A Monday in London, 1612 – by Robin van Koert

As he walks in, the familiar broom above the entrance makes him smile. He loves those quaint reminders of being in a foreign country. Knowing their meaning makes him feel more like a local, a Londoner. And given his transient life, that is something he cherishes. Despite the availability of the fresh batch of ale, he prefers wine. Out of habit, he takes a seat in a relatively quiet corner of the main room. It is an ideal spot for observations. He orders a meat pie, a few appetizers, some sweet bread, fruit and a sealed quart of Gascon. After he has finished his food, he savors the remainder of his wine, while he reads a Thomas Dekker pamphlet.

Suddenly excited shouts and sounds enter the room. A young man sticks his wide-eyed, broadly smiling head inside and gleefully announces the sighting of the sad and solemn cavalcade. Instantly, many people rush out, eager not to miss anything at all. Despondently he shakes his head. He slowly empties his cup, rises, pays for his meal and joins the boisterous gathering outside just in time to see the carriage of the Marshall of the Admiralty roll by. When the horse-drawn cart with the condemned men reaches the alehouse, it stops. The three renegades descend.

His heart skips a beat. Why on earth did they halt here? He curses himself. What if the man turns into his Judas Iscariot? Briefly, he is amused by his poor analogy. He is flattering himself, he grins, since he is hardly a redeemer. He is the one in need of redemption. Outwardly he is calm, but his mind is racing. He pulls down his felt hat, so that the brim shades his face. He tries to back away from the main path to the inn. No luck. The crowd is not having it. People behind him are pushing back. The three men are accompanied to the alehouse for what will be their final drink. The tallest of the three is looking straight ahead, displaying no emotion. That face. It is still etched into his brain, even though it has been a few years. Older and wearier looking now, but spending time in Marshalsea does that you.

Jeers and curses fill the air. The two other men are staring down, looking dazed. They are close now. He manages to turn his back halfway towards the small group. As they pass through the throng of spectators, he can almost touch the men. Fortunately, his longish hair is hanging loose and almost completely curtaining his face. No sign of recognition. Let alone an attempt at an embrace or a symbolic kiss of death. The former pirates enter the alehouse amidst howling and harassing. When he finds a way through the raucous crowd, he departs for the execution site. His mind tells him to leave for home, but his gut feeling urges him to stay. His instincts win out.

Nearer the watermen’s stairs the crowds are impossible. Rows of people are lining the shore and others are watching from bopping boats on the river Thames. He patiently elbows and carefully pushes his way through the audience of thrill seeking Londoners: men and women, tall and short, bellied and bony, young and old, fair and darker haired and speaking several languages. All are loud and lusting for agony on display, egging each other on. He finds a relatively calm viewpoint, somewhere to the side and a little higher up. Standing against a brick wall, he only has to stretch himself a little bit to see the gallows in full view.

Soon, a joyful roar erupts from the crowd, a muted looking sea of faded grey, brown, blue and red, with the occasional bright red and black spot, wealthy merchants, perhaps, unable to resist the temptation. The spectators in front of him heave back and forth, threatening to crush him, but then the moving stops. The cruel show is about to begin. The front of the procession, the Marshall of the Admiralty, his deputy and two other marshals on horseback, has reached the execution dock. He sees the silver oar, which the deputy is carrying, floating above the heads of the spectators. Next comes the cart with the three condemned men, the chaplain and the two executioners. It winds its way down to the dock through the dense gathering of people.

After the first two men have been turned off, all eyes are on the unusually tall and slender third prisoner. Proudly and serenely the convicted corsair captain stands on the scaffold, defiantly staring down everyone who dares to hurl abuse at him. Briefly, a mocking, knowing smile curls his lips. He stuns the rowdy onlookers. For a second or so the crowd is eerily quiet. It is as if the beast instinctively recognizes a charismatic leader. But then follows the drop with the shortened rope. The long, spindly legs move frantically during the slow, undignified process of asphyxiation –dancing the Marshall’s dance, is what people here call it– and, finally, death arrives. The crowd explodes. He lowers his head, swallows.

Excitedly chattering, the people disperse, leaving the three dead bodies ever so gently swaying in the soft wind near the water’s edge. He has a clear view of the gallows, and just stares. No final words, then. No shout of anger. Although, did he really expect any? So, what now? The bodies will be left hanging until three tides have washed over their heads, as is the local custom. Perhaps they will even be tarred and hung in chains. Just to set an example and to scare the sailors on incoming ships. The noise has receded and the execution dock is almost empty now.

He moves a little closer and feels a strong desire to look at the defiant man from nearby, to see his face one last time. In his coat pocket he feels the small bible, which he had given to his then five-year old son Sadiq at one point. The dead man could have told him more about his son. He had thought about approaching him, but had decided against that. Instead, he had made sure that he himself would not end up hanging here. As he moves towards the scaffold, he does what they together had done many times for members of their crews. He mumbles, under his breath, a prayer for the dead. “… and put not in our hearts any resentment toward those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed You are kind and … .”
“Hey, what is that you are saying?”
The sharp voice startles him.
“… merciful.”
That last bit a mere whisper. He turns his head and looks straight into a mocking face.
“Lost any loved ones, have you now?”
“Nah, I was just talking to myself”, he says casually.
“Wouldn’t want them for relatives, would you now?”
The stranger seems to insist on having a conversation. Reluctantly, he gives in.
“I reckon not. Lost a dear friend to their lot.”
In a way that is actually true, he thinks.
“Well, then, cheer up mate. They’re gone. Good riddance, I say.”

He smiles vaguely and turns away to walk back to London. When he glances over his shoulder, though, he stops dead in his tracks. Melancholy overwhelms him as he catches a final glimpse of the hanged man from the corner of his eye. An unbelievable sadness floods over him. Beyond the gallows, the Thames is becoming the roadstead of Algiers, while the ships are starting to resemble Barbary galleys. His mind is playing games with him now. He hears the dead man’s angry voice again and, in the distance, he can see her, watching from the quay. The scraping sound of a boot snaps him out of his reveries. The stranger tilts his head ever so slightly and looks at him curiously. It is time to go, then, no need to linger.

As he makes his way to the main road, he can feel the suspicious look on the stranger’s face. He waits for words that force him to stop, pull him back like two strong hands grabbing his shoulder, but he hears nothing. Briefly, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and exhales. As he walks away from the execution site, feelings of guilt and regret swirl through his head until a sense of relief takes over: his past will remain hidden.