You know how it happens, there are two of you sitting drinking and then, suddenly and before you know it, there are three. So we sat in companionable conversation with our new friend Edard and swapped experiences. It struck me at one point that we were three men, no longer as young as we had been. Somehow we’d survived but not in a way our mothers might have mapped out for us.
Edard too was an artist, a poet of sorts and a passable painter. But whilst we had made great efforts to stay true to our art, Edard had almost taunted his muse, trifled with her and forced her to follow after him in her shift, barefoot and weeping.
It wasn’t that he was work-shy and shiftless, far from it. He sat there in the working dress of a day labourer, coarse trews and a grey shirt with no collar, drinking brown ale and eating bread and cheese like a man with no cares in the world. At the moment the building trade was quiet so he was earning his living by standing near public buildings with currycomb and brush, offering to groom the horses of travellers whilst they were in meetings. In his own words ‘it’s no way for a chap to make a living but it’s better than being hungry.’
He’d done other things. I liked his tale about cockles. You can see folk out on the sands with their rakes, working their way across the mud raking up cockles. The cockle-pickers have their own areas and they and the shore-combers will only cross onto each others’ beds by agreement. Knives have been drawn and feuds started for less.
But anyway one day, in a brief afternoon of idleness, he watched the cockle-pickers at work, raking away and slowly filling great sacks which they staggered ashore with. There each would be met by the appropriate tallyman. These broad-bellied individuals would place the sack on their scales and pay the wretch perhaps three vintenars for a full sack. You’d need to fill two sacks to have a decent payday which probably means you’d have to go out on both tides.
Now as a boy he’d been reared further down the coast and he always remembered what an old man had told him. When the water was over the sands you could see the cockles, you didn’t need to rake. He saw a chance here to perhaps make a little money whilst he waited for trade to pick up.
He had a word with a chap he knew who did a bit of fishing from a small boat. As an aside Edard knew an inordinately large number of people. In retrospect, given his ability to sit in bars and just talk to anybody, this can hardly be surprising but still, once you know Edard, (Edard Rei, tallish chap, friendly, still with the sort of accent you get from the south.) it is surprising how many other people you know have also met him.
Anyway next morning Edard is up at some ungodly hour to be out at high tide. So he was there before the other cockle-pickers turned out. He walked out until the water was lapping round his calves and walked diagonally along the tide front, then walked back again. Every so often he’d see a cockle, still feeding, and rapidly stoop and pluck it from the top of the sand. After a couple of hours he’d almost filled his bag, indeed it was starting to weigh heavy on him.
Now at this point he was also potentially in trouble. The other cockle-pickers were arriving because there was now a worthwhile amount of sand to rake. They soon realised that whilst they could rake with enthusiasm, the cockles just weren’t there any more. Whilst I doubt he’d taken them all, he’d certainly made a considerable inroad into numbers.
From Edard’s account, at this point the cockle-pickers split into two factions. One faction wanted to stride out and assault him and take the cockles. The other faction pointed out that they merely had to wait and the cockle thief would have to bring their cockles back to them anyway. The argument put forward by the second faction seemed reasonable enough so the cockle-pickers kept on raking, keeping a sharp eye seaward.
His sack full, Edard waved to his acquaintance fishing from his small boat. The friend brought the boat closer and Edard waded out to it, slung the bag into the boat, climbed in after it, and they sailed across the bay to Saskerdil.
Once there he sought out Wiggil Pune, purveyor of fine shellfish. He offered the contents of his sack to Wiggil and was immediately paid ten vintenars cash, on the spot. Even after giving three to his ferryman, he was still quids in.
But next morning he still had no work, nobody in the building trade was hiring. Now he couldn’t reprise yesterday’s stratagem, the cockle-pickers would be on to him.
Instead he went down and stood among the tallymen. When the cockle-pickers starting bringing their sacks, rather than bickering over scales, he merely offered the first to approach him four vintenars for the bag. Obviously the woman sold it to him. This he slung over his shoulder, walked down to the Roskadil ferry. From Roskadil it was a comparatively short walk to Wiggil Pune’s emporium in Saskerdil where Wiggil paid him his ten vintners.
Now this wasn’t as profitable as picking his own and travelling by boat, but frankly it was easier and there was less chance of him being beaten up by irate cockle-pickers. Admittedly the tallymen were less than happy with him but from them at least he was safe. The man who pays four when everybody else is paying three will never lack for friends amongst the cockle-pickers.
It was on the third day that he was late, and arrived at the Roskadil ferry terminus to meet Wiggil Pune on the far side of the estuary about to board the ferry back to Port Naain with his handcart. Wiggil inspected the sack, paid ten vintenars and the contents were added to the cart.
Now Edard’s curiosity was aroused. So rather than follow his usual practice of converting his ready cash into essentials, such as nutty brown ale drunk in good company, Edard quietly followed Wiggil.
Wiggil Pune and his handcart made their way to the Revenue Cutter Square market. Here the handcart became a stall and Edard, watching inconspicuously from afar, discovered his cockles were being sold as ‘Finest Saskerdil Cockles, infinitely superior to those grubbed out of the mud of Port Naain.’
Now it has to be said that if I was hunting for a bargain, trying to make my dregs stretch further than normal, I would not frequent the Revenue Cutter Square market. It is surrounded by nice housing and prosperous people abound in the area. People perfectly happy to pay that little bit extra for their pleasures. After watching for a while, Edard calculated that the sack of cockles he had sold to Wiggil for ten vintenars was sold on to a discerning clientele for not less than thirty vintenars.
Poor Edard had to make his unsteady way to a nearby public house and fortify himself with not less than four tankards of their brown ale.
Now a lesser man might well have remonstrated with Wiggil, but Edard was not so petty. Instead, next day he borrowed a handcart, purchased three sacks of cockles and boarded the ferry across the estuary. That morning in Saskerdil he set out his stall, selling ‘Finest Naainese Cockles as supplied to the gentlefolk of that city, infinitely superior to those grubbed out of the mud of Saskerdil.’
His cockles sold for an unfeasible amount of money, he slipped into the Roskadil Pier Hotel on his way back to the ferry to quench his thirst. He was drinking their brown ale out of a stone tankard and pondering his day. Yes he had made a lot of money, but he had risen before dawn, pushed three sacks of cockles a considerable distance and had spent the best part of the day in the market square shouting his wares.
As he savoured his second tankard he was approached by a factor he knew, a chap who dealt with a lot of people in the building trade.
“Edard, I’m putting together a gang to work on a big building job in Avitas.”
Edard raised his glass in salute. “And what would you be after paying me?”
“Well I’m telling everybody seven vintenars a day, but there could be a bonus if we finish early.”
Edard contemplated two possible futures. In one, and this no doubt is the one his muse was pressing for, he build up a business, achieved prosperity and was able to give time to his art. In the other, he worked, was paid, and worrying was something other people did.
He drained his tankard and stood up. “Seven vintenars, well sir, I’m your man.”
I have framed a pencil sketch he did of cockle pickers. Every time I look at it I can hear his muse softly weeping.
As an aside, should you feel the urge to save me having to pick cockles or dangle from roof trusses trying to to make rafters fit, you could always avail yourself of the chance to purchase ‘Shower me with Gold, and other stories.’