Nicholas Brembre 12
Sir Nicholas Brembre rode out to Northall to fetch his wife Idonia and Robert their son. The fields were rich between the terrible clay roads. Crops pushed up from one side, against the rampant wild flowers of the meadows on the other. This manor had belonged to him since King Edward’s final years, when he had invested additionally in the neighbouring manors of Roxeth, Uxendon and Donne. They cut a satisfactory shape from the county of Middlesex.
As he approached the house he stopped to look through the archway in a very fine flint wall. He had paid good money to have it built that way: faces of white, grey and black stared back at him. Their colours might vary but their shapes were as close as he had ever seen and the mortar was shy as a maid. The stone tracery of the arch defined the garden beyond. Three pitches of green and brown were made bright by their confinement and turned into tales by furious floral detail. Above them smaller shapes were cut with stone curls, flooded with light to the right, crossed by growing shadow to the left. In the top of the arch hung the face of God in the form of a rose. This was how Nicholas saw it anyway. But was it of spirit or was it of stone?
He had spent money enough on the dwelling too, since the previous incumbent, Alice Francis, relict, had attempted to demolish it in some strange form of sympathy with the fate of her spouse. With other local manors to his name, Nicholas could have spent less to greater effect elsewhere, but he liked this house. He liked the view of St Mary’s through the trees and he disliked the idea that there was a deformity on his land that might topple at any time and expose his lack of care.
Through the archway Robert could be seen playing by the pond. His throwing arm was feeble but he still imagined he could kill a fish with a stone. Most of his ammunition had sunk to the bottom of the pond without fulfilling its purpose. The rest clattered around the grass. Nicholas turned towards the door of the house but his foot squeaked on the dry path and the shape of his son whipped towards him. ‘Father! Father!’
Nicholas waited for contact but was pleased to find that Robert had learned some restraint. He pulled up at a distance of three feet, casting a shadow on his father’s boots.
‘Where’s your mother?’
The little brown head turned to the house and the rest of Robert followed, squealing as he went. Idonia must have been told already that he had arrived. She would be sitting in the hall waiting. Perhaps she had been sitting there for hours, or perhaps she had moved for the moment. Robert would rush to her and squat beside her like an over-sized frog.
Ancient Michael met Sir Nicholas at the door and walked him to the hall, where Idonia was on her feet persuading Robert to sit with a toy by the window. She moved towards Nicholas with a speed she had not produced since her youth. She put her hands on his cheeks and sighed so deeply he thought she might faint. ‘And Henry and John?’
‘Both unharmed. And one now a knight!’
‘Sir John Philipot. Sir William Walworth, Sir Robert Laund…’
‘Sir Nicholas Brembre.’
Now she did sit down. She called across to Robert: ‘Your father is a knight!’
‘Will he kill the king of France?’
Idonia laughed. Nicholas imagined she had not done so in days. It had been hard for her to wait quietly for news. He began to tell her what had happened to him and her glassy grey eyes became soft again.
The tiny village around the church was cremated by the June sun, but otherwise it showed no sympathy with its big sister the city to the east. Dusty figures stepped out of their hovels to watch the lord of the manor ride by. Had they heard of the insurrection? Did they care about it? Had they thought on the fate of Adam and Eve and the gentleman? He glanced over his shoulder as he led his party onto the Greenford road. They were still standing there, with only their faces moving, swivelling slowly to follow him out of their space.
Robert shouted the names of crops in the fields, which ancient Michael had taught him while men’s heads were harvested elsewhere. Ancient Michael was seventy years old, or so he had been insisting since Nicholas installed him in the Northall house during the last six of them. Counting was a patchy skill for Michael, who struggled with knives and spoons but knew how many fields were fallow across the whole of Harrow.
