London Bridge in Plague and Fire: A Novel

London Bridge in Plague and Fire: A Novel

by David Madden


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781621902348
Publisher: University of Tennessee Press
Publication date: 12/28/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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A Novel

By David Madden


Copyright © 2012 The University of Tennessee Press / Knoxville
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57233-870-8



This Bridge stretched below us—on its twenty piers and arches—is supporting 138 shops, each with a three-to-six-storey house above it, the tallest bridge in England, and eight hundred inhabitants, some such. Quite sick, but not fatally ill, she stands still, in defiance of over two thousand years, time told by sundial, hourglass, and clock, for all of the bridges built at this site over the past are one London Bridge. Chronicled assaults of tides, gale, frost, flood, foreign and domestic bombardment, and the very tension and stress of its own structure fulfilling its function, have taken their toll, aggravated by human and mercantile traffic and royal, municipal, and ecclesiastical neglect.

Come onto the Bridge from London to cross over River Thames to Southwark.

Come on at Southwark to cross over to London.

Built of stone, will she fall?

In time.

Though not of her own free will.

But in 1649, her fatal hour has not yet come.

* * *

Oliver Cromwell stood alone in the open space on the long-defunct drawbridge. Looking toward Westminster, he came to watch the sun burn through the mist and shine on a new era, one that his own will itself—"May God's will prevail"—will fashion. He has come to feel the tide race between the starlings under the arches to his left and to his right, feel it in the soles of his boots. The resistance to the tidewater of the narrow openings under the Bridge is an inspiration, tempered only by his memory of the severed heads on pikes above the Great Stone Gateway near the bridge foot at the Southwark end, stuck up there on pikes to warn, he knows, such as he to restrain the fist raised in rebellion.

The marching feet of civil war fall upon thousands.

* * *

"Come out or burn with the house!"

As Radford obeyed the soldiers' command, he slipped in his father's blood on the threshold, felt the first of a multitude of blows.

"Stand up, you little shank of Catholic carrion!"

The shouting soldier stood astride him, the toes of his glistening boots becoming clearer as Radford, on his knees, wiped at his tears.

His knees were too weak. He fell on his belly and immediately heard and felt a rushing of cloth that exposed his bare buttocks to the stinging icy wind. A great weight fell upon his back—his body exploded. He screamed, "Mother!" and raised his head, saw his father's face, his head, hurtling through the smoke, heard somewhere behind him an answering scream from his mother, whose stare caught in the same instant the sight of her husband's severed head flying and her son's bare flesh flashing in the smoke. Inhaling the smoke that billowed over him, the boy fell into a searing, painful swoon.

When Radford awoke, the weight on his back was so much greater he could scarcely breathe. Twilight had turned to utter dark by the time he twisted his wounded body, constricted not only from above, he discovered by touch alone, but from below and on both sides by the cold flesh of other bodies. The sharp teeth of mouths frozen open pressed against his back, his sore ribs. He saw faces crusted with old blood, recent blood, and now his own blood. Dirt, snot, food in teeth, pieces of flesh—he imagined human flesh—mud and food in folds and threads, weaves of clothes, a seed, a flower in hair, fresh or wilted, not placed there but caught as a soldier passed through field flowers, then snagged in bristly hair.

He lifted a hand away from his face, shoved an arm aside, pulled his legs out from under the crowns of three heads, a hairy chest, one bare breast whose twin had been hacked away, shouldered through the limbs of other bodies, until he stood up and walked away—his bunghole stinging as if afire, but his buttocks icy from some spilled liquid, his tongue recoiling from the open gashes in his gums, his legs deeply bruised, ribs broken, flesh all over lacerated—into a village that was dead in flames.

Feeling out a narrow pathway through the burning village, mourning his father, calling for his mother, and his brothers and sisters, Radford turned away from the dying but collected from the dead a shirt too small, pants too large and, wearing shoes that did not match, walked out into a world totally different from the one he had enjoyed early yesterday morning as a daily blessing.

