I mind me sweetly of the summer days,
When, leaning from the lattice, I have caught
The fair, far glimpses of a shining sea;
And, nearer, of tall ships which thronged the bay,
And stood out blackly from a tender sky
All flecked with sulphur, azure, and bright gold;
And in the still, clear air have heard the hum
Of distant voices; and methinks there rose
No darker fount to mar or stain the joy
Which sprang ecstatic in my maiden breast
Than just those vague desires, those hopes and fears,
Those eager longings, strong, though undefined,
Whose very sadness makes them seem so sweet.
- Excerpt from "Xantippe" by Amy Levy
“Aye, Mel, Mercutio is Romeo’s best friend. Now tell me why he’s in the story.”
“Erm...comic relief?” Mel guessed.
It was the first day of April, and Jackie and Mel were cutting through Temple Memorial Park to King George Road. The Metro was in the auto shop again – Mel’s dad was probably cursing the heap of junk at that very moment – so the girls were making the long walk across town to Schooner or Later. The willow trees shifted gently in the spring breeze, and white petals peeked out shyly from the round, green buds of the bird cherries. It was a perfect day. Or it would have been, if Mel didn’t have to practice for her A levels.
“Aye, Mercutio does provide an element of comedy. But I think you can dig deeper. Why is he important to the plot?” asked Jackie.
“Because he’s in love with Romeo?”
Mercutio & Romeo. Still from the 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli.
“Obviously,” Jackie laughed. “But you won’t get any points for that answer unless you provide evidence. What does Mercutio’s presence in the story do for Romeo’s character?”
“What?” Mel was confused. “I guess he makes Romeo look really dumb.”
“Mercutio is very cynical about love, but Romeo is always head over heels for some girl.”
“Aye, which makes them?”
“Oh, foil characters!”
Mel shook her head. “I should have figured that out ages ago. I don’t know how this stuff comes so naturally to you. I’ll never pass my English exam at this rate.”
“Nobody’s as hard-working as you are, Mel. You’ll do fine. It’s only April and you’ve already read Romeo and Juliet twice. One more read and you’ll have it down.”
A girl with a long, black ponytail hopped the rail as they walked past the skate park, board clattering as she took a tumble off the side. She swung around and geared up for another attempt. Jackie stopped to watch.
“I could lose my acceptances if I don’t score well on my English exam. That’s bad, Jackie. And I think Lisa’s already suspicious about my medicine course. Gran came over to visit, and when she asked me why I decided to be a doctor, all I could think of was ‘because I want to help people.’ Lisa rolled her eyes so hard I thought her face would get stuck like that.”
“We’ve got to get you away from that lass. She probably doesn’t suspect anything, though. She’s just jealous that you’re getting more attention. Listen, I can’t control what your family does, but I can promise you’ll pass your English exam. I’m gonna tutor you until Shakespeare quotes come out of your ears, guarantee.”
The girl on the skateboard stuck the landing this time, and Mel and Jackie cheered. They emerged from the park on King George Road across from Namaste Indian Restaurant and Kings Prosecco Lounge.
“Do you think we have time to stop for papadum?” asked Jackie.
“I wish. Our shift starts in ten.”
The girls strolled past rows of red brick flats and tree-lined boulevards. Approaching the café, they ran into their classmate Halima and stopped to pet her cat, Gubbins, whose chirpy meows and fondness for walking on a leash had garnered substantial Instagram fame.
“Anne told me her neighbor’s cat used to sneak into her house and lick her toothbrush when she lived in Australia. You really need to meet Anne. I think you’d get along,” Mel said to Jackie.
Considering it now, she wondered if Jackie and Anne really would get along. When Jackie and Mel were lab partners in primary school, Jackie always got bored looking at microscope slides. She did well in school, but she wouldn’t consider herself a nerd like Mel or Anne would. They’d been best friends since the first day of Reception, but sometimes Mel wondered if they still would have been friends if they’d met in secondary school.
“Of course I want to meet Anne!” said Jackie. “You’ve been talking about her nonstop.”
She stopped beneath the café’s enormous sailboat sign to smooth the wrinkles from her work uniform. For a moment, the ghost of a frown danced between her brows, but then she smiled again. “Just remember to tell her that I’m your best friend.”
About the author: Ella Shively studied natural resources and writing at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, USA. You can find her online at https://www.instagram.com/shivelywrites/.
About today's featured poet: Born in London in 1861, Amy Levy was a Queer Jewish novelist and poet. She was the second Jewish woman to attend Cambridge and the first to attend Newnham College. Her work often centered around themes of New Woman feminism, death and loss, and love.