Nicholas Brembre 50

by socalledstories

When he awoke he could feel the cut of the air to his ears and cheeks and to whatever else was in the tiny space exposed to the world. Nicholas pulled the bedclothes tighter around him and began to think of excuses to avoid the day. Perhaps he could stay in his shroud a little longer – until Prime or even Terce. He could work all afternoon and into the night instead. As he rose he cursed the climate he had been born to and the three months that separated him from spring. Juliana had lit a fire in the hall but it failed to impress the reaches of the room. Outside the white axe swung. Nicholas felt the lacerations on his face and fingers. He had survived the assault in the bedroom and now he must face the fury of open air. Winter had come uninvited to the city.

Dead trees scratched the golden sky and silver shone across the roofs and bare ground of the city. Jankin complained of a hole in his boot.

‘It’s not raining. What’s the problem?’

‘I think my toes have frozen off.’

‘I still see feet in your boots.’

‘I can’t feel them.’

‘I’ll buy you some new boots, Jankin.’

The golden light was on the tops, where it had been snatched before it could fall to earth. Where it escaped to the bottom it was intensely bright. Pools of gold appeared occasionally on the ground to be jumped on by a lucky child, but darkness prevailed.

‘Where are we going, Sir Nicholas?’

‘We’re going to see a goldsmith.’

‘That’s new. Goldsmiths don’t support grocers.’

‘No. But they do take grocers’ money. Tell me, Jankin, did Pieryne drop the ring in the privy?’

‘I don’t know, Sir Nicholas,’ said Jankin, as if considering the matter for the first time. There was a pause for mental effort or the appearance of it. ‘A tiny chance like that against the obvious opportunity? But she doesn’t look like a person who’s come into money. I’ve seen no sign of her spending any. She would have to have some secret cause and I doubt that. I doubt it all.’

‘Let’s be clear about this: you have considered what you might do in the circumstances and Pieryne does not fit the frame. So you conclude…’

‘She must have dropped it in the privy.

‘I have ordered a new ring.’

Jankin shut his mouth. His confusion was resolved.

Nicholas did not like waiting. There are times when waiting is part of the flow of life: waiting for a ship to arrive, or wool to grow, or payment to be made. Sometimes there was nothing to be done but wait and so he was patient. What he really did not like was waiting for a man he could hear wasting time in a back room. Then he knew that the waiting could be avoided, that it was necessary only to the adversary as a show of power. Nicholas did not employ such political tricks himself. They were far too easy to spot. Instead he let his natural reactions run their course, if that would serve the purpose. Better genuine anger or scorn to make a point.

What was this fool doing? Nicholas felt his innards tighten. His breathing was heavy and his fingernails were curling into his palms.

‘Is this what you want, Sir Nicholas?’

‘That will probably do. Did it need to take so long?’

Thomas Cornwaleys looked at him from a cold, colourless face. ‘It takes as long as it needs, Sir Nicholas. I don’t wish to delay your business elsewhere, but everything must be done right in the city, down to the least significant thing. You don’t have to pay now. I trust you to remember my account among all your many more important ventures.’

Nicholas thought of slamming the ring back down on the counter but instead he slammed down the money, including a little extra. He attempted a cold expression in return but feared that his anger was melting the edges.

They were joined by Hamo at St Paul’s. Hamo had been taken on in place of Adam Utterby. He made up the number of apprentices to five but it was only numerically that he substituted for the drowned man. At nineteen, Adam had learned most of what Nicholas could teach him and could have been a master had convention not required a longer interval to justify such status. Hamo was fifteen and knew nothing. Ralf was far ahead of him with his sponge-like brain. But then you would not want Ralf as a bodyguard – he would sense danger before anyone else and make an excuse to disappear before you realised you needed him. Hamo, however, had the intelligence of an ordinary, disappointing mortal but the bulk of a bear. He did what he was told and ten assassins would bounce off him before he came to any harm. Nicholas knew he was dishonest in accepting Hamo as an apprentice. What he really wanted from him was the silence of Idonia. He could, of course, have summoned the mayoral serjeants to be his guard but that would mean more waiting and he did not always want men of the corporation to accompany him on his missions.

