My way of life means that I can be found walking through this city late at night, or even early in the morning, for perfectly respectable reasons.
After all, I can hardly tell the hostess and her hard pressed household staff that I have to go home to my bed when they still have two hours of tidying up to cope with before they can get to theirs. So I often arrive home in what are romantically called ‘the small hours.’
To be honest there is nothing romantic about them. In my experience they tend to be cold, or at least colder than the rest of the day; dark, and distinctly dreary. There is no fun or frivolity at that time. The last happy drunk has made it home, those left are too drunk to move without being pushed in a wheelbarrow. Indeed the drunks you do find tend to be those the pickpockets and petty thieves have finished with. I wonder how many end up crawling home next morning, virtually naked and penniless, desperately trying to remember which house of ‘ill repute’ they had frequented. When in reality they had merely fallen down drunk and had been professionally stripped by those whose trade it is. Indeed so competent are some of these villains that the clothes can be darned, washed, ironed, sold, and are being worn by their contented new owner before the previous occupier of the garment has sobered up.
But one night, as I made my weary way home, at some time after midnight, I noticed a light at a window. This is, in itself, unusual, as most folk are long gone to bed. As I walked past, keeping to the shadows out of habit, I saw a young woman with a candle at her open window. To be honest I thought nothing of it, I merely assumed she was waiting for her lover.
But over the succeeding weeks I saw the young woman with her candle every time I passed down that street. Now obviously it could still be she was waiting for her lover, but after six months I felt that it was about time he did the decent thing and either married the girl or eloped with her.
I confess that I finally had to discard the ‘waiting for a lover’ theory. Admittedly it appealed to the poet in me, but surely in all the times I’d been in the area, had there been a lover, I would have seen him? Or at least signs which hinted at his presence.
The mystery intrigued me. Was she signalling to criminal confederates? This I dismissed, she was doing it far too often. If they were smugglers moving contraband it did occur to me that a notional smuggling band with pack animals or even carts would be even more conspicuous than a notional innamorato. I had not even seen a couple of rough men burdened with packages.
Then I had a brainwave. Perhaps she was part of a signal chain. When she saw a light, she would light her own candle, and then somebody further along the chain would see the candle and light their own light. This theory, elegant though it was, floundered on two difficulties. Firstly why did she stay holding the candle? It could have been left on the window ledge. Secondly, I saw no sign of any other, similar lights.
Eventually I must have mentioned it to Shena. She asked which street, which house, and commented that it must be Nadia Glowick. So I poured coffee and awaited further elucidation. It seems that I had been partially right at times, but only at times.
Nadia Glowick was a reasonably respectable young woman. She was the sole domestic servant for an elderly widow. She cooked, cleaned, provided cheerful company and generally was the old lady’s support. Now the widow believed in retiring early to bed, and rather assumed everybody else would. So dutifully, Nadia went to bed at a similar time to her mistress, slept for an hour or two and would then wake. So she would dress, do some sewing or other quiet tasks, before retiring to bed again.
She did have a social life of sorts, as she was the one who did virtually all the shopping. The widow limited herself to one afternoon a week when she travelled around town in a rented sedan chair, drank tea with friends and purchased those small essentials she needed. On the other hand, Nadia also had time to take the occasional coffee with friends, exchange banter with butchers, grocers and the purveyors of spirituous liquors, wines of middling quality, and herbal tonics aimed entirely at the elderly. It was on one of these occasions that she met, and developed something of an affection for, a young man who worked in the wine trade. Eventually, on discovering her evening routine, he suggested he drop round for quiet conversation when the widow was asleep. She agreed to sit at the window with a lighted candle to let him know when the coast was clear.
She did this for a few days but he never appeared. On the other hand, another did. At this point I have to introduce Wain Gorf. Wain lived a dangerous life, on the very edges of civilisation. He was an art critic. Admittedly he was also an Oenologist but decades would have to pass before his pronouncements were regarded as authoritative. He was also, simultaneously, a theatre critic, but that is a relatively safe profession. Watch the play, watch the audience and provided your opinion doesn’t differ too much from that of the audience you have a ready-made bodyguard should the cast attempt to lynch you. To be fair to Wain, he was a man of integrity, he didn’t sink so far as to become a literary critic. Also in his defence you have to realise that he wrote well. He was perceptive, obviously loved both art and theatre, and this love shone through in his writing.
But as I said, he lived on the very edges of civilisation. A theatre critic is normally safe, but the danger is that a witty comment you made about some performance rankles with the performer, and over the subsequent months and years they read and re-read the review, their dislike of you growing more frenzied as they do this. But with artists, there are no limits. I have known art critics forced to flee, pursued by a howling mob of artists threatening to wield their palette knives with horrid precision.
