Nicholas Brembre 47

by socalledstories

Nicholas knew from long experience how busy the life of an alderman could be. He must preside over the wardmoot, examining cases and making judgment; he must seek and detain malefactors within the ward and organise the watch; and he must attend meetings in the Guildhall and across the city. It will cost him time, money and grief but it will give him power – and all will be magnified when he becomes mayor. A man’s year as mayor was like a foreign campaign in Egypt or Arabia, where strange challenges came from all sides and in all tongues. The work was hot and dry and the creatures encountered smelly and fantastic. In these territories he had the assistance of the mercenaries: the clerk, chamberlain, recorder and their serjeants by extension, as well as his own. The serjeants did most of the foot work, with their own assistants in tow. From time to time attempts were made to curb their number, but you couldn’t really do without them. A mayor could not attend all the courts of the city, nor deal with all the correspondence, nor could he walk the streets of London on his own – particularly at night. Apart from the danger to himself, he would always be at least one street away from the target, for villainy generally knows where not to be. If a machine could be produced that would speed him around the city, then perhaps he would manage better. Instead he relied on numbers: the numbers of the city staff, of their counterparts on the wards and of the common watch.

The beauty of being mayor was that you got the chance to make things happen the way they should. Nicholas had had a taste of this before, though not enough to satisfy. Six years ago he had been bounced into the mayoralty, strangely enough by the duke of Lancaster, after Adam Stable was judged incapable of keeping control of the city. There had been riots, not remarkable in itself, but worse than usual and the duke had been threatened in person. Nicholas was sworn in with seven months to go, enough time for immediate tasks, but with a full term he could have done so much more. This time fortune had allowed him the full length of rope and it was in this spirit of determination that the new mayor approached the Guildhall in the earliest days of his office. He would not be distracted from what he must do for the sake of the city and that was a great deal given the destruction wrought by the draper before him.

The city records were locked in the room at the end of the corridor. As Nicholas stepped in from the porch his eyes shot that direction and began to bore through the white-washed door. The rolls were arranged in boxes: some for the sheriffs’ court, some for the mayor’s, some for the hustings and so on. But there were others of vaguer intent, which trailed back to a less organised past. These were the ones that drew his desire. The rolls rustled and their ribbons snatched, while inside their dusty throats was the truth they had swallowed about the past. Nicholas had been among them whenever he could, looking for the pattern of London history, which must stretch back to the arrival of Brutus on this gravelly bank of the Thames, although he had never found anything to confirm the event. The site was the same, the topography was the same. It was always the obvious route from east to west and north to south, even without a bridge, and to the sea. There would have been merchants here almost from the start, although not on the scale of today.

The problem with finding what you wanted among the boxes was that permission was required. Generally requests were made for particular documents, which were then brought out for perusal if approved. Nicholas’s interest was not to consult documents he could name but to discover ones that had been forgotten. For this reason Richard Odyham had allowed him in the past to enter the room when he was there himself and could thereby fulfil his duty of supervision. Richard was more obliging than John Usshere, his predecessor, who would go no further than to pull out a random box from the back of the room where the cobwebs suggested the safety of obscurity and allow Nicholas to rustle through it in the corridor until discomfort dampened his desire.

Beside the room for the documents was the room for the officers, with a space in it for the mayor to sit away from the direct gaze of the citizenry. Only Richard Odyham was present today, the person Nicholas had least expected to see, given that he was still recovering from the attack of the ex-mayor. He was swathed in bandages and looked pale. Nicholas angled himself so that he could be nearer to the chamberlain without knowing why he did so. Then Richard swayed on his stool and Nicholas realised he was making ready to catch him. Richard did not fall but he seemed dozy, as if he did not recognise the articles he shuffled before him. From time time he turned to speak to Nicholas and then his familiar self returned, if anything with a new spikiness.

