In an interview on 6 Music the other day, Phoebe Waller-Bridge likened talking about your writing to ‘drinking your own bathwater’. Everyone should probably listen to and live by everything she says so I am loathed to do much introducing or picking apart of what I’m going to share in this post. But then again, isn’t talking about writing the raison d’etre of this blog and hopefully the group if it gets off the ground? Hmmm… She’s given me a lot to think about, has that Fleabag…
Alright, so suffice it to say this is the first part of my backstory of Paris from Romeo and Juliet (discussed at far too much length in the last post). I wanted to rethink his motivations, to flesh out the two-dimensional character so often portrayed on screen. In this scene I introduce Paris’s father (I guess he’s Paris too) and the financial difficulties he’s in. Part two in the next post.
From my hiding place beneath the table in the study I watched father enter the room. The thick soles of his boots, newly-polished, lent weight to his already heavy step. He was a man of considerable stature, and not only in the sense of having been endowed with impressive height. In the city, being of noble blood, he was well-known; ever a large man if not one of largess. His name was known, his activities studied by those outside his circles with the fascination and resentment invariably arising from the inequalities of man’s society.
It had been my custom to secrete myself beneath the table for the best part of the past year, ever since the sounds of gentlemanly conference emanating therefrom had enflamed my childish curiosity to unbearable heights. I had found that, provided I waited just long enough after father had put me to bed to satisfy him that I was asleep, but not too long that any movement on my part should coincide with the arrival of his frequent visitors, I was able, with great stealth and owing in no small part to my extensive knowledge of the hiding places available on the journey, to make my way from my chamber at the top of the house to father’s study, and thereafter to settle myself comfortably upon the rug, safely-hidden from view by the thick-legged throne upon which no one ever sat.
I watched and listened, enthralled, and at the same time knowing I must at any time be found out, such was the enormity of my transgression. Ours was a house of rules, and at this hour I was to be in bed, a fact unambiguously made known to me by our nurse, Laura. Each night she repeated in her deep and breathless voice, “To sleep now, Little Lord, your father wishes not to be disturbed.” There was never any need to spell out the particulars of consequence or punishment. These words, “Your father wishes”, entered the room through whomever spoke them with an almost physical force and I had never doubted nor tested the imperative. Not until this past year – my eighth in the world.
But it was not only explicit rules I broke, seated, breath held, cross-legged beneath the chair, but one I had inferred myself. Something about the nature of my father’s conversations with his night time visitors gave me to understand they were part of a world I was not. As the years passed and I grew into a man this feeling persisted: that there were parts of father’s life forever under lock and key. I understood not one word in ten of the conferences, but their tone, their gravity, the wordless undercurrent of menace came to my ears with terrifying clarity.
My father crossed the room now and the door had almost closed when a second pair of boots entered, the termination of a thick set of legs clad in white hose. I could see the bottom portion of the man’s doublet, crimson and crusted with what looked to me to be precious gems, and his codpiece like the shell of some exotic sea creature from one of father’s books.
“Have a seat, Strangwish,” came my father’s booming voice.
“Many thanks, my Lord,” the other replied. His voice was reedy, belying his girth, and something about the formality of it seemed forced, even to my untrained ears. He spoke with a strange accent, leaning heavily on unusual syllables. “Your family is well?”
“They are,” father replied, never one for small talk. “But to our point: what news have you from your travels? I received your letter a week since but its contents were disappointingly short on detail.”
Strangwish shifted in his seat at this then replied, “Indeed, my lord. My apologies. I wrote it…in-in-in some haste and felt the details better conveyed in-in person than through the impersonal means of a piece of parchment.”
“Facts are facts, Strangwish, no matter the medium of their delivery. And this is what I require. Facts. Hard facts.”
“So furnish me with them,” father interrupted, his tone hardening. “How fares my cargo? Its volume and condition. Its saleability…”
Strangwish cleared his throat. The moment hung in the air for a while and silence enveloped the space. My heart fluttered with tension and my breaths came shorter and harder, more difficult to keep silent.
“There were… problems in Lisbon,” Strangwish said, his voice even more high and strangled than before. Father did not speak at this but it seemed his side of the room darkened almost visibly. “Goncalvo, it seems, was more fulsome in his promises than he was able to fulfil in his actions. Only…half the promised cargo awaited us when we arrived.”
Father gave a short, sharp cough and Strangwish jerked a little in his chair.
“He intended still to charge us the same price for half the product!” Strangwish blurted out, “until I told him, in no uncertain terms that it would not be tolerated. I was firm, sir, that a change in his fortunes made no difference to you, and that the agreed price was immovable. It was necessary to become rather firm with the man, my lord, and it was only through a mixture of diplomacy and threat that he finally acquiesced.”
“I am to thank you then, for your endeavours in securing half the promised bounty?”
“It is…I mean to say…my lord, things might at that stage have been a great deal worse…”
At this father stood. I watched him take a step forward towards Strangwish, saw the man shrink from him, then watched him turn smartly as he made his way to the dresser behind his chair. I heard the clinking of a liquor bottle against a glass then the wet sound of swallowing.
“Continue,” he said, without turning.
“Ah…Well, thereafter we made no more ado about our return, docking overnight, replenishing our supplies in the morning. We did chance to refresh ourselves at a lovely little inn before weighing-“
“I do not need every detail of your ablutions, Strangwish. My cargo…”
“Y…yes, my Lord. Marry, the seas were angry upon our return and it was only through the pains I took to marshal the men that we succeeded in weathering the storm.”
“Yes, yes,” father said, his impatience evident. “Your immense talents as negotiator, captain and leader of men are duly noted.” His voice dropped to nothing more than a whisper that sent a shiver down my spine. “I ask you one final time, dear, loyal Strangwish: my cargo…”
The man squirmed awhile longer like an insect under the intense sunlight of my father’s gaze. “I beg your pardon, my lord,” he began, “but might I trouble you for a dram of that whiskey?”
To my surprise, father silently signalled his agreement, pouring another glass and handing it to the quivering Strangwish, the latter seeing it off in one gulp and wheezing slightly afterwards. He returned the glass, nodding his thanks.
“P…privateers, my lord…” he said in a whisper. “They took us not a day from home and left us with only the tenth part of the half.”
Father sighed and it seemed more a weary noise than an angry one. Without warning he slapped a massive hand onto Strangwish’s neck and leaned against him, his head upon his shoulder. Strangwish’s legs bowed a little under the strain. Father sighed again.
“I am…truly sorry, my lord.,” Strangwish muttered through the fabric of father’s cape.
My heart was pounding from my chest. Fear and tension gripped me. This was at least as thrilling as my wildest inventions concerning what might happen behind the study door, but now the moment was here I feared the excitement of emotions might kill me where I lay. When, after what seemed an hour, my father spoke again, a spasm took me and I hit my head on a sharp edge of the chair leg, suppressing the pain with all my might, swallowing a cry. No one heard.
“What am I to do?” father asked, the question directed at no one in particular. “This cargo would have served, for the moment at least. It would have purchased me more time.”
His tone was strange and I realised with horror that the emotion in it was despair, perhaps even fear. I had only known my father to be a strong, confident man, and this apparent weakness struck me like a dagger, dudgeon-deep in my chest.
“There will be…other voyages, my lord,” Strangwish said hesitantly. His hand hovered above my father’s back, paused in the act of administering a comforting pat, before he thought better of it and the arm returned to hanging awkwardly at his side.
Father raised himself to his full height again, using the trembling Strangwish as a crutch. “Will there…?” he intoned.