Cruel Brother – I.1



Enter NED.


Let us call things by their right names.

Ned’s father, who was not his father, was called Jack Muir. And Jack’s father was called Edward Muir. Edward begat Jack, and Jack Muir married Jane, and begat Edward, Ned’s brother. Ned’s half-brother.

Will Davenant, on the other hand, did not marry Jane, and begat Ned. Edmund. Edmund Muir.

Ned, though, as his mother called him, as we shall call him, sounding of warm brown horses summoned across a field, breath steaming, the smell of soil after rain. Edmund always seeming a hard name to him, a nut, an acorn buried. And Edward, his brother Edward, tall crowding trees and dank forest clearings, empty spaces and dead wood. Always Edward. Never shortened.


Your father chose your names, Ma says. She says it in that soft way, her tucking-in voice, her plaster-and-cotton-wool voice. She says it into my hair as I kneel on the floor, letter in hand, just the height for her to wrap a towel around me, to brush down a curl, to push my chin to her navel. But you chose our middle names, then. Didn’t you Ma? Edward Jack Muir. Edmund William Muir. Oh yes, she tells me, tapping the Sonnets, fingernail tracing printed laurels. Of course I did.


Ned wakes to find that he is a bastard. A natural child, a changeling, a half-sibling. A cuckoo in the nest. After the shock comes the rage. After the rage comes curiosity, an itch that must be scratched. He sits up in bed. He holds the Sonnets, the letter, the photograph. He steps into clothes gathered from the floor, seeks out his address book and dials the number of dear old Aunt Alice.

‘What do you want, Edmund?’ she says. ‘Your brother is sorting everything out.’

Ned breathes, counts.

No more 1. family gatherings no more

2. waiting rooms. No more

3. no more.

Now he can ask.


‘It’s something Edward said. About Ma. About music.’

‘Your mother didn’t have a musical bone in her body.’


He breathes again. 4.




‘Edward said she used to turn the pages for someone’ Ned says. ‘I thought you might know. Did she work for a pianist?’

Aunt Alice shifts her weight at the other end of the line. Ned has disturbed her. Ned is causing her to stand. A scuffle, a sigh, she sits heavily: scraping of metal stool on vinyl kitchen floor. Ned sees the kitchen, geraniums on the windowsill, the gauze curtains tied into the corners with yellow bows.


Do you remember when you were little and you

8. you ate those furry leaves and were

9. sick in the sink? They smelt of greenhouses, those leaves, of tomatoes and cucumber plants. That was

10. that was why. Breathe.



‘I don’t know anything about her working for a pianist’ she says. ‘Edward must have been thinking about the church.’





Church. But you never went to church. You told Edward, Ma, you said the quickest we could do it, the shortest stop at the crematorium. No prayers no hymns. You never went


‘Your mother’ says Aunt Alice ‘had a bit of a fling with religion. After Edward was born. Of course it didn’t last. Nothing she did ever lasted. Then she had you.’

‘Do you know which church?’




14. Ned knows. He knows that his aunt knows and

15. will not tell, because.

16. She knows, yes, she knows alright.


‘I just needed something. Something else about Ma. What she was like. Before me.’

‘Headstrong’ says Alice. ‘That’s what she was like.’




19. She makes Ned wait. Lets him out a little, gives him a little more line.



‘Canterbury’ she says. ‘The cathedral.’

She hangs up.



I turned the pages for him once, many years ago.

Of course. He wasn’t a pianist, he was an organist.


Becket, Archbishops, the choir: the choristers Ned had longed to join and never could, because his parents – his mother, Jack Muir – couldn’t afford the fees for a cathedral school. St Edmund’s School, his school he’d said. His voice. But they wouldn’t put him forward for a scholarship. He was good enough, Ned: he knew it. He could have done it, could have won a place.


Was Will Davenant the reason?


Did Father know?


The Canterbury phone book jumps from Daunt to Davenhill. He may be ex-directory. He may be dead. Ned switches on the laptop, waits for it to churn into life.

He finds a website for Canterbury cathedral but there’s no Davenant, little about the organists. St Edmund’s School site shows boys in blazers, a girl playing a flute, equations on a board and foaming test tubes. The scholarship: Ned scrolls, clicks. The cathedral organist is connected to the choristers. Did Ned’s father know? Did his mother want him to go, but Jack Muir refused? Did she wish to spare him, them, from the knowing? Ned leans back in his chair, stretches. Slumps again.

He tries the name Will Davenant and Kent.

There is the will of John Davenant of High Halstow, proved in 1628. There is a school in Essex, established in the 1660s by Ralph Davenant. Joane Davenant marries John Coo in the 1580s. But will is a common word. Ned tries again.

There is Sir William Davenant, born in 1606, rumoured to be the bastard son of Shakespeare. Will Davenant, an anthology listing beside Ben Johnson, dramatic poet. Mohun, or The Last Days of Lee, its Davenants trapped and toiling in another continent’s civil war.

William Davenant Canterbury

The illegitimate Sir William again. Yes, he is the same as the dramatic poet, the one in the anthology. Ned should stop here. There are no leads, no threads to his father. There are no dates or addresses, no alliances, coincidences, no accidents of discovery. We can see where this is going. We call to him as he rubs at his neck, digs his thumbs in where the skull rests, his nape exposed. That nape his mother would touch when he slept, that carried the scent of him into adulthood. Don’t go looking. But he doesn’t listen. He closes the screen, pushes back the chair. Takes his coat from the peg. He stops in the hall and we see him in the mirror, his eyes are dark, yes, his nose almost bruised from the rubbing and pushing of knuckles as he worked but we see what his mother saw, what she sees, standing behind him and looking back in the mirror, the curl that always separates above his right temple, that face that was his father’s face, the dangers of it, the reason he is as he is and alone in the house, the reason he will do what he does next and so he will go on, grief after grief, fall after fall, and nothing we can do or say will stop him.



Cruel Brother – prologue


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



Cruel Brother – digital serialisation

Welcome to the digital serialisation of my novel Cruel Brother.

The novel was released over the course of a year as part of Shakespeare 400. The first instalment went live in the early hours of Shakespeare’s birthday, 23rd April 2016, and the full text was viewable until 23rd April 2017.

The epilogue and opening chapter remain here to give a taste of the novel and the digital project.

NB Feel free to share this text with friends, but please respect the usual copyright courtesies. Cruel Brother is the property of the writer Sonia Overall. No unauthorised publication or reproduction. For all enquiries please contact the author through this website.