Jim is a blogger and published writer. He is well-known for his writings about the fictional land of Port Naain, and his hero, the poet Tallis Steelyard. On this occasion, his guest post is kind enough to feature my home vllage of Beetley, (as Beetfield) and also reference parts of the area, including the woodland, and the local Thai (Toelar) restaurant, The New Inn. As for who the Hermit might be, I will leave you to imagine. 🙂
Feeding The Hermit Of Beetfield
By Jim Webster
There are many undignified but expedient ways to leave Port Naain and I suspect that I have used most of them at one time or another. It must be admitted that leaving the city as an employee of a ‘Night-soil Factor’ is probably my lowest point. In my defence I must point out that I was young then and had got involved in politics. Thus you might say I deserved what I got.
In Port Naain as in any other city there are factions who contest for power and influence. As always they are dominated by rich and powerful people. Let us be honest here, they are all much of a muchness, largely spending their time reacting to events. Frankly as I have grown older I have come to think that there isn’t really all that much between them. Oh yes occasionally one wants to be a tyrant or another displays obvious incompetence but their colleagues can normally be relied upon to ensure their fall. The problem lies at a much lower level. The supporters of these factions can become vituperative. I suppose membership allows a person with no particular skills or intelligence to strut upon the stage, clasping around his inadequate person the shadow of his or her master to serve as a cloak. The particular political figure they support (in reality somewhat nondescript with no evidence to their credit of honesty or competence) is the savour of the city whilst their opponent (the contents of the previous parenthesis can be moved here as you wish) is a demon incarnate, drinks the blood of virgins, has small children roasted for his delectation, and doubtless snarled at a kitten.
It is a sad state of affairs, the supporters’ enthusiasm for their cause is displayed in inverse proportion to their intelligence and common sense. Thus it is often a far too tempting situation for a young poet. One can knock off a scurrilous ode denigrating one faction’s leader and make good money reciting it to members of the other faction. If you’re clever you can ensure that the ode also admits the substitution of a leader of the other faction, thus doubling the level of remuneration available.
I confess I was tempted. Indeed given I was at the time single, utterly penurious, was eating perhaps three meals in four days, and had few if any patrons, I was more than tempted. I plunged into the ideological maelstrom like a man possessed.
I discovered to my horror I was good at it. I was cheered to the echo, silver poured into my cupped palms. I pandered to the somewhat pathetic whims of both sides and both sides cheered me to the echo. Alas the inevitable happened. Somebody noticed and both sides felt betrayed. Indeed these obdurately opposed factions went so far as to combine their resources to hire bullies to track me down. I was fortunate to be forewarned. Thus I got a head start as I fled the Misanthropes but it was a close run thing until they lost me as I ran down the steps onto the Privy Pier. Here I met Old Jaysen the night-soil collector who had just emptied his cart into the waiting sailing barge. Hastily I swapped my jacket and breeches for the spare pair he kept under the driver’s seat and dropped down onto the barge.
The Factor looked askance in my direction and asked whether I had mistaken his boat for a pleasure cruiser. I said that I was happy to sign on as a labourer for a short trip. This he agreed to and the barge cast off. As I coiled one of the ropes I could see my pursuers spreading out across neighbouring wharves, searching for me.
The trip across the estuary is comparatively slow but I suppose it both gave me time to enjoy the view and get used to the odour. On the south side of the estuary we sailed carefully up one of the small rivers which drain the surrounding countryside. Here I earned my keep as we had to lower the sail and pole our way in. Finally we tied to a field wharf where a local landowner awaited us. He glanced at the cargo and agreed to accept it. Thus we started to unload.
In all candour I have done harder jobs, but few less pleasant. Still as a metaphor for the politics I had been so recently engaged in, I felt it had a certain validity. By dint of hard work, we eventually had the entire cargo stacked on the wharf even as farm workers were loading it into carts to take away. The job done, we threw off our clothes and swam for a while in the river. Then, back on shore and dressed, the Factor asked me if I wished to continue with him as he was heading back to Port Naain. I decided against returning so soon and expressed a desire to spend a little time travelling. After all, I am a poet, I can pay for my supper with my wit alone.
