bed. Its blade gleamed in the candlelight. I touched its tip with a clumsy finger and watched a drop of blood fall. I had doubted I could kill myself in Friar Laurence’s cell. I had no doubts now. Better the knife than a double sin: bigamy and betrayal of my love.

  I uncorked the vial. It smelled of moss, of bones and secret tombs and wolf lairs. What if Friar Laurence had truly given me poison? Perhaps he wanted me dead, to save himself?

  No. The friar was a good man. Strong enough to marry us, even if not strong enough to admit it. I trusted him. Perhaps I did not have the strength to doubt him.

  I thought of the vault. Centuries of Capulet bones lay there. Tybalt’s body was there too, festering in his shroud. Did the spirits of the dead haunt their tombs at night? Would I wake to hear them screaming?

  Nurse said the shrieks of the dead sent people mad. Would I go mad? Would I dance with Tybalt’s body, as we had danced when I was small? Or take some kinsman’s bone to be a weapon as I saw Tybalt’s ghost seek out my Romeo? ‘Stay, Tybalt!’ I would cry. ‘Romeo is mine. I will not let you hurt him!’
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  The thought of Romeo steadied me.

  ‘Romeo, I come,’ I whispered. ‘This do I drink to thee.’

  The poison tasted of swamps. Once again I felt strange: as if I saw myself in endless mirrors; as though I had done this a thousand times, a million.

  I threw myself back upon the bed. Nurse would straighten any creases when they came to lay me out. I tried to think of Romeo, galloping on his horse from Mantua. I tried to imagine his strong arms about me, his warmth. When I woke, I would not be alone, but with my love.

  But all I felt was darkness, and the cold, seeping through my blood.

  Chapter 22

  I knew I was not dead because I dreamed. I dreamed of Romeo, galloping from Mantua, his horse all flecked with foam. There were tears upon his cheeks. Why was he weeping? We would be together now. He should be riding here with joy.

  Noises, half-heard, and yet my body could not move. Even my eyelids were made of lead. My body, lying on something hard. Cold air, the smell of death.

  I longed for dreams, but now I was not asleep, nor alive, nor dead. There were no dreams, no sound, no sight; nothing but the scent of flowers, meat and bone.

  And then a voice. Romeo’s voice, at last!

  I had to move to meet it. I had to speak. But I could neither speak nor move.

  ‘Oh, my love, my wife,’ he whispered. ‘Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty …’

  Why did Romeo talk of death? Was he talking to Tybalt’s corpse? I had to wake! I had to speak to him, to touch him! I could not.

  ‘Here’s to my love!’ he whispered. ‘Oh true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.’

  I heard his words, half-dreaming. I felt his lips, so warm on mine. I tried to meet them, to lift my hand to his. I felt Romeo’s body, beside me once again, his dear body, so near and so familiar. But my body would not move, not even for my love. The blackness held me, and the stench of bones.

  And then, at last, I dreamed. I dreamed of a girl in love, standing on a balcony. I dreamed of the moon smiling on the rose garden. It was a good dream. I did not want to leave it. I would keep it to me, dream it as many times as the sky has stars. That girl’s love would come to her. They would have two nights of love, one of whispered words and one of passion.

  Slowly the dream faded, bringing back the darkness and the smell of bone.

  I knew before I woke.

  ‘Where is my Romeo?’ My voice was a shadow’s whisper, not my own.

  And there he was. His face lay next to mine, just as I had dreamed it. I touched his lips with mine. They were warm. I stroked his face. His still face. I whispered, ‘I am here. I am alive, my love.’

  But Romeo was dead. I knew it before the friar told me so.

  Friar Laurence stood next to me in the dark crypt, his face pale in the light of a single candle, his hands trembling, his mouth moving. He spoke as I lay there on the bier, hoping my body’s warmth might seep into the cooling flesh of my husband. Gone, I thought. His light, his warmth. Our life together. Dead. Vaguely I heard the friar’s words. Romeo had never got the message. He had galloped here, thinking I had died.

  I thought: I should be screaming anguish. Should be tearing at my hair, my clothes. My wedding gown, dressed for Paris, worn in the tomb for my true husband. Romeo, my love.

  The friar’s voice was high and scared. ‘He must have drunk poison. He must have stabbed the Earl to death too.’

  So the friar had come to sit with me in case I woke in darkness. Instead of just a sleeping girl he found my dead husband, and the Earl of Paris, dead as well.

  Words, words. So many words, filling the stinking tomb. Vaguely I was aware of bodies, bones, skulls and moss, the gabbling of the frightened friar. What did they matter? All my world was Romeo now. I sat up, then wished I hadn’t. My body no longer felt my husband’s next to mine. It felt wrong, to be even so little apart now. I pushed back my hair, trembling.

  ‘Come.’ The friar tugged at my hand. ‘I’ll dispose of thee among a sisterhood of holy nuns.’

  I had an instant’s image of myself in old age, kneeling among other nuns. My prayers would be worth nothing. Even then, in fifty years, a hundred, my thoughts would be of Romeo. There was no place for me in any convent.

  I turned and took my loved one’s hand. Already it was cool.

