The cross had just enough lacework and carving to give space for his hands and feet, and despite his aching clumsiness he climbed up as far as he could for a better view of the city; the churches and the river, centre of any settlement, would give him his bearings. Behind and to his right was St Paul’s Cathedral, its huge grounds filled with buildings and edged by a high wall. Beyond, down the length of a street, he could see the river shining white with ice, the docked boats now trapped in its cold grip. He climbed a little higher, hoping to see London Bridge and the Tower of London, but his view was blocked by buildings. Instead of the rough map he had hoped for, he gazed across the mix of order and confusion, a mass of shops, houses, markets and churches all held inside a great wall. The city crawling, curling and bumping into itself.
Slowly, holding on where he could, he shuffled around the cross until he faced the other direction, toward the sounds of men yelling above the bellowing of animals. From this height, if he looked carefully, he could see carcasses streaked with white swinging from hooks, piles of bloody, shapeless skins, and offal, green and pink and brown and black. The Shambles, a street seething with slaughter. A breeze blew its smells toward him: the shit of terrified animals, the sharp iron of blood. Will’s belly heaved and he looked away to his left, toward the magnificence of St Paul’s, its coloured rose window, its tall spire and the cross on top almost touching the few patches of cloud hovering above.
At the base of the roof was an army of gargoyles, stone-grown and weather-worn, each one distinct, all reaching out beyond the gutters, spout-mouths open. Creatures dragged from some netherworld and put to work guarding the holy ground beneath. Such proud ugliness, so assured of their right to be there, as if directing water away from the building was merely a foil for their true status. Will was entranced. What minds the masons had, to carve from solid stone such creatures that seemed at once of air and earth. Hybrid beasts: bird beak, wolf mouth, monkey snout, ox hoof; ravaging teeth and horns; flapping ears and wings; howl and snuffle, snicker and growl. He had seen the like before many times, on smaller churches, but here, on the edges of the cathedral’s magnificence, they were at once more grotesque and more impressive. Here and there the sun flared on a shingle, then faded as the clouds shifted.
Will startled at a movement, looked again. One of the gargoyles began to stir. A trick of sun and shadow, surely. He focused more closely. The creature’s nose was flattened apelike to its face, two horns protruded from the top of its head, bulbous eyes peered around. Slowly, as slowly as stone moves, it closed its mouth, pulled in its long neck and turned its head. Their eyes met. Will’s belly turned to liquid. He lurched, slipped from his awkward perch, grabbed onto a curl of stone tracery to save himself from falling, gasped in pain. When he looked up again, the creature was gone.
He climbed down from the cross, caught at the arm of a young boy running past and asked him what street this was. Cheap, the boy shouted as he pulled away. So this was Cheapside; Will had heard talk of it. He walked on.
Will was determined to avoid the river, so he couldn’t understand how he found himself at its edge, staring down with it staring back. The sun lit up its frozen ripples. As Will stood, mesmerised, a young lad chased his ball toward the middle, held up his hands in victory, waved to his friends, and though one boy cheered, the others looked on, silent, uneasy. Held their breath like Will.
‘Get off the ice, you brat,’ he shouted. ‘Now. It’s not thick enough to walk on. Get off.’
The boy tried to make his way back to the edge, slipped and slid, fell over twice. Then a single ‘Oh!’ Had he heard something? Was there a movement in the ice? Will couldn’t tell, but the boy’s face collapsed from triumph into fear, his mouth wide in fright. Will closed his eyes, felt the heaviness creep up into his throat, choking his breath, waited for the crack and the splash. But there was nothing more, only the boy on land, boasting that he was never scared, no he wasn’t, God’s bones he wasn’t. He didn’t argue, though, when one of the group suggested they play on the moors instead of the Thames.
Will wondered: would he have run onto the ice, stretched out a hand, dived in? Was that how forgiveness worked? Days turning back like the pages of a book, Cambridge and London folding one on top of the other. The water, the ice, the faint ‘Oh!’ of shock. The clouds opening, the deep voice of God proclaiming, Here, take this moment, William Asshe. Redemption, they would call it. But there was no crack, no splash, and the chance was gone to find out how sorry he really was.
The dock nearby was empty now but for the gargoyle which squatted, watching him, arms crossed on its knees, penis dangling loose between its legs and a wide grin cracking its ugly face. The round eyes blinked slowly, its throat gurgled with the green slime that lined it.
This is an extract from Robyn Cadwallader’s novel Book of Colours
Robyn Cadwallader is a writer who lives in the country outside Canberra. She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid and a non-fiction book about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages. Her first novel, The Anchoress (2015) was published to critical acclaim in Australia, UK, the US and France. In response to the government’s policies on asylum-seekers, she edited a book of essays by prominent lawyers and activists, We Are Better Than This (ATF Press, 2015). Her second novel, Book of Colours (2018) is published by Fourth Estate. Visit Robyn Cadwallader.