Authors: John Marsden
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Horatio asked him.
He was lying on Hamlet’s bed.
Hamlet was sitting on the stone floor, in a corner, the corner farthest from the door. The prince was eating strawberries. He smiled. It was the first time Horatio had seen him smile since the funeral. Hamlet traced a line on the stone with his finger. He looked down, watching the invisible line. “I don’t believe in floors,” he said. “I don’t believe in lines.”
“But do you believe in ghosts?”
“I don’t believe in walls or ceilings. Or stone. I don’t believe in people. I don’t believe in strawberries.”
“I don’t believe in anything you can see or touch or taste.”
“So you do believe in ghosts?”
Hamlet smiled again. He wriggled on the hard floor. His eyes, his gray eyes, lifted and met Horatio’s. “My bum’s getting sore. Let’s play football.”
They played one-on-one for a while, on a vast grassy area across the river. Toward the trees the frost remained from the night before, cold and hard and beautiful. Soon a couple of officers’ sons drifted toward them, looking hopeful. Hamlet invited them to join the game, and, full of thanks, they rushed in. At first they were too nervous of Hamlet to mark him closely, or to tackle him, but gradually they forgot that they were playing with the crown prince of Denmark, and the little match started to flow.
Afterward, on their way back to Elsinore, Hamlet and Horatio stopped near the footbridge to look down into the river. The water, swollen by the heavy rain and melted snow of a false spring, rushed past. It had the gray-green-fawn color of a giant snake. Hamlet stared down the steep bank, wondering how it would be to lose his footing, to fall into the fatal flow and be carried to the ocean.
He threw in a piece of bark and followed it with his eyes as it swirled away. Horatio laughed. “Watch this,” Hamlet said. He flicked a flat stone across the water. It skipped three times, then sank violently.
Horatio picked up the football. The boys crossed the bridge. Every few steps Hamlet spat into the torrent, watching the pitiful sparrow of his spit lose itself in the spume.
They swung right and walked up the hill toward the castle. Elsinore dominated everything. The shadow of the great gray wall came down the slope to meet them. Hamlet’s white hair stood out like a splash of snow. A swallow flew out of the shadow, swerving as it saw the two boys. To their left, the cemetery, stretching away toward the lake, looked bleaker than ever.
Hamlet hugged himself against the fierce cold. Horatio nodded at the white picket fence, the endless rows of crosses. An occasional headstone or small mausoleum was the only interruption of the monotony. The gentle slope of the ground made it difficult to see where the land ended and the distant water began.
Horatio squeezed the football with both hands. “Have you been back here?” he asked. He looked away nervously, though, as soon as he said it. How would Hamlet react? At the best of times, it was difficult to reach the prince’s heart, to find his feelings, and this was not the best of times.
Yet Hamlet answered easily enough. “No, I haven’t been back.”
Horatio cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here for the funeral.”
“You made it to the wedding.”
“It wasn’t long . . .” Horatio didn’t finish the sentence. Hamlet glanced at him, then gave a grimace that could have been another smile. Horatio was used to the expression; he remembered it from when they played football on Saturday afternoons. They had never won a game.
“It wasn’t long between the funeral and the wedding — is that what you were going to say?”
“Well, I guess if your mother is, you know, happy . . . I mean, it’s good that she’s got someone. . . .” Horatio, red-faced, cursed himself for starting this conversation. The boys moved a little farther along the path, toward the small open gate in the side fence. Tucking the football under his arm, Horatio bounced the flat of his hand on the top of each picket.
“Oh, she had a good reason for getting married again so quickly,” Hamlet said.
“Yeah. Oh, definitely. It was to save money.”
Horatio stopped in his tracks and stared at Hamlet. His friend had startled him again. “To . . . to save money?”
“Yeah. See, she recycled the flowers. Grabbed them off the grave the day after the funeral and carried them up the aisle for the wedding.”
Horatio laughed uneasily. As usual he could not think of the right thing to say, so he went back to facts, to mathematics. “How long after the funeral did she get married?”
“Two months. Two months, six days . . . plus, say, two and a half hours.”
“I guess that is pretty quick.”
