I confess that I have, over the years, come to the conclusion that some patrons, quite frankly, don’t take their responsibilities seriously. Indeed there are times when I feel that I have been taken advantage of and my good nature presumed upon. Again I wish to be discreet, so let us call the lady Madam Bee.
Madam Bee was a respectable widowed lady, not perhaps in the first flush of youth, but still young enough to have a daughter who was newly married. She maintained a small establishment in a perfectly respectable neighbourhood, but here again; I am forced by my own natural prudence to prevent the area to be identified too closely.
So it was that over the years I would organise occasional small informal gatherings for her so she could delight her friends and generally ensure that she was held in high esteem in the locality. Her daughter, a serious young woman, approved of my work and had indeed been known to comment favourably about me to others. So, looking back, I am grateful that she at least knows the truth and understands that no blame attaches to me.
It was summer, and it had been a particularly pleasant summer. The days had been hot, but there had been a sea breeze which ensured the city didn’t stink particularly badly, and the evenings were especially pleasant. So it wasn’t perhaps unusual that Madam Bee allowed her standards to slip. She accepted an invitation to an event where no less a person than Calina Salin would be holding forth on interpretive dance. Now I’ve know Calina for many many years. She is a good friend and a loyal companion, but she is not perhaps the best person to act as a guide to a group of ladies who are no longer in the first flush of physical fitness.
As it was, Calina would put this collection of ladies through a succession of exercises. There might have been a reasonable excuse for this had they been conducted inside, but no, the house where the event was held had extensive grounds. So Calina would have these ladies execute the exercises in a pleasant glade. As she put it, “It’s far more empathetic if we carry out our exercises outside on the grass.”
Now let me stress, nothing inappropriate was planned. It’s just that Calina obviously performed these exercises wearing virtually nothing. The ladies copying her were buttressed with corsetry and stays and the full panoply of creaking whalebone. Hence after but a few minutes the hostess called a halt. But rather than suggesting Calina run them through exercises more suitable for their attire, this lady (who had obviously spent too long in the sun without wearing a hat,) suggested that they adapt their attire to the exercises. Now this might not have mattered, had it not been for the fact that her staff had been serving cherry brandy in large glasses as if it were an innocuous fruit punch.
Consequently her suggestion was met with wholly unbecoming zest. So that some decorum was preserved she supplied her guests with loose flowing gowns which did indeed assure the modesty of her guests. Thus liberated, the ladies, secure in the concealment afforded by this pleasant glade, discarded anything that might cause encumbrance and barefoot and clad almost solely in these flowing gowns, commenced to follow Calina in the exercises.
Calina has discussed the affair with me since that unhappy day. She claims, and I have no reason to doubt her, that once they had cast aside their burdens, the ladies almost cavorted their way through the exercises. Surrounded by mounds of corsets, stays, girdles, hosiery and a plethora of other garments, she claims that they not merely kept up with her but encouraged her to lead them through ever more demanding exercises. As they did this they were constantly refuelled with copious draughts of cherry brandy.
Eventually it was realised that all good things must come to an end. Whether it was the tiredness that comes through hard physical exercise, or whether it was the effects of the cherry brandy, nobody now can really say. But finally Calina, wise to the effects of her programme, brought matters gently to a halt. Unfortunately she never thought to marshal her charges and lead them back inside. She had another event to attend that evening, so when the ladies said they would sit outside, get their breath back, and have a last refreshing glass of cherry brandy; she smiled sweetly and bid them good afternoon.
Now nothing might have gone wrong, but for the fact that Madam Bee looked at her particular heap of assorted foundation garments with growing disdain. She announced that she was going home as she was, “Because she was perfectly decent,” and would anybody like to share a sedan chair? It seems that one other lady took her up on the offer and the two of them, wearing low shoes and flowing gowns, made their way to the front of the house and one of the staff summoned a chair for them. They set off to the cheers of those of their companions who hadn’t so far succumbed to the warmth of the afternoon and dozed off.
Had both ladies been intent on travelling in the same direction matters would doubtless have proceeded in a reasonable matter. But alas they lived in virtually opposite directions and so Madam Bee had the chair stopped, got out and looked for another one. Now there are places where it is safe to do this and there are places where it isn’t. The area where the Sump meets Three Mills is not perhaps the worst place to do it, but it is far from being the best. I doubt a sedan chair has touted for trade in that area in the history of the city. So Madam Bee set off to walk.
Now as I’ve said, the day was hot, and she soon felt the need of liquid refreshment. Now you might wonder about how she could afford such, wearing an outfit consisting almost entirely of borrowed gown. But Madam Bee was no shameless Hussy. She was wearing her own serviceable bloomers, with a pocket in the leg where a lady could keep a handkerchief, a few coins, and other materials a lady might need in case of emergency. So she extracted a silver vintenar and stepped boldly into the Sluggard’s Purse and ordered a tankard of ale. Matters continued better than it might have. The Sluggard’s purse is an establishment largely frequented decent working men, and if a lady wishes to sit and drink ale on a warm evening, I suppose most of them would regard it as a sign that the fair sex has achieved maturity at last. But there always has to be somebody who takes liberties. A passing scaffolder pinched her bottom. Madam decided this was an insult that must be avenged.
