Nanowrimo is a compelling challenge to write 50,000 words during November: that’s an average of 1667 words per day. My plan is to write a set of 30 short stories each 1667 words long instead. Each story comes from a prompt, a lot from fellow bloggers.
(based on an idea from the Curious Archaeologist – please have a look at his eclectic mix of posts
A difficult year for builders
Thomas Hobson looked at Mrs Pickwick’s house, or what was left of it. A scorched table was the only item recognizable.
‘I really don’t know, Madam. Could well be Christmas before we have the time. And timbers are in short supply. We may need the Frenchie’s help, not that my old dad will be happy with that.’
‘Oh sir, but what will I do? I’ve been staying in my cousin’s parlour but it’s not a solution.’
Thomas said, ‘I have an appointment with Mr Wren, the great builder, today and I hope to hear exactly what he plans. I will talk to you again when I know more.’
‘But what about my house, sir?’
‘I suggest you remain on good terms with your cousin, madam.’
Thomas decided to walk; his horse had taken a fearful pounding the last few days and the roads were as bad as they had ever been. Carts had churned up the mud worse than usual and the rains hadn’t helped. He climbed through the stalls of the poultry and vegetable markets, deciding that Cheapside was a better bet despite the awful smell. He marveled how quickly the vendors returned after the fire. They might have lost everything but nothing stopped a good salesman.
This was a slow torture, he decided. The stalls, the carts and the people they all slowed him as he headed for the worst sight in London: the smoldering remains of the grand old Cathedral of Saint Paul’s.
As Thomas had to admit to himself, the place had been pretty decrepit before the fire. Indeed Mr. Wren had just accepted the commission to restore the old place and give it the future it deserved; he was fortunate to be ready to undertake the rebuilding and all the other works besides. If Thomas could work for Mr Wren, he would be made.
Thinking of Wren was almost like a self-fulfilling prophesy because there the man was; as usual arguing a point with someone while trying to show something with a scratch on the wall adjacent to Wood Street. He wasn’t a big man – to Thomas he looked like he was likely to be sickly – he’d probably had a tough childhood – and with the stresses of the last year he was beginning to look as decrepit as the old cathedral. But you couldn’t deny the man his energies.
‘Hobson! Just the man. This cretin doesn’t believe we can do justice to the dear old town if we don’t rebuild Paul’s as an exact replica. He doesn’t see the benefit of something more compact. Do you Evelyn?’
The smile told Hobson the two men were joking though John Evelyn joined in the joke a little late.
‘Will it have a dome, sir?’ asked Thomas cautiously.
‘Of course. This philistine wants twin towers and I have to persuade every man and his donkey but I remain resolved to complete what I started. Have you seen Pembroke, Thomas?’
‘No sir. I hear it is quite something.’
‘Beyond doubt my dome will surpass it for glory, if I am allowed. So will you work for me?’
‘Sir. I… that is… I thought I would have…’ He blushed. ‘Yes sir.’
‘So what would you do first, Hobson, to improve this place?’
‘I wonder about drains, sir.’
‘I have an idea about sewers sir. Covered sewers.’
‘You see sir… look at Cheapside. The sewage creates a foul miasma. But if the sewage went below the street, using stones to cover it. I’ve heard tell the Romans had this idea.’
‘When the storms come the sewage is washed away. The roads are so disgusting…’
Wren wrapped an arm around Thomas’ shoulders. ‘Come dear fellow. We’ll need all the stone for more important things than covered roads. What an idea.’
Thomas shrugged. He knew Wren was right. Time enough for those ideas when the rebuilding was complete.
Wren was ushering him towards Newgate Street. ‘Let’s go to the Assizes. I understand there’s an interesting case of a little filly who cut the ear off her master.’
Wren moved ahead and Thomas fell in steep with Evelyn. ‘That man is a wretch, Thomas. He needs a wife to calm his down. Soak up some of that energy.’
If Thomas’ ideas did not appeal to Mr Wren, something he said stuck because two days later he received a request to meet with that important gentleman by the remnants of St Paul’s Churchyard. When Thomas slipped through the broken gate he found Wren in somber mood. ‘Sir, you are troubled?’
