There’s a small crucifix over the desk; Jesus, long limbed and handsome of face, looking down benevolently on the scattered genius of Kit’s many papers. Will finds his eyes drawn back to it, again and again. Finds himself thinking of the symbolism, as no doubt its creator intended. The serenity of that fictional gaze, the beauty of the muscled limbs, seeming so at odds with the wounded hands and beaded blood across the smooth brow. Will finds himself wondering how Kit can write, under that gaze.
The bed is opposite the desk. In this room, Kit must live his whole life with those placed carven eyes watching. The thought of it makes Will shudder, not unpleasantly, not entirely. Kit notices, touches his arm.
‘Don’t think I’ve ever fucked a Catholic,’ Will says, without really meaning to.
Kit’s eyebrows go up.
‘Unless you always talk about faith between the sheets, how in God’s green earth do you think you’d know? ‘Tis not written on a man’s prick, you know.’
Will has the grace to look uncomfortable. Kit sighs, brushes a hand down his face. His hands are rough. Once, Will might have thought that a writer - a university man – could keep his hands soft, as if writing were not an honest man’s toil. Now, writers’ calluses are familiar, both inside and out, on the skin of his hands and against the skin of his face, his chest...
‘Besides which, who says I’m a Catholic?’ Kit says
Will shrugs. ‘People. People say things.’
‘People say many things, Will,’ Kit says. ‘Words are dangerous, as you well know.’ His eyes follow Will’s to the crucifix on the wall. ‘Leave God out of it,’ he says, hands tangling into the hair at the nape of Will’s neck. ‘Leave it well alone.’
And Will thinks of another rumour, perhaps more dangerous still.
But he leaves it unspoken, and soon all thoughts turn to other things.
Later, their naked bodies are tangled together, and his head lies in the crook of Kit’s arm, and they fit with each other in the embrace as tight as a true written line of poetry locked to a scheme of rhyme and form; and despite everything Will still finds himself wondering what sort of a man could live out every moment of his intimate life under the pious gaze of those wooden eyes.
The next time, Will takes Kit back to his rooms; though it turns out that the scattered papers of his own half-formed brave new worlds prove to be companions almost as intimidating in such matters as Kit’s Messiah.
September. Not Kit’s favourite month, not in London. The first autumn rains have not yet washed the stench of high summer from the city streets; it’s not yet cold enough that the city can breathe easy. October will be a respite, maybe, before the bitterness of winter sets in. Candles aren’t such a worry, in October; nor fingers too cold and stiff for writing.
It will have been a difficult summer in London, for players. There’s been rumour that disease will force the theatres shut. Kit’s glad to have been out of town; tense, now, with the anxiety of return. Maybe winter will be easier; but the mere rumour of disease may have been enough to keep the houses half empty, and it’s hard to go into the bitterest time of the year without the surety of a good summer behind you. Kit’s aware of the weight of his own pocket, today; well lined to keep the coins from clinking, there’s no sense asking for trouble.
With money in hand, it is easy for a writer to find inspiration, drinking in the company of others, writing long into the night, not fretting the cost of wax or lamp oil.
Back in London for the winter, seeing the raggedness of the playbills, and he’s suddenly well aware of the advantages of his alternative sources of income. Though there’s little surety about that way of life, either. Still, he supposes that tonight, if he wants the good natured company of his fellow players, the drinks will be on him, while he has the coin to hand.
He turns down a narrower alley still, between overhanging houses. London is a city of deep foundations and strange, mismatched buildings so tall they are like to block out the sun from the sky. Sometimes it seems improbable that the things ever stay standing, so piecemeal are they built up. You cannot see where one builder’s efforts leave off and another’s begins; like a fool’s bright cloak, cut from coloured scraps and all but unable to keep out the wind.
Nimble of foot as a stage man must be, keeping his boots almost free of refuse, he makes his way into a familiar inn, hoping to see familiar faces there.
When Kit walks in, heads turn. It’s something in the way he stands, perhaps. Something in the way he dresses, certainly. Cloth a little more expensive than you might expect, worn a little more casually than you’ve often seen. Kit has money, sometimes, and he spends it if not wisely then well. The cut of the cloth is always good, though rarely the latest fashion. Sometimes, looking closely, you’ll see that breeches are wearing thin at the knees or the jerkin about to fray at the collar. Mostly, you won’t see, though; you’ll be too busy noticing the fine shape of his calf through almost-too-daring hosen, or way his unlaced shirt shows off the line of his collarbone and the soft flesh at his throat.
At least, that’s what Will’s noticing, when he’s looking that closely.
There’s nothing obscene. Nothing tasteless. And nothing too careful about it, either. It’s slapdash. His hair falls across his face. There’re wine stains at his cuffs, and ink stains.
Kit dresses to be looked at. Kit stands to be looked at. And so, when Kit walks in, heads turn. Will’s head turns.
He doesn’t watch him. Not exactly. He bends over the paper he’s working on. Something that like as not will never become a play, the words of his poetry dying a stunted death as he tries to fit them to form and scene and character upon the endless tyranny of the blank page. Kit will come over in his own time; or he won’t. And he’ll say where he’s been all this time; or more likely, he won’t.
He has money today. Will can tell. He’s not flashing it, not exactly, but he’s being generous. Will can tell, because there are people all around him, shouting and laughing, and touching him, on the arms, on the back, pressing close. His face is shining, eyes bright with drink and laughter; and perhaps the relief of homecoming, though perhaps that is only the stuff of Will’s imagination.
He runs a hand through his hair. He contemplates, for a moment, putting his papers away and going to join the throng. It does not appeal, not truly. He looks away, writes a word down, crosses through three more.