“She would have used the leftover sandwiches, but they were drying out a bit.”
“Those flowers must have been tougher.”
Swerving, Hamlet avoided the gate and led the way toward the northern end of the cemetery. He called back over his shoulder, “Do you ever go and visit your mother?”
“I don’t visit my father. Anyway they’re going to move him soon. They’re building that enormous sarcophagus thing over there. But I don’t think people are in their coffins. They escape before the lid’s screwed down.”
The two boys stopped short of the foreigners’ section and leaned on the fence. They gazed at the first row of headstones. The branches of a black tree cavorted in the wind. In this direction the outlook was painfully flat by Horatio’s standards; he had to glance back over his shoulder, at the mountains in the distance. His family came from the hills.
When he looked at the graveyard again, a man with a shovel on his shoulder was walking down the gravel path, past a row of fresh mounds. Perhaps he buried my mother, Horatio wondered. He looks so old. Would he have been too deaf to hear her fingers scratching on the lid? His nightmare was that his mother might have been alive when she was buried. He liked Hamlet’s idea that people escaped from their coffins.
He paused opposite her grave. It was directly ahead of them, in the second row.
Hamlet interrupted his thoughts. “Perhaps they’re together now.”
Horatio twitched, trying to respond. “Do you think there’s a heaven? And a hell?”
“If there’s one, there must be the other.”
“So you believe in them?”
Out here in the cold, clear daylight, Hamlet’s answers were more natural. “I don’t know. I suppose I do. My family’s so religious. They have to be.”
He picked up a handful of gravel from the path. Hunching his neck and shoulders into the collar of his coat, he started pinging pebbles against headstones. Suddenly Horatio caught his hand with a strong grip.
Hamlet, unaccustomed to being touched, looked down at the white knuckles on the pale skin, the fist that held him so tightly. Then he realized. “Was that your mother’s grave? I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect.”
As Horatio released him, Hamlet added, “You’re getting some muscle.”
They turned to walk on.
“You’re strange,” Horatio said.
“I’ve had two fathers in four months, my uncle’s suddenly my stepfather, my mother’s my aunt-by-marriage, my cousins are my stepsisters. You think I should be normal after that?”
“But you’ve always been strange.” Horatio meant no disrespect either, but later he remembered saying it and was shocked at his boldness. To the crown prince!
They picked their way through the clods of mud and the holes in the ground, skirting the piles of muck and frozen human dung. The land around Elsinore was thinly grassed, and the moat dark and smelly. A dead swan floated near the bridge. Yet the grimness of the scene was relieved by the deep green of the pine forests and the intense white of the snow-capped mountains. From this direction, in this light, the lines of the castle seemed milder, giving it the air of a benign but shabby grandfather. The stone walls, weathered by rain and wind, were a soft gray. Horatio, son of a noble penniless family, eight years old when he arrived at Elsinore with his mother, he to be a companion for the prince and she the queen’s lady-in-waiting, now thought of the ancient building as home.
They entered under the shadow of the portcullis. The gargoyles dripped like boys with runny noses. Vivid in red and orange, the guards raised their spears in salute. It seemed to Horatio that there was something sulky about them these days. Hamlet’s father had been strict, but the soldiers respected him, and from respect for the father came respect for the son. Under the new king, Claudius, standards were slipping.
The place was very quiet. A couple of servant girls went by, carrying bags of scraps from the kitchen. The girls nodded respectfully to Hamlet and giggled at Horatio. Laertes, son of the king’s chief adviser, had told Horatio that two of the kitchen girls were “easy,” and he wondered now if these were the two. The plump one would be nice to kiss. But the other was lithe; her breasts looked firm, just the right size for his hands.
A greyhound loped behind the girls, following the scent of guts and bones in the bags. We should have taken Hamlet’s dog with us, Horatio thought, knowing the creature was probably in its pen in the kitchen garden. Sometimes Hamlet seemed to forget the dog for days on end; Horatio loved dogs and wished he had his own.
One of the king’s secretaries, smoking a pipe, stood talking to a man who had both arms folded and looked cross. They ceased their conversation and bowed to Hamlet, who frowned back at them. They ignored Horatio.