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Nicholas Brembre 60

Nicholas had not looked so hard at another man’s head since the bald prisoner at the Newgate gaol delivery blazoning his six inch scar. Even John Constantyn’s had not held his attention once he was sure it had dropped. In this world it was difficult to look at another person. More than a glance and he would feel your eyes and turn his own in accusation. Now Nicholas looked at the head of John Philipot because it was white. It was white as an eye without the iris, egg without a yoke. Whiskers stopped the jaw from falling, nose and cheekbones kept up the shroud of skin. John’s nose was long and sharp – might it be made of iron rather than bone? – and his cheeks were broad as if smuggled from the east.

John had invited everyone to Cornhill for Shrove Tuesday. But now that the day had arrived the company that came with it looked too much for him to manage. Nicholas sat with him in a corner of the hall, perhaps to stop others from crowding him.

‘What do you think of these Stodeye women?’ he said into the emptiness. ‘Did old John make them difficult on purpose?’

‘Margaret is a jewel,’ said John. ‘But she is not always as full of sense as a woman should be.’

‘Idonia is sensible but she is also difficult. Even when she says nothing I can tell she disagrees. I think that is often worse than when she argues.’

‘Does she really?’ tested John in a mild voice.

‘I think you can accept my knowledge of the subject.’

‘Like a wife should?’

They both laughed as if the matter could be tossed away like sawdust or chaff. But after another pale silence John resumed: ‘I have had one wife more than you. I think that gives me a wider view. If we marry them for their sense they may not always agree with us. If we marry them for their beauty they may not have sense. No woman has all the qualities we would like but in fact the reason we marry them is…’

‘…for their money. And we get whatever comes with it.’

‘There are other ways of choosing a wife. For a poor man it may happen in a haystack or an alley where darkness may assist.’

‘You mean the smell and the shape of a woman will be all that is required.’

‘There is something else.’

‘Other than money and lust?’

John laughed and left the present: ‘I remember when I first spoke to her. I sat down with her and she looked up through her fringe. Her eyes were luminous and her skin was pink. She was scared but she smiled and I felt that I was full of joy.’

‘Love? You married Margaret for love?’

‘No, not Margaret. Johanna.’

How different was love from lust? Did one lead to the other? Did they have any similarity? Could they be separated? The great stories of chivalry required that a knight commit reckless deeds for a love that was never fulfilled. Was that separation of love and lust or was it merely lust frustrated? Kings were wed for every reason but love. Some degree of lust was imagined, since the production of an heir was a recognised purpose of the match. But Richard was brimming over with love for his scrawny queen Anne. And no sign yet of any issue. Of the two states it was love that was difficult to explain. Lust was more responsive to examination. Its manifestations and its consequences were easy to recount, although not always easy to bear.

Intercourse was a husband’s right, and a wife’s too. It was clear from the marriage contract. The woman made her promise and most did not require encouragement. But if appetite and timing did not coincide there was difficulty. In their younger days Idonia was not always willing but he pressed his claim. Sometimes it was the other way around but he could plead inability and she seemed happy in any case with the touch of his skin. The risks, of course, were also uneven. Pregnancy and childbirth fell to the body of the woman. The hand of death was placed on her head and not removed until she was churched. But for Idonia the peril was not to her life but to her heart. Pregnancy and birth had been easy for her but her children had died. What is your own death to that of your children? You would do anything to prevent it – or refrain from doing whatever might revive the risk. Was this the hardest test in the world?

There was a fable of man and woman that came from God or, at least, was eagerly promoted by his representatives on earth, though less regarded by the masses. Man was fallen through woman’s weakness. Sex was sin, marriage the antidote. But, as John had said, marriage was also business, part of the world of work and survival. There was no time to think about it – only to shout when it went wrong. You had to look back in a sudden gift of leisure to see what it meant. Then the many details of subsistence over the years faded to nought but the trails of the man and the woman had becomed imprinted on the house. The figure of the wife pulled a tippet of remembrance behind her. A warm pink shadow of her waited by the door, another was feeding the fire, a third holding an infant to the light of the window. And the trail of the man crossed and recrossed that of the woman. There was little pause at the junctions but the space was shared between them. This was not lust, so might it be the other?

The flames of John’s fire thrashed out as a stab of cold air accompanied Margery and Henry into the hall. Margery reminded Nicholas of what was to come. Shrovetide was a time of indulgence: eating, drinking, bear-baiting, cock fighting and football. But it was also a time for confession and repentance and, once the meat and eggs had been consumed, the long fast began. Margery was bony like a fish. She shimmered slightly as the world washed past her. She was cool, not quite cold; dry not damp. Margery was an organiser. Her household was an extended military campaign that would produce a terrifying tippet. It was almost painful to see how quickly and precisely each task was performed. It seemed that Margery could accomplish all she needed in half the time available and spent the other half re-scoring her efforts so that the lines cut down into the deep like wounds. Henry was less malleable than the house. He did not resist her management, rather he was incapable of matching it. Henry was a different man from the one that Margery attempted. He was slower, more truthful, more gullible. Nicholas had so often seen her impatience and his oblivion. But now he looked again and saw the failure of his conceits. Margery’s lips attacked Henry’s simplicity but her eyes revelled in his presence.

Margery took a seat with her sisters, who were babbling away on the other side of the fire. Henry joined Nicholas and John in discussion of the duke of Lancaster and the earl of Buckingham who were departing to fight the Scots. Between the low masculine tones Nicholas could just follow the lighter lines of the women.

‘I always wanted to be a man.’ Surely that was Margaret.

‘Wouldn’t every woman prefer to be a man?’ Definitely Margery.

‘No more bad breath on your neck.’ Joan.

‘Being told what to do.’ Idonia?

‘Being leapt on in the dark.’

‘Sitting at home bored and frustrated when you see what should be done in the world.’

‘No more carrying babies and no more agony in pushing them out.’

‘But would it really be your baby if you were a man?’ said someone very quietly. Was it Idonia?

They think so.’

‘Yes, they do but are they right?’ said someone quite clearly. Joan.

‘Do you want a life full of business meetings and pomposity?’

‘Do you want to be hairy and foul smelling?’

‘But, really, do you want to sit all day in a pretty dress and have no…no…’


‘There is a plan, God’s plan. We all fit into it: men and women. Why should we be the same? One sex takes the grander, noisier tasks. The other the quieter ones that are really more important.’

‘And yet you look at men and some of them are very stupid. How are they to manage the grander tasks unless their wives help them?’

‘And, meanwhile, whatever the true importance of things, the husbands get the rewards?’

‘Always marriage – that is the only place for women. Or a nunnery.’

‘How could it be otherwise?’

‘Men can be knights or farmers, merchants or lords.’

‘They don’t chose any more than we do. What if Robert wanted to be a tailor or the king did not want to be a king?’

‘To care for children is a joy God has reserved for us.’

‘Not all of us.’

‘How many women die to have children?’

‘Children can be very boring.’

‘And when they are not boring they are difficult.’

‘And yet they are the only thing that matters.’

Everything must be consumed or thrown away. The tables were still laden with winter remains: eggs, cheese and salted meat and whatever could be made by combining them. Fresh pancakes kept emerging from the kitchen despite the slowing of appetites in the hall. Servants pursued guests with dishes that had not been consumed at the table. Sometimes a servant turned out to be Margaret who embraced this method of rapid circulation. She floated on a high cloud of merriment – a storm cloud perhaps since lighting was presaged. But did she eat herself? It did not seem so since her giddiness increased and the wine she drank met no resistance. Sometimes she turned towards John but he was not eating either. All that food and the hosts were not eating. Her children, Thomas, John and Idonia, were all there, standing in a group aside from the older generation. Margaret swerved in and out of their corner, touching one shoulder and later another, then pressing the girl to her breast. Idonia’s husband, John Doget, was with Thomas Goodlake by the buttery door. A servant brought out pastries which they snatched without breaking their exchange. Where they discussing the royal trip to the north? The price of fish? The life of the married man? The figures of the female servants?

Conversations ran in all directions through the beautiful spaces of John’s house. They engaged pairs or aggregates of people in a wide range of material, with notable variations in volume. All these conversations, though moderate on their own terms, built up to a madness. Nicholas could no longer interpret the thumps and hisses of Henry’s speech. Deafness pursued him while sense was stealing away. It would be quiet tomorrow when the head and stomach aches gave way to a meaner diet and contemplation made some progress through the refuse. Forty days Christ spent in the wilderness sparring with the devil. This was not a battle of shouting and waving spears but a fundamental struggle for the world. Was it good or bad?

‘What about the wreck of La Margerete, Nichol?’ said Thomas Goodlake.

‘Yes, I heard that you lost a cargo of wine,’ said Henry Vanner.

‘Good thing it was someone else’s ship.’

‘I came back from Middelburg in the same weather,’ said John Philipot. ‘It was a bad trip all round. I couldn’t find anything or anybody. When I did they didn’t want to trade. But how lucky we have all been over the years not to drown in the channel or in any of the other seas we have sailed. Samuel, bring over that flagon and we will drink to a dry death!’

‘Have you recovered all your wine?’ demanded Thomas.

‘I don’t have my hands on it yet. It is still in Sussex,’ replied Nicholas. ‘The ship was not saved but a few animals, one man and most of the barrels survived.’

‘William Tonge also had goods on that vessel.’

‘Yes. I may combine my efforts at recovery with his. The locals are demanding a ridiculous rate of salvage and the king has intervened.’

John was pushing himself up from his seat towards Samuel, who filled his master’s silver cup. John opened his other hand and swept it across the company in a gesture that spurred the servants to yet more thrusting of plate and jug. The guests lifted their glasses and John smiled wanly as he turned towards the back of the house. It was some time before Nicholas realised he had not returned to the party.

‘Who was that shady-looking individual you were soliciting down Poultry on Monday morning?’ asked Thomas.


‘That was Jankin? Brother Nicholas – he is a strange creature for a servant. How exactly do you employ him?’

‘He is my manager. He understands all my business and can maintain it in my absence.’

‘Is that really what he does? His genius is for business?’

‘He is also excellent at keeping accounts.’

Nicholas could see that Joan was searching for her husband and he beckoned to her across the hall.

‘Thomas, since you have asked me a question, let me return the favour: is there anything you should tell me about Homerton?’

‘Homerton? I don’t think so. No. Homerton is my concern now. You shouldn’t worry about it.’

‘I have an attachment to it. We all do. I wanted to suggest a family gathering there in the summer. What do you think, Joan?’

Joan’s face was flushed with the pink light of opportunity. There was nothing there beside the vision of herself at the centre of a party. Thomas had not told her about the mill.

‘Perhaps we could,’ said Thomas in a low tone. ‘Last summer there were few days that would make the journey worthwhile. It is damp around there as you know.’

The servants who had been forcing food on the guests were now being forced to eat themselves.

‘What is this ridiculous tradition of feast and fast?’ asked Margery. ‘We have been restrained over the winter to preserve our supplies. Now we cram our throats with them before Lent. There is something abominable about it. Was the body designed for this?’

‘If God ordered it then it must be so,’ Idonia replied.

‘Of course,’ said Margery briskly, looking again at the bloating efforts of the servants. ‘But sometimes men take things further than their maker intended.’

‘Where is Robert?’ asked Nicholas as his wife moved away from her sister.

‘In the garden with the Birlinghams.’

He followed her, abandoning a discussion of alum and woad. ‘He should not be outside. He has been sick.’

‘What difference does it make?’

‘Is that the question of a mother?’

‘Who else am I?’

‘Don’t we want to keep him with us as long as we can?’

‘Not if he it makes him suffer more.’

‘Or maybe because it makes you suffer.’

‘Do you understand what you are saying to me? You are saying that I am a bad mother and that you know better for our son though you are hardly with him.’

‘It is your job to be with him.’

‘And my job is to decide what is best for him’.

‘As my wife you should take my view on all matters.’

‘One way or the other, Nichol. Either you look after him and make the decisions or you stay away and keep mum.’

‘What is the matter with you? You sound angry. Who is it that angers you? Nicholas Brembre or God?’

Her lips pushed forward in a pout. She was going to say ‘both’. But instead she breathed hard through her nose and stared out of the corridor window at its tiny portion of blue.

‘Robert asks me about John Constantyn. He thinks the world is a battleground.’

‘It is difficult for Robert to understand.’

‘Sometimes it is difficult for me to understand.’

‘Is there something you need to understand?’

‘Same as Robert: why did you kill a man on a city street?’

‘You have never needed to know why men are tried in the Guildhall or in Saint Martin’s and punished for their crimes.’

‘I should not have asked,’ said Idonia retreating momentarily into wifely wax. ‘But this was not the same. It happened in the moment and justice may have been rushed.’

‘Justice was not my first concern. I needed to stop a riot!’ Fury was winding round him so that he could not breath. She must surely see his temples bulge. He stamped out into the garden where the air was colder, cleaner, and sat down in another world.

How is a robin? It sits with a great cushion of red on its front. What is in the cushion? Just feathers? Or is it mostly air? Is it a display to catch a mate? Or is it just pride – the enjoyment of the bird of itself? Now it hops along the gutter bouncing the weight of the redness with it. It is a bright spot in the world, tiny and disregarding. And then it sings and the sweetness of its song is like a ripe fruit slashed by a blade.

The robin hops through the winter, marking its territory in song. Its fellows sing from other roofs, taking it in turn to boast their dominion. But the first robin is best: it has the reddest chest, the sharpest song and it is singing to Robert.

‘Where do robins go in the summer?’

‘I don’t know. Somewhere cooler,’ replied Robert’s father.

‘Where has uncle John gone?’

‘He’s upstairs. He is unwell.’

‘I feel unwell.’

‘You were coughing in the night.’

‘I can’t breath.’


‘No. Sometimes. And I feel tired.’

‘Tell this to your mother. She may help you. I can’t.’

‘I am afraid.’

‘Think of Arthur. He faced far worse troubles than you. He never knew what would meet him in the next battle. What did he do, Robert?’

‘He prayed.’

‘Of course,’ said Nicholas dryly. ‘And then he marched on. He didn’t stop and worry about it. And he triumphed over many nations.’

‘Until he died.’

‘He didn’t die, he disappeared on a boat and many people say he will return.’

‘Father, when people die they go to heaven or some go to hell. They don’t come back to this world unless they are ghosts. Why would Arthur come back?’

‘He would come back because we needed him. Don’t you think that sometimes things can happen that you don’t expect, that the rules we know are just the rules we know, that there might be something beyond them?’

‘Are you sure, father?’

‘No, I’m not sure at all. But where do stories come from if not from beyond the rules?’

‘Is Arthur a story?’

‘He is both man and story. Once the man was what was important, but now it is the story and the story says that he will return.’

‘I would like to see that.’

‘So would I.’




Nicholas Brembre 59

It was spring again but recognition was defeated by doubt that such a marvel could have happened before. The birds had much to say on the subject. They twittered frantically and chased each other around the roofs, as if the source of their ecstasy might be a blunder liable to correction by a fickle creator. Low light smashed into the weeds and the walls as if it had only moments before the murder of winter returned. The weeds took their beating but hit brightly back, unconcerned about tricks of time. The walls took colour more quietly, allowing it to soak into the fabric of the city. A white pigeon pecked its way across the street, ignoring the feathered frenzy above.

For the first time this year Nicholas saw the sun rise above the roof of St Mary Woolchurch as he rode to the Guildhall. He enjoyed the clean lines of the city. The wind was light but sure. Women had hung carpets and bed covers from their windows. Though their aim today might be merely to get them dry, they recalled the celebrations of the city when every house displayed its excitement in this way. A servant was taking care in sweeping the street outside his master’s door and a well groomed horse carried a rich Italian along the opposite side.

Nicholas studied the row of goldsmiths’ shops on the south side of Chepe. Such beautiful buildings for men of evil heart. The doors were open and the hatches down. Gold and silver glittered within but nothing was left loose on the counters. The bells were ringing for prime and an unseen child imitated their song. An older voice encouraged and then laughed at it. Small flowers were growing in the cracks of walls and the street. Gold and purple, no scent.

Nicholas saw a shape in the shadow of the Guildhall which revealed itself suddenly like an actor leaping onto a cart. Adam Carlisle was a smooth but stocky man whose mouth cut across his face like the wreck of a razor. His hair was all gone but his eyes held the lost glory. He was not daunted by his time in prison, if anything he was aroused by it. His body was poised as if waiting to hear the trumpets.

‘I want your help.’

‘I thought the case against you had all but collapsed.’ Nicholas smiled and spread his arms in congratulation but Adam’s eyes were full of fire. ‘In any case, I don’t see how I can help you with the king’s bench.’

‘I am sure you could if you wanted. But that is not my need. My name is damned in the city. John is no longer mayor but I am still banned from office and livery.’

‘You must speak to the chamberlain and make a petition. Once your guilt is wholly dismissed, the corporation will welcome you back.’

‘Meanwhile Adam Bamme and others like him come closer to you than your old supporters.’

‘Adam Bamme has become a useful ally. I would welcome other converts. But old friends like you deserve my gratitude before all.’

The eyes were still boiling. Something must soon burst forth: ‘You think I plotted with the rebels.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Someone told me that you have been asking about me.’

‘And the others.’

‘So are we all guilty?’

