Nicholas Brembre 30
The sandy haired skinner showed little interest in next year’s election for mayor until it was suggested he might play a part in fixing it. Indeed, once he realised that money was involved, he revealed to Jankin that he had a secondary career along these very lines. In addition to fur, the skinner sold secrets, and he claimed equal ease at stripping the skin of an animal and cutting through the many covers of men.
‘How much time did you spend with Sir Sandy?’ asked Nicholas.
‘Vespers to Compline – it took that long to squeeze the milk from him.’
‘Milk is not the substance most in evidence.’ Nicholas sniffed the air and grabbed Gombert by the back of the neck to turn his breath towards him. ‘Thank God you kept him sober.’
‘He served his purpose.’
‘To help you home?’
‘Did you know, Sir Nicholas, that John More has a sister in the debtor’s gaol in Southampton?’
‘How does sandy curls know that, and how much did you pay him for it?’
‘Nothing. He offered it as a sample. He is keen to win your custom.’
‘I suppose I must meet with him.’
‘He says, Sir Nicholas, that he prefers to go through an intermediary.’
‘Like a priest speaking for God.’ Nicholas looked up through the unglazed windows at the top of the wall. The blurry edge of a constellation challenged him for a moment before his eyes slid back down to earth. ‘More tangles than a whore’s bush. Fine. You’ve probably done well, Jankin. Leave him alone for a week or two now.’ Then, as Jankin disappeared down the corridor: ‘Does he know about the bridge?’
But it was Peter who appeared in the doorway, Peter with the judging face, and Nicholas knew he was being summoned back to Christmas.
At this season there was little time free. Social events crowded the short hours of the day. Idonia was more at church than ever. Robert wanted to tell his father what he had learned at school but spoke too fast and choked on his babble. A summary would be healthier. Nicholas usually slapped him on the back when this happened and passed him to Pieryne. Idonia would make fuss enough of him when she returned.
Nicholas had put money aside to cover the family entertainments. He enjoyed organising the events but was not so good at taking pleasure from them when they arrived. He wanted to discuss business but the company, particularly the women, did not. Then he would remember the object of the feasting and be jarred by a sense of his own wickedness. He had spent his money not for God but for vanity and pride. The presents he had bought to give to Robert and Idonia at Epiphany were not for them but for the eyes of his peers. The recognition was intense like a branding. All around him men were whirling in the smoke but only he was marked.
Throughout the year there were saints’ days to celebrate and other feasts and processions related to the civic calendar. But Christmas, the busiest time of all, was just for God. Christ suffered in his time on earth. It was a bitter thing and difficult for man to understand, but that was the point and the depth of it. Christmas was different. Christmas was but lightly touched by knowledge of what was to come. It was a wonderful and joyous celebration. There was no need to hold back, to be solemn and mindful of the ambiguities. Perhaps that was why he found it less easy to enjoy.
Idonia’s family were full of Christmas as if there was nothing worth considering in the rest of the year. Their houses were full of decorations, which caught in the clothes and hair, and food and drink was rammed down the throats of all who crossed the threshold. Time turns and repeats the tunes of childhood. Our limbs may creak a little more but our voices follow the notes. Back to the top of the wheel, more grey hairs than last year but still attached. Fortune shows us glimpses of joy before plunging us under again. Robert had a crown on his head made by his mother of cloth of gold. His nose was snotty by his eyes burst with light. If this one child could be happy perhaps it was worth the churning.
It was difficult to know what God might want. Humility and simplicity were lauded. Was there an ideal existence in poverty that would bring the favour of God? It seemed that there was, or ought to be. And yet people believed that they could pay for prayers that would shorten their time in purgatory. Were they wrong or could wealth be a virtue after all? Without wealth it was hard to do good works, at least it would be hard to achieve as much this way.
Nicholas had given money to his guild for poor grocers, dead grocers and for their widows and orphans; to the hospitals of London, including the lunatics at Bethlam and the lepers at St Giles; to the city for maintenance of the roads, the markets, the bridge; to the local churches for alms. He had also put money aside for chantries for himself and for Idonia. God knew he needed it more than she. How many years in purgatory to purify his soul? But again – how would this work? Why should prayers spoken by other men save his soul (or hers)?
