I’m pleased to be part of Jim Webster’s blog tour today to promote two of his novellas, Tallis Steelyard, Deep Waters and Other Stories, and Tallis Steelyard, Playing the Game and Other Stories.
Here is a story from one of these novellas to whet your appetite:
A Significant Gesture, by Jim Webster
I have in the past mentioned the ‘Society of Minor Poets’. Every year we put
on an entertainment for the elderly and the children in the Ropewalk area.
Yet whilst we might do our bit to feed these folk once a year, for some, the
rest of the year can be a hungry time. So we did think to do something about
How, might you ask, can a group of poets who can barely feed themselves,
look to feeding others?
It’s a good question and frankly it’s one we struggle to answer. But we felt
that as we knew hunger so well, there was nobody else better placed to help
others cope with it. Now in our hall, (which was in better days, a dried
grape and carpet warehouse,) we have what might pass as a kitchen. No lady
would admit to having anything so basic in her home, but there is a cauldron
which hangs over a fire, and there are ovens built into the fire surround.
Indeed there is even a counter which runs down one side so that food can be
served to people who then take their plate through to the main hall to eat.
So provided we have managed to find fuel for the fire to heat the cauldron,
and have something to put in the cauldron, we can produce a meal. To be
fair, the meal is often porridge. In part this is because we have got good
contacts with some of the racing stables and livery barns and we pick up
quite a lot of grains that aren’t really good enough for feeding to
expensive horses. We long ago gave up trying to make porridge from only one
grain, and our regulars will have long discussions after they finish their
bowl as to the proportions of wheat, oats and barley.
Still we get by and when we minor artists sit and eat with our guests, it’s
not merely a nice gesture of solidarity. A good bowl full of porridge can
set a poet up nicely for a day tramping the streets trying to woo new
In theory we would like to have sponsors to help fund our good work. Yes
people do drop in with food for us, but it is all somewhat hand to mouth.
Eventually we realised we needed real money, because the roof needed fixing.
When I say it needed fixing, what I mean was that on wet days we didn’t put
buckets out to collect the drips, we used baths. Then waste not, want not,
some of our guests would bring their own towels and have a bath before their
meal. Apparently rain water collected in such a manner isn’t as cold as you’d
think and works wonders for the complexion. Be that as it may, on some wet
mornings you’d get seven or eight of them splashing merrily whilst we put
their clothes to warm for them on racks in front of the fire.
Eventually I prevailed upon the other minor poets to let me approach
Mistress Bellin Hanchkillian. If we impressed her with the work we were
doing then she could afford to pay for the roof to be fixed. So I invited
her to come and see what we did.
She graciously announced that she’d be delighted to look around and a date
Now at this point people started to panic. Somebody asked me, “What if one
of our drunks insults her?”
Another person told me that they felt that she might take one look at the
hall and decide that it was beyond saving, and refuse to have anything to do
with it. Others felt we ought to do our best to make a good impression, so
she would regard us as a cause she could feel proud to support.
The week leading up to her visit was, frankly, a descent into madness.
Everything was scrubbed, the inside of the building, the kitchen utensils
(such as they were) and our clients. One elderly widower had six baths in
five days, and at one point stood naked and shivering as various ladies
frantically washed, darned and then ironed his clothes.
But it wasn’t merely a case of making our clients presentable. There were
our minor poets, the volunteers who did the work. They too were asked to
make an effort. To be fair, the ladies did. Dresses normally saved for the
greatest of occasions were brought out, let out (or occasionally tucked in)
and somehow made to fit. The gentlemen decided that they would appear in the
clothes they wore for their most demanding of patrons. In all candour, we
Now we minor poets are a mixed bunch. We have people who have achieved a
level of modest prosperity, and others who struggle to make ends meet. All
rub along pretty well. One lady whom we all rather liked was Mistress Darni.
An attractive young lady who tended to wear long light coloured dresses with
a high neck, she was a fine poet in her own right, and lived with her
widowed mother in genteel poverty, struggling to survive on a small
investment income. All of us assumed that at some point one of her admirers
would finally talk her into matrimony, but she appeared to be in no
particular hurry. Certainly she was a most useful source of supplies for us.
There were times when we felt that she merely had to mention that the
kitchen was short of some ingredient for half a dozen prosperous and
eligible young men to arrive carrying sacks of whatever it was we were short
It was agreed that Mistress Darni would be one of those who would wait
behind the counter, apparently ready to serve people, when Mistress
Hanchkillian visited us. Another lady who had also won the right to appear behind the counter was Nalmi Wreedle. She was, in our terms, a wealthy widow. Her husband had made his money in catgut, cornering the market in Port Naain because of his close
links with the abattoir trade. The problem was that Nalmi seemed to feel the
world looked down on her. Some of it was her own fault, she had a wonderful
gift with obscene doggerel, yet she also could write the most beautiful
romantic verses which would bring even the most cynical close to tears. The
problem was she was embarrassed by her verses but cheerfully dropped her
doggerel into every conversation.
