Nicholas Brembre 35

by socalledstories

When spring came there was relief from the cold but the bugs awoke and were hungry. There was an itch on his thigh and another under his arm. As he dressed he shouted to Pieryne to change the bed. However rich you were you tasted just the same to a bug. Nicholas walked towards the window he had shunned all winter. He enjoyed the feel of air that was warm enough to breath, that you could welcome into your lungs without turning them to ice. Peter finished buttoning his sleeves and moved towards the stairs but was blocked by the figure of Pieryne as it heaved into the room. She struggled with the bedclothes as if they were sheets of iron.

‘What’s the matter with you? Get Agnes to help.’

She nodded and sneezed at the same time to the destruction of her balance. Nicholas caught her as she fell, though there wasn’t much to catch, just an armful of bones. Pieryne had always been a mean body that promised no warmth. He laid her on the bed and peeped at her white face. She hardly knew a man had touched her.

‘There’s no work in you today. You may as well stay there and allow a bit of spirit back in. Peter, call someone to attend to her. And the bed.’

Pieryne was not an incomer like Nicholas. She was born in Wood Street where her father made beds and she came as a servant to La Riole when she was twelve years old. Idonia had explained her background to him. Her family did reasonably well and could have kept her at home, but going out as a servant to a rich merchant improved her prospects and there was no reason to refuse the extra income or the greater space on her departure. Though Pieryne’s family remained only so many footfalls away, Nicholas was not aware that the steps were often taken. Meanwhile her earnings made a regular journey back to Wood Street. Did she want to marry? Everybody did. How would you last a lifetime without sex? It was true that time passed in drought when you were young and not yet able to pay the price, and later when too many children had been born. There were ways other than marriage to fill these gaps. But taken as a whole marriage offered the best chance of success.

God had some aim in this strange intertwining and the ecstasy it produced – something beyond the mixed blessing of conception. Nicholas did not believe every thing the preachers said on the subject. They had their own angles to straighten. But if a man was made to have this urge and this fulfilment why condemn it outright? God gave us our bodies with their tendency to pleasure or pain; then he confused us by saying that some sensation was good and some bad. You can’t enjoy your body just as you want. Saint Augustine wrote that God made us as we are but not without risk of sin. It was for man to understand how to behave. Man had ability then, and power, small through that might be. It did not make sense for Idonia to tell him to be more virtuous if he did not have any choice. Those doctors argued endlessly on this question. Did they have better lives than Nicholas because they spent their time with high and holy matters rather than sacks of wool and council meetings?

The soul must discipline the body, but what if one was simply stronger than the other? If Idonia pushed him away – as she almost always did – he could manage well enough on his own. But if he just caught sight of Agnes he was completely consumed. His body saw no sense and his soul forgot the meaning of words. This was the folly of youth. There was no cure but age, and age seemed to have abandoned him.

Had Pieryne any notion of this glorious bind? It hardly looked so from her cold dry shape. For this gift of enjoyment men paid in many ways, of which sickness and pain were just two, but it seemed that Pieryne might pay without ever sampling the goods.

She looked pale as vomit and he felt a disturbing urge to check her groin for buboes. Better done by the women, if they dared.

Plague had taken his mother, had taken a number of his friends and one of his children. This last was not certain. It was strange that Alice should die but no-one else in the household of this most sociable of diseases. But she went so quickly and in the familiar way. The plague had hit hardest in his own childhood when half the bodies on this earth dropped dead. But there had been waves thereafter, gentler reminders of the principal. After the first coming Nicholas never thought that he would succumb: there must have been a reason he was in the half that lived. But he had been left with a terrible sense of the vulnerability of those around him – to this and to any number of other illnesses which prospered in the filthy city. Very little could be done. Anyone who claimed ability to heal beyond the powers of a nurse was a fool or a cheat. But many did and sometimes even he, Nicholas Brembre, was desperate enough to fill their grubby hands with gold.

Idonia was usually unmoved: ‘It is God’s will. What likelihood is there of rescue from a threadbare man with rent to pay and half an education? Even if he comes from St Bartholomew’s how can he better God’s verdict?’ When Idonia spoke in this way she put herself beyond argument. Nicholas granted the logic but felt the bruise beneath.

His father was like her. He said little but meant more. He dressed in the old loose fashions – thick dyed wool and cotton. And his thinking showed itself in slits. Perhaps he was never a part of the world, never at peace with it, and perhaps not designed for it. What was the point if we are intended for eternity elsewhere? And now it was Pieryne, with those same eyes like blots of blood on gauze, who was fading towards that unthinkable space.

