Nicholas Brembre 20

by socalledstories

‘I don’t know how the sea might be,’ said Idonia in the gloom.

Nicholas saw immediately that there were two interpretations of this complaint. He dismissed the idea that his wife did not know how the sea was created (or on which day) and concentrated instead on how to describe something so astonishing to a woman who has seen only the Thames. ‘It’s colour is blue when the sun shines, brown or grey in a storm, sometimes green when the weather is mixed. Of course, if you catch it in your hand it has no colour at all.’

‘All this makes sense – I understand – since water takes hue from other things in the world. It is like men who do not know their own minds and change their opinions with their company.’

‘But size is the thing with the sea.’

‘Yes, that is what I cannot imagine. Tell me how it is to see something so vast that it fills the space between England and France.’

‘And yet more space beyond. The sea is not like the land, or only in the worst possible storms. It does not block sight of itself by raising hills or mountains or digging ravines. When the land parts to reveal the sea, it seems as if God has loosed the limits of the world.’ He raised his body rapidly and the oak bed he had inherited from his father swayed on its stumps. ‘The sea is like a huge sheet of richest cloth that rises from the beach and hangs itself from the sky.’

Idonia seemed frightened by this image. She took in air and looked upwards as if the sheet of water were about to fall. Nicholas saw that her face was flushed with alarm and her eyes large with confusion, where usually they were stretched a little flat. Idonia had a good wife’s face, with features that were strong and straight on dull skin. But now for a moment and she was soft and bright and out of control.

‘Have you heard of the giant waves that come sometimes in the world and destroy everything on the land where they break?’

The eyes were shut now and the mouth covered by a fold of linen.

He laughed and pushed her gently on the arm. ‘I am just telling you tales. And the sea does not hang from the sky – in fact it is completely flat like any other volume of water. And a ship will sit nicely upon it like a lamb on a cushion of grass. Wake up Robert!’

There was no movement from the other bed.

Nicholas was used to his son’s breathing in the night, when he often made an effort at continuing with it. He had learned to accept that Robert’s labour would be rewarded and almost ceased to hear it. Now sense went into reverse and he must listen to silence while his own lungs seized. The wait was shorter in time than it was deep in the memory of death.

‘I was listening to what you said about the sea,’ came the little voice from nothing and there was the sudden slosh of sheets. ‘Father, I want…’

‘What can you want, Robert? You have more than you know what to do with.’

‘What do you want, Robert?’ asked his mother.

Nicholas got out of bed and walked towards Robert. He was annoyed with Idonia for defying his lead, but he could tell by her trembling how scared she had been about the sea and about Robert’s silence.

‘Vikings sailed on the sea,’ said Robert. ‘And Arthur and Brutus and the Saxons and you sail on the sea, Father. Can I come?’

‘Is that what you want, Robert?’

‘I want to sail on the sheet that changes colour and I want to ride on a giant wave.’

Nicholas snorted. ‘When you understand what it is all about, then you can come with me. It is not a children’s story. Do you know what the staple is Robert?’

‘Yes,’ said Robert.

‘Tell me.’

‘It is… somewhere you have to go…to swap things…it is a place but sometimes it is in the wrong place…”

‘Come up with a better answer than that and I may take you, although I suspect you will have a harder task persuading your mother.’

The location of the staple, the funnel through which all exports of wool must pass, was the choice of the king. For some time it had been kept outside the realm and there were many advantages to having a staple and having it overseas. Ships could cross the channel in convoy as protection against pirates, although Nicholas often preferred to keep to his own convenience. More importantly, the staple connected trade in two directions. English merchants shipped out wool (and some cloth) and brought back cloth, wine, spices, dyes, salt, timber, oil, rice, oranges and many other items that could not be produced at home. When coin was short the directness of the exchange made credit easy. Sensible merchants resisted attempts to move the staple back to England, which would disrupt the neat knot of export-import, as well as sucking alien competition into the country. But even when securely overseas the location of the staple was still a cause of conflict. It had wandered over the years between St Omar, Antwerp, Bruges and Calais. It was true that wool could follow the staple without much difficulty wherever it went, but the balance of goods for return varied along the edge of the continent. St Omer favoured the vintners, Antwerp mercers, fishmongers and skinners, Bruges the drapers and Calais the grocers. It had been Calais for a while now, but threat of movement was always in the political armoury.

