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“By the pricking of my thumbs,

      Something wicked this way comes” – William Shakespeare 1564-1616


On this day – 23 April 1616 – William Shakespeare was born and also died. The date of his birth is under contention, but he was baptized on the 26 April, and tradition then meant a baby was to be baptized a few days after their birth. The day of his death though is today.

So, if tradition is right, he died on his birthday!

Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer that has ever lived. He was a poet, a playwright, an essayist, and an actor, and his plays include Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear, to name but a few.

I have Macbeth on my bedside at the moment, for my Master’s thesis is on the Witch figure in literature, which has to include the iconic Three Sisters, the witches at the start of the play.

In respect of Shakespeare’s contribution to Literature – for which I will be forever grateful – here’s a short story in memory of his name.

The Vine

They’d fallen in love almost instantly. Mary hadn’t wanted it to happen, she’d wanted a career, maybe travel a while. But the sound of Robert’s baritone voice, enrapturing audiences, from the matinee through to the shouts of ‘Bravo, bravo’ at night, had more than persuaded her. Robert was always surrounded by a gaggle of young women, each vying for his attention. He was the star of the show but had eyes only for her.

Robert had insisted they move in together, but Mary was not so sure. There was his wife to think of: Greta. They’d been separated years, he’d told her. It was a marriage in name only, but Greta was frail, almost on her death bed. Still, Mary felt apprehensive about the affair.

That was until they found a lovely place off the Thames Embankment. It had once been a manor house, in the heart of London, split into four apartments. There were ivy vines around every window and a brass knocker on the main front door. Sweet picture windows looked over the river and further down, if she squinted her eyes, she could see Tower Bridge. It was so convenient too, just minutes from the theatre, as the crow flies.

Mary loved their life together, the bijou apartment that she’d lovingly restored, adding her own style to the otherwise drab rental furniture. Robert had been left to sort out his other life; that was not her concern. Greta was to live in Cornwall, for the sea air would do her good. They could cozy up in London, a hundred or more miles away.

Why it was scarcely a sordid affair, she persuaded herself. They’d never hidden their love, instead had dined in all the best restaurants, had weekends trips to the country, taken numerous lunches with Robert’s theatre darlings.

The letter arrived just a few months afterward. Mary had been in the smart downstairs hallway and had just opened the communal mailbox. The letter had slipped out of her hands to rest on the shiny black and white tiled floor. She’d caught a whiff of something as it had fallen; something damp and guttural, like a damp meadow in the autumn. How strange, she mused, picking it up and tucking it in her handbag.

It was marked ‘Urgent’ and had a postscript from Cornwall. Mary’s heart had leaped into her throat at that. Nevertheless, she placed it on the drink’s cabinet, just inside their cozy living room, and started to prepare dinner. Thoughts of the letter were uppermost in her mind until Robert’s key sounded in the front door.

‘Hello, darling,’ Robert murmured softly, kissing her neck in a warm embrace. ‘How was your day?’

‘It was fine, darling,’ she replied. ‘I’ve got some asparagus from the markets and a rainbow trout.’

‘How splendid,’ he said, as she helped him with his overcoat. ‘You spoil me. Any post for me today?’

‘Why do you ask?’ she replied, hanging the coat in the hallway closet. Before closing the closet door, she checked the deep pockets of his coat then followed Robert into the living room. ‘A letter came today, as a matter of fact. It’s a Cornish postscript.’

‘Really? Oh, that’s nothing,’ he replied, grabbing her around the waist. ‘I can deal with that later.’

After dinner, Robert settled down with his newspaper. The letter remained untouched, right next to the sherry bottle. Mary tried not to look at it, picking at her knitting. She was making a lovely warm jumper for the winter evenings. Robert had recently started going out of an afternoon and without her. His alone time he’d told her, the first time she’d asked to go with him. He needed his space to think, to learn his lines. He was an actor after all; this was his life. She hadn’t minded in the least.

Next morning, and there was no sign of the letter. The sherry bottle sat, half empty, but alone, on the silver platter. And Robert had already gone to the theatre. Mary tidied up the dregs of the night before – the sherry bottle, the newspapers scattered on the floor. Her head felt woozy as she threw open the living room window.

The day greeted her; warm and sunny, with just a hint of winter. Mary leaned over the window sill, looking down at the street below.

‘Ouch!’ she said, pulling away. Her dressing gown had come loose, and her nightdress underneath gaped over the window. A sharp branch of the vine had scratched at her bosom, drawing a line of blood that had crept into the deep creamy curve of flesh. Another piece had wound its way around her wrist, almost holding her fast.  Mary stepped back gagging as the putrid smell hit her – there it was again, the damp, dank stench of something rotting; dead leaves in a deep dark bog. She pushed at the branch as she tried to pull the window closed, but it had stuck fast to the sill.

‘That’s odd,’ she said, aloud. Her voice felt strange; deep, guttural and low. Not like her normal tone. Mary pulled at her dressing gown, twisting the branch free. Behind her, the pile of newspapers that she’d stacked, ready for the waste bin, fluttered, lifting in an imaginary breeze. They exposed a letter – the Cornish postmark!

Mary grabbed the envelope as the window slammed behind her. The smell hit her first; the stench unforgettable. The writing on the front was bold and black:

Take a look inside.

With her heart racing, she tore open the letter, searching inside. A document, as thin as parchment, inside. A death certificate.

Greta Mortensen. Born: 1949. Died: 1989. Cause of death: Unknown, but her body was found in woods near her home.

Further down, a scrawl of a signature that feathered along the bottom of the page, as if a small bird had settled there. Mary ran her fingers across it, the deep marks of the black ink.

Greta dead? How could this be?

‘Oh, Robert!’ she cried, placing fingers to her mouth. She tasted blood as she bit down. Then she heard the rustling, coming from the window. Mary turned around sharply as the window stood open, the vine reaching out, fingers thin and bony, searching for her throat. Mary screamed, pulling frantically at the ivy, but the tendrils were too hard, the vine too well established. The branches scratched at her face, wrapping themselves around her waist, her arms, her legs.

Later that day, when Robert returned from his daily ‘walk,’ he would find her. He would recoil at the guttural stench coming from their new apartment. He’d head for the window, wanting to rid it of the stench. There he would find his Mary. A body, hardly recognizable, wrapped in ivy.


Suzanne Bowditch, 2019

#thevine #shortstoryfiction #writing #williamshakespeare