Excerpt from The Patterer
Blood and lust make the world go ‘round I say. You may argue that it is money – the pound or the pence, the farthing, the bob, the crown, gold or silver – that makes it spin. God knows money is good. I will tell you straight away, I have personally found it quite handy when bartering for a wench or wine in those rare exquisite moments of self-indulgence. But if you believe that, you’d be as wrong as tits on a bull.
Ladies, forgive me. A crude turn of phrase, that. Men, you expect it. But I will, for the ladies sake, attempt to rein in the crude-osity of my tale. It won’t be easy what with britches dropping nearly as often as your jaw. What I offer is a tawdry tale of bullets flying and death-defying antics – but also a tale of love. Man on woman. Man on man. Camel on…well, let’s have none of that here, shall we?
Mostly, this is a story about oral stimulation.
Wait! Don’t run. No need to even blush. It’s not at all what you imagine. Although your imagination did just have a go with you, now didn’t it? Cheeky devils. Yes, you are my kind of crowd, and you have proven my point. Blood and lust make the world go ‘round. Repeat it with me. That, in fact, is my world. And I offer it for sale to you. Got two pence and a halfpenny? Then step up even closer, and let’s have at it. You see,
I am a patterer.
At your service.
That is my exceptional skill. It is also my curse, as you will surely see.
Now the first rule of a good patterer is to begin with the most titillating, scandalous or horrific story you can find. Flesh it out whenever possible with references to bodily fluids, and never, never let facts get in the way.
Actually, I have a saying, which I made up, entirely original, though you may steal it if you wish: “If it bleeds, it...”
That’s me. Leeds Merriweather. The roar of my name as it rolled like thunder through the printer’s shoppe yanked me rudely from a dreamless sleep so deep it would have awakened Shakespeare himself. And this just in: Shakespeare is still dead.
“Leeds Merriweather, you lazy son of a twat! The ink’s dry an’a day’s a-wasting.”
Charles McNabb owned the dusty print shoppe where this story begins. He added an exclamation point to his roar with a kick to my ribs. I squinted up at him from the corner of the pressroom where I had curled up for the night with a soft pillow and a hard floor. It seemed as if I had only just closed my eyes before being subjected to the indignity of McNabb’s boot. I know for a fact that it was nearly dawn when, like a weary tomcat, I padded in and settled down with a snout full of gin and a head full of stories I had collected from a long night patronizing the public houses along Fleet Street.
“If’n you’re not going to sell for me today, it’d be certain I have plenty like you who will,” McNabb said. He carried a bundle of the day’s edition of his broadsheet, the London Tattler-Tribune.
“Aw. Go easy if you please, sir,” I said. My ribs where McNabb’s boot struck ached, but, oh, how my head throbbed even more. February had just given way to March, and the light from the window danced with particles of dust creating a veil of sorts before my eyes. I sniffed. Oil and ink, parchment and stain. The aroma of the printing press, of literature freshly baked. And turpentine. I love the smell of turpentine in the morning.
McNabb slapped the back of his hand on the broadsheets. “Cannibalism,” he cried. “Adultery and ravishing of maidens.”
I love the ravishing of maidens. It sells newspapers.
The publisher was a short Scot with a gunpowder temperament, and that morning something put a spark to his britches. “’Tis death on the high seas. By God, I am good.”
I asked, “Good for what?”
He aimed his next kick at my privates; I raised a knee just in time. “Don’t you be insolent, y’ragged lump of gutter waste. If this story d’nnot draw a decent income today then we have no business doing business in this business.”
I used the brick wall behind me as a brace for my back as I inched up – slowly, very, very slowly – to a standing position. War drums were beating in my noggin, and the battle for a clear head was most definitely in doubt. Too much gin last night, for certain. I took the broadsheet McNabb forced upon me and glanced over the all-important lead story beneath the Tattler-Tribune banner.
Spank me senseless! “Lord Howell’s shipwreck? What the bloody hell is this?” I demanded.
“A fine bit of writing, if I say so myself.”
“A fine bit thievery, I say.” That weasel McNabb had attached his name to the story – my story! I was the one who mined the details of the shipwreck over a bottle of rum from a Portuguese captain whose ship happened upon an uncharted island. The crew was taking on fresh water when they discovered what was left of a tourist yacht in the lagoon and the remains of the rich nobleman, his wife, and the others who perished with him.