To be honest I was a little worried about what Nalmi might say to Mistress
Hanchkillian. Not that I could imagine the lady being shocked, (I remember
her late husband) but she might feel she had to appear to be shocked. So I
asked Darni to keep an eye on her companion behind the counter and to step
in should it look as if Nalmi was about to say something too unforgivable.
Actually it was worse than I feared. In the days before the visit Nalmi was
getting herself quite worked up over the whole thing. She made comments
like, “Who does this woman think she is?” and “Why is she any better than
the rest of us?” At one point Darni overheard her muttering about, “I’ll
make a significant gesture and smear the smile off her face.”
On the great day, everybody was in their places. It was raining but not
heavily, so at least we could display the problems we had with the roof to
our advantage. Mistress Hanchkillian arrived in her coach accompanied by one
of her many nephews. She took his arm as we showed her around. We took her
into the kitchen and there she was introduced to Nalmi and Darni behind the
counter. Nalmi said nothing and I relaxed. Luckily Darni didn’t. As Mistress
Hanchkillian turned to go, Nalmi produced from under the counter a large
bowl full of flour, water, raw eggs, and some bright red food colouring.
This she raised as if to hurl at the back of our guest.
Darni didn’t hesitate; she dived at Nalmi, knocked her down onto the floor
and lay on top of her to hold her down. The bowl of mixture landed on both
of them and on the floor. Nalmi was, as you can imagine, less than happy
that her gesture had gone unnoticed. Darni ensured that this happy state
continued by clamping her hand firmly over Nalmi’s mouth. Nalmi tried
opening her mouth to shout, got a mouthful of flour, water, egg and food
colouring, and shut it again rapidly.
We managed to get Mistress Hanchkillian out of the kitchen without her
apparently noticing anything untoward, and into the main hall where she met
our clients. There she picked her way through an assortment of baths
collecting rainwater. From the hall I heard Nalmi’s voice shouting something
in the kitchen; but it was abruptly cut off again.
Finally our guest decided she’d seen all she needed to. She commented in
passing that she was impressed with what we had achieved, and had decided to
ask her estate maintenance men to come and fix our roof. There was a lot of
genuine applause and she left. I went back into the kitchen to discover two
angry women rolling on the floor in a pool of red paste, apparently trying
to strangle each other. We separated them and Nalmi stormed off. Darni
stayed as we tried to wash down the ruins of her one decent dress and then
she made her way home.
I confess I felt guilty about the incident. Darni and her mother were living
on less than a young woman like Darni might spend as a dress allowance. Alas
I couldn’t think of what to do about it. Others could. Apparently that
evening Darni heard a knock at the door, and went to see who it was. It was
one of Mistress Hanchkillian’s maids, escorted by Mistress Hanchkillian’s
nephew, who explained that her mistress insisted on having the dress
cleaned. Darni felt the dress was beyond repair but the maid merely shook
her head, took the dress and left with it.
Three days later she came back with the dress, and much to Darni’s surprise
it was perfect. It was only when she looked closely that she realised that
the maids had taken the old one apart and used it as a pattern to allow them
to make a new one. In the pocket was an invitation from the nephew to dine
with him the following evening. Darni has another admirer.
And the hard sell!
So welcome back to Port Naain. This blog tour is to celebrate the genius of
Tallis Steelyard, and to promote two novella length collections of his
So meet Tallis Steelyard, the jobbing poet from the city of Port Naain. This
great city is situated on the fringes of the Land of the Three Seas. Tallis
makes his living as a poet, living with his wife, Shena, on a barge tied to
a wharf in the Paraeba estuary. Tallis scrapes a meagre living giving poetry
readings, acting as a master of ceremonies, and helping his patrons run
These are his stories, the anecdotes of somebody who knows Port Naain and
its denizens like nobody else. With Tallis as a guide you’ll meet petty
criminals and criminals so wealthy they’ve become respectable. You’ll meet
musicians, dark mages, condottieri and street children. All human life is
here, and perhaps even a little more.
Tallis Steelyard, Deep waters, and other stories.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Discover
the damage done by the Bucolic poets, wonder at the commode of Falan
Birling, and read the tales better not told. We have squid wrestling, lady
writers, and occasions when it probably wasn’t Tallis’s fault. He even asks
the great question, who are the innocent anyway?
And then there is;-
Tallis Steelyard. Playing the game, and other stories.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Marvel at
the delicate sensitivities of an assassin, wonder at the unexpected revolt
of Callin Dorg. Beware of the dangers of fine dining, and of a Lady in red.
Travel with Tallis as his poetical wanderings have him meandering through
the pretty villages of the north. Who but Tallis Steelyard could cheat death
by changing the rules?
If you want to see more of the stories from the Land of the Three Seas, some
of them featuring Tallis Steelyard, go to my Amazon page at
Tallis even has a blog of his own at https://tallissteelyard.wordpress.com/