First part of this magical illustrated story inspired by the Chesil Beach in Dorset.
The Plant Whisperer
(Inspired by the sea-thrift (Armeria maritima), a tough little plant that thrives in inhospitable places – like the Chesil Beach.)
He trudged along the top of the great beach, the sound of shifting pebbles following him as if at a respectful distance. The close-woven fish basket he carried was clearly empty, its weight not pulling him off balance in the least.
The fishermen tending their boats far below at the water’s edge cocked an eye at him. Not one of ourn, by no means. Not any kind of fisherperson, for that matter, despite the basket. This was a man of a very different kidney, obviously seeking something.
Some regarded him with pure curiosity, glancing up as they worked, some with an edge of hostility. Who was he to be tramping along their beach? But when one of the boys, picking up on these mixed reactions, took aim at the man with a catapult laden with a large pebble, his father caught the lad’s eye and shook his head.
‘But he’s a foreigner!’ said the boy, ready to argue it out. Foreigners were fair game, weren’t they?
‘No,’ said his father, regarding the man’s progress along the beach-top with interest, ‘leave him be. He’s a foreigner, but he’s a friendly one I reckon.’
Meanwhile the basket-carrier had stopped and was shading his eyes, peering down the far side of the beach. A moment later he disappeared from view with a great slithering of shingle, heading downwards.
The boy regretted his lost target-practice. His father had the feeling that something new was about to begin.
On the landward side of the beach the man had settled his basket upright and was industriously gathering leaves.
‘Not quite right,’ he murmured, peering at them short-sightedly. ‘Close, but not quite the true thing. You, however,’ he added, addressing a small pale-flowered plant with obvious affection and familiarity, ‘you are the very bees-knees. You will forgive me if I borrow a few fragments of your person.’
He plucked leaves and stems thoughtfully, careful not to uproot the plant. ‘There,’ he said at last, ‘that leaves you plenty to grow with and gives me plenty to work with, and no harm done. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.’
The plant, a little lopsided and bald at the edges now, made no reply. It had secret buds ready to launch into action under these kinds of depredations. The man thanked it kindly again and moved on.
On such a still day the sound of his footsteps through the shingle carried up and over the beach and down to the fishermen. ‘On the move again, then,’ someone said.
But he didn’t move very far, and soon everyone knew that the stranger was an apothecary.
‘An apothe-what?’ asked Jemmy Herring, fisherman of the Chesil, and a chap with an enquiring mind, as he tended his nets.
‘Don’t ee know what a ’pothecary is then, Jem?’ said his neighbour Robert Pierson, scornfully.
‘No, I don’t. But you can ’lighten me, Robin, I expect,’ said Jem, calling the bluff.
‘I… well… it’s…’ Mr Pierson was floundering.
‘It’s a gent what deals in herbs and cures, o’course.’ This was Jemmy’s nine-year-old sibling, Annie, putting the pair of them to scorn.
Jemmy attempted a half-hearted cuff at her ear, but she was too quick for him and darted off.
‘Far too ’cute for her own good, that un,’ said Robert Pierson.
Jemmy nodded good-naturedly. He didn’t entirely care for being put right by his little sister. Still, he would happily wager a week’s catch that she’d turn out to be right. She usually was.
It was time to form an opinion, Jemmy knew. A wise man in cures was something they very much needed in this remote place on the Chesil. So this was a good thing, wasn’t it? Well, said a cautionary voice in his head, only if they are good cures, eh? Jemmy determined to find out.
The apothecary, Dr Thrift, had fetched up in many strange places in his wandering life. But few, he thought, were as strange as the Chesil. Here he was, adrift in a sea of rock, an unsolid, shifting pebble-heap where the sea set the tone day and night. The heaviest waves rolled in and shook the great beach beneath him, rinsed the pebbles out whether they needed it or not, and rearranged them, never satisfied with the design. In its most cantankerous mood the sea picked them up and hurled them. The ocean was surely a malcontent most of the time, or so Dr Thrift thought when the beach had roared and rattled all night. The sea spat out a fine mist, too, that hung over the beach like a pall making everything dank and chill. It was not a place to spend the winter, he decided, and looked forward to a move inland later in the year.
But the great beach did provide him with good herbs – some scarce ones, too – and he would stay as long as the supply lasted. By winter this place must be blasted and browned, he knew. But for now he worked with the plants, bidding a polite good day to sea bindweed and beet, sea campion and spurrey, and the yellow horned poppy. He greeted them as old friends and begged a few flowers or leaves or precious seeds for his collections.
Dr Thrift was a wary individual, slow to trust, and secretive; but his was an ungreedy soul, and he took only what he needed in payment for his cures, and sometimes nothing at all. Annie Herring found this a curious way to live and asked him, with the directness of childhood, why he was so ragged and had so few possessions.
‘Why,’ he said, ‘whatever would I do with great mounds of things to keep? It would only make me a target for bad men who would take them away again. And besides, I am a travelling sort of person – however would I carry it all?’
Annie pointed out that if he charged the going rate for his cures he could buy a horse to ride – and a mule to carry his things.
‘Bless your heart!’ said Dr Thrift, ‘I am not a horse-riding man – such great heavy animals and full of wind, too. And a mule – a creature with the disposition of a bad-tempered coot. No, I travel on my own two feet with what I can carry myself, no more.’
Annie found this want of ambition a little disappointing and said so.
‘Ah well,’ said the apothecary, smiling, ‘my ambition lies in another direction, young Annie – to be a diligent herbalist, the best I can. Is that not a better thing to work for than fine clothes and flatulent horses? Now then, you can assist me, if you will, by holding my basket for me while I gather a little – only a little – of this sea campion. Its roots can be made into soap, you know.’
