‘Well, lookee what the mangy cat dragged in!’
Blasted, wretched Nance. ‘Cat’s at home, hissing into the stewpot, so far as I know.’ John taps the bar with his worn coin. Less of them about, these last months. Could be Agathe had the right of it. About the tree.
Nance chortles into his ale, shifts his scrawny arse on the settle. ‘That cat,’ quoth he, gesturing with the dented and tarnished tankard wrapped in a gnarled fist, ‘been hissing far and wide.’
‘I’ll bet,’ John returns, lifting his own ale. His spirit easing just to have it in his hand. A deep quaff. It quenches the thirst, but fails to drive away the spectre of his wife. Always on his heels, trampling his shadow, pieces of his soul mashed under her old wooden pattens, the great bulk of her.
Her father had promised that bulk would bear him children, uncomplicated and natural as a sweet-eyed heifer. And he had not the resources of their lusty king, turning the world upside down when his Spanish queen failed to bear fruit.
Should God grant him success and kind weather, his potato crop will restore lost sweetness not only to the young king, but to himself also.
‘She were telling our Kelynen as you’d cut yon quince down. It’s all about the town by now, I shouldn’t wonder. Some daft newfangled plant you’ve put in to win favour in high places.’
This woman. So little was left to a man to keep still and secret in his heart.
‘That old tree was blighted, only the woman never would admit it. Wormy fruit, and aswarm with wasps, every year since I been dwelt there.’
‘Not how she tells it.’ Nance sets down his pot of ale, slides his shanks along the bench, closer John. Drops his voice, confidential like. Makes John glance about the snug, wary as a cat himself. As if there might be dangerous ears lurking in that low light under the smoke-darkened beams. But all the worn faces there are known to him: the ferrymen and fishermen clumped together by the hearth, Teague the baker and his journeyman, the Chandler Jory Tibbit.
‘There’s men as say yon patch of earth is cursed. You know her sister died under that there tree, or good as. Died unconfessed, raving about devils and demons.’
John knows it. Tries not to think on it.
‘Y’orta think on gettin’ a priest in, mebbe one on ‘em holy brothers, like. Bless the spot. Mek it pure agin, afore yea go puttin’ in some new crop. All I’m sayin.’ Nance lifts the battered tankard toward the other man, tries to catch his eye. Sups down to the dregs, smacks first his lips, then his tankard down upon bartop. Wipes his mouth dry upon his sleeve, stands. Squeezes John’s stooped shoulder, then turns to quit the place. ‘God guide you, John Jope.’
The words trail over the other man’s shoulder, as he stamps out into the windy evening.
Two weeks, and the first sprouts appear. The star-eyed crocus are gone from the verges and common land, ceding to gaudy sunshine carpets of daffodils.
During the Lenten fast, Agathe’s temper worsens, becomes the sharp-fanged pike she so loathes, as she slams them about the kitchen board, hacking with her cleaver. She has never liked fish. John does not know why; has never thought to ask.
At three, four, five weeks, runners spread, voracious, grappling clods and conquering flint-freckled alluvial soil. It rains.
John watches the weather, the form and height of clouds, the direction of the wind, with the urgency, the trepidation, of a fisherman, a sailor, any farmer in the land dependant upon his harvest. As by watching close, he could influence the heavens, a man with a new religion. Not unlike the young king himself.
Agathe scoffs and sneers and throttles fish. His suppers mostly appear to have passed through a cat’s gut prior to being flung at his trencher. Bread refuses to rise, and this also is his fault.
Mistress Agathe Jope presses her lips together, hoists her basket snugger in her elbow-crook, not much liking what she sees. No difference there then.
Her sister Eseld used to tease God moulded her face for disapproval. But Eseld always did have queer notions flitting round her pretty head. Too pretty for this world, God rest her. Not like Agathe. No one ever called Agathe’s own head owt beyond plain and sensible. And that was when they were being soft-hearted. The fools. Eseld was soft-hearted too, with a soft head to match. And look where it got her.
