It’s a slap what wakes me, right across my face. Is that Gemma, I wonder? Before my eyes can open I loose a mighty burp and trumpet a righteous wind.
“Good lord!” a man yells.
“By all that’s holy!” says another. “That is foul indeed!”
I try to open my eyes. My lids are thick, heavy, covered with honey or something. When I crack them it’s painful bright out and I wince. I could have sworn it was night just a moment ago, but everything’s blurry. Vision, memory, all of it. Like that time Gemma said she was expecting yet another mouth to feed.
I’m on my feet. In town? In the market? Two men hold me by the arms. They’re big and they have cudgels at their belts. There’s a third one in front of me with a pointy white beard and a fancy kettle helmet. He scowls like he’s drunk a pot of piss.
“Have you no shame?” he says.
I try to speak but my mouth’s sticky too. Filled with wool, feels like. I hack up something yellow and spit on the ground. It’s when I notice something’s wrong with my legs. I’m not wearing my boots. I’m not even wearing my hose. And everything looks like it’s covered in… feathers?
A bolt of thunder rips through my head and I grunt. That’ll be the devil taking his due for all that beer last night. I swear, this time I might be done with the stuff. At least for a few days.
“Put him up!” the man in front shouts, and his two thugs start walking me. “Let’s get this over with.”
“What’s happening?” I manage. My voice croaks and I cough again. It’s unbelievable how dry my mouth is. It’s like I’ve eaten one of those charred bricks Gemma calls bread.
“Ralph from Hairstow-on-Stretford,” the man with the beard says. I think he does, anyway. My head’s spinning and I stare at the muddy ground. Something’s carving up my guts from the inside and I feel it coming up.
Oh, it’s just a belch. But it’s loud, loud enough I think even the Good Lord appreciates it. And oh Lord, does it ever feel good getting rid of that.
“Bloody hell!” the bearded man says. “Just put him in.”
The two men holding me push me forward and then shove my head down. My neck and hands are resting on a wooden bar. Then there’s a crash all around me. My ears ring. I instinctively pull up but find I can’t move. My head and my hands are stuck.
They put me in a bloody pillory!
“Well now,” says the bearded man, standing in front of me. He’s got a taxman’s grin.
No matter how hard I struggle, I can’t move. The wood is too heavy, too tight. I can barely rotate my head. At least I can breathe.
“What’s the meaning of this, eh?” I say.
“Ralph of Hairstow-on-Stretford,” he says again. Don’t like how he says my name like that, all long and official like. “That is who you are, correct?”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“For your antics last night,” he says, biting each of his words like he was eating one of Gemma’s meals and was expecting it to bite back. Which it might. “For your disturbing of the night’s peace, for your public disorder, and for your wanton drunkenness, you are hereby sentenced to the pillory until Vespers.”
“You’ve got the wrong man!”
“You just admitted you’re Ralph.”
Hmm. This one’s clever.
“And besides,” he says. He walks right up right to me, shoves his face nearly in mine so’s our noses is almost touching. “To call you a man would be most uncharitable to real men.” Ouch. “I see nary but a scofflaw, a blaggard. A wild beast.”
He steps back and his face softens, looking very much like my dear old dad right before the tree flattened him. “Take this time to reflect on your life, and pray God will have mercy on your soul, because if you stay on this path you’re bound for the noose.”
My guts start writhing something fierce and I let another one tear. Something I ate last night must have really not sat well with me, like any meal Gemma has ever made.
“Disgusting,” says the bearded man, and then he and his goons stalk off. Pfft. Who needs them.
I jostle about but the pillory holds firm. As a carpenter I appreciate the craftsmanship. As a man stuck in the pillory, not as much.
My neck hurts – well, my everything hurts, but my neck hurts particularly – so I give it a rest and look down. I see my feet and legs again, and when I wiggle my toes I confirm, without a doubt, I have no boots. And no hose. And there are feathers everywhere. I’m covered in them. Fluffy white feathers everywhere, and a thick, greasy, sticky, sickly yellow brown underneath.