Annie nodded and took the basket having learned that Dr Thrift’s apparent folly might actually be wisdom dressed up in a ragged coat.
Plants have their Secrets
(Inspired by the Sea Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima) a plant that’s just about edible if you avoid the poisonous bits. It grows in areas of saltmarsh behind the Chesil.)
‘He is a force of nature, they do say,’ said Robert Pierson, with the air of somebody who knew one when he saw one. ‘In every sense o’ the word,’ he added cryptically.
This was a step too far, and Jemmy Herring paused in folding his nets. ‘Y’can’t leave it at that,’ said Jemmy. ‘When is a force not just a force, then?’
Robert closed his eyes, a very annoying habit that warned Jemmy he was about to be instructed about something.
‘In some parts, Jem, a force is what you might call a waterfall. Gushes down a steep place and carries all with it. What I mean is, that fellow is a force, and he might wash us all away.’
Jemmy considered this awhile, his net now spread from arm to arm as if the fish might leap conveniently out of the sea and straight into it of their own volition. ‘But that apothecary-man is a gentle sort o’ person,’ he said at last, folding the net. ‘A little curious in his habits – all that talking to the plants, I mean, but he don’t seem forceful at all, not to me.’
Mr Pierson tapped his nose, another annoying habit that he indulged in so often it was no wonder his nose seemed permanently out of joint, and said knowingly, ‘We shall see, Jem, we shall see!’
A large, smooth, deep-green roller turned over lazily and broke heavily onto the beach before them, its followers widely spaced, equally large and heavy. ‘It’ll be coming on to blow presently, then,’ said Jemmy, eyeing the surf. This was the sort of force of nature he perfectly understood, and never mind the apothecary-man.
For all that, Dr Thrift had captured Jemmy’s attention, and if indeed it was about to blow, it would be a kindness to go and see that all was snug and properly battened down at the old black fisherman’s hut that the apothecary had adopted as his temporary home.
In ordinary summer weather it would be adequate for someone as unparticular about his person and surroundings as the good doctor. But a gale might just have the roof off it, even standing in the lee of the great beach as it did. So Jemmy loped along with a bag of tools and set himself to finding out any weak points in the structure.
Dr Thrift was heartily grateful. ‘The gale will not be starting to blow this moment?’ he asked, as if it might sneak over the pebbles at any time and catch him out when he wasn’t looking.
‘Not awhile yet, sir,’ said Jemmy.
‘Good. Good. Then walk with me, Mr Herring, just a little way, and show me some of the plants hereabouts.’ Jemmy nodded.
‘Plants have many secrets,’ said Dr Thrift, later, as they walked, ‘and some of them are not yet known, so it’s unwise to jump to conclusions.’
Jemmy was silenced. He had airily dismissed the arrowgrass plant as worthless; its flavour too bitter to eat, as he knew, and he hadn’t seen the doctor collect any.
The apothecary went on, more kindly this time, ‘Every plant has its part to play in the scheme of things, but that may not include being useful to us, or at least not yet.’ He regarded the arrowgrass plant which seemed cheerfully unaware of having been grossly insulted. ‘This one, for instance, may contain the cure for an ailment we have not yet encountered.’
If nothing else, Jemmy had learned never to be rude about a plant in the presence of Dr Thrift. Jemmy blew out his cheeks and attempted to change the subject. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘if we continue to collect the herbs we do have a use for’ – he had rather cleverly included himself here, he thought – ‘will they not become rare and hard to find?’
‘That is a good question, Mr Herring. As to the quantity I collect’ – the apothecary put himself firmly back in charge – ‘why, it is a mere drop in the ocean; I take only what I need. This is not a job for a greedy person. Yes, take only what you need, and you will generally do no harm. It’s as simple as that, young sir.’ And he patted the arrowgrass plant affectionately on its unattractive flowerhead, and walked on.
Reaching the Crossroads
‘Everyone reaches a crossroads in their lives. Everyone. Depend upon it.’
This was one of the many things the apothecary had said as they walked, and it weighed on Jemmy Herring’s mind. Perhaps this moment was Jemmy’s own crossroads. The choice was simple – remain a fisherman forever and ever amen, a mackerel-flavoured sort of life – or find a means of escape.
The mackerel-flavoured life was hard and not always reliably productive, but it was familiar to Jemmy and all his forebears, time out of mind. The escape, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity, exciting but laced with every kind of uncertainty. Jemmy peered down at his clumsy sea-boots and wondered what manner of shoes he might walk in should he choose a mackerel-free future.
It made him dizzy to think of it, that great unknown outside world far beyond the Chesil. And what might that world contain, eh? Jemmy knew the dangers and rewards of the sea, but a solid, unmoving dry land sort of future was a very different matter. What might it hold for a young man with a smidgen of ambition?
Jemmy decided that, taking one thing with another, it was worth the risk. And he saw a safer way of doing it, too, than simply striking out alone into the unknown. He would stick to the apothecary like a shadow from now on, make himself useful, learn all about the herbs and medicines, employ subterfuges to do it if he must. Dr Thrift was an odd individual, no denying it, but he had experienced the outside world.
And when at last the apothecary moved on from the Chesil, as he surely would, Jemmy would go with him.
If you’re in Dorset, I will have a few hand-bound copies of the illustrated Chesil Apothecary available at the Crabchurch Weekend Book Fayre on 29 February. Held at Hope Church, Trinity Street, Weymouth, I’ll be there from noon to 4pm. If not, you can read the second part of The Chesil Apothecary here next week.