Black Gold

The front of the Shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm is so modest it’s almost self-effacing. It refuses to dominate Exegesis Square. To be fair it’s not the most elegant facade. We haven’t got a portico, never mind an entrance pylon. There again, Maljie has always extolled ‘clean lines’ and a lack of ‘clutter.’

Once you get round the back of the shrine then we lack even the clean lines. The finest building is in point of fact the Mendicants’ Bathhouse. They raised the money for this and I suppose it does go to prove that whilst crime doesn’t pay; extortion, moral blackmail, and undue exaction in pursuit of a good cause may well pay excellent dividends. There is also a collection of outbuildings. Doubtless in the days of our greatness (if such really existed) they were robing rooms and storerooms for ceremonial regalia, but now they have been adapted and comprehensively remodelled. Sometimes by competent builders. Many serve as dormitory accommodation for those of our mendicants who ‘live in.’

Every year, as winter approaches, the discussion starts as to when we ought to start lighting the fire. Part of the shrine has a hypocaust but those outbuildings we need to heat have that most civilised of amenities, the open fire with associated chimney. Now the hypocaust’s ever open maw devours all sorts of rubbish. Similarly the mendicants, when on their travels, will keep an eye open for fuel for their fires.
But when the weather is genuinely cold, a fire needs a bit of body to it, and the shrine purchases coal. This is kept in one particular storeroom. It’s one of the places on the edge of the site that is handy for the coalman when he delivers but isn’t really handy for anybody else. That is considered a good thing from a financial point of view. Because it’s easy to get to without entering the shrine, we can keep a lock on the door without casting aspersions with regard to the honesty of our own people. The presence of the lock means that the mendicants (and temple wardens) are more accountable for the amount of coal that is used.

On one occasion I’d been conscripted by a group of mendicants who needed help in carrying some waste wood they’d found. In my innocence I asked where the wood was, and why they didn’t just put it on the cart. It was then that a mendicant, glancing over her shoulder as she spoke, explained that the cart was the waste wood. Given it was one wheel short and the bed was rotten, I felt that whilst they may have jumped too rapidly to the conclusion it was dumped, I could understand their reasoning. Thus I helped them attach a rope around the axle on the side with no wheel. With the rope thrown over the shoulders of three mendicants they could stop the axle dragging on the road and with the rest of us pulling, we made good time getting the cart back to the shrine.

But as we passed the shrine’s coal store, Laxey, who was standing by the open door, gestured for me to join him. The store had two bunkers, and our policy was to tip into one, as we emptied the other. It helps avoid the build-up of slack and dust. Laxey pointed at the bunker that had been recently filled.
“Tallis, we got ten bags of coal yesterday, does that look like ten bags worth?”
Now this is always difficult to judge. If pressed I’d have said eight, but the last few days had been bitterly cold so somebody could well have used some.

“How much has been used since it was delivered?”
“I’m the first person to get any, and I’m the only one with the key at the moment.”
I could hear the sound of the mendicants breaking up their ‘waste wood’ into burnable lengths. I stepped back out of the coal store and shouted, “Don’t break up the wheel, there’s life in it, you’ll probably get money for it.”
Laxey joined me at the door with his full bucket. “I’ll share this out between the mendicants, it’ll let me see how much they’ve been using.”

I walked with him as he topped up all the scuttles in the mendicant quarters. All of them were virtually empty. If one of them had taken the coal, they’d already burned it.

We kept an eye on the coal store but never noticed anybody loitering near it, or anything else suspicious going on, so I think we rather put it down as ‘one of them things.’ It was a couple of weeks later when I saw Muggis Cavils unloading coal from his flat cart into our store. There were perhaps two score sacks on the cart, in four rows, running the length of it. I wished him good morning and then thought that it might be a good time to discover what ten sacks of coal did look like when tipped. So I stepped into the coal store as if I were just doing it to shelter from the pouring rain.