‘Your peril has dissolved. You are all innocent. Why are you worrying about this?’

‘Why do you want to condemn us?’

‘Is that what someone told you? Tell me how this someone without a name, and perhaps no wit to match, would know my judgment better than I do myself? I wanted to know the truth, that is all, and I still don’t. But I really don’t believe the accusations against you are just.’

‘So will you help me?’

‘Of course.’

‘In return I will support you over John Constantyn.’

‘Does it have to be a deal? Don’t you think it was the right thing to do in any case?’

‘To cut off a man’s head with only a sermon for a trial and no chance for him to consider his defence?’

‘Come to my house and we will speak. I have a meeting now.’

Adam pulled back into the shade and Nicholas progressed through the porch into the Guildhall.

The mayor took his place on the dais and listened to the business of the city. The principal subject was fish and familiarity had power to sooth. Four good men, John Wilton, John Fraunkeleyn, John Barry and John Pyion, were sworn in to ensure that fish brought by foreigners were not putrid and were sold at the right times and places. The rules were complicated but they were well known. They had been so for a long time and, though some had been corrupted by the draper, they had been restored to purity and would last a long while yet. There were points of detail, however, that some in the hall felt it necessary to discuss. For example, the requirement that hawkers move from place to place with their wares to serve the commonalty.

‘You recite this rule as if it were undoubtedly a benefit. But hawkers can be a great nuisance in their peripatetics. I would rather they were kept in one place so that I did not come across them by chance.’

Nicholas heard here an attempt at unnecessary noise. He knew that John Vynedraper had no particular aversion to hawkers since one at least of them was his mistress and it was rumoured that his mother had been another. He must also know that the point of being a hawker was that you spread yourself around. The point of the rule was to stop those who craved a place in the markets and the pretence of citizenship.

Someone else wanted clarification of the destinations of fish from the Thames. The men who fished west of the bridge must sell in the Chepe while those from down stream must sell in Cornhill. You could go back through the rolls and see that this had always been the case but men still wanted to wallow in every possible doubt. Were they merely vaunting their knowledge by denying it or was there deeper purpose to it?

Nicholas felt a stirring in his innards. Had it been there before? The unease grew in response to its identification, until it was greater than if there had been bare hostility from the floor. Now he heard buttocks shifting on the benches without knowing what was happening in the heads above. There was a creeping fog in the hall, suggesting the presence of things that had not been there when they might have been seen. But was this worse than in any other meeting of men? It was his task to remain upright and well armed regardless of the peril. He might be sitting in a meeting rather than on a battlefield, but danger switched its liveries.

It was difficult to remember a time when his life was not made up of meetings. They began as a young grocer with the guild of that name and on the wardmote of Bread Street. The wardmote dealt with matters before they became big enough for the corporation. You became involved because you were a rising young man in the ward and then you rose further and found yourself in the corporation. He was a common councilman at twenty-eight and an alderman at thirty, sheriff at thirty-two and mayor before he was forty. The more powerful he became the more he was reduced by meetings.

Was it worth it? That was in the balance. If you could see what was right you wanted to make it so. The only way to do that was through power and to obtain power you had to use whatever was already there, including its corruptions. It was an irritation that could become a pleasure through employment of energy and skill. It was exciting and victory was thrilling. But then the power to do good proved partial, disappointing. Other men put up blocks wherever you went like traps in the woods. So the game continues, a sport of pace and violence that becomes a world in itself.

The mayor stepped out of the Guildhall and, as his feet splashed into the light, two faces reflected up at him. The first was that of John Philipot insisting on the approval of the king, the second Thomas Wailand’s as he too rapidly left his shop. If Beatrice thought correctly that her master did not know whom she had loved, then what was it he wanted Nicholas to explain? There was always something that met with disapproval however necessary it might be. With so many minds and mouths in the city, there would always be easy opposition where there was no responsibility for the outcome. Was there anything that a man could do or fail to do that would not draw criticism?

Hamo was leaning against a wall in the yard. Jankin and Ralf were close by talking rapidly to one another. All three changed shape when Nicholas appeared: Ralf became sharp and straight like a dial, Jankin slithered like a floored fish and Hamo tipped upright as if a building block had been levered into its slot. Strange that their haste should draft such poor pictures of their natures. Ralf was rarely straight nor Jankin out of his element and lately Hamo had been less like the weighty lump which had been his first attraction. Hamo was shrinking and Nicholas was concerned that he had caught a disease that might be contagious or, at the very least, would prove a threat to his status as a bodyguard and thus to the safety of his master, principally with regard to his wife. Juliana reported that Hamo was no longer requesting food early in the morning and was consuming less than half the household total at the main meal at midday. Nicholas shouted at him for failing to concentrate and his French, which had never stretched far into enemy territory, now retreated soggily back across the channel. Idonia had felt his forehead and put him to bed for a day, but there was no improvement and he had not been feverish in the first place. Finally Nicholas asked Hamo what was wrong and Hamo replied too quickly that nothing ailed him.

‘Ralf, ride with Hamo and lead us through Castle Baynard. We have not been much in that ward lately and he should know where he might need to go.’

Ralf considered for a moment and then pushed round Hamo’s horse so that he, but not Hamo, was pointing in the direction of Saint Paul’s. There was whispering as he passed and Hamo turned his own mount without raising his head.

Nicholas watched Hamo then as he clasped his hands tight to the reins. Would he otherwise fall from his horse? Why had God wrought such imperfection in the world? Old men bulged with rancorous judgment while youth was empty of spirit or idea.

Nicholas Brembre 58

She was wearing red and blue. He had paid for the cloth—not a few shillings, indeed—but she was wearing it and it became rich only now that she did. She was a creature of soft flesh and warm blood and that is what gave the cloth its value. He remembered his mother in red and blue. His father had not been as rich as he, so the cloth he bought was coarser, though the colours were still strong. His mother used quantities of ornament to enhance the spectacle. Why did she spoil her appearance that way? He knew of no-one she wanted to please, only herself. Women thought strangely, like hens clucking in front of an open gate. But here was Idonia achieving what his mother could not. She had followed simplicity rather than the urge to preen.

He came and sat beside her in the coolness of morning. There was no wind but he could hear the odd fluttering of servants beyond the hall. This was his house and it felt good to sit in it and listen to other people being busy. He need do nothing but think of his fortune. Idonia breathed quietly beside him. Light sprinkled against the beams and dripped down onto the floor. Nicholas stretched out his legs and ran his palms slowly along the grain of his chair. A bird flapped away from the window.

He remembered the racket inside the Guildhall. What a contrast! In his house there was plenty of talk but it ceased when he appeared and was respectful when he invited it. Mostly. Everyone needed a home, though not all were granted one, and some had less than might merit the name. He thought of the creature in the alley. She was tying to make a home as best she could. Even she wanted a space that belonged to her and shelter from the rain. But London could not tolerate beggars on the streets, even if they were hidden under doors.

Everything was organised in the city. The courts dealt with crime, nuisance, debt, orphans, inheritance, widows, merchant disputes. The guilds, fraternities and religious houses helped with the sick and destitute. Family managed business, household and bodily needs. Custom told people how to behave. Anything that fell outside must be purged, as was John Constantyn. He could not sit for long.

Pieryne was playing games with Robert. She was supposed to be tidying the solar but he kept standing behind her and making her jump when she turned. She pretended to slap the top of his head and he ran around the furniture as if he were an outlaw.

‘Are you dull, master Robert?’

‘Catch me, Pieryne!’

Pieryne was still young but she probably did not want to waste her energy on tasks not allotted to her. She faced Robert with reluctance but the lines on her face would not hold straight. ‘I can catch you,’ she laughed and Robert was tumbling across the floor.

Pieryne put down the objects of gold, silver and pewter she had lifted to clean. Robert was a cat now, crawling through the rushes. Pieryne pretended she had a trap and pursued him with it. The cat yowled with delight but the trapper dropped her tool.

‘Robert, I want you. Come quickly,’ said Nicholas, who had been watching from the stairs. ‘Pieryne, clean him up a little since he seems to be on the floor for your benefit.’

‘I am sorry, Sir Nicholas.’

‘Pieryne couldn’t catch me.’

‘I don’t want you to go to school today.’

‘Why not? I’d like to go.’

‘Weren’t you afraid yesterday? Didn’t you hear the riot?’

‘Will there be another one today?’

‘I pray God will prevent it.’

‘Brother Simon locked the door and we carried on with sums. We heard a lot of noise and it was hard to think. Giles got walloped because he kept looking at the window. Mother sent John Fresshe to fetch me because she wanted me with her. I think she was scared.’

‘I hope it will be peaceful today but I had to do something yesterday that will make a few men angry.’

‘What did you do, father?’

‘I killed the man who started the riot.’

‘Did you fight him? Did you kill him with your sword?’

‘No, in the city we do not usually settle matters by combat, at least not in the chivalrous sense. Sometimes I regret it.’

God granted Nicholas his wish for a peaceful day. Pinkish cloud had taken the place of the white void of yesterday. The snow had gone and the city was damp and warm. The streets showed a dull flat sheen that shimmered on the occasional escape of the sun. Nicholas set out with Ralf and Jankin. Hamo dragged behind.

‘What will happen now, Jankin? Have we finally put them down or will all continue as before? ’

Jankin’s eyes darted sideways into an alley and then over a low wall into a shadowy yard. ‘There is more to come.’

‘John de Northampton is on his way to Corfe Castle. He won’t be loose in London for a while, if ever.’

‘His creatures are merely hid.’

‘That’s what I think, Jankin. If only it were not my lot to be mayor.’

Jankin’s face squeezed through a sequence of humours. First he was surprised, then annoyed, finally desperate.

‘Maybe not yet,’ said Nicholas hastily, and then with wrestled calm: ‘Maybe we will have peace for a while.’

Ralf followed behind Jankin. Nicholas dropped back to speak to him, after first checking on the distance to the rump of the party.

‘You have been working with Hamo…’

‘I do my best to explain things to him, Sir Nicholas.’ Ralf had shaped a face to suit the opportunity. It was one twitch away from several possibilities but all involved the failure of Hamo.

‘Don’t forget, Ralf, how uncommonly quick you are and be careful how you judge others.’

‘Then, Sir Nicholas, will you allow me more time from my own work to teach him his?’

‘I know the abilities of all my servants and I make my calculations accordingly. Stay with Hamo a little longer and you may find you are rewarded.’

He knew that Ralf often volunteered to sleep alone in a warehouse rather than at La Riole with his peers but that he observed them very closely during the day. He worked hard but avoided shared tasks. He was very good at grading wool, for example, but would rather shift sacks than submit to collusion in his judgment. It must be torment to him to have to teach Hamo.

Nicholas was keen to confer with John Philipot but there was somewhere else on Coleman Street he could usefully call on the way.

Thomas Wailand was reading from a roll when Nicholas entered his shop. Boil boy was at the counter, although the boil was long since lanced. ‘I will explain later,’ said Thomas before turning to the visitor. ‘I am about to leave, Sir Nicholas. Although I do have some information for you. The drapers have not stopped cursing since yesterday. They are daunted but furious.’

Nicholas could see that Thomas was rushing his preparations. He creased the corner of the roll as he stowed it away. He caught a sample of cloth on a splinter in the bench. Then he stood too quickly and looked likely to fall. Nicholas took the arm of his friend, who smiled but moved away.

‘Come and see me another day and then you can tell me why you did it.’

Nicholas had not had time to remove his cloak but despite his readiness he did not attempt to follow Thomas from the shop. Instead he stood at the counter and turned his ears to the higher level. Could he hear a woman’s step on the stairs? He waited while Ralf pulled his head with cool curiosity from the door but there was nothing to detain them that could be explained to such an alarming apprentice.

The party reached the gate to John Philipot’s house and was welcomed in. Other visitors were already seated in the hall and John was moving among them looking bright but perturbed. His health had recently returned and he was swelling back into city life. By contrast Hugh Fastolf was clearly unwell. His head was in his hands and he was moaning gently.

‘What is the matter, Hugh? Did they assault you?’

‘I went to the bear-baiting in Southwark. Someone was selling illegal liquor. I had a small amount. It must have been poisoned.’

‘How much did you piss in the morning?’ asked Adam Bamme.

‘Well, that’s the odd thing: I couldn’t stop.’

‘Must have been the poison.’

‘You did not hear what was happening on this side of the Thames?’ demanded Nicholas.

‘Not at the time but I have been enlightened,’ replied Hugh with wide eyes and a scalloped mouth.

‘Get the king’s approval, Nicholas,’ said John. ‘Then all is well.’

‘You took action,’ said Hugh. ‘That is more important than precisely what it was you did. These men are full of hate and without reason. They did not take your offers of peace so war is the only option.’

‘Will this silence them or stir them to worse trouble?’ wondered Nicholas Exton.

Nicholas had expected John to be alone so that could talk to him at length about the arrests and the execution. Instead there was this strange assortment of ears and voices: Hugh Fastolf, who was clever but vain, Nicholas Exton, who was an ally but a doubtful one, Adam Bamme, who had been an enemy until his recent change of persuasion. Nicholas was confounded and he told Jankin to take Ralf and Hamo out to the kitchen, while he prepared to sit and waste his time for while. Instead John grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. ‘You see what the current company thinks of your exploits. Now come and hear from someone else.’

He followed his host to the parlour behind the hall where he met with an astonishing sight. Half hid by the blur from the window was a figure wrapped in a dull, brown cloak: the scrivener Thomas Usk.

‘They know he is here but he won’t come out.’

‘How many apostates do you keep beneath your roof, brother John?’

‘I worked for John de Northampton and was paid for my skills, as is any man who must feed himself. What I wrote for him is not my heart or mind,’ said Thomas.

‘By you wrote it without horror in your face as I recall.’

‘Greater things concern me in my own time and I do not want to be lost to the chance of my occupation.’

‘What then are you besides a scrivener? Is there a real Nicholas Brembre aside fromthe grocer and the mayor?’

‘What we must do to survive may be different from what we do with love.’

‘I suppose you write verse on truth and beauty and have a message for the lost souls of London. I have heard as much.’

‘I know many things about John de Northampton and I will speak of them in court.’

‘I want to stop at Saint Antonin’s,’ said Nicholas. ‘The rest of you can continue to La Riole.’

‘One of us at least should stay with you, Sir Nicholas.’

‘You could probably spit and hit the house from here, Jankin. Who is going to accost me here?’

‘I was thinking of who might accost you where the spittle lands.’

‘Some things are reserved for my tongue alone, Jankin. Take my horse. There are other members of my family with whom I must share some privacy.’

Nicholas caught a flash of colour. There was a fox in an alley beside a pepperer’s shop. The fox had not seen him. It was turned away. Its body was soft and red, a back leg scratched its neck in quick catches. Full of fleas. Its features were sharper than its furry mass. It was quite easy apart from the incessant scratching. After a while it spotted him. He was still but it recognised danger nevertheless. It stared at him through pointy eyes along a perfect nose. Then it ran away. Animals were of no use if you could not eat them or work them. Foxes caused nuisance in the city by scattering rubbish and killing chickens. Nicholas should have killed it and would have tried to do so had he not studied it for too long. More likely than not it would have escaped him.

He hobbled into the churchyard and sat down on a low wall to nurse his knees.

The vicar emerged from the church and nodded at him. ‘Are you in need of my attention, Sir Nicholas?’

‘No, thank you, Father.’

‘Or God’s?’

‘Most likely,’ said Nicholas.

‘The church is here to intercede for you.’

‘Thank you.’ He would need to make his confession but Easter would do.

Nicholas slid along the south wall of the church to a point where he could feel the stillness of his children in place of the fury of the street. A figure slipped in beside him. ‘Don’t keep looking for me. Keep away.’

Nicholas was stupid with confusion. Who was this overgrown ghost? It was a ghost he had almost given up. ‘That is your desire?’

‘No, but it must be. Thomas is suspicious.’

‘He doesn’t seem suspicious to me.’

‘That’s because he doesn’t think it is you.’

‘Life is full of risks, otherwise it would be of no value.’

‘You speak of risks as of shame, a slap on the cheek. That is your life, Nicholas Brembre. I speak of starvation. Since I have known Thomas I have eaten well and I have been content. Would you fill my belly as Thomas does?’

‘If I were as free as he to do so.’

‘But you are mayor and you have a proper wife who expects all the goods to go to her.’

‘You share Thomas and his bounty with two others.’

‘We carve him up between us but in the brightness of noon by which all of us can see. Better there than in the shade of your wife’s ignorance, wondering if the money will arrive.’

‘What is it you expect in this life?’

‘Oh I want some pleasure, like you, but when I see that pleasure threatens more basic bodily needs, I put it aside for a differenttruth.’

Nicholas knew that she had tracked him through the cold morning until she had her chance. He felt warm to think of her care but numbed that she had claimed her release. She reached over and gave him a large last kiss which stayed wet on his lips for long after her body had shaded into the street.

Nicholas Brembre 57

In the absence of John de Northampton the city seemed inside out. Externally it was calmer than usual, the streets were more orderly and the shopkeepers unnaturally polite. But the noise and distress was still there, veiled by doors of frozen gossamer and windows of ice. Nicholas and his posse trotted up and down the thoroughfares learning little but feeling the turn of a hundred hidden eyes.

