Nicholas Brembre 38

by socalledstories

Ten weeks after the crusade had been approved, Norwich’s army was assembled in Sandwich and ready to sail. Nicholas’s heart was ragged in his chest at the call of trumpets. He had seen knights passing down Chepe with breastplates gleaming, all dents from past service hammered out and rust removed, their horses’ buttocks boasting and tails chastising the air. On the shields of the knights were the bulls of Sir Hugh Calveley. Sir Hugh was a true campaigner, who had fought in Brittany, France and Castile, and was now a leading captain of the crusade.

Nicholas felt a thousand miles away in the forests or on the mores, though he was standing on Chepe as he did nearly every week of the year. Did he have to feel so remote and useless? He was a knight himself. Merchants were beginning to acquire coats of arms, although generally not through having ridden to war with king Edward or his sons. Nicholas did not favour the purchase of this level of pretence. Meanwhile the king, the present king, was not so keen to attach his lions to a breastplate or don the red cross. He preferred to wave a flag at the departing fleet.

‘And who can blame him?’ said John Pyel, who was on Nicholas’s left. ‘He is our king but he is not a fighting man. Better to stay here in safety rather than add to the anxiety of the nation.’

‘No, you are surely wrong,’ said William Walworth on the right. ‘The blood in his veins demands more. He cannot know his ability as a soldier without stepping out onto the field where his forebears triumphed.’

‘But they did not always triumph. Since Poitiers we have had little reward for the men we have lost. What do you think Nicholas?’

‘I think the king was ready to go to war – he told me so himself in January – but that his uncle put him off for his own reasons. The whole mission has been delayed intolerably as a result of Lancaster’s Spanish desires and he has divided the nobility. Parliament decided on war in Flanders back in the autumn but the crusade is only now to begin.’

Nicholas looked east along Chepe in the direction of the sea. Was John Pyel right? The argument suited him, a plump, ponderous man, who was likely to fall off his horse if he had to think too much about it. But Richard had stayed sound on his horse as he spoke to the rebels at Smithfield. Was that not worthy of a warrior? To face alone an army of the poor and desperate, who fought not for pay but from madness and had pitchforks enough between them to spike a small king from head to foot? Surely two years on he was readier still to lead his men to heroic deeds. Arthur was a deadly general at sixteen, as was the king’s own father, Edward of Woodstock, at a similar age.

The three citizens, John, William and Nicholas, had met as a team at Chepe to make an early cognisance of the markets. They were charged by the corporation with ensuring that nothing be resold before it had lain openly in the appropriate place for the appropriate time, that no victuals be removed from the city without licence and that no covens conspire to raise prices from their prescribed levels. They were poised like birds that sit for a while on a wall viewing what is at hand and then suddenly flap off into the distance. Their claws were on the markets but their wings wandered back to the war.

One of William’s ships had been requisitioned, and two of Nichol’s. He knew what William would say even as he took in breath to do so: ‘The land must be protected. There is more harm to trade from inaction.’

Nicholas agreed but could not pass over the nuisance so swiftly. It was always the ships on the best routes that were taken. Reorganising the remainder required a level of patience he had never possessed. He wanted to recall the Queen Philippa in Norwegian waters. But the Queen was the only ship on that route, which traded timber and fish. He had two larger cogs that went out to Bordeaux, Genoa or Florence for a range of goods, including spices and wine. But his most profitable journeys were across the channel. It was certainly in his interests that Flanders be secured but while it was still possible to sail to Middelburg his preferred cargo was wool not soldiers. Nicholas stood by the conduit staring up in search of weather. Did this gentle stretch of blue pledge calm at sea? His thoughts became clouds and wandered into vacancy.

They had viewed enough markets and done their best to maintain the integrity of the world. There were other duties for the day. By the time the bell tolled for sext at St Martin-le-Grand, Nicholas was standing back in his courtyard in La Riole, rubbing his ears and shaking his head a little in an attempt to clear it.

A swallow curved across the sky. The bright black feathers on its back pressed into his face like pepper. He was suddenly alert and amazed by the world. The doctors argued about where knowledge comes from: the understanding of God’s purpose, reason, employment of the senses? Nicholas favoured the senses. Knowledge came quicker that way – knowledge of what was good, what tasted good, what felt good. Some feelings would lead you from God, it was true, but in the main your senses made you grateful to be put on this earth with eyes and ears and skin to understand it. Why bother with reason?

‘What do you think, Jankin? How do we know things?’

The features on Jankin’s face fought each other for an answer: ‘We know things from the scavenger…’

‘What everything?’

‘Just this…’ Jankin had news from the scavenger but Nicholas had heard it already and it had nothing to do with our knowledge of the world.

A vagabond had been seen in La Riole on several occasions – enough to conclude that he was sleeping hereabouts in some hole yet to be discovered. Idonia had seemed unconcerned when he told her. Nicholas had thought to protect her by giving warning but she too had already heard.

‘I have seen beggars before. We give them alms.’

‘We give them alms if they are honest, if they are old or sick or crippled. Not if they don’t want to work.’

