Strangely enough, recently a number of people have asked me to tell them the tale of Stilwater the Squid Wrestler. At one time I told it regularly, but after a short while you realise that there is a danger that too many people have heard it more than once. When they start critiquing not the tale but the way you told it ‘this time’ it’s probably a hint that you ought to broaden your repertoire.
It’s a good tale because there are all sorts of extra details you can add, depending on just how long a space has to be filled in the programme. On the other hand you can tell a somewhat bald and unremarkable version in a couple of minutes. Obviously I feel the latter lacks something. On the other hand I have ultracrepidarians telling me that I know nothing and that brevity is the soul of wit, so who am I to judge?
But back to Stilwater; he wasn’t always a squid wrestler. In his youth he was a simple farm boy, tending his father’s orids. Many a day he would spend out with his faithful dog, ensuring that no harm befell them. Yet to be honest he felt that his task lacked excitement and that life was passing him by.
He was perhaps fourteen when he decided that he needed a complete change of career and made his way to Port Naain. Apparently his original aim had been to make his fortune as a singer of sentimental ballads. He was apparently a rather handsome youth and he felt that where his voice failed him, his face would ride, as it were, to the rescue.
He arrived at the Ropewalk Playhouse for an audition. He was about to step onto the stage when he saw that a puppeteer was preparing his act in the wings opposite. Until this very moment Stilwater hadn’t realised he was a sufferer of Linonopupaphobia. Overwhelmed with terror and revulsion he fled screaming from the theatre and his singing career was over before it had begun.
As chance would have it his path was blocked by a dray. Thinking only of flight he frantically climbed onto the dray only to fall into the large open topped vat the dray was carrying. Now a lesser, or indeed a more rational person, would have been terrified at falling into a vat of squid, but to Stilwater these creatures were far less terrifying than the marionettes he was running from. He was found by Buffwangle, the owner of the squid, cowering among them, regarding their questing tentacles with supreme disinterest. Buffwangle surveyed the young man in front of him. He took in at a glance the good physique and handsome face. This, combined with a total lack of fear of squid, convinced him to offer Stilwater a job as a trainee squid wrestler.
Now, between ourselves, I have always held that the squid are trained and the wrestlers merely pose and prance and there’s no real skill in it. I’m not alone in this belief. Calina Salin once commented to me that squid wrestling reminded her more of interpretive dance than combat. It was all just handsome young men in tight fitting briefs with oiled torsos listlessly moving from one statuesque pose to another, occasionally manipulating the squid.
This was the dark world Stilwater had entered. Indeed when he felt into the tank of squid, he had fallen lower than he might have supposed. For the next couple of years he performed during the afternoons wearing his snug codpiece with its cabalistically significant embroidery and very little else. He soon discovered that his audience consisted mainly of younger ladies. In some cases extremely they were far younger ladies; some were no older than twelve, daubed with cosmetics borrowed from an adult relative in an attempt to appear older.
It was when he was performing at this somewhat squalid floor show that one of these young ladies caught Stilwater’s eye. One of a small group of girls, she was fresh-faced and even pretty, all in spite of the layers of grease paint she used to disguise her age.
Not only that but once he had noticed her, Stilwater kept noticing her. Indeed if she was not at one of his performances he felt he had been shunned. He decided that he most contact her in some way. After thought he hit upon a plan. On an occasion when she managed to get a front seat he would slip her a note.
It was not a bad plan but it was a plan with difficulties that needed to be surmounted. Almost by definition, squid wrestlers spend much of their time in water. They are perpetually wet. Paper does not survive well in these circumstances. He would have to somehow conceal the note somewhere dry. Here again there were problems. When all you wear is a somewhat minimalist codpiece, how do you conceal the note? Not only that but more to the point how do you extract it? Clumsy fumbling with your codpiece in the presence of a young lady breaches several of the more widely accepted codes of etiquette.
Finally inspiration struck, he would claim to have hurt his hand and turn up wearing a bandage. He could slip his note into that. Then it would be the work of an instant, at an appropriate point, to slip the note out of the bandage and into her lap.
Carefully he contemplated a small scrap of good quality paper. In a few nicely chosen words he told of how her beauty has overwhelmed him and how he wanted to meet her.
He slipped the note into the bandage and made his way to the pool. He saw the object of his desire in the audience, sitting right next to the pool. Without hesitation he dived in and proceeded to give the performance of his life. Entwined with the squid he crashed against the pool side and managed to slip the note onto her lap. She covered it with her hands before anybody could notice and smiled at him.
That night he could barely sleep. It may have been love, or perhaps merely indigestion caused by a strongly spiced batter pie he’d eaten. Next day when he came to perform he saw, to his delight, that she was present and sitting in the same seat. As he writhed in front of her, squid held in a grip of iron, she slipped the note into his out-flung hand.
Later in his dingy lodgings he struggled to decipher the soggy piece of paper. Unlike him, she’d had the wisdom to write in wax crayon, which meant that so long as the paper retained its physical form, the writing remained almost legible.
All that the missive contained was an address, a time, and the cryptic comment that her window would be open.
That evening, his toilet briefly completed (frankly given his job, time spent washing was barely needed, and shaving was something he wasn’t bothered with on more than an occasional basis,) he made his way along Ropewalk to the nicer end where his lady awaited him.
He found the house, spotted the open window, and by dint of considerable effort and improvisation, climbed up to it and peered within. Sitting coyly on her bed sat a vision of loveliness. He scrambled into the room and tiptoed across to sit down beside her.
