A Murder of Crows
by Juno Baker
Chapter Two Excerpt
After the kerfuffle of the December Days, as they’ve become known, King Charles was chased out of London and I thought that was an end to it. I was certain we were safe, that life would continue as it always had and I would become the best printer in London.
Winter passed into spring, the days grew lighter, the air warmer. Life was as it should be. The customers chattered too noisily. My sister teased me. And we’d go to the theatre.
Remember when the theatres were open? How people would pour across the bridge into Southwark – so many you might think London Bridge would break under the weight of them? If you’ve never visited the Rose or the Globe or some such similar place, then I’m sorry because it seems you’ve missed your chance now the theatres are closed. But before the wars, you could see all manner of plays. We’d all go together, the whole family, and as a boy I was enchanted. It was only as I got older that I grew ashamed of being seen with my parents on account of the way they carried on like young sweethearts. Imagine passing by St Mary Overie with them holding hands and Mother giggling. I’d have to lag behind and pretend I was on my own and then Mother would accuse me of dawdling. Worse, during the play there was always a scene with young lovers gazing at stars or what have you, and I’d cringe as my father’s arm wrapped itself round my mother’s waist and she’d lay her head on his shoulder. Meanwhile, Beth would be searching the pit below for Seth Sharpe and when she caught his eye, he’d smirk up at her and she’d blush. It made me want to puke.
These trifles annoyed me more than they should have: Beth’s foolishness, her lover’s moustache, my parents. I should have paid more attention to what discussed in the shop – what was happening in Parliament with the bishops, the rebellion in Ireland and the king who was busy attacking cities in the north. People spoke of war being declared but nothing warlike was happening on London Bridge. There was constant talk of the great battle that had taken place, but the customers couldn’t agree as to whether it had been won or lost. Everyone agreed our men had fought valiantly for Parliament, but while some said they’d defeated the king’s army, others countered it was impossible to be sure. Indeed, the more the great battle was discussed on London Bridge, the more its conclusion became inconclusive. But while the customers worried whether the king would attack London and spoke in quivering voices about Prince Rupert of the Rhine, I agonised about a certain tune being whistled and feared for the future of my swooning sister.
Little did I know that my mother had taken matters into her own hands.
In her conversations with women at church and in the markets, she’d let it be known that Beth was of marriageable age. Word had got round, and the soap seller, (who’d made a pretty penny out of the recent rising prices) had declared his interest. I heard Mother tell Father, “He has a house in Seething Lane, no children, and isn’t so very old.” Mr Grainger began to take occasional suppers with us, always sitting next to Beth who’d wince when he smiled at her. And once it was settled they’d marry, there was no more whistling outside the shop.
Seth Sharpe, thus abandoned by my poor sister, became busier with the radical apprentices – a noisy bunch, forever trying to swell their ranks. From time to time, he’d appear to invite me to shout in the streets, storm a public building or plot in a tavern. None of it interested me.
One cold November morning, nearly a year after the December Days, I rose early from my bed, threw my clothes over my nightshirt and found my father downstairs, still in his night cap, stoking the fire in the backroom of the shop. He looked old, weary. As he picked up the inkballs and began dabbing a page of type, he spoke of unsettling dreams. We had much work to do that day and I remember checking a proof for errors as I broke my fast on bread and ale. After a time, the light lost its chilly hue. The press thumped, and we’d almost finished printing a whole consignment of pamphlets, when the door opened.
Father stopped his work at the press, untied his glasses and walked into the front of the shop to see who was there. I heard him sigh and mutter, and when he returned to the backroom, he shook his head at me. That’s how I knew it was Seth Sharpe in the front, so, as my father turned back to the press I got up from my stool and went to get rid of him.
Seth rushed over as soon as he saw me, whispering, “Jack, you must join us today!”
“My father cannot spare me, Seth,” I told him.
“But we must away to Turnham Green!”
“Turn who green?” I said.
He didn’t laugh at my joke, didn’t even curl his lip. “The king threatens London, Jack. Prince Rupert has brought troops from Oxford,” he said, still whispering.
I looked at the tasks we’d lined up on the paper drawers the night before: a page of the very folio my father was working that I needed to typeset; a number of pages that needed to be arranged and bound, and finally, a badly scrawled treatise that I’d need to decipher as I set the type. Outside on the bridge, people passed our window as they did every day. I saw no sign of trouble – nothing like the December Days and it wasn’t unusual for Seth Sharpe to exaggerate.
