One for the birds

One for the birds

This tale was recounted to me by somebody who knew Maljie in her early years. Such people are few and far between nowadays and tend not to wax garrulous on her past. Still, it is possible, in the right conditions, to elicit stories worthy of recording. Ballinforth Wheelturner was a few weeks younger than Maljie (although now is apparently considerably older if recently declared ages are accepted) and knew her when they were both children. Indeed before the disastrous collapse of her family finances they were near neighbours and would play together happily as children of that age do.

I met him in the Beehive Inn. This is an unusual place, it is some miles up the Paraeba River from Port Naain and is only really accessible by boat. Admittedly there are paths and tracks in the area and the locals can walk there, but as they’re not people with friends, family, or creditors within the city, they don’t really feature in our tale. Anybody who is anybody arrives at the Beehive by water.
The other reason the Beehive is unusual is that it makes and sells its own mead. Mead from honey isn’t normally made commercially, but the Beehive backs onto a land of orchards and flower meadows. Indeed it is the need to export the cheese from the meadows and the fruit from the orchards which led to the locals building a pier. The Inn came later when a shrewd apiarist decided to improve the profits of his business by selling mead to drinkers rather than merely loading his honey onto boats to sell in Port Naain.

On that particular day I had been hired to read a few of my verses and was just mingling with the guests afterwards, sharing a glass or two of mead, and I ended up sitting next to Ballinforth Wheelturner. I suspect he’d drunk rather more than me, but there again, mead, being made from honey, is almost entirely medicinal. The health giving effects on those of mature years are much advertised by those who have experienced them. Still it is entirely possible that the sixth glass had made him a little maudlin.

“First time I ever saw this place I was with Maljie,” he said, his eyes obviously focused on the distant past.

“Indeed, what was it like?”

“Oh we never came in, we were too busy.”

Seeing me looking at him askance, he told the tale which I will try to recount in a somewhat less rambling or recriminatory manner.

It seems that Ballinforth’s father had a steam yacht, grandly named ‘Lightening’. To be fair this was a rather grandiose title for what was little more than a dinghy but was rescued from that low estate by the possession of a keel. Still it had an engine house at the back where the rudimentary steam engine reposed. This drove the paddle wheels which propelled the craft along with no great zest. Both Ballingforth and Maljie had travelled on the boat and had helped with simple tasks like stoking and had even taken the wheel.

On this particular day, Ballingforth was somewhat at a loose end and was growing bored. The previous day his father had taken Lightening up the river but had arrived back late and rather than pulling the craft up into the boat house had left it tied to the family wharf. It occurred to Ballingforth that given his father had travelled into the city to toil at his desk in the Merchant Quarter he could not need the yacht that day. Given that Ballingforth’s mother had accompanied her husband into the city, intending to spend the morning in discussion with sundry dressmakers and the afternoon in conversation with friends over any number of glasses of infusion; she too was not available to comment on any plans he might make. Indeed it would be entirely possible to take a trip on the river and return the boat to the wharf before his parents returned. So Ballingforth made his way next door to see Maljie. She was doing her homework in a desultory fashion and was glad of any distraction. So she agreed to accompany him on this jaunt.

Matters went with brisk efficiency, they soon got up steam and decided to head upriver. This, they felt, reduced the chance of Wheelturner senior spotting them should he chance to look out of his office window at the wrong time. They made steady progress and after an hour or so, taking turns to steer and to shovel, they arrived level with the Beehive.

It was here they spotted a party leaving. This party had obviously arrived in a large rowing boat and had equally obviously taken more mead than was entirely good for them. As the two children watched the swaying group made their way along the pier towards their craft which was tied up alongside. But instead of bearing left and stepping into the boat, a considerable number of the party just walked straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to the world. Thus they stepped off the end of the pier and went straight into the river.

The rest of the party attempted a rescue, but drunks attempting to pull drunks out of the water rarely ends well. Eventually the landlord of the Beehive and a number of the more sober customers had to be summoned, and they finally got everybody out of the river and into their boat. They then left them there in the hope that they would sober up.

Unfortunately one of the party, whether they were less intoxicated or merely less rational, eventually stood up, untied the boat and pushed it off. As they pushed the boat moved away and they were left hanging between pier and boat. But only briefly, soon they were dangling from the pier as the boat picked up speed and heading downstream. The fool’s cries brought the landlord who pulled him onto the pier and looked with despair at the disappearing boat. Then in a moment of inspiration he shouted out to the crew of the Lightening to go after the rowing boat with its comatose cargo and take it under tow.