It was as he was somewhat bashfully declaring his undying adoration that the unfortunate happened. The bed, under the linen, was little more than a pallet mattress laid on an old door. The door was kept off the ground by the simple expedient of resting it on four piles of bricks. The shifting weight of two people caused the door to slide across the bricks and the bed collapsed with something of a clatter.
From below came a concerned cry and then there were footsteps on the stair. Stilwater, entangled in bed-linen and sweetheart struggled to untangle himself. He managed this at almost exactly the same moment that his beloved’s father came into the room. The man barely broke stride, roaring with anger. Stilwater, trapped, threw himself out of the window. He was spared serious injury by the simple expedient of landing on two large ladies returning from a evening of choral music. Thus he fled with bruises and contusions.
His Love to hold
A Father will scold
A Scold he bowled
Over succeeding days he watched the audience for signs of ‘her’, but she never reappeared. He even plucked up the courage to ask one of the young ladies she used to arrive with, only to be told that the object of his devotions had been sent to stay with family in Prae Ducis.
It may be that this experience hardened his heart. He grew callous and adopted an attitude of spurious mature sophistication. Over the years that followed Buffwangle, pleased with the young man’s progress, promoted Stilwater to the evening programme. Here Stilwater started heeding the blandishments of the older ladies who now made up his audience.
Inevitably this wasn’t going to end well for him. He would join them in their banter, and before long he was giving ‘private performances’. It wasn’t long before he realised that a private performance given at the lady’s home was a far more rewarding affair than if Buffwangle was on hand to take his cut.
It has to be admitted that Stilwater was popular with a certain set, and once word leaked out into that set, he was always in demand.
A matter of weight
To stay out late
With a lady playmate.
Faced with husband irate
With threats to castrate
It must be admitted that whilst Stilwater’s reputation had spread quickly enough amongst the ladies, it is as nothing to the speed with which it spread amongst their husbands. Life in Port Naain grew difficult and it was obvious that he would have to search for pastures new.
But what to do and where to go? He had no intention of going back to herding orid. Squid wrestling, tawdry trade though it was, had become his life.
He decided to go on what some wags have christened the ‘squid wrestling circuit,’ in Partaan. He slipped away one night and some days later, sore foot, he walked into Avitas. He had no trouble finding a position. Handsome, accomplished, agile, what else was necessary? Of course the inevitable happened and he was forced to leave town before dawn. His career continued on the downward path, he took to wearing his worldly wealth about his person and became used to appearing in some new village or keep with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Stilwater learned the truth of this proverb, popular amongst squid wrestlers, that as you go south, both the women and squid grow more savage. He wrestled squid in village ponds, castle keeps and in the tank wagons of merchants. He fought squid that weighed more than him, squid with sharpened beaks and with women who were even more dangerous.
In Voldbath Keep he wrestled with a squid which had already killed three men and killed it with a single punch. At Dalvin Keep he dived into the river from the keep roof to avoid an enraged husband. At Darrag Stronghold he threw the squid out of the tank and onto the lap of the lady of the keep. He made his exit as her household knights tried to rescue her from its constricting tentacles.
Eventually, having avoided pursuit by hiding in a marsh and breathing through a straw for three days, he arrived in Prae Ducis. There, with little fanfare, he gave his first performance. Casually he walked across to the tank and climbed in. The years in Partaan had changed him. He was still handsome in a rugged fashion; his nose that had been broken and reset twice. As for oiling his torso, his chest and arms were a mass of tentacle burns and beak scars.
The squid in Prae Ducis presented no challenge. He allowed himself to drift off into reverie and found himself instinctively performing moves he would never have dared try in the south. This seemed to go down well with the audience so he started to reprise the act he had done when he was barely fifteen. An element of self-mockery entered into the performance, he twirled and pirouetted, dancing with the squid.
This got a mixed response, some applauded enthusiastically, some laughed, and others sat in frowning silence, angry that somebody should so mock the art. When his time was over he vaulted out of the tank, bowed to the audience and made his way back behind the curtain. There he dried himself off, dressed and stepped back through the curtain into the now empty theatre. As he walked between the empty seats he was aware of a solitary figure standing in the darkness near the door. Mentally he shrugged; he hadn’t expected an assignation so soon.
He nudged his forelock, “Good evening.”
“Good evening. I wondered if you did private performances?”
“It has been known, but to be honest I’m new in town and really ought to be looking for somewhere to stay.”
The woman stepped forward so her face was illuminated by the light coming in from outside. “Well I could offer you a bed, nothing special, just a mattress on a door supported by bricks.”
He looked at her carefully. Unwind the years and it was the girl he’d fallen for. “It’s been a long time.”
“Long enough to marry and be widowed.”
Instinctively he said, “I’m sorry about that. Hope you’re getting by.”
“Oh he left me well provided, a small bakers shop. It’s not a gold mine, but I get to eat regularly.”
He glanced back towards the tank on the stage and made a decision. “If there’s a position going as a baker’s assistant, I’d like to apply for it.”
She took him by the arm, “I suspect you might want to survey the capital assets of the business before you take the plunge and change career.”
Should you wish to learn more of life in Port Naain, there is always
As a reviewer commented, “Another great set of stories as told by jobbing poet Tallis Steelyard. Fights abound and artists and poets are not the least amongst the fighters. I love these stories and sometimes think if someone were to drop me anywhere in Port Naain I could find my way, well, not home, but at least to Tallis and Shena’s barge. Jim Webster always gives us humour, wit and a wisdom he wears lightly. People like him should be running the country.”