If he had been a monk he would have had the quiet in which to contemplate these matters. Sometimes he was teased by the idea of such a life. There was a clear purpose in being a monk. All temptations were put aside and everything left was for God. And there were the books – hundreds of them. Bibles, salters, prayer books, on parchment or vellum, in elegant scripts and with gorgeous illustrations. There were other books, he had heard. Besides religious commentaries, there were other works of scholarship – on science, geography, history, engineering, plants and animals, the heavenly bodies, the human body; infidel versions of the Greeks and copies of copies of the Romans. To know these tomes existed and not to be able to see them, to touch or read them – that was a kind of torture, a kind of purgatory. Perhaps purgatory would be, for him, a place without books, or a place where they would be forever out of reach. What would it be for Idonia? Would it simply be a place of physical pain? It was hard to think of her distressed in this way. She had her faults in this world, but not as he did. As a Christian woman she was worthy. She prayed and went to mass more than anyone else he knew, she treated others with kindness for the most part, and she had the gift of humility, despite her riches. She must have no fears about her path to heaven.
The hall was ripe and teeming like the inside of a huge fruit as autumn approaches. Heat, noise, illumination. The kernel was the fluttery fire, which warmed the seeds surrounding it so that they wriggled and glowed; then there was the shell-shaking hum of aspiration, a sound like the sixth day; and finally, light of all intensities throbbing through the flesh.
But this was December not August and the food was all purchased at high cost. Fish was still the staple of the Advent fasting but there was plenty of that: sole, plaice, John Dory, herring, turbot, skate. No need here to beat dried cod. And shell fish, Nicholas’s favourites: clams, mussels, oysters and many other slimy treasures. The meat, all freshly killed, would return for Christmas day, including the boar, whose head would sit the centre of the feast with no further comment on the world despite its apparent attention. Goose, duck and venison would follow in less manifest form, together with chicken, beef and ham, mutton, rabbit and mincemeat pie. Throughout the season fruit and nuts mixed with spices were at hand around the room, while cakes and puddings awaited their place at table.
Joan was laughing with Idonia her niece, daughter of Margaret. The gap in years between them was not so great as a generation and Idonia Birlingham was of an age to be wed.
‘It is a great thing at first to be married,’ said Joan. ‘To have your own house and possessions, your own linen and clothing, jewels and ornaments, a garden. And you have servants to help you and to take your orders. But that is a responsibility and there are many others. Ordering meals, making sure the work is done properly, getting rid of bad servants and hiring new ones. You would think that life would be easy…’
Idonia Birlingham looked a little alarmed but mostly she looked bored. Nicholas imagined she might be curious about matters other than household management. Joan had nothing to say about what men and women might do when there was nothing left to prevent them. Why? Did women not discuss such matters? Not when men were listening perhaps. Why do we talk most about what is least important? Because what is important is often unspeakable. So is it wrong? Is it wrong to feel your soul shatter into a thousand diamonds, as if the earth were sucked into the space of a finger and then expanded back into space? Wouldn’t you want to think about it all day long and into the night?
Idonia Birlingham was sat hard back on the bench so that its front edge folded into her knee and her rump spilled over the rear of the wood – the fruits of the beautiful world swelling together. She looked almost comfortable but was this position not in avoidance of her aunt? Idonia giggled as required but she kept distance between their faces. The next stage in your life is not another’s property just because she has got there first. A girl might dread marriage just as much as she looked forward to it. Excitement does not spring from a pure source.
Of course Joan was two steps ahead of Idonia, not one. She had crossed the second line of dread, that of the child-bed. Did her survival free her for the current performance? She thought there was nothing left for her to fear.
Idonia’s brothers were playing with Robert but the verb was growing and twisting. When they were all children they played together; now Margaret’s sons played with their cousin. Since the incident of the stable in the churchyard, it was plain that the other boys were playing tricks on the youngest. Robert was unaware that the game had changed.
Christmas at Norwich came from the mouth of Nichol’s mother. She told him the story of the baby, as well as other tales not to be found in the Bible. He could hardly remember them now, there were so many; only the slaughter of the first born remained sharp and wet in his mind. His mother told it as if it were a fitting fate for boys. His father’s disapproval was faint in the background like a shadow against the wall.
From the mouth of his mother came also a rich and spiky commentary on all that shared the celebrations of the household. When the food had been prepared with too much salt or too little sugar, her tongue addressed the balance. When the conversation contained too little of interest – when it settled on politics, foreign lands, religion, death, love, anything that was not about her – her voice could be heard above the hum, rescuing the company from its misplaced content.
Thomas Goodlake was posing questions to the party: ‘Should women get their dower, a third of what a man leaves on his death? Is it necessary?’
‘Why not?’ responded Margaret simply.
Thomas paused and varied his aim: ‘Doesn’t it make a widow prey to any man who needs money and can put on an eager expression and a show of competence?’
‘Not prey since she can refuse, which would not be possible without her dower.’
‘But there will always be a man to protect her,’ stated Thomas.
‘Men are all honest now?’
‘Even if such a man exists, why should a woman have to rely on his bounty?’ asked Margery.