On a road strange to him, between the town in ashes at his back and a town yet to come that he envisioned afire, he witnessed, by morning light, the emergence of a new world, a world more of darkness suffused with smoke than of light.

War cries and the detonation of bombs and firearms and screams and curses and Catholic pleas to the Virgin Mary Mother of God and Puritan pleas to Christ Our Savior made that world known to him in its total darkness.

Over Radford's body, at the start ignorant of carnal rapture, the civil war between Puritans and Royalists, Roundheads and Cavaliers, raged back and forth in miniature across four more years. His beauty—"It's them eyes!"—cursed him. Resistance provoked the rage of many men, submission inspired his own shame, and both exposed his face and body to violence so extreme he awoke each time to the wonder that he was still able to breathe. Exposures to extremes of cold and heat, to wind, rain, frost, and sufferance of starvation were enemies as vivid as the men and women and older boys who abused him in every way imaginable, and in many ways he could never have imagined. As balmy weather soothed his body and spirit from time to time, so kindness laid a gentle hand only now and then upon his cringing body, his shivering mind.

An old man once asked Radford whether in all his wanderings he had ever clapped eyes on Cromwell.

"A soldier pointed General Cromwell out to me one day after the Battle of Naseby. I was limping. The General's lip curled in disgust at the sight of me."

Having crossed over many moors and bridges and passed through many towns, Radford wandered into Southwark, responded late that night to the mysterious lure of a narrow street, over which houses hung in mist on both sides like arches, passed under the sign of a fish and anchor, and came to an opening that he took for a dock, saw high above, behind a parapet balustrade, a face he mistook for his father's and on each side the heads of men, eyes closed as in prayer, mouths open as if in awe of the face of God, and then he turned away and stood under a shop sign, Golden Needle, gazing East by starlight upon a vast array of ships huddled together at anchor in harbor. Suddenly, seized, lifted, he was flying out in the very air over swift water toward the ships.

He awoke in the morning on the stern of a ship. He stood up and looked back West up a river nameless to him, at a strange cluster of high houses that stretched over an open space, a sight that passed from view as it dawned on him that what he saw bizarrely resembled a bridge. Out of pure wickedness, someone had tossed him into the water.

At sea a few days later, an old sailor who looked long past ready to go ashore for the final time told Radford that a waterman had plucked him from River Thames and sold him into service on this merchant ship in the Pool bound for Venice.

Prisoner, slave, orphan, Radford realized, two years later, on his fifteenth birthday, that what he suffered among Puritans and Royalists in the civil war had served as a cruel apprenticeship to the miseries of daily life at sea and even days at liberty in ports around the known world.

He told his story once and once only, to a shipmate on that birthday. "I had thought we were fervent Puritans, but I didn't learn until a year or so later that my father had played both sides, but lost his life to the Royalists, and his son—myself—to both scourges.

"Cavaliers raped me one day, Puritan soldiers the next. An asshole on fire, a mouth gorged know no allegiance. Is that a stake he is shoving up my ass or his own cock? First one, then the other, raped repeatedly, until I am so bleeding raw and painful sore, I can't tell the difference. I am cursed with a piercing imagination. As if living on the dark side of the moon, that day I turned to the dark side of my nature and surrendered to the experienced fact that, like all my tormentors and even those who betimes gave me comfort, the soul is a fiction. Soulless, I resolved to take possession of my body and mind. I christened myself with the new name 'Lucien,' to mock God and Englishmen, and I baptized myself in my own piss as Lucifer's very orphan, and was thus reborn, a new being."

Lucien Redd's listener exposed the most enormous erect cock that had ever threatened him. He was the first man Lucien killed, and with his bare hands.