Now that his protection was complete he proceeded to the place he was least likely to need it. Newgate was blessed with its own versions of the apprentice. The warden unlocked the door to John de Northampton’s cell and the captive jumped up from the bed as if summoned back from Purgatory. There was blood in one eye, which kept pulling to the side though he tried with the will of a cobra to hold it still. Nicholas noticed some rags on the stone sill of the window and saw John sitting and straining tosee life in the street. He had been here less than a day but much of that time had been spent at the window. There was some brightness in the open portion but the glass below was mottled. It dealt with the light in a barbarous fashion sending much of it back where it had come.

‘Well, this is a spectacle,’ said John. ‘I have seen plenty of rats here already, but you are a mighty big one. What size of hole did you have to gnaw to squeeze through?’

‘I came through the gate as any mayor would do. They unlocked it for me and will lock it again behind me when I chose to leave.’

‘Why should I speak to you? My business is with others. I have a misunderstanding with one of them, which has brought me here unnecessarily but will soon be resolved. It has nothing to do with you.’

‘Your misunderstanding is with the whole of London. You think the city will come back to you if you poke it. But it has been irritated enough and wants rid of you.’

‘You are speaking of yourself.’

‘Yes, myself and many others who would like to get on with their business in peace. People who don’t want violence in the street or provocation at work or bickering in council. The leadership of the city has been settled for the year. Why don’t you give up campaigning until next autumn and I will see if John the brewer will drop his case.’

‘It is not up to the false mayor to rescue the true.’

‘I understand the duke of Lancaster was unconvinced by that view of the election when you put it to him, and the king seems happy with the result as announced. There is little merit in citizens like us pursuing fantasies against the royal will.’

‘Are you becoming such a king’s man that you would abandon the freedom of the city?’

‘Were you upholding the freedom of the city when you broke the head of the brewer?’

No more words need be wasted. The prisoner went to the window sill to search for the free city he rightly ruled and the rat left the cell through the large hole known as the door.

‘He will be mainprised today,’ said the warden. ‘The usual citizens will assemble for the purpose. Then, as you know, the case will proceed or otherwise to court.’

‘This is short respite for the city from its tormentor, but perhaps he will slacken his efforts while he is on bail.’

‘Maybe, Sir Nicholas. It’s a long way to drop in a few weeks! How the city is built on springs and up and down go its sons.’

‘There are those who have clear ideas in their heads as to how the world should be and there are those who have nothing but hunger, range and mischief. You cannot satisfy them, you can only try to sweeten them or fright them beyond whatever moves their bowels already.’

The Guildhall was full of bodies. The cold weather had driven them inside to inch nearer the fire or huddle in the closer air of the corridor. The court of hustings was sitting at the west end of the hall for the second day this week. Nicholas, entering from the porch, felt his excitement at the royal writs smash against the dull drone of court business. It was as if rival parts of him pulled at different speeds, his heart beating too fast for the sudden sedation of his limbs.

A man (Richard Chandler) had come with a plaint regarding the stench from the pit that was next to his tenement. He was speaking: ‘Martin Tenby denies he dumps his rubbish in the pit, which is probably true when the sun is up. But after dark he pushes a barrow alongside my place. I hear it knocking and the squeak of the wheel. In the morning the stink is worse.’ A date was allocated in the following week for a visit of the assize.

Nicholas yawned and headed towards the officers’ room, hoping to protect his early buzz. But Richard Odyham pursued him with the same chafing contrast between quick and slow:

‘I don’t believe Martin is filling the pit. I went past there last week. It is the privy that stinks and the privy belongs to Richard.’

‘Why would Richard come to court to complain about his own smell?’

‘Richard has a rotten heart. He is a man of hatred. He does not see the world clearly and thinks it insufficient for his purposes.’

Offensive smells were a problem in London, true enough, particularly in the waterways, which attracted more foul matter than they could bear. Sometimes it would seem better to dump stuff in a back street or on waste land where it would gently steam away until it was earth. But people thought that the Walbrook was a better option. Flowing water carries secrets away – except that it was not often flowing these days. Nicholas wanted to tackle the Walbrook. The Thames was too big – a blessing and a curse so far as pollution was concerned. But the Walbrook was both smaller and more polluted. It entered the city from Moorfields and cut down south to the Thames at Dowgate. In between it was overhung by warehouses and dwellings, all of which could drop into it whatever was not wanted. Of course, these people were the chief sufferers from the resulting state of the stream. And yet they did not follow the obvious course. There had been plenty of ordinances and proclamations on the subject, what was now needed was enforcement. Nicholas would organise teams – but the men who formed them must come from the wards and not all aldermen would spare them or even want to help him in the first place.

