Lucy Brazier reads a festive excerpt from PorterGirl – First Lady Of The Keys
The PorterGirl Collection
Curiosity killed the cat, or so they say. What cat? Why a cat? Were any dogs ever seriously injured by curiosity? Could curiosity maim a fish?
This rather eclectic train of thought belonged to Barnaby, a middle-aged monk, as he hoisted his ample frame over the unforgiving stone monastery walls of the Blind Brotherhood of St Bastian, his home since he was a small boy. Barnaby had scant memory of his parents, save for that they were devoted to the Lord and fashioned themselves as 12th day Advent Hoppists. It was a curious religion, rising from the fact that their bible had a misprint. It taught of ‘faith, hop and charity; and the greatest of these is hop’. Every Sunday was spent hopping around the parlour with great vigour, singing joyful songs and trying not to stub a toe.
Their furious hopping must have paid off as the good Lord saw fit to take them in his arms soon afterwards, leaving the little Barnaby alone in the world, until one day a benevolent member of the Brotherhood came across him weeping in the woods and took him in. The Brotherhood was so named not because they were blind in the literal sense, but because they endured an elective blindness of the outside world and its nefarious ways, so that they would not be tempted from their righteous path. They were good men and kind, but life was monotonous and dry, and Barnaby had something of the spirit of adventure in his bones.
Barnaby exhaled a small groan as he hit the ground on the opposite side of the wall. His arms had grown strong through hard labour, but his belly was large from a hearty diet and need to eschew vanity. The Brotherhood had warned that there may be nuns nearby and the strapping physique of a man might agitate their baser instincts. It would not do to agitate a nun.
Tumbling a few feet on the mossy earth, Barnaby came to rest beneath a bushel. He stopped to catch his breath and glimpse the rolling twilight above, gently chasing sunset from the sky. As the first stars of the evening began to wink at him, he cast his mind back to that rare excursion to the local market, several weeks previous. Accompanied by one of the elders, Barnaby had been tasked with procuring garlic, the Brotherhood’s crop having been ravaged by weevils. The visit was short but in that brief time he heard wonderful tales woven among the chatter and bartering of the market. Tales of far away places, strange creatures and, most pertinently, wine, women and song. Barnaby like the sound of these enormously.
And so it was that he decided to escape the monastery for one night, to learn what he could about these curious entities. He had noted a tavern on one side of the market square and supposed that this was a good place to start. Scrabbling to his feet, he set off at a pace along the winding path that led down into the village.
Bereft of the hustle and bustle of commerce, the market square was eerie by night. But across the way the tavern blazed with light and laughter, the walls almost straining to contain the merriment within, leaking tantalising zephyrs of jocularity through the door and window frames. Barnaby thought to himself that surely here all of life could be found and his curiosities would be satisfied. A jaunty sign hung above the entrance, declaring the establishment to be named The Pickled Pig. Pushing open the door, several sets of eyes observed Barnaby’s arrival, followed swiftly by swirling whispers and, finally, an uneasy hush.
Stepping over the threshold, Barnaby gasped. Taking in the scene with a sweeping gaze he saw skins of every age and hue, apparel of unimagined types and, in the case of some of the ladies, apparel that was barely there at all. The air was heavy with a kind of smokey stickiness and now the only sound was of the Bar Tender’s cloth squeaking around an already clean glass.
“Good evening, Brother,” said the Bar Tender, clearing his throat. “What can we do for you?”
Barnaby drew himself up to his full height, which was fairly considerable.
“I have come here this night out of curiosity,” he began. “Nearly all my life I have lived in the monastery and have grown wise in the ways of the Lord and many other things. But I have an inkling that there is more to life and now these things I also wish to know. More specifically, about wine, women and song.”
Some eyebrows raised, some glances exchanged. Someone at the back asked him to speak up. The Bar Tender shrugged.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” he replied. “But first, if we are to share with you our expert knowledge on such things, you must give us something in return.”
“I am a humble monk with nothing in the way of material goods,” said Barnaby, his ragged robes tied at what was once his waist with mangey rope a testament to this.
“Alright. Then you must tell us all the secret of how to get into Heaven.”
Barnaby thought hard for a moment before making his reply.
“The Good Book teaches how to get to heaven and every Sunday your priest will tell the same.”
“We’re not big on readin’,” snapped a crow-faced old man from his barstool, grizzled features twisted into a grin. “An’ church ‘appens very early in the mornin’. Give us the abridged version and we’ll teach you the ways o’ the world.”
Barnaby thought again.
“Well, I suppose there is one notable element that is often overlooked in traditional teachings that is imperative to getting into Heaven,” he replied, slowly. “If you teach me the things I want to know, I will tell it to you.”
Bargain struck, Barnaby took his place at the bar and the patrons gathered round, eyes shining and limbs fidgeting.
“Let us begin with wine,” suggested Barnaby.
The Bar Tender dived beneath the counter for a moment, returning with a bottle filled with a murky amber liquid and bearing a yellowed label that curled at the edges, as if trying to escape the ferocious contents within.
“Wine is overrated as a beverage,” explained the Bar Tender. “Whisky is far better. This is a bottle of the finest nectar that the Scottish Highlands has to offer…”
Barnaby reached out an eager paw but the Bar Tender slid the bottle out of reach.
“…But be warned! Its potency is unmatched and alcohol is not called the ‘demon drink’ for nothing. The first glass will warm your throat. The second glass will warm your stomach and lift your spirits. The third glass will make you impervious to cold and all things that ail and trouble you…”
“This seems to be some sort of miracle!” exclaimed Barnaby. “I shall drink the whole bottle at once!”
