Chapter 1: A Safe Bet
I remember the first time I saw her. The Great White Elephant's granddaughter. Half her teeth gone and her hair following swiftly after, and yet there they were, dozens of the handsomest men in Europe bowing and scraping and 'Gloriana' this, and 'Belphoebe' that, and 'fairest continent of beauty' (which they nicked from me, by the way. Well, sort of.)
I was just as bad, mind. I wasn't expecting her to call me over. But when she held out her filthy hand for me to kiss, I knelt just like the rest of them, and compared her to a summer's day. (For the record, she was more lovely and more temperate.)
"I have something for you," she whispered.
"Oh aye?" I said
She frowned. "You've changed," she said. "What happened to your arm?"
"Too much wanking to the miniature picture of you I keep in my codpiece," was how I didn't reply, but instead gave the usual story about the tiger.
"Oh dear," she said. "Well, meet me in the Scarlet Chamber before supper."
Now, six months of being Shakespeare had taught me how to find out things like where the Scarlet Chamber is, so that wasn't a problem. Nor was finding out what time royal supper took place. No. The problem what this bint everyone else thought of as Elizabeth the First, by the Grace of God Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith et bloody cetera, but I thought of as Ugly Betty, Countess of Richmond, wanted from me.
I've done worse things for the sake of survival than stick my prick into a geriatric cunt, so I wasn't worried about that. No. I was worried about the usual 'I'm not actually Shakespeare' slip-ups which could normally be smoothed over with a liberal application of ale or sack instead resulting in my head being swiftly parted from my shoulders. I'd been in the royalty business for long enough to know that you don't get to sit on a throne for forty years without a nose for things being not quite right, and the ruthlessness to make sure such things quickly became not quite alive.
The Scarlet Chamber was... scarlet. Scarlet rugs, scarlet curtains, portraits of scarlet-cheeked noblemen wearing scarlet doublets and scarlet hose. There was too much gilt. In my day, royalty made do with the same kind of furniture as common folk, just more of it in better quality with fancier carvings. But I suppose that when you're descended from a Wardrobe Keeper, you have a thing or two to prove.
She was waiting for me, draped on a couch, with a distractingly handsome page hovering by her feet.
"Here," she said, handing me a bundle of papers. "I didn't know what to call it, so I called it Whatever You Want to Call It. It's a comedy."
"Thank you," I said, wondering what was expected of me.
"I liked Henry IV," she continued. "You're getting better, you know. Soon you won't need me."
That's when I twigged - or mostly twigged - but I didn't let my surprise show. Instead I bowed. "Your Majesty," I said. "I will always need you. You are like the sun, without whose light poor plants like me may never flourish."
"I do hope there's going to be a 'Part II'," she continued. "I should love to see more of that Falstaff of yours."
That Falstaff of mine. Say what you want about the Doctor, he does have some bloody good ideas. Clarrie would have been tickled to know he was a favourite to a queen, even a usurping one.
Chapter 2: Bringing Home My Bacon
Say what you want about the Doctor, he does have some bloody good ideas. Not least of which was looking up Francis Bacon; philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author, and extremely good shag. As we lay in bed one morning, I mentioned Ugly Betty's suggestion.
"Henry the Fourth Part Two?" he said. "I don't see why not. Capitalise on the success of Part One. It's a shame we killed off Hotspur–"
"We didn't kill him," I pointed out. "It was Prince Hal. Bloody Lancastrians."
Francis laughed. "You and your Lancastrians. How come you've got such a chip on your shoulder–"
"If you'd let me finish," he continued. "I was just wondering why you get so exercised about things that happened last century."
"That's not what you said," I replied. "You said how come I've got a chip on my shoulder. I get it. Making fun of my shoulder. Ha bloody ha. I've known your sort before."
Chapter 3: A Vere-y Good Title
"Can you think where you might know him from?" said Ned De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, once I'd read the scene in front of me, shouting to be heard over the tavern din. "It's Burghley," he continued, without giving me a chance to reply. "Would you believe that when I was courting his daughter he actually said some of those things to her?"
"Where is it supposed to go in the play?" I asked, wondering whether the entire English aristocracy was in on this 'Shakespeare' game.
Ned shrugged. "Near the beginning," he said. "Maybe between the wedding and scene with the dog."
"I'm still not sure about the dog," I replied.
"Well I'm still not sure about the title," said Ned. "How about Hammet? Or Hampet? Oh, and I've started another soliloquy. Listen!" He cleared his throat: "To be alive or not to be alive, aye, there's the point..."