Nothing loathe, Maljie and Ballingforth turned the Lightening round and headed in hot pursuit. Now at this point writers can wax lyrical about water foaming around the bow of the boat, and the wind blowing through the heroine’s hair. Alas, reality intervenes at this point and insists that whatever else one says about the Lightening, it was not well named. Also, as aficionados of the sea persist in telling us, a stern chase is a long chase. By the time they caught up with the rowing boat, they were already downstream of the Wheelturner family wharf.

It has to be admitted that whilst they were successful in taking the rowboat under tow, a more experienced crew might have reached that point of their journey sooner. Indeed a more experienced crew might have asked the same question that Maljie asked, but rather earlier. As it was, Maljie was shaking the last of the coal from the sack into the firebox when she asked, “Where’s the next bag of coal?”

It was at this point Ballingforth remembered what they had both forgotten to check, and the next bag of coal was probably in the boathouse. Still to be fair to them, they didn’t panic. It was obvious that they wouldn’t be able to get back upstream to the Wheelturner wharf. Not only that but Ballingforth wasn’t entirely sure how his parents would react to a boatload of intoxicated strangers sobering up in the garden.

The next option was the Deep Water Buoy. This marks the limit of deep water suitable for seagoing craft. If they could reach that whilst they were still underway, then they could tie up to it. Given the alternative was to drift downstream without any form of motive power, shouting for help, they decided on this course of action.

A combination of skill and ingenuity ensured they had the fuel to get them to the buoy. Admittedly they had to burn the coal sack, two wooden chairs, and the cork life jackets from the rowing boat, but they managed. (As an aside Maljie had had to awaken one of the passengers on that boat by prodding them with the blunt end of a boathook. When the person struggled to comprehend their situation, Maljie formally introduced herself and asked the person to pass the life jackets to her. This the person did before covering their head with a coat and sinking back into a sleep of comfortable oblivion.)Once tied securely to the buoy, they launched the small gig that the Lightening carried for such purposes and rowed ashore. After some discussion as they were rowing it was decided that the obvious thing to do was to row home and say nothing, allowing blank ignorance to be their defence.

Back home, Maljie returned once more to her homework. (An essay on the interplay of ethics, morals and social mores during a person’s normal day. An essay which, apparently, she received a poor mark for because she’d been unable to come up with any valid examples to illustrate her discussion.)

It was some hours later that there was a hammering on the door. Hoping to get there before her mother, Maljie virtually ran, but to no avail, her mother, dressed up to go out, was already there. The door was opened and the pair were confronted by an incandescent Wheelturner senior.

“Madam, your daughter has stolen my steam yacht!”

Maljie’s mother turned to her daughter. “Maljie, is this true?”

Maljie adopted an air of injured innocence and held out both hands to show they were empty. “Well I haven’t got it.”

“No because it’s tied to the Deep Water Buoy.”

“Well,” said Maljie’s mother with a degree of finality, “that’s a damned silly place for you to leave it.”

As Wheelturner senior turned purple and struggled to breath, Maljie’s mother said, “Anyway I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me, Maljie has been given an award for her humanitarian exploits by the landlord of the Beehive and I have to go and collect it. Obviously it would never do for an innocent child to visit such a place.” With that the interview was abruptly terminated. Maljie returned to her essay.

After hearing the story from Ballingforth I decided it was probably time I returned home. On my way out I dropped a few coins in the collecting jar the landlord placed near the door. It was to raise money to put railings around the end of the pier. It seemed a wise move.  As it was, when I got there, there were a group of men waiting on the pier with their cheeses. I asked why there were no railings. Apparently the landlord has raised the money for them several times but given that the bigger steamers have to load from the pier end, railings would make this impossible.

Sometime later I chanced to dine with Maljie and with Laxey, the sub-Hierodeacon and steam came up in our discussion. Maljie listened and then commented, “I’ve never liked steam because it’ll just run out. It has no soul, no passion. I’ve never had a crew of oarsmen whom I couldn’t get one more effort out of.


Should you wish to know more about life on the river Paraeba then you might well wish to read

As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”

10 thoughts on “One for the birds

    1. I, as always, bow to her knowledge in these matters.
      Apparently one can get extra effort from oarsmen just by oiling them down. Apparently this doesn’t work with steam engines


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