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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.’

‘Ha!’

‘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.’

‘Why?’

‘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.

‘Robert!’

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.’

‘Why?’

‘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.’

‘Robert!’

‘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.’

Nicholas Brembre 50

When he awoke he could feel the cut of the air to his ears and cheeks and to whatever else was in the tiny space exposed to the world. Nicholas pulled the bedclothes tighter around him and began to think of excuses to avoid the day. Perhaps he could stay in his shroud a little longer – until Prime or even Terce. He could work all afternoon and into the night instead. As he rose he cursed the climate he had been born to and the three months that separated him from spring. Juliana had lit a fire in the hall but it failed to impress the reaches of the room. Outside the white axe swung. Nicholas felt the lacerations on his face and fingers. He had survived the assault in the bedroom and now he must face the fury of open air. Winter had come uninvited to the city.

Dead trees scratched the golden sky and silver shone across the roofs and bare ground of the city. Jankin complained of a hole in his boot.

‘It’s not raining. What’s the problem?’

‘I think my toes have frozen off.’

‘I still see feet in your boots.’

‘I can’t feel them.’

‘I’ll buy you some new boots, Jankin.’

The golden light was on the tops, where it had been snatched before it could fall to earth. Where it escaped to the bottom it was intensely bright. Pools of gold appeared occasionally on the ground to be jumped on by a lucky child, but darkness prevailed.

‘Where are we going, Sir Nicholas?’

‘We’re going to see a goldsmith.’

‘That’s new. Goldsmiths don’t support grocers.’

‘No. But they do take grocers’ money. Tell me, Jankin, did Pieryne drop the ring in the privy?’

‘I don’t know, Sir Nicholas,’ said Jankin, as if considering the matter for the first time. There was a pause for mental effort or the appearance of it. ‘A tiny chance like that against the obvious opportunity? But she doesn’t look like a person who’s come into money. I’ve seen no sign of her spending any. She would have to have some secret cause and I doubt that. I doubt it all.’

‘Let’s be clear about this: you have considered what you might do in the circumstances and Pieryne does not fit the frame. So you conclude…’

‘She must have dropped it in the privy.

‘I have ordered a new ring.’

Jankin shut his mouth. His confusion was resolved.

Nicholas did not like waiting. There are times when waiting is part of the flow of life: waiting for a ship to arrive, or wool to grow, or payment to be made. Sometimes there was nothing to be done but wait and so he was patient. What he really did not like was waiting for a man he could hear wasting time in a back room. Then he knew that the waiting could be avoided, that it was necessary only to the adversary as a show of power. Nicholas did not employ such political tricks himself. They were far too easy to spot. Instead he let his natural reactions run their course, if that would serve the purpose. Better genuine anger or scorn to make a point.

What was this fool doing? Nicholas felt his innards tighten. His breathing was heavy and his fingernails were curling into his palms.

‘Is this what you want, Sir Nicholas?’

‘That will probably do. Did it need to take so long?’

Thomas Cornwaleys looked at him from a cold, colourless face. ‘It takes as long as it needs, Sir Nicholas. I don’t wish to delay your business elsewhere, but everything must be done right in the city, down to the least significant thing. You don’t have to pay now. I trust you to remember my account among all your many more important ventures.’

Nicholas thought of slamming the ring back down on the counter but instead he slammed down the money, including a little extra. He attempted a cold expression in return but feared that his anger was melting the edges.

They were joined by Milo at St Paul’s. Milo had been taken on in place of Adam Utterby. He made up the number of apprentices to five but it was only numerically that he substituted for the drowned man. At nineteen, Adam had learned most of what Nicholas could teach him and could have been a master had convention not required a longer interval to justify such status. Milo was fifteen and knew nothing. Ralf was far ahead of him with his sponge-like brain. But then you would not want Ralf as a bodyguard – he would sense danger before anyone else and make an excuse to disappear before you realised you needed him. Milo, however, had the intelligence of an ordinary, disappointing mortal but the bulk of a bear. He did what he was told and ten assassins would bounce off him before he came to any harm. Nicholas knew he was dishonest in accepting Milo as an apprentice. What he really wanted from him was the silence of Idonia. He could, of course, have summoned the mayoral serjeants to be his guard but that would mean more waiting and he did not always want men of the corporation to accompany him on his missions.

Now that his protection was complete he proceeded to the place he was least likely to need it. Newgate was blessed with its own versions of the apprentice. The warden unlocked the door to John de Northampton’s cell and the captive jumped up from the bed as if summoned back from Purgatory. There was blood in one eye, which kept pulling to the side though he tried with the will of a cobra to hold it still. Nicholas noticed some rags on the stone sill of the window and saw John sitting and straining tosee life in the street. He had been here less than a day but much of that time had been spent at the window. There was some brightness in the open portion but the glass below was mottled. It dealt with the light in a barbarous fashion sending much of it back where it had come.

‘Well, this is a spectacle,’ said John. ‘I have seen plenty of rats here already, but you are a mighty big one. What size of hole did you have to gnaw to squeeze through?’

‘I came through the gate as any mayor would do. They unlocked it for me and will lock it again behind me when I chose to leave.’

‘Why should I speak to you? My business is with others. I have a misunderstanding with one of them, which has brought me here unnecessarily but will soon be resolved. It has nothing to do with you.’

‘Your misunderstanding is with the whole of London. You think the city will come back to you if you poke it. But it has been irritated enough and wants rid of you.’

‘You are speaking of yourself.’

‘Yes, myself and many others who would like to get on with their business in peace. People who don’t want violence in the street or provocation at work or bickering in council. The leadership of the city has been settled for the year. Why don’t you give up campaigning until next autumn and I will see if John the brewer will drop his case.’

‘It is not up to the false mayor to rescue the true.’

‘I understand the duke of Lancaster was unconvinced by that view of the election when you put it to him, and the king seems happy with the result as announced. There is little merit in citizens like us pursuing fantasies against the royal will.’

‘Are you becoming such a king’s man that you would abandon the freedom of the city?’

‘Were you upholding the freedom of the city when you broke the head of the brewer?’

No more words need be wasted. The prisoner went to the window sill to search for the free city he rightly ruled and the rat left the cell through the large hole known as the door.

‘He will be mainprised today,’ said the warden. ‘The usual citizens will assemble for the purpose. Then, as you know, the case will proceed or otherwise to court.’

‘This is short respite for the city from its tormentor, but perhaps he will slacken his efforts while he is on bail.’

‘Maybe, Sir Nicholas. It’s a long way to drop in a few weeks! How the city is built on springs and up and down go its sons.’

‘There are those who have clear ideas in their heads as to how the world should be and there are those who have nothing but hunger, range and mischief. You cannot satisfy them, you can only try to sweeten them or fright them beyond whatever moves their bowels already.’

The Guildhall was full of bodies. The cold weather had driven them inside to inch nearer the fire or huddle in the closer air of the corridor. The court of hustings was sitting at the west end of the hall for the second day this week. Nicholas, entering from the porch, felt his excitement at the royal writs smash against the dull drone of court business. It was as if rival parts of him pulled at different speeds, his heart beating too fast for the sudden sedation of his limbs.

A man (Richard Chandler) had come with a plaint regarding the stench from the pit that was next to his tenement. He was speaking: ‘Martin Tenby denies he dumps his rubbish in the pit, which is probably true when the sun is up. But after dark he pushes a barrow alongside my place. I hear it knocking and the squeak of the wheel. In the morning the stink is worse.’ A date was allocated in the following week for a visit of the assize.

Nicholas yawned and headed towards the officers’ room, hoping to protect his early buzz. But Richard Odyham pursued him with the same chafing contrast between quick and slow:

‘I don’t believe Martin is filling the pit. I went past there last week. It is the privy that stinks and the privy belongs to Richard.’

‘Why would Richard come to court to complain about his own smell?’

‘Richard has a rotten heart. He is a man of hatred. He does not see the world clearly and thinks it insufficient for his purposes.’

Offensive smells were a problem in London, true enough, particularly in the waterways, which attracted more foul matter than they could bear. Sometimes it would seem better to dump stuff in a back street or on waste land where it would gently steam away until it was earth. But people thought that the Walbrook was a better option. Flowing water carries secrets away – except that it was not often flowing these days. Nicholas wanted to tackle the Walbrook. The Thames was too big – a blessing and a curse so far as pollution was concerned. But the Walbrook was both smaller and more polluted. It entered the city from Moorfields and cut down south to the Thames at Dowgate. In between it was overhung by warehouses and dwellings, all of which could drop into it whatever was not wanted. Of course, these people were the chief sufferers from the resulting state of the stream. And yet they did not follow the obvious course. There had been plenty of ordinances and proclamations on the subject, what was now needed was enforcement. Nicholas would organise teams – but the men who formed them must come from the wards and not all aldermen would spare them or even want to help him in the first place.

Nicholas looked up from his musing. Richard had been waiting to tell him something: ‘News has come from the King’s Bench about the bridge-gate four. They refused the benefit of the Act of Pardon but the trial did not go ahead. They must appear again next year.’

‘The case has gone cold,’ said Nicholas. ‘Even John Horn will walk free. Walter Sibyle and Adam Carlisle should never have been put in this frame: their fidelity is beyond doubt.’

‘That’s not how you always speak of Adam Carlisle, Sir Nicholas.’

‘No. You are right. He is a man of high temper and sudden action. But his intentions are true. There are many who, by contrast, plot calmly with the devil.’

‘You speak wisely I’m sure, Sir Nicholas,’ said Richard, taking the far end of the bench and reaching for his common place book.

Nicholas had a similar book but he did not want to open it to the world so he looked for an alternative. He sat down in front of the accounts of the bridge wardens but the figures scratched his eyes without transferring meaning to his mind. His hands were stiff as twigs under snow. He pulled them inside his cloak and returned to his study. Still no understanding. He stamped his feet and remembered Jankin’s boots and then the ring. He had replaced one and had better attend to the others. As soon as one problem was fixed another took its place.

The sheriffs had agreed to preside over hustings without the mayor today. Despite his gratitude, Nicholas was irked by the speed with which they agreed to do without him. Now it was Nones and they came back from the court, which they had adjourned for the mid-day meal. Simon Wynchcombe was talking to the recorder just outside the room, his dagger hooked on a piece of his sleeve. John More stood frozen like a crystal. There was truly no movement to show his agony in acceding to the king’s pleasure in the arrest of his friend. If anything there was the suggestion of a smile, which perhaps had flickered in his face for a moment, the wrong moment, as winter descended.

The recorder, William Cheyne, was a fey man. He enjoyed administering and he enjoyed demonstrating his enjoyment, as he was doing at this moment. His bright blond hair had hardly darkened since Nicholas first encountered him as a young man. Unlike Richard Odyham, William was easy with practical detail but could become furious when the underlying principles were abused. Nicholas had tried a range of methods to cool him down but sometimes he just let him burn for the sake of the entertainment. The blond hair flew and eventually came to rest at tricky angles. Nicholas disliked William but could make no sense of this, since William was generally an efficient recorder and respectful towards the mayor. ‘Liking people’ was something that women did – or the opposite.