Bloody hell! Have I been tarred and feathered? What kind of monster tars and feathers a man just for having a quiet evening brew with his friends? Have we been conquered by the bleeding Huns? A sudden wave of itch washes over me, on top of all the bruises both inside and out. I’ve seen many a man get tarred before and I’m not looking forward to peeling the stuff off. Leaves your skin red and raw for days. Like listening to Gemma go on about the rent.
When I see my maypole dangle in the wind I yelp and flinch. Not a lot of room to flinch in a pillory though.
“Bloody hell!” They took my hose and feathered me everywhere.
“Stop your fidgeting,” a man says.
I look to my right and see my pillory is actually a two-fer. It’s one of the double models, and there’s another inmate beside me. A man about my age, looks a mite familiar but I can’t quite place his face. It’s a little plain, like a turnip. I guess if he’s here with me this morning he must have been there with me last night too.
“Hey mate!” I say. “Quite a night, innit?”
I think he says “yes” but it kind of sounds like a huff. I take a closer look at him, which isn’t easy what with being stuck in this thing, and I see he has his boots and his hose. And his tunic. And he’s not been tarred nor feathered!
“Hey! Why didn’t they tar and feather you?”
“You don’t get tarred and feathered for disturbing the peace.”
“Well then why’d they do it to me!?”
“They didn’t,” he says. And I swear there’s a little smirk on his smug turnip.
“Well then who did?”
“’Twas I.” Yes, definitely a smirk.
“What!?” The cheek on this one. “Why? What did I ever do to you?”
His smirk turns to a snarl. “Because, you wanker, you hit on my wife! Right in front of everyone. The bloody nerve of it.”
I remember – vaguely. Loud singing in good company, a roaring fire keeping the spring chill at bay, and ceaseless beer for endless cheer. Ah, yes, and there she is. She sways in on voluptuous hips, Aphrodite risen from the waves. Her bosom a sunkiss’d mountain, bouncing with each delicate step like… um… a very large bosom indeed. We spent the peerless eve in quiet consultation, discussing poetics and the beautifuller things in life.
Not at all like that spindly reed, Gemma. Though fair is fair, I’ll grant she’s a mighty lass what with chopping all that firewood.
“Well forgive me,” I say. “But what man can resist such beauty? And anyway, is that a reason to tar and feather a body?”
“Truth be told, I’d have been satisfied giving you a thrashing. But you started a riot and fled before we got our hands on you. The tarring was for running. And for the sheep.”
I choke on my breath. “The what?”
“The sheep. Why do you think the reeve was so keen on getting you into the pillory this morning?”
Oh sweet Lord above, what!? I don’t remember a thing.
“Gave them a righteous fright,” he continues. “We found you coddling Beth when we finally tracked you down. Half way across town. All the other sheep gone, scattered into the hills.” He tsks. “And the hell you raised! Bloody near woke everyone.”
My memories are a blur, but something’s coming back. I remember jumping a fence. An old woman yelling. There was a dog that spoke to me, and I crossed a field and–
“–Ow!” I yell, as something strikes me across the arse. Children laugh.
“John-John,” says the other inmate. “Come here.” A pair of boys round the pillory from behind us. They look about ten and one of the rosy cheeked little shites is holding a big stick.
“Yes da?” says the boy.
“Go on home now and help your mama out.”
“Yes da,” he says. He looks forlornly at his stick, then drops it and runs off. His companion runs with him, but turns around and throws a half-eaten apple at me. I close my eyes to shield myself from the worst of it, except the worst of it hits me in the gooseberries.
“Best get used to that,” the man says. “The folk here love a good pillory. It’ll get real fun when the market opens.”
