(Inspired by the Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus) a semi-parasitic plant that grows among grass behind the Chesil.)
It took a great deal to rattle the Chesil fishermen, but the man dressed all in black worried them. His clothes were spotless, boots polished, hat properly brushed. No worn patches, no down-at-heelness. Anybody would attract attention dressed like that. No-one here had anything that fancy, that new. People stopped to stare at this weird and alien being. It was rumoured that he had been seen speaking quietly with Dr Thrift. The Chesil fisherfolk thought he was a spy from the outside world – from the far outside world. Some of them thought the same of Dr Thrift, and that the two might be in cahoots. But then such a closed community as theirs did love to dramatise the arrival of a stranger if they possibly could.
Jemmy Herring would have none of this. ‘A true spy,’ he said, ‘would have dressed to blend in with the background. Them fine clothes show up wherever he goes. He’s nothing but a crony of the apothecary come to visit. Besides, what do we have here that’s worth spying on, eh?’
‘In cahoots,’ people said, stubbornly.
‘What in the world is there for them to be in cahoots about that would concern us?’ said Jemmy in contempt. In truth he was jealous of this man for monopolising the apothecary’s attention. It was interfering with his own carefully laid plan to learn the cures by stealth.
‘The cargo, y’fool,’ somebody hissed. ‘The coal we took from the wreck, of course. As we should not have, as y’well know. That sailor as was unharmed went off to report the wreck, didn’t he? And this fellow has the look of a coal merchant’s man, don’ he, all in black? Making ’quiries concerning the lost cargo. Stands to reason. And that ’pothecary man will betray us, a’ purpose or not. They will take all that good coal away from us. And whose need is the greater, hey? We’ll freeze come the winter.’
‘The apothecary is a good man,’ said Jemmy stoutly. ‘He’d not betray us. And that is just a friend of his, come to visit, no more. Why, he’s no more a spy than that there black-back gull.’
The bird gave them a quizzical look and flew lazily off along the shoreline.
In a Bind
(Inspired by Sea Bindweed (Calystegia soldanella, which grows on the Chesil shingle)
‘Oh, Mr Herring,’ said the apothecary, flapping about the hut in a fever of anxiety, and throwing things into bags. ‘Oh, dear. I believe I can trust you?’
Dr Thrift didn’t sound too sure, but Jemmy nodded stoutly. Of course he could be trusted. ‘What’s the matter, sir?’
‘Ah, I am a fugitive, you see.’
Jemmy wasn’t sure he did see. This was stretching his vocabulary to its limit. ‘A fugi…?
‘Oh, that is to say, I must fly!’ said the apothecary, distractedly.
Fly? Jemmy’s staunch expression vanished and his mouth fell open. What had Annie said? About the apothecary’s magical powers, about his being able to turn into winged creatures, birds and butterflies? For a moment Jemmy’s romantic dream of being apprenticed to a magician re-flourished.
Dr Thrift stopped long enough to pick up Jemmy’s confused look. ‘I am running away,’ he said. ‘I must!’
Jemmy’s mouth fell open further as understanding increased. Running away? Not magical then? Just afraid of someone?
Jemmy was furious – not a common condition for someone so naturally even-tempered – but he found Annie’s perfidy unforgiveable. All those stories she had told about the apothecary being able to fly had spread from neighbour to neighbour and become accepted fact, and it was all her fault, the little tattle-tale. And it was completely untrue. Jemmy pulled himself up abruptly. What was he thinking? Of course it wasn’t true. People did not transform themselves into birds and butterflies and flap off, did they? Jemmy’s unaccustomed fury began to transfer itself to the supposedly sensible adults who had taken the word of a nine-year-old and accepted it as truth. But most of all, his fury fell upon himself. How could he possibly have believed any of it, even for a moment? He was deeply ashamed. Had it been the sheer romance of becoming the apprentice of a man with magical powers? Not something you do every day. He had been swept away on a tide of intrigue and excitement, and now he was washed up on the shingle of reality like an old boot. No magic, then, no romance at all. Dr Thrift was just a man on the run. Jemmy’s dreams collapsed round his ears, and he hung his head in disappointment. It was a practical matter, then, no more.
