For whom the bell tolls?

For whom the bell tolls

It has to be said that Laxey and I were perhaps a little too pleased with ourselves over the building jobs we’d tackled. To be fair I think that we’d made a worthy attempt at the jobs and had saved the Shrine the handful of silver it would have cost to have the job done properly by competent tradesmen. Mind you, these skills weren’t the sort of thing I flaunted with my patrons as I didn’t want them getting ideas. There is a limit to what a lady should feel she can ask of her poet. It’s bad enough being expected to rescue them from the results of their infidelities, or find suitable spouses for their offspring (who are quite capable of finding entirely suitable, or unsuitable spouses form themselves) without being expected to go up onto the roof to fix the tiles as well.

Still we were sitting snug out of the wind and rain one afternoon, regaling some of the mendicants with stories, when Maljie appeared again. She was still strapped up after her operation and had the look of somebody who should have been in bed but had escaped nurse’s attentions. Also she was smiling too broadly but we put that down to the poppy syrup.

“Have you looked at the upper pinnacle?”
Trying my best to look innocent, “Maljie, I see it every day when I drop down towards the shrine.”

“Well there’s problems with the upper level, there’s rain coming in.”
I listened to the sound of the rain hammering on the walls. Frankly I wasn’t surprised rain was coming in. With the recklessness engendered by a conviction he knew what was coming, Laxey asked, “So who do you want walling up this time?”

Maljie made a brusque gesture and suddenly the mendicants were no longer there. She named a name. I was impressed, she had just named the smoothest operator in the business. Charming, devious and evil to the core.

I asked, “So who got him?”

“Nobody. Yet.”

Laxey and I just kept staring at her until she elaborated. “He’s finally upset the wrong people. I’ve been chatting to friends. It’s open season.”

I thought back over the last few days, to the best of my knowledge the people who had visited Maljie on her sick bed included a smattering of senior clergy, three usurers, an apothecary (who was might have been there professionally but who left carrying more than he had with him when he arrived), a known assassin (which by definition means he wasn’t all that good), and a leech hunter.

Maljie took another sip from her bottle and smiled beatifically at us. “So don’t just sit there, I know you’ve got half a cart load of blocks left.”


We went up the inside of the pinnacle to look at the source of the problem. Round the side of the upper chamber, below where the bell hung, there were six alcoves. You can see them from outside, they’re the heavily ornamented, and look like great carved blocks of stone with statues in three-quarter relief. Actually they’re just hollow moulded concrete.

On the inside, each hollow was an alcove. One of them was showing damp, obviously there were a couple of cracks in the concrete. Just skimming it over with a bit of cement on a dry day would fix it. But Maljie wanted it blocked up so we’d better block it up. We looked round the rest of the chamber, studiously ignoring the fact that three of the other alcoves had already been bricked up. Then we went down to see about getting some mortar.

Our real problem was getting something to work off. It was too high above us to work off the chamber floor. Not only that, but the chamber floor creaked in a worrying manner if you put the least amount of weight upon it. Indeed when I dropped a cold chisel it went straight through the floor and sometime later I heard it rattle on the flags below. There was also a most unedifying curse from a passing cleric so we stood very quietly until they went away. It was obvious we had to put some boards down. Indeed I was a little concerned that we were putting our boards down on top of boards previous workmen had put there. I did wonder if they’d felt that the floor was too fragile to be worth the risk of recovering their boards.

To be honest the problem wasn’t the job, it was in point of fact getting access to do it. We’d made an honest assessment of the floor and decided that it might be unwise to repose too much trust in it. But if we laid a ladder on the floor and supported it from above by suspending it from a roof beam it should be fine. We could then rest two ladders on that with a plank between them and work off the plank. But of course we needed a ladder to get up to the chamber in the first place, and another suspended ladder to walk from the trap-door to the scaffolding we were working off. This was several ladders more than we had.
Then I confess I had a moment of inspiration. “What about Turam Gate, the chap with the wood yard?”

Laxey pondered. “Good idea, he’s bound to have a ladder or two.”
So we dropped round and casually mentioned the idea to him. He listened to what we were suggesting and made no comment. There again, he wasn’t going up into the loft.

So Laxey offered one of the mendicants the position of Ostiary (It isn’t a salaried position but you do get a robe with a rather elegant black trim and you get an alcove for yourself by the main door. Even Maljie hasn’t contemplated blocking up that alcove) as a way of recompensing him for taking on the task of mixing the mortar. While he made a start on that, the three of us started taking ladders up into the upper chamber. Whilst our idea was sound, there were issues with execution. Given that the floor is suspect and you don’t want to rest a ladder on it, how do you get up to the roof beam to suspend ropes? Still everything is possible if you’ve got plenty of boards, a good eye, and a total disregard for the basic tenets of the scaffolders’ trade.

So we had Laxey on the plank laying the blocks. I walked along the other hanging ladder carrying blocks and mortar from trapdoor to Laxey’s plank. Our newly promoted Ostiary was ostentatiously busy mixing mortar. Obviously we needed somebody to undertake the unskilled but laborious task of carrying blocks and buckets of mortar up the long ladder that led up to the upper chamber. For entirely explicable reasons, there now wasn’t a mendicant within sight. Suddenly our friend with the wood yard who had merely come to lend us his ladders found himself informally promoted to builder’s labourer.