“That would be a mistake,” said the Bar Tender, shaking his head. “And one that is made repeatedly, both by the stupid and the clever, by the rich and the poor. Because too much drink will make you ill and too often will bring ruin. But, if you really must, then take this bottle and find out for yourself.”
Barnaby turned the bottle over and over in his hands, the pungent liquid clinging with viscous arms to the inside of the glass. He minded the Bar Tender’s words and decided to delay his curiosity until he had learned more about women and song, and tucked the whisky among the folds of his robes.
“What, then, of women?”
A brawny man in the dying days of his youth approached the bar. His jaw was still chiselled and his hair thick; his frame broad and strong as that of a farmer. But his eyes were tired and dull and his shoulders stooped slightly towards the ground.
“I will tell you about women, Brother,” said the man, introducing himself as Joel. “For I have known a great many. When I was a younger man, I had the strength and will to work the fields by day and entertain ladies by night. With a pocket full of coins and my rakish looks, my bed was warmed each evening by the finest and keenest of the fairer sex, each more eager than the last to snare me with their tender wiles and loving ways.”
Barnaby stared with eyes like saucers. The elders had always warned about the nuns, who he vaguely understood to be women, but this did not sound too bad at all. Joel sighed.
“But my dalliances caught up with me one day and I was left with no choice but to make an honest woman of my lovely lady, Jeannine. She had always treated me well and delighted in my company, but after we were married things took a curious turn. It seemed that my appeal had waned and she turned her attentions to matters of the house and her own life. Women are complicated and very difficult to please. Their moods change like the wind and they are especially susceptible to whims. A woman is both a masterpiece and a work in progress, the most difficult and exhausting creature I ever did know. In truth, Brother, I envy your way of life. But if you really must learn about women, then I will give you my Jeannine for the night. I will be glad of the peace and quiet.”
Joel beckoned forward his wife and Barnaby almost fell off his stool. Her bosoms were as fat as the monastery pigs and her waist as slender as a reed. Her rounded hips swayed as she walked and the curious monk barely noticed the pinched scowl upon her once carefree face. Taking great care to keep his hands out of trouble, Barnaby sat Jeannine on his knee and suspected that after tonight he would probably go straight to Hell, albeit with a smile on his face.
“Well, this is proving to be a most enlightening evening,” remarked Barnaby. “I feel I am learning a lot. But I am compelled to trouble you all just once more. The Blind Brotherhood of Saint Bastian forbids entertainment of any kind and we are only permitted to sing the Lord’s praises in monotone chant. What can you tell me about music and song?”
A burly fellow bedecked with tarnished jewellery, a fearsome black leather cut-off jacket wrapped around his corpulent frame, approached the bar. Barnaby swallowed hard and tried to hide behind the beautiful woman on his knee, lest this creature that appeared to be mostly beard did him a mischief.
“Brother, My name is Harvey and I have been a music lover since a young age,” a voice boomed from within the beard. “Many years ago, when I was just a boy, I happened upon The Minstrels of the Apocalypse practicing their songs at the back of the stable yard. Their unique brand of fast and fulsome melodies coupled with their lyrics of brutal reality, delivered with heartfelt angst, appealed to my troubled young self as no other minstrels had before. When I listened to them play, the music inspired every emotion imaginable. Sometimes I felt that the music was speaking directly to me. And, for a time, I was not the only one – The Minstrels of the Apocalypse had a following of young people just like me, rebelling against the music of our parents and finding kinship in songs that were just for us.”
“Harvey, this sounds like the most incredible thing!” exclaimed Barnaby. “Rather like the Brotherhood, but much more fun. I must experience these marvellous minstrels for myself!”
“Well, Brother, that you can,” Harvey replied. “In fact, they are playing at a tavern on the other side of the village this very evening.”
“Then why are you not yourself there?” Barnaby asked.
“When I saw them last, they were withered with age and the angry words that once meant so much to me sounded unnatural coming from their elderly mouths,” Harvey replied. “Not only that, but the familiar tunes reminded me of that confused and unhappy time of entering manhood, so I did not go to see them again. Also, the young people of the village would laugh at me for my outdated tastes, just as I laughed at my elders all those years ago. Music brings as much sadness as it does joy, but if you wish to discover this for yourself, then take yourself off to the Cat & Compass in Bonkover Street. Music is best enjoyed with drink and beautiful women, so maybe you do have the makings of a marvellous evening after all.”
Barnaby thought this to be a splendid idea. All those long, tedious evenings spent doing nothing by candle light in the monastery, when all the while such illicit pleasures were readily available a mere arm’s length away! It certainly pays to be curious, Barnaby thought to himself, ignoring the warnings of the villagers. He reached into his robes and found the bottle of whisky. He drew long upon its contents, before hoisting Jeannine over his shoulder.
“You have all taught me so much!” he cried. “I shall away into the night to discover more, starting with The Minstrels of the Apocalypse!”
“Wait!” shouted the Bar Tender. “But you haven’t yet kept your side of the bargain. You promised to tell us what we must do to get into Heaven!”
“Ah, yes,” murmured Barnaby, edging circumspectly towards the door. “The most imperative thing about getting into Heaven…”
“Tell us! Tell us!” the patrons of The Pickled Pig implored as one.
Barnaby drew a breath and flung open the tavern door, shouting over his shoulder as he made off into the night.
“You have to be dead!”
*This has been sitting around for use in an anthology that didn’t materialise, seemed a shame to waste it*
Yes – the Seventh Day Advent Hoppists joke is stolen from Red Dwarf. Shameless!