* * *

In the secret Chronicles of Old London Bridge, possessor and location now unknown, kept from 1209, the year the stone version opened, to 1831, the year the dismantling of the much-modified bridge began, neither the name Radford Croft nor the name he adopted, Lucien Redd, appears. Nor the name of the boy, Morgan Wood, who suffered Lucien on the ship, nor of the two thirteen-year-old virgins, Blythe Archer and Gilda Shadwell, who survived plague and fire but suffered Lucien Redd on London Bridge. Nor even the names of the Brotherhood of the Bridge Merchants who hired Lucien Redd. Not even the names of the Chroniclers themselves, not even the name of the old Chronicler of the Bridge, Lloyd Braintree, missing during the plague of 1665, nor even his son, Daryl, who had exalted dreams of fame as a poet, but who finally, reluctantly, and then obsessively took up his father's task, nor even the last Chronicler, unknown, if one ever existed, who watched the demolition of the Bridge from November 22, 1831, to August 1832.

The name of the architect of London Bridge, yes. Peter de Colechurch. Mark it well. But no more than the name. No more than a single nib dip into ink.

Not until Daryl Braintree imagined and recorded what he discovered missing.



Night seeped into every crevice of the Bridge, night crept into the brain of each inhabitant. Lloyd Braintree, reclusive Old Chronicler of London Bridge, the heavy Chronicle ledger in his arms, fear of fading memory oppressing his mind, descended the five flights of stairs, passed through his antiquarian bookshop, into the Bridge roadway and wandered away from Nonesuch House, off the Bridge and into a country strange to him—the City of London—in search of young Morgan Wood among the ships in the Pool, to beg him not to sail away, to confer on him now, before God's terrible voice speaks the word and "fire," "tempest," or "plague" strikes the City once again and even the Bridge at last and destroys the Chronicle, and with it, the venerated task of keeping the Chronicle.

As a child, Lloyd accidentally found his father's secret Chronicle ledger and committed each fabulous line of it to memory, a habit he cultivated even after his father, on his deathbed, handed the book itself on to him, memorizing as he recorded each event. Lloyd's now ill-fated intention had been to dictate events after his father's death, from memory, an act of filial piety, a monument to Memory itself at first, to his son, the would-be poet, but then, certain of Daryl's refusal to carry forward the family tradition since 1209 when the first shops and houses began to appear on the Bridge, his intention had become to pass the Chronicle into the hands of Morgan Wood, who lived on the Bridge and loved it, the events of the Bridge's history in times of war, plague, fire, frost, and glory, that had been his provenance for fifty-four years, from 1611, the year of the publication of another history, the King James Bible.

Forgetting that Morgan Wood had been gone seven years at sea, turning around and around and around on the wrong side of the Bridge for going to the ships in the Pool, Lloyd Braintree recognized nothing, but felt in his very bones that he should be able to. Frenzied, he wandered the streets, searching for a familiar shop sign as for a familiar face and, finding none, still looking up, as if searching now for familiar stars outside his own high window, took one step down, slipped down Old Swan Steps into River Thames—his mind at that moment as blank as the Chronicle's pages for the future—into the mind of God.

* * *

The long needle in the Poet's father's hand, pulling up on the thread when sewing book bindings, often flashed in the light that fell just right through the window to catch that long lifting movement at its zenith, the needle flashing in the hand by the light made mellow.

Now that his father was gone—no, only missing!—Daryl Braintree regretted that his own attitude had, in effect, rendered his father gone, missing, far too many irretrievable days and evenings. Why, never having known the mother who died birthing him, had he not turned, even more often than one normally might, to the father? His father, he always knew, was preoccupied with his book binding business, his customers, with history. But his shell was vulnerable. Anyone could see that. Why had he not gently broken through to the man, the father, who was probably waiting inside for him?

And then the rupture, and the sudden substitute—the mere boy, Morgan Wood—not even a month after his father had confided to Daryl that he was the secret Chronicler of London Bridge, that when he must leave off, his fervent last wish was that his son would be eager to take it up.

Remembering his father's hesitant offer to pass on to him the charge of keeping up London Bridge Chronicle and his own contemptuous rejection of a task so mundane and mechanical, the Poet was conscious of feeling something akin to shame.