Nobody mentioned John de Northampton but his name was pushing behind every lip. Eventually Simon Wynchcombe let it out: ‘I expect that the former mayor will be released today.’

‘I expect it too,’ said Nicholas.

Simon squeezed into the mayor’s corner as John More left the room. ‘You don’t think there might be any reason to hold him longer?’

‘No.’

‘Because I heard that you were creating one.’

‘I see. Maybe it was me that threatened the brewer in the first place!’

‘Yes, I’ve heard that one too, and its more likely counterpart that you paid the brewer to make the accusation.’

‘Men should talk less: it is clear that their brains leak out while their mouths are open. I have nothing to put in the way of John’s release. It is up to him to avoid making his own obstacles in the future.’

Nicholas looked at Simon and saw the lines like ripples following down his face. His speech was not as facile as it seemed. Was everyone worrying about everything? Nicholas was worrying about riots and and accounts and ordure in the waterways and Simon was worrying about how to raise the matter of the draper, which frankly smelled just as bad. Simon was an armourer who had often aligned himself with John de Northampton, but not always. Nicholas found him very difficult to understand but at least he provided something to consider, unlike John More, who hardly spoke and kept all parts of himself, especially his face, as still as death. On the shores of the Mediterranean Nicholas had seen people so dark they almost disappeared. You could not see if there was flesh there or eyes and teeth within it. Then they spoke and revealed themselves. But how would you understand their purpose, since for that you must read the face, the whole of it, not just a flash of iris and ivory? Business could not proceed without this trick of reading faces. Perhaps in the far places of the earth trade was not needed. Perhaps everyone grew their own grain and hunted their own game. Perhaps everything was different there, as if on another world. These people may even be a separate type of being, not people at all, and so with no hope of redemption.

It was not so difficult with the Florentines or the Venetians. You could understand their faces, though you had to follow their feints. And they could communicate if you spoke French. They pretended they didn’t understand until they realised what you had to trade. The French, of course, were easy as anything. They are just as the English are, even if sometimes we are cutting each others’ throats.

Nicholas sent Milo out to fetch pies from a cook shop and escaped upstairs to the room used for the mayor’s court, which was not sitting that day. It was smaller than the common council chamber with which it shared the upper level of the east wing and was slightly warmer as a result. Nicholas had brought with him a book of plain sheets of paper bound in blue leather with an orange ribbon looped around its middle. This was his common place book, which he had kept hidden in the officers’ room. He freed the blue from the orange and sat on a bench with the fond object on his knees. He wanted to set down his plan for his time as mayor. He had made a good start with regard to the sale of fish and the eligibility of victuallers for civic posts. The next step was to bring back election by the wards so that the right men would form the common council. This would raise the reputation of the city in outside eyes, including those of the king. There would also need to be an improvement in public order and a push on covins and conspiracies. For this purpose Nicholas planned to extend the mayoral household and increase its armoury. He would seek the help of the masters of the misteries, most of whom shared his concerns. He would tour the wards and speak to the constables and beadles, and he would encourage a citizen here and there to argue the cause of peace and report back on the response. Jankin’s skills would be helpful in this regard.

Jankin sat in a corner copying letters with a stiff quill. From time to time Nicholas shouted out an objective to him or enquired about tactics, and sometimes he wandered over and corrected his script. How could Jankin be so good at manipulating men and yet have so little control over his pen? However slight his learning, Jankin knew what could be achieved with men and he had a way of disarming them. He appeared to be harmless – frail, even – and that was his way in. By the time you realised that he had a heart without blood, you were trapped in his game. Poor Jankin.

Nicholas reviewed what he had written in his beloved book. There were two words missing: New Troy. He was not alone in his references to the city of Brut. Others were versed in the history of Albion and the importance of the links between Aeneas, Brutus and Arthur. Even John de Northampton had sometimes used the city’s ancient name. But only Nicholas was sufficiently resolved to make the official change from London to New Troy. He had pledged to do it in his earliest moments as mayor. Now he wrote the name in his book and thickened the letters with care so that they cried out from the midst of his scrivening.

Milo was downstairs observing the court. Nicholas had convinced himself that this was education for an aspiring grocer. Milo stood against the north wall of the hall like a buttress and waited for knowledge to gush in through his ears. At the end of the day he was able to list the offences before the court, though his understanding of what they involved varied considerably. Nicholas was satisfied and encouraged him out into the yard so that they could trail home at last.

Much of importance had happened during the day but men had stood around the Guildhall talking at length about nothing at all. Very little comment had been made on what really mattered. That had always been the way of things. Men spoke quietly, indirectly and often in some sort of code. Like Simon Wynchecombe, they were unhappy at stating things plainly from the start but were inclined instead to caution, vacancy or deception. Nicholas often thought he knew what was in the minds of other men, but how was his knowledge better than a guess in the absence of clear speech? And even were there such confirmation, how would he know what men were saying beyond his hearing? It was a common fault to hold the imagination to the limits of the senses.

The Guildhall was full of bodies and each of them had a history and a purpose – none of them wholly in line with his own. Had he thought before that the citizens of London were defined only in relation to Nicholas Brembre? That they were either for or against him and there was no other determination? That they ceased to exist when they were out of his sight?

Only God saw everybody all the time and knew the nature of each. Was that really true – that God knew in searing detail what he, Nicholas, could catch only in tiny glimpses? But what God sees is what he made. Does he not know, even before he looks? It was the old problem again: if God made us and knows all about us, how can we have free will? And if we don’t have free will, how can he judge us? The mortal flesh that filled the Guildhall that day was all at the mercy of powers it could not understand.

Nicholas Brembre 49

Parliament had originally been been called for the purpose of considering a treaty with king Robert of Scotland but by the end of October eyes to the north had become eyes to the south as the complete failure of the campaign in Flanders became apparent. A new project had become favourite. This was the impeachment of bishop Despenser of Norwich and his captains. The bishop was accused of failing to produce the number of men he had promised, of returning before the year was up and of not keeping the king informed of the names of his captains. In addition he and the formerly anonymous captains were alleged to have received gold in return for the surrender of castles to the enemies of the king.

John Philipot had a keen interest in all this since he was a chief financier to the crusade and would have been struck to his patriotic heart even if his money had not been involved. Nicholas was less concerned since his exports had settled to the way of Middelburg, although it had not yet been officially recognised as the new staple. Each evening there was a meeting at Henry’s house to review the day at Westminster. Nicholas sat quietly through the members’ treatment of the bishop of Norwich.

‘The man has lost half his height,’ said Henry.

‘As if he had been sliced at the knees,’ agreed John.

‘I remember his fervour when he claimed the crusade in the spring. He looked as if he had already taken the field.’

‘He was so sure of his task he could have been a boy at play. He convinced me,’ said John with pain.

‘Instead he has abused the trust of the king and has enriched himself at the nation’s expense.’

‘Do you think that?’

‘It has been said in parliament.’

‘They are squashing him like fallen fruit. He failed in battle but I do not believe he sold castles. They are shrinking him until he fits under the boot. I believe he is an honourable man and an honourable man must be dirtied before he hits the ground.’

‘He should not have put himself forward,’ said Henry. ‘One of the royal uncles would have led us better.’

‘To Spain, perhaps.’

‘We could not have been worse off in Flanders.’

‘The French were distracted at least. They have not attempted to invade for a a year or two.’

‘Have our petitions been considered?’ asked Nicholas in the pause that followed these words of tepid cheer.

‘Not yet. The affairs of the city have to wait, Nicholas. The king must first tackle his enemies abroad. Business, as we all know, has been badly affected by the war, so the city has an interest, but the wider world must come first.’ Henry was still sitting on his bench in the Painted Chamber, stretching up to see the famous faces at the front. ‘I do wish the duke of Lancaster had led the way of Spain.’

‘I wish him king of Castile and no longer plaguing us here. But I wonder if he would have more success in Iberia than the bishop of Norwich had closer by.’ Nicholas floated like a fog around the vintner’s buzzing head.

‘He is still calling for it. We may yet discover.’

‘Of all the sons of king Edward, why did the first die young while the rest were left to play at being kings?’ asked John.

Why did the first die and leave a fledgling to hop around the throne? If the prince of Wales had lasted longer – ten years perhaps – this son of his would have learned to fly according to his example, and away from the most unctuous of Westminster eyes. Nicholas felt sudden sorrow for Richard and his task. The beautiful boy who had no nothing in his way and so had everything. Was this the way to chose a leader? It was not so much choice as chance – chance that the heir would be competent and amenable, chance that whatever his qualities he would be fully grown and possessed of his faculties when the old king departed. Was an election a better plan? To have choice among many and a vote to settle it. But it was not settled. Though he had won the election, it was not settled and he wondered how he would persuade the deniers to accept what happened in plain view. In any case election was not the mode for kings. Divinity intervened. That was what Richard believed, it seemed. He was still so young, so slight beneath his crown, yet he inflated his kingship not only with the babble of tradition but also with the breath of God.

A few days later there was word of the war with France, or perhaps the end of it. King Charles had written to king Richard suggesting talks to discuss peace. Parliament was still on the subject. No-one wanted to admit his relief nor give into it. Henry held onto his until he reached home but before his foot touched his earth he had begun happy musings on the recovery of the wine trade. He reached back to stroke the mane of his horse, which had tangled in the rough weather.

‘My petitions?’ demanded Nicholas as he passed his mount to a servant.

‘Nothing yet.’

‘He will come to them, Nichol,’ said John softly. ‘It was a hard day. I’ll leave you and Henry to rescue the world.’

‘Why did he ride into the yard if he was going to ride straight out again?’ asked Henry as brother John escaped into Thames Street.

Nicholas squared his shoulders in order to take the full onslaught of Henry’s enthusiasm, which soon moved to the main business of the day: ‘We put up a fight, Nicholas. You should be proud of us. We argued about the levy of a fifteenth and a tenth and managed to reduce it to half, that is with a delay before the second half is paid, and perhaps it will not be paid at all. The chancellor spoke doggedly – sometimes shouting – of the threats from our enemies, but it seems that most of them are suing for peace. If the money is to fight them then the argument weakens. Eventually we accepted that the tax may be needed but we insisted that the clergy come up with their share and that the disgraced bishop gives up anything he has left from the rout in Flanders. There was also argument about the staple, which will interest you, Nichol. The king answers that the staple should remain at Calais so long as peace talks are being held but that it should otherwise return to England. I am sure that is not your preference, Nicholas.’

Henry Vanner, born as a fly, would have circled every candle until his wings tore. As a man he moved and made noise as if his life were indeed no longer than a gnat’s. It seemed that his message must be delivered against the chance of sudden death. The restlessness did not however depart once the deed had been done, thereby denying the necessity. He continued to twitch and flap, resting for no more than a few moments in any one place. How did Margery suffer him?