‘Hobson? Indeed tis a dark day for certain. God’s eyes!’ Wren looked sheepish. ‘I’m sorry Thomas but some people. Enemies! Vagabonds all!’ He straightened up. ‘See this, this ruin. Do they not see my anguish? Do they not understand that tears are a luxury we can ill afford if we are to ensure London remains the greatest city on Earth?’
‘I don’t understand sir?’
‘No indeed. Why would you? Enough I need your help. Come to my bureau at five. We need to talk business.’
As Wren walked between the labourers toiling to remove the rubble left from the destroyed church his mood improved. ‘I have an idea to make this place the greatest of its type in Europe. If I can persuade,’ he began counting on his fingers, ‘the Court of the Common Council, the Bishop, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, even His Majesty. Seventy parishes destroyed and still it’s committees and… oh, what are you doing?’
Wren disappeared fast across the rough ground heading for a group of men pulling at a large piece of masonry. Thomas watched. He jumped. Evelyn had come up behind him.
The two men watched for a moment before Evelyn said, ‘He has more problems than he realizes.’
‘Yes sir. He indicated as much just now.’
‘Oh did he explain?’
‘No. I didn’t like to press.’
‘Roads and conspiracies, Thomas. Roads and conspiracies.’ Evelyn moved away, crab-like from some old injury. Thomas was not sure but he had the impression Evelyn was laughing.
As Thomas made his way home he wondered at the pressure that Mr Wren was under. One advantage, as Thomas saw it, of the destruction of Paul’s was the scattering of the News-mongers, the gossips and slanderers. Most people had a view on the benefits of Paul’s Walk, as it was known: the daily promenade when news was passed on. Those of high and not so high birth would gather in the central aisle and swap tales and tidbits. For some this was an essential part of succeeding in London society but Thomas was of the view the opinion formers were generally after salacious rumour not fact, unless the facts were juicy enough; and if they weren’t, well then they would embellish them until they were.
‘Good riddance’ he said out loud, intending it to be to himself but a voice made him turn.
‘And what would you have riddance of, young man?’
‘Sir, I was contemplating the loss of Paul’s Walk. It is no shame there is no place for such slander.’
‘Indeed? Ah me, without Paul’s Walk my life is but a shell. Do you not think the daily news of city life needs to be dispensed? How do we keep our parliamentarians honest?’
Thomas shifted nervously, glancing about. It was only a few short years since Charles had been restored to the Throne following the death of Cromwell and the political crisis that followed.
The gentleman roared with laughter. ‘I am sorry, sir. Master Hobson, for Mr Wren pointed you out as a man of ideas and energy and, I assumed, such a combination would only be found in a Royalist. He suggested I would find it useful to discuss your notions on drainage and I find it worth paying attention to that good man. Pray call on me at your convenience.’
‘Sir, if Mr Wren has recommended me then of course I should be delighted. I’m not certain I know who you…’
‘Pepys, sir. A scribe and diarist, merely a recorder of man’s tribulations. And a veritable old gossip.’
Thomas lowered his head in embarrassment. Then he blurted out, ‘Sir, Mr Wren said he was victim of enemies and Mr Evelyn said he was burdened by roads and conspiracies. Would you know what they meant sir?’
‘It matters to you?’
‘Mr Wren wishes me to work for him and it would be as well to understand what matters to him.’
‘Is this not gossip, sir?’
‘I… If you think…’
Pepys stilled his burbling with the wave of a hand. ‘I can tell you about roads. The authorities need the rebuilding to be accelerated and to do that we need to take advantage of the current destruction to create wider roads, to make access better. You know how congested the lanes become? Mr Wren has put forward a radical plan which, of course, is loved by those who would be benefit and loathed by those who would not. It does not do to be too close to a plan until it has Royal approval and until the King has shown how he is inclined to think, Mr Wren will be the victim of ill-informed chatter. And His Majesty is unlikely to want to spend much time on roads; they do not feature as one of His Majesty’s delights. I expect Mr Wren will have his way but he may find that such victory is Pyrrhic.’
‘And conspiracies sir?’
‘You haven’t worked that out? Who is the busiest man in London?’
‘Mr Wren sir, for sure.’
‘So, Mr Wren s unpopular for his roads. He has the ear of the mighty. He will become a man of substance. He has the most to gain then by the fire.’
‘So do you think something as huge as this was an accident? Others certainly wonder…’