‘Shall we have a breath of air, Dr Thrift, sir, while you tell me all about it?’ Jemmy led the way outside, picking up the net and boathook he had left at the door. He could always think better when he was standing on shingle.
A Scurvy Knave?
(Inspired by Early Scurvy-grass (Cochlearia danica), very common all along the Chesil. Not actually a grass, but packed with vitamin C and once used to prevent scurvy in sailors.)
But who could possibly be pursuing the good and helpful Dr Thrift – apparently with evil intent? It was unthinkable.
‘I promise you it’s true,’ said the apothecary, as they trudged along the ridge of the beach, just as if he’d read Jemmy’s mind. ‘I must get away.’
‘But whyever would anyone be pursuing you, sir?’
Dr Thrift stopped, examining the pebbles. It was a guilty look, sure enough. ‘Because I stole something of his.’ There, it was out.
Of all things, Jemmy could not believe Dr Thrift was a thief. A thief, after all, needs presence of mind, and the apothecary spent much of his time holding rambling conversations with plants. No, he could never be a thief.
‘What?’ said Jemmy, disbelieving his own ears. ‘Stole something? Stole what?’
‘A large and beautiful gold coin,’ said Dr Thrift, his eyes filling with tears. ‘And I could wish to the heavens I had never set eyes upon it.’
Not a small theft, then, thought Jemmy in dismay.
‘I stole it,’ said Dr Thrift, extracting a linen herb-bag from his pocket and dabbing his eyes. ‘I persuaded myself it was lost. Finders keepers – you know. But in my heart I knew this wasn’t true. Of course it belonged to someone. He must have counted the coins – there were many. He saw me looking, and knew I had taken one.’
‘It was only one coin,’ said Jemmy, desperately seeking excuses.
‘Indeed,’ said the apothecary, ‘but it had an owner, and he wants it back. Only to be expected.’
‘But Dr Thrift, sir, can’t you just give the coin back to him?’
‘Bless your heart, no, Mr Herring. I spent it, you see. That was how I set myself up as an apothecary. Spent it all, to the last farthing. There is nothing to give back but my books, my bottles, my stock in trade. I should be ruined and he would still not have his gold coin. That is what he wants – he has told me it is my last chance – he will return soon and I must be gone before he does.’
The stranger in dark clothes! It all began to make sense. That man had not visited Dr Thrift as a friend – he had come to threaten him, to demand the return of the gold.
Jemmy chewed his lip, thinking. ‘Then we must do something about it, sir,’ he said.
The dilemma, as Jemmy saw it, was simple. Dr Thrift was guilty as charged, admitted it himself. He had not set out to steal anything, exactly, but he had picked up and kept something that did not belong to him. And the rightful owner was perfectly entitled to demand reparation – and punishment, too. Any court in the land, great or small would agree to that. So to assist the good doctor – Jemmy still thought of him as good – was to thwart the rule of law, and to place himself on the wrong side of it, too. This was not what he had anticipated when he had set out to become the apothecary’s assistant.
Jemmy closed his mouth and drew himself up. ‘Y’need not distress y’self, Dr Thrift,’ he said earnestly. ‘I will fight him. See ’im off for you.’ He sincerely hoped the apothecary’s pursuer might not be too good a fighter. ‘I’ll take care of you, sir.’
‘Very kind,’ said Dr Thrift, ‘Oh, most thoughtful – but I fear you don’t quite understand. My adversary is not an ordinary person. He is a most clever conjuror. Vindictive, you see. He has many powers. Can take on any form. I can only run away.’
Jemmy wished the apothecary would stick to shorter words. Vindictive – now what did that mean? He only understood that it was bad. However, he did have an idea what a conjuror was – and that was not to be believed. ‘Oh, sir,’ he said. ‘You’re pulling my leg, I believe.’ The apothecary’s expression showed otherwise.
Look out for the final part of this unique story next week