“What is this dung you’ve printed here? What happened to what I wrote?” I wanted to rip that newspaper and wave the tatters in McNabb’s ferret face. I had only turned the details over to McNabb on the promise that I could print and sell the story under my name. All I had to do was raise a couple of quid to cover the cost of printing. All the right elements of a great story were there, not the least of which was potential for profit. McNabb understood that. He held out his palm, and the way he rubbed two fingers against this thumb said it all: Show me the money.
I shook my head. “Soon.”
“And what of yesterday’s sales? D’ya drink it all away as usual last night?”
“’Course not,” I lied. Yes, I was penniless again. Even McNabb could read that much in my bloodshot eyes.
“It’s a fine story, lad, and I couldn’t let it waste away a-waiting for you.” That bugger, McNabb, knew a golden story when he saw one.
All they found were the bones of the good Lord Thurston and those six who were shipwrecked with him. The evidence of the extreme hedonistic life they lived and left behind created a tale so repulsive and so enchanting in one, that it was sure to shock and awe and produce profits. More important, this was a story to be told and re-told and remembered for generations. And it was mine to tell first.
“Lad, ‘tis a sin to give stock to such profound pride. Be prudent,” McNabb said. “You’re a better man for surrendering it to me, and the story is better for it; that is my duty as editor. Now run. Run and patter. Patter and run, whichever it is that you do.” He waved me off, dismissing me as one might shoo a cat from the supper table.
“Leave the wordsmithing to McNabb,” he said. “You have every chance to patter your version on the street. You have a handsome face, a strong voice and straight teeth. You were made to patter, not to publish. That is your proper lot in life. Accept it.”
I looked down at McNabb. He was barely as tall as my shoulder. My left hand clenched, balling up a corner of the Tattler-Tribune I held. I snapped at him. “This was mine. You said it was a story beneath you.”
“She rose to the occasion,” he said with a smirk. McNabb handed the broadsheets to me. “Do you want them or shall I find another patterer today?”
I moved to the window and bent at the waist enough to peek at the sky above the roofs of Fleet Street. The clouds were grey but not dismal. More distressing was the odor of the fish market carried on the wind. Whitefish today, and not a fresh catch apparently. Strong enough to blow down from Billingsgate, the wind would invariably carry my voice away from the crowds I hoped to capture. Bloody hell it was, this would be a difficult day.
I turned to face McNabb, took one of the broadsheets from the bundle and waved the front page at him, not ready to back down from this duel. “You agreed I could rent your press to print my own.”
He laughed, “What? You have no money and c’nnot afford it, you foul-breath alley dog. Be intelligent for once. Why should I allow you to compete with me? ‘Twould be like lettin’ you shag me wife and offer you my own bed for the purpose. I may be a Scot, but I’m not insane, man.”
I took a step toward him, and then sharply veered right to the large typesetting table in the pressroom. To my left, near the front door, a wall of books, pamphlets and assorted printed pages for sale stood behind the counter where McNabb serviced his customers. Everything for the literate gentleman, from pens and ink to writing paper and wax seals, sat on display across the counter itself. At the back of the pressroom, McNabb’s assistants, Simon and Garfield, were preparing the printing press for another go and pretending to ignore the battle of wills and ink-stained egos.
Pacing back to McNabb, I considered my limited options. No respect, I say. Some day, I knew, I would have my own press and see my words, my ideas in print instead of being cast on the wind as they were now. Even on a calm day words disappeared within the moment at each street corner where I stopped. No one respects the patterer, but put your story in print? That, my friends, is a whole ‘nother kettle of carp.
Change would come – of that I was certain. But until then there were meals to be purchased and rent money to be paid. Both, sadly, had been hard to acquire of late, and dodging my landlord who selfishly insisted on being paid for overdue rent had become a daily game.
“How is your head this morning?” McNabb asked, as if the matter was settled and forgotten. “And your rhyme? How will you pitch this?”
“My head? As right as ever. My rhyme? Far too splendid for the drivel you have written here,” I said.
“Leeds, ‘tis that attitude that makes you so difficult. If I want a bit of criticism I have only to spend more time with my wife. Show some conviction, man. And be positive in your expression. Be cheerful, even. For no one wants to buy death from a grump.”