The business of the Guildhall proceeded in close imitation of the usual. Nicholas sat in the officers’ room for two hours dealing with mundane matters but was still as cold as he had been riding the streets. The murderous air had hacked at his face and the skin had not yet healed.

Surveyors of the mistery of pelters brought in three mantles of squirrel fur in which old and new were mixed, contrary to the ordinance. Nicholas ran his hand through the exquisite remains of the squirrels and felt a little warmth flow into him. So many of them stitched together to keep bald creatures from their inadequacy. So many squirrels—but killed at different times of the year and that was the problem, since their coats were of different hues. John Fauconer, who had offered the mantles for sale, would appear before the mayor’s court on Monday.

Nicholas returned to the officers’ room with Richard Odyham, who was twice his normal size this morning, swathed as he was by wrappings of unknown quantity and type. ‘I have some information about a case that interests you, Sir Nicholas. Peter Gracyan of Lucca has made a quitclaim to Francis dil Masse of Siena, although there was no mention of your debtor, Luke Bragadyn. I don’t know if this brings him any closer to release.’

‘Perhaps it is a sign that Peter is trying to clear his affairs. Thank you Richard.’ A little more warmth entered the mayor’s bones.

As the bells rang for sext a messenger arrived with a writ from the king requiring the conduct of John de Northampton to Corfe Castle. Nicholas felt warm all over now. No more rats in the cellar whispering in green ears. No more doubts about the judgment of the master of the house. Nicholas arranged a team to take John to his exile. His brother could pine in Newgate. Nicholas stowed his mundane matters and moved out into the main hall, intending to accompany the party to La Riole, but a screaming beadle ran in through the porch sliding to a stop a yard from the mayor’s face.

‘There is trouble in Chepe and Budge Row. The shops are being shut. Sir Nicholas.’

‘Is there snow?’ The blank windows and freezing quiet of the morning had already suggested this prospect.

‘No, Sir Nicholas, traders are closing their doors and refusing to work. They are protesting at the arrest of the old mayor.’

In an instant the Guildhall broke out of its workaday pretence and men began moving swiftly in and out like shuttles in a loom.

‘John Constantyn the cordwainer started this,’ said the beadle as Nicholas followed him back through the porch. ‘It was he who first shut shop and he who called out for the others to follow.’

‘He will do,’ said Nicholas, too softly for the beadle to hear.

A large party followed the mayor and the beadle out into Catte Street and down Saint Lawrence Lane. The noise built solidly as they approached Chepe. Here there was a scene of some destruction—stalls overturned, windows broken and cartwheels tumbling—but above all there was the shouting. Everywhere there were bodies in motion, running, climbing, fighting and shouting. After a moment it became clear that there was cleavage toward Soper Lane. Nicholas pushed around a mob of shouting mouths and aimed for the junction. His body took temperature from those around him. In through his fingertips flowed the fire and his feet scorched the surface of the earth. He must find John Constantyn and end this boiling strife.

The word ‘mayor’ was on the breath of many but not in conjunction with the name of Nicholas Brembre. ‘Our mayor’, ‘the real mayor’, ‘mayor John’ were the fuller expositions.

‘I am mayor!’ he shouted back. ‘Go home!’ Faces slipped blankly by, no-one acknowledged his claim.

This riot was worse than the march to the Carmelites because it ran down the channels in all directions. It was diffuse and it was corrosive. Each time he survived a rebellion there was another still fowler behind it. Could he keep standing for yet more? It would be nice to sink into the bog and not come up again until the world was old.

The city staff and the watch were chasing rioters in all directions but were taking more harm than they could inflict. Nicholas kept the aldermen with him and hoped they would assist him in his desperation. They found John Constantyn in Budge Row where he was strutting around like a cock full of farts. One shopkeeper was still behind her counter selling leather goods. John had been shouting at her and now she turned her back.

Nicholas stepped forward: ‘Mistress, has this man been harrying you?’

‘Been harrying us all. Most of them have given in and joined his riot. He wants me to shut my shop but I want to eat tomorrow. If you can aid me in that, Sir Nicholas, I will think you the best mayor London has ever had.’

‘Arrest him,’ said the mayor. ‘John Constantyn, I charge you with insurrection.’

‘They won’t let you try me. They all oppose the arrest of John de Northampton, the true mayor.’

‘I will try you now and we will see what they think of the conclusion.’

‘You can’t hold a trial in the street.’

‘Why not? Any sense of restraint has long since departed and my nose is colder than I can remember. I don’t want to wait another hour to settle this matter. I won the election. I am the mayor. I will ensure justice in this city. I saw you outside your shop exhorting others to follow you in insurrection. Do you admit it?’

‘I admit I have closed my shop. Perhaps others have done so too after I asked them to think about the election. Are men not allowed to discuss the affairs of London if they are not aldermen?’

‘That depends on what they say but I am judging you on what you have done. Now say no more and do only as you are instructed.’

Nicholas looked around. Some shops were still ignoring the call but most doors were closed and the shutters set. The level of noise was lower here. It was odd to see the blank wooden faces and yet hear their protest elsewhere.

‘They are in Watling Street just past Saint Antonin’s, Sir Nicholas,’ shouted one of the serjeants. ‘There is a large gathering there.’

‘Bring him with us. We’ll have the trial there. How many aldermen do we have among us?’

They set up in the widening of the street close to a scuffle between a stall holder and a scrivener. Further along a gang was trying to drag a man from his house. He slipped through their hands as they turned to view the new spectacle. The door slammed shut beyond attention.

The white sky shivered against the underside of God while the objects of the earth shrank into silence or shattered into shrieking arrows of ice. Nicholas positioned the serjeants, beadles and constables across the street and shaped a horseshoe of aldermen around John Constantyn. Simon Wynchecombe joined them from Soper Lane with the news that his fellow sheriff, John More, had been arrested on Chepe.

Nicholas looked back at John Constantyn and saw that he was changed. His face, which had been pink with mockery, now took frost from the sky. ‘I did nothing. I saw some men from the skinners’ guild running and fighting. They were drunk and falling about. I told them to go home. They didn’t even hear me. I don’t think anyone did. Too much shouting. The city cannot afford this strife.’

‘No indeed. Then it must have been another with your shape who ran ahead the riot and a third who shares your voice that demanded the shops be shut. I heard that voice only a few moments ago admitting John Constantyn’s guilt and I am sure it was your lips that moved.’

‘I think you misunderstood, Sir Nicholas. This is the court, or so you claim. Before it was just jesting on the street and I say now that I have done nothing against the city and certainly nothing that is worth your trouble here.’

‘Well which is it? Nothing or nothing much? You’ve certainly done something otherwise I would not have heard about it at the Guildhall.’

‘You don’t believe me. What can I say? Your spies tell you tales and they lull you to sleep. There are many scores to be settled in this place. They will all have their day.’

‘And this is the day for John Constantyn.’

The mayor turned to the aldermen: ‘He was seen in the act and has confessed his crime. What is your verdict?’ As they delivered, Nicholas thought of the deed he had accomplished. Given the turmoil created by John de Northampton since the election, this arrest of one of his supporters had created an opportunity. Time was the issue. Justice was inclined to take too much of this. The regular courts took days, weeks, months to make judgments that were obvious from the start. They passed a case between them like a lingering illnesscreating great expensein addition to the delay. By the time the wretch had been condemned this way there would be far less value in his execution.

The crop of heads reaped by the city was its sustenance in times of strife. The city was hungry now and an empty plate might drive it to madness. But John Constantyn was a man of well-known family – one of the few that had survived the relentless reap of the generations. Nicholas had never wanted his company but had been aware of him, as he was of all citizens. He had watched their ages as they grew, blossomed and then branched out to become fatter, thinner, greyer, balder and yet remain the same. Each had his end to go to, few knew when or what it would be. Life was lived in the presence of death, live and rotting flesh touching at all points. The death of one man was a tiny detail, a blob of matter in a putrid mass. John Constantyn had reached his end and now its nature was known.

‘This is the mayor’s court. I am the mayor and I will answer to God and the king for my sentence, which is death. Take him to the cross on Chepe.’

Who would carry out the sentence and with what? But that was all arranged. The sword bearer came from the Guildhall with his charge and appeared ready to stretch its ceremony to the cause of justice. In the numb hush Nicholas wondered if he could really be considering beheading by sword. No, he would not sully it with the blood of a felon. Behind him came the executioner bearing axe and block.

The wolves still howled in the forest but they were less sure that it was they who would make the kill. Stout arms held John by the curb and the axe swung. The wolves became whimpering dogs and ran off into the woods. The head rolled and tipped back on its base. Blood ran along the jagged channels of the street, sometimes meeting again in consanguinity, as if what had been spilt might find its way back into the bottle.

‘Someone find a pole.’

That was when the snow began to fall. It came in chunks slapping down onto the roofs, the hoods and the street. Where it came too close it melted into the blood on flesh, wood and stone and turned it pale as petals. The serjeants dragged the body away and behind their grunts Nicholas could hear the haste of the rebels to return to their shops.

Nicholas Brembre 56

‘Sir Nicholas, one of your serjeants has come from the Guildhall.’

The serjeant was in haste and showed his effort in his heaving livery and shiny face.

‘Sir Nicholas, I am sorry to disturb your meal but John de Northampton is marching at the head of a mob.’


‘They started at Saint Paul’s, Sir Nicholas.’

‘Heading which way?’

‘Towards Westminster, Sir Nicholas.’

An image of the duke of Lancaster appeared instantly in the mind of the mayor. ‘What’s been done?’

‘The chamberlain has called out the aldermen and the watch. He has ordered the ringing of the bells of Saint Martin.’

‘Follow after the rebels as quick as you can. Order them to stop in my name.’ Nicholas dropped his spoon on the oak table and pushed back his chair. ‘Jankin, get my horse! Ralf go after the serjeant! Peter, take your mistress home and send out anyone who can hold a stick: Guy, Hamo, Aaron, James, Richard—even Gombert, if he can get there before it’s all over.’

Sir Nicholas Brembre bowed to his host and marched from the hall, the other citizens following him out into the cool afternoon. His horse, alarmed by his urgency, began to trot and Nicholas was forced to mount it like a knight fleeing an assignation. His right foot remained loose throughout. He rode too quickly down Wood Street toward Chepe, just avoiding scaffolding to one side and an unwieldy delivery to a carpenter’s shop on the other.

‘The city is beyond control,’ screamed Henry Vanner as they emerged in the market space around Queen Eleanor’s Cross.

‘It is not beyond my control,’ replied Nicholas through hard lips. Henry had only to open his mouth and dread dropped out. Bold words or simple silence would serve the moment better but his calamities were contagious and would strike men’s heart. By contrast Simon Wynchecombe caught them up with jaws shut tight and reigns clenched as if determination were the only need. To have this one sheriff alongside him was a great boon to Nicholas. John More must make his own choice and stake his neck on it.

They passed Saint Paul’s where signs of a great gathering were strewn across the yard. The cathedral itself was eight hundred feet long. Nichol had paced it out as a boy on visits with his mother. She waited impatiently as he put toe to heel on dry days after mass. Of course, it was not so many feet for an adult – but five hundred at least. And it seemed almost as high as it was long. Your head went too far back for comfort when you looked up to the top of the spire. And the spire, which was of wood, was an impossible height above the top of the tower. Once his mother caught him as he fell backwards. It seemed they were forever rebuilding the east end of the cathedral. Young Nichol was fascinated by the mechanics of it. The trenches and the beams and the pulleys. The stone masons and their men climbed around the scaffolding, swinging slabs on ropes into impossible places. It seemed to Nichol as if they were pressing bright wooden bricks into holes cut in a toy box. Sometimes he watched the positioning of stone angels and demons, saints and serpents. But this delicate work was for others. He wanted to swing the slabs.

As they approached Ludgate they still could not see the main body of the rebels but there were stragglers, old or lame, who looked up at them in defiance of their challenge and envy of their horses.

‘Can’t we leave the city to worship at the Carmelites?’ demanded one of them. ‘Even that is against your tyranny?’

‘That is not my information as to your purpose.’

‘Your information is wrong. It is a clear as your face.’

Nicholas’s hand went to his nose and found sauce on it. ‘My information is that a congregation is seeking the duke of Lancaster and that its purpose is not religious. I warn you to disperse or face arrest.’

The old man waddled away and others like him who had been watching concluded that quiet withdrawal suited the moment best.

The mayoral party continued through Ludgate and along Fleet Street to its crossing of the river which leant its name. Now they saw the rebel party by the Carmelite Friary. Nicholas was not surprised by this proximity to the house so famously patronised by the duke of Lancaster.

Ralf ran back to report. The serjeant had arrived first and delivered the mayor’s message but John de Northampton had refused to stop until he reached his present point where he now stood surrounded by a wriggling mass of savagery. The noise was an assault in itself. The human voice can be louder than the sea so long as it is copied in many throats and the blood to the head is pumping to burst. Shouting men find best accompaniment in stamping and banging of sticks and it felt as if White Friars and Salisbury Inn beside it would collapse in a moment.

Nicholas climbed down from his horse and passed his reigns to Jankin. He could smell the Fleet river beneath him. The mortal mass ahead smelled no less foul. He wondered if he might meet his end here in one way or another: a stray missile, angry surge or collapse of rhetoric. Suddenly he felt hopeless against the raging men. There were so many of them together in their heat yet grinding their fury from varied seed. There was a lurching action that he must perform. He must swing forward without knowledge of where he might land or which way up. That was the essence of combat: without the lurch nothing happened. Much easier to stand still and gape.

When he reached the opposing line Nicholas was hot as a horseshoe and ready to kick out at any-one who tried to touch him. But the marchers had quietened a little and stood waiting for him as if behind a phantom wall. In the midst of them was a boy. He looked well fed, fat even, but the eyes encased in the puffy face were wet diamonds, ice-hard and sore, as if cutting into the soft tissue of his soul. Around the boy were lorimers. He was with them and yet not with them. His arm obediently waved his hammer but the rest of him quivered to be elsewhere. Then Nicholas studied the body of the rebels and saw further flaws and deviations. Not everyone was waving correctly even to the standard of the boy. Some held up their craft tools with bent arms and did not open their mouths except to look as if they bayed. Others glanced sideways as if seeking a quick way out. Why had he not considered this before? He had heard that John de Northampton threatened the drapers with fines if they did not obey his summons. Did he use other threats against these lesser guilds? Was spontaneous enthusiasm not the spring of all attendance? The fat boy had disappeared in the tangled mass. These common people stood up and fell down and you had no idea what they thought, what they might do or whether it made any difference. Perhaps it would today.

Nicholas strode towards John de Northampton who was standing with Robert Cumbertone, his brother. The ex-mayor was slow and cold. He seemed to think he could freeze his rival into submission. ‘Do you want to join our gathering?’

‘Your gathering is against the regulations of the city. Go home, all of you! The militia will be here soon.’

‘We mean no harm. We hope to attend a service here outside the walls.’

‘You are outside the walls but you have not passed Temple Bar. You are a congregation, a large one but not a penitent one, and you threaten the peace of the city. Go home.’

‘Who decides the nature of a congregation?’

‘I do. I am the mayor now and I ask you to cease your noise.’

‘You think you know best for everybody but everybody for you is just your friends.’

‘And everybody for you is whatever rabble will scare decent men into doing your bidding.’

‘There are many men on my side.’

‘Are there? There are many animals on your side – that snort and belch and fool the eye that cannot count the many quiet souls that long for order, who would prefer a competent man who understands the needs of all to beasts who don’t even know their mouths from their shit holes.’

‘These are not animals. They are the sons of the city. They produce the goods and thus the wealth on which we all depend. We do not eat without them or have shelter without them. You would have nothing if it were not for them.’

‘I value them when they are quiet and in their proper places. There they understand why we have a corporation and why it has rules.’

‘You are caught up in your own small world and see nothing beyond.’

‘I see the watch arriving to arrest you,’ said Nicholas. He kept his hand on his dagger and the beasts waved their tools. But the men among them had shut their mouths and were shrinking away.

‘Why did you come here, John? Were you expecting the duke of Lancaster? Otherwise, what was your purpose other than to make an ugly noise?’

John bent his face to defiance, his eyebrow raising warning of a secret explanation. But the serjeants were upon him and his brother and no-one breached the magic wall to rescue them.

‘Take them to my house,’ said the mayor seeing that no-one else had moved. ‘The rest of you can go home if you can get back through Ludgate before I change my mind.’

There was a shiver through the bones of all present and then the fat boy and those who favoured life over rebellion, comfort over airy conviction, began to move away. The rest seemed to follow to avoid exposure.

When the worshippers had all gone Nicholas looked around for Jankin and found him holding the horses beside the bridge. He seemed reluctant to cross the water of the Fleet but he had watched all that occurred and clearly had an opinion on it. ‘We can’t catch them all – we haven’t the prisons to dump them in. They need the lesson of a bleeding throat.’

‘That is your view, Jankin?’ said the mayor as he mounted his horse.

‘Sometimes it’s your view too, Sir Nicholas.’

‘You are right and I know others who agree with you.’

‘They wouldn’t agree if they knew it was me who said it.’

‘No. That is their misfortune. Do you lie in the night thinking of such remedies?’

‘It is best to think at night.’