‘John thinks there is tension between the king and some of the lords. He waves his hand at them as if he does not want to hear what they say. The earl of Buckingham looks affronted and the duke of Lancaster crouches behind his nephew like a cat waiting to spring.’

Margery came in with servants to light more candles. The afternoons were being sucked into night. Better go home soon.

‘Joan and Thomas have been here today. With the miracle.’ Margery smiled as the old hen smiles in enjoyment of the fuss made by her juniors, forgetting that a hen that cannot lay is soon dead. ‘She speaks a hundred words, although we have heard only three, and can knock over most of the ornaments in the solar before any greetings have been exchanged.’

‘Thomas is still shooting off to Homerton. He showed me a plan. I’ll get it for you.’ Henry shot off himself, sliding in the doorway but recovering his poise before disappearing on his quest.

‘Henry is enjoying his time as member of parliament,’ said Nicholas into air that was increasingly chilly though the fire raged.

‘I am enjoying it too.’

‘Because he is away all day?’

‘No, because he tells me about it.’

‘You are interested?’

‘Yes, very interested. Why not?’

‘You are interested in the ramblings of a hundred men showing off their best clothes like young girls?’

‘I don’t have to sit through the ramblings or see the girls. Henry picks out the good bits for me, as he does for you.’

‘Does one man’s selection give you a picture of the whole?’

‘Of course not. But it is more than most wives are offered.’

‘Most wives have no interest.’

‘Probably not, but this one does. Maybe I am not the same as other wives.’

‘Henry has much to be glad of – you too.’ The gap was too long and Nichol’s voice struggled to keep its pitch but Margery was untroubled.

‘There is a particular trick to marriage, presuming it lasts beyond the early years. Make sure you find out what you really want to know and ignore the rest.’

Was it difficult to be cleverer than your husband? Perhaps Margery was saying that it was and that she had achieved it nonetheless. But why was she telling her sister’s husband? What did he have to do with it?

‘Nothing, Nichol. Nothing is so bad that you cannot take action against it or turn your back.’

Henry returned but without the plan. ‘Perhaps Thomas took it with him.’

‘He wants to build a mill,’ said Nicholas.

‘He told me it was a storehouse…’

‘Right on the edge of the river?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Is it not our practice to discuss projects that are of interest within the family?’

‘Often, sometimes, usually.’

‘The house at Homerton is of interest to us all but Thomas has swept into the family and taken it over.’

‘Have you a particular interest in it, Nichol?’ asked Margery.

‘No. We have all used it as a retreat. It is special to Joan. It is she who has the particular interest and it is supposed to be hers now. I don’t think she has any idea what he is doing with it.’

‘You are annoyed because Thomas has plans to make money?’

Nicholas saw his sister’s challenge but there was so much more to this question. He opened his mouth and shut it again. He was weary of mazy conversations. ‘Enjoy the remainder of the parliament,’ he said to both parties. ‘I must crawl away before the light is gone.’

The mayor received a writ from the king on the day after parliament was prorogued. Nicholas broke the seal and smoothed out all the creases. Richard had granted his requests. Last year’s statutes regarding fish were repealed and city fishmongers were now free to go about their business, save that they, as all victuallers, would be under the rule of the mayor and aldermen. In addition, no mayor would be forced to take any oath other than the ancient one used in the time of king Edward. The Northampton net was rent, while the fishmongers were lined up with the rest of the citizenry under corporation supervision. The fishmongers had been heartily abused but there had been some merit it criticism of their independence, particularly the maintenance the Halimot.

The writ was still displayed on the desk when a second royal missive arrived. Nicholas sat upright on a stool holding the new writ to the light. The king ordered the arrest of John de Northampton and John Bleton following a claim from John Yorke, a London brewer, to be in danger of life and limb from them. The mayor called the sheriffs, who were less pleased with the news than he. John More gripped the writ as tightly as a pauper with a crust, his thumbs turning white as he read it several times. Memories wormed the space between sheriff and mayor – memories of past opposition, arrest and resistance. Calculation was cold in John’s eyes. He handed back the letter and led Simon Winchombe from the room.

There was conflict everywhere. Nicholas stood still in the porch, let his arms drop by his sides and imagined something else. Wheat and grass and a ridge of hills; woods like old wizards with smoke creeping from hidden holes. He trotted past them on a lazy horse. A city at a distance but it could hardly be London? He dismounted in the yard of a country house but when he turned to go inside the lines distorted and he was back in La Riole. There was no other house; there was no other life. God has his reasons, though they might not be understood. The world is a loud and prickly place and a man might tackle only a tiny piece of it, and even then would be confounded. He must rest where he was put. God grant him small power to improve on what he had.

‘Do you want to know what I have been doing today?’ Nicholas asked his wife.

‘Do you need to eat? Felice can find something for you. We have finished – well, most of us.’

‘You must eat, Robert,’ said his father following the line of his mother’s eyes. Robert nodded but otherwise made no move and Nicholas turned back to Idonia. ‘I received another writ from the king.’

‘More statutes repealed?’

‘No – more exciting even than that. Have you given him dried figs?’

‘He likes figs.’

‘We know what happens when he eats figs.’ But not today: the bowl, still full of figs, was pushed away in a corner.’

‘Tell me what happened.’

‘The king ordered the arrest of John de Northampton.’

Idonia looked at him intently as if unravelling a puzzle. ‘I don’t know whether to be pleased. Will it mean more upset in the city?’

‘For weeks he has been organising trouble but we have had no means to strike back. Jankin has been tracking covins in drapers’ houses, taverns and Goldsmiths’ Hall. I am sure the recent riot was set by John. But now someone has made a claim against him and there is a chance to stop the slide.’

Robert leaned on his mother. He had done it since he could stand but now that he was seven years old he must stand without her. Idonia had ceased to ponder public order – why had he bothered her with it? – and was smiling and serene. She was so much better than in the year of the last baby’s death. It hurt him to admit the sense of having no more. But it had been accepted between them without a word. They shared a bed but the linen was frozen between them. In the night he sometimes heard her moan and felt her body press against him. She was asleep and he was in an agony of wakefulness.

‘Soon I will lean on you, little man,’ said Idonia. Robert pushed her gently and laughed. But his laugh became a cough and he leant on her again.

‘Should we send for a physic?’ Nicholas thought they should, although little good was likely from it. Why did he ask when he knew what Idonia would say?

‘It’s just a cough. I will pray for him.’

Nicholas Brembre 48

‘The skinner says, Sir Nicholas, that covins are forming in the city.’ Jankin spoke sideways as he entered the yard. He had been out and about in the night, returning just as the gate was opened for an early visit from John Philipot.

‘Thomas Wailand says so too,’ said Nicholas. ‘As do most other men with eyes and wit. Secrecy does not seem to be their priority – perhaps the opposite is desired.’

The sky was draped in colours that would have given Thomas a seizure had he seen it in cloth: angry, acid salmon and purple like blood welling under the skin. The blue sky between was cold as spite yet yielded gold as the heavenly bodies turned to light the world.

‘The skinner thinks they are planning an uprising. They reckon they can get the middle ranks of the city on their feet against you, Sir Nicholas. My other spies say the same.’ Jankin continued to speak out of the corner of his mouth as if this made him look less suspicious rather than the opposite.

‘The old mayor has imagination but it takes him too far.’ Nicholas switched his sight between the sunrise and his stiff servant. Then he laughed and reached into his purse. ‘Jankin, I want you to go to Old Ford and check on the supplies. Take Aaron and James with you and bring back the items on this list. You can sleep first. I presume sleep is something you need.’

Jankin looked hard at the letters, which revealed their secrets to him by virtue of the teaching of his master. Then he turned and took his strained features away towards the servants’ room.

‘Who is the skinner?’asked John Philipot, stepping ahead into the gloomy hall.

‘The skinner is named Peter Stenby. Do you know him?’

‘I have heard of him. He has sometimes been accused of mixing furs and found himself in prison. I would say he mixes his company as well. He has been in court claiming damages in disputes with doubtful men.’

‘That is why he is useful to me. He knows the parts of the city that even Jankin cannot reach.’

The two men sat across the fire from each other, Nicholas on his wooden chair with its crossed sticks, which became arms or legs according to need, John on a chest carved with lions and sporting gold around its edges.

‘You think that John de Northampton imagines too much, Nichol, but perhaps you do so yourself. Did you imagine that he would nod his head and slide quietly away?’

‘Not really.’

‘Well you made sure of that suspicion with your words at the Guildhall after the oath.’

‘Did I?’ said Nicholas as mildly as he wished.

‘You were too direct in what you said about him.’

‘I wasn’t direct. Nothing I said could be proved to be critical. I chose words that could go in at least two directions, if not any direction you like.’

‘Nevertheless, what you meant was obvious.’

‘If I had spoken otherwise, if I had thanked God and the king and rejoiced in the last two years of mayoral mischief, then would he have meekly sat and smiled?’

‘You could have stopped with God and the king.’

‘You know that your opinion is more valuable to me than that of any other man.’

‘That’s why you always disagree with me.’

‘That’s right. But you are my brother and you are a great man, far better than me. I consider what you say even if I do not follow it. You are like a lance stuck upright in the ground and I am attached to you by flappy piece of string that can only stretch so far. I can always see you, even if it is from a distance.’

‘I wonder about that, Nichol.’

Despite the attachment that existed between them – even if its range was disputed – John and Nicholas were going in different directions this morning. John was off to Westminster, Nicholas to the Guildhall. Their discussion linked the two places since what was decided in one would surely affect the other. They had desires of one another. The king, through parliament, wanted taxes and loans from the city, the city wanted both freedom and protection from the king. And beyond this they had common concerns such as foreign threats and disorder in the realm.

The city had elected its four excellent representatives to parliament: John Philipot, William Walworth, Henry Vanner and William Baret and Nicholas could be confident of their pursuit of his objectives in the palace. With this to cushion to his rear he rode out with John along Nightrider Street to the junction with Cordwainer, where he turned north to face his first congregation at the Guildhall.

The new mayor addressed the aldermen and the commons: ‘I know I am not the mayor preferred by all of you. I know that there are those of you who desire some other shape for the city, something flatter with wealth and responsibility shared more evenly among citizens. You would like to choose between me and that blazing vision. But if you choose the vision, what you get is collapse. There is an order to things and if you go against it the opposite must be the result. I am the right choice because there is no other.’ He felt youthful as he spoke these words. His shoulders were sprung and his flesh warm with the trust that men would admire his straight stance, his lack of ostentation. He was taking over the city with hands as strong as a bear’s and he felt he had become what he should be. Now must begin the campaign against the work of his predecessor. It was like a foul net that must be picked to pieces.

