Nicholas Brembre 43
In the week between the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the feast of Saint Matthew the weather leapt like a mad sheep from a cliff. The temperature crashed, the air filled with spikes and dense clouds blurred the difference between night and day, even as the portions of those rivals became momentarily the same. Suddenly the drafts from the unglazed sections of the windows were an irritation rather than a relief. It was necessary to light candles in order to work at the accounts. Blackberries were being mixed with apples that had already begun to wrinkle, like old men with dysentery. Weeds had grown beyond their best flourish and had become burnt up like the remains of a riot. Nicholas had felt this jolt between seasons many times before yet was shocked by it once again. The change was not entirely a matter of regret. As he let go the pleasure of lingering outdoors in the evening, he welcomed the freedom of cool fresh air at noon.
It was the twenty-first of September and the sky hung in slabs. There was no chance of seeing the sun today. Inside the Guildhall the dark was choking. More candles were lit but they just added to the sense of strangulation. A common council had been summoned, as always, on the feast of Saint Matthew to elect the sheriffs for the ensuing year. This election was precursor to the big battle in October and indeed the two sheriffs stood next to the mayor in importance in the city. Their range of duties – to guard the counties of London and Middlesex, maintain the assizes of bread and ale, arrest criminals and summon witnesses, oversee the prisons, execute royal writs, and collect the annual farm on behalf of the king – placed them somewhat between masters. But in this age it was the city that appointed them. One sheriff, Simon Wynchecombe, was elected by the commonalty but the other was the choice the mayor. John de Northampton chose John More, knowing that his fellow draper would be either a support to him or a hindrance to Nicholas once the principal question had been settled.
The meeting held its form for the length of its principal task but then began breaking into splinters of opinion. There were one or two splinters that Nicholas wanted to catch before they crumbled altogether but he was surprised by the figure of Peter, who had come from the house with news of Robert. Nicholas broke off his business and signalled for Jankin to follow. He rode off down St Lawrence Lane with his servants puffing behind him, but the way was suddenly blocked by hooded shadows, like clots of blood in the gloom.
‘Whose men are you?’ he shouted but there was no reply. Jankin was alongside him on his left quivering like a bow that has just misfired. Peter, on the right, was surprisingly still. Nicholas nudged his horse forward slowly and Peter gained a slight lead bringing him face to face with the foremost hood. Nicholas was impressed, if also a little concerned. He had known Peter for such a long time. Where had he suddenly found such balls?
‘My master needs the highway. His child is sick.’
The foremost hood stepped sideways and grasped the harness of the horse, pulling it in the desired direction. With his other arm he made a grand gesture of facility and then pushed Peter into the gutter. The shadows merged and slithered up the lane towards the Guildhall.
‘Help him up, Jankin. How many legs does he have?’ In a moment Peter was upright with his hat back on his head. He was grinning – something Nicholas had not seen before even on occasions when it might have been been expected. ‘Well done Peter. I will expect you two back at the house as quickly as you can.’ Nicholas prodded his horse, whose nostrils were flaring, although not as much as Jankin’s.
Robert was in bed. He was pale but it was difficult to tell what was wrong. Idonia said he had been unable to breath but now, surrounded by fat feather bedclothes, he appeared to be managing well enough.
‘Peter has blood on his face.’
Nicholas considered a lie but Idonia was not one to be protected. ‘There was a gang in St Lawrence Lane. They probably intended to stow themselves behind the Guildhall, but we surprised them by leaving the meeting so suddenly. Peter was pushed over for his honesty.’
‘Nicholas, this is not how city politics should be. But since it is, you need more men with you when you go out. At least until the election is over.’
‘It may not stop then.’
‘There is another thing,’ said Idonia. ‘I didn’t want to say this to you but I fear that it is true: your campaign is just, but you can see the price that Robert pays.’
‘How would my bid to be mayor affect the health of my son?’
‘He is upset by what he hears.’
‘Well, make sure you don’t tell him about what happened today.’
‘He is upset by all the worry and angry words. He is upset about Gombert.’
Well done Robert for having a mother who could spin such a length of yarn that only his father could cut him free. ‘Do you want him to grow up an idiot girl?’
‘No, I just…’
The missing words scraped through Nichol’s skull: I just want him to grow up.
Though Robert was improved Nicholas stayed with him for the rest of the day. There was no point in returning to the congregation where the expected had already occurred and could not have been avoided in any case. As mayor he would be in harness with John More, but his purpose would not be wrenched aside.
Idonia’s idea was that his actions in his city life made a difference to Robert and specifically to his health. Surely the health of a child was in the hands of God. That was her usual sermon. If not God then the humours, as the physics favoured. Robert had always been a weak child, although Nicholas had tried to teach him otherwise. There it was: he did believe that he could make a difference. But it had not worked: he had tried to strengthen his mind but he had remained sickly. He had been better for a while – during the last year or so he had started school and been keen to learn. His eyes had been brighter and his head had been full of the things that he had been taught and which he wanted to explain to his father. He had slept better and eaten more. And then he had gone into decline. Nicholas could hear him turning in the night. He was not sure about his eating since he was often away at mealtimes, but he was thin, perhaps thinner than he should be. How could you be sure what shape your child should be?