Nicholas looked up from his musing. Richard had been waiting to tell him something: ‘News has come from the King’s Bench about the bridge-gate four. They refused the benefit of the Act of Pardon but the trial did not go ahead. They must appear again next year.’

‘The case has gone cold,’ said Nicholas. ‘Even John Horn will walk free. Walter Sibyle and Adam Carlisle should never have been put in this frame: their fidelity is beyond doubt.’

‘That’s not how you always speak of Adam Carlisle, Sir Nicholas.’

‘No. You are right. He is a man of high temper and sudden action. But his intentions are true. There are many who, by contrast, plot calmly with the devil.’

‘You speak wisely I’m sure, Sir Nicholas,’ said Richard, taking the far end of the bench and reaching for his common place book.

Nicholas had a similar book but he did not want to open it to the world so he looked for an alternative. He sat down in front of the accounts of the bridge wardens but the figures scratched his eyes without transferring meaning to his mind. His hands were stiff as twigs under snow. He pulled them inside his cloak and returned to his study. Still no understanding. He stamped his feet and remembered Jankin’s boots and then the ring. He had replaced one and had better attend to the others. As soon as one problem was fixed another took its place.

The sheriffs had agreed to preside over hustings without the mayor today. Despite his gratitude, Nicholas was irked by the speed with which they agreed to do without him. Now it was Nones and they came back from the court, which they had adjourned for the mid-day meal. Simon Wynchcombe was talking to the recorder just outside the room, his dagger hooked on a piece of his sleeve. John More stood frozen like a crystal. There was truly no movement to show his agony in acceding to the king’s pleasure in the arrest of his friend. If anything there was the suggestion of a smile, which perhaps had flickered in his face for a moment, the wrong moment, as winter descended.

The recorder, William Cheyne, was a fey man. He enjoyed administering and he enjoyed demonstrating his enjoyment, as he was doing at this moment. His bright blond hair had hardly darkened since Nicholas first encountered him as a young man. Unlike Richard Odyham, William was easy with practical detail but could become furious when the underlying principles were abused. Nicholas had tried a range of methods to cool him down but sometimes he just let him burn for the sake of the entertainment. The blond hair flew and eventually came to rest at tricky angles. Nicholas disliked William but could make no sense of this, since William was generally an efficient recorder and respectful towards the mayor. ‘Liking people’ was something that women did – or the opposite.

Nobody mentioned John de Northampton but his name was pushing behind every lip. Eventually Simon Wynchcombe let it out: ‘I expect that the former mayor will be released today.’

‘I expect it too,’ said Nicholas.

Simon squeezed into the mayor’s corner as John More left the room. ‘You don’t think there might be any reason to hold him longer?’


‘Because I heard that you were creating one.’

‘I see. Maybe it was me that threatened the brewer in the first place!’

‘Yes, I’ve heard that one too, and its more likely counterpart that you paid the brewer to make the accusation.’

‘Men should talk less: it is clear that their brains leak out while their mouths are open. I have nothing to put in the way of John’s release. It is up to him to avoid making his own obstacles in the future.’

Nicholas looked at Simon and saw the lines like ripples following down his face. His speech was not as facile as it seemed. Was everyone worrying about everything? Nicholas was worrying about riots and and accounts and ordure in the waterways and Simon was worrying about how to raise the matter of the draper, which frankly smelled just as bad. Simon was an armourer who had often aligned himself with John de Northampton, but not always. Nicholas found him very difficult to understand but at least he provided something to consider, unlike John More, who hardly spoke and kept all parts of himself, especially his face, as still as death. On the shores of the Mediterranean Nicholas had seen people so dark they almost disappeared. You could not see if there was flesh there or eyes and teeth within it. Then they spoke and revealed themselves. But how would you understand their purpose, since for that you must read the face, the whole of it, not just a flash of iris and ivory? Business could not proceed without this trick of reading faces. Perhaps in the far places of the earth trade was not needed. Perhaps everyone grew their own grain and hunted their own game. Perhaps everything was different there, as if on another world. These people may even be a separate type of being, not people at all, and so with no hope of redemption.