The petitions before parliament were the first steps in this process and he discussed them now with the common council, or told it about them in any case, since it was too late to change them. The city’s representatives would support the call for the repeal of the statutes against the fishmongers and other victuallers that had been obtained by John de Northampton. At this point in proceedings it sounded as if the doors to the hall had been opened suddenly to a winter wind. The sighing and whooshing ran round the walls and through the benches ruffling the rich cloaks of the citizens. But a winter wind is not like that of spring, it is not a storm of devastation, a shredder of civilisation. The cold was resisted and the body left shivery but intact. In company with the petition regarding the buying and selling of fish, there was a request for a full restoration of the liberties of the city. A small amount of air was puffed around the chamber at that and Nicholas awaited its diffusion before proceeded to the mundane business of the day.

The mayor, aldermen and common councilmen of the city of London sat in the damp atmosphere of the Guildhall and considered the forms and events of their territory: inquests, ordinances, writs from the king, the accounts of the chamberlain and of the wardens of the bridge, the sale of ale, pertinent cases from the courts. While his plan advanced in Westminster, Nicholas had held back in the Guildhall, reserving more radical issues for later congregations. But just as he eased into confidence that the meeting would close without incident, Adam Bamme, goldsmith and ally of John de Northampton, crashed into the chamber and marched on the dais: ‘There is disorder in the city where I understood that there would be peace and order under the new mayor!’

‘Does Adam know nothing of the origins of that disorder?’ asked the accused in response to this sudden and curious complaint.

‘Let us put history aside for a moment. Disorder in any cause is disorder and threatens the safety and profit of the city. How does the mayor propose to deal with it?’

‘I intend to arrest and imprison those who attack the city. The courts will decide their fate. And God.’

‘Well be prepared to act on your intention because there is a riot brewing on Chepe at this very moment.’

Nicholas looked at his serjeants, who leapt up and bumped into each other. ‘Gather as many men as you can and follow me.’

They rushed out of the Guildhall, down Saint Lawrence Lane onto Chepe where both their movement and their understanding was hindered by the market. The riot, when they found it, was in the goldsmiths’ quarter, close to the cathedral. There were artisans and labourers running in all directions but the bulk of the protest was making for St Paul’s. What weapons Nicholas could see were not sophisticated – mostly brooms and sticks of various sizes. But goldsmiths and their assistants employ blades and may carry them on their persons. What was their cause? Would they fight for it? Did they know what is was? And why was it Adam Bamme who came to tell him about it?’

The appearance of the mayor, serjeants and half the common council had an marked effect on the rioters. Most of them dropped their brooms and ran off into the alleys. The rest gathered into the shape of a lozenge, like knights within a cage of shields.

‘As your mayor I call on you to disperse,’ said Nicholas from the height of his horse.

There was no sound but shuffling until a voice from the back made two stabs through the thick air: ‘Whose mayor?’

Nicholas could not tell who had spoken but he could see that the remains of the riot consisted of journeymen, they who were generally discontented and easily set in directions favoured by cleverer men.

‘Go home and get on with your work.’ Nicholas turned his horse away down so that he could watch the final dispersal of the riot without seeming to care. ‘The common council meeting is adjourned.’

When he reached La Riole Nicholas found an important guest waiting for him. Sir Baldwin Raddington had come to discuss matters on behalf of the king, including the return of the royal crown that had been pledged as security for the city’s loan of four thousand marks. Sir Baldwin was a stiff man a great cloak full of fur. He stood respectfully when Idonia crossed the hall but was off-hand with Nicholas and breathed noisily as if irritated. They agreed that the crown would be returned by Richard Odyham on a date which the chamberlain had suggested. A few minor matters were patted along. Nicholas sensed a desire in his visitor to prolong their meeting and indeed to reopen the subject of loans. He had indicated previously that he might make another to the crown in a private capacity but now he felt the urge to play around a little. It was clear that Sir Baldwin preferred not to ask directly even though he must have come with this very intention. His colour ebbed and flowed at the mayor’s sport. A series of equivocations ended with the most ridiculous, as well as the most pertinent, question of all:

‘I presume that his lordship the king is truly needful of this money?’

Sir Baldwin looked aghast. ‘You don’t want to make the loan, Sir Nicholas?’ he asked with colour coming to his face.

‘Yes I do. I am happy to make a loan, but you don’t look as if you’re happy to receive it.’

‘That is not the case at all. I beg your pardon in God’s name. The king would be very grateful for you assistance.’

Baldwin Raddington was a medium man with a superior air. But his alarm at the question warmed his appearance sufficiently for the lender to want to bother with the process. Nicholas had met with the king himself on occasions when loans were offered in the past but it was easier to receive this mouthpiece in his own home, rather than to ride over to Westminster and wait forever in the cold corridors.

Pieryne came in with some pastries and Sir Baldwin seemed to lose the years between childhood and pomposity. He consumed a pastry with care and explored his lips with a pink tongue in case a grain of sugar had been missed. Then he took another.

Nicholas watched in fascination as this man of moment dissolved into his own pleasure. But two pastries seemed to suffice and, once the ceremony had been repeated, the king’s servant thickened back into flesh and the negotiations moved on. The king would write a letter to confirm that Nicholas could recover his loan from the customs.

‘His lordship the king is very grateful,’ Sir Baldwin repeated. The coda felt uncomfortable and Nicholas wondered if he had added of his own volition something that had not come from the king – indeed that the king had said something less respectful and more presumptuous.

Sir Baldwin declined an invitation to dinner but spent so much time explaining to Idonia the urgency of the business that prevented him, that he might as well have stayed. Nicholas watched the fog rise in her eyes, as it did when he attempted similar accounts. By the time Sir Baldwin predicted his acceptance on another occasion her irises were entirely obscured, but she still managed to steer him to the door and aim her platitudes at the right height for his face. Nicholas was confused by the change from sniffer to pleader, gathering something like sincerity as it went. When did Sir Baldwin think the next occasion would be? How many loans was he likely to request?

Once a week Gombert cleaned his master’s sword and made sure it was sharp. It was a reasonable task for anyone who could sit on a bench or lean against a wall and he did it well enough. But when Nicholas had time to spare he cleaned his sword himself so that it sparkled as he swung it back and forth in practice. The balance of a lance was also his study, although there was not space in the yard to imitate a joust. The purpose of a knight was not as clear as it had been in the reign of Arthur. In those days a knight passed the tests of chivalry and rode out to fight the world. Arthur led his knights to Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and France – and conquered them all. Even the Roman emperor was defeated. The opportunities were there for all. If a knight lived he could return with a reputation and a fortune, if he died the reputation at least. These fabulous men shared with him their title, but Nicholas had had far less chance than they to show that he deserved it.

Idonia watched him sometimes from the doorway. He would rather she went away. It was ridiculous that an old man was pretending to be Sir Kay on a charger. He put down the pointless lance and returned to the sword. There was always reason to be agile with a blade – with that you could defend yourself, your family and sometimes even the king.

‘Are you expecting to fight off your opponents? You would do better to leave that to your servants and make sure you have enough of them.’

‘I do.’

‘Nichol, that is not the case…’

‘Are you always watching me? Tell me when I have gone out unprepared.’

‘On the day after the feast you went across the city and into Southwark with Peter alone.’

‘Peter is not the quivering monk we thought him to be. He is quite a force under attack. All my life I thought of him as an imitation of a man with flesh and bone but no fire.’

‘You don’t look very hard, do you, Nichol?’

‘No. But now I see that Peter is the very man to have in case of danger.’

He could see that Idonia was not convinced by this swing from Peter the manikin to Peter the Titan. She looked at him as if he were Robert asking if they might have lion cubs in the garden. ‘Peter is only one man, however great his transformation.’

‘I wanted to be quiet.’

‘Let it be the last time.’

‘Is it for the wife to command the husband?’

‘Illusions of domestic order must sometimes be overcome by necessity. If you are attacked and killed, what will happen to me, to Robert and to the rest of the household? Nichol, you have been in the habit of slipping in and out of the house. Surely you know why, if I don’t. But John de Northampton has shown the viciousness of his intentions on many occasions. Don’t leave us open to them.’

Nicholas was packed up and ready to come back into the house. Gombert was waiting to put the sword away though the lance was too heavy for him. Nicholas brought it in himself. It could be kept only in the store house where there were hooks to hold it against the long wall. He remembered that he had wanted it hung in the hall until he saw how naked would be the perfect tip, no dents, no blood. Its virginity would expose his own in never having tilted it in fear.

‘Will my husband be home for dinner today and is there anything in particular he would like his wife to provide?’ Idonia had slipped quietly from the yard but was waiting for him in the hall. Her question hovered like a bluebottle, its buzz disrupting the distant sounds of battle.

‘Swan,’ he said.

‘Swan? What swan? Where would I get a swan from between now and dinner? And who would eat swan on a Tuesday unless they had invited the king?’

Why did he have to keep needling her? It was not really worth the effort and he could see that she was struggling to understand. Idonia hated to be adrift from sense.

‘We can’t have swan.’

‘We could have had it at the banquet.’

Now she understood, but the relief was not plenary, some other irritation persisted. Her cheeks were no longer sucked up into her eyes but the line of her mouth was hard as a knife. Why this anger in her? Surely her worries were slight compared to those of others. He recalled the sight of the shivering girl under the door in the alley. Idonia did not have to contend with that kind of ruin. She had always had a home and as much food as she wanted. Food was not the issue – accept that now it was the issue.

‘You wanted swan at the feast?’

‘I thought the occasion invited it.’

‘It was too expensive.’

‘I was paying.’

‘You gave the task of arranging the banquet to me and so I decided what to buy. The spread was outrageous even without the swan.’

By now both of them were bubbling like a miss-mixed broth. Nicholas was weary of having to argue his case in his own home and stomped off into the city without sword or companion. There was but one person he wanted as his protector and that person was in not in La Riole.

Sir Nicholas Brembre entered the shop in Coleman Street hoping to be told that he must wait. Thomas Wailand, however, was already on the premises and was soon on his way up from the cellar wiping his hands on a ragged piece of cloth.

‘And what have you come for today, Sir Nicholas?’

The question hung in space as its object shuffled one purpose with another. ‘You were in London at the time of the revolt.’

‘I was in Southwark.’ Thomas pointed to a bench as he threw down the cloth and took off his apron. A servant took charge of both.

‘Good. I hoped that was the case.’

‘You hoped I was there rather than looking after my paying interests in the city?’

‘For present purposes, yes. Did you hear what the rebels said of their chances of crossing the bridge?’

‘You keep coming back to this, Nicholas. Why does it matter so much?’

‘Yesterday I heard a new rumour: that it was me that let them in.’

‘Why would you do that?’

‘Because I am a fiend from hell intent on ruining the world. Because I have a child’s grudge against the city. Because I knew they would attack my enemies – including the duke of Lancaster. Or perhaps because I thought they would do less damage if they were not thwarted at the start.’

‘I heard nothing from them but foul language and farts.’