It was ridiculous to suggest that he might withdraw from the election at this stage. And even were it possible, what effect would it really have? How could you know what would have happened otherwise? If god or sage could pledge your child would suffer from your actions, clearly you would consider your path. But in real life such knowledge is not granted us. In real life you don’t know either way; you cannot test the consequences. So how do you make your choice: by succumbing to the worries of your wife, which cannot be clarified, or by grasping the political peril that is is obvious to all?
Today, for once, he was eating with his family in the solar when the bells began to ring for Vespers. It is not possible to hold your breath for longer than the office bells ring. As a boy Nicholas had tried many times but had always failed. As the moments pass you feel that you are exploding with air that is no use to you. You master your lungs but the rest of you is flying out of control. Your ribs dig in, even you balls tighten, your throat screams and then you let go. His father shook him once when his face had gone blue.
‘I’m just playing a game,’ said Nichol.
‘Death is not a game,’ said his father. ‘Death is endless. It is the most serious thing in life: everything in life leads to death. Die well – not like a silly child, not like a foolish woman, not by mischance.’
He was not like his father. His mother had not died well. He was like her. Where was she now? In purgatory? You could not be sure of that. Her face was framed by the west window. The light was vertical across the garden and flowed around her plaited hair, turning the yellow to orange. She laughed at him and gave him a sweet. ‘So serious a child! It’s a game. If you lose now you get back later. Do you think God is a man? A man is something that can be understood. That is why men want to pretend he is like them.’
Of course God was not a man. But what did his mother think instead? What was it she thought about God? When she said his name her mouth opened wide as a question and then closed to nought.’
‘Father. Father. Why did the holy cross get lost?’
‘Have you been thinking about that all week?’
‘Yes,’ said Robert. ‘If people were so pleased to get it back, why did they lose it in the first place?’
‘That is history. I have told you how things change. The cross was not important to the Jews. It was just another piece of wood for hanging up a crook. They did not like Jesus. They thought he was only pretending to be the son of God. But they were frightened of him because he had so many followers. Within a generation the Jews were cast out of Jerusalem but the followers of Christ grew in strength until the Emperor Constantine became one of them.’ Nicholas liked the shape of the story. He began to think about his books and the beauty of ink on parchment or paper.
‘Why did the Jews not know who Jesus was?’
‘That is a good question.’ It was easy to give a quick answer but Nicholas had learned that quick answers did not satisfy, or did not satisfy Robert in any case. ‘Perhaps the Jews did not listen properly to what he said. Sometimes God gives instructions that any idiot can follow, like the Ten Commandments. But at other times he makes it harder for us, perhaps to test us, or perhaps because if you have to make more effort you get a better understanding.’
‘Didn’t the Jews want to understand?’
‘The Jews are a mystery to us. They live their own way and do not admit others. And they do not stay anywhere for long. We threw them out of England a hundred years ago. Wherever they are they are still waiting for their messiah.’
‘Do you hate the Jews, father?’
‘Not really. Why do you ask?’
‘I have seen pictures of them at school.’
‘I have met Jews, in France and sometimes elsewhere. However strange they look God must have made them since he made all. They breath like us and eat like us – though they fuss about food – and they have children like we do. They believe false things and cannot see their best advantage. But there is always disagreement and stupidity among men, wherever you go. Even when you think the conclusion is obvious there will be those that deny it. That is the strangest thing about men.’ Nicholas followed his thoughts into the world in search of stubborn Jewry, but before he could get there they snagged on something closer to home and he was thinking again about the Guildhall.
‘James says they poisoned the wells and brought the plague.’
‘Who is James?’
‘He is my friend at school.’
‘James is saying what many have said before him. Who knows if it is true.’ Nicholas was wary of explanations that came too easily and aimed to sweep too much ground. The plague was an immensity, a huge stinking thing to clear up with one broom. Everything merged within it, everything was touched by it and everything was warped by the fear and the pointlessness. He was a child at the time of the plague. He saw a piglet snout around then dart off behind a shed, and then the fat figure of a man, half-dressed and carrying a hoe. There was a bubo on his neck. Next came a woman – or so he guessed, as she had come undone and spilled from her clothing in unfamiliar lumps. A dull thud was followed by a scream. Silence seemed to speak the fate of the pig, but then the squealing resumed.
‘How did the holy cross get found again?’
‘Don’t you remember the name of the person who found it? She was the mother of the Emperor Constantine.’
‘St Helena,’ said Robert proudly. ‘Why was it St Helena who found it and how did she know what it was?’
‘When Constantine became a Christian he ordered the building of churches in Jerusalem and when the old buildings were cleared away St Helena found the cross in the ruins.’
‘But how did she recognise it under so much mess?’
‘God helped St Helena to open her eyes,’ said Idonia bringing another blanket for her son’s bed. ‘And if you found the cross on which our lord was sacrificed, wouldn’t you know what it was? You would feel its presence through the love of the son of God who died there.’
‘It had its name on it,’ said Nicholas.