(Inspired by Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) an incredibly tough and tolerant seaside plant that grows directly on rock or shingle all along the Chesil.)
Jemmy stared at his bootlaces, the apothecary watching his face anxiously. What was a simple fisherman to think? Fighting a debtor was one thing – taking on a powerful conjuror was quite another. Not a fair fight at all. Dr Thrift had done a bad thing. He was a thief, and that was that. But he was not a bad man, not at heart. And Jemmy looked into his own heart and found it wanting; had he not decided to run away to avoid marrying Daisy, and all that it entailed? People would say that he had as good as jilted her. Not exactly a crime – but not Sunday-best behaviour, neither.
‘We all have our failings, Mr Apothecary,’ said Jemmy at last. ‘It’s not for me to judge you, whatever y’did. I’ll help if I can.’ And if you will take me with you when you go. It went unsaid, but both parties understood.
Dr Thrift let out a shuddering sigh of relief. ‘That is very humane and kind, Mr Herring,’ he said. ‘But I don’t know what’s to be done, I’m sure.’
‘We can defeat this conjuror,’ Jemmy heard himself say. It was wild talk, and quite possibly dangerous, but Jemmy felt it was a change for the better. ‘Tell me about him, if you please.’ This sounded brave and bold in the face of feral magic.
‘Well,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘to begin with, I know he is a thief himself, and an arsonist, to boot.’
Jemmy brightened – Dr Thrift may have done something wrong, but his pursuer had done worse!
The apothecary went on, ‘He caused a terrible conflagration in the city, quite on purpose.’
‘Conflag…’ Again Jemmy wished the apothecary would use shorter words.
‘A fire, Mr Herring, very terrible. It blazed to the very sky. And while the people were thus diverted…’
Diverted, thought Jemmy, I should think they were!
‘…he flew in and stole their gold, piece by piece, from the guildhall, from the saddlers, the bakeries, the brewhouses.’
‘When you saw “flew”…’ said Jemmy, puzzled.
‘I mean flew, Mr Herring. This conjuror can turn himself into a magpie – a thieving magpie that found and took the gold, and made a cache of it, and escaped the fire as the poor souls of the city could not.’
‘And how do you know this, Dr Thrift?’ Jemmy thought it a mighty tall story.
‘Why, because he boasted of it, Mr Herring. Told me himself.’
‘But what would make you believe such a thing?’ asked Jemmy, still sceptical.
‘Anyone would, Mr Herring,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘if the conjuror turned himself into a magpie before their eyes, perched on their shoulder and chattered the story into their very ears. And doubly distressing when you had thought yourself responsible for that very fire – written in my stars, they told me, and it wasn’t me at all. I found his cache of gold hidden in a tree-root, and took one coin, just one! And he pursued me, Mr Herring, in the forms of loathsome animals, delivering his threats. I ran away. I have run from him ever since. What else could I do?’
‘You, we, can stand up to this conjuror,’ said Jemmy, wondering if this were a very grave mistake. It was only a very few moments before he found out.
Jemmy Makes a Stand
(Inspired by Sea Aster (Aster pannonicum) a plant once used as a treatment for the eyes, and perhaps just the thing to make everything clear!)
The big black and white gull transformed itself before their eyes.
‘It’s the conjuror!’ breathed Dr Thrift. ‘Back already! I told you… oh, I said…’
The man before them smiled nastily. ‘Well, apothecary, time is up. Give me back my gold. Or take the consequences.’
Jemmy forced himself forward and edged between the conjuror and the terrified apothecary.
‘Well, well. And who is this bold knight? Come to save you, has he?’
Jemmy pulled himself upright, brandishing his net and boat-hook, and feeling seriously underprepared. The conjuror was not the wizened old man he had imagined, but no older than himself. Young and strong.
‘Will you fight me, Jemmy Herring?’
How does he know my name, wondered Jemmy.
‘Fight me as a black-back gull, will you, if I turn myself into one?’
Jemmy thought he could cope with that, if he were careful of the beak.
‘Fight me as an eagle, could you?’
Jemmy had never seen one, but he had a worrying notion of the size and potential armaments. His hand flew to the lucky shark’s tooth on the bootlace round his neck. The conjuror followed the movement.
‘Fight me if I turned myself into a great shark, would you, fisherman?’ Jemmy was wondering whether this would be in the water or out, and thinking that a boat-hook was a tad underpowered as a defensive weapon either way, when his eye was caught by another black-back gull veering out of a wave-trough, over the crest and straight up the beach towards them with a very determined look in its pale eye.
‘I… oooh!’ said Jemmy as the gull fastened its beak firmly on the conjuror’s ear.
‘Ow, gerroff! The gull let go and glided to the ground. ‘I’m really most awfully sorry,’ it said, before transforming itself into a tall grey-haired woman. ‘But you know what children are like.’
Jemmy dropped his boat-hook and almost speared his own foot.
The woman frowned and cuffed the conjuror round the ear. ‘This is my son. I have been looking for him, years on end, ever since that, ah, regrettable incident of the fire in the city and the stolen gold. Most embarrassing.’ She cuffed him again.
‘M-madam,’ Dr Thrift had found his voice, ‘you are his mother?’
Jemmy looked, open-mouthed, from the conjuror, now hanging his head, to his grim-faced mother, to the clearly befuddled Dr Thrift.
‘Stole my gold,’ said the conjuror out of the corner of his mouth, pointing at Dr Thrift.