Nicholas was distracted by a noise above his head and for a moment it was beyond him to fashion a response. Thomas waited and then accepted the duty of resisting the silence: ‘Well, they have got no further with those they accused. I understand they are all released from the tower and not a conviction yet secured.’

‘They are due back at the King’s Bench in November but the case becomes weaker the longer it is stretched. Perhaps that is the reason the rumours have turned on me.’

‘Or merely because it is good sport for your opponents. How did you collect so many?’

‘Do you know what John de Northampton thinks of the case?’

‘Do you mean before or after you took away his toys?’

‘Does no-one have a true opinion, one that is not fixed by by their own desires?’

‘No, probably not – although I like the idea.’

‘I am not really worried, of course,’ said Nicholas, smoothing his sleeves. ‘It is too late for a cooked up charge from men out of power. But I am curious.’

‘Look, even as a draper I am not especially well informed, but I would say John thinks the men who were tried are the men who did it.’

‘What do you think?’

‘I think they are as innocent as anyone else.’

Thomas invited his friend upstairs for a glass of wine but Beatrice was not in the room with the cushions and Nicholas heard no more bumps. Did she know he was there? Had Thomas told her to stay away for some reason? Was she in the house at all?

Nicholas trailed off to the Guildhall with nothing but a knock on the floor to sound his desire. Before he left Coleman Street he sent for Peter, Guy and Milo and as they met him at the door he glanced up at the window of the penthouse and thought he saw a face. Further along the road he turned and looked again but saw only the billowing of a drape.

Cloud sank down around the party and sucked in with them through the Guildhall porch. After an hour Nicholas was soggy with the business of being mayor and took the key to the end of the corridor. But even his beloved parchments were unable to dry him out. He uncoiled a roll at random and slid across its surface. Walram Baker and his wife claimed that aliens were breaking into their messuage and stealing grain. The master of a school in Farringdon was accused of beating a child to death. A woman of noble descent had been keeping a whore house in Lombard Street. This was all too trifling and familiar. He wanted to find the serious strands of history that pulled together the ages of mankind. If not that then something politically useful at least. He was not looking in the right place but had no other idea of where to go. He lingered for a moment in the foggy corner before replacing the roll. What of Walram’s wife? What did she look like? Was she young and ample? How long could you beat a child and be sure it would not come to harm? Which would be the richer life for a noblewoman: sitting silent in stiff fabric for the entertainment of lords, or dancing with sailors and priests?

Nicholas walked out into the yard and looked up into the vapour through the jagged edges of the roofs. Wayward buildings, both inside and outside the precincts, had cut to pieces what should have been a great space for the mustering of the corporation, the misteries and the people of London. The line strutted out then withdrew into the dark, enabling the likes of Hugh Fastolf to emerge from a corner with drips on his boot. Fluid were the possibilities in the angles of the city. But here the tower of Saint Lawrence was always witness.

‘We in the guild of grocers aim at gentility,’ said the mayor.

‘It is good to have targets.’

‘You seem to have missed yours.’

‘Sometimes life demands a speedy response.’

‘You must be one of the richest merchants in London.’

‘After you, Nicholas.’

‘Yet you’re happy to pee into the mist when there is an excellent corporation privy.’

‘God bless you, Nichol; he made us each a little different. Let me follow my path, and you can go on roaming the yard like a corpse searching for its head.’

How could he get hold of Beatrice? Coleman Street was a matter of chance, La Riole an impossibility. Where was she when she was not with Thomas? There must be somewhere she based herself since she was only one of three. He felt he had been hollowed out by worms and filled again with a mad mush that threatened to boil out of his eyes.

‘Do grocers need to meet in shadows even when one of them is mayor?’ Hugh Fastolf had disappeared but Adam Bamme had observed their encounter.

‘Nothing of any importance was discussed.’

‘Of course not. But that is exactly what I would like to discuss with you: nothing of any importance, other than the state of the city.’

‘Come inside.’

Adam began an investigation of the recent riot, but he did not speak in anger or contempt, rather in the tone of a concerned citizen. Nicholas tried to follow his account and his motivation, both together and apart, while his imagination wandered in search of places where he and Beatrice could meet. He had no luck with any of it, and this seemed to be the theme for the day. He was ready to abandon the Guildhall. ‘Come to dinner.’

Nicholas was desperate to eat now that the hour had come. His stomach was a monster fighting to escape its box, spitting out flaming juices and banging against the walls. Swan was no longer necessary – any flesh, fruit or grain would do. He hurried home as the nones bells rang, with Adam Bamme attempting a more dignified pace behind him, and the servants flapping in between. Pork was the main offering today, although several other dishes figured. Idonia sat with her sister Margaret near the end of the table, leaving space for Nicholas and his guest to talk freely. Servants and apprentices took up places further down the board.

As he sat, Adam scanned the hall from the height of its roof to the quantity of precious metal on the oak before him. He was well known to Nicholas but not at this proximity. The red of his face was moderated and his nose shrunk. His eyes were curious but not aggressive. His mouth explored the meal with apparent respect. ‘I was a supporter of the former mayor, but I follow the decision of the city in electing you and I want to prevent unnecessary strife.’

‘A mayor who intends to overturn everything his predecessor did might expect his vassal to object.’

‘I might object to some parts of your programme, ignore others, but above all I want peace.’ Adam reached for a dish of haddock and figs. ‘I am a goldsmith; of course I supported John. The members of my guild gained a number of advantages – of course we did.’

‘So now you expect a number of advantages for supporting me.’

‘Just one.’

‘The stability of the city?’

‘That’s it.’

‘You did not back me in the election.’

‘No. What is one advantage against many?’

‘Did John offer stability?’

‘That is a good question. Either choice would have led to unrest. But I was resolved to back whoever won in order to overcome these difficulties.’

‘John will not be pleased with you.’

‘No but I will look after myself, if you do not speak my name too loudly.’

‘How is your family, Adam?’ asked Idonia.

‘Mostly well. There are not many to be accounted for. Eleanor, my wife, is full of health and energy. Henry, my brother, not so much so. How is your son? Is he at school?’

‘He learns Latin slowly,’ said Nicholas.

‘He is a good boy who tries hard but is easily tired,’ Idonia expanded. ‘He likes learning as does his father.’

‘Children are a strange gift to us from God. He told us to multiple but it seems hard enough to prevent the shrinking of the population. Do you know, Adam, of many families where the children outnumber the parents at their deaths?’

‘I was one of many children but the plague took all but two. Those of us that are of that age were given a special chance of life before we understood anything about it. We knew more of death.’

‘And do you understand it now?’ asked Margaret.

‘Sometimes.’

‘We have tried to recover our numbers, and the opportunities are there for those that remain – people have moved into the city to learn crafts, labourers have won higher wages, those who work the land have the choice of it.’

‘And yet we have no heirs,’ said Adam. ‘Perhaps God is testing us or the plague was meant as a warning that we did not heed.’

‘Many have seen it that way. Look at the flagellants,’ said Margaret.

‘I prefer not to.’

Nicholas had seen flagellants frequently as a child – less often as the plague withdrew and returned in weaker waves. The blood streamed down their backs, while their voices shot up to the sky. It was the wailing that horrified him the most. It would not work. All that pain and performance and God would not answer.

‘If I had time to wander the world, I would find a better way to convince God of my humility,’ said Adam.

The party stood and left the table to its torn plates and splashes of sauce. Nicholas saw his guest out into the yard, with Idonia and Margaret watching from the door. As he returned he remembered something that he had forgotten: ‘What did you do with the girl in the alley?’ he asked Idonia.

‘I found her a position as a maid.’

‘That thing? Truly? How did you manage that?’

‘It was easy enough. She had been a maid before and so had little to learn. It was mainly a matter of cleaning her up and feeding her.’

‘You do know what had befallen her?’

‘I do but there is hardly a memory of it. The child did not live to distract her and no-one would now guess her misfortune.’

Nicholas Brembre 47

Nicholas knew from long experience how busy the life of an alderman could be. He must preside over the wardmoot, examining cases and making judgment; he must seek and detain malefactors within the ward and organise the watch; and he must attend meetings in the Guildhall and across the city. It will cost him time, money and grief but it will give him power – and all will be magnified when he becomes mayor. A man’s year as mayor was like a foreign campaign in Egypt or Arabia, where strange challenges came from all sides and in all tongues. The work was hot and dry and the creatures encountered smelly and fantastic. In these territories he had the assistance of the mercenaries: the clerk, chamberlain, recorder and their serjeants by extension, as well as his own. The serjeants did most of the foot work, with their own assistants in tow. From time to time attempts were made to curb their number, but you couldn’t really do without them. A mayor could not attend all the courts of the city, nor deal with all the correspondence, nor could he walk the streets of London on his own – particularly at night. Apart from the danger to himself, he would always be at least one street away from the target, for villainy generally knows where not to be. If a machine could be produced that would speed him around the city, then perhaps he would manage better. Instead he relied on numbers: the numbers of the city staff, of their counterparts on the wards and of the common watch.

The beauty of being mayor was that you got the chance to make things happen the way they should. Nicholas had had a taste of this before, though not enough to satisfy. Six years ago he had been bounced into the mayoralty, strangely enough by the duke of Lancaster, after Adam Stable was judged incapable of keeping control of the city. There had been riots, not remarkable in itself, but worse than usual and the duke had been threatened in person. Nicholas was sworn in with seven months to go, enough time for immediate tasks, but with a full term he could have done so much more. This time fortune had allowed him the full length of rope and it was in this spirit of determination that the new mayor approached the Guildhall in the earliest days of his office. He would not be distracted from what he must do for the sake of the city and that was a great deal given the destruction wrought by the draper before him.

The city records were locked in the room at the end of the corridor. As Nicholas stepped in from the porch his eyes shot that direction and began to bore through the white-washed door. The rolls were arranged in boxes: some for the sheriffs’ court, some for the mayor’s, some for the hustings and so on. But there were others of vaguer intent, which trailed back to a less organised past. These were the ones that drew his desire. The rolls rustled and their ribbons snatched, while inside their dusty throats was the truth they had swallowed about the past. Nicholas had been among them whenever he could, looking for the pattern of London history, which must stretch back to the arrival of Brutus on this gravelly bank of the Thames, although he had never found anything to confirm the event. The site was the same, the topography was the same. It was always the obvious route from east to west and north to south, even without a bridge, and to the sea. There would have been merchants here almost from the start, although not on the scale of today.

The problem with finding what you wanted among the boxes was that permission was required. Generally requests were made for particular documents, which were then brought out for perusal if approved. Nicholas’s interest was not to consult documents he could name but to discover ones that had been forgotten. For this reason Richard Odyham had allowed him in the past to enter the room when he was there himself and could thereby fulfil his duty of supervision. Richard was more obliging than John Usshere, his predecessor, who would go no further than to pull out a random box from the back of the room where the cobwebs suggested the safety of obscurity and allow Nicholas to rustle through it in the corridor until discomfort dampened his desire.

