Today, we are joined by Tallis Steelyard, otherwise known as Jim Webster, on day two of his book tour for his lovely book of short stories. Just the ticket for those odd moments when you simply have to read something interesting!
Take it away, Jim…
A seaside sojourn
A poet can be susceptible to many influences. Yes the beauty of the rustic vista has stirred my soul and provoked me to verse. Similarly I have been inspired by the Beauty sitting opposite me at a table in a busy coffee shop. But all things considered, it is the sea in all its majesty which really stirs me. I feel the waters of the estuary sweep past me every night as I sleep in the barge. The water caresses the timbers of our bedroom and the scents of salt and weed and who knows what hang around us. Even deep in the city of Port Naain one can at times catch the taste of salt on your lips and hear the cry of the seabirds wheeling overhead.
My travels brought me at last to the coast. Where the mountains meet the sea you find Sweethaven. Apparently it was named because here there was both a stream of good water and a steeply shelving beach so that boats could come in to take advantage of it.
Now it’s a thriving fishing village which must have three or four hundred inhabitants. They live in sturdy stone-built houses with slate roofs and live by fishing and farming. Sweethaven even has a sea wall that stretches out like a protecting arm to give shelter to the harbour from the worst of the storms.
I arrived one evening and found my way to the only inn, the Fish Salter’s Arms. I slid a few coins across the table and purchased a glass of reasonable ale and a bowl of fish stew and a couple of rounds of bread. In casual conversation with men standing at the bar they asked my trade.
“I’m a poet.”
This was greeted with silence, then one of them said, in what I felt was a speculative tone, “So you’ll be able to read and write then?”
Now I realise there are oral poets who work entirely from memory but they are not a common phenomena in civilised parts, so I answered, “Certainly.”
“So you can do it quite well then?”
Here I felt that confidence was called for, “Absolutely.”
“It’s just our school mistress is ill and we could do with somebody to cover for her for a few weeks.”
Now I’m not a pedagogue. But I was a long way from home, could do with a few regular meals and a snug bed and was willing to be flexible.
“Well I’m available, but I’d like to know the terms and conditions first.”
Eventually we agreed that I would have my meals in the Fish Salter’s Arms, a bed would be made up for me in the small stockroom next to the school room, and, after much haggling, they’d pay me a vintenar a day. This latter was a pittance but they made a strong case by pointing out they were already paying for one school teacher who was lying sick in bed and couldn’t really afford to pay for two.
I agreed to the terms, the assembled company clustered round to shake my hand and several glasses of beer appeared on the bar for me. Then the assembled company disappeared to their own homes to tell their harassed wives that they’d got a new teacher.
Next morning, early, I dropped in to see the school teacher, one Dame Esbeth. She sat next to her fire, wrapped in blankets, coughing and shivering. Still she gave me a rough idea of how her charges were getting on. With that I left her and plunged into the fray.
I was lucky, it was a fine day. This meant that the older class were far too busy to attend school. They were either out on the boats or collecting salt for salting the day’s catch. This meant I had chance to get to know the younger class, a score of children aged between six and perhaps twelve. Firstly I heard everybody read. That gave me a baseline. I then decided to see how many could write. Chalk screeched on slate as they all laboriously copied what I’d written on the board. This done I could see that Dame Esbeth had mastered the basics with them and I decided to just keep them practicing.
There were problems. One was that they keep referring to me as Dame Steelyard. The idea that a male could become a teacher was so beyond their comprehension that they instinctively fell back on the comforting assumption that I was actually a lady.
The other was parental attitude. One mother, a cobbler, sent her daughter in with a last and some leather to work. The girl was supposed to do this whilst doing whatever else school involved. I gathered the other children round and let her show them what she was doing. As a group we explored the whole subject and some of them also had a try. I’m not entirely sure what the girl told her mother when she got home, but mother never tried that trick again. I think she was a little fearful that she’d end up with a village full of people perfectly capable of doing their own cobbling.