‘It wasn’t yours, y’little thief,’ said his mother, cuffing him again. ‘I had to pay it all back, bear the cost of the rebuilding. D’ye know how much it costs to restock an arsenal?’ She rolled her eyes at Jemmy and Dr Thrift. ‘And now I hear you turned yourself into a whale and sank a ship, forsooth.’
‘I had to smoke him out, Mother. Had to. I suspected he were here somewhere. Knew he’d come out to sailors in distress.’ The conjuror sneered. ‘And out of the woodwork he came. And I had ’im, too, ’til you poked your nose in.’
His mother assumed an even more dangerous look. ‘Never mind that. I have a ship-full of coals to pay for, now, too. The cost is astronomical! Just wait ’til I get you home, you little brute.’
Dr Thrift recovered himself and stepped forward. ‘I thank you very kindly, madam, for intervening – but the fact remains that I took a gold coin, whoever it might belong to. And I cannot pay it back.’
‘Oh, I know that, Mr Apothecary. I have already paid it back on your behalf. And given that you invested it in the good of others – I know how often you treat poor folks for no payment – let us say no more about it. I shall, however, have a lot more to say about it to you,’ she added, turning to her son, who looked stricken.
And both of them turned back into black-back gulls, soaring off over the sea, the mother pecking tufts of feathers out of her son’s tail. His mournful cries of ‘Owk, owk, owk’ carrying back to Jemmy and Dr Thrift as the birds faded into the distance.
‘Well,’ said Jemmy, ‘I never expected that.’
Pebbles crunched as people, wary observers of the scene, scrambled up the beach behind him and Jemmy felt a small hand slip into his own.
‘Annie…?’ he said. But it wasn’t Annie. It was Daisy Goodship.
‘Oh, Jemmy!’ she breathed. ‘You faced they magical creatures so bravely. They could’a turned you into a real herring, if they’d had a mind, but you stood your ground.’
Her face glowed with admiration, and Jemmy glowed too in the reflected light of her look, all his resolutions to escape crumbling to pieces.
‘Nothing,’ he said, modestly. ‘It was nothing.’ But he squeezed her hand affectionately. Life with Daisy maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
(Inspired by Portland Spurge (Euphorbia portlandica) named for the isle at the very end of the Chesil Beach, and so a fitting end for this story.)
You would have thought the very pebbles of the Chesil had eyes and ears, considering the speed with which the news of Dr Thrift’s encounter with the conjuror had spread along the beach. When Jemmy had helped the apothecary back to his dishevelled black hut and made him comfortable, he had asked to be left in peace for a day or two, and Jemmy had respected the request and chased off any curious sightseer who had wandered bearing bread, milk and fresh fish, went to see how the apothecary did. They were surprised to find him outside and at work.
‘Now then, Miss Annie,’ Dr Thrift said, ‘you can assist me, if you will, by running over to the meadow behind the beach – you know the place – and fetching me some of the best bitter buttercups – I think there are a few left – just a couple of leaves, no more. We must be respectful of the plants, yes?’
‘Oh, but Dr Thrift!’ wailed Annie, ‘there are nettles there. I do so hate them.’
The apothecary looked at her quizzically. ‘Ah. Yes. Hatred. I never quite got the hang of it myself. But is it not illogical, Miss Annie, to hate a plant for defending itself?’
‘I am always stung!’ cried Annie passionately, ‘I hate them all!’
Dr Thrift assumed a grave expression. ‘As a herbalist I have seen many people consumed by hatred, beyond recall. No medicine can help when a person is being eaten up from the inside. It is the most destructive force I have encountered, and I heartily recommend that you do not indulge in it, Miss Annie, for your own sake.’
Annie looked mutinous. ‘You must have hated the conjuror, though. He per… pers…’
‘Persecuted me? He did. But I deserved it. I am still a sorry thief, whatever the excuses.’
Annie still looked doubtful.
‘And besides,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘do you not know that the top-growth of the nettle make a most nutritious soup? And that the stems can be woven into a very acceptable twine? Nothing is all bad, you know. Now cut along, and find me the leaves, if you please.’
Jemmy, who had listened with interest, said, ‘Surely, sir, you must have hated the people who called you ill-starred? They spoiled your future.’
‘I did not,’ said Dr Thrift. ‘They thought it the truth – not said with malice, not really. The fact is I should thank them all – the conjuror, too; they have made me what I am. And as you see, the future has not turned out so badly for me after all.’
‘What will you do?’ asked Jemmy, expecting an imminent departure
‘Oh,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘Well. I thought, if the local people will agree, that I might stay here.’
Jemmy’s face fell into visible confusion. He honestly didn’t know whether this would be good or bad from his own viewpoint.
The apothecary looked at him keenly for a moment and then turned, saying over his shoulder, ‘Of course, I should be very happy to have you and young Miss Annie as my apprentices. I have much to tell and teach, you know.’
Jemmy nodded, still in two minds.
Dr Thrift seemed to read his mind. ‘Once you have the knowledge, Mr Herring, you may choose what to do with it, and where. And, er, with whom. Even with Miss Goodship, should that idea suit you after all.’ Jemmy blushed to the roots of his hat, and the apothecary smiled. ‘Just as I suspected. And by the way, Mr Herring, there is no known cure for love – the potion I gave you will have improved your digestion but nothing more.’
‘Now, come along, do,’ said Dr Thift. ‘Miss Annie will be back with the leaves, and there is much to be done before winter sets in.’
The great beach of Chesil had nothing to say, of course. But it rattled its pebbles in an agreeable way, as if to say yes indeed, I do so appreciate a happy ending.
Well, that’s the end of The Chesil Apothecary and I hope you enjoyed it. Next week I begin a series of flash fiction stories written during the current lockdown.