Nicholas asked him about the limits of mayoral powers to deal with riot and revolt, since speed of action would be likely to aid success but might tip into unlawfulness. Richard was of the view that practical measures could be justified after the event so long as a few principals were kept in mind. Warnings should be given, unarmed targets avoided and and care taken in identifying witnesses. Richard, among his bandages, seemed pleased with the enquiry: it exercised his attention and allowed him to demonstrate how far his understanding could go. Nicholas was not especially bothered to follow the intricacies beyond his immediate need but he was content for the chamberlain to pound on through the problem gathering all its possibilities. This was Richard. His vision flowed. It attached itself to the question put and took him far away. He did not want to stop with what was obvious. Nicholas liked that and felt akin to him. There was merit in reading the surface, in acting as expected. Everything kept going that way – but not necessarily in the best direction. That was the point. You had to stop and think to find a better route. This was the lesson in trade and craft. The man who finds a new route – market, tool or technique – reaps the reward and then the flock follows. Richard’s craft was the government of London and he thought it could be done better. So did Nicholas.

‘I’m going into the record room now,’ said Richard. ‘Perhaps you would like to help me down from my stool?’

It was customary for the mayor to take much of his official business at home but Nicholas set himself up in the Guildhall for most of the day, having brought in his favourite chair and cleared space in the officers’ room. When he was not holding court or talking to citizens in the main hall he studied accounts and regulations and concocted schemes for getting the city back in order. His business as a merchant went on with a light touch. Jankin called in from time to time, perhaps bringing interested parties with him. Nicholas caught up with him again at the end of the day in La Riole.

Idonia was generally asleep by then, so each night Nicholas wriggled as quietly as he could into the cold side of the bed. Of course, it was warm on the other side. There was an agony of distance between the two. Here he was seared by bed clothes made of winter stone. If only he could roll into the summer sands beside him. But Idonia was asleep. And even if she opened her eyes and smiled at him he knew not to drag the ice into her face by bringing his body against hers. He listened to her breathing that seemed to stretch itself too far. Eventually warmth came to his limbs and his head filled with feathers.

The courts were fantastically busy. In addition to the mayor’s court held in the outer chamber of the Guildhall, Nicholas sat with the aldermen when they presided in the inner chamber and attended other courts periodically as participant or observer. He dipped in and out of the juridical world as he might pick up and put down a volume of stories, finding in each a different relation to flesh and earth. The door of the court room, the cover of a book, each opened onto other lives, or moments of them, and shut again before you be sure of what you had seen.

Through one opening, Philip Fretheby claimed that Andrew Sewardby tailor had plotted his death in order to keep money that belonged to him. Andrew had asked Philip to take his servant with him to show him the way to Bridlington but paid the servant to kill him on the way. Five leagues from Lincoln, the servant had drawn his baselard and beaten Philip leaving him for dead, to the damage of the plaintiff £100. However, the defendant was able to produce a quitclaim of all actions made to him by the plaintiff made before the trespass alleged in the bill. So Andrew went free and Philip was committed to prison.

Behind another flap, William Wyndesore knight complained that John Aunger sold him defective bottles for carrying his wine on the king’s service in France and Brittany. 180 gallons had been lost. Arbitration by the masters of the mistery of bottlers had found that John should repay the cost of the bottles, £18 6s 8d, together with £10 damages to William. But John refused to pay and claimed that there had been a quarrel between himself and the arbitrators, who envied him and wanted to drive him out of the city. New arbiters were sought but said they could not conclude the matter without the advice of the masters of the mistery. The six men together concluded the arbitration in the original terms. The defendant was committed to Ludgate until he paid.

Through a third portal, a thin and pale-faced youth, John Penreth, asked that he be discharged of his apprenticeship as his master William Paston mercer had been imprisoned in Calais for debt more than eight weeks and could not therefore provide him with food, clothing and instruction. The masters of the mistery of mercers confirmed the situation and John was exonerated.

