‘Chester Rows Through Time’ A short story by Liz Milne

Rhianna was bored. Chester was a beautiful city, but at eleven o’clock on a summer morning there wasn’t much to entertain a broken-hearted twenty-year-old girl. Shopping, sure: jewellery, books, chocolates, clothes. A coffee or two, done that already. But was there anything meaty, anything to distract her from her horrible break-up with Frazer? Drifting aimlessly along Eastgate Street, she glanced up at the clock and tried to decipher the chisel-straight writing on the bridge below. MDCCLXVIII? She wrestled with the Roman numerals for a moment, but couldn’t remember whether fifty was D or L and gave it up as a bad job. Frazer would have read it right off, she thought to herself. She felt tears well up in her eyes: they were never far away. He had been unfaithful: and cruel when she caught him in the act. He wouldn’t explain, had just broken up with her, packed his things, and gone.

A display in a window caught her eye: local artists, perhaps students from the nearby university, had painted their interpretation of what life must have been like in Roman times, and then a little later, when the Rows were new. She read that the Rows were a novelty, designed to allow the thriving medieval city to expand its retail offer despite the tight girdle of the enclosing walls. On a small shelf below were some genuine artefacts, found by archaeology students. They had been carefully cleaned up and labelled. There was an ancient boot, sadly shapeless and forlorn. Rhianna’s lip curled at the sight. The next piece was better: it was a small, toothed hair slide, a little rough and ready, but pretty enough. That’s cute, thought Rhianna.

Rhianna glanced up and smiled at the thought of those walls keeping anyone out. There were staircases all around them! But then she leaned closer, seeing the depiction of the earliest Roman times. The large sandstone arch, currently topped by the delicate clock, had housed immense gates, and the staircases had been added later. Rhianna tilted her head back trying to imagine what it would have been like in those days.

‘And over here, ladies and gentlemen, we have the Rows, which were the shopping mall of the day.’ The actor dressed as a Roman Centurion was throwing himself into the part, to the delight of the gaggle of schoolchildren skipping along behind him, each clutching a foam sword and wearing a cardboard helmet. ‘Of course, when I was a Roman soldier here in Deva – because that’s what we Romans called the fort – there were no Rows yet. We had a marketplace which we called the Forum – yes, young sir?’

A small boy at the back of the group said hesitantly, ‘There’s a shopping centre called the Forum just up there,’ he pointed up St Werburgh Street. ‘And there’s a market inside that?’

‘Well done!” said the centurion wriggling through the crowd to the boy and sticking a gold star on his lapel. ‘It’s not quite where my forum was, and the market has moved a few times, but yes, there has been some kind of market in Chester for a very long time, thousands of years.’

The schoolchildren couldn’t accurately comprehend such a length of time: when you are six or seven, just thirty years seems a long time. Rhianna herself, listening to the lesson, found herself struggling to grasp the life the city had seen. How many people over the years had stood where she was standing now? What had their lives been like?

*

A drawing of a man dressed as a Roman soldier leading a line of children

Rhiannon slipped under the side arch, giving a shy smile to Walter. Of all the gate guards, he was the only one who didn’t comment on her face. She had been only four when smallpox had carried off five of her siblings and her mother. It had been just her father, her brother, and Rhiannon for many years now. She kept house for them and did the marketing, enjoying her visits to the Rows: the sights, sounds and smells of the town making her feel happy and excited, hopeful for some new adventure.

She stopped for a moment and drew in a deep breath: the comfortable smells of livestock and constrained humanity mingled with savoury cooking smells, baking bread, and the occasional sweet faint perfume of rare fruits from abroad. Wealthy merchants would buy these, one or two at a time, as gifts for honoured colleagues. They weren’t for the common folk, thought Rhiannon.

She gave the Welshman selling meat a mistrustful look. The walls were sturdy and kept the Welsh at bay at night, but they were given free rein to come and sell their wares during the day. His mutton looked good though. Her mouth watered a little, but she had no money for mutton today: if she was lucky her neighbour would soon be killing one of the layers who was past their prime, and would share some meat with them.

Her mother, so her brother always said, could make a feast out of a little chicken and some vegetables. At the thought of her mother, Rhiannon raised a hand to her hair which was caught up on the least disfigured side of her face. It was pinned up by a hair clasp that their father had made for their mother, her brother had told Rhiannon, in the days before the smallpox, when he was happy sometimes and didn’t work every hour God sent. Whenever her brother told her stories about her mother and happier times, she felt a grinding guilt. Had she sinned in some manner? Why else would God have taken more than half her family away? Why else would God have marked her face for all to see?

She thought of her favourite daydream. She loved to walk along the Rows, admiring the craftsmen hard at work, pretending she was a fine lady on her husband’s arm. They would walk along and she would admire some piece of leatherwork or a carving, perhaps a jewel, and he would smile at her and dicker with the craftsman, presenting her with the gift as though it were the crown jewels.

