The door to The White Rose tavern flew open. Burbage, the aspiring actor, hurried inside in a flurry of snow, his cloak pulled tightly about him. His eyes searched the dimly lit hostelry, seeking out his friend, the Moorish playwright Sheikh Azzubier.
“Hither, you chump,” Azzubier yelled over the din of drunkards and harlots. “And put the wood back in the hole, will ye? You’re letting the heat out.”
Burbage shut the tavern’s studded oak door and shouldered his way through a cross-section of the dregs of society. Breathing sparingly due to the stench of unwashed bodies, he was purple faced and gagging when he got to the fireplace.
Leaning forward in a box chair, the Moroccan playwright sat beside the hearth. Between swallows of ale he warmed his hands in the ruddy glow of the flames.
“Bloody English weather,” he complained. “I’ll never get used to it. What news, Burbage?”
Without preamble, the between-jobs actor threw back his cloak and dropped a hand-written manuscript on the table. The title page read: The Miffed Moroccan Bloke, by Sheikh Azzubier.
“I’ve spent all afternoon at The Old Vic,” said Burbage, referring to York’s premier theatrical venue, Ye Olde Viking Playhouse. “Master Micklethwaite, the proprietor, hath rejected your play after much consideration. Apparently Christopher Marlowe’s arrived in town and is pimping his own scribblings. ’Twas a choice twixt his script and yours. Alas, Marlowe’s hath succeeded. We’ve been gazumpéd.”
“Damn Marlowe’s Eyes!” raged Azzubier. He ground his teeth and called for two flagons of mead to commiserate his loss. “May that Canterbury cobbler’s son be infested with the fleas of a thousand camels.”
A buxom serving wench weaved through the inebriated throng and deposited two pints of honey wine at the Moor’s table. For her efforts she received a farthing tip and a pinched bottom.
“This is the life,” said Azzubier, nursing a slapped cheek as the serving girl stomped off. He took a long swig of mead, and the eyes in his dark-complexioned face took on a dreamy quality. “Just imagine, Burbage. Here we are, two young men, out on the road, living by our wits. We’ve got wine. We’ve got wenches. We’ve got…”
“…weather fit to freeze us solid as soon as we step outside,” Burbage suggested.
Azzubier scowled, but his happy-go-lucky mood returned once he had polished off his mead and ordered refills for himself and his friend. “Tomorrow’s another day,” he said philosophically. “The world’s a big enough stage for myself and Marlowe.”
Taking advantage of the playwright’s good humour, Burbage broached another, more sensitive issue. “’Twas intimated by Master Micklethwaite,” he said, “that your name sounds somewhat too foreign to the English ear — that perhaps ’twill put off the punters.”
Sheikh Azzubier’s initial thought was to overturn the table and loudly condemn the English as bigoted scum. However, the landlord was a stout fellow, and several patrons of The White Rose were the battle-scarred veterans of many a pub brawl. So instead the playwright opted for discretion, downing his mead in sulky silence. Eventually though, he mulled over Master Micklethwaite’s words and recognised the wisdom in them.
“I could always anglicise my name,” contemplated Sheikh Azzubeir, “and call myself something like ‘Chuck Asper’, maybe?”
Burbage grimaced, gave his head an emphatic shake and stifled a bout of the giggles with a swig of mead.
“Then how about ‘Jacque Speer’?” the playwright suggested, moving from an improbable anglicised name to an even more improbable Franco-Germanic alternative.”
Burbage rolled his eyes despairingly. “Why don’t we sleep on the name change? I’m sure we’ll think of something more… suitable tomorrow morning. We can also concoct a fictional biography for you. Perhaps make you a simple Warwickshire lad fleeing from an unhappy marriage to an older woman. A young artiste swapping an existence of domestic drudgery for life on the stage. You can’t get more romantic than that.”
Sheikh Azzubier pondered the actor’s proposal. However, after surveying the unromantic environs of The White Rose tavern, he sprang unsteadily to his feet.
“Lodgings,” said the playwright, and guzzled downed his mead in one long swallow. “We need lodgings for the night. Let’s try The Longboat Arms. ’Tis but a penny a night for a straw mattress on the floor, and if we hurry we’ll get there before last orders.”
Bracing themselves to face the elements, the struggling thespians pushed their way through the degenerate throng and left the tavern’s cosy, if somewhat stifling atmosphere, for the frigid outdoors.
As they stepped outside, the crisp winter air reverberated to the York Minster’s doleful bells chiming out the midnight hour.
The inebriated duo stumbled into the labyrinth of York’s snow-covered backstreets, trudging through ankle-high snow towards their less than salubrious destination. Then, ahead of them and similarly sozzled, a familiar figure appeared, blundering out of the shadows. His ruff was askew, his complexion ruddy and he was singing — off key — a popular Elizabethan ditty.
“Marlowe!” hissed Azzubier, flinging back his cloak and unsheathing a curved dagger. “That debauched dilettante. That foppish fraud. That prancing popinjay. See how he mocks us in celebrating our moment of despair.”
“Stay thy hand,” urged Burbage, coaxing the playwright to sheath his blade. “Our destiny is ours for the making. We must trust in none but God to put this sneering jackanapes in his rightful place.”
That said, the two men watched in restrained anger as the Moor’s literary rival lurched across the narrow street.
Suddenly, above Marlowe, an elderly man opened an upstairs window and negligently tipped the contents of his chamber pot over the dramatist’s head.
Whilst suppressing his mirth, the Moorish playwright was struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration. With one hand he gestured the snowflakes falling from the night sky, and with the other hand indicated the geriatric whose steaming excreta had so serendipitously befouled Christopher Marlowe.
“Now is the winter of our discontent,” proclaimed Sheikh Azzubier, “made glorious summer by this son of York.”
Paul A. Freeman is the author of Rumours of Ophir, a novel set in Zimbabwe which is presently on that country’s high school literature syllabus. He writes mostly crime and horror fiction and his short stories have been widely published. His narrative poem novella, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers — A Canterbury Tale, was published in 2009 by Coscom Entertainment, and his crime novel, Vice and Virtue, set in Saudi Arabia, was published in German translation earlier this year. Currently he works in Abu Dhabi where he lives with his wife and three children.