It was one wet evening as I sat over my meal in the Fish Salter’s Arms that somebody came in and said that the harbour light had gone out. Various worthies were summoned, the main bar acting as a village meeting house, and it was discovered that Old Joaggy, who had one leg and a liking for strong drink, had forgotten to fill the oil reservoir. The problem was that night was falling, the weather was rough, and all of the village boats, containing virtually all the men and quite a few of the women, were out at sea. They would doubtless be heading home as we spoke. Without the light to guide them, they could be in trouble.
Now because of my time in Port Naain, and working with Shore-combers and suchlike, I was used to harbour-side lights. I mentioned that I didn’t mind going out along the wall to fill it up and get it relighted.
I was given a heavy seaman’s woollen pullover. It comes down to your knees, is belted at the waist, and has so much lanolin left in the wool that it’s virtually waterproof. I was then given a small firepot which I hugged close to my chest. I was informed that there was oil in a barrel near the light. I left the bar and walked straight into the teeth of what I would have regarded as a gale; the waves were breaking over the harbour wall.
I made my way to the shoreward end of the harbour wall and looked along it. There was no rail, the top was absolutely flat and level. Apparently they had not bothered trying to fix a railing because any rail would just be torn off in the next storm. So I asked them to tie a rope around my waist with the other end held by my accomplices, half a dozen sturdy ladies.
So equipped I set off across the harbour wall. As I walked I tried to get a feel for the rhythm of the waves breaking across it. I stepped forward more quickly to try and avoid being struck, but the top was smooth and slimy, so I fell flat on my back and the wave rolled me off the wall and into the harbour. My stalwart band pulled me out. I collected another firepot and had a second go. This time I decided I’d mastered it. I waited until a wave had broken, and then started running. Because I was keeping a steady pace and watching where I put my feet I didn’t slip, but the next wave still caught me in the middle of the wall and pushed me off into the harbour again.
For my third attempt I decide that I would try another approach. I got them to put the third firepot inside a barrel. This I tied to me, and on hands and knees I scurried along the harbour wall. When a wave hit I lay flat and let the water just wash over me. I got across but barely. Twice I hung on to the top by jamming my fingers and toes into the gaps between the stones.
When I reached the end I stood up in the lee of the low tower. I opened the door and tied the rope to the handle. Then I surveyed the inside of the tower. It’s perhaps four times the height of a man with a spiral stair running up the middle. At the bottom was a barrel of oil and a jug. I filled the jug and carried it up to the lantern that was set just below the roof. I poured my oil into the reservoir and then set too to trim the wicks and get everything ready. As oil soaked up the wick I made several more journeys with the jug. How one legged Old Joaggy managed this I don’t know. No wonder he had a liking for strong drink.
Finally the reservoir full, I lit the wicks from the firepot. I carefully adjusted them, made sure the mirrors were aligned to collect the light and reflect it out of the window. By this time I had warmed up a little, and had even started to dry out. I spent a further half hour just warming myself and making sure everything was going well. Then with the casual insouciance of the hero, I left the tower closing the door behind me. I started to swagger my way along the harbour wall, when a wave hit me and washed me clean off the wall into the harbour. Without the rope I had to swim for the shore unassisted but made it.
To be fair the good folk of Sweethaven were most generous. Dame Esbeth had made a good recovery and was perfectly capable of taking her place once more in the classroom. I took her place by the fire, wrapped in blankets, coughing and shivering.
At this point it seems pertinent to mention that the story of Tallis’s escapades continues on other blogs. They will be reblogged in what may one day be accepted by biographers as the chronologically correct order on his own blog. Thus and so you can easily follow his gripping adventures.
Also, as an aside, the reason for this whole performance, (aside for being ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’) is that another volume of his anecdotes has been published. Containing some work that has never appeared on the blog, this is ;–
Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.