Weep no more for what is past, For time in motion makes such haste He hath no leisure to descry Those errors which he passeth by. from The Cruel Brother, Sir William Davenant, 1630
Genealogy, n. An account of one’s descent from an ancestor who did not particularly care to trace his own. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
This is not how a story should start. But there it is. We have broken the seal and out it comes. We must tell it as we find it.
There is writing, the sound of it. This happens before: back a little and far into the past and yet still present. Letters assembling. Rhythm pause scratch. Reaching for ink, feeling for the pot with practised fingers. Clicktintinclick of button and spring, barrel and casing, retractable point. There are readers too, so many of us. Inside and outside the story.
Stories in stories. Stories broken open, ransacked, sliced and segmented, used and reused and stolen, magpied, of self and other, true and unfaithful, real and false.
This is how we find Ned. His knees creaking on carpeted floor, hands inside a cardboard box. There are other boxes, all of them sealed, labelled, piled up in this room, a room lined with empty bookshelves, single straight-backed chair, bare blonde-wood table, angle-poise lamp devoid of bulb hanging deflowered above it, cable coiled at its base.
Ned has opened the box, broken the seal, this box with his name on it, written in his mother’s hand. Found a letter. A letter tucked inside a book: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, cover sun-faded, spine a bleached strip, pages yellowing to mustard.
I should have looked for something: I should have noted the page. But I didn’t. It was just an old book with an envelope in it. There were other envelopes, one containing tatty press cuttings about things that must have meant something to you at some point, but not to me. Another with a bookmark, York Minster. A faded programme sheet from a concert somewhere. One of mine? From early choir days? A photograph of me, aged nine or ten, tan cardigan and black-rimmed glasses, one corner of my mouth lifting in a smile. Christmas, a tree behind me – that cardigan, a present from Aunt Alice. Just like your father. And the Sonnets envelope, with my name on it.
Dearest Ned, This may prove a hard letter to read. It is certainly one of the hardest I’ve had to write. My dear boy, you must have always had a sense of it, but now I can tell you outright. Your father was not your father. Hate me - you have every right to it. I was not young and foolish, or easily taken in, but I did wander. Briefly. His name was Will. Will Davenant. He wasn’t a particularly kind man, but he had a quality. You have it from him. You often wondered, didn’t you, where the music came from? I turned the pages for him once, many years ago. I’m sorry my dear. Not for what I did, because I’ve never been one for remorse or regret, and I’m certainly not sorry for having you. I am sorry that you didn’t know him, though. I wasn’t sure what to say to you about it, or when. I did plan to tell you when Jack died, but I couldn’t face it. I was a coward. I was afraid that you might begin looking. Don’t try to find him, Ned. It would be unfair, after all this time. Let it be. I never made any claim on him and we never kept in touch. Don’t go bothering him now. There. I can stop fretting and get on with the business in hand. I don’t want you boys to have too much trouble about my things. I want to get them all parcelled up, ready. When you find this, you can dispense with the rest. Edward will know what to do with the books and so on. Don’t waste time looking for your father in those boxes, Ned, there really isn’t anything to be found. Whatever there is, you have it already. Goodbye, my boy. Try not to be too angry with me. Your loving Ma