Let us be honest here. I am a man of simple tastes who doesn’t ask for a lot out of life. The occasional glass of a nice wine, the muted applause of my peers recognising the unsurpassed excellence of my work. Then from time to time it is nice to enjoy some of the simpler creature comforts, to be warm and comfortable. Surely these aren’t much for a chap to ask for?
Shena and I had been to the funeral of an old family friend. They had lived and died in a hamlet south of Port Naain and we had crossed the river and walked south the day before. We’d stayed overnight to share the family meal and the sharing of memories, then we’d been up early. I to help dig a grave in the frozen earth, Shena to help prepare breakfast for those who came to partake in the sad occasion. We stayed for a little while after the service but then set off for home without waiting for the lunch. If we’d stayed for that, we’d have used up what little daylight there is in winter and would have ended up walking home in the dark.
We made good time but still, we had perhaps five miles to walk to Roskadil and the ferry when we passed through another small hamlet and one establishment was offering refreshments. Judging by the painted board outside, we could hope for an assortment of teas and probably cake. We glanced at each other and by unspoken agreement walked up the short path to the door.
Opening the door was another matter. I turned the handle and pulled, but nothing happened. Shena knocked and a voice inside said, “It’s stiff in wet weather, just give it a good pull.” Finally with the pair of us pulling and whoever was inside pushing, we got the door open. I didn’t study the door jamb carefully as I went past, but in retrospect I have a sneaking suspicion it had been frozen shut, rather than the door had just swelled somewhat from the damp.
The lady who had helped us gain admittance was elderly but not yet frail. She was bundled up in various garments against the cold. Indeed the tea room was no warmer than the outside world had been. There again, to be fair, there was at least no wind. There was also a fireplace, and I assumed that now she had guests she’d hastily light a fire.
Instead she showed us to a table. “What would you like?”
Shena asked, “Is there a fire?”
“Sorry.” The lady looked embarrassed. “The chimney’s blocked and if I light it, it just smokes the room out. But Erriden is supposed to be coming to unblock it.”
Well we were here now. At least we were sitting down and an agreeable warming drink would set us up nicely for the rest of our journey.
Shena asked, “What teas do you have?”
“We’ve got Boggis.”
Shena quizzed her gently. “Which of the many Boggis teas do you have?”
“No, we’ve just got Boggis, the standard Boggis.”
Now between ourselves, Boggis Special Select, (Prize Reserve) is at least drinkable. It’s a good strong workman’s tea, normally drunk in large mugs with plenty of sugar and a splash of milk. It lacks refinement, subtlety or any delicacy of flavour. But a good mug of it can set you up and help you face another few hours of backbreaking toil. I’ve known even great houses where the cook will keep a caddy of it, to be used in times of emergency or extreme stress.
But Boggis Standard is a very different beast. The only times I’ve seen it drunk, it has been drunk by shore combers. On cold mornings, waiting for the tide, they will sometimes light a fire. Occasionally somebody will start to boil a can of water over it. Then, before the water is more than even warm, from a battered tin box they will shovel in four or five good spoonsful of Boggis Standard. By the time the water has boiled the ‘tea’ is ready to drink.
Somebody will pour in some molasses to sweeten it, or failing that they might stir in a spoonful or two of jam. Then those assembled will dip their chipped enamel mugs into the can and then gulp down the hot liquid. It’s widely reckoned that whilst it might not fill you, it’ll numb the pangs of hunger for a few hours.
Shena grimaced. “Then I’ll have a pot of Boggis please.”
Our hostess turned to me, “And you sir?”
With a note of desperation in my voice I asked, “Do you have coffee?”
“Well we got scones, and some jam and butter.” She paused and said, “And they’re big scones as well, you’ll not be wanting more than one each.”
I decided to try and win her over. “Then please can we have two scones, a pot of tea and a mug of coffee for me please.”
Our hostess went to a side table and brought some mugs. They were as cold as everything else in the room. Shena asked, very sweetly, “Could you warm them first please.”
She nodded, picked up the mugs again and disappeared into the kitchen. Shena got to her feet, tiptoed after her to peer into the kitchen. She tiptoed back, “The poor woman is having to heat water over a little spirit stove. The kitchen’s nearly as cold as this place.”
I sighed, “Well hopefully we won’t freeze to death before our drinks arrive.”
To be fair, it didn’t take long. She first brought Shena’s tea, then returned with my coffee. She placed my mug on the table, stepped back and announced, “I’ll get the scones. I’ve got them warming.”
I looked at my coffee mug. The level of coffee was falling even as I watched. “Have you a cloth, my mug is leaking.”
She pulled a cloth from her apron pocket and picked the mug up. It fell into two pieces in her hand and the coffee went everywhere. Hastily she mopped the table as I took care of the two pieces of mug. When she went back into the kitchen to get more coffee I slipped half a hot mug down the front of my shirt and offered the other half to Shena. As improvised hot water bottles went, they were better than nothing.
The elderly lady returned with a tray and presented me with another mug of coffee, and put two scones and all the accoutrements on the table. She was about to go back into the kitchen when a party of three ladies came in, so she seated them and took their order. From outside there was the sound of jovial men’s voices and the noise of a ladder being erected against the wall of the house.
“That’s Erriden, he’ll have the chimney unblocked sharpish and I’ll get a fire lit.”
Shena and I tackled our refreshments. To be fair the coffee was reasonable. The scones excellent, but the butter was frozen solid. Nothing daunted, Shena slipped the knife from her boot and proceeded to whittle it into pieces thin enough to put on the scone. The jam was also excellent, I assume our hostess had made it herself. Shena stirred a large spoonful into the teapot. There are times I despair. One can take the shore comber out of the estuary but one cannot take the estuary out of the shore comber.
In spite of the chill, there was a warm atmosphere in the tea room. The other three guests chatted with us and with our hostess. It was as if we were fellow adventurers determined to keep each other’s spirits up until Erriden finally unblocked the chimney. We would overhear occasional snatches of conversation from outside, one of the other ladies, sitting nearest to the fire place, announced to the assembly that it seemed as if Erriden had been able to reach in and shift something that had fallen. That cheered us immensely.
Then there came an awful lot of noise from the chimney. Suddenly a blackened and soot covered domestic fowl erupted from the fireplace. Without turning a hair, our hostess opened the door and the creature fled into the early evening gloom. “Right that’s the chimney unblocked and swept. I’ll get the fire lit.”
It was almost regretfully that Shena and I finished our brief repast, paid our hostess and left. We were still a couple of hours from home and night was drawing in. Still we were strangely heartened by the experience.
We waited upon Erriden
To our aid he was bidden
As we sat in the cold and ate scone
Dressed in tweed and not chiffon.
The company was fine
The scones divine
Then a fowl, down-sliding,
Did the chimney widen.
As an aside this story was inspired by a tale told by Cynthia Reyes over at
I’d recommend you nip across and read it, it’s a joy… It also proves that the real world is, in its way, no more or less exotic than Port Naain
And in case you fancy reading more about Port Naain, have you read any of the Port Naain Intelligencer stories?
As a reviewer commented, “Benor is a cartographer and he’s come to Port Naain to produce a handbook. He makes a home with Tallis, a professional poet and his wife Shena. She’s a mud-jobber or as we might say, a beachcomber. Some of her combings include bodies. Everything has a price and families will pay for the privilege of burying their dead and, if possible, finding who caused it. Benor is a natural. He’s a nosy person and, with the aid of the wonderful Mutt, a ten year-old wise beyond his years, he sorts out the villains from the corpses. This first short story from The Port Naain Intelligencer bodes well for the rest of the series. A really great Whodunit.”