As I exchanged pleasantries with Muggis I came to the conclusion that Laxey had been right. I was sure that the bunker Muggis had just filled had more coal in that it had when Laxey showed me.
Between us, Laxey and I decided we’d keep an eye on the coal store. Somebody might have noticed out vigilance, because nothing went missing. This was irritating. The following week was seriously cold when the coal was delivered. We’d had a mendicant keep a covert eye on Muggis as he unloaded, and she reported he’d carried ten bags in for us. So far so good, but next morning when Laxey went to get some coal, it was obvious that some had gone missing. So we raised the matter at next day’s churchwarden breakfast meeting.

Maljie listened to our story and said she would do some checking. She borrowed a couple of mendicants and went out into the bitter cold.

Later that day I got a note from her. Hand delivered by one of the younger, faster, mendicants,

 “Tallis, do you know anybody who lives in Hoyden’s Ginnel. Ideally somebody poor and deserving.”

Now it happens that we have an elderly couple who would dine with The Society of Minor Poets. We run what might aspire to be considered a soup kitchen, but in reality we normally serve what is referred to as the, ‘Poet’s all day breakfast’. In reality, turn up at any time and we’ll give you a big bowl of porridge, made from whatever grains we’ve been able to get our hands on. This couple were among our regulars. So I sent the message back to Maljie, writing on the back of it,

“Yes, an elderly couple. The Mercers.”                     

It was obvious that Maljie was planning something, I just wondered what. Half an hour later, the mendicant returned with Maljie’s answer.

Tell them tomorrow is their lucky day. I’ve arranged for Muggis to deliver a sack of coal to them.”

Now I was intrigued, so I made my way to Hoyden’s Ginnel to give the Mercers the good news.

To get to Hoyden’s Ginnel you have to make your way up Fiddlemakers’ Lane, then turn down Tattle Creep. Tattle Creep is narrow, you can just about get a wheelbarrow down it. But then you turn into Hoyden’s Ginnel and it’s barely a passage. Even where it is at its widest, it’s impossible to pass another person without inadvertently taking liberties with their person. Still the Mercers had a small house at the far end. In all candour it was barely a cottage and they lived in the two rooms on the ground floor. There were two on the floor above, and an attic in the roof, but these were accessed from Comb Makers alley.
Even though I had a simple errand I was invited in and they brewed a pot of infusion which we drank with great formality. Their home might be small but everything was spotless. They couldn’t think why anybody would give them a bag of coal, but they were grateful and delighted.

Next morning I made a point of lingering on Fiddlemaker’s Lane. I saw Muggis arrive, hoist a sack of coal onto his bag, and set off to make his delivery. Maljie and two mendicants immediately appeared leading the oldest, most worn out horse I have ever seen. I moved to join them.

“So what is happening?”

Maljie gave a wolfish smile. “It is an old trick. In cold weather, before you finish work at the end of the day, soak a sack and then fill it with with coal. Next morning you can pour the coal out and put an empty sack on your cart looking just like a sack of coal. When you unload just grunt as you lift the empty sack and nobody will notice.”

I confess I was impressed by the ingenuity. “How did you spot it?”

“It’s an old trick, but you can only pull it on people who buy several bags at a time.”
I gestured at the horse, “So why this?”

Already the two mendicants were unharnessing Muggis’s horse from the cart and Maljie helped them harness the elderly nag in its place. To the harness she attached a note,

‘Given you’re selling empty sacks, you don’t need a full horse.’

Maljie, the horse that had previously been owned by Muggis, and the two mendicants disappeared down Fiddlemaker’s Lane. As I glanced down Tattle Creep I could see Muggis, empty sack under his arm, step out of Hoyden’s Ginnel and turn in my direction. I too decided it was time to leave.


Port Naain, all human life is there

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.

As a reviewer commented, “More of Steelyard’s vignettes on the life of a jobbing poet in cut-throat literary world of Port Naain. Wittily written, a fascinating background and and an ever-varying cast of colourful characters. An excellent way to spend a rainy afternoon.”

5 thoughts on “Black Gold

  1. Not the story of Nero who fiddled while Rome burnt but the story of Muggis who fiddled so there was nothing to burn. Tallis certainly sees the world and all its miscreants pass by his windows. A great little story.

    Liked by 1 person

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