Ghosts of Athens, Chapter One
Canterbury, Friday, 3 April 688
The present chapter in my story begins five days ago. Oh, Jarrow to Canterbury is a three-hundred-mile journey, and you don’t cover much of that in five days. But I’m not starting from the day we set out from the monastery, with everyone waving us off and holding up their hands in prayer for our safety. Nor am I counting our interminable, though generally smooth, progress along the old military road, nor the changes of guard as we passed from one kingdom to another. I mention five days because it was then that I came, with young Brother Jeremy, to the silent ruins of what had, in the old days, been London, and prepared to step on to the bridge across the Thames.
‘Here, what do you think you’re doing?’ someone cried, popping out as if from nowhere. ‘I own this bridge, and I collect the tolls.’
He was one of those dirty, pot-bellied creatures you see lounging on street corners in any city where barbarians have planted themselves. Without experience of his kind, you might have dismissed him as a flabby loudmouth, sliding fast into the decline of life. But I had enough experience to know trouble when I saw it.
I forced a smile and sat upright in the handcart. ‘Greetings, my son,’ I quavered. ‘May God be with you on this glorious day. But this bridge is surely owned by His Majesty of Kent. And, as I am, you will have noticed, a monk of Holy Mother Church, as such, I travel under King Swaefheard’s protection.’
I got a thoroughly nasty look for that. Ignoring Brother Jeremy, who’d let go of the handles, and who now stood looking down at the uneven stones of the road, the creature shambled over and stood between me and the risen sun. It was a nice day; correction, it had been a nice day.
‘Don’t you come the hoity-toity with me,’ he snarled. ‘I’ll have you know that His Majesty himself has given me the right to collect tolls. No one – not even a fucking old bag of bones like you – goes across for free.’ He stepped back and looked at the cart. An unpleasant grin now came over his face.
What I’d thought at first was a sword tied to his waist turned out, on closer inspection, to be a wooden club. It made no difference to the trouble he represented. In the proper hands – especially against the unarmed – a club was as horrid as any sword.
‘I assess this cart at five silver pennies,’ he said with a faint sound of the official. ‘Payment before you go across.’
I raised my arms in supplication. ‘Five pennies, my son?’ I whined. ‘Five silver pennies? Can there be so much money in the whole of England? Assuredly, we have none. Now, in the name of God, be merciful. I am an old man of ninety-seven. I am travelling to see the Lord High Bishop of Canterbury. Let us pass freely to the other side.’
That got me another of his unpleasant grins. He set off on a walk about the cart. He made a sudden feint at Jeremy, who shrank back in terror and nearly tripped over one of the stones. Before he could right himself, his hat came off, to show his pink scalp above the ginger tonsure. The man laughed at the slightly absurd sight, and went back to his general inspection. It was a nice cart. It had been fitted out in Jarrow with leather cushions and an awning to keep the rain and sun from spoiling my ride. By the time he got back to me, he barely needed to open his mouth.
‘If you can’t pay the toll, I’ll take the cart,’ he said.
As if had by surprise, I let out a flood of sobbing imprecation. I reminded him of my age, how far it still was to Canterbury, how I’d never walk a half-mile, let alone another seventy, without falling down dead. It was worth trying – and it did amuse him. He leaned into the cart and pressed his face close to mine.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he sneered. ‘You give me the cart, your food, and whatever money you’ve got. You can then have a nice little stroll to Canterbury. There, can I be fairer than that?’
I tried another reference to my great age. It only ended his show of good humour.
‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ he snarled, quoting an old Kentish ballad that brought back fond memories of my youth.
‘My heart, my heart!’ I suddenly cried, clutching at my chest. That got me another smile. ‘Oh my son,’ I cried again, ‘I have no money. But I do possess about me something else of great value. If you will but take that, leave the cart with me and the boy.’
‘Well, let’s be looking at it,’ he replied, leaning closer.
I could smell his stomach-turning breath. I looked about – as if the escort I’d been promised that King sodding Swaefheard would provide might suddenly ride into sight. But no such luck. They hadn’t been there at the border to replace the men who had turned back. They’d not be here now. Put not your trust in princes, I thought grimly. It might have been the story of my life. I fixed another senile grin on my face and took a deep breath.
Dear me! Ninety-seven is ninety-seven – that much of what I’d told him was true – and I’ll not describe it as an easy, fluid motion. Still, I’ll swear he didn’t have time to change the expression on his face between the moment I slipped the fastening pin out of my cloak and the moment I buried four of its bronze inches into the fucker’s left eye socket.