Jankin’s philosophy had been planted as a seed by his master and grown into a tree of thorns. Nicholas was not sure he favoured the conclusion in this case. John de Northampton was too powerful a force to be slashed and dumped in a ditch. He was better dealt with by the king’s justice. In the meantime the smaller men had disappeared. Jankin’s eye was yellow and his shoulders sloped towards the ground. Nicholas wanted to throw him a bone but instead he signalled for him to lead back home.

When the sun goes down in the city it does not touch the ground. If you try to catch it you must flit between the wall at Black Friars or the nose of St Paul’s or the curve of the roofs of Bread Street or the distant crouch of Westminster. You have to move fast to witness the sun’s extinction because it happens many times and as you try to track it you are never sure which will be the final moment until it has cheated you. And it never touches the ground.

They arrived back at La Riole in twilight having traced with care the shape of the rebellion and studied its origin in the yard of Saint Paul’s. Four serjeants were guarding John and his brother in the cellar of the house. Idonia sat in the hall with Pieryne fussing beside her. She looked stiff with irritation. ‘Nicholas, are you well? Did they threaten you?’ she inquired in punches.

‘I am unharmed, although it was a knotty matter. Peter brought you home safely?’

‘Yes, and then disappeared again with most of the men.’

‘Were you worried?’

‘I was indeed—particularly when we heard loud banging on the gate. But it was John Fresshe calling to see if we were well.’

‘I am grateful to him.’

‘Then there was more banging and the serjeants arrived with their captives. We have been busy with them.’

‘I hope John has not caused you trouble.’

‘Quite the opposite. He has been quiet and respectful and thanked me for the lodging.’

Food was now provided for those who had ridden back with Nicholas from White Friars. They ate with an ardour that was close to insolence but Nicholas felt a tautness in their motion which he exemplified by tipping the contents of a plate of fish across the table. When he got up he was almost tripped by one of its legs but such lumbering must be avoided whatever the strains of the day so he walked carefully across the hall and sat down with Idonia, merely nodding to the guests as they stepped out into the night.

Idonia was quiet for a while longer but then she said what she had been saving for him: ‘They said they were going to worship.’

‘Yes. They didn’t say that only to you. That was their agreed response to any challenge.’ He stood in front of the fire and stared into flames that looked quite unlike the heat they produced. If anything their depths were cool like liquid and their heights flapped like cloth in the wind. He looked back at his wife and wondered how to convey his reasoning and whether to trouble himself to do so. ‘Their conceit was that they would be met by the duke of Lancaster. White Friars was a good enough place to stop since he is virtually prior there.’

‘Did the duke appear?’


‘Did you expect him?’


‘How do you know they did?’

‘I understood the ambition as soon as I heard the direction of the feet. John decides to disrupt the city by marching so he has to march somewhere. Clearly he marches west so that it looks as if he has a friend at Westminster.’

‘So he did not expect the duke to come after all?’

‘Probably not.’

‘Are you sure he did not mean to go into the church at White Friars?’

‘He did not do so when he had the chance and none of his party went that way after I set them free.’ Idonia could suffocate in honey as she imagined John de Northampton at prayer. Nicholas saw the plain business of his manoeuvring.

There was something, though, about religion and the Johns. The duke of Lancaster, as well as favouring the Carmelites, favoured John Wycliff and his criticisms of the church. Blessed himself with power from one institution the duke seemed keen to reduce its rival. Wycliff made some handy claims: that the church was corrupted by worldly wealth, that priests had no special authority from God and that they should not hold secular power. However, his dislike of violence clashed with the duke’s hopes in Spain. This was where the Carmelites came in. It had long been rumoured that he hoped for their backing in a crusade against the schismatics in Castile.

What was the best way to worship God? That was the real question but it was lost among many others less worthy, from how to rule a country to how to steal enough to eat. John was not troubled by the basest questions nor, it seemed, by the highest. His interest was in control of the things of this realm, something that had come close to him but was now pulling away. The dotage of his father, the illness of his brother and the youth of his nephew had offered him power but never the full stretch of ermine. Had he really thought of snatching the crown? If so the moment had passed and so had the chances of the house of Lancaster, since Richard was now both man and husband. Still the duke sustained himself on the rights of his royal birth and so the struggle between secular power and the institution of the church prompted a search for worship that weakened the latter. If the best way to worship God was a question of power then it was not the best way to worship God.

What did Idonia think?

‘We must be grateful in any way we can,’ she said.

Did she mean all ways were just as good, or that a man must try many before he finds the one that works?’ He did not want to interrupt her again. Idonia was reading the bible although she had little Latin. She picked passages she knew very well and pointed at the words that she recognised because they had preserved themselves in English. She was adding new words now through Robert.

Was it better, as Wycliff believed, that all men, whoever they were, should read the bible for themselves? The main objection was not the one that was most obvious: that most men could not read. The church thought that even if they could they would get it wrong, that they would misunderstand or focus on the wrong bits. The bible is the word of God but it is not easy to understand. Sometimes it is obscure or contradictory. What it says at one point may be opposed to what is stated at another. Some things such as the poverty of Christ seem clear enough and yet the church favours a different view. Its masters would prefer to read the bible themselves and tell the people what they need to know.

Nicholas Brembre 55

Though his stomach was unsettled Nicholas felt a sudden desire for cheese. Cheese was not a particularly popular food so it would be difficult to find. There might not be any in the house, so he would need to send outside. But since it was the middle of the night there was no point to this. All the shops would be shut. There might be some in the store at the Guildhall since they had been building up supplies for the feast of Candlemass. He thought about calling for Peter but instead he got up himself and walked to no purpose the frozen floors of his house. His head was still tossing like a ship at sea and he did not really want cheese. The hunger for it melted to sludge revealing behind it a more obvious desire. He sat down in the hall by the embers of the fire. Why did he feel so bad? He began an audit of what had happened during the gathering at Henry’s house. It began well enough with the meeting but thereafter it faded badly. The details were gone. The cold air burned him and brought back instead that sad, mad sensation that went with Thomas’s woman, Beatrice.

The devil was tormenting him – not with the deed itself, which could not be undone, but with the reflection. It wasn’t even the lingering lust, nor the sadness at its loss of object, but the idea that her possession had been the pitch of his life. If he could imagine nothing but decline from that point, what did that say of all else that he had worked so hard to achieve?

The room of the cushions in Coleman Street swelled in his memory. Its softness and scent of lavender filled his skull and his breath was squeezed into the tiny space remaining. He wanted to be there again – just once, if that was all God willed. But God did not will it and had never done so. It was he, Nicholas Brembre, who had exercised his will. God had given him this chance to decide what was important. His wealth? His power? His influence in the city, on the continent, with the king? Or maybe… Was all of this the wrong way round? Success might suggest God’s favour but his son exhorted generosity, honesty, simplicity, love. Not much work in that, apart from the generosity, perhaps.

His skull was no longer bursting and his breath regained its space. There was no devil to tempt him, just the world as it was. He went back to bed.

‘Nicholas, you look as if you have been wrestling with fiends.’ The eyes stabbed back at the flame of his candle. Nicholas swung his head around the room as if the fiends had followed him in. Then he put up his hands to stop it swinging and searched for a story. ‘Who was elected mayor?’ he demanded. ‘Are they my supporters or drapers in disguise? The city has a shape…’

‘The Tower, the Guildhall and Saint Paul’s.’


‘Those are the highest points in the city and they give it its shape.’

‘What about the walls?’

‘Depends on whether you see it as a bird flying over or a squirrel on Notting Hill.’

‘Or a rat in a sewer. They are undermining me. Everything I say has its counter. Hugh Fastolf plays at skittles as usual. Nicholas Exton wants my job, I am sure. Adam Carlisle is the worst. He speaks so very quietly but it feels like he is going to explode.’

‘But what can I do about it?’

‘You? Nothing.’

‘Then why wake me?’

‘Does it matter if you lose some sleep?’ He could not understand her question. It was shocking, unwifely. What did she mean? ‘You can help me get back to sleep.’

‘What if I can’t get back to sleep myself?’

‘Well, who is more important?’

‘Neither of us is important, Nichol. We are rotting flesh.’

‘Is that why they persecute me?’

He sensed the burn of his wife’s body as it rolled, though under the mass of bedding the change looked less than it was in truth.

‘Just because you are mayor does not mean that everyone must agree with you or that they know what you want. You have to tell us.’

‘But what I want is always the best option. Don’t people know what that is without being told?’

‘Remember the mayoral feast? Was it not a triumph overall? But you were disappointed because there was no swan. Did you tell me there had to be swan? I thought the best option was not to spend the money on swan but to spread it over the rest of the meal. Who says which plan was best?’

‘Idonia! You infuriate me with your arguments. Why did John Stodeye allow his daughters to think?’

‘How would we avoid thinking, whoever our father might be? Sometimes I would be pleased to do so.’ Silence. The shape in the bedding shifted a little and then there was silence again.

What does my wife look like? The mayor of London pondered this strange question as he pulled the covers tight to his throat. I can see her, I do see her every day. I see her so often I cannot see her. I will make the effort to look. But not now. Idonia had rolled back to her side of the bed. Not even the skin of her neck could be seen under the white linen cap.

Peter had been sent out early but was a long time in doing his rounds. Had he been set upon? He had refused an escort. Was he getting too old? His health had always been good and nothing lacked in his work about the house. Would Nicholas Brembre be alive on the day that Peter put down his cloth and shuffled off on pilgrimage or asked to be found an alms house beyond the walls? Nicholas would be old himself on that day.

‘You need him, don’t you, Nichol?’ said Idonia.

‘Guy will do.’

‘Guy is busy…’

‘Jankin then. He doesn’t need to sit at the books all day or sneak around the city. He can resume the ordinary duties of a household servant.’

‘Maybe he will need to go out after Peter.’

But Peter appeared without injury and Jankin escaped the mundane.

‘I found out very little, Sir Nicholas,’ said Peter after following his master out into the storehouse. ‘The man you mentioned, Thomas Wailand, sometimes stays at the Tabard but he has not done so for a while. They think he has somewhere else to stay but they don’t know where. They would take a message for him.’

’Thank you, Peter, for enquiring. Were your other tasks completed?’

‘Yes, Sir Nicholas.’

It was the day of the immense congregation, the twenty-ninth day of January in king Richard’s seventh year. The winter sky was undecided. An army of clouds, uniformed in white armour and black boots, rolled over a city striped by their shadows. Between them the field was blue. Would the arrows rain down or would peace shine through?

When Nicholas arrived at the Guildhall it was difficult to see, let alone move, through the mass of bodies in the yard. Hamo and Jankin pushed a way to the middle where the serjeants took over the body of the mayor. Richard Odyham and William Cheyne were waiting in the porch.

‘This is want you wanted,’ said William.

‘And now I have it, may it not be the end of me. How long will it take to get them all inside?’

‘Longer than they will stay still once they’re there,’ Richard replied.

Nicholas had managed the election but it had not ensured that the city as a body wished him well. You could win the argument and the poll and were left with seemingly small advantage. How could there be such a separation of worlds? But he knew the answer: because men fling themselves into heaps with those of like mind and interest. However many the piles of dung, their plurality is not enough to dim their righteousness. Nevertheless, time forks through the heaps. While a few men stick to their positions, most wander at intervals in search of a stronger smell. That was his advantage. Nicholas knew that with skill and good fortune he could bring sufficient wanderers back to sense. He strode across the floor of the Guildhall and mounted the dais. The immensity pushed in behind him. He turned to face it and clasped his ears. Everyone was speaking but no one was listening. Everyone was speaking to someone who was speaking to someone else. There seemed no point, indeed, in any of them being present. They might as well go home. Alternatively, they could all stay where they were but stop talking. Then calm would descend on the Guildhall and they might hear something worth the journey.

The recorder, William Cheyne, stepped to the front and signalled for the meeting to come to order. As the discord dimmed, Nicholas wondered if there were any way that he could conduct his life and business without having to speak to other men. Perhaps he could go to the corner of the yard and speak to Robert’s cat, who would listen to him for a while, especially if he brought some scraps from the kitchen. Unfortunately a man and a cat could not run a city. Should he, instead, have made his living from a simple craft that would allow him to hide in his workshop? But there was no excitement in that and little profit. If he was heading to hell he wanted greater gain in this world.

There was other corporation business to deal with – the size of the mesh of nets on the Thames, the harbouring men of ill fame by innkeepers, the organisation of the watch – but everyone was waiting for the debate on the ordinance concerning elections to the common council. John de Northampton was not admitted and John More was constrained by his role as sheriff but Richard Norbury and many others raised objections to the changes. A heumer stood to say that his craft had never been represented before the recent years of election from the misteries. Would a member of his craft ever be elected again?

‘There shall not be more than eight men from the each mistery,’ said Nicholas for the tenth time.

The complaints continued, some real, some carefully crafted, but it was clear the day was won. The heads swayed and turned like wheat in the wind. The storm whipped around the edges and over the top. Some ears were bent or even broken, most rustled and nodded gently. Nicholas nodded back. He was content. The ordinance was secure. The rebels were reaping heads elsewhere.

As the mayor stepped out of the Guildhall he faced the deluge of the black boots. Jankin came running, followed by Peter and the bear. Peter was wettest of all. He had come directly from La Riole to inform his master that his wife was missing.

‘Pieryne says she has not seen her mistress since terce and that she did not say she was leaving the house.’

‘Who has gone with her?’

‘Juliana is also missing.’

‘Pieryne is worried? It is not so long since terce. She often chooses Juliana as a companion now, although she should take a larger escort if I am expected to do so.’ He mounted his horse and pulled his hood over his head. ‘Don’t rush us, Peter. The streets will be heinous.’

There were two figures in the yard when they arrived back at La Riole. Robert was squealing and pointing to the sky. There was a rainbow spanning the roof of the house.

‘What colours can you see, Robert? In Latin.’

‘Rubera, flavus…’

‘Ruber. How many colours?’


‘Seven. Ruber, flavus, what else?



‘Viridis, caer… I don’t know any more.’

‘Caeruleus, aurantius, lividus. But not in that order.’

‘Why did God send the rainbow after the flood?’ asked Idonia stepping between them.

‘The raven found an olive. The world had been bad and now it was going to be dry again.’

‘Go inside, Robert,’ said Nicholas, turning his son’s head away from the rainbow and towards the door. Robert trailed into the house, almost hitting the door frame as he tried to catch the colours for the last time. ‘Pieryne was worried and sent Peter to fetch me.’


‘She didn’t know where you were.’

‘Pieryne expects too much. Because she has been so close to me, she does not want to share my trust.’

‘She is jealous of Juliana?’

‘Juliana is not better than Pieryne as a servant. Far from it. But I like to teach her and I like someone young and less familiar. And it is better to leave Pieryne in charge of the house. She thinks she is being left out.’

‘She sent Peter out to fetch me because she is jealous?’

‘Yes. I will deal with it. Don’t worry, Nichol.’


Idonia was dressing for a dinner in Wood Street with the assistance of Pieryne. Nicholas could feel the fretting from as far away as the hall, where he sat as still as he could. The house spun with every twirl of his wife’s form and there was a sharp contraction of the walls whenever pin caught flesh. He knew that Idonia was not vain, but she worried when she was to be scrutinised by the world. Pieryne, meanwhile, was seizing her chance with her captive.

Nicholas had spent the morning in the Guildhall where he had reviewed the lists of armed men ready to keep the peace. Since the immense congregation he had issued a number of precepts: that elections be initiated in the wards, that all inhabitants of the city take an oath to preserve the peace, and that aldermen ensure that the good men of their wards be furnished with arms and red gowns in readiness for whatever might come. There were a few ‘good men’ he would like to remove from the lists but more harm would be done by challenging aldermanic licence so he gave up the idea and left for home.

He had returned via Saint Lawrence Lane and Trump Alley, where the trumpets still shone in their window, and onto Chepe, where the view was less bright. Since his election he had always been uncertain what would meet him when he entered that great space at the centre of the city. Today the markets were busy with traders, patrons, regraders and thieves. The shop fronts were open and stalls erected in the street. Goods of various kinds were nurtured and disported by workers in smocks. At one stall they worked at a pace, speaking no word that was not essential. At another the work was slack with much ribaldry and innuendo. A man was sitting with his back to a shop playing an instrument with strings. The notes came one upon another like a ladder. The sound was slightly harsh but intoxicating and the air was soon filled with a radiant weave, light and yet penetrating, which followed itself into the distance until all lines became one. Nicholas stopped to listen and would have waited to the end but he must return to La Riole to fetch Idonia.

Nicholas had gladly accepted the invitation from Sir Richard Waldegrave but now was beset by unease. Sir Richard was a shire knight, a former speak of the commons, who had lands in Suffolk, Essex and Northamptonshire, as well as the town house by Saint Michael Hoggenlane which they now approached. He was a king’s man, steward of the lands of Anne of Bohemia, who had sat on commissions into the poll tax, the riots that followed and many other matters. His links to the king had inclined Nicholas to value the invitation when it was made, so why was he now dreading the dinner? There was a certain distance to be expected between men of town and country, true enough, but the mayor’s main concern lay with his host’s history of armed combat, which was bound to be recounted and which would leave him little chance to compete. As a young man Sir Richard had accompanied Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, on crusade in Prussia, Attalia and Alexandria. Tokens of his travels could be seen around the hall and even without armour he held the shape of chivalry. He spoke to his wife as if she were a beauty belonging to another man, though she did nothing to assist him in this fantasy.