Let us not hesitate here to shower praise upon this somewhat ad-hoc team. The mortar was mixed to perfection. Our Ostiary had mastered the knack of putting enough in the bucket to ensure that it was worth carrying up the ladder, but not so much that the weight tore the handle off, leaving you holding the handle as the bucket plummeted in the direction of the floor.

As an aside, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an elderly bucket, over-full of mortar, hit the floor after dropping from a respectable height? It is indeed a scene worthy of a performance poet. There is the original crash as the bucket hits and then somehow seems to explode. Pieces of bucket then provide a rattling counterpoint to the wet splodge sound as the cement hits. Undeniably, when seen from above the whole thing can bear a striking resemblance to some deformed flower. I often felt that the buckets and the cement they have shed should be left there. A symbolic garden of pain symbolising the bitter toil the poor beggar carrying them up the ladder has undergone. Others, especially those others in charge of various buildings I have worked in, have not shared my outlook in this matter. Indeed they had displayed an entirely petty attitude, demanding everything be laboriously cleaned up.

At one point in the proceedings, we stopped for some basic sustenance. Maljie appeared to view, from afar, the work. Because she was present, and thanks to the poppy syrup, far less close-mouthed than usual, I asked, “So why this fascination with putting bodies into the walls of religious buildings?”

“It’s theological. Bury them elsewhere or just drop them in the tide, the ghost can walk and might haunt you. Bury them in a religious building and that isn’t a problem. Both ghost and body are trapped for ever.”
Laxey looked surprised. “I don’t remember reading that anywhere.”

Maljie nodded sagely, taking large sips from her bottle. “Ah well it’s not written down, it’s a folk belief.”

Turam considered her words. “I’ve never heard of it. How old a folk belief is it?”
“Not very, my predecessor started it perhaps forty years ago, he needed the money for some renovation work they had planned.”

With that she stood up. “I have to go. Leave the boards out ready for the lads who’ll finish things off.”

As she disappeared the Turam commented, “Not leaving my ladders up there.”
It seemed a fair point. So after some thought we decided we’d leave the ropes slung over the beam (they were a fair age and had been thrown out by two previous owners so nobody would miss them) and we’d just take the ladders away. With everything completed, our Ostiary was washing off his shovel and buckets, Laxey passed ladders to me, and I passed them down the hole to our friend Turam. It was all going so well. I was considering suggesting to Laxey that we lit a candle to Aea in her aspect as the friend and guardian of drunks and little children. I turned back to the trapdoor to pass down the next ladder and there was nobody there to take it. Greatly daring I knelt on the boarding and looked down through the hole. Our Ostiary was looking up. He seemed distinctly worried. “We need a grown-up down here. We’ve had an accident.”

On the grounds that Laxey had served, briefly, as a ship’s butcher, I felt his medical expertise was superior to mine, so I let him down the ladder first. We found Turam lying on the floor. He had taken the first ladder I had passed him, laid it down and turned to get the second. Somehow he had then tripped and as he fell the ladder he was carrying fell on his foot.

We sat him up and contemplated the future. We sent the Ostiary to get somebody to help our battered assistant home. He now had feeling back in his foot and was absolutely certain he would one day walk again.

Laxey looked at me. “When the incumbent finds out about this I am in so much trouble.”

I suspected that the trouble might spill over. Trouble’s like that. Even the fact that we’d done our bit in perfect safely with no problems was more likely to be held against us than weighed as a mitigating factor. Somebody would doubtless use the phrase, “Not fit let out on your own.” Or even, “You must be mad.”

Laxey stared into space. “Apparently if I get into any more trouble, my name is down to assist in the little shrine in the Warrens.”

That was serious. In the darker corners of those great buildings they still eat people.

We sat in silence, ignoring the groans of Turam as he practiced hobbling. Finally I said, “It is high time I visited Oiphallarian. I have patrons there I haven’t seen for a year or more. It would never do to let them forget me.”

Laxey nodded. “It occurs to me that I have been promising myself a pilgrimage to one of the smaller monasteries on the edge of the mountains.”

Without any fuss, we asked Turam to ensure that the Ostiary tidied up and we faded from the scene like wraiths.

A winter season in Oiphallarian can be a real cultural occasion, and between ourselves, I feel that this season went so much better with me there to ornament it. Laxey walked for three weeks to get to his monastery. When he got there, the Abbot was expecting him. He’d received a note from the incumbent which merely said, “It’s a long time since the bell was properly polished until it shines. Laxey is coming to do it.”

One minor matter is the niche which apparently remains unfilled. Whilst the intended occupant has effectively been measured for it, some strange, almost bureaucratic, inertia seems to have overtaken the forces of lawlessness and disorder. Indeed I’m not sure whether Maljie hasn’t got the niche ready so that she has somewhere to offer for when they finally come to their senses and act. I don’t think she wants anybody to be deterred from their duty by lack of an obvious means of disposal.

So obviously I’m not going to mention any names.


Should you wish to know more of Port Naain and its environs you might wish to peruse

As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”

7 thoughts on “For whom the bell tolls?

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