He let out the contents of both lungs in one scream as he staggered back, blood and the dark fluid of his ruined eye dribbling on to his scruffy beard. I gripped the side of the cart with my left hand and gave him the best shove I could manage with my walking stick. With another wail of horror – and oh, what a stroke of luck that was! – he was straight over the low wall of the bridge. Yes, lucky day, indeed! The first blow was an admirable thing for someone of my age. The second might have been envied by a man of any age. And it saved me the trouble of clambering out to do something inelegant and possibly ineffectual with my walking stick. Given more good luck, the tide might be in, and the river would carry him away.
But I’d had my share of luck for that day. ‘Master, he is still alive,’ young Jeremy babbled as he looked back from his inspection over the wall. ‘Alive, Master – he’s still alive!’
The boy’s talent for redundancy had outdone itself. Even I could hear the feeble cries from perhaps a dozen feet down. I swung stiff legs over the edge of the cart and tottered across the six feet that separated me from the wall. I leaned on the mossy stones and looked over. Sure enough, the creature had landed at a funny angle that suggested a broken back. He was feebly dabbing at the pin still buried in his eye socket and letting out a piteous wail for help.
I straightened up and looked about me. Many years before, in Constantinople, I’d had the old tax records for London dug out of the archive. The last time an undivided and still more or less complete Empire was ruled from the new Rome, London had been the third largest city in the West, behind only Rome itself and Carthage. Its population had been close to a third of a million, and it had been a considerable trading and financial centre. Even now, it was an impressive sight. The smaller buildings were heaps of overgrown rubble. The sun sparkled on a completely silent Thames, and rabbits were scurrying about its grassy banks. But the great basilica from which all the provinces of Britain had been governed still seemed to have its roof, and most of the churches looked solid enough. There was no reason to suppose the place completely abandoned. There might even be a few inhabitants who spoke Latin and tried to think of themselves as Roman. I’d passed through here just a few months before, on my return from the East. Then, the weather had been too unpleasant for thoughts of exploration. I’d now been looking forward to a spot of tourism.
‘Master, I think he will live a while,’ Jeremy said, breaking in on my thoughts. ‘Should we not go down and give divine comfort?’
‘Divine comfort?’ I asked, incredulous. ‘Divine fucking comfort? You take up these handles and get moving again if you don’t want a bloody good hiding.’ I looked about again. London would normally have been well worth some exploration – though, sad to confess, not now. So far as I could tell, the creature had been alone. Then again, he’d come as if from nowhere. Who could tell what accomplices he might have lurking in these ruins? ‘Come on, boy,’ I added. ‘Put your back into it.’
Divine comfort, indeed! When I was eighteen – accomplices lurking about or none – I’d have been straight down on to that river bank to slit the creature’s throat and dance in the blood. But that’s young people today, I suppose. Some of them just don’t know they’re alive. I let the boy help me back into the cart and arrange a rug over my legs. As he bent forward to take up the handles again, I managed a nice blow from my stick across his shoulders. Divine comfort – I ask you!
Stopping in London was definitely off my list of things to do. At the same time, if there was nothing ahead for another twenty miles, we’d not be turning back for the monastery where we’d spent the night. We were on a stretch that might allow Jeremy to break into a slow trot. Certainly, it was worth trying for one. The sooner the Thames was vanishing on our left as we pushed along Watling Street, the happier I’d be. Somewhere or other on the road, we’d surely meet those bloody guards. Till then, it was just me and a useless boy. I lashed out again at Jeremy and swore at him to put his back into the work of pulling me to Canterbury.
As we passed out from the last of the southern ruins of London, he slowed to a walk and looked back at me. ‘You are sad, Master,’ he said in a mournful gasp. ‘Are you repenting the blood we have shed this day?’
‘We?’ I felt like asking. What had Jeremy done but stand there, trying not to shit himself with fright? I scowled at the sweating, spotty face and thought of telling him what sort of report I’d make to Benedict once we were back home. The Abbot might well give him the sound whipping I wasn’t up to providing. But the sun had risen higher, and the day was turning out as fine as I’d expected. I laughed and found a softer spot on my travelling cushions. ‘If that two-legged beast lies bleating there till the wolves come and devour him, don’t suppose I’ll lose any sleep over it. But that was a nice pin. I picked it up in Beirut. I doubt I’ll get anything so fine to replace it in Canterbury.’ I hugged myself and let out a long giggle that trailed off into a coughing fit.
Yes, the day had turned out nice again. Indeed, it hadn’t rained once since we’d set out from Jarrow.