I confess that there are times when I am called upon to assist friends in tasks that really don’t require a poet. Such is life. Still one girds one’s loins and gets on with the task in hand. Such was the case when Lancet Foredecks asked if I would assist him with his scheme to harvest a crop of Great Cucurbitas. When I come to think of it, most people will know this fruit by its common name, Coocoo’s Bittas. I have heard several theories as to who exactly Coocoo was, and none of them convince. Mind you I do rather like the story that he was a clown who pined away from chronic indigestion.
Now Bittas are an interesting crop. People have doubtless come across Pepo’s Cucurbita, (orange bittas in common parlance) in season they are a common sight in the markets of our city. Their main advantage is that the flesh of this fruit, whilst bland, is nutritious and one fruit can feed a family of four. I remember one cook commenting that orange bittas can have a good flavour, provided you cook it with something that has excellent flavour and are generous with herbs, spices, and serve it with a good strong sauce. Apparently if you’re not careful the cucurbita can suck the flavour out of the rest of the meal and infuse everything with a tedious blandness.
But this, frankly, is tiresome background. One would think I was frantically padding out the tale so I didn’t have to relive my experiences. This is not entirely untrue. The Bittas season is not without its jollity. A family outing into the nearby countryside. The stopping at a suitable bittas patch where sturdy peasantry will watch as you pick the bittas of your choice. Then you will drink hot chocolate, eat festive pasties, watch as your children frolic in the fresh air, secure in the knowledge that tonight they will sleep. You then pay the peasantry a comparatively nominal sum for the pleasures you have enjoyed.
The reality is more complicated. The sturdy peasantry have long ago realised that getting somebody like Lancet Foredecks to manage things produces a far larger income for everybody. Not only that, but sturdy peasantry are not the people best suited for dealing with the whims and fancies of city folk. Lancet circumvents this and many other issues. So rather than some hulking brute of a peasant, you will be served by a young woman, well-spoken and sensibly dressed. Whereas the peasant, seeing you struggling with a bittas rather heavier than you initially suspected, might say something along the lines of, “Tha gurt pillock, find summat tha’s man enough t’lift.”
The young lady will be more emollient, perhaps saying, “Can I help you with that, sir?”
Lancet ensures that his bittas patch has excellent catering, indeed you will probably spent more on lunch than on the bittas. Traditional peasant catering would normally be coarse bread, strong cheese (Actually some of the cheeses are excellent when you have developed a taste for them) and cider so rough it will strip the grease off a wagon axle. When Lancet is in charge, the bread will be made from wheat flour, without the usual rustic additions of barley, rye, and limestone grit. The cheese will be somewhat blander and more suited to sophisticated urban tastes, and there will be a selection of pickles supplied by those in Port Naain who claim to follow the pastoral recipes their Grandmother learned at her mother’s knee. This will be followed by a remarkable selection of pasties and cakes produced by some of Port Naain’s finest bakers. Finally, instead of cider, Lancet makes a point of finding the nicer local wines. All in all a rather more refined (and expensive) experience.
Now you might well ask why Lancet needs my assistance. After all I am not the person he normally turns to when tact or catering assistance is called for. But there are other tasks. Obviously the bittas patch is too far from the city for most folk to walk. People make their way by all sorts of horse drawn contrivance. There are so many carriages, carts, gigs and similar that Lancet sets aside a field for them. As they turn into the field from the road, I tend to be the one who directs them across the field, often with the words, “Follow the posts until you reach that young lady with the red cloak. She will tell you where to leave your carriage.” Early in the season when the spirit has not yet been crushed I will even try a more rustic tone. I might say, ‘yon damsel with the red cloak’.
After half a day, the emphasis will shift.
I will start with, “Unerringly follow the posts.” This is because far too many seem to think that provided they are within a stone’s throw of the posts, this is close enough.
I will finish with, “She WILL tell you where to leave your carriage.”
This is because, even as their horses (mules or similar equids) draw their conveyance across the field, they will spontaneously decide the obvious place to leave their carriage is where it blocks the gateway, or is so cunningly positioned that it traps several other carriages. So these families cannot leave until the injudiciously parked carriage is removed.
Because bittas are an autumn crop, the weather can be distinctly clashy. This is especially true when you are close to Port Naain where the rain rolls in off the sea. As more and more carriages come and go, their wheels cut up the turf. Here, to be fair, I have to admit that this isn’t the fault of the driver, it happens no matter how careful the driver is. Mind you, whipping the team up so they tear up the turf, throwing great divots of turf up with their pounding hooves, doesn’t help.
Bitter experience shows that once the turf is cut, it’s easily cut again, and again. So regularly traversed areas can get muddy. That’s the purpose of the posts, we can spread straw on the mud to delay the deterioration, we can put down woven mats of coarse hemp, but eventually we have to mark a new course so that people avoid the muddy areas.
So I will explain carefully. The young lady with the red cloak will explain carefully, and yet, with tedious regularity, somebody will drive their carriage left when we specified right, or take a ‘short cut’ through what is rapidly becoming a bog. Then, when we have to borrow a team from another carriage to help haul them out, we are soundly berated because it was all our fault for not telling them.
Between ourselves I have tried a number of strategies. One is to explain the route to the horses. This isn’t because I regard them as the thinking members of the partnership (although the case could be put and the jury is still out) but because whoever is driving the horses will listen carefully, thinking I am about to drop the ‘horseman’s word’ into the conversation.
I have tried explaining the route to the senior lady in the party. I gave up on this course of action when I saw one ‘gentleman’ stumbling through the mud as three ladies pursued him, all the while belabouring him with umbrellas.
I confess that now I tend to assume that asinine stupidity is to be expected. Having talked to those who deal with the public, people like shop assistants, waiters and similar, they have three tales of unalloyed inanity for every tale that I can bring to the table.
Still, I think the long suffering young lady in the red cloak summed it up best. “The problem is the mud. But I’m not sure whether the problem is the mud in their ears that stops them hearing, or the mud between their ears which mean that they cannot understand it.”
Should you want to learn more about Tallis Steelyard and Port Naain
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.”