Wain had been sensible. He visited a small exhibition, liked some of the work and said so. But other paintings had obviously won their place due to the painter being closely related to the gallery owner’s wife. Wain drew attention to the worst daubs, which purported to be the finer works from the ‘Beyond Esoterica School’ and dismissed them with the witty aside that an injustice had been done. He suggested that the paintings had been hung, whereas the painter ought to have been hanged. He was set upon in Thinning’s, a wine bar much frequented by artists, by a dozen of the ‘Beyond Esoterica School’ and was lucky to escape with his life. He was bleeding copiously from a cut to his forehead where a thrown bottle (of what has to be admitted was a rather average red wine) had struck him. After five or six streets he finally managed to outdistance pursuit and halted to try and find out exactly where he was. He was hopelessly lost and the only sign of life was Nadia’s candle.
With no other hope he staggered towards the window and almost collapsed when he reached it. Nadia sprang into action, closed the window and as quietly as possible opened the door from the scullery onto the street. She built up the fire in the kitchen, heated water, and tenderly treated his injuries.
Eventually, bandaged and fortified with strong coffee and excellent fruit cake Wain made his way home, (with the help of a map Nadia had drawn on the back of a discarded envelope) promising to return the next night to have his bandages changed.
Over the succeeding weeks, a degree of affection grew between these two young people, but Wain, aware of the questionable nature of his profession, was wary of making any greater commitment. He was at a loss as to what he had to offer this young woman. But still he made a point of passing and chatting, and Nadia keep her candle alight for him.
Fate, as always, was keeping an eye on the situation, and decided to stir the broth a little more vigorously. The streets may seem empty but there are always eyes watching you. In the case of Nadia the eyes were those of a small boy driven by hunger, who finally found the courage to approach her window. Nadia immediately slipped down to the kitchen and returned to her window with a piece of fruit pie she had been saving to go with lunch, along with some bread and cheese. Silently the small boy withdrew, hugging his treasures, but next night he was there again.
Now Nadia was lucky, at that time of night even street children tend to be curled up asleep. Had she displayed her generosity at an earlier hour, then she would have been swamped, but over the next week her small following grew to seven very young children.
Now this did present a problem. The widow wasn’t a big eater, Nadia herself had a healthy appetite but this merely ensured there was little left over, so to feed these children she was having to buy specially. She earned comparatively little and had nothing in the way of savings. Hence one night when Wain arrived to find her handing out what she could to the children, she was almost in tears at how little she had to give.
Suddenly Wain saw his opportunity. Now to be fair, none of his professions paid well (if at all) but they did at least conspire to keep him fed. He didn’t so much eat, as graze on meadows of finger food. It was only the running he did, inadvertently and at short notice, that kept him trim.
He asked Nadia to make some small alterations in his one decent jacket, and that meant that every night he could turn up with something for the children. Admittedly this might consist of baked cheese balls, spicy kale bites, three different sorts of stuffed mushrooms, and on one never forgotten occasion, a bowl of prawn salad. All this the children accepted with sometimes cautious gratitude. The presence of so much ‘green’ in the prawn salad was a cause of suspicious wonder.
Now with a joint project to bind them together, the romance between Wain and Nadia flourished. So much so that they started discussing the future together. Here there were obstacles. The widow’s health was definitely failing, Nadia felt that she couldn’t leave her. Wain’s ability to earn a steady income had also not increased, although he was gaining in authority and this meant his pronouncements were less likely than before to be met with cudgels and a beating.
It was the old woman who finally precipitated events by the simple expedient of dying after a short final illness. Wain had temporarily abandoned criticism to support Nadia, ensuring that there was always one of them in the room should the old woman want anything. When finally she died, Nadia reported this fact to the woman’s brother, an elderly lawyer even older than his late sister. He was saddened but his own infirmity had meant they only met once in her final week. Still he it was who formally read the will to Nadia. The widow had left her entire estate, (a house and some savings) to be divided between her brother and Nadia. Her brother commented that he already had a house and as the next year would doubtless see him taking his final voyage in the dead boat, he could hardly take the spare one with him. So he gifted his share to a surprised Nadia.
Nadia acted swiftly. Before Wain could discover her changed circumstances, she insisted on him marrying her anyway, claiming, not without some justification that it is what the old woman wanted.
Now Nadia still sits and sews in the middle of the night, old habits are hard to break and a good needlewoman can earn a reasonable living. Wain has returned once more to drink deep at the springs of criticism. His writing style has matured and his work is wittier than before and certainly more sought after. A gaggle of small children clutter the house, some theirs, some acquired from the streets. Shena assured me that it was a remarkably happy household, and that Nadia had managed to convince her assorted brood that green, in small amounts, was not necessarily a cause for concern when it manifests itself as part of your meal.
Should you want to know more about the world of Tallis Steelyard, you might fancy reading
As a reviewer commented, “Any story that contains immortal sayings like “I will merely point out that whilst the little ship did not lack ambience, it was an ambience that clung, and it took three washings before I could get it out of my shirts.” Is well worth reading.
Additionally, this tale refers to maps, missing gems, pie eating contests and even a marimba – what more could a reader want?”