“Come,” he said. “Bring a pitchfork or something?”
“A pitchfork? I live on a bridge. Why would I have a pitchfork?”
Much vexed, he marched out and I returned to my work.
Printing is a very absorbing trade. We form words with ‘type’ on a composing stick, and from there move whole sentences and paragraphs to a metal tray called a ‘galley’ – like a ship, only wherein the cargo is poetry, or knowledge, or the opinion of someone or other. We frame the type, apply ink and press against it to create pages like those you now hold in your hands. The press is a magnificent machine, made of heavy wood to withstand the thumping of the platen on the page. Cogs turn when you pull the handle to lower the press. They’ll creak if they’re not oiled. If you do not keep a press clean, it will start to jam. If you neglect your type, it won’t take an even spread of ink and you’ll end up with patchy print. But not from my father’s shop. Our printing is of the finest quality. And so, I forgot about Seth and the stories of king’s men and the terrors that might befall us, until not long before lunch when the poet Milton appeared and muttered something in Father’s ear.
I didn’t hear Milton’s words, just saw Father’s face. Nor did the poet tarry, which was unusual. Father came over to where I was peering at the bad scrawl. “Disturbing news,” he said. “The king’s men are preparing to attack London.”
I shrugged and told him I’d heard as much from Seth that morning.
At which he stared at me, mouth open. “You mean you’ve known of this all day but didn’t tell me?” I was about to speak but he said, “We’ve lost time! Go now, up into the City and warn…” and here he gave me a list of names, including an aunt and uncle on my mother’s side, and an elderly widow who’d been a friend of my late grandmother’s. I was to tell them all to come to the shop and then bring the elderly widow, who would need my arm to lean on. He said to hurry and, as I was leaving, threw his great cloak at me, along with a pair of woollen mittens so I wouldn’t freeze.
I ventured out into the cold and ambled over the frosted cobbles up Fish Street Hill to Eastcheap, annoyed at being scolded. Father hadn’t let me get a word in, never mind explain why I hadn’t gone to Turnham Green. Hadn’t his eyes rolled when Seth had come in that morning?
I walked faster in my fury, wanted to scream at all who rushed past me. For people were hurrying more than usual, jostling one another, pulling their infants along behind them. London was in a fever, a panic and, for the most part, headed west. I fully intended to go back to the City, later, once I knew what was happening. Don’t doubt that it was my intention to fetch the elderly widow to the shop. I know I should have obeyed my father instead of following the crowd over the River Fleet, and I suppose because of it you’ll say I only have myself to blame, but I didn’t plan what happened. I was simply curious to find out where everyone was going, that’s all, and I told myself that by following them, I could bring fresh news to my parents.
I followed the crowd over the river Fleet, to parts of London I’d never been to before – the newer parts, where the streets are wider. I didn’t stop until I got to where people were gathering and then I pushed forward to get a better look. A man was speechifying from the saddle of a horse. He was a ruddy sort of man, a soldier – that was obvious from the armour covering his sleeves and thighs. His eyes were dark and foreboding, his jowls flushed with either the chilly air or the exertion of riding, for he’d come from Turnham Green.
“Who will join me to save this great and glorious city?” he cried, whereupon all cheered. Hands were raised. Fists soared through the air. Further down from where I stood, the crowd shuffled and rearranged itself as a strong brutish man stepped forward. People slapped his back and when he appeared before the horseman everyone applauded. More men, young and old, stepped forward. The throng kept shifting and readjusting to accommodate this movement, and as each man volunteered the people cheered again.
Behind me a large man was pushing through the crowds. I stepped back to get out of his way, perhaps carelessly, for I trod on the foot of a burly mistress, who barked at me and gave me a shove which propelled me right into his path. He was a head taller than me, but when I crashed into him, he stopped and grinned. “Good for you lad!” he said, wrapping a heavy arm round my shoulders so that I was carried with him a few steps. When he released me, I stumbled forward into the open space where volunteers were declaring themselves. The large man walked ahead. Women blew him kisses.
A hand patted my shoulder and I saw that now the crowd were cheering me too. Someone leant forward and congratulated me. “Well done lad!” And I was steered towards the band of volunteer soldiers.
That’s how I found myself marching out of London, armed with only a pitchfork that someone passed me on my way.