He was right, of course. In pattering, proper disposition is nearly as important as a winning smile and the tale’s details. I admitted to McNabb as much, and it placated him. So, I handed him the one copy I had waved in his face a moment earlier and stepped next to the window. I counted only those papers in my hand. “Three and twenty papers,” I said. “That is a half-penny short of twelve shilling in total.”
He shook his head. “No, lad, the count is twenty-four.”
“But Mr. McNabb, see for yourself.”
I handed him the bundle of papers in my hand and, in return, took the single broadsheet he was holding. I rolled it cylindrical and tapped it like a baton on the palm of my left hand while McNabb counted the papers.
“I am sure I printed out exactly four over twenty,” he said. He looked at the table in the center of the room. He looked to his left and to his right, clearly confused. He counted again as if he could perform the Lord’s own fish-and-loaves miracle to increase it by at least one, but the stack in his hand had not changed.
Then I pointed my rolled newspaper to the printing press. McNabb’s eyes followed the sweeping motion of my paper pointer. “Is it possible you left the final print on the press?” I asked. I took the bundle of broadsheets from him, and while he stumped to the press in the back of his shoppe I unfurled and added the sheet in my hand to the others.
“No, it is not here.”
With a shrug I placed the newspapers in my satchel where I still had six as-yet unsold copies of The London Gentleman’s Magazine and three books I had purchased at discount from Mr. Hawke, the bookseller six doors down. I slung the satchel’s long leather strap over my head, collected my hat and turned for the door. “Well,” I said, “If by chance the missing copy appears, do send it my way. I should have made three; maybe four stops by then, and will most certainly reach the West End within three hours. I’m certain that with a story so compelling and cleverly written as this, I should be sold out in no time at all.”
Mr. McNabb accepted that as certain fact and grinned. “Do your job, and my words will do theirs.” Then he demanded payment for the twenty-three Tattler-Tribunes he could account for. I sheepishly shook my head.
“I c’nnot go on giving you papers on credit, lad. Why can’t you pay like the other patterers? ‘Tis no way to run a business.”
“You tell me; you’re the Scot. And don’t I always make good? I am the best patterer you’ve had, Mr. McNabb. No one sells your trash like me.”
“I’m not so veery certain of that, me boy. On the soul of my sainted muther I say n’more credit. This is the last time.”
“That is precisely what you said last time.” I smiled. I was starting out my day with a one-paper profit. And with the extra two pence I could afford a full meal that evening. It would be my first of the week.
With a gulp of the thick London air and a sip of thin potato gin from the flask in my pocket to steady myself, I began my march across uneven cobblestones toward my first stop, a busy corner at Cheapside.
“Hummm.” I drew out the sound like a monk’s chant to test my vocals. I would need them proper today. The tone sounded strong enough; it carried a depth, timbre, and a bear-like resonance that comes only after a fair night of drinking. Some say London gin will put hair on your chest. I say it’ll put baritone balls in your voice. At least for me, more than three nips and I sound like God on high, Himself. With what I could remember of the previous evening’s rounds, I was bound to be thrice as strong that day.
I will tell you, I do not fancy the overuse of rhyme in pattering as so many of my compatriots do these days. But this was a story so full of twists, and characters uncommon in London that it demanded just such the fine, Merriweather touch. A wretchedly wealthy, shipwrecked aristocrat, his wife and his five fellow castaways, (“fellows” being a relative description; two were lusty females—harlots, I was happy to note), left to fend for themselves on an island.
I began shouting more than twenty paces before reaching the corner. Drama on the high seas! Cannibalism! Lust on the high seas! Lusty cannibalism! Come hear me out, I have details!
A crowd formed around me like the first innocent swell of high tide when I stopped across from Cheapside Market. I stepped on a small platform I built there and paused. I looked over the faces before me and let tension and their expectations of entertainment build. I held up a copy of the Tattler-Tribune and directed their attention to first the masthead, and then the story of Lord Thurston.
“Step right up, and come hear a tale.
“A tale of a fateful trip.” My voice was strong. More passers-by paused to listen.
“It started in a distant port—aboard a tiny ship.”
I told them of the first mate and the captain who was brave. “And sure, they set sail that day for what was to be a three-hour tour.”
“A three-hour tour?” a woman asked, wide-eyed.
Indeed. “A three-hour tour.”
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