It was no good thinking simply that one type of person was good or bad. Not everyone who sought charity was deserving of it. You had to distinguish the virtuous people who had done their best to support themselves but had fallen into poverty through mischance from those who had made no effort, who had chosen to be idle and who were linked to other miscreants. There was an underbelly to the city that nurtured thieves, cut throats, bawds and lepers and then spewed them out again into the alleys. The remedy was punishment and expulsion. This man must be caught and identified so that proper assessment could be made. The scavenger said he caught a glimpse on Sunday but lost the trail. He was a clever one.

Nicholas stepped back into the house to gather what he needed for the day. Idonia was in the solar reading at the shelf under the window. Nicholas was hit in the eye by gold paint. The halo of the saint matched her beard and the ropes around her wrists, waist and ankles. Her long blue robe concealed her female form so that she stole a soft masculinity. But masculinity was what she fought against, for always in the world there were women praying to Saint Wilgefortis to take their husbands away.

Idonia raised her head from her book of saints and watched her husband chose items for his pouch. ‘Nichol, is your work so heavy now? Can you not give some of it away?’

‘I do. I have people helping me, as you know, but even between us there is too much.’

‘You have been out after dark three times this week and I have given up waiting and gone to bed alone.

‘It will be like this until I am elected mayor.’

‘And thereafter. Give me this help, if no other. Tell me which nights you will be late so that I don’t waste my time waiting for you.’

‘You should assume that I will be late every night: that would be safest.’

‘But that does not help me at all. Tell me when you can tell me, at least.’

‘You are my wife. I have given you wealth and comfort and respect. You have a house and servants and very little to trouble you. Do you want more? Do you want me to give up my chance of saving the city, which is like a crusade for me, so that everything I do is just for you?’

‘I have no desire to overburden the vows we took. But what about Robert? He was not asked whether he gave his consent to have you as a father, rather than some-one else with more time.’

‘Ridiculous! A son must make the best of what his father offers. Until he is a man himself he must do as instructed. He differs from a wife only in the promise of this change.’

Idonia squeezed her face together as if it were a lemon. Then she allowed its submission and turned away into the shadow of the staircase.

Nicholas found that he had less to do that day than he had expected and returned early to La Riole. Robert was excited to see him with the sun still high over St Paul’s. He had made a bird from paper and tied it to a string. ‘Take me to the big church and see if it can fly.’

The boy was a lackwit and had lasted beyond the age when that could be made to seem a virtue. But Nicholas was happy to go to St Paul’s, where he was likely to meet someone of interest. Thomas Wailand, perhaps, or John Froshhe, both of whom used the cathedral yard as a regular business venue. Idonia was keen to come and brought Agnes with her. Guy and Gombert made six.

‘Where’s the bird, Robert?’

Robert looked at his hands as if it had just flown away. If he could not hold onto a paper bird, how would he hold the reigns of his father’s business once he had dropped them in death or infirmity?

Robert’s hands had stopped their stretching and became arrow heads. Robert was laughing and so was Gombert. Gombert was holding the end of the string and the bird was flying on the wind.

‘Gombert, you surprise me with yet another shining purpose,’ growled Nicholas.

Gombert stopped laughing and passed the toy back to Robert. Robert ran to the cathedral and back to the group by the street, but he could not make the bird fly. He became impatient, which was not a fair sight, and wanted Gombert to repeat his trick. But Robert needed to learn the pain and pleasure of perseverance, so his father looked severely at Gombert, who shrank back. Robert stomped his foot and turned his back.

‘Don’t turn your back on Gombert. Turn your back on me if you are angry, and see how successful that is.’

‘Now he is confused,’ said Idonia…’Let your father show you…’

Robert offered the string to Nicholas.

‘Hold this end and run with it when I say.’ Nicholas held high the end with the bird and shouted: ‘Now!’

Idonia clapped and Robert squealed with joy as the bird soared. Nicholas held out his hand to take the bird again but Robert was coughing in a crouch. Gombert rushed to him and slapped him on the back. For a tormented moment Nicholas saw an assault on his child, followed by his body lain dead on the ground. Then he saw the corpse arise and embrace its assassin. What was fierce but nameless in his heart he could now see reflected in the face of his servant and he smiled with blessed relief as Robert breathed freely.

Idonia marched through and took charge of Robert. She sat with him under a tree in the cathedral grounds. Nicholas scanned the space for Thomas Wailand but no-one of that appearance came to compete with the spectacle of the cathedral itself. For a while he stood and studied its immensity. It dominated London in size and in every other way; even the Tower could not measure it.

Robert and Idonia were laughing like water on a flat roof. It was a sound he had always enjoyed. It was strong and crisp and musical. It reminded him of sitting in the outhouse as a child when the weather was too bad for his father to go much abroad. His father had planted seeds in boxes and the green heads poked up like a slimy army. Nicholas could no longer remember why he was so interested in the seedlings or happy to count them in time to the rain, but sometimes the ear recalls more than the mind.