Sir Richard’s hall was large for a man whose main residences were stuck across the shires. The room was filled with furniture, including an unusual number of chairs cushioned by scenes from the holy land. There were displays of greenery and winter jasmine in stately vessels, beside which too many servants stood stiff and idle. The tables were piled with rich dishes and at the very centre sat a swan. Nicholas looked once only at the majestic beast and avoided sight of Idonia all together. He selected enough from nearby platters to sustain him through several crusades and settled himself in his saddle. He was surprised, however, to be spared any feat of endurance.

‘What do you think, Sir Nicholas, of the insurrection?’ asked the country knight. ‘Has the monster been cut down as thoroughly as it seems or could it growl again?’

‘I think there is insurrection everywhere.’

‘Ah! You compare your troubles in the city to the ravaging of the counties by swarms of peasants intent on killing the king.’

‘The monster has many parts,’ said Nicholas. ‘Although I do not believe they wanted to kill the king.’

‘But is there not a difference between a disputed election and a murderous uprising?’

‘Both are attempts to overturn authority.’

‘I sat on commissions dealing with rebels and I believe you did too. They were not men of reason, albeit there were reasons why they acted as they did. But, Sir Nicholas, there were so many of them it is hard to keep from trembling at what might have happened had the king not stood up against them.’

‘Indeed, and I was on Smithfield to see that remarkable deed.’

‘So I have heard. Tell me how it was.’

‘It was like being pulled to pieces and then stuck back together. There were so many rebels with such fury and desperation in their faces and we were in this huge open space with nothing but bodies beneath us and the militia we summoned seemed small for the task. My heart swung between fire and ice. I feared that I would die, but more than that I feared the wretched would win the day. Then the king spoke to them and I felt ashamed that I had been afraid.’

‘You describe the feelings of the knight in any battle of just cause.’ Here Sir Richard broke off to speak to another guest but he was soon gesturing for the glasses to be filled and insisting that the mayor drink with him. ‘You are becoming useful to the king with your position as leader of the city, as well as through your loans, which you have of course made for many years. I hear your name often around the court.’

Nicholas was used to throwing the hold of flattery but the room was warm and his chair unusually comfortable. He was impressed by the food and the conversation, and nothing that Sir Richard said was necessarily false. Indeed he was the model of the just knight who would always defend the truth.

‘The king needs men of loyalty and of stature,’ continued Sir Richard. ‘There are those in the nobility who should be more faithful than they are. Their high rank leads them to forget that it is not the highest of all.’

‘The order of the world is changing,’ said Nicholas, feeling eager to spur his host’s course with points of his own. ‘History speaks of three types of men: those who fight, those who pray and those who labour. But the men who now are needed are none of these.’

‘It is true that the men of finance and trade have become a major force in the realm. They have pushed through without acclaim. Meanwhile, few of the knightly class still wield arms and many of those who are clerics worship gold above God. And what of the peasants?’

‘I have always thought that peasants – labourers, artisans – want power as much as we do. You see it in the insurrection and you see it in their faces as they shirk their work and look aslant.’

Sir Richard turned to Sir William Wingfield, placed along to his left, whom Nicholas knew to be his close companion in parliament and Suffolk, which county they frequently represented. Red-faced Sir William was indicating by courteous gesture that he would like to join the conversation:

‘Your new class can also disappoint. I suppose you know that from your present troubles but I am thinking back to king Edward’s reign and the merchants who were impeached in parliament when he was almost dead. Service must be service, not theft or treachery. Did you know the men involved?’

‘I knew Richard Lyons,’ admitted Nicholas. ‘The others too. They pushed their advantages too far. A merchant does not always judge well the space beyond the rules.’

‘Were they harshly treated then?’

‘No. Their own actions brought them down. But there are many lesser copies of their deeds that continue unmarked.’

‘That is the case in the country as well,’ said Sir William. ‘Some poachers kill under the eye of the lord while others are hung and their children starve. There times when masters want peace and times when they want to terrify the natives.’

‘Are you comparing merchants to poachers?’

‘There are some similarities.’

Sir Richard’s wife Joan was thin and tall with a sharp face boxed by stacked veils. Her first remarks to Idonia were obvious and polite but when Nicholas looked back later the women were laughing and the sharp face had smoothed under the flexing veils. Idonia was pink of cheek and enjoying herself, as surely she deserved. What were they discussing? At one point Joan seemed to be teasing her guest about her ignorance of country life. Later, it was Idonia who told stories of the city to shock a stranger. On his final audit Nicholas failed to catch any particulars but repetition of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘they’ gradually suggested to him that the women were discussing their counterparts in life – men – and deriving much mirth from it.

The efforts of Pieryne were not wasted. Idonia was beautifully dressed and her eyes were bright. She was enticed to try beaver and drink more than one cup of wine and she followed their host a fair distance into his explanations of exchange of coin, the diseases of sheep and the establishment of the Middelburg staple. Nicholas wondered if Idonia had after all been listening to what he said in the past when she appeared to be interested only in saints and souls or the doings of the Stodeye clan.

‘What does the king think about the staple?’ she asked Sir Richard. ‘Not the same as us, I suppose.’

‘The king is concerned to get his taxes. Whichever location – or none – will ensure the most money is his preference. Calais has ceased to be that place but he has hesitated over its successor. He has finally chosen Middelburg – or his advisers have. The king himself has no experience of trade and little of finance. But he does know how to spend.’

Sir Richard had invited other men of the city to his dinner. Adam Bamme was there enjoying duck in a creamy sauce. He was talking to William Walworth, who leant away from the goldsmith between vigorous loadings of crow. Nicholas Exton was smiling into his cup of wine while Henry Vanner tried to engage him in conversation on the subject of ale. John Philipot was present but looking as if he would rather be at home in bed. Margaret and Margery, separated by six places, were sending hand signs on the subject of their husbands: the one horribly pale, the other merely annoying. Between them sat Hugh Fastolf, his red hair fizzing at the edges. He was slight like an imp although he always ate twice as much as Nicholas on these occasions. His wife was large. Perhaps she had swallowed their larder. His face was fine and clean but tending to weasel rather than sprite. Was man an animal? There had been debate in La Riole on this subject. Surprisingly, Idonia answered ‘yes’. Nicholas Exton, beyond Margery, was made from stuff of the earth, not of the woods like Hugh. His face was rough like sandstone and his voice was choked by gravel. He had always been an ally of Nicholas and had sometimes done business with him. Once a decision was made he was reliable but there was always a grinding amidst the boulders before the edict emerged. His hair was all grey and had been for twenty years – so long that you imagined he had been an iron-headed child.

Though the other men were stretched out along the table Nicholas could hear what they said to Sir Richard because he listened to them in expectation and his hush spread through the hall. William Walworth said that the city would always support the king – although this had not really been the case in the past. Nicholas Exton said that the city knew where its interests lay – also a doubtful claim – while carefully avoiding specifying loyalty to the crown. The truth was that the city usually waited as long as possible before placing its wager – better still made no move at all. The needs of the city were peculiar and one monarch might suit them better than the next. Nicholas understood this. His commitment to the king must be his own.

Nicholas Brembre 54

Henry was a vintner and should know best about wine, but Nicholas also dealt in this commodity and could not help disagreeing with him. Henry became annoyed eventually, though his knack was not to apply the bellows to familiar flames, however sharp his cries to scorch more distant foes.

‘Why have I spent twenty years buying and selling wine if I have to defer to the judgment of a grocer?’

‘Would you prefer to have spent them some other way?’ Henry could try any trade and be likely to waste the years he spent on it. But he had enough luck to keep the riches he had gained through marriage and inheritance and a certain cheerful doggedness which convinced others of his utility.

‘I didn’t want to be a vintner. I wanted to be an aleconner. But I didn’t know it because there were no aleconners then. When was it they invented that wonderful occupation?’

‘Three years ago?’

‘More – the old king was still alive.’

‘No he wasn’t. The boy had taken his crown.’

‘Whenever it was I should have switched jobs. Spending all day testing ale would have suited me well.’

‘You don’t like wine?’

‘Not much.’

‘And you don’t like sailing down to Gascony where it is always warm and the women slap you in the face as soon as you look at them?’

‘That may happen to you.’

‘What do they do to you, Henry?’

‘They run away.’

‘What a distance there is between London and Gascony!’

‘I used to delight in my trips to buy wine. I am a good sailor and I always made sure I was comfortable on the ship. I took cushions with me and sat on deck when it was not raining. The sea is always different. If you fall asleep you find on waking that its colour has changed completely and its waves have doubled or halved in height. When it was wet I sat below and talked to the servants and to the sailors if they were idle. There is always interest in what other people say even when they don’t know it themselves. But when we got into harbour I lost my enthusiasm to the prospect of work. We must be busy in this world.’

‘And you must be the only merchant who is not thankful to step back onto God’s dry earth after praying and vomiting in turn for most of the journey.’

‘I send agents now. We are getting old, Nicholas. It would be nice to sit and watch the birds in the yard and have someone else pay the bills.’

‘Are you ill, Henry? If so your guild will help you.’

‘No, just weary. Don’t old men deserve children to take over their cares?’

The other guests were arriving: William Walworth, Nicholas Exton, Hugh Fastolf, Adam Carlisle, John Chircheman, Thomas Cornwalleys and finally John Philipot. They were there to discuss the crisis in the city and the congregation called in response. Four days after his mainprise at La Riole, John de Northampton had held a meeting attended by what seemed like all the drapers, goldsmiths and tailors in London, not to mention a serious number of lesser craftsmen. He was showing that there was a confederacy in the city that could overcome the mayoral party regardless of his own fate.

In response the mayor summoned the aldermen and common councilmen for a meeting on the Friday before Candlemas and specified the maximum number of representatives from the wards. It would be an immense congregation, a sight usually seen only for the making of the new mayor.

‘You are taking a risk, Nicholas, that the numbers will go with you and not against,’ said Hugh Fastolf.

‘The numbers are right. We will have our success and the future of the city will be secured.’

Nicholas read out the proposed ordinance on elections to the council. It began by noting complaints to the mayor of great tumult and peril within the Guildhall by reason of unqualified persons deputed to the council. In order to ensure that common councilmen were all of fair means and understanding, it proposed that aldermen should assemble their wards and charge them to elect their most sufficient men to the council.

‘Exactly what we want,’ exclaimed William Walworth. ‘Election by the wards.’

‘I didn’t think you would move so quickly, especially with everything else to deal with,’ said Adam Carlisle in a thin, slightly slithery voice.

‘There is a point here,’ jounced Nicholas Exton. ‘We need to do more than fiddle with the rules of the corporation. We need to get into the craft halls and the alleys and pull these people out.’

‘With hooks? Nets? Tempt them out with cakes, beer, women?’ Nicholas was impatient with impatience. ‘How do we know who is seditious and who a commonly churlish labourer or malcontent apprentice?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Not to the fun of it. But if you have nothing to take to court they will slink straight back to their alleys.’

‘We can find something,’ continued Nicholas Exton.

‘For all of them?’

‘I think the mayor is right,’ said John Philipot. ‘We must sort out the structures of the corporation, not just jump in out of the fray.’

‘John de Northampton is mainprised by order of the king. Surely that will hold him,’ said Henry.

‘But that did not prevent him from calling his meeting. The duke of Lancaster will soon be back home from negotiating the French truce and John has excessive faith in his patron’s protection, even though he snubbed him over the election. He has the support of his own mistery and, whatever the state of the mercers, he has the goldsmiths and the tailors.’

‘How could we rid the world of the goldsmiths and the tailors?’ demanded Henry as he stood up to fetch more wine. ‘How can they claim to be citizens? Does God really keep places for them in heaven?’

‘Not for all of them, I’m sure.’

‘Why do they hate us so?’

‘The goldsmiths and the tailors have always hated us. It’s part of the history of London, written into their constitutions, engraved on their tableware: all members must hate the victualling crafts.’ Hugh laughed with his lips to his glass so that bubbles escaped the edge.

‘The goldsmiths hate us because we have taken over their position as bankers to the lords,’ said John Philipot. ‘Now that a new staple has been confirmed at Middelburg they see their last chance disappear. The tailors hate us because they are competing with us for the cloth export trade.’

‘I know that and yet I am still confounded by it. The guilds of London should surely work together. They were set up to benefit their members – they argue for their rights in the city and they provide for their needs when they fall into ill health or poverty – but it should not be to the detriment of the city.’

‘Henry, how is that you have lived through the years of John the draper and yet you have anger left and surprise?’ asked Nicholas Exton.

‘I have anger left,’ slammed Adam Carlisle. ‘It was not exhausted when I was sitting the Tower, though the cold and damp might have put it out.’

The meeting had wandered and become dishevelled, like a group of beggars who have stopped planning how to rob the bakery and are arguing instead about who ate what yesterday and why the rich have ruined everything.

‘I will act when there is violence,’ said Nicholas Brembre. ‘And not before I understand what John is brewing. I hear that the meeting was angry but obscure. It did not go beyond repetition of the familiar complaints against me, much as in some of our own gatherings. He has encouraged frenzy but not yet discharged it. Clearly he has some purpose in mind. I would rather react to whatever it turns out be than have a false fight now that might damage me more than it does him.’

‘Sounds like a lost chance to me. He is bailed not to hold covins and congregations. We could throw him into Newgate.’

‘If we can find him.’

‘I thought you knew the position of everything in London, Nichol,’ said Hugh Fastolf.

Sadly not, thought Nicholas. ‘Why would you think that?’

‘You appear in all sorts of strange places. I saw you coming out of Saint Mary Bothaw last week. All on your own.’

‘Don’t tell Idonia.’

‘What are you hiding from her?’

‘That I have been out in the city without an army to protect me.’

‘I thought Jankin was always with you.’

‘You take a surprising interest in my movements.’

‘So do others. Many are suspicious of you, which probably does not surprise. Some say you are a witch.’

‘Let them be careful then. And let us get back to the point.’

They talked until they were sure of the ordinance and the presentation of it at the congregation, Nicholas made sure of this. Common councilmen should be elected from the wards. There was a concession in terms of a maximum number of commoners from each mistery to placate those who feared domination by the major guilds, though domination by the major guilds was precisely what the mayor was seeking. He knew he had a majority in those. Not so the smaller masters who did not understand the need for clear authority.

‘If these measures are agreed we seal our advantage and our opponents will be weakened in future debate. In the meantime we must be prepared for a struggle on the streets.’

The wives had also come to Henry’s house and were now admitted to the hall from wherever they had held their own congregation. Idonia was wearing the lily ring and conversation had turned to Homerton.

‘Do you remember how cool it was in the garden at night when we crept out because we couldn’t sleep.’

‘We stood on the edge of the river and could see stars above and below.’

‘The night was so huge it felt like death.’

‘Remember that day when we lost ourselves in the fields beyond the house?’

‘Yes, we napped and then couldn’t remember which way to go back, though it should have been obvious. We couldn’t see the house because of the trees, but we could see the trees!’

They were talking of their childhood, the time before any of the men existed. The feeling of utmost youth still clung to the the house and its surroundings: it was a place of wonder and purity. It was true that there was tanning and fulling in the area, but you hardly heard it for the rustling of the trees. The fumes from the local industries scattered into the vast expanse of air above the marshes. In the city such an easy escape was rarely possible. Noisome substances boxed each other for space with the result that most were blocked at the level of the roofs and the air was sucked out of the streets. Here at Homerton you could breath freely and smell a myriad of scents, some foul but most fair. Many would be difficult to distinguish amid the city stench: trees, grass, cow dung, flowers of the meadow, damp earth, bird lime, flowing water, labouring sweat, pigs in their sties, wandering smoke.

It was also a place of peace and privacy. Only the grazing beasts marked your coming and going and there was room in the garden for the entire Stodeye family in three generations to uncurl in the sun. Or at least that was the case when John Stodeye was still alive. The third generation had been lost for some years now and its replacement awaited the marriage of Idonia Birlingham to John Doget.

Joan was explaining to the wives of the other men that the property came to her from her mother , passed into Thomas’s hands through their marriage, but would return to her as dower on his death. Was it odd that she spoke so lightly of her widowhood? It was certainly odd that a messuage could move so much in law while staying bodily in the same place. He cursed Thomas and instantly Thomas appeared at his side.

‘Women talk a lot but is there any reason to listen to them?’

Nicholas was often amenable to such mocking but not today and not with Thomas. ‘They have another role in life,’ he said sharply.

‘Then why do they pretend to ours?’

‘God made their bodies like to ours in most respects. Since they have the power of speech they feel they have a right to use it.’

‘Do you take any notice of what your wife says?’

‘Not always.’ What did he expect for a reply? ‘She doesn’t talk as much as the others.’

‘No, she doesn’t. She spends much of her time thinking about God. She is a good woman,’ allowed Thomas smartly. ‘But why produce a breed so like to man yet helpless at everything but maintaining the population?’

Idonia was not helpless at everything but maintaining the population. In fact it was in that one respect that she foundered. Otherwise she did what was expected of a merchant’s wife. He did not remember her failing to do so, struggling, fussing or breaking down. You did not notice she was doing things well because she was doing things well. How often was this the case in the population of the city?

