The Restless Season
(Inspired by Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) a plant with many herbal uses and many prickly leaves.)
When the plants began to pack themselves away for the winter, when the flamboyant flowers of the thyme were long gone and it was nothing but a dwindling green mat, when late summer tranquillity was replaced by a fresher more practical season, Dr Thrift the apothecary began to pack up his things too. The dried herbs that had festooned the rafters of his dark hut on the beach were taken down and carefully sorted into little bags, each bearing a mysterious symbol. Jemmy pretended to others that he understood these symbols, but in reality he had only the haziest idea that they were astrological and related to which planet ruled which plant.
He marvelled at the apothecary’s knowledge, at how much abstract information the man kept in his skull. Jemmy’s own limited knowledge left him unsure at times, unclear regarding the boundaries between herbalism, alchemy and plain, old-fashioned witchcraft. It was an exciting line of work, though, perched as it was between the power it gave the apothecary over people and the ever-present danger of being accused of blasphemy.
Jemmy sensed there was a deadline at work, possibly just seasonal, but probably something more urgent. This was confirmed, at least in Jemmy’s mind, when the good doctor stabbed himself on an obstreperous sea holly leaf and uttered a rude word – the first Jemmy had ever heard him use.
Some people had begged Dr Thrift to stay, notably young Annie Herring, while others would be glad to see the back of him, notably Annie’s mother.
Jemmy, increasingly anxious, made himself as useful as possible assisting with the packing whenever he could, and trying to learn the symbols. He was looking for the right moment to ask if he might accompany the apothecary when he left, but was afraid to ask, too. What if the answer were no?
So when Dr Thrift shook his head fretfully and muttered, ‘Oh dear, oh dear, I don’t know what I shall do without you to help, Mr Herring,’ Jemmy seized the opportunity.
‘Then I will come with you.’ He hadn’t meant to blurt it out so forcefully, or so loudly, but the idea had evolved so long in his head that he couldn’t stop himself.
Dr Thrift jumped back so suddenly that he collided with the table and sent a carefully-arranged stack of little herb bags flying. ‘Oh dear, oh dear!’ he said. ‘Such frightful disorder!’
Jemmy rushed to pick up the bags and began to sort them – but the symbols swam before his eyes. He had come crashing in like a conger eel in a strop and had ruined everything with his over-eagerness.
Dr Thrift fussed over his scattered necropolis of plants, talking to them even in death. ‘No, no, not there, you are a herb of Mars, you see, and you of Jupiter. Keep yourselves to yourselves, if you please.’
Jemmy hung his head; it had been mere fancy on his part to think he might escape his life with the fisherfolk. His destiny was mackerel-shaped and Daisy Goodship-shaped, and that was that.
‘I’m sorry, Dr Thrift,’ he said awkwardly, ‘if I startled you.’
‘No, no,’ said the apothecary, still disentangling the muddle of herbs. ‘No apologies needed, Mr Herring. Mere accident – could happen to anyone – no harm done, not really, is there?’ He addressed this last remark to a packet of thyme leaves. Then he turned back to Jemmy. ‘Tell me, when can you be ready to leave?’
Jemmy gaped like a codfish for a moment then collected himself and said, ‘Now. Straight away, sir, if you want me to.’
The Wreck of the Haresfoot
(Inspired by the Haresfoot Clover (Trifolium arvense), a plant of the sandy turf behind the Chesil.)
But before Dr Thrift could untangle his herbs, or Jemmy Herring his wits, the Chesil weather intervened very rudely. The storm that blew in on the equinox ensured, as storms so often do, that they reconsidered their priorities. And the unhappy ship, the barque Haresfoot, that the pitiless gale blew onto the beach concentrated the minds of all the Chesil folk, though perhaps not in the direction one might expect.
‘It would be a charitable action to help them, would it not?’ This was such an understatement that people took whole moments to stop and stare at the apothecary – moments that would have been better spent in gathering up the coal that was being washed out of the ship’s hold and hurled ashore in the surf like so many great black hailstones. It was forming a dark rim along the limit of the waves’ reach, and people were taking considerable risks to get at it. This was not as heartless as it seems. The weather and the ship being placed as they were would have made any rescue attempts pure suicide. Selflessness was a great thing – but not when it left orphans in its wake.
‘We should help them get ashore. Can we help them?’ This was the apothecary again.
Yes, people said, she’s close enough in now, we can, we should, of course we should, and they left the valuable coal to knock itself to pieces in the surf, and began to seek ways to get a line aboard the stricken ship and give what assistance they could to the small crew, all of them plainly visible and hanging on grimly. They had long since ceased to worry about preserving the cargo and were now absorbed in preserving themselves, so a line to the shore would be a welcome thing and not before time at all.