  There was a noise outside. Men’s voices. The guards must have seen the tomb unlocked, or someone had told them of a noise inside.

  ‘The watch is coming!’ the friar whispered. ‘I dare no longer stay!’

  Poor frightened friar. He had married us, plotted with us. Perhaps he would be banished, if his part in this was discovered.

  My hope of ending the war between our houses had vanished with my Romeo. But the friar still had a life to live, out in the world. There was none for me. I could never inhabit the shell of the obedient daughter now.

  ‘Then go,’ I told him. ‘Get thee hence, for I will not away!’

  I heard the friar’s footsteps running in the dark. Heard the scuttle of a rat. Once I would have screamed at that.

  No use for plots now. There was nothing I could do or say to change this moment. My future, gone. The nights, warm with lovers’ whispers, lost; the days, with laughter from our children, gone. I had lost not only the man I had wed but the man he would grow to be; my Romeo with a grey beard, and I with silver in my hair, wandering together down life’s hill as we had climbed it together. Two great houses united because two lovers once their troth had plighted.

  But my Romeo was dead. Our love was always of the night, with only the moon to give it life. And so love ended here, in the darkness of the tomb.

  No. Love must not end! Nor could I bear to be taken from this tomb, away from Romeo. There was still one way we could be together … in death. Our families would be married in their grief.

  It was I who had challenged Romeo to marry me. Now I must have the courage to join him here forever.

  I opened my love’s fingers, took the poisoned cup from his grasp. I lifted it to drink. It was dry; no friendly drop left so I could die after he had drunk his fill.

  I kissed his lips again. Cold lips. Sweet lips. No poison for me there.

  Another noise outside. A man. Two men.

  I lifted up Romeo’s dagger. It was warm from his body, the only warmth left of him for me to know. I pressed it to my heart. Romeo, my love, I am the sheath for your dagger now.

  The tip pierced the cloth of gold, then stopped. I pushed harder. The metal met flesh, then bone, and stopped. I felt a trickle of blood, cold as the tomb’s air. How could it be so hard to kill a girl? Men killed other men each day. If they could do it, so could I.

  I leaned down, till the dagger was between my heart and knees, then pushed down further. I felt the dagger resist, then slide.

  The pain was … pain. I had expected pain. I did not expect the cold. My toes, my face, my heart, were torn with ice; each breath as though a bullock weighed it down. The golden dress was wet with blood.

  I took another breath, but could not find it. Shadows gathered at my eyes. I lay back upon the bier. I felt again the body of my husband. ‘Romeo,’ I whispered. ‘I am here.’ My fingers found his hand. Cold skin against cold skin. I shut my eyes, and felt him smile at me.

  We seemed to fly, though still in darkness. Words drifted around us, from faces not yet here. My father, crying; Romeo’s father, dressed in tears as well; his mother, dead of heartbreak; my mother, sobbing as her heart broke. Too late, I thought vaguely, they have learned they loved us. Too late they’ve learned in grief what they should have learned from love.

  Enmity can vanish like the darkness once you look at what you share.

  I knew it all, and yet knew nothing as my flesh grew cold like his.

  Weep for us, my spirit cried, for never was there a story of more woe, than this of Juliet, dying with her Romeo.

  Chapter 23


/>   Jam lay in bloody puddles on the stage. Rob stood behind the curtain, waiting to go on. He would have to scrub the floor after the performance, as well as wash the jam and wine splodges from the costumes before he went to bed tonight.

  His hand trembled on the curtain. Only a master actor could play this part. He was just a boy.

  He could hear the audience muttering, the yell of an orange seller, the cracking of walnuts, the cries as friends greeted each other from the balconies. Nicholas strode across the stage as Romeo, plotting with Simon as Benvolio to sneak into the Capulets’ ball.

  The actors exited past him, into the wings. Simon patted Rob’s cheek briefly as he passed. ‘It’s going well, lad. They liked the sword fight. You’ll be right.’

  Rob tried to nod. His cheeks felt hot under the white lead paint. Only the beetroot gave his lips and cheeks colour. His wig itched. His thick velvet dress was heavy, the whalebone so stiff he hoped he wouldn’t trip. It stank too. A rat had made a nest in one of the costume trunks, and died when it was shut up.

  His heart beat louder than a drum.

  Lady Capulet: Nurse, where’s my daughter? Call her forth to me?

  Nurse: Now, by my maidenhead — at twelve year old — I bade her come.

  He couldn’t do it. They’d throw walnut shells at him. The play would close. The players would tramp the roads, like pedlars.

  Nurse: Where’s this girl? What, Juliet?

  Terror bit him, gluing his silk slippers to the floor.

  And suddenly she was there, or she was him, or he was her. It didn’t matter. Somehow his feet became her feet. She glided onto the stage, her face downcast, her eyes glancing obediently at her mother.

  ‘How now! Who calls?’ His voice. Her voice.

  The audience were silent, their nutcrackers and oyster knives forgotten on their laps.

  And all at once he understood what Simon had told him during his first week with the company: ‘Words are all very well, boy. But a true actor can bring the crowd to tears without a word. That is our mystery, lad. The playwright puts down the words. But the audience that watches — they’re ours.’

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