Monday, March 9, 2009

Like a Drown’d Man, a Fool, and a Madman

The following excerpt is from Like a Drown’d Man, a Fool, and a Madman by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Oldcastle Books in April 2009

“Hello my name is Falstaff and I have been sober for a fortnight.

This isn’t long to most people, not even the length of a moon’s phase, but it is the longest dry spell in my memory.

I remember my first drink though. I carried a bucket of ale to my father and his friends roasting fish on the shoreline. People rarely think of me as a fisherman’s son and even then I was out of place. I was an awkward, chubby lad and they teased that I would fall in the other fishermen would think I was a fatty seal stealing their catch.

Carrying the Ale, I drank some, and was smelling drunk by arrival. I told my father I spilled most of the bucket. He laughed and said I spilled most down my throat. My mother started wailing that father was leading me down his same crooked path and then he yelled at her and I cried and then she cried and we all staggered about drunk and the others at the meal yelled that we were all here for merriment and then I sang and danced and everyone said my good cheer and entertainment saved the evening.

So that was that.

Alcohol opened the curtains to drama and comedy and song and attention heaped on me. It was everything found in one of those Shakespeare plays I appeared in but in convenient elixir form.
Or used to appear in. I don’t see Will much anymore. He used to talk to me and set my tales in his plays.

I don’t see the people I used to. I used to be friends of royalty and upper crusts but lately the people I see on a regular basis are not the people I call friends. The people I see are not even people I particularly enjoy being around. They are merely people that will drink with me.

But I didn’t care as long as there were drinks. I once brought life to the tale of the Merry Wives of Windsor but by Henry V I am barely a passing reference. I didn’t even care to meet Will and load him with tales for that one. I preferred to be drinking.

Nor was I missed. I was ale itself. Liquor embodied. At first lively and celebratory but soon sickening and making your head splinter. I was not a provider the way that water was.

Just ask my son.

I knew for a long while it was time to stop.

I woke with my chest heaving under my own weight and my head cleaved open like it was set on an anvil.

But exiting my house, I didn’t know where to go. Every day I visited the public house. I sang there and joked there. What else do I do? I am Falstaff and as if to confirm this fact the moment I entered the Tavern people shouted my name and thrust drinks in my open hands.

One day you’ll wake up dead I thought but drank anyway.

Waking up dead is not just a turn of phrase. Physician often pronounce men and women dead as they are still and unresponsive and even blue long the lips when they are only ill and in a deathlike sleep. They revive in their coffins and scream and scratch at the wood. This is why gypsies and other superstitiously inclined people tell tales of vampires.

I awoke in a coffin. It was dark as death’s cloak and due to my girth I could not move my arms or legs more than a few inches.

So many people are buried alive due to this mistake that corpses are suppressed with a string tried around their wrist so that as they struggle the string will pull a bell tied to their tombstone and alert the gravedigger to release them.

I felt the string and pulled and pulled. The bell was surely ringing. Nobody came.

I pulled more and more but there was no noise from above. Perhaps my large size filled the coffin so much that I could not move enough to ring the bell.

I tried not to panic but started swinging my arm wildly and tore my skin against the wooden box.

All I thought was, I need a drink.

Finally I heard the shovels move through the dirt above me and I was saved by the bell.

“Where were you?” I asked the digger “Were you not on graveyard shift listening for the chimes?”

“I was sir,” he said “But you being Falstaff, your death seemed so probable that I monitored other portions of the yard.”

I couldn’t argue.

I walked home. It was a beautiful English morning. I had not seen morning for some time and lying in the darkness of the coffin I assumed it was blackest midnight.

Songbirds sang. The sunlight fell with an almost physical, tangible weight.

I was granted the gift of a second life. I returned from death. This of course, meant that I could get a drink. Lazarus was buying.

I entered the darkness of the pub.

“Well, you look like the departed Sir Falstaff!” said a regular at the bar.

“Just like him,” I said “A real dead ringer” and we cheered in laughter.

“Then let me buy you a drink!”

I told the story of the coffin several times as more drunkenness arrived. I must say that the tale improved as the liquor contributed to its construction.

“My funeral must have been something. What did Shakespeare say?”

“He never attended” It turned out the King did neither. Only wife and my son, who cried and I that point still thought me dead. I went for a drink without even thinking to inform him of my resurrection.

“What did you fellows say?”

“Oh we never attended either. We came here and drank a toast in your honour.”

Everyday there was something to toast. I knew that toasts and often lead.

No one attended my funeral. No took a day of the drink for my death. Not even me.

I had the gift of life and spent the morning drunk.

I looked around the pub.

Outside were sunshine and green trees and in here was as shadowed as in a coffin.

The regular’s eyes were as lifeless as vampires.

That was a fortnight ago.

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