I’m not sure how many of you have eaten at Granny Muggart’s Eatery? It’s just off the Ropewalk in Port Naain. Granny Muggart died long before my time, it was her daughter, ‘Young Muggart’ who ran it. She and her husband still used her mother’s recipe and still served up the same single dish.
This was a stew which contained a reasonable amount of meat, a fair dollop of vegetables, and gravy which was frankly delicious beyond words. You paid your half-vintenar as you entered, and ‘the husband’ would hand you a bread trencher. You took your place on a bench at one of the long tables and waited while Young Muggart circulated with a large pot of stew. She would pour a generous ladle full over the trencher, and if she decided you were obviously still hungry, she might appear later with another ladle full.
Now a half-vintenar isn’t really a lot of money, a working man would earn between twenty and thirty a week. If you ate at Granny Muggart’s you were set up for the day and might not even need another proper meal. On the other hand, if you’re a working poet, silver rarely crosses your path. On the occasions when I did have the money to dine there, I was normally scrabbling through a handful of low denomination copper and brass coinage trying to fund my dining.
At some point, I’m not entirely sure when Selamin appeared. She took over the task of carrying the stew pot and ladle. This allowed Young Muggart to retire to the kitchen and concentrate on cooking. To be fair, Young Muggart was well into her sixties at this point and as she used to say, “This stew pot isn’t getting any lighter.”
Selamin was tall, elegant, and walked with her back straight. There was no nonsense about downcast eyes; if you talked to her she would look straight at you. As far as I could make out, she just appeared one morning and Young Muggart gave her the job. She wasn’t from Port Naain; that much we could tell from her accent. The best guess was that she was from the mountain communities to the east of Partann.
A handsome woman working in a place like that will get a lot of attention. She had a dry sense of humour and I know there were men who teased her purely for the joy of the repartee. Certainly, nobody ever seemed at all put out by her rejoinders, which could be both well observed and cutting. But this was Granny Muggart’s Eatery, nobody took liberties. Well when I said nobody, apparently Blatter Foredecks did. I wasn’t there at the time and the stories do vary in detail, but he might have pinched her bottom as she passed. Apparently, she turned around at speed and caught him a blow with the back of her hand that lifted him off the bench he was sitting on and dumped him on the floor. Two customers silently picked him up, threw him out of the door and returned to their lunch as if nothing had happened.
This incident, repeatedly retold and embroidered, ensured that Selamin had no more trouble. On the other hand, it posed a problem for Gord Boxpacker. He was a slinger, the man who ensured that the load was properly fastened to the crane hook; a skilled job and one that took a bit of brawn as well. He was also smitten by Selamin.
Now, this wouldn’t normally be a problem, he would merely invite her to dine with him one evening. Yet having seen Blatter Foredecks dragged out by his heels, he felt that the question would have to be posed appropriately. Thus and so, one day he nipped into the kitchen and asked Young Muggart if it would be proper to ask Selamin to accompany him one evening. Young Muggart, shrewd enough to realize Gord was treating her as if she was Selamin’s mother, nodded wisely and said that she would ask the young woman for him.
A somewhat nervous Gord retired to his seat and continued eating his lunch. When Selamin went into the kitchen to get her stew pot refilled, Gord was almost trembling with nervousness. It appears that in the kitchen Young Muggart not merely passed on Gord’s request but added to it her own opinion of Gord, his character, and prospects. Selamin pondered this, and when she returned to the dining room marched straight up to Gord. Gord told me many years later he wasn’t sure what to expect and wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if she’d emptied the stew pot over him. Instead, she thanked him nicely and said that if he would be so kind as to collect her when she finished work she would be delighted to accompany him.
When Selamin left the Diner after work she almost didn’t recognise Gord. His mother delighted that her great lump of a son might finally be off her hands, had insisted on him bathing and had then cut his hair and made sure he shaved properly. His three married sisters had also got word of it and had each ransacked her husband’s wardrobe to provide garments that would probably fit with a little adjustment. So as he waited, resplendent in clothes that he’d never worn before, Gord could well have been mistaken for a person of consequence.