‘You make it sound a matter of male caprice, rather than part of the God’s plan.’
‘Does God say that nothing should be granted to women on their husbands’ deaths? Does he say anything at all about dower?’
‘Perhaps not. But he does say quite a lot about women. Women are weak; men must advise, lead and look after them. Why should that end when they are widowed?’
The women were warm. Though silk and precious stones might be expected to cool, the Stodeye sisters defied their apparel and leaked steam. Margaret let the boiling water out into her voice, while Joan held it deep within, detectable only in the pink around her eyes. Margery stroked her sleeve and fiddled with her wimple, since activity disperses heat. Idonia sat in the glow without reaction. What was she thinking? Of men and women, God, the state of the realm, the rate for a basket of herring, nothing at all?
Thomas Goodlake pushed away from Henry Vanner and took up a stance by brother number three.
‘I sense you are not popular,’ said John Philipot.
‘Maybe not. Maybe I should sing and dance, or hand out florins, or capture a pirate.’
‘God made men and women both of blood and bone, and even if the second came from the bone of the first, they are not different in their need to make their way back to him. Why should a woman have to fight against the bad inclinations of a man as well as her own?’ This came from Idonia and even Thomas was surprised by it.
‘I mean no harm to women. I have my own daughter now. But I think things could be better arranged.’ His argument collapsed in a clerk’s wink.
Nicholas was impressed by his wife’s success. In truth, there was something to what she said, although Thomas showed greater range. Nicholas knew that women were competent, or some of them at least. That was not really the question. Life had a shape. The things that were most important in life depended on how the female fraction of it fitted into the whole. Women were appurtenant. God made them like men and not like men. They kept from the heights, from command, from destruction. They were alongside but in the shade, they supported but did not lead. Their thoughts floated like down. They flung their distress around the room and made no effort to reclaim it. They soothed the way no man was able.
Adam Carlisle hated women, and many others claimed so to do. Maybe Thomas Goodlake was one of them. But did he want to breath nothing in life but the dry air of the Guildhall or feel only the cold and scratchy effort of making money? Nicholas imagined that women complained of men, indeed he had just been presented with the evidence. But how would they manage without us? Had they considered that? So we must wonder how we would manage without women.
The household went to mass at St Antonin in Budge Row on Christmas Day. The sky was blue as they approached but three kinds of cloud threatened the sun. Small, light, fast moving, relatively innocent and forgiving. Slower, spread out like lace, allowing the blue to filter through. Dense grey blankets in the distance, moving slow as death but moving nonetheless. Nicholas wanted to delay entering the church because the sun might be smothered while they were inside. The churchyard lay beside and in the far corner stood four stone crosses closely spaced. The sun stretched out in their direction and Nicholas followed the path. But Idonia was eager for the mass and pulled the party into the church.
The mass was, as every mass, a long stream of Latin varied only by the instrument of the speaker. Everyone knew what was in the mass, but not necessarily where it had got to at any particular point. The exception was Idonia, who latched onto the text from the start and clung to it as if it were a carriage running downhill, until flung exhausted into the street at the end. Pieryne had the appearance of following the words but her strained eyes suggested otherwise. Idonia by contrast did seem to understand what was spoken line by line. Her face reflected it. The shock each time at our lord’s betrayal and death, the joy of his resurrection. Her eyes stretched wide at the right moments and became timely moist. When the host was accepted by the priests Idonia’s tongue sprung forth, or the tip of it at least. But lay people did not take the host more than once or twice a year and she knew that well enough. Did she think she was a priest? She, a rich and idle woman of only basic education to support her knowing? There were few words of Latin under the wimple.
The church was a little damp and the echo of whatever noise was made gave the illusion of buried space, buffered from the sinful world by walls of earth. The priests and their servants circled the host but they were not shimmering like angels, rather their white cloth was creased and smudged. Would it be better elsewhere? At St Paul’s perhaps. Idonia did not like St Paul’s. It was too big – the distance between the altar and anywhere a woman could sit was stretched even further than was usual. And she didn’t believe the roof would hold.
‘Because the men who built it did a bad job?’ he had asked in the past.
‘No, because they reached too high. Yes, they reached too high. They tried to get to heaven on a pile of stones. It is sacrilege to try to climb as high as God.’
What was the twist in this thinking about God? She thought that God was out of reach or almost so. This was familiar and good. But then she rejected the attempts of man to stretch nearer – she did not think a priest could provide a link, that he had a greater right than she to reach for God. Nicholas put his palm to his cheek and then smoothed his beard down to his chin. Why did women have to think beyond what was obvious? Priests certainly had their faults, mortal as they were, but why would they exist if they had no purpose?