Ancient Michael did look something like seventy, but the internal structure was that of a younger man or Nicholas would not have employed him. He knew that Michael was fifty at least because he gave a convincing, if unnecessary, account of taking his little son to see King Edward’s return to London after the victories at Crecy and Calais. Nicholas remembered something of this pageant, but he was only five when his father provided the same entertainment for him.
Men count their age by years, although many miss a notch along the way, or never know where to begin. Another of Nichol’s men added twenty years for each tooth he lost, reaching a score that would be well placed in Genesis. If Nicholas had ever wondered at the ages of Adam and Noah and Abraham, then perhaps it was because he did not know the number of their teeth. Nicholas was by ordinary recording now forty-two. He kept a tally in his family book. Born in the thirteenth year of Edward III, he knew in addition the day of his arrival. Not all could make this claim, and he had noted that it was men of a lower station who most often lacked this information, whose mothers were least observant.
Forty-two was a large number. Many turns of the wheel and many spokes within it. How the wheel dragged from drought to flood, ice to swelter, bud to blight. Somehow seasons were easier to count than revolutions. In school he had learned the lists that attached to each quarter: the weather, the wildlife, the crops, the chores, the festivals – planting, chanting, lopping, laying, praying, dropping. In the minds of masters, seasons occurred in the countryside; food and thanking God for it was business beyond city walls.
But the green spaces of London showed the same cycle of gain and loss as was boasted of in the hinterland. The markets showed the changing colours of vegetables and fruit, and the thinning and fattening of the bounty. Pigs grew from tiny, wriggly, pink purses to huge lolling slabs, and then ceased to move all together, but sat around in salt biding time that was no more to them. Poor people grew vegetables behind their huts and knew that it was spring when the seeds were sown, summer and autumn when their meals were blessed with the imagination of their labour; but winter when boredom ground at their stomachs.
As they came over the hill at Notting Barnes, Robert stopped counting crops and thrust out a little finger towards the city. His excitement passed over the holy houses, inns and palaces outside the wall, though some still sparked and smouldered. Instead the finger found the familiar points of its world: the four turrets of the fortress, the bulk of St Paul’s and the daintier shapes of the churches and of the Guildhall, which failed to match the height of the cathedral yet still scrambled into view above the city walls.
‘It’s London,’ sang the voice that pitched as high as they. ‘Where is our house?’
‘Same place as ever, thank God.’ Nicholas crossed himself to show that he intended the words that had tumbled from his mouth. He saw that Idonia did so too.
‘Why do we live in London?’ asked Robert.
Nicholas tugged on the reins, ignoring the question, which had no sense to it.
Idonia answered instead: ‘London is the biggest city. It has the best of everything. Who would not want to live here?’
‘I don’t want to. Something has happened to it. It has gone bad.’
Nicholas was tired of fuss and foolery. ‘Something has indeed happened, but what use is a child’s view to me? Be still.’
They passed through Ludgate in silence. London was bruised. Many blows had fallen on it and blood had gathered under its skin. Burned buildings had collapsed, detritus lay in the streets and even more so in the alleys, into which much been shovelled. Shops had been emptied, some by looters and others by their keepers in anticipation. The conduit at Chepe was grimed by many hands and bore the blood and vomit of peasants, who had camped under the sky with little but ale, in addition to its piped water, to sustain them. The streets were shredded and the buildings along them scratched and torn by foreign fingers. But none of this compared with what they had already seen: the Savoy Palace and the houses of the lawyers in Westminster laid waste as if naught had ever been there but rubble and smoke.
Much money will be spent on putting all this right. The guilds will help members without means, which is their proper purpose, but the competent men will have to put more money in at the top. More funds will be needed by the city itself, while the competent will face their own expenses in restoring their property and seeking to protect it better in the future.
‘Look, there is our house! It is as good as ever!’ Idonia pointed for Robert, though it was neither seemly nor necessary. ‘I thought it might not be so when we left, but God has allowed us all to return, in health, and with a great honour from the king. We are blessed.’
‘My stomach hurts,’ said Robert.