Meanwhile cases were coming through to the mayor’s court from hustings regarding merchants from oversees. It was easy enough to deal with them since he knew the territory so well. Occasionally he was winded for a moment by a case that came too close. Richard Lyons had told him worry was the only labour that fuelled itself. It was annoying when people gave you advice because it showed they had spotted your weakness. Richard himself had been weak in the other direction: he had not worried enough. Otherwise he might have avoided the his impeachment by Good Parliament under the old king.

Luke Bragadyn was still in Newgate sleeping long hours and then springing up like a cat to chase the patience of his gaolers. Jankin kept his master informed from whatever dubious source he had cultivated in that quarter. Nicholas had done nothing that was really wrong. But sometimes men saw what they wanted. The eyeballs swung around and the line of sight made out a shape that was too sharp, without the squash of flesh that might explain it. He must find the key to release Luke Bragadyn. Richard Odyham was looking at him through a bloody eye. The mayor repeated the name of the next case.

The one person who was not in court was John de Northampton. Richard Odyham had argued on his own behalf, but principally on that of the city, that John should be left alone with the humiliation of Lancaster’s snub. That way the heat of his vexation might be allowed to dissipate in its own space rather than setting fire to the rest of London. Nicholas agreed but he needed to be persuaded beyond his own reason since he must now fight off the expectations of a citizenry that believed that action must always be taken when trouble has occurred. How they could continue in business with this philosophy was perhaps a matter for philosophy itself. What was needed was a decision not a stab in the mist. How many times in business would it be worse to proceed when the outcome was in doubt? Better not to pursue a debt when the cost would be greater than the restoration. Better to sit idle by the dock than to send out a ship that was likely to sink. Sometimes it was difficult to look into the future but a man must base his decision on the best calculation possible. What he must not do is assume that there is always something to be done.

Nicholas climbed the stairs avoiding the bent nail at the corner and the splinters in the handrail. The smell from the room ahead was intoxicating, it filled his head with nonsense and tripped him over the final step. Beatrice was sitting on a pile of cushions. She had just finished the big book of Bartholomew the Englishman and so must now know everything. She shut it with a bang and held it up in front of her. Was she offering it to him or using it as a shield? He took the shield and opened it up. Inside were pictures of the world in its many pieces, of rivers and mountains, animals, birds and fish, tools and machinery, angels, saints and daemons, men of strange colours and dress. Beatrice could tell him what they were all about. She smiled at him between explanations as he sat beside her on the couch. He was sure she wanted to touch him and then this seemed the furthest from her desire. He was an old man now and she was a young woman – but a young woman used to Thomas, who was as old as he. Nicholas looked at his fantasy and marked it out in points of flesh. Her nose was wide and flexing gently as she breathed. Her mouth shone as she spoke. Her lips were like the peel of a luscious fruit. He could smell the flesh inside.

‘Your eyes are bulging, Sir Nicholas. Are you uncomfortable?’

‘Yes: I am not sure about you.’

‘Why should you be? You don’t know me.’

‘I would like to.’

‘There are many types of knowledge.’

‘And most are good. But it is hard to calculate the benefits, and risks, of revelation before it has been made.’

‘You have the luxury of choice. I grasp what knowledge I can and am glad when I get wheat rather than rye.’

‘Isn’t that what we all want?’

‘Thomas may not be back for a while.’

‘I am content to wait for him with you.’

‘I expect you are, though I know you are a busy man. But I fear becoming dull. We don’t have much in common and may run out of things to say to each other.’

Damn the woman! Was she suggesting they fuck or inventing an excuse to leave the room? Nicholas reached for her since he could not tolerate ignorance a moment longer. But even this did not settle the matter. He found her knee and it did not shrink from his grasp but neither was there movement from any other part of her body. His own body was full of interest and had been for some time. He kissed her and she laughed – but the laugh loosened her. Her hair was so dark that it seemed like a rent in the world. He thought that if he touched it he would disappear forever.