Beside the room for the documents was the room for the officers, with a space in it for the mayor to sit away from the direct gaze of the citizenry. Only Richard Odyham was present today, the person Nicholas had least expected to see, given that he was still recovering from the attack of the ex-mayor. He was swathed in bandages and looked pale. Nicholas angled himself so that he could be nearer to the chamberlain without knowing why he did so. Then Richard swayed on his stool and Nicholas realised he was making ready to catch him. Richard did not fall but he seemed dozy, as if he did not recognise the articles he shuffled before him. From time time he turned to speak to Nicholas and then his familiar self returned, if anything with a new spikiness.

Nicholas asked him about the limits of mayoral powers to deal with riot and revolt, since speed of action would be likely to aid success but might tip into unlawfulness. Richard was of the view that practical measures could be justified after the event so long as a few principals were kept in mind. Warnings should be given, unarmed targets avoided and and care taken in identifying witnesses. Richard, among his bandages, seemed pleased with the enquiry: it exercised his attention and allowed him to demonstrate how far his understanding could go. Nicholas was not especially bothered to follow the intricacies beyond his immediate need but he was content for the chamberlain to pound on through the problem gathering all its possibilities. This was Richard. His vision flowed. It attached itself to the question put and took him far away. He did not want to stop with what was obvious. Nicholas liked that and felt akin to him. There was merit in reading the surface, in acting as expected. Everything kept going that way – but not necessarily in the best direction. That was the point. You had to stop and think to find a better route. This was the lesson in trade and craft. The man who finds a new route – market, tool or technique – reaps the reward and then the flock follows. Richard’s craft was the government of London and he thought it could be done better. So did Nicholas.

‘I’m going into the record room now,’ said Richard. ‘Perhaps you would like to help me down from my stool?’

It was customary for the mayor to take much of his official business at home but Nicholas set himself up in the Guildhall for most of the day, having brought in his favourite chair and cleared space in the officers’ room. When he was not holding court or talking to citizens in the main hall he studied accounts and regulations and concocted schemes for getting the city back in order. His business as a merchant went on with a light touch. Jankin called in from time to time, perhaps bringing interested parties with him. Nicholas caught up with him again at the end of the day in La Riole.

Idonia was generally asleep by then, so each night Nicholas wriggled as quietly as he could into the cold side of the bed. Of course, it was warm on the other side. There was an agony of distance between the two. Here he was seared by bed clothes made of winter stone. If only he could roll into the summer sands beside him. But Idonia was asleep. And even if she opened her eyes and smiled at him he knew not to drag the ice into her face by bringing his body against hers. He listened to her breathing that seemed to stretch itself too far. Eventually warmth came to his limbs and his head filled with feathers.

The courts were fantastically busy. In addition to the mayor’s court held in the outer chamber of the Guildhall, Nicholas sat with the aldermen when they presided in the inner chamber and attended other courts periodically as participant or observer. He dipped in and out of the juridical world as he might pick up and put down a volume of stories, finding in each a different relation to flesh and earth. The door of the court room, the cover of a book, each opened onto other lives, or moments of them, and shut again before you be sure of what you had seen.

Through one opening, Philip Fretheby claimed that Andrew Sewardby tailor had plotted his death in order to keep money that belonged to him. Andrew had asked Philip to take his servant with him to show him the way to Bridlington but paid the servant to kill him on the way. Five leagues from Lincoln, the servant had drawn his baselard and beaten Philip leaving him for dead, to the damage of the plaintiff £100. However, the defendant was able to produce a quitclaim of all actions made to him by the plaintiff made before the trespass alleged in the bill. So Andrew went free and Philip was committed to prison.

Behind another flap, William Wyndesore knight complained that John Aunger sold him defective bottles for carrying his wine on the king’s service in France and Brittany. 180 gallons had been lost. Arbitration by the masters of the mistery of bottlers had found that John should repay the cost of the bottles, £18 6s 8d, together with £10 damages to William. But John refused to pay and claimed that there had been a quarrel between himself and the arbitrators, who envied him and wanted to drive him out of the city. New arbiters were sought but said they could not conclude the matter without the advice of the masters of the mistery. The six men together concluded the arbitration in the original terms. The defendant was committed to Ludgate until he paid.

Through a third portal, a thin and pale-faced youth, John Penreth, asked that he be discharged of his apprenticeship as his master William Paston mercer had been imprisoned in Calais for debt more than eight weeks and could not therefore provide him with food, clothing and instruction. The masters of the mistery of mercers confirmed the situation and John was exonerated.

Meanwhile cases were coming through to the mayor’s court from hustings regarding merchants from oversees. It was easy enough to deal with them since he knew the territory so well. Occasionally he was winded for a moment by a case that came too close. Richard Lyons had told him worry was the only labour that fuelled itself. It was annoying when people gave you advice because it showed they had spotted your weakness. Richard himself had been weak in the other direction: he had not worried enough. Otherwise he might have avoided the his impeachment by Good Parliament under the old king.

Luke Bragadyn was still in Newgate sleeping long hours and then springing up like a cat to chase the patience of his gaolers. Jankin kept his master informed from whatever dubious source he had cultivated in that quarter. Nicholas had done nothing that was really wrong. But sometimes men saw what they wanted. The eyeballs swung around and the line of sight made out a shape that was too sharp, without the squash of flesh that might explain it. He must find the key to release Luke Bragadyn. Richard Odyham was looking at him through a bloody eye. The mayor repeated the name of the next case.

The one person who was not in court was John de Northampton. Richard Odyham had argued on his own behalf, but principally on that of the city, that John should be left alone with the humiliation of Lancaster’s snub. That way the heat of his vexation might be allowed to dissipate in its own space rather than setting fire to the rest of London. Nicholas agreed but he needed to be persuaded beyond his own reason since he must now fight off the expectations of a citizenry that believed that action must always be taken when trouble has occurred. How they could continue in business with this philosophy was perhaps a matter for philosophy itself. What was needed was a decision not a stab in the mist. How many times in business would it be worse to proceed when the outcome was in doubt? Better not to pursue a debt when the cost would be greater than the restoration. Better to sit idle by the dock than to send out a ship that was likely to sink. Sometimes it was difficult to look into the future but a man must base his decision on the best calculation possible. What he must not do is assume that there is always something to be done.

Nicholas climbed the stairs avoiding the bent nail at the corner and the splinters in the handrail. The smell from the room ahead was intoxicating, it filled his head with nonsense and tripped him over the final step. Beatrice was sitting on a pile of cushions. She had just finished the big book of Bartholomew the Englishman and so must now know everything. She shut it with a bang and held it up in front of her. Was she offering it to him or using it as a shield? He took the shield and opened it up. Inside were pictures of the world in its many pieces, of rivers and mountains, animals, birds and fish, tools and machinery, angels, saints and daemons, men of strange colours and dress. Beatrice could tell him what they were all about. She smiled at him between explanations as he sat beside her on the couch. He was sure she wanted to touch him and then this seemed the furthest from her desire. He was an old man now and she was a young woman – but a young woman used to Thomas, who was as old as he. Nicholas looked at his fantasy and marked it out in points of flesh. Her nose was wide and flexing gently as she breathed. Her mouth shone as she spoke. Her lips were like the peel of a luscious fruit. He could smell the flesh inside.

‘Your eyes are bulging, Sir Nicholas. Are you uncomfortable?’

‘Yes: I am not sure about you.’

‘Why should you be? You don’t know me.’

‘I would like to.’

‘There are many types of knowledge.’

‘And most are good. But it is hard to calculate the benefits, and risks, of revelation before it has been made.’

‘You have the luxury of choice. I grasp what knowledge I can and am glad when I get wheat rather than rye.’

‘Isn’t that what we all want?’

‘Thomas may not be back for a while.’

‘I am content to wait for him with you.’

‘I expect you are, though I know you are a busy man. But I fear becoming dull. We don’t have much in common and may run out of things to say to each other.’

Damn the woman! Was she suggesting they fuck or inventing an excuse to leave the room? Nicholas reached for her since he could not tolerate ignorance a moment longer. But even this did not settle the matter. He found her knee and it did not shrink from his grasp but neither was there movement from any other part of her body. His own body was full of interest and had been for some time. He kissed her and she laughed – but the laugh loosened her. Her hair was so dark that it seemed like a rent in the world. He thought that if he touched it he would disappear forever.

Nicholas Brembre 46

On the day after the procession Nicholas sat down in the garden and thought about Beatrice. He did not start with Beatrice. He started with Arthur because in the cold early morning he had been looking at the tapestries in the hall with their beautiful dyes and designs. Arthur was a knight, a king of knights and he upheld the goal of chivalry, which was…what? Death, victory, the holy land? No, the goal of chivalry was women. Then he thought about Beatrice. Was it chivalry that caused Thomas Wailand to keep her? If so it was not the chivalry of Arthur – it was some other idea. Knights died for their ladies but their ladies were supposed to be pure and the knights rapacious with frustration. Thomas was calm as a monk because he certainly was not one, and his demeanour declared his success. Was it better to finger the hem of the garment you would like to tear or to sit down and talk about the practicalities of your satisfaction?

He could hear someone in the yard. He walked round from the garden to see that Peter was checking the gate and the contents of the yard.

‘I want to do a tour of the city today.’ After a gap of silence, Nicholas lifted his eyes to see the weirdness of this statement in Peter’s frozen face. ‘A quiet one this time. I want to check on everything before I get amerced in the new job.’

They visited the warehouses and the customs house, various traders, including aliens, with whom he did business and then headed over to Southwark and the Bridge House, where the wardens offered wine and disturbed the calm luxury of the room by looking pleased as idiots.

Peter asked about dead Adam’s mother but Nicholas shook his head. ‘There have been no problems with the delivery of the money?’

‘No, Sir Nicholas.’

‘She can manage without us today.’

They returned by way of Saint Antonin’s where Nicholas gave thanks to his creator and then crept out into the churchyard to speak of his victory to those small people who had not yet heard of it.

‘Nicholas! This is a lucky meeting. I caught you in the corner of my eye. There is a disturbance at the Guildhall.’ It was Hugh Fastolf, looking irrationally cheerful usual.

‘What has happened?’

‘I couldn’t see. But two of the serjeants ran out of the Guildhall and down Saint Lawrence Lane. I’m sure they went towards Ludgate. I believe they were chasing your opponents. There have been covins forming against your election. They think they can win back the Guildhall by force. These people are ridiculous. Do something about them, Nicholas, before the world becomes a dance of clowns.’

The grin was still large on Hugh’s face. Nicholas found he had to smile in imitation, as if he too might enjoy a fight over what had already been justly won. He sent Peter to pick up Jankin and anyone else he could find. Then he went straight to the Guildhall, where he found that Jankin, as usual, had heard everything before him.

Three of the remaining serjeants were standing at the door blowing hisses. Their brows were low and their shoulders high.

