Nicholas Brembre 29

by socalledstories

The man was caught in the street by a fury of dark shapes. The dogs drooled blood as each dragged a piece of him in their mouths towards the longest tooth. The sword swung in the sunlight…and then faded into the salving blur of Idonia’s candle. She looked into his eyes to see that he was awake.

Richard Lyons, a merchant of some notoriety, had died during the insurrection. The rebels had killed the Flemings in the Vintry and Richard, originally of their number, was caught and beheaded collaterally on Chepe. He was a Fleming, however much he pretended otherwise, but he was also a friend. His connection to Nicholas was similarly shy, but they had done deals together, shared ships and passed some thorny secrets between them. Richard’s death had left Nicholas with a few things to fix.

Richard, for a Fleming, was a calm and sensible man, who understood the world and that there were many ways to calculate a position. What might seem grave according to the book, could be resuscitated in the light of financial benefit to the community. His famous impeachment by the ‘good’ parliament of old king Edward was obviously a political pageant, like all else in public life. Everything served a purpose, but which purpose and whose? Richard was the victim of a surge against the king and his court. Perhaps he had simply been there too long and his subjects had become restless. They did not like his mistress, Alice Perrers. They could not name the truth that king Edward himself was to blame, so they attacked those around him. Richard Lyons was somewhere on the edge of this and was dragged in. If he had known that his peril under the sanction of parliament was so much less than he would face five years later from peasants on the streets of the city, he might have returned to Flanders and ceased to trade with Nicholas Brembre.

How would it be to have your head cut off? The terror would last longer than the thing itself. Hanging would be different: the weight on the throat, striving against the impossibility of breath, the pain of a body beaten by its own weight. God gave life, man took it away. Each baby’s birth mocked the art of prophesy. Would this pink scrap of divinity last the hour or sixty years? Would it wrap itself in comfort or live in a ditch? Find love and fruitfulness or bruises and a felon’s death? There was no hard pattern nor idea that it might be otherwise. Life was a test. Sometimes he terrified himself by despising the one who set it. Idonia believed that by fortitude you could show your worth and stand a chance of salvation. This forced hope on an otherwise confounding world, but here on earth there was no proof that she was wrong. Men died and were redeemed or otherwise – but only the first bit was witnessed by mortal eye. You had to believe the rest to be satisfied that the world was true.

Idonia’s candle was no longer soothing the bedroom. It had wandered away leaving a numb grey behind it.

‘Peter, find some old clothes for me!’ shouted Nicholas. Today the assize of nuisance was visiting a list of ruinous walls and reprobate privies. Silk or velvet was not the stuff to risk on such a venture. Peter brought something from an old chest and Nicholas enjoyed dressing himself in faded woollens. It made him feel ordinary, invisible almost. It was easier to breath and to move, and even his head felt lighter. There was a refreshing sense of emptiness to be indulged for whatever brief period was granted him.

He stepped through the gate looking like a middle ranking tallow chandler, else one of his own servants. The street of La Riole shared its name with the nearby house of dead Queen Philippa and was, in its turn, named after the town near Bordeaux where the local merchants went for their wine. The street was, for London, well kept, because the scavenger was a diligent man encouraged by coins sent out at intervals in Gombert’s sweaty hand. Also, perhaps, because the fronts of the buildings of wealthy men demand special care and attention and, in the face of such presumption, no plain passer-by can act to the contrary.

Nicholas had some regard for the street. He was pleased to have a good address for his household. His wife could step out into it with the possibility of keeping her feet clean. Idonia favoured soft leather boots, allowing injury if too many foul objects were strewn across the ground. Robert, however, could take his chances since a man must mind himself.

Nicholas had moved here from Bread Street about fifteen years ago, just before his marriage. In earlier years he had rented part of a tenement with Peter in attendance. The tenant above bounced on the ceiling all night and the one below made vexatious complaints about him, the other tenants, the landlord and probably all the people she saw in the street. Despite this witlessness, he was sad to give up the ravishing morning smells from the bakeries.

Thomas Goodlake had lived with his father in a house further along the street. It was indeed the same house he now occupied with his wife and child, Joan and Thomasine. These days Thomas the elder had a chantry in All Hallows for his soul, while his flesh and bones lay abandoned in the earth. Not much left of the flesh by now.

Young Thomas had done better that his father. His business affairs did well enough, but he had succeeded chiefly in gathering together a number of inheritances. In addition to what had come directly from his father, his mother’s dower had returned to him on her death, as had the portions for his brothers and sisters (earlier still). Two childless cousins had been kind enough to maintain his status as nearest blood and a maternal aunt had used him as a means to disappoint closer kin. Thomas had a talent for outliving his relatives. And now that he was in possession of Joan, he was well ahead of Nicholas’s count when he married her sister.

Today he was on foot with Gombert, stamping and slithering down Dowgate Street towards the river. A walk across London was an experience not to be had anywhere else in the realm. Compared to a pilgrimage – to Canterbury, Rome or Santiago de Compostela – it was of no length at all. Nonetheless it was remarkable that you could walk for the distance of a mile and yet still be surrounded by man’s fabrications. For the child of a village, a town or even another city, this was difficult to accommodate. How could so much earth be buried by flesh? It was true that there were gardens, churchyards and other open spaces in the city, but they were defined by the buildings that surrounded them and the stretch of the whole was terrifying.

