It was Chris Graham who reminded me, jogging my memory when he sent me the old picture. There the man was, metaphorically at least, staring out of the paper. Mord Filch. I suspect that in his day he was one of the most respected doctors in Port Naain. He had a flourishing practice, his cupping glasses rarely had time to cool and his heated needles were always hot.
Yet he was a man of many parts, and he was also a member of the Society of Minor Poets. He never wrote much poetry, (which in a minor poet is a trait worthy of encouragement.) On the other hand he was a stalwart of the afternoon and evening entertainment we put of the denizens of Ropewalk. He would throw himself into any role, however undignified and regarded the whole thing as great fun.
Now I don’t know whether you know the operetta Bagstuff? The two main protagonists are the renowned Doctor Bagstuff and his assistant Diddlewilly. There’s a comic duet between the two of them in the first act where they mock the pretensions of their patents, their fellow practitioners and local worthies. It’s one of those songs where you always add an extra verse to update it. Now Mord suggested that he and I do this duet as part of the programme. He pointed out that I have a rather fine tenor voice, perfect for the good Doctor, whilst his own bass would serve adequately for Diddlewilly. I thought about it only briefly and agreed.
We practiced together a time or two, and when the time came for the dress rehearsal I called at his house. Here he provided me with the black gown of Certified Doctor and dispenser of physic, pills and lotions. He had borrowed this from a colleague for me. He dressed himself in the altogether coarser brown garb of an assistant. Then we made our way out onto the road and headed for the ex-dried grape and carpet warehouse that would be our theatre.
Mord stopped me at one point and pointed out that whilst I move with natural grace and have exquisite poise, this wasn’t how somebody as lordly as the great Doctor Bagstuff would walk. Under his direction I acquired an arrogant strut, and appeared to survey the world through my nostrils. This was amusing us greatly. Indeed I passed unrecognised by two creditors and a bailiff, so convincing my demeanour.
We were on the edge of the Merchant’s Quarter when a tall imperious woman stepped out of a house, saw us and immediately walked across.
“Doctor, you are needed in this house now.”
I was about to defer to Mord when the old rogue stepped forward and said, “My distinguished master will be happy to be of assistance.”
We followed the woman up some narrow stairs into a small bedroom. She showed me in and I found myself in the presence of a heavily pregnant young woman struggling to give birth. I turned to speak to Mord, only to find that the harridan was denying him entrance.
“Madam, pray let my assistant come in.”
She used outrage to give a fine edge to her snobbery. “No, it is not seemly.”
“Madam, if I cannot have my assistant than I am afraid you must strip to your drawers to help me as matters will inevitably become messy.”
This gave her pause and Mord, bless him, took the opportunity to slip past. He sized up the patient whilst all the while appearing to gaze worshipfully at me. I on the other hand was somewhat at a loss at this point. Yes I know the mechanics of the situation, one is trying to pass a piano through a top hat, without damaging either piano or hat. I took the young woman’s wrist like so and appeared to take her pulse. The older woman showed no sign of leaving us, and Mord appeared to be worried about our patient. At this point the patient joined in, convulsing and giving a cry which must have been heard in the street. I sprang into action.
“Madam, go to Sopwin’s immediately and get two measures of his infused suppositories.”
She looked at me open mouthed, she was clearly unused to taking orders. I adopted my most high-handed tone. “Madam, you are still here. Are you lacking finance, directions or wits?”
With that I slapped my hands together, “Are you going it now, or do you intend to wait until the baby is old enough to push you there in your bath chair?”
With that she left, we could hear her footsteps on the stairs, then the front door slammed with a bang that I swear I felt through the soles of my shoes. (In all candour they were thin enough.) With that I turned to Mord. “Right, get on with it.”
He reached into an inside pocket and pulled out a vial which he held under the patient’s nose. She relaxed slightly. “Right Tallis, get downstairs and fetch up some hot water.”
Our patient felt obliged to be helpful. “Cook was told to have some ready.”
“Excellent and fetch up some warm towels as well Tallis.”
By the time I returned accompanied by the cook, Mord was kneeling on the bed between the young woman’s legs, muttering something I couldn’t catch.
“Right girl, push now.”
His patient seemed keen to oblige, but Mord held out the vial to me, “Let her have a sniff of this. Not too much, I want to dull the pain, but the last thing we need is her to fall asleep.”
I waved the vial vaguely under her nose, not letting it get too close. As I did so she gave a big push and then grasped my hand with both of hers, dragging the vial closer to her nose. For a brief moment I had a vision of her falling asleep and wondered just how cutting and sarcastic Mord would be with me. Then common sense reasserted itself and I tried to pull the vial away. Frantically the pair of us wrestled for it. Then she convulsed again and Mord gave a brief cheer and our patient stopped and looked at him.
“Let her have a good sniff, but not too long.”
I obeyed his instruction, vague though it was. Then Mord appeared next to me holding a small baby wrapped in a warm towel. “Here you are girl, a daughter for you. As bonny as you could hope for.”
I helped the young woman get comfortable and then Mord handed her the child. Then with the assistance of the cook (a sensible lady, who had been through the process herself a number of times) Mord got the young woman presentable. I slipped down to the parlour and helped myself to a large glass from the decanter.
Eventually Mord joined me at the decanter. He drained his glass in one. “Right young Tallis, we’ve got a rehearsal to attend.”
“And our patient?”
“Sore, happy, and in the excellent hands of the cook. She’s told me who the family doctor is and I’ll make sure he drops round tomorrow.”
With that we made our way out into the street. Suddenly he stopped, “What on earth do you want suppositories for anyway?”
“God’s alone knows, but it was the only medical term I could think of at the time.”
We walked on a little. “I’m a bit worried she might try and use them when she comes back.”
I shook my head. “I’m not; Sopwin’s a purveyor of root vegetables and has a dry sense of humour.”
Should you wish to explore further the world of Tallis Steelyard, then try
Tallis Steelyard. The Festival, and other stories.
As one reviewer wrote, “Another selection of tales from Port Naain, as told by jobbing poet Tallis Steelyard. Read about the underpinnings of dancing matrons, the secret beneath the undergarments of a gentlewoman of the town, the resurrection of a dead mercenary, and much more. This is a gentle comedy of manners in a world so different from our own. The author writes affectionately of his world and his characters, and I share that affection. Lovely stuff.”