Nicholas had not looked so hard at another man’s head since the bald prisoner at the Newgate gaol delivery blazoning his six inch scar. Even John Constantyn’s had not held his attention once he was sure it had dropped. In this world it was difficult to look at another person. More than a glance and he would feel your eyes and turn his own in accusation. Now Nicholas looked at the head of John Philipot because it was white. It was white as an eye without the iris, egg without a yoke. Whiskers stopped the jaw from falling, nose and cheekbones kept up the shroud of skin. John’s nose was long and sharp – might it be made of iron rather than bone? – and his cheeks were broad as if smuggled from the east.
John had invited everyone to Cornhill for Shrove Tuesday. But now that the day had arrived the company that came with it looked too much for him to manage. Nicholas sat with him in a corner of the hall, perhaps to stop others from crowding him.
‘What do you think of these Stodeye women?’ he said into the emptiness. ‘Did old John make them difficult on purpose?’
‘Margaret is a jewel,’ said John. ‘But she is not always as full of sense as a woman should be.’
‘Idonia is sensible but she is also difficult. Even when she says nothing I can tell she disagrees. I think that is often worse than when she argues.’
‘Does she really?’ tested John in a mild voice.
‘I think you can accept my knowledge of the subject.’
‘Like a wife should?’
They both laughed as if the matter could be tossed away like sawdust or chaff. But after another pale silence John resumed: ‘I have had one wife more than you. I think that gives me a wider view. If we marry them for their sense they may not always agree with us. If we marry them for their beauty they may not have sense. No woman has all the qualities we would like but in fact the reason we marry them is…’
‘…for their money. And we get whatever comes with it.’
‘There are other ways of choosing a wife. For a poor man it may happen in a haystack or an alley where darkness may assist.’
‘You mean the smell and the shape of a woman will be all that is required.’
‘There is something else.’
‘Other than money and lust?’
John laughed and left the present: ‘I remember when I first spoke to her. I sat down with her and she looked up through her fringe. Her eyes were luminous and her skin was pink. She was scared but she smiled and I felt that I was full of joy.’
‘Love? You married Margaret for love?’
‘No, not Margaret. Johanna.’
How different was love from lust? Did one lead to the other? Did they have any similarity? Could they be separated? The great stories of chivalry required that a knight commit reckless deeds for a love that was never fulfilled. Was that separation of love and lust or was it merely lust frustrated? Kings were wed for every reason but love. Some degree of lust was imagined, since the production of an heir was a recognised purpose of the match. But Richard was brimming over with love for his scrawny queen Anne. And no sign yet of any issue. Of the two states it was love that was difficult to explain. Lust was more responsive to examination. Its manifestations and its consequences were easy to recount, although not always easy to bear.
Intercourse was a husband’s right, and a wife’s too. It was clear from the marriage contract. The woman made her promise and most did not require encouragement. But if appetite and timing did not coincide there was difficulty. In their younger days Idonia was not always willing but he pressed his claim. Sometimes it was the other way around but he could plead inability and she seemed happy in any case with the touch of his skin. The risks, of course, were also uneven. Pregnancy and childbirth fell to the body of the woman. The hand of death was placed on her head and not removed until she was churched. But for Idonia the peril was not to her life but to her heart. Pregnancy and birth had been easy for her but her children had died. What is your own death to that of your children? You would do anything to prevent it – or refrain from doing whatever might revive the risk. Was this the hardest test in the world?
There was a fable of man and woman that came from God or, at least, was eagerly promoted by his representatives on earth, though less regarded by the masses. Man was fallen through woman’s weakness. Sex was sin, marriage the antidote. But, as John had said, marriage was also business, part of the world of work and survival. There was no time to think about it – only to shout when it went wrong. You had to look back in a sudden gift of leisure to see what it meant. Then the many details of subsistence over the years faded to nought but the trails of the man and the woman had becomed imprinted on the house. The figure of the wife pulled a tippet of remembrance behind her. A warm pink shadow of her waited by the door, another was feeding the fire, a third holding an infant to the light of the window. And the trail of the man crossed and recrossed that of the woman. There was little pause at the junctions but the space was shared between them. This was not lust, so might it be the other?
The flames of John’s fire thrashed out as a stab of cold air accompanied Margery and Henry into the hall. Margery reminded Nicholas of what was to come. Shrovetide was a time of indulgence: eating, drinking, bear-baiting, cock fighting and football. But it was also a time for confession and repentance and, once the meat and eggs had been consumed, the long fast began. Margery was bony like a fish. She shimmered slightly as the world washed past her. She was cool, not quite cold; dry not damp. Margery was an organiser. Her household was an extended military campaign that would produce a terrifying tippet. It was almost painful to see how quickly and precisely each task was performed. It seemed that Margery could accomplish all she needed in half the time available and spent the other half re-scoring her efforts so that the lines cut down into the deep like wounds. Henry was less malleable than the house. He did not resist her management, rather he was incapable of matching it. Henry was a different man from the one that Margery attempted. He was slower, more truthful, more gullible. Nicholas had so often seen her impatience and his oblivion. But now he looked again and saw the failure of his conceits. Margery’s lips attacked Henry’s simplicity but her eyes revelled in his presence.