The sisters were not all the same. If you watched them you could see how each, though of the same source, was shaped by a different chance. And Idonia was the best. Margery was cool to the touch though strong, like a metal alloy designed for function. Margaret was lively and warm but uncontrolled in her thinking, chaotic, like a mad woman sometimes. Joan was young. She flapped her wings like a half-grown goose and could not see beyond the end of her beak. Idonia was calm and full of sense but offered something else, something he could not easily identify. Sweetness. Neither hot nor cold but sweet.

The wine was good and it kept slipping out of the bottle and into the cups. It was right that Henry should pour it since it belonged to him. Idonia was enjoying herself talking to the women. They were intense. It was good to feel the blood in your veins, where God had put it, and would he really mind if there was some happiness in the world? Faces lurched into the candlelight – fine wax candles with which Henry had stuffed the hall. Men’s faces were bright for a moment then in shadow, disappeared. Life was like that, scary, like a fiend behind a tree, uncertain from one bell to the next what might jump out.

‘What are Idonia’s interests at present?’ demanded Margery.

‘I have no idea. She is welcome to them in my absence. I have been with her less than I should.’

‘Yes,’ said Margery. ‘That is my worry.’

‘Is it your business?’

‘No, but why would that stop me?’

‘If it does not there is little more I can do but than walk away.’

‘I am not your favourite sister.’

‘Nor should you be.’

‘Perhaps you prefer me to Joan.’

‘You are too clever, Margery.’


‘You of all are most like your father.’

‘You are tempting me away from the issue.’

‘Idonia is not like your father.’

‘And so she should not be left to her own amusement.’

‘That is exactly what I do because it works well enough. Idonia does not complain.’

‘Because she is not like my father and not like me.’

‘Henry has lost you!’ Nicholas pounced with gratitude on the sight of his host slithering on the rushes and swinging his eyes in all directions. There was a flash of amused alarm as Margery’s head turned away.

But he was left discontented. His mind kept drifting backwards and out over the rooftops. It was not secure in his skull. He was annoyed by Margery and he was annoyed by Thomas and he was annoyed by Homerton because he had left something there. He had felt it and was overwhelmed by it. Had he never had that feeling since? Maybe, but those times were not marked in his memory. It was the place that held it. He remembered a glowing space but from this distance the glow was tainted. He was uncomfortable, sad, guilty – such an odd reaction but so strong.

A merchant must be at ease with ugly things. So it is that he wishes his house to be a beautiful place, a sanctuary. In London that can never entirely be achieved because the world of tricks intrudes. Was this the reason for his anger? Did he think he could escape to Homerton? But now, with the mill, the peace would be lost?

Yes, it was probably that, but not that alone. There was something else about the place where the girl had walked in the water.

The city was full of striving. All hands worked or sought work and there was much to be done. Men bought and sold, designed and constructed, they reaped, slaughtered, cooked, served, cleared up. Work was the meaning of life. You worked until God called you in the hope of rest to come, though Nicholas was less sure of that.

Work, business, was full of peril. You never knew what you might have to do in its name or how strong were the forces against you. The weights hung on ropes around you and it was an art and a pleasure to dance between them until one dropped on your foot as you looked the other way. As long as work continued there was never rest.

There were some who did not work: beggars, lepers, rich sons of lords, women. It was not entirely true of women, but if they worked it was in another way. Just at the moment he was confused about which way that was. Then there were the few who reached an age of rest when their needs were met by their assets and they sat in what sun there was and contemplated their strange state.

Thomas was buzzing around on the other side of the hall. His pale face became the pale face of a deathly spirit flitting between the good things of the world and dropping its dung there. He, Nicholas Brembre, would resist it, though the sight of it made his head roll.

Henry grabbed his arm and sat with him on a bench. ‘How’s the wine, Nichol? Did I make a good choice? Do you want some more?’ He had a cup in his hand which he passed across. Nicholas was no longer angry. He smiled at the object that swung towards him. Henry’s happy face floated behind it. Henry was right: why should you want to do what you had to do? Why did you want to work at all? Why was work so tightly bound to being? Just because you had to eat did not mean that eating was the best thing in your life.

Henry’s wine was winding its way around Nicholas’ head. He looked at the women in the hall and in the corridor. They were shiny and tall with faces like painted plates. Any one of them would have taken his hand and done what he wanted behind the courtyard wall. Life was warm and responsive – why had he ever thought it might not be worth the effort? The lamps on the walls were like little suns. They glowed for him and he felt their fire within him, charging his arms and his legs and other things not mentioned in the great texts. His small domestic life retreated into the shadows. Idonia expected something of him but he didn’t remember what. The joy of flesh and blood was screaming at him and he smiled at the pain in his ears.

‘Idonia wants to go home,’ whispered John Philipot. How could he possibly hear what was said given the competition? But he did hear. Now the wine running in his pipes was cold like vines in winter. His body sagged and his eyes rolled sadly towards the door.

‘You are full of wine, Nicholas. Let me fetch Peter. He is with Idonia,’ said John.

May he be damned for his perfection. He was the one who was given Margaret, the beautiful daughter. It made sense because he was beautiful too, though Adam’s sex must show it in heart and head not skin. There are a hundred ways of getting killed in this life and John goes on ducking them. But Peter came to him as John had said and discretely straightened the sleeve of his houppelande, which had caught on a badge.

‘Oh God forgive me,’ said Nicholas as clearly as he could. A terrifying image had appeared before him, the image of John Pyel. Perhaps it was the real John Pyel. Had he come to the party? He had worked with John Pyel for many years, had been sheriff when he was mayor, and had heard more and more laughter at his expense as the wine leaked increasingly into the mercer’s gut. Each noticed at his own pace, but all eventually agreed that John Pyel was a drunkard. The drunkard carried on with life but it was a looping life that moved in and out of fettle. Today – if it was today, and if it was John rather than his phantom – his face was red and his eyes wet, he was swallowing spittle and unable to speak.

He sat down. It was Nicholas Brembre and not John Pyel who was red in the face. Peter took his arm. This was a gasping shock, like lightning in a clear sky. Nicholas could not remember this ever having happened before in their long lives together. His frame shrank to the touch but his flesh followed Peter out into the yard.

Nicholas Brembre 53

January was breached by some brazenly warm days. Nicholas returned home early to find Idonia sitting in the garden with Robert. Robert liked to be outdoors at any time of year but Idonia was cautious of open skies. She disliked heat and cold and rarely lingered outside unbidden except in the mild days of autumn and spring.

The garden was under the solar. Nicholas could see his wife from above, her wimple creating a counter-pulse among the winter leaves: while they moved with the breeze, the wimple responded only to the boy. It was not autumn and it was not spring but the wind escaped over and on to the north while the sun poured itself into the trap. Robert was wrapped in wool, which he tried alternately to lose and regain. As usual he was playing with stones. He made a line, then a curve, the figure pulled round to a diagonal…R. The wimple shivered and bobbed. The circle came next and more encouragement was given until the name of his son was spelt in stone in the earth. Then he ran to his mother and their bodies merged.

This boy was hers. A woman could not possess her husband in the way she could possess her son. It was a fearful thought, this power of the female over the male, that the order between the sexes could be so easily reversed in this way. The stuff of life was rent in this one place, but hardly a man noticed it. A father orders and chastises but his influence is nothing compared to the alchemy of a mother’s love. Whatever fate gripped them, Robert would go to Idonia and Nicholas would be left standing on his own. Thomas and Hugh were the same, but Alice was different. She held her father’s hand and seemed scared of nothing. Perhaps she was trying to comfort him.

Robert and Alice were hardly in this world together. She showed brief interest in him but he had no memory of her. She wanted to know what the baby would eat; she had forgotten how the previous baby had been fed. The wet nurse came and began his training. Nicholas reminded himself of the process although he, in truth, had not forgotten. Idonia rested upstairs. She let the baby go. Nicholas had intended to go down to the Custom House that morning. He went to the door but was unable to leave. The wet nurse took the baby without raising her eyes. It fussed around then cried out in anger until it found what it wanted. Pieryne looked at Nicholas with the faintest trace of disapproval, but the breast had ceased to be a breast in the usual sense once his baby had claimed it. This is not what Thomas Goodlake had whispered to him of the wetting of Thomasine. But such flow of his own blood was quickly diverted to contemplation of the workings of woman.

A woman’s body was built to bear and nurture, and that was God’s purpose for her. But Nicholas preferred its other speciality, the one that must come first, the one that Eve unleashed. Thus were women torn apart by the confusion of their mother – and perhaps of God. Who was it that called on his children to multiply? God attempted to repair the breach in the beautiful body he had made by exhorting resistance and denial of pleasure. But everybody knew that women were full of lust, certainly in the mass of the population. It was not only from Beatrice that he had evidence of this. Even for Idonia there was enjoyment. In the act of intercourse she was not thinking of motherhood, he was sure. She held from crying out but her mouth was open and her eyes flamed in the light of the candle by the bed. When he blew it out she clung to him and would not let him go. Perhaps this was what she wanted more than anything else, this still intimacy. But he was for the action, for the glory and would have continued all night had they both been willing.

Would no woman give him relief? Nothing from Idonia since the baby died. Nothing from Beatrice since the failure at Saint Mary Axe. Women like Beatrice knew how to divert God’s intentions. They knew how to slide away and switch in time to other means of resolution. This talent was a fine one and Beatrice was adept at judging almost to the instant. Why would she not show him her cleverness again?

Dizziness took hold. His thoughts had spun and twisted from their beginning in a blameless child. He dragged them backwards clearing his head as they went. Alice was the first child. The first is a miracle – like being born a second time yourself. But he was expected to show disappointment. Indeed he was disappointed even though the world was brand new. A daughter was more than nothing, though less than a son. It was strange that the same process led to so different a result, the long wait yielding to triumph or faint joy on account of the presence or absence of a tiny bulge of flesh. But a daughter was something. She would look up as you entered the room and show her pleasure with smart eyes. She was neat and gentle, a little wife. John Stodeye had four daughters. Was he disappointed? They had some use in attracting sons-in-law into his empire and there must be pleasure in choosing a good man for your daughter. John Stodeye did it four times: Nicholas, Henry, John and John – two Johns for the third daughter. But he did not live to chose for his last daughter, Joan; that duty fell to the sons he had already selected.

Marriage was not the thing. Marriage was a crisis, a definition, the making of a woman’s life. But there was more that was important. He struggled with images like billowing cotton and tangly hair. What was he trying to understand? There was a lightness about women. If he had four daughters the house would be bright and full of air. They would laugh together about nothing in particular, becoming silent when they crossed his way. They would shimmer and float over the rushes like fairies, but they would be alive.

Nicholas stepped down from the solar and through the yard into the garden. Guy was just ahead of him carrying a bundle of rugs and squirrel furs. Guy had brownish skin as if he had worked outdoors all his life. His brow was thick with hair – there was almost no break over the eyes. Nicholas wondered if he were a descendent of the Jews, who were expelled by the first Edward, great great grandfather of the king. Some left, some converted and some hid. There was no harm here. Guy was a good Christian who never feigned illness to avoid mass and remained as wakeful as any servant as it progressed. He was quiet in the presence of his master but Nicholas heard his voice raised in argument or laughter among the servants when he passed the buttery or emerged suddenly into the yard. His origins remained a mystery as Idonia had failed to ferret them out. Her usual methods relied on the subject talking about themselves in the first instance and then gathering the information from intermediaries – sworn to secrecy or otherwise. Nicholas suspected that Guy himself was the blockage. Guy did not confide – but whether there was an interesting reason for this could not be determined.

Nicholas had hired him from the household of John Warde, pepperer, recently dead. He was recommended by the widow, who was releasing three quarters of the staff as a result of problems with her dower. Guy was worth employing but he was not as good a servant as she promised. He made mistakes through inattention. In his eyes there was a blur of other business.

‘Guy leave your bundle and take Robert back with you into the house.’

Robert protested but his father pushed him firmly away. ‘You can come out again when the blue has gone from your nose.’

Idonia looked surprised and a little annoyed but he sat down close beside her and said: ‘I have something for you.’

Idonia took the carved box and opened it. Her eyes hooked onto the ring and stuck there while she took several heavy breaths. Then she looked up and copied her husband’s smile. ‘Thank you, Nichol. A sensational recovery from the depths.’

‘It would have cost me less indeed to have plucked it from the ordure, but it was worth the money to replace it.’

‘I wouldn’t want to argue with your generosity, but why so? I said I could manage without it.’

‘Do you remember when we met at Homerton? You picked a lily from the pond and your father snatched it from you and shouted because you had walked into the water. I wanted to give it back to you because of your spirit. Look at the colours in it and the arrangement of the stones. The ring was the lily.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me at the time?’

‘Did it matter to you?’

‘Not then,’ she said after thought. ‘But yes, it makes a difference now, now that I remember. I thought you were angry like my father.’

‘I wasn’t angry. I was surprised.’

‘I knew I must become more like a lady if I was to be a bride.’

‘How strange that we should so mistake each other.’

‘It is not strange at all. It is the way of this world, unless a miracle occurs.’

‘A miracle?’

‘Yes, a miracle: two people speaking plainly to one another.’

‘That is what we do. We are doing it now.’

‘What have we said to each other? That when we first met you hoped I was a rebel but I thought you wanted a good, obedient wife. It has taken us a long time to understand that. But why would we want to understand each other? We have different tasks in life. We meet briefly and exchange practical information and opinions, little else.’

Nicholas looked away from his wife, tracing every curve and junction that was not her face. His blood cooled and confused his senses. Her words were heavy without weight. He could not tell if they would go up or down. ‘There are things that are not practical, I suppose.’

‘And that go beyond being a husband or a wife?’

‘It is difficult to think of those things. I know that – I have often tried.’

‘To think of what?’

‘The trouble with trying to think about what is not laid out for you, what everyone thinks they know.’

‘Well, you often seem to be thinking hard without connection to anyone else. Maybe this explains some of the faces you make when there is no-one there to merit them.’ She laughed. ‘Thank you for the ring.’

Nicholas walked with his wife back into the house. The sun had moved from the garden and she had begun to shiver. Nevertheless, after a short spell by the fire, she was determined to go out into the world again. Nicholas went in search of Guy and found him inspecting the knives and spoons.

‘I want you to go with lady Idonia and Juliana to John Philipot’s house. Take a couple of other men with you.’

Guy put down a spoon and the cloth with which he had been holding it and stepped smartly away from the table. Nicholas was surprised by the speed with which he did this and wondered whether any of the silver had been slithering into his apron. Nicholas, as a successful merchant, was good at smelling secret stories under smooth skin. Should he now send Guy with Idonia or detain him to investigate the theft? Perhaps combine the two: better let him go and inspect the silver while he was away. He could instruct Ralf to count the knives and spoons by way of practising his arithmetic, although Ralf needed no practice in truth. He would certainly give an accurate account, unless he too were reducing their number.

Robert was leaning on the left arm of the chair. Nicholas had allowed him to sit in it, which was a privilege, but he was not pleased at the boy’s stance.

‘Sit up, Robert. Look as if you deserve to be there.’ Robert shuffled towards the middle of the chair but overbalanced and came to rest against the right arm instead. How would he get better if the was no spirit in him? God would help him if he would only look for the way. Idonia prayed for him incessantly. Nicholas could hear the rise and fall of her hope just beneath her breath. Nicholas prayed himself but he could not see why God should grant him a miracle. There was no fight in the boy. God had plenty to do elsewhere.

Robert took a clearer breath and straightened his back, grasping both arms of the chair. ‘Please tell me about the king, father.’

‘Do you want to know about his coronation, or his meetings with the rebels, or his wedding celebrations?’

‘No. What is he really like, father?’

‘He’s young, like you. Not as young as you, but nearly so when he became king. He’s very handsome and he wears fine clothes, as you would expect.’

‘Are mine as fine as his?’

‘No, Robert. It is true that I could buy you clothes as fine as the king’s, but you would not be allowed to wear them. Wealth is not the only measure in this life. Each must dress according to his rank. How would you look wearing a crown on La Riole?’

Robert laughed. Blood rushed into his face. ‘Is he kind?’

What strange ideas my son has, thought Nicholas. But perhaps it was a better question than it first appeared. ‘Many men come before the king to ask for many things. If he was kind to them all and granted all their wishes, he would not be able to buy all those fancy clothes! He has to appear stern and unyielding in order not to be fooled. But inside his armour he is flesh like the rest of us. And he had a duty to protect his people. So, if he is kind, it is because what he does promotes order and stability and so is best for everyone, whether they know it or not. Do you understand, Robert?’

‘Does he have any children?’

‘No. Surely you know that, Robert. You would have heard me speak of it.’

‘Don’t people have children when they are married?’

‘Not always. What of your aunt Margery? Does she have children? You have not been paying attention.’

Robert turned his head to rest it on his upturned hand as it projected from the arm of the chair. He appeared to be thinking. ‘If people don’t have children because they are married, why do they have them?’

‘They have them because they want them,’ replied Nicholas, trapped into lying to avoid a more difficult task.

‘But my aunt Margery told me she wanted children.’

Across the generations parents have collapsed into the assurance that their offspring will understand when they grow up. But Nicholas looked at his remaining child, catching the droop of the eyelid and the pale skin, and had not the heart to slide from one equivocation to another.