Of course the official reason for establishing a staple was not the advantage of the merchants but the collection of tax on exports of wool. But, so that the king could get his money easily, he granted a small group of merchants the right to manage the staple and with it a monopoly of the Calais wool trade. This was a monster among advantages and Nicholas was one of its keepers. But he knew that the monster could jump back across the channel in a moment, so he stayed clever and cautious as he had been taught in his youth.

Nichol’s old master Thomas Albon became his partner in better years. But in the days when he was growing from a boy to a spindly youth and needed new boots each season and food to feed a horse, his master was starved of cash. King Edward had moved the staple to Westminster and banned English merchants from exporting wool and Thomas’ trade was cut in half with only the grocery remaining. That was when they became Italian. In defiance of the ban, Thomas and his associate in crime Fulk Horwood ran sacks from the Lincoln staple under foreign names and the skinny apprentice became Niccolo for a while. He found it exciting both at home and at sea to think that the operation might meet with ruin at any moment. Now he saw that Thomas was not so worried, that he had covered the weak points well enough. But he had kept Niccolino scared and so careful. It was odd training for a grocer, oddly enjoyable, and it kept him keen on the sea as a youth and beyond.

Now that he was so involved in city politics and that his business abroad was well enough established to be done through agents, Nicholas rarely travelled long distances, neither to the stark north nor the overheated south. But he liked to cross the channel to Calais to relive the screaming terror of the sea in pain and to smell the salt spray, like spittle, or like another fluid the body emits in crisis. After the slump of the storm when the world lay back down for a rest, he would look out at the restrung horizon and imagine the points of pirates’ ships and breath the cold clear chances of the void.

The sky was pale grey between the buildings like waking after sin. But when he arrived at the river he saw that the sky was not grey after all, it was blue, pale blue, with long stretchy gold bars hanging over the place where the sun would rise. Along the Thames towards Mile End, low puffs of purple cloud like bruises waited for the warmth to come. The wait was not long: beneath the heavens the golden light grew, cleansing the bruises from the clouds and leaving them unearthly white.

As Nicholas reached the ship the tip of the sun was breaking the bow and the golden bars burned back to vapour. He had brought with him the apprentices Adam and Ralf. Ralf was twelve years old and had been handed to him but three months before by an uncle, who thanked him so heartily that Nicholas became suspicious. So far he had made little of him. He did what he was told to do, spoke quietly and learned at a middling pace. The uncle must merely have been glad to place him so well when the parents were both dead. Adam was eighteen and had been to sea before, sometimes in Nicholas’ place to undertake simple transactions. He was shrewd and confident, ready to set up in business for himself, but in need of sponsor, maid or widow to bring him in some cash. His mother had money but was about to remarry. Nicholas thought of speaking to her while she was best able to help her son.

The apprentices went below with the bags but Nicholas was not ready to give up the early morning light with its purity and its promise. The captain hailed him and climbed up to join him by the aftcastle. They talked of the weather and the route and of difficulties in earlier crossings. The captain was worried by the bruised and bloody sky, which he saw as a sign of evil to come. Nicholas pressed him to set sail. He was keen to be in Calais and had heard too many sailors’ tales of heavenly portents that were puffed away by a good wind and sound sea. John Philipot always swore by of the wit of his crew, demanding of Nicholas whether a sailor had ever questioned his knowledge of spices. But John Philipot had had no fewer bad runs than he. Nicholas had lost a new hulk off Thanet in the autumn, but John had had three cogs stuck in port while the sun shone from Hull to Gibraltar.