Now it so happens that I was passing the tavern. In my defence it was at the end of a particularly trying day throughout which I had earned nothing and had even been forced to contribute financially towards my lunch. I had also been forced to sit and listen to a sanctimonious young prig hold forth uncompromisingly on the nature of verse and its place in the social order. During this we had been served a particularly insipid infusion. To complement this we were served biscuits that were both bland and stale, yet prone to disintegrate if you surreptitiously endeavoured to soften them in the infusion. So when I passed the tavern and heard a female voice roar out, “I’ll beat you to within an inch of your life,” obviously I went in. Let us be blunt here, even if you are not a poet on an endless quest for material, you are still going to be a little curious as to the circumstances which have provoked the outburst. Not only that but I had a sense that I knew the voice. I could not yet put a name to it, but there was something about it I recognised.
No sooner had I entered than I saw Madam Bee and realised that she was the injured party. So while the scaffolder’s companions hustled him away in one direction, I managed to convince her that she had no reason for venting her righteous fury on the man who had already fled. So once she’d drained her final tankard, purchased to celebrate victory, I managed to get her out into the street.
The next problem to arise was the issue of keeping her moving. The retreat from sobriety started by the cherry brandy had become a rout when the beer had entered the fray. Madam Bee could no longer walk a straight line unaided. I had hoped that she could just take my arm and with a little decorous assistance, make decent progress. Unfortunately this was not to be and I was forced to drape her right arm over my shoulders and support her like that. This led to other problems. The first was when she tried to nibble my ear. In point of fact what she did was knock my hat off. She then bent down to pick it up, but it had dropped on its brim and was rolling past me. Thus she had to turn.
The crisis I faced here was due to the fact that Madam Bee wasn’t really under control. Even walking straight forward she struggled to control the periphery, and when she started moving with a circular motion, considerable proportions of her anatomy continued moving, even when Madam Bee had worked out how to halt the centre. So instead of bending down, reaching across and picking the hat up, parts of her just kept moving. She overbalanced and fell onto her back, pulling me on top of her. At this point she giggled and started to chew my ear again.
Fortunately she was soon diverted from this by other issues, such as my elbow on her bladder. “I need a wee.”
Now we had at least reached the edges of the Three Mills area. Still there wasn’t a public toilet within half a mile and frankly given the speed we were covering the ground, I didn’t hold out any hope of her hanging on that long. I looked round and noticed one house had a passage leading off to a courtyard at the back. I got her to the gate and suggested she slip quietly down there.
Well she disappeared and all was peaceful for what seemed an extraordinarily long period of time. I had begun to fear that she may well perhaps have fallen asleep, or somehow got stuck, or perhaps that something worse had befallen her. Then I heard the crash, such as might have been made by some variety of waste bin tumbling over. I confess that I was unsure of how to proceed. It struck me that there was a limit to the sort of services a Lady ought to expect from her poet. Just as I had convinced myself that I ought to venture down the passage in case she needed rescue I heard a male voice bellow, “What the bluidy hell do you think you’re doing!”
With this Madam Bee appeared, running down the passage at speed. Indeed she shot past me and careered up the street at speed. I was mightily relieved to note she was now running in the correct direction, but I was less happy when I saw that she’d somehow tucked her gown into her drawers at the back.
I soon overtook her; her burst of speed was regrettably brief in its duration. I convinced her to remedy the deficiencies in her dress, and now more decently attired she put her arm round my neck and let me walk her down Three Mills Prospect.
I confess I felt that this must be the home straight. At one end of the Prospect is a place where sedan chairs have been known to wait for fares. We made our deliberate, valiant way along the prospect, concentrating on putting one foot in front of another. Then she fell over again and announced she was tired and was just going to go to sleep. I had to bend down and bodily sit her up; that done I got my hands under her shoulders and tried and lift her. Unfortunately she weighed more than I did and I just couldn’t do it. At this point two respectable ladies walked past and one stopped. “Is she all right?”
Her companion added, “And her shoes have come off.”
Here I am afraid I had an outburst of honesty. “No, she’s got herself the worse for drink; I’m trying to get her home to her family.”
I bend down and tried to put the shoes back on. I had assumed this would be comparatively easily achieved, but discovered to my surprise that it is almost impossible to get the feet of a drunken woman into low shoes when she is sprawled inelegantly across the pavement. Finally I stood up and handed the shoes to one of the two ladies. Then I had another attempt at standing Madam Bee up. This time the other lady graciously moved closer to help and between us we got Madam onto her feet. Then the lady with the shoes knelt down and fitted them onto Madam Bee’s feet. Once more vertical and shod, at least after a fashion, we set off yet again, me glancing back to thank my two dauntless saviours as we did so.
It was in this fashion we reached the location where I hoped to find a sedan chair, and for once on this terrible afternoon, luck was on my side. A chair and two bearers stood ready. “Could you please take this lady home, I’ll walk with you and make sure she’s alright and behaves herself.”