Margery took a seat with her sisters, who were babbling away on the other side of the fire. Henry joined Nicholas and John in discussion of the duke of Lancaster and the earl of Buckingham who were departing to fight the Scots. Between the low masculine tones Nicholas could just follow the lighter lines of the women.
‘I always wanted to be a man.’ Surely that was Margaret.
‘Wouldn’t every woman prefer to be a man?’ Definitely Margery.
‘No more bad breath on your neck.’ Joan.
‘Being told what to do.’ Idonia?
‘Being leapt on in the dark.’
‘Sitting at home bored and frustrated when you see what should be done in the world.’
‘No more carrying babies and no more agony in pushing them out.’
‘But would it really be your baby if you were a man?’ said someone very quietly. Was it Idonia?
‘They think so.’
‘Yes, they do but are they right?’ said someone quite clearly. Joan.
‘Do you want a life full of business meetings and pomposity?’
‘Do you want to be hairy and foul smelling?’
‘But, really, do you want to sit all day in a pretty dress and have no…no…’
‘There is a plan, God’s plan. We all fit into it: men and women. Why should we be the same? One sex takes the grander, noisier tasks. The other the quieter ones that are really more important.’
‘And yet you look at men and some of them are very stupid. How are they to manage the grander tasks unless their wives help them?’
‘And, meanwhile, whatever the true importance of things, the husbands get the rewards?’
‘Always marriage – that is the only place for women. Or a nunnery.’
‘How could it be otherwise?’
‘Men can be knights or farmers, merchants or lords.’
‘They don’t chose any more than we do. What if Robert wanted to be a tailor or the king did not want to be a king?’
‘To care for children is a joy God has reserved for us.’
‘Not all of us.’
‘How many women die to have children?’
‘Children can be very boring.’
‘And when they are not boring they are difficult.’
‘And yet they are the only thing that matters.’
Everything must be consumed or thrown away. The tables were still laden with winter remains: eggs, cheese and salted meat and whatever could be made by combining them. Fresh pancakes kept emerging from the kitchen despite the slowing of appetites in the hall. Servants pursued guests with dishes that had not been consumed at the table. Sometimes a servant turned out to be Margaret who embraced this method of rapid circulation. She floated on a high cloud of merriment – a storm cloud perhaps since lighting was presaged. But did she eat herself? It did not seem so since her giddiness increased and the wine she drank met no resistance. Sometimes she turned towards John but he was not eating either. All that food and the hosts were not eating. Her children, Thomas, John and Idonia, were all there, standing in a group aside from the older generation. Margaret swerved in and out of their corner, touching one shoulder and later another, then pressing the girl to her breast. Idonia’s husband, John Doget, was with Thomas Goodlake by the buttery door. A servant brought out pastries which they snatched without breaking their exchange. Where they discussing the royal trip to the north? The price of fish? The life of the married man? The figures of the female servants?
Conversations ran in all directions through the beautiful spaces of John’s house. They engaged pairs or aggregates of people in a wide range of material, with notable variations in volume. All these conversations, though moderate on their own terms, built up to a madness. Nicholas could no longer interpret the thumps and hisses of Henry’s speech. Deafness pursued him while sense was stealing away. It would be quiet tomorrow when the head and stomach aches gave way to a meaner diet and contemplation made some progress through the refuse. Forty days Christ spent in the wilderness sparring with the devil. This was not a battle of shouting and waving spears but a fundamental struggle for the world. Was it good or bad?
‘What about the wreck of La Margerete, Nichol?’ said Thomas Goodlake.
‘Yes, I heard that you lost a cargo of wine,’ said Henry Vanner.
‘Good thing it was someone else’s ship.’
‘I came back from Middelburg in the same weather,’ said John Philipot. ‘It was a bad trip all round. I couldn’t find anything or anybody. When I did they didn’t want to trade. But how lucky we have all been over the years not to drown in the channel or in any of the other seas we have sailed. Samuel, bring over that flagon and we will drink to a dry death!’
‘Have you recovered all your wine?’ demanded Thomas.
‘I don’t have my hands on it yet. It is still in Sussex,’ replied Nicholas. ‘The ship was not saved but a few animals, one man and most of the barrels survived.’
‘William Tonge also had goods on that vessel.’
‘Yes. I may combine my efforts at recovery with his. The locals are demanding a ridiculous rate of salvage and the king has intervened.’
John was pushing himself up from his seat towards Samuel, who filled his master’s silver cup. John opened his other hand and swept it across the company in a gesture that spurred the servants to yet more thrusting of plate and jug. The guests lifted their glasses and John smiled wanly as he turned towards the back of the house. It was some time before Nicholas realised he had not returned to the party.
‘Who was that shady-looking individual you were soliciting down Poultry on Monday morning?’ asked Thomas.
‘That was Jankin? Brother Nicholas – he is a strange creature for a servant. How exactly do you employ him?’
