Read the first chapter of Dr Michael Apichella’s gripping novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim which is set in Bury St Edmunds and the ‘New World’.
‘Who’ll best Roger’s arm? Just one penny! Put your money down and try your strength!’
Fifteen-year- old Johnny Pilgrim and his 17-year- old brother Roger perched on the worn steps of the Butter Cross in the centre of St. Edmundsbury, his tenor voice ricocheting off the tall timber and brick buildings overlooking the precinct.
On the gravel before them lay a stocking cap full of copper coins glinting in the bright forenoon sunshine.
Nine eager boys took Johnny’s challenge so far, and nine had lost. Now only one penny more was wanted to split the booty equally.
Leaping off the stone base, Johnny continued his challenge. ‘Win the next match, my lads, and you take all the money. Lose and you’re out one penny. Hey!’ Aping the doughty farmers and fish mongers trying to entice buyers in crowded Market Square, Johnny trudged back and forth gesticulating enthusiastically.
He eyed the crowd of rough-and- tumble boys, aproned apprentices, blue-capped scholars from the King Edward VI School, and sundry ragged teens, all goading each other to take the challenge. And why not? One penny was dear, but nine pennies?
It was a king’s ransom. For his part, Roger kept his eyes fixed firmly to the ground, scowling like there was the stench of a rotting carcass wafting in the light breeze. ‘Try your skill,’ Johnny cried. ‘Roger can take anyone arm wrestling. Penny a go, best of three. Hey!’
A stout lad called Anselm Ball glowered at the brothers from across the cobbled market rubbing a sore wrist after having been fairly beaten twice in quick succession. A moment later Anselm’s eyes shone. ‘I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.’
An unshaved young man of about twenty clenching mallet-sized fists sidled up to him out of the mob. ‘I’m here now. Which one?’ asked Bub Lackey, a strong but dim-witted labourer who was frequently paid by men and boys to settle their scores.
‘Him,’ said Anselm, fingering Roger.
‘What? That tadpole?’
Like Johnny, Roger had an aquiline nose and possessed luxuriant black hair on a fine round head.
However, his jaw was firmer than Johnny’s, and whereas the younger brother had the quick dark eyes of a fox, Roger’s were steady, cornflower blue and shiny, like newly tumbled gemstones.
But it wasn’t his eyes that Bub glared at; it was his legs. Atrophied from the hips, they tapered and turned out at his ankles.
As a boy he endured a great deal of bullying from children, which was bad enough. But many adults seemed to enjoy picking on him, too.
Nevertheless, as he grew in stature and wisdom, they soon left him in peace.
A lifetime of shifting his weight with the help of two walking sticks had developed a corded neck, bulging shoulders and arms, a chest like a powder keg, and, significantly, a grip tight as a cider press. Moreover, like nimble-minded Johnny who set his sights on going up to Cambridge one day, Roger’s greatest strength was not his arm but his quick mind and unconquerable spirit.
In ancient Greece Roger might have been considered a kind of god, the type revered in theatre, literature, and sculpture.
In Georgian England, however, he was merely an oddity.
‘Don’t let that devil’s looks fool you. He took a penny from me last Saturday. Today he robbed me of another. But mark you. Now I see how he does it. He starts the match before his brother Johnny shouts “Go,”’ said Anselm. ‘If anyone can teach them a lesson, it’s you.’
He pressed a copper coin into Bub’s palm. ‘Penny to wager. After you win, we split the booty.
‘Aye.’ Approaching the brothers, Bub proffered the coin.
Johnny met his cold stare. ‘Ho! Perchance this big fellow will take away the cap full of coppers. We shall see.’ Frowning, Roger peered in the other direction.
This Saturday-morning spectacle had long ago become Roger’s bête noire.
Yet even bashful Roger grudgingly admitted they needed the easy money.
Bub kicked Roger’s sticks aside with a clatter. ‘In a minute, you’ll need a stretcher chair, not those.’
Turning to the pack of screeching boys Bub raised his fists triumphantly.
‘Remember. Best of three,’ called Johnny. ‘I’ll break Tadpole’s arm first time.’
Taken aback by his bravado, Johnny whispered in Roger’s ear. ‘Let’s let this bird win the first try. Then.’ Johnny smacked his open palm with his clenched fist.