The marketplace in Saltash is a mucky shambles of fish scales, thrown bones and rotten slop this blustery day. Agathe has come too late. And who might she blame for that but that old Snail of a man, that old Tortoise.
Pray Lord the Mistresses Hammett and Trengrouse and their covey have taken themselves off out betimes. Must be some advantage to be found in the possession of the lollygaggingest goodfornothing to creep the earth.
She bustles toward the fishwives’ barrows, elbows at the ready, kicking out her pattens at a scraggly stray cat that fails to remove itself from her path. The cobbles are slippery with refuse, and as she nears the barrows, she catches the stench of fish on the turn.
Damn that John Thumb.
‘Well, Mistress Jope! If it isn’t thine own self!’
‘I suppose you were expecting the heavenly host, were you?’ she turns to face Mistress Hammett, lifting her chin. With the trumpet on the Hammett woman where her mouth should rightly be, Agathe thinks, she may as well have been. Sure enough, there be the Trengrouse mouse, creeping at Hammett’s shoulder.
‘Well,’ Hammett chews on that retort a moment, most likely trying to figure if she’s been insulted, ‘We all pray for God and his angels to attend upon us, I’m sure.’ A pause then, ‘You are late to market, are you not, Mistress Jope? I should say the fish is past its freshest by this hour of the clock.’
‘As are so many things, Mistress Hammett. If you’ll excuse me,’ she begins to turn, ‘I’ll be getting on before those fishes walk away upon the legs of their own stench.’
‘Oh, but Mistress Jope!’ a light hand, laid upon the rough blue cloth of Agathe’s sleeve.
No one touches her. John Thumb does not dare. There are no children. No. No one has touched her since Eseld was taken from this life. She looks down at the hand, its neat nails and white skin. She forgets the Hammetts have a housemaid.
Her look must be hawk sharp, kestrel fierce, for the hand is quickly snatched away. Yet still, the Hammett woman presses her: ‘Master Hammett has done passing well with the otter traps this season. Will you not take a brace? It would be a favour to us.’
It begins to rain. At least her dog-diddle of a husband will be pleased. Or not. Everything rides upon those wretched potatoes of late. If he could order the weather according to the requirements of his noxious sprouts, he would, buffoon that he is.
She acquiesces to the Hammett woman, whose house is better situated than her own, a skip and a jump up the lane from the market square. Anything to escape from under the downpour.
She walks in as the rain clears, some few calm and pleasant hours after her departure. Thunks two otters down upon the table. He looks up from the billhook he’s been sharpening, it won’t do him a wight of good against the weeds, so blunt as it is.
‘Mistress Hammett’s man’s been out on the river. Catchin more than they can put away, for all of them poppets they have stashed away in every nook and cranny.’
He does not like otter meat, finds it over tough. Too much chewing for his soft teeth and aching jaw.
He has heard that his potatoes can be made into a kind of sweet, spiced pie. That is what Edgecumbe said, a recipe used in the king’s own kitchens. It would suit him admirably, feed his failing flesh without the agonies demanded by sinewy meat and fowl. But sugar is dear, and spices dearer. Only if his crop comes good, will he have the coin for such luxuries. Keeping body and soul together, a luxury.
He does not answer his wife. Bends his head again to the blunt hook, the whetstone in his gnarled hand. The raised blue veins that worm beneath the hatched and crinkled skin creeping the back of his hands, seem of a sudden over-like one of his clumps of rooted tubers.
‘I have seen enough of fish to last me one hundred years, John Thumb. When Lent is over, I will have meat for this table. Understand you? We are not paupers yet, though with your foolishness, it seems you would have it so. My father, he put food on this table. With his hands. From this land. Master Hammett, he does the same. I would have you do as much, John Thumb. Are you hearing me?’
As she speaks, lays down her sermon, prepares to batter his brains about with the stone tablets of her law, John rises, hands loose about the whetstone and the smooth wooden handle of the sharpened billhook. Slips to the door, and out into the low evening light, leaving her to spend her rant on otter carcasses, her knife and stewpot.
He is a disappointment to her. To himself. He does not need to be told.
He hates how lonely she makes him feel. How small.