Kit comes and jostles his arm, later. There is small talk, none of the questions that matter. Kit, as much as Will, is like to save important conversations for when there are fewer people around. Still, he asks the inevitable question.
‘How goes the writing?’
Will grimaces. ‘As well as always.’
Kit laughs, uproariously, and other people are laughing too, and Will’s cheeks burn.
‘That badly, then?’ Kit says, when he can get the words out. Will ducks his head.
‘There’s something in the air,’ Kit says, and his face is suddenly serious as only a drunk man’s can be. ‘No one can write, Will. Not this time of year. Not a year like this. Give it time, perhaps the words will come. ’ And Will makes to scoff, to mention the names on the playbills of this season’s new works; but something in Kit’s face stops him. Kit’s face, and the fact that it’s true – the words won’t come; and he can’t make sense of it, because making words perform their double edged dance at his will and for his pleasure is what he does and who he is and he knows, somewhere deep in his soul, that he can write plays, good plays, maybe even great plays.
And maybe Kit, with his customary carelessness and drunken flair, is articulating something important in that infuriating way of his. Maybe his time will come.
He’s half surprised when Will is still there as the evening wears itself away. And then Will is at his elbow as he is leaving, and suddenly he is not surprised at all. He thinks about shaking Will’s hand away – he’s nimble on his feet, as a stage man needs must be, and he can hold his drink too. He thinks about shaking Will’s hand away, and then doesn’t.
‘What do you do?’ Will asks, quietly, as if he’s hoping not to be heard. ‘What do you do, when it’s this time of year, when it’s this kind of year, and the words won’t come?’
‘You wouldn’t want to do what I do,’ Kit says.
Kit shakes his head.
‘Politics,’ he says, and feels a great grey tide come over him at the thought of it. ‘Politics, of a sort. The words don’t come any easier, but my pockets are well-lined, for the moment.’
The words don’t come any easier, though it has inspired his writing, on occasion. He knows the colour of blood by moonlight and candlelight. He has learned in his flesh and bones new metaphors for fear; a new understanding of time, the way seconds can stretch before you like the open maw of hell. This, he does not tell Will, though he is thinking of it even as they stagger their way up the narrow stairs to his chambers, thinking of it as he crushes Will’s body against the closed door and kisses his mouth, hungrier than he had realised for the kindness of human touch.
Kit sleeps, face to the wall, shutting him out. For himself, sleep has fled with the first light of day. There was tension in Kit’s body last night; anger, almost; and now Will is awake, and the bed feels too narrow a space to be shared.
It is not done, to read a man’s papers. It is intimacy beyond that which Kit has invited – or perhaps merely allowed – him here to partake of here tonight. And yet, there they lie, scattered across the desk, a wanton invitation to the touch of his eyes.
He goes over to the desk. To write. Or at least, to sit and stare at a scrap of his own paper. Not to read. Not to pry. Not to steal Kit’s parchment and ink, still less his ideas.
But Kit has always turned heads; and his writing, too, catches the eye. In spite of himself, Will reads.
Beloved John to the Christ Incarnate
Incarnate Love, now to my bosom pressed,
Oh Love Divine, thou lovest as a Man;
Through love my mortal flesh in sin thou bles’t,
Through mortal flesh, transcendent, then began
To turn, with sweet caress and lover’s kiss,
My thoughts to heaven, my soul from grip of hell,
The nature of my sin to immortal bliss,
My heart from earthly things with yours to dwell;
Behold Incarnate Love unmarked by sin
Yet feels the sweeter prick of Love within
It takes but a moment to read. The world seems to shift. Will can feel his heart beat faster.
He should have noticed Kit’s movement behind him. He should have heard Kit shift. But, for those brief moments there was nothing in the world besides himself and the words on the page; that image – Christ! – long limbed and handsome of face, and breathtakingly, painfully human. Then Kit’s hand is on his shoulder, and he jumps, pulls away from the contact, and Kit has seen which words it is that Will has trailed his eyes over, and he snatches the paper away. For a moment, Will is scared that he will crumple the thing or even throw it on the fire. But his face is impassive, and after a moment, he merely lays the sheet down again upon the chaotic desk, stroking the creased paper smooth.
‘Not Catholic, Will,’ he says, after a long silence. ‘Not Atheist. Merely...’ he spreads his hands. ‘What you see.’
And Will’s throat is dry, too dry to make any answer; and his heart is beating so fast against his chest that surely Kit can feel through the damp press of his shirt and skin.
‘It needs a response,’ Will hears himself saying. ‘It tells only half the tale.’ And behind him, Kit is surprised to laughter, and his hand is suddenly gentle against the side of Will’s neck.
‘Nay,’ Kit says. ‘I would not dare put words into that mouth; not any words, least of all those I might desire. Some figures speak best with their silence.’
Theatre used to be different. Kit’s grandfather told him stories. No players, not so long ago. Cobblers, tailors, men of trade, they put on plays in the streets. Telling the same stories, over and over again. Bible stories. Christ, played by butchers and brewers, year after year. Embodied, right there in the town square. Masked, and present, and touchable.
Church put a stop to it. Some things are too powerful for plays.
In poetry, he can feel God’s presence. But sometimes it feels as though he only knows how to stage God’s absence.
Bell, book and candle. Candle, book and bell.
The seconds stretch away before him like the maws of Hell.
Kit sits at his desk and begins to write.
There’s magic in words. Will’s always known it. Magic to transport, to transform.
He treads the boards with a new spring in his step; word become flesh, before a laughing, noisy crowd, beneath an open O of sky.
He scrawls on his hoarded scraps of parchment, and slowly, painfully, things begin to take form.
The words come.
And the rest is silence.