Dr Thrift, knowing he would be more hindrance than help in the rescue itself, hurried back to his dark hut on the landward side of the beach, and began unpacking useful medicines for anyone that might survive; yarrow for cuts and bruises, comfrey poultice for broken bones, and a bottle of painkiller of his own invention. He took a thoughtful swig of this painkiller himself as he gathered everything into a bag.
‘Dr Thrift! Three souls ashore and one in a bad way,’ Jemmy sang out. ‘Please come along, sir.’
The apothecary hurried out to do what he could.
(Inspired by Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), a very bitter herb that grows in the salt marshes behind the Chesil. It is also an ingredient of absinthe, thought to cause hallucinations in drinkers.)
As the Haresfoot, an unlucky ship despite her name, ground herself apart on the beach, Dr Thrift trudged through the shingle with the faithful Jemmy carrying his bag. They found two sailors warming before the fire in Mrs Herring’s house. But the third one seemed to have been mislaid.
‘He was here – gone to report the loss o’ the ship, I think,’ said Mrs Herring. ‘Said he were never going to sea again, never no more, nohow, and rolled off as fast as his ungrateful legs would carry ’im. Never even said thank-you-kindly.’
‘Understandable in the circumstances, I suppose,’ said Dr Thrift, as he examined his two remaining patients.
Mrs Herring sniffed, equally disgusted at the ingratitude and the necessity of having the apothecary in her house. But this was an emergency, so she said no more and left him to it.
The apothecary turned back to the sailors. One shattered arm, apparently incurred during the rescue operation, the man resigned to losing it, the other pale and silent, making the doctor suspect grave internal injuries.
‘Spar fell on that ’un,’ said Jemmy, ever the practical sea-goer. ‘Not much hope, sir, I ’magine.’
Dr Thrift shook his head slightly. ‘I can ease his pain,’ he murmured, took the stoppered bottle out of his bag and handing it to Mrs Herring added, ‘give him this wormwood extract – all of it if necessary,’ and turned to investigate the broken arm.
The arm belonged to a true stoic. ‘Caught tight in a rope, sir,’ he said, managing a smile. ‘Will you take it off now?’
Dr Thrift returned the smile. ‘I am not a surgeon, alas,’ he said, ‘but I will try to set the bone before we send for the butcher, eh?’
The sailor laughed. ‘Whatever you can do, sir, I’ll be grateful.’
The apothecary fished in his bag for another bottle. ‘This is comfrey – knitbone, as they call it. We’ll put a poultice over the break. Miss Annie, will you assist me?’
Jemmy felt a stab of jealousy – here he was all ready to help, and the doctor had asked his little sister instead! He calmed himself with the thought that poultices were surely women’s work, confirmed a moment later when the apothecary said, ‘Mr Herring, hold the gentleman steady, if you will, while I feel for the break.’
The unlucky sailor who had got in the way of the falling spar fell feverish, took all of the apothecary’s painkiller, insisted the ship had been pushed ashore by a great black whale, and died quietly during the night. His shipmate laughed at the notion of a whale, but admitted he had been below decks at the time securing the cargo.
‘Could a whale have injured the ship?’ Dr Thrift asked Jemmy.
‘We don’t see ’em along the Chesil, sir – only dolphins. But you’d need a great weight o’ them to sink a barque. I ’spect it was your pain-killing draught as disturbed his wits.’
Jemmy had tried a nip of it when the apothecary wasn’t looking, and had seen a few odd things in consequence when he went outside for a breath of air, including, he had fancied, a seagull that had wished him good day. In the light of that, Annie’s reports of the doctor’s odd tales of talking animals began to make more sense – more sense, regretfully, than the possibility of magical explanations. Perhaps Dr Thrift indulged in the stuff himself…
‘I daresay you are right,’ said the Doctor, regarding the empty bottle. ‘It is a strong mixture. But it eased his passing, poor soul.’
When all had been attended to, the apothecary asked the broken arm – bearing up well under the good influence of the poultice – about the missing sailor.
‘He were the first mate, sir, and since he come ashore all safe, I guess the good lady were right and he just went to report the loss, sir, by land.’ The sailor shook his head as if this were unthinkable. ‘But there won’t be much left of the poor ship by now, I don’t think, ’cepting the coal.’
‘No,’ said Dr Thrift peering out of Mrs Herring’s salt-caked window at the austere line of the great beach. ‘But I believe the people heareabouts collect up what they can.’
Annie Herring, listening intently at the door, ran off to report this unguarded and possible dangerous comment.
Look out for part six of this unique story next week