He gestured down the track along which the carts were progressing. “Follow that for three or four miles and you’ll come to Beetfield. It’s not a big place but hospitable enough.” With that he dropped half a day’s wages into my hand (which was more than I’d expected) and bid me good day. The crew prepared to pole their craft back to the estuary and I set off to see what pleasures Beetfield had in store.
I must confess I didn’t know this part of Partann as well as I might do. It’s rather off the beaten track, the main roads bypass it and it retains a charming and bucolic air. If asked to name its principle features, I would be tempted to say, ‘flat.’ Still it is pretty enough. Indeed it is a ‘working’ prettiness. Nobody here had been tempted to contrive in real life a picture they once saw on the lid of a box of biscuits.
Eventually I reached Beetfield. I confess I almost missed it. It is a thin ribbon of houses wandering down a quiet lane which doesn’t really appear to lead anywhere. A lot of the houses are set back from the lane and hide guiltily behind tall hedges. It was as if they were embarrassed by their own tranquil agreeableness. Still I realised I had arrived somewhere of modest consequence when I arrived at the ‘New Inn.’ I confess I always tend to wonder in these circumstances, what happened to the ‘Old Inn?’
I remember one village in Partann where the ‘New Inn’ was on the site of an inn that had been burned down by raiders. It was in its turn replaced by the ‘Even Newer Inn.’ In another village they demolished the previous inn by pushing it into the plague pit to help seal it and when everything had settled they built the New Inn on the foundations of its predecessor. In Port Naain the ‘New Inn’ was rather less exotic. In an attempt to avoid his creditors the landlord changed the signboard and when his creditors arrived, he cowered under the bar as his wife, who had a thick Partannese accent, explained she had just arrived in the city. She explained that she had purchased the inn at a ‘fire sale’ price from the previous owner who left at speed in a cart loaded with such belongs as were not included in the sale.
The New Inn at Beetfield was, compared to these examples, blameless. Admittedly the sign on the door had said, “Genuine Toelar Cooking.” But I wasn’t too worried. Every dining place that wants to tempt the foolhardy will boast that they use Toelar spices. Perhaps one in a hundred have the nerve to actually do so. I introduced myself to the lady who sat behind the bar. I explained that I was a poet who was willing to perform for a meal. She smiled broadly, “Would you care to try our food first before making such offers?”
“Why, how authentic is your cooking?”
“I was born and raised in Toelar and was taught to cook by my mother and grandmother.”
At that moment a ditty came to me.
“In Toelar the spice,
Does that suffice?
The main course I’ll splice,
In a trice
To pour over my rice
On your advice
For a side order of ice?”
“You claim to be a poet?”
“I’m rusty, I’ve written nothing but political doggerel for a month and recent events have shown me that I need to purge it from my system.”
“Some good Toelar cooking will purge anything from a man’s system.” She studied me carefully for a while. “By the look of your face you’ve not had a good day. I’ll tell you what, in half an hour the patrons will all be assembled who’re coming. Tell them the story about how you came to be here, then you’ll get your meal and a glass of ale.”
One of the patrons asked, “What if he feeds the hermit?”
“Them as feeds the hermit get their evening meal. But in his case I’ll throw in breakfast and a night sleeping on the common room floor.”
“Feeds the hermit?” I asked, a little nervously. I’d heard of strange rites and rituals that strangers could be sucked into in even the most ordinary village.
“Don’t worry about it.” She changed the topic, “Look, more customers coming in. They’ll be ready for your story soon.
Believe it or not, Beetfield is so quiet that the rumour that there would be storytelling at the New Inn brought in extra custom without the Landlady having to go so far as to advertise my presence. Still I told them the tale. Not merely of the day but of the month leading up to it. It might be said I embroidered, but in all candour what happened was salutary enough without me striving ostentatiously to outrage verisimilitude. Looking back it was a good tale, well told.
Indeed when I finished one of the patrons stood up, thanked me and said that he hoped the younger ones present would see my tale for the parable that it was. All his contemporaries nodded sagely and all the young ones squirmed and somehow gave the impression that if they ever ventured into those circles, they would not make my mistakes. Still the oldster, at the end of his homily, asked for another glass of beer to be served to me, to be put on his slate. Several others took his example to heart, and I had a cheerful half hour. My full plate was put before me and to be honest it was excellent. The spices were not merely hot, they had within them a subtlety and sweetness that I found enchanting. I sat, eating, chatting and laughing with my new found acquaintances until suddenly there was this strange wail.