Idonia rushed back from her breakfast with Felice in her train. She pushed Nicholas firmly towards the door and almost down the stairs. As he recovered his balance he caught a glimpse of the examination as it began.

‘There’s bugs in the bed,’ he added.

Nicholas went in search of Jankin and found him supervising a delivery in the yard. He was in an unusually animated state, rattling away like a pauper’s tin. He saw Nicholas and advanced on him with a year’s worth of words. When the moon was full Jankin was liable to rant, or at least to wander in the woods. Nicholas let him do it but declined to enter himself. It was tiresome to bang against the branches and get hooked on endless twigs and creepers, but now and then Jankin brought something out of it after all.

Jankin had been talking to the scavenger, who had been talking about the beadle. The scavenger complained that the beadle took bribes and wanted him (the scavenger) to observe the object of them. The scavenger was expected not to see the bags of rubbish outside the gate of the big house or the unbolted back door of the inn, or the blood soaked into the earth behind the church. It was hard not to see these things when no coin had been pressed against the scavenger’s eye. But the scavenger did not want this blindness in any case, even if it were caused by pressure of gold.

‘Never mind the conscience of the scavenger, what do you make of it Jankin?’

‘Possibilities, Sir Nicholas.’

‘You enjoy all this, don’t you?’

Jankin looked vacant for the first time that morning.

‘You’re good at it, whatever it rouses in you.’

‘And whatever it is…’

‘But Jankin, you know what it is: it is necessary.’

‘I will continue to do what is necessary – because that is what I do well.’

‘You are an odd creature, Jankin. You are like the magpie pecking at the bright things, not knowing you are a thief.’

This comment seemed to sting the bird and prompt it to drop some of its treasure, which turned out to be a theory of the bridge. Jankin’s theory of the bridge sat on the idea that the fishmongers were in conspiracy against Sir William Walworth because he had taken all the business. They wanted London to be overrun by the rebels in order to ruin his mayoralty. Instead they gave him his chance to be a hero. John de Northampton wanted to make something more of it. He wanted to spread the conspiracy to Sir William himself. And to his true friends, including Sir Nicholas Brembre.

Jankin had imagination. He had thought beyond the obvious and that set him apart from ninety-nine in a hundred. But Jankin did not know as much as he thought he did. ‘Keep your attention on the scrivener, Jankin,’ said Nicholas. ‘That’s where you can be useful. The more he tells us of the beadle and of those that are paying him, the more we have to add to your possibilities and my necessaries.’

Everything was useful. Every little piece information. There were creatures who could understand this, who could run the necessary threads back and forth to construct the web. Jankin was one of these. Jankin sat on his string and waiting for vibrations. He was sensitive. Whatever he had been before the insurrection, he was now as a quiver in a faint breeze, picking up every little cross current or puff of chill air. He did not always understand what he sensed, but that was not his purpose.

‘Jankin. I would like you to make some deliveries. You don’t need to remember anything of them.’

‘My memory has become a wandering thing – or perhaps a chest with a false bottom. First I learn to put stuff away and then all falls out again.’

‘You entertain, Jankin. But don’t think that what I ask of you is of evil intent. The devil plays games in this world. The fight against him may sometimes borrow from his methods. Saints do not concern themselves with politics.’

It takes time to learn how things are done. Nicholas remembered the points in his life when knowledge dropped a new package in his hands. When he was an apprentice he saved his skin by watching the twitch at the corner of his master’s eye until he knew which sins were mortal and which would disappear in hot words. When he was a young grocer he filled with ire at pompous pronouncements from his elders. But then he saw the advantage he could take by flattering empty heads. All buildings pack soft materials between hard. There will always be straw and shit bulking the structures of human intercourse.

He took may seasons in understanding the links between guild, fraternity, council and king. London was forever gathering in groups. He belonged to the grocers’ guild and the fraternity of St Antonin. He was a member of the watch for a while and had become an alderman, sheriff and then mayor. In these capacities he attended annual dinners and processions, business meetings, social events, was involved in decisions about relief for destitute members, adoption of orphans, changes in livery, repairs to the church, punishment for violence or fraud, strategies for protecting the city, the raising of funds for a new priest, consideration of letters from the king. Each time he attended a gathering he faced a new variation on the conscience of the city: an assortment of men of worth that was never entirely different but never entirely the same. But ‘men of worth’ was a stretchy term. The city claimed (and required) this distinction of all who led it, but what they were worth in truth was a matter for experiment rather than assumption and operated on descending levels.