‘He is my manager. He understands all my business and can maintain it in my absence.’
‘Is that really what he does? His genius is for business?’
‘He is also excellent at keeping accounts.’
Nicholas could see that Joan was searching for her husband and he beckoned to her across the hall.
‘Thomas, since you have asked me a question, let me return the favour: is there anything you should tell me about Homerton?’
‘Homerton? I don’t think so. No. Homerton is my concern now. You shouldn’t worry about it.’
‘I have an attachment to it. We all do. I wanted to suggest a family gathering there in the summer. What do you think, Joan?’
Joan’s face was flushed with the pink light of opportunity. There was nothing there beside the vision of herself at the centre of a party. Thomas had not told her about the mill.
‘Perhaps we could,’ said Thomas in a low tone. ‘Last summer there were few days that would make the journey worthwhile. It is damp around there as you know.’
The servants who had been forcing food on the guests were now being forced to eat themselves.
‘What is this ridiculous tradition of feast and fast?’ asked Margery. ‘We have been restrained over the winter to preserve our supplies. Now we cram our throats with them before Lent. There is something abominable about it. Was the body designed for this?’
‘If God ordered it then it must be so,’ Idonia replied.
‘Of course,’ said Margery briskly, looking again at the bloating efforts of the servants. ‘But sometimes men take things further than their maker intended.’
‘Where is Robert?’ asked Nicholas as his wife moved away from her sister.
‘In the garden with the Birlinghams.’
He followed her, abandoning a discussion of alum and woad. ‘He should not be outside. He has been sick.’
‘What difference does it make?’
‘Is that the question of a mother?’
‘Who else am I?’
‘Don’t we want to keep him with us as long as we can?’
‘Not if he it makes him suffer more.’
‘Or maybe because it makes you suffer.’
‘Do you understand what you are saying to me? You are saying that I am a bad mother and that you know better for our son though you are hardly with him.’
‘It is your job to be with him.’
‘And my job is to decide what is best for him’.
‘As my wife you should take my view on all matters.’
‘One way or the other, Nichol. Either you look after him and make the decisions or you stay away and keep mum.’
‘What is the matter with you? You sound angry. Who is it that angers you? Nicholas Brembre or God?’
Her lips pushed forward in a pout. She was going to say ‘both’. But instead she breathed hard through her nose and stared out of the corridor window at its tiny portion of blue.
‘Robert asks me about John Constantyn. He thinks the world is a battleground.’
‘It is difficult for Robert to understand.’
‘Sometimes it is difficult for me to understand.’
‘Is there something you need to understand?’
‘Same as Robert: why did you kill a man on a city street?’
‘You have never needed to know why men are tried in the Guildhall or in Saint Martin’s and punished for their crimes.’
‘I should not have asked,’ said Idonia retreating momentarily into wifely wax. ‘But this was not the same. It happened in the moment and justice may have been rushed.’
‘Justice was not my first concern. I needed to stop a riot!’ Fury was winding round him so that he could not breath. She must surely see his temples bulge. He stamped out into the garden where the air was colder, cleaner, and sat down in another world.
How is a robin? It sits with a great cushion of red on its front. What is in the cushion? Just feathers? Or is it mostly air? Is it a display to catch a mate? Or is it just pride – the enjoyment of the bird of itself? Now it hops along the gutter bouncing the weight of the redness with it. It is a bright spot in the world, tiny and disregarding. And then it sings and the sweetness of its song is like a ripe fruit slashed by a blade.
The robin hops through the winter, marking its territory in song. Its fellows sing from other roofs, taking it in turn to boast their dominion. But the first robin is best: it has the reddest chest, the sharpest song and it is singing to Robert.
‘Where do robins go in the summer?’
‘I don’t know. Somewhere cooler,’ replied Robert’s father.
‘Where has uncle John gone?’
‘He’s upstairs. He is unwell.’
‘I feel unwell.’
‘You were coughing in the night.’
‘I can’t breath.’
‘No. Sometimes. And I feel tired.’
‘Tell this to your mother. She may help you. I can’t.’
‘I am afraid.’
‘Think of Arthur. He faced far worse troubles than you. He never knew what would meet him in the next battle. What did he do, Robert?’
‘Of course,’ said Nicholas dryly. ‘And then he marched on. He didn’t stop and worry about it. And he triumphed over many nations.’
‘Until he died.’
‘He didn’t die, he disappeared on a boat and many people say he will return.’
‘Father, when people die they go to heaven or some go to hell. They don’t come back to this world unless they are ghosts. Why would Arthur come back?’
‘He would come back because we needed him. Don’t you think that sometimes things can happen that you don’t expect, that the rules we know are just the rules we know, that there might be something beyond them?’
‘Are you sure, father?’
‘No, I’m not sure at all. But where do stories come from if not from beyond the rules?’
‘Is Arthur a story?’
‘He is both man and story. Once the man was what was important, but now it is the story and the story says that he will return.’
‘I would like to see that.’
‘So would I.’