“Ah,” said the landlady, “The hermit needs feeding.”
With that she dashed into the kitchen and soon returned, carrying a basket.
“Be careful with this, in the pan is a stew. It’s twice as hot as yours, it’ll make your eyes water. The bottle is beer, and there’s a chunk of decent bread and butter. Give it to him and when he’s eaten it fetch the basket and everything back.”
“Where is the hermit?”
Just follow the path across the road from the Inn. It leads through the wood. You’ll know when you’ve got there by the noise.
I ventured out of the front door and saw the path. Greatly daring I followed it. It went into the wood and then seemed to turn east, leading through the wood, then between some cottages and across a track before plunging into another wood. It was from within that wood that the noise seemed to emanate. There was an eldritch wailing, punctuated occasionally by howls. Cautiously I followed the path, my spirits buoyed by the quantity of good ale I had drunk.
I eventually came out of the wood and there was a pleasant enough stone built hut, its walls rendered, its roof apparently sound. It was surrounded by a garden and looked out over some lower land where I could see ponds in the distance. A man, older than me but barely more than middle aged, sat on a tree stump. He was playing the Partannese bagpipe. Badly. As he played his dog howled along. The dog saw me, barked and the man stopped playing.
He produced a spoon and a fork from out of his jacket and when I passed him the pan he set to with a zest. Finally he broke a little off the lump of bread and used it to wipe out the pan. “By heck young fella, I were ready for that.”
As he appreciatively drank his beer I tried to weigh him up. “So you’re the hermit.”
He gestured around him. “Behold my humble hermit abode.”
I took in the flourishing vegetable garden. “You’re not doing badly for yourself.”
He pondered my words. “Well, I’ve got my garden, there’s fish and frogs and what-have-you in the ponds, and I even catch the occasional wildfowl with my snares. Then of course I get a good meal every night.”
“So how did you end up a hermit?”
“Marriage, I were left heartbroken by marriage.”
I settled myself comfortably on a neighbouring stump. There was obviously a tale to hear.
“Aye, ah married well. A fine wife.” He gazed nostalgically into the empty pan.
“So what went wrong?”
“Ah married too well. I should have stopped with one wife, two was unwise and three was just downright greedy.”
I hazarded a guess, “And they found out about each other?”
“Did they just! There were no reasoning with them. In the end I am sorry to say I had to lay down the law to make them see sense.”
“Did it work?” I think my incredulity was obvious in my tone.
“No. I left in haste and travelled for some weeks until I ended up here.” He looked round with a satisfied air. “I sat outside the New Inn and somebody asked me who I was. In a moment of inspiration I said, “I’m a hermit, looking for somewhere to settle.”
Well that flummoxed them so they went back into the inn. Looking back this village doesn’t have a lot. It doesn’t have the sort of things villages need to raise themselves above the level of hamlet. But as they talked it over in the bar it must have occurred to them that having a hermit would give them an edge over lesser villages which lacked the amenity. So they came back out and offered me the job. Well we negotiated, I pointed out that hermits aren’t cheap. I cannot sit here all day meditating on the great eternal questions on an empty stomach.”
I looked round into the gathering evening gloom. “It doesn’t strike me that you’re overwhelmed with folk asking you deep and meaningful questions.”
“Wrong time of day for that. Folk know that I’ll be here at noon every day. They ask me the question one day and I’ll meditate on it. Or at least I’ll think it over as I go about my various chores. Then next day at noon, I’ll give them my answer.”
He passed me the pan back. “Anyway you’d better get back, you’ll get lost in the dark.”
As I stood up I asked him. “So anything you’ve learned being a hermit?”
“Yes, life is better if you’re a hermit who cannot play the pipes than if you’re a competent musician who can.”
Jim’s style is unique, and always great fun to read. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard can be found on this blog.
His general blog is very interesting too.
I can recommend his great value books, available from Amazon.
Here is his author page and short bio.
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