Idonia, Juliana and Guy returned before Vespers. The knives and spoons were all in their places and Guy went back to checking them. Juliana assisted Idonia with her cloak. Both looked serious and were busy with their limbs like trees troubled by a nagging wind. Idonia was worried about the health of her sister’s husband but Nicholas had no idea what might be disturbing Juliana.

The evening meal began. Although this was the lighter meal of the day the table was weighed down with dishes. Less meat and fish than in the middle of the day but plenty of bread, eggs and dried fruit. Robert was gorging on figs again. Nicholas nodded to Pieryne and she moved the dish away. ‘Eat something that will stay in your stomach, Robert.’

Everybody was here tonight, all the servants, all the apprentices and all of the family. He was pleased. Of course it was he who was most often absent, but that was because he was working for them all to make the money with which to feed them. They could eat as much as they wished thanks to his success. But what would happen to the meat, the bread and the dried fruit if their provider fell into ruin or death? A fish bone pulled at his throat. He wanted people to depend on him when times were good but nothing holds for long. A man clings to a shape and it changes in his hands. What was a square becomes round, what was a crescent becomes a star. Lines warp or tighten or relax. It cannot be known what will or what might have been, only that nothing stays the same.

A body has a competence, an ability to survive and act on the surface of the world. But if it does little more than survive it may always be close to death. Such are the trials of this life we often wonder if next week will bring the end of our luck or even our existence. We cannot continue without a minimum of support. The life of Nicholas Brembre had found a level far above this. He had begun well and he had climbed higher, far higher. But he could fall. He had always known he could fall, even in his keenest pride. There was nothing in life to prevent disaster other than hard work and good fortune. The latter could fail and overtake the former. Then there would be no escape but to God.

Nicholas Brembre 52

In such a large place as London there was challenge in remembering names and even places. There were at least a hundred churches, many with similar dedications. It was best to be clear when agreeing to meet at one of them. Was it Saint Botolph Aldgate or Saint Botolph Aldersgate? Saint Mary Aldermary or Aldermanbury – or Saint Mary Woolchurch, Abchurch, Axe? Saint Katherine Coleman, Cree, le Querne? Saint Michael Paternoster, Bassishaw, Cornhill, Wood Street, Ludgate or Crooked Lane? As a youth Nicholas had lost the pleasure of an assignation through the Botolph confusion. He was still annoyed at being so clumsy, though he could no longer remember the woman involved. Could the old man be disappointed in the same way? She said she would be praying in Saint Mary Axe. He doubted she was praying and he was certain she was not in Saint Mary Axe. Would she still come or should he try somewhere else, somewhere similar but probably equally frustrating?

London was too large to track its edges. It might go on forever, covering all the land. Ships might touch its walls as they beached in Kent or Essex. So it felt sometimes when he stood on Cheap at the cross and looked in all directions. So he had done on his first visit as a boy when his father brought him from Norwich on a cart. So he felt now as he left the church and bounced his eyes between the buildings without success. Where was Beatrice?

Nicholas stepped from the porch of Saint Mary Axe, pulling his cloak across his chest and his hood over his head. The other side of the street was lined with workshops. His lowered sight caught green water in a gutter flecked by grey foam. The juices of the world oozed free in places like this but even the brightness of the sun could not soften the colour of bile. And what was under the crust that held the water? Men would stamp and hammer, scratch and dig, and soon would land us all in the swamp. Where then would be our pride and our hope, our fine wine and our white wool, our rules, regulations and ordinances – all would be slime. Men would scramble on the backs of women and children to get a lung full of air. Kings would be coloured as clowns and none would know the difference between them. Only giants would rise above the mire and Albion would once more be theirs. Nicholas had never felt before how perilous was the existence of man. He wove such a sheet as might cover the naked violence of the world but the material was thin. Women were supposed to be there to catch their masters in their trouble and to give them comfort. Where was she?

Jankin was standing in an ally beside a fletcher’s shop. They walked back past Saint Andrew Undershaft to the corner of Cornhill.

‘You say that they have been meeting in John More’s house?’

‘Yes, when they want to be less flagrant about it. Otherwise, as you know, Sir Nicholas, it is the goldsmiths’ hall or the drapers’’.

Saint Andrew Undershaft could not be mistaken for Saint Mary Axe, though they were on the same street. Nicholas looked down Cornhill, which lead to Chepe and the parish of Saint Mary-le-Bow, where stood the house of John More. He swung back to Saint Andrew – should he check it since he was here?

‘Jankin, go into the church and tell me if it is empty.’

‘Three women and a priest,’ said Jankin on his return.

Nicholas had almost hoped there was no chance. Now he had to give it up, else shred his pride beneath his feet as his lust dragged him back to the church. Saint Andrew Undershaft was deathly cold as if in warning. One woman had left off praying and was moving towards him. She was slow and short and ugly. The others were facing the alter. Neither could be Beatrice, their devotion was too apparent. To cover his stupidity he knelt to pray himself. First he prayed that he would find Beatrice in another place and she would laugh at their misunderstanding. This prayer was vicious. Then he prayed that God would rid him of the temptress. This prayer was weak. Finally he prayed for the wisdom to resist. Though he had scant control over the stirrings of his body, his mind might order his feet to walk the other way.

Nicholas Brembre’s feet walked swiftly along Cornhill with Jankin’s trailing behind them.

‘I’ve got blisters, Sir Nicholas. It’s the new boots.’

‘So! You can no longer complain you have wet feet but you’ve thought of something else. It took you a while.’

‘It took a while for the blisters to work themselves up.’

‘We’ll stop at John Philipot’s house and you can get something to bind them.’

Margaret was tidying dead plants in her garden in the corner of the yard.

‘God keep you sister. Is John here?’

‘He is, but he is not well. You can talk to me if you like.’

Nicholas followed Margaret into the house and stood by the fire in the hall wondering whether to sit down. ‘There is trouble in the city,’ he said.

‘There is. John doesn’t want me to go out of the house. He thinks it will get worse.’

‘Why so?’

‘Because there is so much of it so soon and it has not been checked.’

‘What does he think I should do?’

‘Chose a target and jump on it, otherwise you will encourage the others.’

‘Well, there it is. You have given me John’s answer though he could not speak for himself.’

‘Actually, I gave you my answer. I don’t know what he would say.’

The advice sounded good and continued to sound good even after Nicholas realised the subversion of his request. Margaret was animated. She moved from foot to foot, perhaps reflecting his failure to sit. There was something odd about this rocking motion. It was odd because she was a woman, but particularly because she was a merchant’s wife. There were women who fidgeted like this but they were not the wives of merchants. Margaret had always tended against convenience. She was not like Idonia, who probably did not wiggle or twitch even when she was a baby. No spillage of any sort would have troubled her nurses. But Margaret – piss and vomit everywhere!

‘God’s grace to John – hope he is well soon – and to you.’

The Philipot precept confirmed his own intention to wield force against force. The servants of order must be ready and under proper control, as was written in his book. But it was not an easy business to catch the factors. Even a well-intentioned constable or beadle lacked the necessary punch and the watch was a blunt force with which to target the truly dangerous amidst the merely vexatious.

What did Idonia think about the unrest? She sometimes seemed perturbed though unwilling to admit it. Pieryne said that her mistress went out less often now and with a larger escort, which tended to include Juliana rather than Pieryne. Pieryne was annoyed.

Nicholas stepped firmly through John Philipot’s gate followed by Jankin in his bandages. There was a group of men lurking outside a building further along the street. Nicholas stopped and pretended to look up at the weather. Jankin stared directly at the congregation but seemed unconcerned.

‘This is an unhappy chance,’ breathed Nicholas. ‘To be caught like this without a guard.’

‘Because you think we might be set upon?’ asked Jankin calmly.

‘More so because my wife might find out.’

‘They don’t have any weapons.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Daggers maybe, but otherwise their movements and the fall of their garments suggest they are unarmed.’

‘Whatever you say Jankin, there are more of them than us and daggers are ruinous to the gut. They look suspicious enough.’

‘They are Lollards, Wycliffites.’

‘How do you know these things?’

‘I know the places where they meet and I recognise their style. They have a way of shrinking without losing their arrogance. I know these things because I need to. It is my job, Sir Nicholas. You study the king, the lords and the merchants. I study everyone else.’

‘There are plenty of Wycliffites among my study – the duke of Lancaster, for example.’

‘These are the ones who fear they may be caught and accused of heresy.’

‘The devotees then, not the ones who chose the parts that most oblige.’

There was indecision in the group about which way to proceed. Some turned towards the mayor and his man. The former wondered if he trusted the analysis of the latter. He was still lodged with his stupidity – the stupidity of crawling across London after a woman and the stupidity of doing so without proper protection. There was a shudder within the group and it turned the other way.

‘Do you know what they believe, Jankin?’

‘Something about the host…’

‘That bread is bread and divinity divinity.’

‘And that plain men like me should read the bible.’

‘Sounds seditious to me, Jankin.’

It was Saint Nicholas’s day and the boy who shared his name held in hoary hands the item he had most wanted as a gift. The Charter of Inspeximus, granted by the king in parliament and now skin and ink in the Guildhall, confirmed the liberties and practices of the city of London as they had been before the desecrations of John de Northampton. The familiar customs were restored regarding alien trade, forestalling, weights and measures, local justice and freedom from interference. There was a grin on young Nichol’s face that shocked the old fibres back to life. He had written to thank the king for the charter and to inform him of the riot and dissension in the city, which the former mayor continued to direct even though he was on bail. Of course the king knew already of the trouble but his help was finally requested, something which the current mayor had hoped to avoid.

It was quiet in the Guildhall – most people were celebrating the saint’s day. He should go home himself. Nicholas pulled paper towards him and began drafting a proclamation to the city that would make clear the contents of the Inspeximus Charter and the triumph it represented. Robert would be looking out for him, but there was work to do before the giddiness could begin. He drafted a second proclamation. This one was against congregations, covins and conspiracies, giving power to all freemen of the city to arrest malefactors and bring them before the mayor or to Newgate. When he had finished he leaned back to ponder the issue of communication. He reached again for his pen and added instructions that the proclamation, as well as being read out in the usual places by the common crier, should be copied into the city records in the English language. Why should study be restricted to those who knew Latin or French? He wanted as many men as possible to be able to read what would become part of the history of the city.

As he put down the pen he heard footsteps in the hall. Expecting Richard Odyham he shouted: ‘In the office!’

It was William Walworth. The fishmonger stepped into the doorway in a cloak spangled with ice, which dropped to the rush floor as he stamped his feet. He surveyed his old territory, resting finally with the work on the table before his friend. ‘Why are you doing that?’ he asked.

‘It is important.’

‘Yes, but why are you doing that?’

Nicholas remembered that William had been a delegating mayor. He would certainly have passed the charter to a clerk and told him to draft the proclamations. ‘I prefer to do things myself rather risk the incapacity of others.’

‘No wonder you are here all the time – even on your own saint’s day! The Guildhall has captured you completely. What about your wool exports and your grocery?’

‘They manage well enough.’

‘Nicholas, you are no longer a merchant but have become a scribe.’

‘God keep you, William. Why are you here?’

‘I have an apprentice coming to the end of his term, although I realise this is not a good day to seek advice. Is anyone here who can help me?’

‘Not at the moment. You need Richard Odyham. You can wait if you like.’

William sat as if on a jetty and launched a smile which sailed around the room and then disappeared over the horizon. Nicholas thought he knew where it had gone. These days William was present only in the past. His words began their soundings there, his eyes were in shadow until a story was told, his body moved slowly as if tethered to a forgotten post. He talked of his travels abroad: ‘In Florence I met a young merchant who flew from one disaster to the next and yet made money as if he was growing grass.’

‘It is not so easy to grow grass in Florence. That is why we have the export trade.’

‘True, and may we thank our maker for it. This young man came from a rich family. His life was more exciting than ours, by God. He continually lost and made his fortune playing dice and fought duals on any pretext. We would not hold our money or our lives so lightly, I’m sure.’

‘You talk of Buonaccorso Pitti. I met him in London. He came last year as an ambassador for his city. He was certainly restless. It seemed as if his duties were less interesting than what might be happening along the corridor or out in the street.’

‘You have a number of associates from the Italian cities, don’t you Nichol?’

‘I find Italians increasingly unreliable. They enter into agreements happily enough but things get more and more entangled and what seemed like an opportunity becomes a trap. Mind you the merchants of other parts are hardly better.’

‘Is that why you retreat into city affairs?’

‘No, I retreat from nothing. City affairs are crucial to business, as you well know, William. The corporation exists largely to regulate trade. The wrong policy blocks business or admits rebellion. I am not sure, in any case, that administrators are an improvement on merchants, especially since they are often the same men.’

William’s face had gained some presence: ‘Are you suggesting that I allowed the rebellion to enter the city when I was mayor?’

‘No, certainly not,’ said Nicholas. ‘Perhaps it was the wrong choice of word. On that subject, however, we are still awaiting answers about what happened at Aldgate and the bridge.’

‘The case drags on for the four suspects.’

‘Are they suspects or conveniences?’

‘Perhaps we will never know.’

‘I have often wondered, William, what happened after you shut the bridge on the night we went to the tower. Do you know anything I don’t? The city records are no help at all.’ He had soon discovered that the official account was little more than a patch, a piece of bland embroidery that a woman would tack across a ravaged pillow. It told him less than he had observed for himself.

‘I can’t help you, Nichol. It was easier to add a summary later than attempt to keep up with the details at the time.’

‘But the damage to the city was so great. Nothing as calamitous has happened here for many years and the details are exactly what is needed to understand our mistakes. If there were any, of course. Do you know anything, William, about what happened with the bridge?’

‘You were there, Nichol. We tried to shut it during the day but it was not possible. So many people were in a frenzy to cross. Then, as you know, I shut it at night. Don’t you remember?’

‘I do, but what happened next?’

‘That I cannot tell you.’

The mayor stepped carefully through the ceremonies of Christmas. There were the usual obstacles: overdone family and underdone food, strange servants hired at bloated fees, children screaming in glee and then again in punishment, women fussing, men strutting and wine taking the place of blood. John Fresshe was king of the bean again; Robert brought his father another book; Idonia was almost beautiful in a new silk dress.

In between came his civic duties, including a string of services at Saint Thomas Acon and Saint Paul’s. On the day of the nativity itself he processed with the aldermen and sheriffs from one church to the other to hear Vespers and Compline, repeating the process for Saint Stephen the following day. All along he could hear the enduring hum of discord:threats and accusations circulating without source, groups of artisans waiting at junctions for nothing in particular, demands for impractical action from ‘friends and supporters’.

Clear of Epiphany, the hostilities that had been muted by contemplation of our lord’s nativity, or by too much food and drink, resumed at full volume. John de Northampton, Richard Norbury, John More and the scribe, Thomas Usk, were reported by Jankin to be moving around the city gathering support. At their half-hidden meetings they spoke of sweeping aside the false mayor. Though riot and sedition filled their mouths, they claimed righteousness, as if they were angels thwarting the work of fiends.

Nicholas began a campaign of curfew enforcement and prosecution of as many likely-miscreants as could be seized. But there was little reduction in the volume of unrest. Finally the king summoned John de Northampton to the council at Westminster, and Nicholas with him. When they arrived Richard was in his chamber surrounded by friends and advisers. Nobly born youths grinned like pink petals around the green stem of the king, while the gnarled old trunks of Simon Burley and Michael de la Pole stood to either side.

The king looked at Nicholas and then at John. His expression was stern and did not change as it swung between them. ‘There is discord in the city, which is disturbing to the whole realm. You, John, are already mainprised with regard to another matter and yet I hear that you continue to be involved in riot and conspiracy. You should be back in prison.’ The king paused and turned his head as if it were a great weight: ‘Now, Nichol, can you see a way to make an agreement with your predecessor?’

Nichol was confounded. ‘My lord, I am willing to hear any offers of good behaviour John might want to make.’

John took the king’s gaze once more. ‘I have felt aggrieved, my lord. The election was not conducted as I thought it should be. I discussed this with others and sometimes those attached loosely to us have become violent against our will. I regret this, my lord, and I pledge to prevent anything similar happening in the future.’

To Nicholas the final promise was entirely undermined by the fantasy that preceded it. He knew that John was working his words, looking for an arrangement that might satisfy the king without completely abandoning the truth. ‘If John is sincere, my lord, I will accept his allegiance as a citizen of London.’

‘Good. We will take this to the council and seek to satisfy them on the subject.

Don’t test my faith in you and the city.’

They proceeded to the room between the Thames and the exchequer which was often named the star chamber from the illustrations on its ceiling. As they passed the great hall, Nicholas thought of the journey he had made to be sworn as mayor only three months before. John had been beside him then as now. The members of the king’s council – many of whom would otherwise have been sitting as the courts of chancery, common pleas or the king’s bench – stood in loose groups. The volume of their chatter dropped a little on the entry of the king, and almost to nothing when he slashed them with a sharp stare. The council pulled itself into a smarter shape and became ready to listen and advise.

‘What I want to know,’ said Richard himself, ‘is how to resolve the crisis in the city so that there is time left to consider the other problems on our list. The two men we need to hear from are before us and surely know more about the matter than any of you.’

