I am constantly amazed at the pettiness of some people. What sort of Chef de Cuisine gets upset when he discovers he has an extra kitchen porter? I have worked with Chefs so grand that they would never even condescended to notice the existence of a kitchen porter, even after they’d just tripped over one!
Let us be fair, most kitchens have too few porters. Rather than have the job done briskly and efficiently, those in authority would rather employ too few unfortunates and work them to death for a pittance, all the while moaning about the poor quality of their work. In my case isn’t even as if I complained about my accommodation; like my fellows I just found a quiet corner in a storeroom to curl up in.
I readily admit I had joined the crew of the great paddle-wheeler at short notice. Such short notice that I hadn’t had time to inform whoever is in charge of these things that I was about to grace their vessel with my presence. In my defence I should point out that I needed to leave Port Naain in some haste and with as little publicity as possible. Thus I’d wished to avoid time consuming bureaucracy. But again in my defence it should be noted that I had joined as a kitchen porter, surely a sign of my praiseworthy humility rather than an attempt to deceive.
Still I object most strongly to being dragged out of the kitchens and thrown unceremoniously off the stern of the boat. Between ourselves, as a poet one gets used to this sort of thing, but had I been merely a kitchen porter there is no reason why I should have been able to swim. Still once in the water I struck out for the right bank. Here I was partially helped by my overall. As is traditional it was so heavily stained with grease and sundry oils that it was almost waterproof. By the time I pulled myself up onto the bank, my clothes were soaked, but the overall was still remarkably dry.
Once on the bank I followed the River Paraeba downstream. Before long I came to a small tributary.
This gave me pause. From comments overheard I knew our boat had passed the mouth of the River Laio, and the River Areiu was still a couple of days off. This must be some lesser tributary, perhaps the Slackwater? I resolved to follow it upstream on the not unreasonable grounds that I should either find a crossing or better still, some form of habitation.
I’d travelled for an hour or two when I came across the first signs of habitation. Situated on a mill leat cut for the purpose there was a watermill. It has to be said that it didn’t look to be in particularly good shape, but a small boy was fishing in the pool, so was obviously inhabited. I made my way towards the child, who watched me somewhat incuriously.
“Hello young sir, is there anybody about?”
“Well there’s me, and there’s my Grandfather inside, but he’s probably dying.”
This give me pause, but you know how children can over dramatise. I nodded to him and went into the mill. I found myself in quite a large room. The centrepiece was a bed, and sitting up supported by pillows was an elderly man whom I assume was the grandfather. He was playing ‘Partann’ with another gentleman who I assumed must be his doctor, although I was surprised that there had been no horse outside. One could not imagine a doctor walking his rounds in a rural area such as this. The room was damp and I felt colder than I had outside. The doctor must have felt it as well as he was well wrapped up in a dark cloak and hood. The old man looked across at me. “Welcome stranger. Make yourself comfortable.”
I bowed to him. “Thank you for your courtesy. I am sorry to trespass on your time, especially when you seem to have your doctor with you.”
“Oh him; pay him no heed. We thought we’d just have one last game.”
I found myself shivering. Looking round, a fire was laid in the grate, it just needed lighting. If I was cold the grandfather would be colder, I was surprised at the doctor not making sure his patient kept warm.
I asked, “Should I light the fire?”
“Excellent idea, but you’ll have to use flint and steel, our firepot went out.”
His flint and steel were on the hearth and it wasn’t a big job to light the fire. I took off my overall to let the heat reach the rest of my clothes. I then turned to look at the game.
I don’t know whether you’ve played ‘Partann’ but one player takes the Condottiere while the other takes the Warlord. The Warlord, a Partannese brigand, has to sack the Condottiere’s camp to win. The Condottiere must merely slay the Warlord. Each player has twelve pieces on a gridded board, and there are tiles of differing colours one can place on the grid to represent woods and similar.
As I looked at the board it was obvious that the doctor was winning. Grandfather had chosen the Condottiere and had advanced. His spearmen and crossbowmen had formed a centre which was to provide the anvil against which his men-at-arms could crush the Partannese forces.
But things hadn’t gone well. The doctor was obviously a skilled player. He had lured the enemy infantry deep into his half of the board and separated them from their men-at-arms. In two moves the Condottiere himself had died in a hail of archery, and the last of the men-at-arms had gone down under the axes of the Partannese peasantry.
Now the Partannese light horse were riding for the camp, and it was a mathematical certainty that they would arrive there to sack it before Grandfather could bring back his infantry to defend it.
Yet where a lesser man might have conceded, Grandfather fought on. Nevertheless the writing was on the wall; he had no more than three moves left. As far as I could see there was nothing he could do.
I confess that I felt a little sorry for him. He was obviously ill, and the doctor seemed to show no delicacy of feeling. He played with fierce efficiency, answering his patient’s remarks with curt comments lacking any empathy or warmth. Indeed my opinion of him, already low because of him leaving the fire unlit, was dropping steadily.
So I intervened. “Grandfather, do you not play the Port Naain Variation, after all you’re virtually in Port Naain?”
He looked at me, a little surprised. “Not for years, you’ll have to remind me of it.”
“Oh it’s simple. If the Condottiere player loses all his men-at-arms and his Condottiere, then he can place one ‘unlikely hero’ in his camp.”
The doctor spoke to me for the first time. “What does this ‘unlikely hero’ do?”
“Oh it has the powers of a Condottiere but cannot move out of the camp.”
Grandfather nodded. “Yes it’s coming back to me now. As we’re north of the Paraeba and west of the Areiu, the Port Naain Variation it is.”
The doctor rooted about in what appeared to be an empty cloth bag next to the board and pulled out the last remaining figure. It was of a woman wielding a dolly stick. He seemed a little surprised to find it, but passed it to Grandfather without comment. Grandfather placed it on his camp and the game continued.
The balance of power had shifted. The first light horseman hit the camp and crashed to defeat at the dolly stick of the ‘unlikely hero’. In the next move two light horsemen hit the camp simultaneously, but still the ‘unlikely hero’ repelled them. In the subsequent move the retreating crossbowmen were in range of the camp and the light horsemen fled.
Grandfather looked across at the doctor. “I think I’ve staved off defeat.”
The doctor silently put the pieces in the bag, shaking his head as he looked once more at the ‘unlikely hero.’
“Until next time then.” His words had a leaden finality to them and he stood up as I turned to put some more wood on the fire. When I turned back, the doctor had gone.
The room seemed distinctly warmer by now, and my clothes had got to the stage where they were barely damp. The boy came in with some fish and with his help I prepared and cooked them over the fire for the three of us.
As we contemplated our empty plates, Grandfather sat back in his bed, looking better than he had done for a while.
“’Unlikely hero;’ ‘Port Naain Variation?’ You’ve cheated death and no mistake, Tallis my lad.”
At this point it seems pertinent to mention that the story of Tallis’s escapades continues on other blogs. They will be reblogged in what may one day be accepted by biographers as the chronologically correct order on his own blog. Thus and so you can easily follow his gripping adventures.
Also, as an aside, the reason for this whole performance, (aside for being ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’) is that another volume of his anecdotes has been published. Containing some work that has never appeared on the blog, this is ;-