Nicholas sometimes wondered whether he liked the city. It had become too familiar to judge. Was it the greatest wonder of the world or was it rather a dank and dirty pile, bloated and without soul, dumped on God’s green fields? Some days one extreme, perhaps today the other.

Burning in the fingers and the wrist, at the neck and in the toes. The feet first because they are closest to the flames. But this is not fire, this is frost. It is so cold on this day in December that the waves on the Thames are dead white like hills of salt. When he looks along the bank he catches a faint patch of the country beyond the Tower. He imagines the slope of the land away from sight, the gradual swell of the hills with their scratchy curls of naked wood. He remembers his return from long journeys overseas. The green of England soothes the eye after the heat of Venice or Rome. The hills of the peninsula scrape and bruise but England is made of cushions, soft, damp, bright when the sun comes out. The green beyond the Tower stretches to the North Sea and the channel. It passes into the downs and through Kingsdown and Mereworth, where he owns land. He wants to be there to jump the mossy walls and break the clear mirrors of ice on the ponds.

The first case, no surprise, was of a privy. The neighbour had arraigned the owner on the grounds that the pit was too close to his land. The owner said that his privy was lined with stone and so was entitled to be two and a half feet from the boundary. But the neighbour maintained there was no stone lining and that it should therefore be three and a half feet clear.

Six aldermen, a sheriff and his sergeant walked through the tenement and out into the yard where stood the object of dispute. Nicholas was glad he was not the one to wield the measuring stick – he had come too close already. It was a sad truth that, however luxurious the fittings of a house, its occupants had to forego gentility seven or eight times a day at severe risk to nose and vestments.

The assize approached the issue with frost on its breath and the privy replied with steam from its depths. The sheriff’s sergeant investigated but the pit was full. He used the stick to tap at the sides but the argument continued. The parties drew back from view where the language thickened and eventually a blow was struck. Each blamed the fist of the other but neither was blessed with a bruise that might prove their case. There was little point in pursuing a charge of assault, which might turn out to be more disputatious still than the original complaint. Instead the assize chose to squat in its central purpose and concentrate on its lengthy itinerary for the day, including dinner at Walter Doget’s tavern.

Before leaving the sergeant, as if suddenly remembering why they were all there, measured the distance to the boundary and found it to be lacking an inch of two and half feet. The defendant was told to seal both his privy and his execrable temper.

Nicholas sometimes despaired of the petty tasks he had to fulfil, but in many ways the assize of nuisance came closest to the real life of the city, to its everyday stresses and strife – and it gave him the opportunity to seek out new allies. If plaintive or defendant were happy with the result Nicholas could hint at his influence; if unhappy, he could suggest dissent. His eyes and ears were attuned to the tiny signals in speech and movement that gave away the political persuasions of those present. On this basis he could send Jankin round later with additional advice.

The next visit was to a party wall. One neighbour had built an upper story on half of the wall in dispute, while the other was claiming ownership of the wall in its entirety. This was another favourite of the assize. The rules on party walls were fairly easy to follow in themselves, the difficulty was usually establishing if they had been followed in the past and whether any variations had been agreed. Had this wall in Thames Street been built jointly by the parties on either side, or had there been an alternative arrangement? The assize could look at the wall but the plaintiff and defendant must produce the paperwork. The plaintiff, he of the whole wall claim, was given a date in court on Monday to prove it.

Next came windows and gutters. A sandy-haired skinner pointed to low windows in the wall of the church next door, which breached the privacy of his garden by allowing clergy and congregation to view his private business. This was another common complaint but Nicholas always wondered what it was that people did in their gardens that was so worthy of watching or concealing.

The assize agreed that the windows should be blocked within forty days and similarly granted the skinner’s complaint that water was running from the church onto his property for lack of a gutter. Half of London was rotten through rain water, a substance so pure in its fall, and which granted life and beauty – so long the gutters were sound.

Sandy hair, red whiskers, eyebrows from a lion’s mane. Was the skinner descended from Anglo-Saxons alone, did he have no French blood in him? William the Bastard set the English scurrying but mostly in circles rather than over the horizon. This was a take-over, not an annihilation. The English did not disappear forever into the mountains like the Celts they had displaced. In the main they stayed where they stood and suffered the weight of the Normans to push them one step each into the mud, leaving William atop with enjoyment of all. In the Brut it was said he was a worthy king and gave land to Englishmen as well as his own knights. And since it was written there must be some truth to it. But conquerors rush to their own gain and any bounty is but another means to their own consumption.

The assize moved on to the next tourney. Nicholas felt the strong and steady weave of history in the fabric of the city and in the plan of its streets. People were like spiky shadows tickling the past as they knelt on worn stone in the churches St Magnus or St Martin-le-Grand or traced the grooves along Watling Street or Chepe. But the city was itself vulnerable to change. There were buildings that had leapt up from the ground before the plague took their occupants, that were now crumbling back to dust. Round the edges of the city you could see where the overspills had appeared under the early Edwards – when men had poured into a saturated city and, like water thrown from a bucket atop St Paul’s, had washed back over the walls. But look how they left little but scummy puddles when the population drained away.

So was the city stable, durable, timeless? More durable than the lives of individual men, but not exempt from the ravages of disease or economic fortune or many other mysterious tests that God sets us. The city survives but is chipped and squeezed; its shape holds and yet changes.

Of course none of this was there when Brutus arrived: no bridge, no walls, no tenements – just the river and the bogs and a maybe a few huts. But when today a shadow walks along Chepe the arch of the land of Brut pushes up against its feet.