Expecting to live another ten years, at least, his father had then, the Poet knew, conferred that honor upon thirteen-year-old Morgan Wood, only days before the boy went to sea, originally for only five years, to work off his father's debt to another tradesman on the Bridge, Mister Clinkenbeard, the goldsmith. Gone now seven years.

Daryl knew he would never forget what his father calmly said to him. "This noble task is not for a drunken, whoring, irreligious, cursing young poet, anyhow. I trust a boy's love of the Bridge over the grudging obligation of blood kin such as you."

Having searched for his father for three months, exposing himself to the plague that had begun in April when his father disappeared, having failed to find him, Daryl searched for his father's Chronicle of London Bridge, supposing it to have been hidden somewhere in their rooms in Nonesuch House, considering the possibility his father may have destroyed it, then have left the Bridge deliberately to wander. Lloyd Braintree never told anyone, neither his son nor the boy Morgan Wood, that the last fifty-four years of the Chronicle existed only in his mind, memorized, to be dictated to Morgan Wood and thus recorded in the ancient Chronicle book.

At sea, Morgan Wood wrote in his own journal and in the margins of his books after the journal was full about nothing but London Bridge, and would continue that ritual until Lucien came aboard.

Having failed to find the Chronicle, moved by the disappearance of his father and confined by the plague to Nonesuch, his famous house on the Bridge, the young poet, hung over and reeking of bad whiskey and night-long rutting, with a "Goddamn me for a fool," visited Morgan Wood's father's stationer's shop under the sign of the Quill and Moon across the bridge roadway from the edifice that had been Saint Thomas Chapel until its defacement during Henry VIII's dissolution of the Catholic churches.

As Daryl stepped out of Phelan Wood's shop onto the roadway, the leather-bound book of blank, fresh pages seemed heavier than it ought to have, but by the time he had climbed the five flights of stairs to his father's bedroom, his resolute intention had dissipated his sense of guilt and the book had lost its unnatural weight. He sat at his father's desk by his window on the world and began to write, first "Dedicated to the memory of my Father, Lloyd Braintree," and then:

In the beginning is the Word, but the Word can never, for the London Bridge Chronicler, be his name. We (with this initial act of writing, I am, after all, reluctantly, perforce, one of the legion of chroniclers, ancient and modern, hands moving all over the civilized world as my hand moves) have been, for four centuries, twenty generations, a nameless brotherhood, just as the Chronicle is secret, hidden away, I must imagine, because, I suppose, its scandals are included, with the death of each Chronicler, so that this one may be found somewhere on the Bridge ages hence, or disappear into Irony should the Bridge fall to an act of God. And so, five months after my father's disappearance, I have come to this day. This start. This first crossing on paper. With some fear of inadequacy, certainly.

Excerpted from LONDON BRIDGE IN PLAGUE AND FIRE by David Madden. Copyright © 2012 The University of Tennessee Press / Knoxville. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 Lucien Redd, a Child of Civil War 1

2 Daryl Braintree, Poet-Chronicler of London Bridge 7

3 Shopkeepers on the Bridge Meet to Report Its Condition 41

4 Morgan Wood, a Child of the Bridge, at Sea 53

5 The Brotherhood of the Bridge Meets to Repair the Bridge 63

6 Father Peter de Colechurch Steals the Murdered Body of Archbishop Thomas à Becket 75

7 Lucien Comes onto Morgan's Ship 109

8 Voices in the Great Plague of London 119

9 Plague Aftermath: The Brotherhood of the Bridge 159

10 Lucien Torments Morgan at Sea 175

11 The Poet Builds London Bridge of Stone 187

12 Voices in the Great Fire of London 205

13 The Brotherhood of the Bridge: Cabalistic Meetings 231

14 The Brotherhood Hires Lucien as Kidnapper 263

15 Lucien Kidnaps Blythe, Dark Lady of the Bridge 273

16 Morgan Wood, a Child of the Bridge, Returns 283

17 Morgan and Lucien on the Bridge 305

18 Lucien Kidnaps Gilda, Fair Lady of the Bridge 315

19 The Search for Gilda 321

20 Light Is God's Shadow 331

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