Impervious to Bub’s vinegar, Roger had learned if you show a man who you are the first time, he’ll respect you the second. ‘My brother will say when,’ said Roger flexing his right arm.
‘Oh. You’ll rue setting up business in the market today with your silly contest, Gimpy-legs. I’m left-handed.’ Hearing this a knot of adults quickly formed at the foot of the cross.
Setting down their packs and baskets, the men stood thumbs hooked in belts, nodding to each above the hub-bub, knowing Roger surly would get his comeuppance this day.
Gripping left hands firmly, the wrestlers anticipated Johnny’s signal.
Not waiting for the command, Bub lunged forward with all his weight bowing Roger’s left arm painfully, bending it like a green willow until gobs of sweat dripped from Roger’s forehead and his knuckles almost scraped the step.
But in his recklessness to secure a quick pin, Bub had veered off his centre of balance. Taking full advantage of this tactical error, with a sharp bite of air, Roger abruptly shifted his weight from forward to backward, twisting his opponent’s wrist until he nearly snapped it. Helplessly, Bub felt his weight falling sideways, and with a smack of bone on stone, the fight ended amid copious cat-calls and loud shouts.
‘You got lucky that time,’ cried Bub rubbing his hand. ‘Have at it again.’
‘Ready boys?’ called Johnny. This time when Johnny called go, Bub vacillated. That moment’s hesitancy was exactly what Roger had counted on. Seizing the moment, instead of grappling with the arm, Roger forced Bub’s wrist back on itself, bending the joint almost to the breaking point. Caught off guard again, Bub flung his body forward, but this merely enabled Roger to twist Bub’s wrist with uncanny force.
Bub winced and crumpled.
‘I’ll just take your penny,’ said Johnny, scooping up the cap. ‘And we’ll be on our way. Come brother Roger.’
Eyeing his defeated opponent’s stunned face, Roger manfully extended his right hand to Bub.
‘Say, let’s shake and be friends. For a moment, I thought surely I was done for.’ But instead of taking Roger’s hand, the fellow swore a filthy oath and let fly with his fist, knocking Roger onto the cobbles where he flopped like a trout out of water.
‘Hit a man offering you his hand, will you?’ Johnny was on top of Bub, pressing his big red face into the cobbles while Roger seized his sticks and scrambled to his feet.
As Bub wheezed, Johnny shouted, ‘Say sorry to the gentleman, and I’ll turn you free.’
‘Your brother’s no gentleman; he’s a cheat. He belongs in the stocks.’ Bub squirmed helplessly. ‘He cheated me by starting before I was ready. Turn me loose, or I’ll have you done for robbing me of my penny, I swear.’
‘Save your swearing. There’re witnesses to say what happened.’ Johnny spotted an acquaintance. ‘Ho, you there. Run for Mr. Sneezum the constable. And now, my fine blockhead, you will spend a night in gaol for hitting my brother unprovoked.’
Before anyone could shout a warning, Anselm had crept up behind Johnny and clubbed him on the head with a piece of firewood sending him reeling. Seeing his chance, Bub scrambled to his feet, and then he and Anselm vanished in opposite directions into the crowd. Minutes later Johnny and Roger rounded the corner into Abbeygate Street. ‘Ugg. My skull is splitting, but we got the prize.’
‘Here, bend down.’ Roger examined Johnny’s head. ‘No blood. But this lump will be with you for some time. Does it hurt?’
‘Not half.’ Peering hard at Roger’s eye, Johnny laughed. ‘That’ll be black as pitch for a fortnight. Never mind. Stretch out your hand.’ Johnny counted five coins. ‘There’s your share. Fair due, eh, brother? Now you go home. Everyone will be wondering where we are.’
‘Where are you off to, then?’
Wincing as he touched his tender noggin, Johnny replied. ‘The widow’s larder’s empty again, and she’s not had so much as a bite today. I’ll buy some victuals. Shan’t be long.’
‘Here, take a penny from me, too,’ said Roger. ‘I’ll see you later.’
With that the boys parted ways, Roger limping heavily back home on his sticks, and Johnny running back to the Market making plans to turn another profit, for, as it was often said of him by those who knew him best, turning one penny into ten is meat and potatoes to Johnny Pilgrim.
n Check out next week’s Bury Free Press newspaper for the next instalment of The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim. It will be published online on Sunday.
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved