I’ve mentioned Sarl Onwater before. He was a good man, a lover of literature and the arts and a true friend to all who are fated to follow their muse to the exclusion of all lesser drives.
Hence when he sent me a message wondering if I would be so kind as to attend upon him at his home, I was there within the hour. I was received in his library. This was the library of a man of letters. Every book looked as if it had been read. There were books of all sizes jumbled together on the shelves, authors with their work placed together no matter how they were published. This was most definitely not the library of a man who purchased the contents of his shelves by the yard.
His whole demeanour when he greeted me was a strange mixture of fear and elation. “Tallis, I may have heard from Sintha Creel.”
Now if true this was indeed interesting news. Sintha Creel was, without doubt, one of the greatest poets to draw breath. His work can, at times, be genuinely described as sublime. Not only that but he could write short stories of breath taking elegance which can still leave me in tears, and he also published three novels. As they’re still in print I hardly need to describe them to you.
The problem with Creel is that he tended to shun publicity or even the company of his fellows. Now there are times when I feel that if I was forced to be courteous to another bumptious self-proclaimed poet of genius, I would flee the city and make my living by selling mushrooms, the sort that shun light and have to be collected by night. Still there are other times when having tried to explain the rudiments of meter to some clod for the fifth time; I get this overwhelming urge to beat them insensible with a thesaurus before disappearing to make my living as a professional wrestler of squid in some travelling circus. I say this to try and show you that Creel differed from the rest of us only in degree.
But Creel had taken this difference further, he had disappeared and nobody had heard anything from him for years. But now we had a message. All is said, in a somewhat shaky hand, was
‘43 Dunnet Stairway. Fetch drink. Sintha Creel.’
Sarl Onwater showed me the note. “Could you find where he is and see if you can make contact?”
I reassured him that I would be delighted to try, Sarl then poured money into my pockets because he suspected it might be expensive. I returned home and shared the note with my beloved wife Shena, and Mutt. It was Mutt who pointed out that one of the great buildings in the Warrens had a ‘Dunnet Stairway.’
“Is it dangerous?”
Mutt just looked at me, “Who to?”
I tried rephrasing the question. “Look, can I go there without being robbed, beaten, stabbed or eaten?”
“Yeah, it’s not that bad.” He paused a while, looking at me carefully and added, “Probably.”
Shena asked, “What do you mean, probably?”
“Well as long as he keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t try and spout poetry at people and doesn’t offend folk, he should be safe.”
Shena turned to me. “I think you’d better take Mutt with you then dear.”
& & &
Dunnet Stairway was just a stairway off a crowded entrance hall. The two heavies at the bottom stopped us and wanted to know our business. Mutt said, “Want number forty-three.”
“Yeah and there’s a visitors’ fee.”
“Don’t come that crap with me.”
“Shuttup kid and had over the money; three dregs each.”
“No kid, smacking you round the head and taking it all is robbery.”
I felt I had to interrupt. “And that wasn’t even original.”
The heavy who’d spoken glared at me. “Suddenly everybody’s a bluidy critic. It’s not supposed to be original; the humour comes from the recognition of the cliché.”
“No, irony is no substitute for genuine humour and wit. If you cannot manage some originality then …” At this point I was distracted from what I was saying by somebody tugging my arm. I looked down, it was Mutt.
“Look Tallis, just shut up and pay the man.”
Remembering his comments previously I handed the man some change. The two thugs stepped aside and let us past. We climbed the grimy stairs. They had obviously been polished stone at one point, or at least faced with polished stone, but in many places the facing stone had been removed revealing the core of brick. At regular intervals there were small landings with doors off, and occasionally the wall was pierced by a window which allowed in what little light there was. Finally we reached the fourth landing and Mutt knocked on the door marked forty-three. It opened and a large fat man glared out at us.
Given that he probably couldn’t see Mutt over his paunch I felt I better take over the conversation. “We have come to see Sintha Creel, we were told he is at this address.”
“Right, visitors, pay up. I’ve got better things to do with my time that act like a hall porter.”
I dropped more change into his hand and he let us in. The room was sparsely furnished, with one chair and three people sleeping on pallets put down on the floor. There was a door off to one side, but rather more interestingly, there was no window, it had been replaced with a curtain. I looked round, “Where is master Creel?”
The fat man scowled. “Got to do everything now have I.”
With that he walked across to the curtain and twitched it aside. “He’s got the one with two walls and a roof?”
With that he retired through the other door, closing it after him. Mutt and I went to the curtain. It seems that this room had originally had a balcony looking out over an internal light well in the middle of the building. But the balcony had been extended; timbers had been thrust out over the abyss and suspended from the balconies above. Cautiously I followed Mutt out along one of the timbers. It seemed stout enough, but also it looked to be of considerable age and there were signs of worm damage. Off to both sides of us there were shacks, their floors consisting of boards laid between one timber and the next, their walls everything from timber to tar paper. At one point there was a gap between the boards and I could see down to the floor of another shack below me.
Creel’s shack was now obvious; it was at the end of the timber and protruded out from under the floors above, so it was necessary to give it a roof. Mutt twitched the curtain aside as I looked past the shack. We were barely four feet from the shacks suspended from the far wall. At some point somebody would doubtless join the timbers together to cross the gap. Above I could see some sky, bordered by an irregular frame created by the differing levels of improvised accommodation above me. Shuddering a little I followed Mutt past the curtain, but remained in the doorway. The floor of the shack and the two walls were covered in tarpaper, whether to disguise the soundness of the timbers or to fill in gaps I don’t know. But whatever formed the floor of the shack sagged somewhat even under Mutt’s light weight and I saw no need to venture further. A figure was seated on the one chair and was leaning on the one table. Tentatively I asked, “Master Creel?”
The figure groaned, and groped for the bottle on the table. This uncoordinated movement succeeded only in knocking the bottle to the floor. Mutt grabbed it and looked inside. “Empty.”
The figure gave a despairing cry, “Don’t steal my bottle.”
“Empty,” Mutt repeated.
“It weren’t. It were full.”
“Well it ain’t now,” Mutt said in tones of absolute certainty.
I cautiously walked into the room, testing my weight on every step. “Master Creel?”
“What you want.”
“Are you Master Creel?”
“What of it if I am?” The figure almost sat up and faced me, “What if I am, what’s in it for me?”
“Are you the writer of ‘Quiet hours on the Paraeba’?”
Truculently the figure glared at me, “Yeah.”
I had my doubts, so asked “Are you the writer of Lambent Dreams?” This being my own work, if he claimed this he was just some drunk.
“Never heard of it.”
“What about ‘Hastening slowly, an unfinished anthology’?”
I was beginning to suspect that this might indeed be Creel.
The figure slumped down again and I pondered my next words.
“What you want?” The figure glared at me as if I’d just walked in for the first time.
“I wanted to talk about ‘Hastening Slowly.’
“Never heard of it, what’s it about?”
The figure groped across the table. “Where’s my bottle?”
Mutt said, “It’s here.”
The man grabbed at Mutt. “Steal old Creel’s bottle would you, you little bastard.”
Mutt sidestepped the clumsy lunge and Creel fell off the chair and lay on the floor, snoring.
He was obviously very drunk. I looked round the shack. There were a few rags which might have been a bed. Next to them were some papers. I flicked through them; they were almost illegible, written in an unsteady hand. There was something in the length of the lines that hinted to me that it might be poetry. By the bed was an opening in the floor. I peered through it. In the room below they’d put up an improvised patch of roof to protect themselves from whatever came from the gap. The stench of stale vomit rose up out of the hole.
I looked long and hard at the face of the sleeping man. I had never known Creel well, but I was certain it was him. I made my decision. I shook him. “Come on, we’re going.”
He opened his eyes, “Going nowhere without a drink.”
“We’ll get you a drink when we get outside.”
“No, need a drink now.”
“I’ve got none on me.”
“Buy it from Fatty, he makes it.”
I passed Mutt some coin and he left. Creel was asleep again. “Come on, wake up.”
“What you want?”
“We’re taking you for a drink.”
“I don’t drink, I’m a poet.” With this he suddenly turned and lurched towards the hole in the floor. He vomited and some of it probably went down the hole, the rest ended up on his bedding. He wiped his face with the papers and thrust them down the hole.
Mutt arrived back with a bottle. I uncorked it and looked round for something to pour it into. Unsteadily Creel sat up, “Give it me.”
I passed the bottle to him and he grabbed it unsteadily and stared at it, struggling to focus. Then he drank from it. I made to take the bottle off him but he clutched it protectively to his chest. “Thieving bastards, buy your own.”
Mutt said quietly, “Fatty said he’s not going anywhere till he’s paid his back rent.”
I asked, “How much does he owe?”
I looked round. “If he’d lived here since the beginning of time it still wouldn’t amount to two alars.”
“So what do we do, we cannot run past him carrying that.” Mutt gestured contemptuously to Creel who was drinking from the bottle again.
“There might be a back way. Can we put the table across from this beam to the next and go down through a different stair?”