‘John de Northampton is summoned to answer accusations that he has acted against the peace of the city and of the king,’ announced the chancellor Michael de la Pole.

‘Yes, I know. He shall be mainprised once again. Sir Nicholas Brembre will arrange it. But I want to ensure that London comes to an accord that will truly prevent trouble because there is more value in willing submission than in threats.’

Once again John de Northampton made his offer and once again Nicholas accepted it.

‘Nicholas, organise the mainprise where you will and come back tomorrow at the latest to report on it.’

Nicholas chose the relative security of his house in La Riole for the mainprise. John had been there before on a number of occasions, although notably not for the mayoral feast. Today heseemed to enter an unknown gaol, holding his hands before him as if bound and glancing through windows and around doors as if seeking a means of escape. The officers of the Guildhall, who hardly resembled gaolers, stood waiting to serve the process. Simon Wynchecombe and John More came forward with the other sureties, all drapers, and John was bound over in the sum of £5,000 to keep the king’s peace, to obey the city officers, to avoidcovins, congregations or disturbancesand to report any such to the mayor. Nicholas’s expectation of compliance reduced to nothing as the final demand was reached.Richard was wise for his years and remembered the lesson he taught on Smithfield, but not all struggles arevaliant. At the roughend of thingsbattles are fought on the floorwhere knives and sticks sweep below the level of noble words and take no heed of them.

Nicholas returned to Westminster, as requested, on the following day. The king appeared surprised for a moment but quickly found his name: ‘Nicholas, meet the people who are appointed to help me in my tasks – or I am sometimes able to chose myself. You have helped me with your loans so indeed you are one of them.’

Sir Simon Burley stepped up with a greeting for the mayor. Nicholas knew a fair amount about this man, whose chief designation was under-chamberlain of the household. He had been the king’s tutor and there was great love between them. Simon was a courteous man who started at a lowly level and did not shout about his elevation, though some said he was too eager to receive land from the king to make up for his lack of heritance. Whatever the truth of this, he was a intelligent and reliable administrator and the king’s trust in him was well placed.

Sir Michael de la Pole was the son of a wool merchant from Hull, whose promotion to chancellor spoke to his peers of the possibilities of a changing world. Nicholas matched him in class and wealth yet felt less warmth towards him than towards Simon. This was not surprising given the closeness of Michael and the duke of Lancaster. His inclusion in the council had originally been intended as a concession to parliament to balance the royal loyalists, such as Simon, though Michael seemed since to have become one himself.

At a little distance stood a circle of the king’s young companions, looking better pleased with themselves than was the rest of the country. Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, had become increasingly unpopular outside the immediate presence of the king, which he occupied conspicuously. Alongside him were Sir Ralph Stafford, a childhood friend of the king, and Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham, a more recent acquisition. Other young comets orbited beyond the brightest. Great was the complaint on earth about their influence on the king and of his extravagance in response. Nicholas was not yet sure where the blame should be placed nor what its weight might be. Others knew more than he without appearing to possess more information. Were the king’s friends really as worthless as was said? Did they guide him in the wrong direction, put him under malign influence? Perhaps, but it was difficult to tell. Nicholas’s suspicion was that the king’s gifts were the draw for the discontent. Whether or not the friends were worth rewarding, the size of the prizes led to envy and that, in turn, soured judgment of the recipients.

Now Nicholas might discover more. He bowed to the boys and they bowed back, though with less interest. The heads dipped as a sign of distaste rather than deference, but the conversation proceeded politely. Nothing much was said though plenty of noise was made, much as he had recently noted at the Guildhall. Nicholas thought of animals in a field, bleating or mooing between chewing of grass. Such were grazing beasts, however many their legs. Yet there was hope of capacity beyond the stomach (or stomachs), some movement of passion or intelligence which remained hidden for the moment. If Nicholas felt disappointment, he must allow it the chance to disperse. If he was being sucked into this gilded sphere, as the king had suggested, he would need to keep his mind open as wide as his eyes.

Richard was talking of the truce with France: ‘The king of Castile will soon be home to report on the success of our negotiations.’

The boys gathered round in glee at the victory; the older men smiled sadly in relief. Nicholas wondered at the effect on London of the return of the duke of Lancaster.

Nicholas Brembre 51

Gombert was pushing barrels around the yard. Nicholas watched him in the twilight after Vespers. It was true that he fell over more often might be desired, but otherwise he was surprisingly useful. In some ways he was more useful than he had been when he had both legs. Then he had impressed as dim and little else, but now there was effort attached. He seemed determined to prove his desert of the place that Agnes had won for him. Had he known how she fought for him or why she had lost her own? Where was she now? Did he know that? Nicholas wandered out into the city in search of her but, lost in his imagination, Agnes became Beatrice, as did everything.

Nicholas had bought Gombert a stump. It was made by Pieryne’s father in Wood Street. Pieryne’s father had been keen to take the money, although it was not his usual commission, but he did not mention Pieryne. Nicholas would have made a point of doing so himself had he not remained in such confusion regarding the ring. The stump was a success: Gombert was exceedingly pleased with it. Nicholas had never known someone so pleased with everything when their prospects were so bleak.

Jankin and Milo moved close to Gombert as they unloaded the necessaries of the day. Jankin nodded to him and looked away but Milo asked him shyly about the barrels. Twice as tall as Gombert and with double shanks, he was nevertheless sensitive to issues of age and length of service. Nicholas took this as a good sign. Milo had come to him from the court of orphans. His guardian was John Fresshe, who was aware of the loss at sea and seized the opportunity to place his charge, particularly given the weight of food he consumed. Nicholas accepted that he must take his time teaching Milo. But he was not stupid, just slow.

Pieryne and Juliana were talking in the buttery. Nicholas could hear them from the edge of the hall as he set down papers on his table. Juliana thought that the duke of Lancaster was a handsome man and that his son was even more so. She thought that Bolingbroke would have made a good king, had he been the son of the prince of Wales rather than the king of Spain.

‘Why would he be better than king Richard?’

‘I didn’t say better, but I think he would be more like a proper soldier, as if he could lead the army against France.’

‘I think you like him.’

‘I would like to be his queen,’ laughed Juliana.

‘Queen? That would not be your title!’ punched Pieryne and the laughter ceased.

They were speaking treason in their foolish way and Nicholas stepped forward to tell them so, but waited a moment to hear what else they might have to say.

‘Why do kings follow in families?’

‘So that we know where to look for the next one. They are like horses or sheep bred for their fitness. Same with lords and perhaps with merchants too.’

‘There’s no hope for us then?’

‘No. We were not bred for anything in particular and must be grateful for our keep. No-one has taken much care over our begetting.’

Nicholas returned to his papers.

They ate their evening meal in the solar and Nicholas read to the household from Augustine’s City of God. He ended with a passage chiding those who criticise elements of creation and believe in natural evil. He translated from Latin as he went along. Robert stood by his side and pointed at some of the words that he had learned at school: id, est, ad, hanc, sunt, lux, nihil. He mouthed the strange sounds, becoming more ambitious: mundi originem, causam creationis, bonus Deus. He thrust out his arms and begun stamping around the room but a fit of coughing took him back to his mother. Nicholas watched as she rubbed his back and held her hand to his brow. With his own hand he smoothed the next page of the book but succeeded mainly in securing a crease.

‘Do you understand, Robert – and everybody else – the arguments in this passage?’

‘The world was created by a good God…’ began Robert but soon ran out of words.

‘That is true and Augustine wanted us to know that everything in creation was good. But people do not understand the complexity of creation, how things that appear bad may be good in the right places. Divine providence warns us not to make foolish complaints about things, but to enquire diligently into their uses. We must think carefully about everything, but as a matter of humility not pride.’

In humility, or an attempt at it, Nicholas looked into the faces of every member of the household. Some expressions were fixed in polite puzzlement (Milo and Gombert). Some were strained by stepping from the familiar into the deep (Peter and Pieryne). Others seemed content merely to remain in a room made warm by the conjunction of bodies (Guy and Juliana). Jankin was by the door, nurturing a smirk that had begun with the sounding of the word ‘pride’. Felice alone was eager to speak: ‘Why was Saint Augustine so worried that people would not believe in the goodness of creation?’

‘Augustine lived at the time of the sack of Rome by the barbarians. The faith of many was shaken and heretics challenged the truth of Christianity because its great city had fallen. The Manichæans, in particular, spoke of the battle between God and evil as if the two were separate and opposed forces. Augustine writes of the foolishness of those who could not see that God is immutable and cannot be corrupted. He also says that evil is not a thing with its own nature but a falling away from good.’

Nicholas saw that his son’s eyes had wandered back to the Latin, as if it might be easier to understand. But Felice had been listening intently and so had Idonia.

After prayers had been said and the servants left the room, Nicholas continued to trouble himself about what he had read. Augustine believed that evil was lack of good. It was not then a problem of creation but of maintenance. Nicholas was worried that this might yet suggest inadequacy in God. Even if God did not create evil, he allowed it to occur. Not all ‘bad’ things could be explained by man’s misunderstanding, if it were agreed that some were departures from good. He recalled a passage about angels. Angels were all good when they were created by God. The fact that some of them had fallen did not trouble Augustine, by which Nicholas did not mean the saint was not troubled by demons in his own life – it was well known that he was. Rather, it did not seem to trouble him that such tempters had purchase in the world.

‘Do you find Augustine comforting?’ asked Idonia.

‘Yes. Not entirely. But he explains things so well, it feels reckless to question him.’

‘The examples he gives of how good may seem bad – poison, fire, frost, wild beasts – are helpful but they are not the strongest that could be chosen. Do they test him far enough?’

‘Pope Gregory sent saint Augustine to save us,’ said Robert pushing between them.

‘He did, but that was another Augustine,’ said Idonia gently.

‘Augustine of Canterbury was also a great saint,’ said Nicholas. ‘He and king Ethelbert saved this island from oblivion when it had lost its way. He toiled to save the souls of Albion by bringing the pagans to God.’

‘It is hard to sustain effort over so many years,’ said Idonia.

‘I would not expect you to say that.’


‘You are so diligent yourself.’

‘And that makes it easy?’

‘Perhaps not.’

‘Diligence may give the illusion of ease. It would be far less effort to lie down and cry.’

‘What did the other Augustine do?’ asked Robert.

‘He stood at a lectern in Africa and wrote.’

‘There are many ways to save souls, Robert,’ said Idonia. ‘One saint hopes to do it with ink, another with a long journey and alliance with a warrior king.’ She turned her head slowly from her son to her husband and cut the air which floated her words so that the last were almost without volume: ‘It doesn’t matter how you get there, it seems. But how do you determine the way to the next world from one that makes no sense?’

‘Well, yes, sometimes it is easier to have faith in the world to come than in this one. But does this one make no sense to you?’

‘When great men write they make the world sound reasonable. But in this life we can see the world and feel it. And it is not good.’

‘How is it not good?’

‘I think you know, Nichol,’ she said as Robert wound himself around her and grinned up at his father. ‘It is difficult to understand a world where what is good may tarnish or be snatched away at any moment, where there is greed and anger and sorrow and injustice. I saw a child sitting with its mother in the church wall. It looked in pain and when I had walked to the other side I saw that the side of his face was eaten up by an enormous growth. There was an expression on his mother’s face that was even uglier than the child’s. She wanted him to die. Even though she had brought him to the church, she was cursing God.’

‘But you know that God is good, that he made the world according to his purpose. We have just been listening to Augustine’s answers to these problems. Did you not follow, or are you standing against what is known of God by the whole world?’ But even as he asked this question he recalled that the whole world did not concur. Here in London, the heart of England, within the circle of Christendom, it would be a monstrous effort not to agree with the thousands of tongues that flexed around you. But there were other men, who still looked like men, who did not believe or believed other things. There were men in hot places with strange designs on their garments who told you there was another god, a god that was not the same as ours. And there were men without garments who could not talk in any meaningful way. What did they believe? Nothing that stopped them killing each other or slithering in the dust like snakes. In distant places faith was tested against contending tongues. The conviction of the crowd was no longer an argument and indeed should never have been seen as one.

Robert was standing before them declining the verb vastare, to lay waste, in a rapid crescendo: ‘Vasto, vastas, vastat, vastamus, vastatis…’ But before he could complete the plurals he was coughing again. Nicholas seized on the idea of crusade but it was a blessing and a burden. It was true that warfare maintained virtue and vitality when it was against a mortal enemy. But when it was against the voice of the devil inside your head, or the surge in your guts – then it was not a matter of glory but of grief.

He was awoken in the night by a dagger at his throat. Idonia sneezed a second time and turned away, sensibly oblivious to an intruder without flesh. Grey, silver, charcoal and milk white – the room was layered in shades of the moon. The point of a feather had stabbed him through the pillow cover. His blood was black on the silk. Across the city, aliens slept in hovels and were pricked by straw. But their blood ran red because it passed lustily into the veins of their children.

He listened awhile to the wind across the courtyard. There was a regularity to it, a start and stop rhythm that strangely lacked consequence. He did not hear the scratching of wooden fingers on the walls, or bundles shifting in the yard, just the little puffs of wind. So seemed the affairs of men on occasion, when no account could be had of what led from one event to another, motive and action, reason or responsibility. You could spend a lifetime plotting causes and learning the ways of men and yet be hit flat in the face by nonsense, the sheen of coherence collapsing into emptiness.

Idonia turned again. Her shoulders stretched and then settled. A stripe of moonlight met a strand of her hair. The wind in the courtyard blew more softly. Nicholas remembered the cold of the bed in his father’s house. Windows stayed open all winter and the bedclothes had lost too many of their feathers. His father had money to replace them but believed that mankind must be perfected by pain. He shuddered. So much folly from heart-bent sense. Leave pain to the poor. They did not chose nor welcome it, but at least had the consolation of complaining about it. He would not give away his clean sheets or his soft embroidered quilt. To have spare blankets in a chest against the wall was a blessing too bright to imagine away. To feel warm in the night and to know that however many layers were required, success would supply them – that was a solid foundation to a virtuous life.


Nicholas had been talking to Robert but now he was talking to himself. The snow was gentle in the sky but deep under foot. His prints stepped backwards to the corner of Dowgate and Thames Street but nothing marked them. Where was the inattentive oaf, who cared not a snowflake for what his father had to say?

Around the corner the little footsteps had stopped and a snowman was forming. ‘Father, I see that star you showed me!’ Robert was staring over Vintry towards the shivering Savoy, where the cloud had parted for a moment. In the twilight they looked up at the still point in the sky.

‘Evening star,’ said Robert.

‘Robert we need to be home.’

‘Won’t be able to see it at home.’


‘Because it is here, next to the church.’

‘We’ve seen it from our house before.’

Robert looked at his father with surprise and contempt: ‘But today…’ He pointed a stiff arm up into the air.

‘If something is a very long way away you can see it from lots of places.’

‘How far away is the star?’

‘Further than an eagle can fly, beyond the clouds, as high as the sky and the sun and the moon.’

On this fantastic basis Nicholas succeeded in persuading his son to walk back to La Riole.

‘I don’t see the star, father,’ was the sharp little speech as they entered the court yard. Nicholas saw that the clouds had closed again. Nothing could be made out in the heavens. He was ready to flatten further protest but Robert was hopping across the snow following a track of prints into the silvery dark. Tiny prints they were, closely spaced and with round toes.

‘What’s there? Come in, Robert!’

‘A little cat. I think it’s cold. It wants to warm up by the fire.’

‘Don’t touch it, Robert. Don’t go close. It might bite. It certainly can’t come in the house, but it is time that you did.’ Nicholas slapped his own face and laughed. Why did he have a son who wandered in pursuit of one pretty thing after another? And why as a father could he not call him back to the real world? He could silence the Guildhall, summon the militia, put an argument to the king, but none of this seemed of any use when dealing with a child.

‘In now, Robert!’

‘I want to play with the cat.’


‘Can I bring it into the scullery? I think it’s poorly.’

‘I’m not going to come and get you. You come in without the animal or you stay out in the cold.’ Ridiculous. What was the matter with him? Walking back to fetch the star-gazer? Wanting now to walk into the far corner of the yard to pick up the lion-tamer? No this must end and Robert must learn. Nicholas went into the house.

The cat kept coming back. Idonia did not want it in the house and shrieked when she found it there. As she did not shriek for any other reason, Nicholas found it difficult to understand the strength of her displeasure. The cat had beautiful fur now that it was eating scraps regularly from the kitchen. Sooner or later someone would catch it for a hat or a muffler. In the meantime Robert was out in the yard looking for it behind sacks or chasing it round the outside of the house or sitting in the sun with it curled beside him. Perhaps this flea-ridden snatch of life had something to offer, or why would God have made these canny creatures? Were they on the Arc? He couldn’t remember. God must have meant animals for the benefit of man. Otherwise, why have them? Without souls they could not be judged and so had no purpose of their own. Their existence was short, earthbound, meaningless.

The cat was shifting in its sleep. It had warmed one side in the sun and now, though apparently unconscious, it was organised enough to turn and warm the other. Robert moved his arm to assist the process. He stroked the stripy head. The cat awoke and pushed its chin against his fingers.

‘He likes me to scratch him there,’ said Robert proudly.

‘Don’t let your mother see you.’