"It needs work," I said. He looked crestfallen. "But we've got time. We need to get Henry IV Part 2 out, and maybe another comedy before the audiences will be ready for tragedy."
"Any ideas for the comedy?"
"As a matter of fact," I said. "I would very much like your advice." I whipped out Whatever You Want to Call It and placed it on the ale-sodden table in front of us. He flipped through it. "For a start," he said, "the title has to go. Too long. And a heroine called Rosicrucia? Puhlease. You've been spending too much time with Frankie Bacon again, haven't you?"
I confessed that 'Rosicrucia' had been his addition. It was better than Ugly Betty's 'Radegunda', however.
"How about Rosalind?" he suggested. "And for the title... Maybe What You Will? Or... I know! As You Like It!"
"Not bad" I said, storing away What You Will for future use. "Yes, I might change that. You're not changing the hero's name though." Orlando. After Ugly Betty's beautiful page.
Chapter 4: Anne Other Dee-sastrous Idea
"You're not changing the hero's name though," said the letter from my wife, enclosed with yet another draft manuscript. My wife. Now, that was something I found hard to wrap my head around. She was another Anne too, and we'd - they'd - had a boy who'd died at the age of eleven, like my little Neddy. "I'm determined our son will live forever as Hamnet, Prince of Denmark."
I rubbed my temples. This Shakespeare was even more complicated than I thought. Hamnet was a collaboration between Anne Shakespeare (née Hathaway) and the Earl of Oxford, but I had to make each of them think that I was their co-author. As You Like It was being written by... well, everyone as far as I could make out. Even young Orlando had contributed the odd line here or there.
There was a knock on the door. I got up from the breakfast table, and peered out to reveal, standing on the doorstep, an extraordinary-looking old man: wizened like a prune, with a long white beard ending with a point somewhere near his codpiece.
"Hello," I said.
"Will!" he said. "May I come in?"
"I suppose so," I said.
"I say," he said, eyeing my strawberry jam. "That looks rather good. I haven't breakfasted yet. May I...?"
"Now," he said. "I've had another idea. It's about a wizard who lives on an island with his daughter."
"Right?" I said.
"So you're interested?" He beamed. "Oh Will, I can't tell you how grateful I am! It was so disheartening when you shot down the one about the wizard who lives in a castle with his sister. Or the one about the wizard who lives in a cave with his aunt. Or the one about the wizard who lives in a forest with his cow. I'll get writing straight away. Now, what are my chances of a small advance?"
Chapter 5: Kit Form Script
What are my chances of a small advance?
Another day, another letter, another author.
Italy is still fabulous. The weather is beautiful, the tobacco pure and the boys simply divine. I really do recommend faking your own death and coming here if you ever get tired of the smoke. But it is a bit heavy on the old pocket, hence the bold request.
On the Hamnet question, I'm afraid I really do agree with Neddy. How about Hamfet, or Hamget?
Remember the one about the physician who heals a king and then falls in love with a princess? I've been doing some more work on it, and have had a bit of help.
Which brings me neatly on to the main point of this letter.
We've been sussed. I have no idea who by. He just turned up on my doorstep one day: clearly English, slim, blond hair, and one of those faces you can only really describe as 'pleasant' and 'open'. Perhaps a little old for my tastes, but I invited him in anyway. Turns out he was immune to my charms. Said he was here on business, a fellow writer, researching a book he called "The Doctor, Who Discovers Historical Mysteries: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" Something like that.
Anyway, he promised to keep quiet if I told him the truth, so I did. I also gave him your address, so you can probably expect a visit in the next few weeks.
And the girl he was with had an idea. She persuaded me to make the physician a lady, and the princess a prince. I'm not sure. Have a look at the enclosed scenes and let me know what you think.
Oh yes, one more thing. He suggested a title for the one about the lady physician: The Ending Stays the Same. I had a bit of a think, and it's got potential, but how about something more positive: All's Well that Ends Well?
Let me know what you think.
Your very loving friend
I put down the letter. Oh great. Just what I needed. The moment I start to feel I'm on top of my new life, he swans in and messes things up again. Bloody typical. And it looks like I owe that lass an apology: though I hate to admit it, England seems to be flourishing with a bird on the throne; even an ugly bird with a Wardrobe Keeper for a great great grandfather, a usurper for a grandfather and a psychopath for a father. All's well that ends well? I get out a pen. Maybe I do do jokes after all. The lady physician wins her prince's hand, but not his heart, and it ends with their marriage, because that's where all comedies end. And all's well if the ending stays the same.