She took the hair clasp out and examined it. It was a pretty, cheerful piece, and her father’s rough metalwork had been painstakingly smoothed, so that you hardly noticed the unevenness of the stones set into the shaft. She stroked it with one finger and, soothed, refastened it in place. However, she did not do it securely and when, after a couple of steps, a rowdy crowd shoved her into a wall, it fell out again, the muted chime as it hit the wall and bounced off almost lost amongst the shouts and jeers of the crowd. Rhiannon cringed against the building, waiting for the crowd to thin a little, and then she got down on her hands and knees, searching for her comb. Ah, there it was! She stretched out her arm, reaching through the grill that one of the jewellers had fitted and managed to touch a finger to the small comb. But she couldn’t gain the leverage to pull the slide back towards her grasping fingers. She began to feel tearful: she couldn’t go home without her hair clasp, and it was right there! She glanced about, hoping to see a stick or something she could use to draw it to her, but there was nothing.

‘Hello there.’ The smooth male voice was shockingly close. ‘Ah, I see the problem. Allow me.’ A burly figure crouched next to her, reached a long arm through the grill and retrieved the comb. ‘There you go.’ He offered it to her.

She leaned away from him, fearful. ‘You’re Welsh!’ she gasped.

‘Yes,’ he agreed solemnly. ‘And I helped a pretty lady fetch her comb – doesn’t that make me a good Welshman?’ His eyes sparkled with humour, but also, she thought, kindness, and there was no sign of the usual pitying contempt with which most people regarded her.

Reminded of her manners, she blushed, wincing inside as she felt the colour rise in her face – blushing only made the scars more visible, they gleamed white against the red of her face, or so her father had always told her. ‘Th… thank you,’ she whispered. ‘And ‘tis kind of you to call me pretty, though it’s not true at all.’

‘Bite your tongue!’ said the young man. ‘I don’t use words lightly. I say pretty because I see pretty. A little… marred… here and there, but pretty nonetheless.’ He offered the comb again. ‘This is yours? Unless you would like me to fix it for you? I can’t promise to do a grand job, I’m fair with sheep wool, but not a lady’s hair –’

‘I’ll do it, thank you!’ Rhiannon almost snatched the comb from him, and rather than try and fix her hair in front of him, she put it into her basket.

He smiled at her kindly, and almost despite herself, she smiled back.

‘I’m Bryn,’ he said. ‘And I’ve brought my sheep to market.’ He waved at a small herd of sheep a little way off, in the inexpert care of a small boy. ‘That’s my little brother, Dai.’

‘Oh,’ said Rhiannon. ‘I’m Rhiannon.’

‘Rhiannon?’ asked Bryn. ‘That’s a Welsh name, surely? Why are you so sure all Welshmen are villains?’

‘My da,’ she whispered. ‘My mother was Welsh, she named me. When she died, he took against all things Welsh, says a Welshman will steal, lie and cheat. That they’re Godless.’

‘Oh, I see.’

She hastened to add, ‘But you’re very nice. Perhaps… ‘tis grief for my mother that has turned him?’

Bryn’s face softened as he looked at her. ‘Perhaps. We shall have to work together to change his mind.’ He offered her his arm. ‘Stroll with me a while, we can pretend to be a fine couple, buying gifts for one another.’

Rhiannon nibbled her lip. She liked this man, with his kind eyes, steady demeanour and – perhaps more importantly – his apparent blindness to her disfigurement. Making up her mind, she slipped her arm through his and they set off into the centre of Chester along the Rows.

Neither of them noticed the hair clasp had found a crack in the basket’s weave and had fallen out once again.

*

‘Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye!’

The town-crier’s shout roused Rhianna from her daydream. She blinked, feeling almost as though she was just waking up from a short but refreshing nap. How very vivid her imagination was sometimes, she thought to herself.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if this was the spot where her however-many-greats-grandmother had met her however-many-greats- grandfather? Family legend said that they had met somewhere in Chester, hundreds of years ago. That had been why Rhianna had chosen to move to Chester. What if that hair comb had been her ancestor’s?

Rhianna smiled at the fanciful idea. ‘Penny for your thoughts?’

Rhianna turned to the woman who had stopped next to her to admire the display. She laughed a little.

‘Oh, I was just daydreaming. Thinking about how my distant ancestors met here on the Rows and wondering if any of this stuff might have belonged to them.’

‘Same,’ smiled the woman. ‘I’m Bree. I’m sort of named for my distant relative who met his wife here. Bless her, she was all scarred from smallpox and certain she would never marry. He was taken with her straight away, and took her for a promenade around the Rows. Then he proposed within a week of meeting her.’

‘Oh, that’s beautiful!’ said Rhianna.

‘Mmm. Bryn and Rhiannon, they were. Welsh, with a bit of English – What?’

Rhianna had exclaimed in astonishment. ‘No, sorry. It’s just my name is Rhianna!’

Bree smiled at her. ‘What a coincidence!’ She hesitated, delicately. ‘Would you like to come for a drink with me? We could chat some more about family history and the Rows, if you like?’

Rhianna looked at Bree, taking in her beautifully cut short hair and her friendly no-nonsense demeanour. The thought of Frazer tried to intrude, but she shook it away. She made up her mind. ‘I would love to,’ she said.

They set off towards the centre of Chester, walking side by side along the Rows.

© Liz Milne

Liz Milne is a Zimbabwean-born writer who adopted Chester as her hometown. She returned to education late, getting her degree in 2017, and enjoyed it so much that she is now trying her hand at a PhD.

Illustration: ©Tim Foxon