“Great.” I feel sick. I can’t believe I’m thinking it, but maybe I have drunk too much. Lord, if Gemma saw me now I’d never hear the end of it. “Look mate, I want to, erm, apologize. You know, if I’ve done you any harm and all.”
He grunts. “Tell it to the Good Lord above.”
“No, I mean it. I’ve not been well. Things haven’t been… they’ve not been well at home. With my own wife.”
“Please stop talking, Ralph.”
“She’s turned so cold, so cold. Like a fish. Like the heart of winter, only she has no heart. Her whole wretched family is like that. All of them, born on the wrong side of the river. Bloody fish-people. You know what I mean.”
His face gets red.
“And money’s been tight! Isn’t it always, friend, isn’t it always.”
“I do just fine.” His teeth are clenched.
“And all this talk of war has me so worried. Is it true? Is the king fighting the Huns?”
He grunts. “The Huns? Are you daft? There’s not been a Hun for centuries. What next? The Romans?”
“The French then, whatever. Can you blame a man, with all this upheaval about?”
He rolls his eyes.
“Oh!” I say, just realizing where I’ve seen him before. “You’re Osbert, aren’t you? The barkeep?”
“A pleasure to meet you, Osbert.”
“We’ve met before, you dolt.”
“Right,” I say. “Yesterday. Only my memory’s not too great.”
“Yesterday nothing, Ralph! Dozens of times. Last time just in the autumn when your fourth was born.” He looks at me as though he expects something but I have no idea what it might be. I don’t know why people are always doing that. Maybe there’s something going round. “For the sake of the Lord, Ralph! I’m Gemma’s cousin!”
“Oh!” Right. That’s where I’ve seen Osbert before. Right.
We stand in silence for a while, because that’s how pillories work. Well, I’m silent anyway, trying to will my skin to stop crawling. Osbert keeps muttering under his breath. Seems like he’s mad about something.
Every passing breeze gives me goose bumps but the blighted pine tar gunks it all up and makes everything feel off. It’s like my skin’s crawling over and under itself, and it reminds me of Gemma descaling fish. That’s nice of her ’cause I don’t like scales, it’s just a shame she goes on to ruin the rest of the fish too. On the bright side, the feathers are pretty warm. Not as nice as my hose and tunic, but it could be worse. Actually, they might be better than my clothes.
That’s when it hits me. Osbert is Gemma’s cousin. Cousin Osbert. Right, I’d come to town for a reason.
“What is it now!?” he snaps.
“Osbert, old chum, listen. As I said, things are a little tight at home. Me and Gem were wondering, could you spot us a loan?”
He turns to me, as much as he’s able in the pillory. His eyes are wide and his jaw hangs slack. “A loan? How absolutely shameless! Not a shred of it! No I will not give you a loan, you reprobate.”
“You haven’t even paid me for all the beer and food you pissed away yesterday!”
“Well, I’ll pay you when I get the loan.”
Osbert starts laughing, big heaving guffaws.
Well that’s just great. Wait till Gemma hears about this. Her cousin is an absolute boor and won’t even come to the aid of his family. And for all he knows, we’re dying! A Hun if ever I saw one. I tell you, men in Hairstow-on-Stretford don’t behave like that.
Nevertheless, I’m here on a mission. I need to try to sway his wicked heart. “If you’d have come to me for money–”
He just laughs louder.
It takes him a good while to settle down, and if I’m honest, I’m starting to find this whole pillory thing demeaning. But finally I hear the church bells ring, and our time is up. I cheer.
“What are you so happy about?” Osbert says.
“The bells, Osbert! We’re free now. Let’s go grab a beer and talk about that loan.”
Again he stares at me. He mumbles something, sounds like “Blessed are the simple,” but I have no idea why. Then he says, “That’s just Terce, Ralph. We’re here till Vespers. Well after sunset.”
People start filing into the market, which was empty a moment before, and the noise of them fills the air. “Terce also marks the opening of the market,” he adds.
It’s going to be a long day. I miss Gemma.