Nicholas took the apprentices down into the hold to see the wool, which had been loaded the day before. Ralf lagged behind and had apparently gained a limp from somewhere. Adam made an effort to wait for him but read Nicholas’ impatience and picked up his pace. Ralf would not touch the wool but he listened closely to his master’s account of its worth. This was not from Nicholas’ own farms in Kent or Middlesex but from a monastery in the Cotswolds, and it was of a quality to surpass any wool in the world. In Calais it would be bought by agents of cloth manufacturers from Flanders. After that Nicholas would be able to teach the boy something of the trade to which he was officially apprenticed.

Grocery had won its name from the weighing of its goods on the Great Beam by the gross. In Nicholas’ lifetime the term grocer (or grosser) had gradually eclipsed pepperer or spicer, which had been more common in his youth. The old terms were too specific for many masters, given the range of goods they handled. The bulk of his wealth was made as a wool merchant, but in the city records and in his guild allegiance Nicholas Brembre was a grocer.

The ship slid out of London with the tide and the waves swelled as the land spread its limbs. The salty stink of the sea scourged his lungs and his eyes were smeared by the mud of north Kent. He loved this first assault by the moving world, when geometry and light spun the senses by compounding each other’s transformations. His body shrank and he saw his father beside him, already white with the sickness that would soon transfer to him. John Brembre had not owned a ship but rented space for occasional exports. He had made a little money this way in mockery of being a merchant.

The north sea is a bowl as big as a Viking’s desire. It is a bucket held between the knees of Albion and the lowlands, while the fist of Norway churns the brine. Sometimes the turbulence keeps clear of the south. But on other days the small waves of complacency grow gradually until the ship cannot ignore them, and the clouds that had been lit like fluff above the new sun thicken into an almighty storm.

Two hours out Nicholas saw that the crossing would not be quick. He lay down awhile to save his stomach and he saw that Ralf was sick too. Adam brought them both water but there were words between the apprentices that Nicholas did not understand.

Adam and Ralf were standing on the deck where Nicholas had stood to watch the sunrise hours before, although it seemed impossible that it was the same place since all around it had changed. What were they doing there? They were arguing again. Why was Adam so aggravated by the child? He was hardly a rival and Nicholas had shown him no favour. Every human endeavour was plagued by this will to disagreement. But apprentices had less cause than most to waste their time in this manner. They were not hired to fight amongst each other, they needed only do as instructed. They were mere vessels in which to deposit knowledge of their trade and could wait until they were free before deciding whether they liked one another.

‘Come down from there idiots! Adam! Bring him inside!’

Nicholas had brought plenty of paper with him as there was much to record. He favoured the system of accounting devised by the Italians with its two elegant columns of figures. For years he had fought with the clumsy model he had been taught as a boy but in the end he gave up the patriotic quest and admitted that the aliens had it right. He settled in the cabin with his accounts beside him on a bench. These Italians: their magic flowed far beyond double-entry book-keeping to banking and modern business methods in general. It was they who pioneered loans, insurance, trading companies, agents and couriers, postal services – an endless list. English merchants resisted their encroachment while learning from their example. Nicholas was now old enough to accept their greatness.

He took his hand off his book for a moment so that he could wander down a city street. The sun was shining on the tiles above his head, turning green from slimy grey. He could reach up to feel their quickness, while beneath his feet grew blades of stone from the rich compost of city life. This was the best way to head off the sickness: think of something calm and elsewhere. Another was to go on deck where the fresh air and the effort of keeping your feet could be effective, at the risk of losing your life. Maybe that was the reason for the apprentices’ stubborn attachment to the weather.

He put his hand back down but there was no book, only bench. The remedy had worked too well and he now abandoned distraction to find that the pitch of the ship had increased dramatically. His papers were scattered on the floor at the end of the bench and water was invading them. He jumped to the rescue. He could hear that the wind was now whacking against the side of the ship and spitting rain like teeth onto the deck.

Nicholas was struggling towards the door when the captain, half-man half-fish, flapped it open and shouted that there was a man overboard.

Adam had not done as he had been told! He had not taken care of the strange boy! Nicholas rushed out into the screaming madness of the storm to demand an explanation for the loss of the child. But the child was still there: his sleeve was gripped by a sailor as if he were a precious beast, but his face was full of thought.