‘The chamberlain has been attacked,’ said the first serjeant as Nicholas approached.

‘By the mayor,’ said the second.

‘By the previous mayor,’ corrected the third.

‘John de Northampton attacked Richard Odyham? An odd thing to do. They never favoured one another, and John always pushed Thomas Usk between them, but I would not have guessed it would come to violence.’

‘We heard shouting. The chamberlain was on the floor in the chamber and the mayor – former mayor – walked out past us.’

‘You didn’t stop him?’

‘We were worried about the chamberlain.’

‘How is he?’

‘Badly hurt. His arm and head are injured – but whether by the assault or the fall we don’t know. The chamberlain wasn’t able to tell us.’

‘Where is he?’

‘He is in the officers’ room. A physician has arrived from Saint Bartholomew’s.’

Nicholas went to see Richard Odyham. He wanted to ask about John de Northampton but was deterred by the sight of his victim, by his pallor and rolling eyes. ‘Do you want to go home?’

‘He should not move,’ said the physician.

‘The mayor hit me. The result of the election cannot be changed.’

‘Do you require assistance?’ the mayor asked the physician. ‘Jankin, find something in the way of bedding to make the chamberlain more comfortable. Take him home later if he improves – or bring him to La Riole.’

Nicholas wanted to follow his rival, but it must be too late to catch him. There was nothing to do now but wait from the serjeants who had been closer behind him.

‘What’s going on, Jankin?’

‘I hear, Sir Nicholas, that John de Northampton thinks the duke of Lancaster can persuade the king to overturn the result of the election.’

Nicholas stopped still for a moment and then smiled. ‘I would like to be a spider suspended above that encounter – either of them in fact, although I doubt the likelihood of the second. You are not worried, Jankin?’

Jankin stood in silence. His arms hung like pump handles, stiff and thin, waiting to be engaged. His mouth was holding back the water.

‘Jankin?’

‘No, Sir Nicholas, I am not worried that the election will be overturned.’

‘You look worried about something. You think more Flemish heads will hit the streets?’

‘When his first ploy fails, he will try others, perhaps more desperate.’

‘Perhaps. Make sure you know what they are.’

‘Yes, Sir Nicholas.’ Jankin’s arms were pumping now but they were not restoring any colour to his face. Poor Jankin fell short of his ambitions: he could not hate the world enough to wish himself and others out of it. He still feared what might happen outside his scheming when the actors became flesh.

Whatever John de Northampton was brewing it was not another peasants’ revolt. Peasants had no interest in him, nor did the city labourers who joined the insurrection when it arrived in London. Those small masters and artisans who favoured the Northampton regime would find it hard to cover the whole city with disorder. And what reward would they get for it? Still, any disturbance was a nuisance because as mayor he would have to deal with it. The best plan might well be to ignore it, but it would be difficult to do so, because the watchers and commentators would accuse him of negligence. He was not so free to make up his mind as he had been a week ago.

There was music at the house of John Philipot. Fiddle, pipe and drums were racketing through the timbers, shaking out the spiders and setting the dogs to howling. Then the fiddle played alone. The sweet roughness of the tone alarmed Nichol’s ear. The theme was serpentine, weaving and squirming, pitching and turning, and when you thought you had it by the tail, it bit you from behind. Nicholas was very taken with it. He threw money at the fiddler’s feet.

John Philipot’s daughter danced in the light under the window. John moved to her side and suddenly he seemed like an old man. The girl twisted to the music like contorted hazel but John was stiff as a stump. He was very pleased with his daughter, although she was not his daughter, and offered her his hand as she performed a dance of smiles. But he could not match her dizzy twitter and he leaned against the window frame each time she slipped his hand. Henry Vanner was dancing with Margery around the fire. Her laughter was stretched thin in its circle like a spring beyond tolerance. Henry swung on. Other dancers passed in front and behind cutting him into pieces that flared for a moment and then went dark. The music was slowing, disentangling its chords towards a harmonious end. Nicholas looked around to see who had noticed. Not Henry, still at full speed with Margery partially attached. Not John or the girl, who were congratulating each other on her accomplishments. Elsewhere family and guests were involved in yet more performance, but no-one was in time with the music.

Sitting alone in a corner, Idonia was thinking hard, or perhaps had fallen asleep. Nicholas sat down beside her and she opened her eyes.

‘Were you listening to the music?’

‘I was thinking of Saint Thomas.’

‘Well, of course. We prayed for him, as you know, at his church on the evening of the feast – as well as for Saint Paul, since they are the patron saints of London.’

‘I was not thinking of Thomas of Canterbury but of Thomas Aquinas. He was a great saint too, though he was not martyred.’

‘You prefer the bloody route to canonisation?’

‘It was God’s way for the early saints.’

‘But you are prepared to honour Thomas though he did not die on a grid or a wheel?’

‘Saint Thomas has a beautiful vision of the world and how it matches with God. When you read to me of his ideas, I want to smile and dance because God is so good and knowable and everything makes sense. Even when that fades in the night I cling to the idea that we can understand God’s purpose through reason and, because we are a part of it, we can know what to do to please him.’

‘So is it reason that will save us?’

‘That is what Saint Thomas seems to say.’

‘And do you think you can reason as well as he? A man who spent every minute of his life in libraries studying and thinking, or discoursing with scholars; who was blessed with the best mind of his generation?’

‘No, Nichol.’

Nicholas saw that she was ruffled and he felt both gratified and disappointed.

‘My powers of reason have always been slight, but they are enough to see the possibility of what I fail to achieve myself. Don’t mock me for that, Nicholas.’

Idonia Birlingham looked set to be betrothed to the son of Walter Doget. John Philipot was not her father but he stood in that place. He wanted to know that she was settled on this arrangement. ‘If you had a daughter, Nichol, how would you speak to her of such a thing?’

Nicholas felt the width of his chest as it expanded and then relaxed. He breathed the air of the city and all who followed its practices and knew how to behave as a result. On the whole girls married the men chosen for them. But marriage, besides being sacred, was a legal affair, which began with the free consent of the parties, however that was conceived. ‘Does Margaret want this marriage?’

‘She is very hopeful of it, perhaps a little too much so.’

‘Do you want it?’

‘On behalf of John Birlingham, I could not object to such a young man.’

‘There seems nothing more to say.’

‘Idonia must say something. I have a chance to make her think hard about her future as none of us really did when we were young.’

‘I thought hard about my future, but that made it even less likely that I would hesitate when my opportunity came. If I had not taken it I would be regretting it even now.’

‘All has turned out well between you and your Idonia. But my Idonia is not guaranteed happiness merely through your example.’

John spoke of happiness but what did that mean? There was indulgence here, if not complete nonsense. The aims of life were dictated by God and the circumstances in which he had dropped you. The necessity was to survive and to make what you could with whatever energy was left to you. Happiness appeared unexpectedly and disappeared the same way. There was no contriving it.

But that name, Idonia – it jiggled the bones a little and demanded consideration. And then there was Alice. What would he have done for Alice? Could he have given her away to another man, however worthy he might be?

The name Idonia had been given to the girl because her aunt was also her godmother. Perhaps Idonia should chose the husband for Idonia. That would be very odd. But not that odd really. If you looked closely enough you would see that not all decisions were made in the expected fashion by the people who were entitled to do so. Some men ruled their houses as God said they should, but they could not cover everything all of the time. Others seemed from the start to order whatever suited their wives – or their children, or even their servants. Some took the views of all comers into consideration, even the rats under the floor, and ended up with a kind of stew of slops. Undoubtedly the first method was the clearest and the strongest. But knowledge of what was best did not prevent women from finding their way around it.

‘Where is all your money, Nicholas?’ asked John as if he were a covetous nephew.

‘My money is in credit, in tolls, taxes, loans, often in bricks or stone, or it is cutting across the sea. Same for you, no doubt.’

‘Why do we have so much?’ asked John Philipot.

What a strange question. And that word we – it can stretch across the world, up to heaven, down to hell, or shrink back to just you and me. Nicholas rolled his eyes but stilled his tongue.

‘We keep making more money, buying more things. I have all these farms in Surrey and Kent. I don’t know what to do with them.’

‘They bring you income.’

‘I want to sell them.’

‘Who will you find with coin enough to buy them? There is no coin. Everything is credit these days.’

‘I know. But I feel that my life has become untidy. I would be happy with the house, some cellars and two ships. No more loans. Nothing out in the countryside to manage from the city.’

‘You have tenants and agents.’

‘I know you have these things too, Nicholas, and you sit in your hall happily ticking them off on your lists. You love to be busy with the world, juggling accounts and businesses and cargoes – wool going one way, spices another, wine and furs and whatever else you can get your hands on. You’re off to Middlesex, Kent, Calais, Middelburg, Venice, Rome…’ John had wandered into the distance but there was still enough rope to pull him back.

‘Is it not the essence a merchant and a citizen to do these things? We have our place among the king’s people, though it often goes unnamed. We are the oil that runs between the old estates and keeps them from turning to stone.’

‘What about our place among God’s people?’

‘Are you frightened for your soul? Of all of us you are the most virtuous, the most energetic in the cause of others, the most generous giver of alms.’

‘Will that shrink me to the size of the needle’s eye?’

Nicholas Brembre 45

On the feast of Saint Simon and Jude Sir Nicholas Brembre returned to the Guildhall to take his oath as mayor of London. He promised to serve the king and keep his rights; to treat lawfully the people of the city, stranger or denizen, rich or poor; to set good ward on the assizes of bread and wine, fish, flesh and corn and on the weights and measures of the city; and to do well and lawfully all things that a mayor should do. He kissed the book on which he had sworn and accepted the two seals of office from their grim-faced former keeper. Then he spoke to the assembly: ‘We thank God for the freedom or our city, for the protection of our king, and for the great office of mayor that serves as a link between them. John de Northampton has been our mayor for two years and has worked hard to make a difference to our city. I cannot fault his enthusiasm for his project nor his eloquence in explaining it to us. He has brought favour to sections of our community who have been used to getting on with their work without fuss and has shone light in places many of us would have preferred not to look. He has introduced changes to our customs of trade, which have had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of those used to working in more familiar ways. And he has skilfully managed our electoral practices in order to bring a new balance to the corporation.

‘For all this I propose that we thank him heartily and move on. In my time as mayor I hope to bring the city back to what it was. We have a long history stretching from the time of Brutus, who, as you know, came to Albion from Troy. We have learned much since that great beginning, through the thousands of generations that have followed, down to our own brief time as mortals in possession of this space. Our customs live alongside us in this knowledge. We should cherish the link to that beginning and ensure there are no snags in the line. We have accepted London as the name of our great city but it is recent, in truth. Perhaps we should reconsider with pride the one that Brutus chose himself: New Troy.’