There again, Gord was left speechless by the lady who took his arm. Young Muggart had contacted her taller friends and these had turned out their wardrobes for dresses they hadn’t worn for twenty years or more. Between them, they had not merely dressed Selamin, but had even provided her with a hat and parasol.
Gord bowed low before taking her arm and asked if she had anywhere in mind. Selamin thought briefly and commented that the Flensers had a good name and apparently there was an entertainment on this evening. So without hesitation, Gord escorted her to the Flensers, he paid at the door and led her towards the buffet.
Now, this is where I come into the picture. The entertainment that evening was me, Tallis Steelyard, the leading poet of his generation. I would first greet people when they entered and then, once folk were settled and had something to eat, then I would start. Selamin I recognized, Gord I knew by sight, so of course, I greeted them by name as they came in and extemporized a verse.
Sky kissing mountains blush red
As rosy Dawn, adorned with jasmine
Retires defeated to bed
Outshone by the beautifully Selamin
Gord then commented that I hadn’t greeted him with a verse, so I merely said,
If you lacquer a box packer
The sling will sing
But it’ll knacker the tracker
And swinge the spring.
At that, he just laughed and they entered the buffet.
Looking back on the night I think I put on a good show. I gave them some of my verses, a few of the great classics, and a couple of stories which got them chuckling. So there was something to entertain everybody. I frankly confess I thought no more about it, until next day, briefly flush with funds, I decided I could afford to dine at Granny Muggart’s Eatery. Selamin served me and said, in passing. “I enjoyed the evening.”
“Good, I’m glad you liked it.”
“I like poetry.”
I scribbled an address on a piece of paper. “Well, there’s going to be an evening of poetry at the Fatted Mott. Entry is free, just come along.”
Two nights later, Selamin, with Gord in tow, arrived and listened to some of this city’s finest young poets competing with each other in verse. After that, the pair of them would often appear at various events. Indeed they became stalwarts of the scene, so much so that when they did get married, we provided the entertainment at their wedding breakfast as our wedding present to them.
It was some years later that Selamin came to the barge where Shena and I live. Shena invited her in and led her to a seat. Selamin sat up, absolutely straight, clutching a bag. Finally, after she’d been offered coffee she opened the bag and pushed a manuscript across to me.
“Tallis, I’ve written some poetry, is it any good?”
I suppose there are two ways to answer a question like that. The first is to glance at it, then smile blandly and exclaim that it has potential. The other way is to read it and give an honest answer. Most people chose the first way because it’s safer and you lose fewer friends. I felt Selamin deserved honesty so rather than skimming, I sat and read the first poem. Then I read it again, more slowly. Then I read it aloud. Silently I put the manuscript down. “Selamin, your work is good.”
She permitted herself to smile a little and I got on with reading the next few pages. Eventually, Shena prodded me. “Well, are you going to sit there all evening reading or are you going to talk to us?”
Somewhat reluctantly I closed the manuscript. “The only topic for discussion is how we can get this published.”
Shena asked, “So it’s that good?”
I stood up. “I have to be at the house of Madam Hanchkillian, she is giving a small entertainment. If Selamin accompanies me, I will introduce her and see if Madam will look at funding publication.”
Selamin looked shocked. She stood up and gestured to her clothes. “I cannot visit a lady like her dressed like this!”
“Nonsense, you’re a poet.” Without giving her a chance to hesitate further, I formally took her arm and led her out of the cabin. We walked across the city to the Hanchkillian mansion. As I hoped, we were early. As always I went to the front door. I was expected and as I swept in, Selamin still on my arm, I asked if Madam’s factotum, Baltan, was available. It is my experience that you merely have to mention his name and Baltan almost mystically arrives. Yet I have known him long enough to know that he is almost perpetually busy, so he cannot merely be lingering within earshot of the door on the off-chance somebody wanted him.