‘He says your apprentice is lost.’

Nicholas could see men along the side of the ship peering into the waves. One pointed but then lowered his arm; the others shook their heads. It was hard to see the water itself, let alone anything in it. And what use if they could make him out? He would not be saved and anyone who attempted rescue would be lost as well.

‘Antoine heard the cry as he fell,’ the captain shouted. ‘But no-one saw what happened.’

Nicholas was baffled by the noise and the icy spray, which beat on his face like blades. He wanted to shout for silence, but such a command would not be obeyed nor even heard. If he could not subdue the elements, he could attempt some control of the mortal froth on the surface. He needed to see for himself what could not be seen. His eyes would penetrate the fog that clouded all others. He would see over the sheering sides of the sea-god’s tantrum the body of the boy. He would no longer be gulping for air or thrashing with his limbs. He would be heavy and still in the water – quite dead. Then Nichol could truly tell his mother that nothing could have been done.

He did not see Adam. His eyes were no better than the crew’s. The sailors, in their line, looked back at him, reflecting his accusation of incompetence. He let go the edge and lurched back inside.

The rain was now hail and flying parallel to the deck, that is parallel to how the deck would lie were it not pitching wildly across its fair weather shape. Nichol’s eyes were full of ice and he cried in pain as he tried to clear them so that he could look for Antoine. He could not find him below so he settled for Ralf. Ralf was captured in a blanket but water was still running over his head and down into the depths. He coughed and shivered but his eyes were uncannily clear. Nicholas was unnerved by their serenity. He opened his mouth to ask what Ralf had seen, but instead pushed these words aside for others:

‘Why were you arguing?’

‘Because we disagreed.’

This seemed too clever a reply and Nicholas showed that he was angry.

‘About which of us could see farthest and which could see deeper in the ocean and how deep is the sea anyway. Adam said they were foolish questions. I thought they were good ones.’

‘Why did he fall in, Ralf?’

‘I said I could see land in the distance when the ship was raised on a wave. He couldn’t though he is older and taller. He was annoyed. He shouted at me. He didn’t want me to be better than him so he reached out as far as he could to try to see what I saw.’

Instead he got the answer to the other question. How deep is the sea? A good question indeed.

The ship was off course. They could occasionally see land through the thick grey sludge that hung between. Gradually the sludge thinned to rain and the land stopped thrashing quite so wildly. The captain consulted his list of landmarks on the French coast; then he consulted his list for Flanders. Then he discerned a slight warmth of light over the bow and succeeded with the Zeeland list. Nicholas was not alarmed by the detour. It could take a few hours to cross the channel, or it could take thirty. Arrival was the object.

The captain was more talkative now that he knew where he was in the world. ‘There is something worrisome about your apprentice. I don’t like the way he looks at things. He thinks everything is his enemy.’

Now Domburg was in sight and the square sails of the cog were angled into a wind that pulled it along the coast. The air was clear of rain although the clouds were still grey overhead. It seemed that they would make up some of the time they had lost in the storm.

In the pinkish light of the dusk, Nicholas viewed the shapes of his apprentices against the sky. Adam was stretching outwards across the water. He was close to the balance and about to tip. His hands scorned the ship and instead flapped hideously ahead of his fall, teasing him that they might become wings.

Ralf was very close to him. His arms had been outstretched too but they did not attempt a rescue. It was a neat little figure against the blotchy west. It seemed to want to find the gold of the sun even though it was lost to the horizon. I can see farther than you.

There was only one apprentice. Ralf was not standing beside Adam. His arms had not left his sides. He could not see the sun. Adam would not jump ashore at Calais and then remember to help with the bags. Nicholas would not be able to send him off to look for the rarer spices (and it would be no use sending Ralf). He would not be the next apprentice to gain his freedom. All those years of effort with no result. Adam had freckles on his cheek in summer.

Antoine said that Ralf pushed Adam over the edge. ‘I didn’t see it. I didn’t see anything. But that’s what happened.’