In the sudden silence Nicholas turned to follow John Blyton, the mayor’s esquire, out into the yard. John Blyton had stood with William Walworth against the rebels on Smithfield and had played a part in the felling of Wat Tyler. Two years later it was he who bore the sword at the head of the procession that left the Guildhall after the mayoral oath. Behind him marched the mayors, old and new, and the aldermen in their purple livery: down St Lawrence Lane and onto Chepe, then via Soper Lane and Watling Street to La Riole. Tradition required that the new mayor hold the hand of the old and it was difficult to say which was the more relieved when they arrived and could break the link. Having delivered Nicholas to his home, the party moved off to repeat the courtesy for John de Northampton, thus completing the ritual for the day in the knowledge that it was but a shadow of what was to come.

Nicholas had sworn to the city but not yet to the crown. He had made his oath to his peers, the freemen of London, but they were not free to the ends of their fingers. The king had granted their liberty, but the king could withdraw it and each year the mayor must repeat his oath at Westminster to keep the landlord happy.

So it is that Sir Nicholas Brembre rides to Westminster on the morrow to repeat his oath as mayor. His sheriffs and aldermen ride behind him in long scarlet gowns similar to his own but the mayor is distinguished by a black velvet hood and gold collar. Before him once again is the sword bearer, John Blyton, as well as the banners of the city and the mistery of the mayor. The grocers themselves, in full livery and led by John Hadley and John Churchman, distinguished masters for the year, come next after the aldermen. The other guilds follow behind, many bearing banners and emblems depicting their trades. At intervals along the line there are musicians wielding hautboys, flutes, trumpets and drums, doing their best to compete with the fantastic noises of the crowd.

In that crowd he can see glad faces and bodies erect with admiration and expectation. There is energy, enthusiasm – the beat and pitch of the crowd is like a love song. London has sung many of those and received them too. It is the centre of the world and all must have joy of it. He thanks his father for moving him from Norwich before he was old enough to understand why.

John de Northampton sits beside the new mayor, marking his pace. Their steeds scratch at the street, the hoof of one edging ahead before the second steals its lead. Nicholas looks past the stone face and over the heads of the crowds, though often their flags blow together and frustrate his search. People are at the windows of tenements from which they have hung rich cloth and tapestries. Others have climbed the shop fronts and are standing on narrow sills. Ahead he sees a crowd around the stiff shape of a woman holding her head after a fall. A child has scaled Queen Eleanor’s cross and is dragged down by a beadle. This stretch between the conduit and Saint Paul’s is the most crowded of all. Whoever processes in London does so along Chepe, as has been the case for hundreds of years, from Alfred the Great to Anne of Bohemia.

Nicholas stretches in his saddle and the city jumps up around him. He feels it is a part of him. There is no gap between his limbs and the nearest labourer, waving his flag and pushing against the beadles, or the wife of a mercer flapping cloth of gold from a penthouse. Even the wood and plaster – the houses, shops and churches – seem part of his flesh. Everything is stuck together. Great flaps of stuff like wings stretch out from his arms and cover the city. It is all part of him. He is mayor.

Every Londoner has put on his best to view and be viewed, as the mayor rides towards Ludgate and Fleet Street beyond. Some shadow his progress from boats on the Thames. Those with a little money wear special outfits and disguises. Bears are common since easy to imitate but many other creatures are attempted. A beautiful yellow bird is flapping its arms but fails to fly. Nicholas doubts that a bird that big would fly even if it had real wings. Further on a pair of giants totter. Why two? The common people are so ignorant. They talk of two giants named Gog and Magog and believe they attacked Brutus at London. Once such ideas have surfaced from the mire, they are hard to resist. The mass of Londoners, of course, have not been to school and have no access to the books of learned men.

Three women are selling roast birds illegally by the road side. In their loose clothing they look enormous but could just as easily be thin. Have they been eating too many of their wares or have they been denying themselves? Perhaps the beadle of Faringdon ward will round them up and take the birds. Near the gate there is a woman in green with black hair in plaits and a face like a trumpet: I will play you a tune that can be heard wherever you stand. Beatrice. How did he find this name? Was it from a story? Her image sticks in front of his face as the sword passes through the arch ahead.

Now the procession is moving out of the city into the world beyond. Fewer dragons are to be seen as harts and lions take their place. Soon they are in the Strand and the countryside breaks through. Small children bored with waiting have fallen asleep in a field. A mother wakes her son with a stick. Nicholas feels the blow and looks away in panic. Then he laughs. A second feeling follows the pain. It is close to it. A blow can cause warmth and the new feeling is warm too. He wriggles a little in the saddle but his pleasure is confusing. There is plenty to give rise to it: London is still cheering him, though its confirmation weakens as he leaves the city behind. He is entering the kingdom and Richard is waiting for him.

The sword-bearer slows as a group of peasants lurches too close to the road. Nicholas looks back down the procession, through the stiff scarlet ranks of the aldermen and the particoloured guilds. He has been part in this extravagance many times before. On the last two occasions he has sat in mute frustration in his position down the line wishing he could ride to the front and knock the mayor from his nag. Now he laughs from his guts and his mount staggers under him.

Where are the sheriffs? Simon Winchcombe is sat soberly in his saddle waiting to pick up the pace. But John More has dropped behind to greet an old woman by the side of the road. By God, it is his mother – she who set fire to Clifford’s Inn because she thought one of the scholars had stolen her pig. How would she have found it? Where would the pig have been? In their stomachs, of course, and no longer able to squeal for her attention. She was fined for trying to destroy the Inn and its business and thereby ruined her own. Why would John want to acknowledge her, unless it was an insult to the occasion? Nicholas wonders if all his female relatives are in disgrace, given what the sandy-haired skinner had said about the sister in Southampton. This great ceremony belongs to men. Only men ride in the procession. Only men are involved in the taking of the oath. Why do women always seem to gain sway over it?

Finally the procession arrived at the palace and the riders began to dismount. Nicholas walked behind the sword bearer across the precinct to Westminster Hall. It surprised him to see that the sun had crossed the Thames. He felt as if it had been stopped in the sky since he left the Guildhall. But now time lurched forward and the thud of his feet sounded the return to regularity.

The reduced procession of mayor, sheriffs and officers entered the hall. There was a strong hint of competition between this great construction of William Rufus and their own Guildhall, built soon afterwards. The city succeeded with an imitation that came close without falling into the disrespect of equality. The roof of Westminster Hall, built to be the highest in the world, was supported by stout pillars and crossed by oak beams, as if a great forest had lent a corner of itself as a shelter for kings. The courts which sat in the hall – chancery, common pleas and the king’s bench – suspended their sessions for the occasion, leaving the huge space silent for the mayor-to-be-sworn. Nicholas wished that he could take his oath here and now so that he might project it into the clear air of the forest and claim a part of it for himself. But the mayor’s sword continued towards the north west corner and Nicholas was obliged to follow it up the stairs to the room of the exchequer where the chancellor, treasurer and barons were waiting.

Recorder William Cheyne stepped forward and began his request that Sir Nicholas Brembre be accepted by those present as mayor of the city of London. There was a chilly pause during which it became evident that not all were present, that they were waiting for someone else. Nicholas had already turned to bow as the king entered.

‘I am very pleased to see you here to take your office, Sir Nicholas,’ said Richard. ‘And I know you will serve me well in maintaining God’s peace in the city. My servants will keep in touch with you.’

‘Thank you, my lord. I will be pleased to speak to them or to receive your letters.’

‘I would like to visit the Guildhall.’

‘All there would welcome you, my lord, Nicholas Brembre more than any.’

‘Did you know that my father rode through the city on his return from Poitiers with king John of France in chains? He followed the same route that you have taken today. And the queen was greeted so courteously by the city when she arrived from Bohemia. She says it made her happy to be joining me here. And I am very happy that she did. How is your wife, Sir Nicholas?’

‘She is well, my lord, and is your servant.’

‘My lord, Sir Nicholas has not yet taken the oath,’ whispered the chief baron of the exchequer. The king smiled and accepted a carved chair close to the chequered table, from which the office took its name. The mayor was sworn in the palace of the Bastard’s son as he had been in the city of Brutus of Troy.

There was no tiring the watchers. The common people of England could keep their feet dancing and their mouths spewing babble through every day of the year, if there was an excuse to avoid work. As the procession returned along King’s Street, the Strand, Fleet Street and back into the city, Nicholas saw the same faces singing and shouting, arms waving flags that appeared not to have dropped since he passed the other way, vendors producing yet more pies. Chepe was just as full as it had been at Terce but there was more food in hand because the sun had passed its peak and it was time for dinner.

The official banquet was held at La Riole. Idonia stood at the door to welcome the guests, assisted by her sisters. The select but still substantial party of citizens followed into the hall and stood waiting behind the benches. Extra tables had been borrowed from the Guildhall to accommodate the prescribed number of guests. The wooden frames strained under a weight of a confusion of dishes. Meat dominated the display, some of it retaining with pride the shape of the animal to be consumed. Several rabbits looked eager to hop from the table. A hog was more inclined to conversation, well placed as it was in the middle of the table to engage any of the company. Other beasts were sliced or stewed for ease of eating: beef, venison, veal and pork were offered in a variety of sauces. Besides the inevitable chicken, a range of birds were offered: partridge and quail, duck and goose, and plenty of song birds, some with beaks still open to the heavens. On one of the tables a heron was wired to its full height, on another a crane. Fish were laid as if merely resting on their elongated dishes, though surrounded by herbs and other vegetation not usual in open water. Cod, herring and lamprey were interspersed with Idonia’s particular choice of trout, pike and carp. Fruit and vegetable dishes cut between the flesh.

Idonia had arranged everything with an embroiderer’s eye for colour and shape. The boar’s head before Nicholas was accompanied by syrup covered pears on one side and apples fritters on the other, presumably because they made an aesthetic combination. Nicholas knew that some dishes had been held back, and not just the extra fruit and puddings to be presented at the end as an aid to digestion. On a midnight trip to the kitchen he had come across instructions for the cooking of swan and had become consumed by the idea that such a noble animal would adorn his table to mark the height of his fortune. There were few in Albion who could afford such a delicacy and the city of London would be proud to have one of them as their mayor.

There was someone missing. Those present were forced to stare at the food or shift their gaze between the tables and the door. A grand chair had been placed at the head of the hall for the new mayor but there was another beside it that had not been claimed. Nicholas spoke to Peter, who left the hall in the direction of the street. When he returned he merely shook his head and moved back to his station against the wall.

‘I welcome you all to my home. We will eat in a moment, but did anyone see the former mayor on the way from Chepe?’

‘He dismounted at the conduit but I did not see him after that,’ said Adam Bamme. No-one else responded.

Nicholas felt his hands press too hard into the back of his chair. He relaxed them slowly in time with the muscles of his jaw. ‘We have waited long enough. Let us thank God, who offers us this bounty and who permits us to live in this foremost city of the world. Though we can never be as grateful as we should be, let us go ahead and enjoy what we have.’