On this occasion, Baltan was by my side within moments. “You wanted to see me Master Steelyard.”
I bowed to him. “I have discovered a great poet and I wanted to introduce her to Madam as soon as possible.” With that, I handed him the manuscript. He started skimming through it. Then he stopped and started reading it properly. Eventually, he looked up at me. “I will see if Madam has five minutes.”
Madam Bellin Hanchkillian is a redoubtable widowed lady who owns a measurable proportion of the city of Port Naain. She has any number of offspring and they in their turn have presented her with grandchildren, some of whom have in their turn presented her with great-grandchildren. Even a family gathering is a large and rumbustious affair. Madam is no longer young but she is still formidable. Thus I have never told her anything less than the truth, however embarrassing the truth may be.
Still, when we were welcomed into her dressing room she smiled at us both. She was holding Selamin’s manuscript and had obviously been reading it.
“So this charming child is the poet you want me to meet?”
The fact that by this time Selamin had four children of her own gives you some idea of Madam’s perspective with regard to age. With a gesture, she dismissed her maids. After they had closed the door behind them she turned to me. “Gratified as I am to be introduced to a new poet, I confess that age has made me cynical and I wonder why?”
As I said, I am always honest with Madam Hanchkillian. “A poet needs exposure. I thought you might like her to read some of her verses to your guests, and then you might like to fund the printing of her manuscript.”
She nodded. “That seems entirely reasonable. But first I need to know a little more about you, Selamin.”
Hesitantly she said, “I worked for Granny Muggart’s Eatery. When Young Muggart decided she was getting too old for it, I now run it with my husband Gord.”
“Most commendable; and your life from before the eatery; your birthplace, how you came to Port Naain?”
I’ve never seen a person’s face just shut down like Selamins. It was as if she had erected shutters in front of her soul. Gently Madam said, “What you say will never leave this room.” She turned to me, “Will it Tallis?”
Rather hastily, I said, “No, of course not.”
All this time Selamin was still holding my arm. I could feel her quivering with tension, finally she said, “I was born in the mountains. There are no villages, not even hamlets, just crofts scattered among the high valleys. When I was in my late teens I was raped by a neighbor, I killed him with his own short sword. My father found me standing over the body, gave me what money he had and told me to flee to Port Naain. He then proceeded to hide the body. I have heard nothing from them since.”
Quietly Madam asked, “Do you have any evidence to support your story. I don’t doubt you, but as a woman of business I need some evidence on which to base my decisions.”
Slowly Selamin shook off her jacket and then took off her blouse. There, strapped to her back, behind her left shoulder, was a short sword in its scabbard.
Madam stood up and walked towards us. She reached up and kissed Selamin on the cheek and then hugged her. At that point, Selamin finally broke down in tears.
Tenderly Madam undid the binding holding the scabbard. As she gently pulled it away she gasped, the scabbard had been there so long it had left an indentation in the flesh. She kissed Selamin again. “And this I shall look after for you should you ever need it.”
Then she turned to me and immediately her voice became brisk. “I think a print run of five hundred seems entirely sensible. After all, I’ll inevitably need over a hundred just to give as presents to friends and suchlike.”
Note from the Author-
Hi, I’m Jim Webster. I’m the person Tallis Steelyard happened to. He started life as a minor character and proceeded to take over!
Tallis has produced six novellas. Five are collections of his short stories, and the sixth is a novella length tale, ‘Tallis Steelyard and the Sedan Chair Caper.’
I’ve also written and published eight novella-length ‘who-dunnits’ also set in Port Naain, in which Tallis plays a minor part.
Finally, there are four novels, in both e-book and paperback set in the same background
These can be found on my Amazon page https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jim-Webster/e/B009UT450I/
Tallis also has a blog at https://tallissteelyard.wordpress.com/about/
I also have another blog which has more dogs, sheep, quad bikes and general observations of the world in general. I even do the occasional comment about writing.