Mutt went out and surveyed the situation. “It’ll reach, but it’ll still cost, you’ll have to pay those at the other door.”
I gestured to the table. “Let’s just do it. I’ve had as much of this place as I can stand.”
& & &
Putting the table across was easy. I sent Mutt over first with some loose change for the people whose abode we would be so inconsiderately entering. Then I went back for Creel. The bottle was already two thirds empty.
I tried to pull him up onto his feet but he stayed obdurately seated, clutching the bottle. So I grabbed his feet and pulled. He bounced along after me cursing and weeping and clutching his bottle lest anything happen to it. I had intended to approach the table cum bridge with caution, but now that I’d got Creel moving I just kept going, almost running as I dragged him. We were virtually across before the table shifted and started falling, but fortunately the proud home owner of the shack we were invading grabbed one of Creel’s legs and helped pull him in. Creel lay in a heap and started snoring again.
I asked my newfound assistant, “Want to earn more?”
He awarded me with a gap toothed smile. Mutt picked up Creel’s bottle and said quietly, “I think he’s deaf and dumb.
I pressed a silver vintenar into the man’s hand and his eyes lit up with delight. Then together we stood Creel up and threw his arms over our shoulders. Unsteadily we made our way out along the beam towards the balcony. I was first, walking sideways, with Creel and my new assistant following me. Creel suddenly lurched backwards towards Mutt, trying to regain his bottle. I pulled desperately in the direction of the balcony and felt the relative solidity of the floor under my feet. I tugged again and the three of us ended up in a heap on the balcony. Mutt skipped past us and held the bottle under Creel’s nose. He roared and leapt to his feet, charging after Mutt, howling and cursing, whilst I and my assistant disentangled ourselves and set off in pursuit. We caught up with them at the bottom of the stairs; Creel had finally fallen, and lay sprawled, vomiting up what he’d just drunk. Mutt stood between two doormen who glared at the stinking mess on the floor. One pointed at me.
“So what ‘appens now then? You think you’re just going to clear off and leave us to stand in the bluidy stuff? Well it ain’t going to happen.”
I turned to my newly recruited assistant. “Can you clean this up?” I spoke slowly and carefully, and he mimed getting down on his knees and scrubbing.
“Yes please.” I slipped another vintenar into his hand, then I turned round to the two men who were watching Creel with undisguised contempt. “He’s going to clean up; I’ll get the drunk away for you.”
One of them spat on the floor, which struck me as being as eloquent as anything either of them could have said. I grabbed Creel’s feet and started pulling. It wasn’t graceful but so far it had been the most successful method I’d found of moving him. He was howling and shouting behind me but it was largely incoherent. At the foot of the steps, out on what passed for the street, I halted. Mutt stood there talking to the driver of a passing dung cart. He turned to me. “He’ll give us a lift if the money is right.”
By that stage in the proceedings I’d have paid gold to hire the cart. The driver and I threw Creel onto the back and he lay among the horse muck clutching his bottle and giggling at some joke we weren’t about to share. I despatched Mutt on ahead to home of Sarl Onwater to warn them we were coming. I felt that whilst I might have been more tactful, Mutt’s brutal honesty would serve our cause just as well, and frankly I didn’t want to be the one to break the news to Sarl.
To be fair to Sarl, he didn’t just sent the servants to meet us. He came himself, and personally helped me get Creel out of the cart. He tipped the driver then with the help of two footmen, we got Creel stripped and into a bath.
& & &
Not a lot more to say really. Sarl did try; a son could have done no more for his father. I used to go and visit, because I’d loved some of Creel’s work. Creel died a year or two later, it was a small funeral. Four of us took the body to the boat and Sarl paid the passage money. As we watched them carry the body up the gangplank Sarl merely shook his head, “Somehow, he died years ago.”
Should you want to explore the more salubrious areas of Port Naain
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. It covers the perils of exam invigilation, the problems associated with literary criticism, the benefits gained by hiring erotic dancers and the healing properties of hot water and syrup of figs. An unparalleled guide to the pitfalls which await the honest artist attempting to ply their trade.
As a reviewer commented “If you wonder what comprises the life of a jobbing poet in the town of Port Naain, this little collection of stories will give you some idea. Tallis has a finger in many a pie, arranging soirees for ladies, helping to write and distribute literary journals (and their rivals!). He assists in redistributing the town’s abundance of food and arranges for a man to experience a haunting when he’s accepted the challenge to stay overnight in a disused tower. And that’s just some of it!
Reading these stories of Jim Webster’s is like putting on your slippers and picking up a cuppa. Comfortable, and they make you smile.”