It was at this point Madam decided to that she had battled gravity determinedly all day and it was time to concede the fight. She collapsed at my feet, but this time I managed to avoid ending up on top of her.
“Drunks is extra.” One of the two carriers commented.
“On account of it being a sod of a job cleaning the chair when they’ve been sick,” said the second.
“And then the chair stinks and nobody else wants to ride in it.”
I felt in my pocket, “How much do you want?”
“Two vintenars now and we might give you some back if she ain’t sick.”
They might as well have asked for a bucket full of gold. I didn’t in fact laugh at them; I just turned my pockets out. I had about fifteen dregs in miscellaneous small change.
“What about her?” One of them asked.
The other said, “Yeah, she got any money on her?”
I commented curtly, “She’s got a pocket in the leg of her drawers.”
There was a brief silence and the three of us contemplated Madam Bee who was now asleep and snoring.
First carrier said, “Well you better look then.”
“On account of her being your woman,” the second carrier added.
At this point I felt a protest was in order. “She isn’t my woman! I’m not going rooting in her drawers for anybody.”
First carrier took his hat off and scratched his head. “I think we’ve achieved what is commonly known as an impasse.”
“On account of you ain’t got no money and we doubt she has either,” the second carrier added.
I said, “Well if we get her home there’ll be money there, her daughter will pay you.”
Second carrier took the opportunity afforded by the fact the first carrier was still scratching his head to say, “Yeah but what if we get near there and she runs off without paying her fare?”
“Bastards is always doing that,” the first carrier added.
I just glared at them. “She can’t bluidy walk, never mind bluidy run.” Let us be honest here, there is only so much one can take before the refined facade of the poet starts to crack. “By the forty-three hells, if she runs off I’ll sell my britches and pay you myself!”
They contemplated my garments. Eventually carrier one said, “No money, no ride.”
I’d probably reached the stage where lesser men might have done something unforgivable, but still, I fearlessly restrained myself “Right, you stay here; I’ll go and get her daughter and some money.” With that I walked off.
“Hey you can’t leave her here!”
“Don’t just go off like that.”
“Oh bugger off, the pair of you. What do you expect me to do, sling her over my bluidy shoulder like a sack of grain and run home with her?”
“There’s no point being like that about it.”
“Some of us are trying to be civil.”
“Oh sod off.”
First carrier then said. “Look, tell me where she lives, I’ll go and get her daughter, you stay here and look after your woman.” I am proud to say I didn’t hit him. I merely stood a foot from him and screamed, “How many bluidy times do I have to say it, she’s not my sodding woman. I’m just the good natured idiot who’s taking her home to her sodding daughter.”
Second carrier came to the rescue. “Look mate, you’ve had a bad day. You just sit quietly in the chair for a while, he’ll go and get the daughter, and I’ll keep an eye on you and her and everything.”
With that he opened the door and I sat quietly in the chair whilst Madam Bee snored contentedly outside and the second carrier stood with his back to the pair of us, as if somehow trying to distance himself.
It was perhaps half an hour later the first carrier arrived back with daughter. She surveyed the scene, placed coins in the first carrier’s waiting hand and together we loaded her mother into the chair. Then with the daughter walking on one side and me walking on the other we accompanied the chair carrying Madam Bee home. Just for the record she wasn’t sick; she slept through the entire process. Once home, the daughter and I half carried her inside and got her upstairs. Then Madam was handed over to the care of her maid and the daughter escorted me back downstairs.
She thanked me in that grave manner she has, and pressed coins into my hand, which I felt was a pleasant gesture.
Obviously I have never since been asked to help Madam Bee entertain her friends. Indeed on one occasion when Madam Bee was invited to a reading I was giving, she was introduced to me as a stranger.
But her daughter smiles gravely at me if she sees me, and I know that on several occasions she has described me as ‘a man of considerable tact and good judgement.’ Which I thought was nice.
Jim Webster here; as always my grateful thanks to Tallis Steelyard for the way he has most courteously stepped aside, and indeed and smoothed my path with an exceedingly elegant introduction.
But I shall not keep you long. In short, the third story in the much acclaimed ‘Port Naain Intelligencer’ series will be available for purchase on the 1st of March; ‘Tomb-yard Follies’ on Amazon UK and Amazon.com
To quote from the blurb:
“Mapping an old family graveyard was a technically complicated job Benor expected would take him some time. But then he hadn’t allowed for getting caught up in a world of intrigue, vengeance, and arbitrary justice.”
Previous stories from the Port Naain Intelligencer are:
Tallis Steelyard, author of Lambent Dreams, (available for a mere 99p) is, ‘at least in part’, the responsibility of Cumbrian author Jim Webster.
Unlike Tallis who relies on the uncertain patronage of the denizens of Port Naain, Jim claims that in order to make a living he ‘sort of farms, sort of writes and sort of helps out where he’s wanted’. Sartorially and musically challenged, Jim is nevertheless married and has three daughters.
Jim is the author of four fantasy novels set in the Land of the Three Seas plus a number of longish short stories in both science fiction and fantasy genres.
Jim’s books are available in paperback (and make perfect gifts) as well as in e-book format.