It was not so difficult with the Florentines or the Venetians. You could understand their faces, though you had to follow their feints. And they could communicate if you spoke French. They pretended they didn’t understand until they realised what you had to trade. The French, of course, were easy as anything. They are just as the English are, even if sometimes we are cutting each others’ throats.

Nicholas sent Hamo out to fetch pies from a cook shop and escaped upstairs to the room used for the mayor’s court, which was not sitting that day. It was smaller than the common council chamber with which it shared the upper level of the east wing and was slightly warmer as a result. Nicholas had brought with him a book of plain sheets of paper bound in blue leather with an orange ribbon looped around its middle. This was his common place book, which he had kept hidden in the officers’ room. He freed the blue from the orange and sat on a bench with the fond object on his knees. He wanted to set down his plan for his time as mayor. He had made a good start with regard to the sale of fish and the eligibility of victuallers for civic posts. The next step was to bring back election by the wards so that the right men would form the common council. This would raise the reputation of the city in outside eyes, including those of the king. There would also need to be an improvement in public order and a push on covins and conspiracies. For this purpose Nicholas planned to extend the mayoral household and increase its armoury. He would seek the help of the masters of the misteries, most of whom shared his concerns. He would tour the wards and speak to the constables and beadles, and he would encourage a citizen here and there to argue the cause of peace and report back on the response. Jankin’s skills would be helpful in this regard.

Jankin sat in a corner copying letters with a stiff quill. From time to time Nicholas shouted out an objective to him or enquired about tactics, and sometimes he wandered over and corrected his script. How could Jankin be so good at manipulating men and yet have so little control over his pen? However slight his learning, Jankin knew what could be achieved with men and he had a way of disarming them. He appeared to be harmless – frail, even – and that was his way in. By the time you realised that he had a heart without blood, you were trapped in his game. Poor Jankin.

Nicholas reviewed what he had written in his beloved book. There were two words missing: New Troy. He was not alone in his references to the city of Brut. Others were versed in the history of Albion and the importance of the links between Aeneas, Brutus and Arthur. Even John de Northampton had sometimes used the city’s ancient name. But only Nicholas was sufficiently resolved to make the official change from London to New Troy. He had pledged to do it in his earliest moments as mayor. Now he wrote the name in his book and thickened the letters with care so that they cried out from the midst of his scrivening.

Hamo was downstairs observing the court. Nicholas had convinced himself that this was education for an aspiring grocer. Hamo stood against the north wall of the hall like a buttress and waited for knowledge to gush in through his ears. At the end of the day he was able to list the offences before the court, though his understanding of what they involved varied considerably. Nicholas was satisfied and encouraged him out into the yard so that they could trail home at last.

Much of importance had happened during the day but men had stood around the Guildhall talking at length about nothing at all. Very little comment had been made on what really mattered. That had always been the way of things. Men spoke quietly, indirectly and often in some sort of code. Like Simon Wynchecombe, they were unhappy at stating things plainly from the start but were inclined instead to caution, vacancy or deception. Nicholas often thought he knew what was in the minds of other men, but how was his knowledge better than a guess in the absence of clear speech? And even were there such confirmation, how would he know what men were saying beyond his hearing? It was a common fault to hold the imagination to the limits of the senses.

The Guildhall was full of bodies and each of them had a history and a purpose – none of them wholly in line with his own. Had he thought before that the citizens of London were defined only in relation to Nicholas Brembre? That they were either for or against him and there was no other determination? That they ceased to exist when they were out of his sight?

Only God saw everybody all the time and knew the nature of each. Was that really true – that God knew in searing detail what he, Nicholas, could catch only in tiny glimpses? But what God sees is what he made. Does he not know, even before he looks? It was the old problem again: if God made us and knows all about us, how can we have free will? And if we don’t have free will, how can he judge us? The mortal flesh that filled the Guildhall that day was all at the mercy of powers it could not understand.