The Passing Show by Neil McDonald

We got to Ipswich by market day somehow, a small miracle given the state of our cart, which was always just a crooked cobblestone from ruin. There had been no robbers on the road down either, luck be praised. Though, as Other John had said, they’d as likely have let us be, thinking us tinkers or a group of filthy travelers down on our luck. Which is what we were, truth be told.

We rattled on through the streets in the chill of the morning, glad of an imminent reprieve from the cart’s discomfort. John of Norwich had been going on the whole road down from Lincoln about how the cart needed checking in Ipswich. Take advantage of the local craftsmen, he says. Get it looked at while we can, he says. Oh yes, John of Norwich, we says. Good idea, mate. Not the slightest intention of it, mind you. Cart repair does tend to eat away at the slim profits of a roaming band like ours.

Around the tenth time he mentioned it, Damien O’Barry had said, ‘Oh do one, New John,’ and that had kept him quiet for a while, sulking and scowling away in the back. We called him New John because we already had a John of Norwich when he joined. That one we now called Other John, which was a bit confusing, I do admit, but such is life in a roaming band and we were the Luton Lutes, the finest lute-playing minstrels this side of Thetford. Well, except for Geoffrey of Bath. Mostly he drove and took care of the horses, though we’d let him play the foot bells or juggle the odd time, when we’d all had a flagon or four.

I was considering my stomach when I heard Other John pipe up.

“Christ, it’s the Montpellier Twats,” he said, as we slowed to a stop in the town square.

The Montpellier Trois were the foppiest group in England, so much so that they pretended to be French. This got them a lot of girls, it was true, and you had to admit it was a clever trick, seeing as they were just a bunch of ugly farmer’s lads from Leicester. And there was six of them, which made their name a jest.

“Probably don’t know the French word for six,” Damien O’Barry had said last time we’d crossed paths with them, and we’d all of us had a right laugh at that one.

Guy de Vere was their leader and he stood up on their cart when he recognized us. Throwing his arms out wide like the cox-comb ninny he was, he shouted ‘Musicians!’ at us. Him and his pointy beard and his silk leggings. “Ho ho ho, I’m surprised you’ve survived,” said de Vere, making a big show of looking at our wheels.

“You’d do well do get a Van Diefen cart, like us,” he said, and then added, “The Montpellier Trois!” in a loud voice, while looking all around. “A Van Diefen,” he repeated, patting the rail of what I do admit looked a sturdy and comfortable cart. It looked like it might even have some beds set up in the back, the bastards. 

De Vere stood up on the rail and leapt down gracefully. “A good cart, lads,” he said looking at us, then sorrowfully at the Lutey Beauty, as we had named her, “is a tool of our trade.” He said the last bit loudly, which again was annoying. He stopped to pat the snouts of Horse John and Auntie Mane, as we had named our nags, and unlike their masters they accepted his pitying look without reproach. Then he walked toward the door of the Golden Lion, which we were right outside, his fellow Twats trailing him.

“Smug knave,” I muttered quietly to New John.

“Good songs, though, Ralf,” said New John.

“Yes. That’s true, John,” I said, turning to face him, a bit annoyed. “No question.”

 De Vere was already talking to the large red ball of a man who appeared to be the owner of the tavern. He was giving it his best Guy de Ponce, and no mistake.

“Zee band eez, uh, to play for, uh, moneys, yes? Oui et pour, uh, liquide, yes?” he said, miming a drink.

The red ball just looked at de Vere and spat on the ground.

“Save it for the wenches, eh?” said the ball and looked de Vere up and down. Or down and up, to be precise. “I shall expect you here at seece,” he said, and walked inside. I allowed myself a chuckle at that, I do admit.

De Vere stood looking after the ball for a moment, his jaws moving slowly as though chewing, but then he clapped his hands once and said, “Right! Unload the Dief, lads. Round the back,” he added, wearily, seeing his bandmates immediately set to work. “And careful with my sackbut this time.”

De Vere turned to leave but, remembering our proximity, walked toward us with a smile fixed falsely on his face and, after running his eyes over us and the Lutey Beauty once more, he held Auntie Mane’s chin in his hand and said, “You could do better, love,” before sauntering off in the direction of the Squire’s Buttress, whistling as he went.

 Meanwhile, Damien O’Barry had been across the square and returned after getting us in at the Maid’s Bucket for the night, with a prospect of another night into the bargain. We were well pleased at this.

“What’s our shares?” I asked.

“Usual Bucket’s worth,” replied O’Barry. “Two tankards of ale each and a jug of claret, if we’re lucky.”

“On market day?” said Other John. “That’s a bloody disgrace.”

“Anything to eat?” piped in New John, and we all jeered at that one.

“Anything to eat?” I mimicked, in my best New John. I’d already planned getting in a sly couple of ales while the others went out to get new lute strings and survey the local brothels, and was a bit gay with anticipation at drinking on the quiet, I do admit. “Course there is, you beef-wit,” I said.

The town crier arrived then. Big Tim he was called and an alright old lad he was, for the most part.

“Well indeed,” he said, “the Luton Lutes.”

“Alright, Big Tim,” we all said, in one way or another.

“Playing tonight, gentleman?”

We nodded.

“Maid’s Bucket,” said O’Barry.

“Well then, the town shall know,” said Big Tim in a jolly way, and held his arm out to guide us into the Golden Lion for a drink. Big Tim liked our roaming band, and often got our news from O’Barry when we came into Ipswich. He’d stick it in his news for the town, and often it meant a good night for us and the tavern besides. And Big Tim got his reward, of course.

We sat down inside while the Twats (sans de Vere) were loading in their gear. One was De Vere’s hapless nephew, John, who had a bright red face and who everyone called Mutton.

“I see the Twats are in town,” said Big Tim to us.

O’Barry held out both his arms to the side and said “That they are!” in a loud voice, impersonating De Vere. Me and the Johns laughed hearty at that one. Big Tim had a laugh about it as well, though not as loud as ours, and looked as if he had expected it somehow.

“And where is dear Geoffrey of Bath?” asked Big Tim, looking about himself.

O’Barry shrugged.

“He was feeding Horse and Auntie last I saw. Then he’ll be on his way to see Black Ethel, I’d wager,” said Other John. “Always does pay her a visit when we come through Ipswich.”

“Won’t see him for a while, then,” said New John.

Big Tim said, “Damien, a word,” and motioned for O’Barry to join him at a smaller table near ours. Though New John soon started in again about how the cart needed checking, I could hear Big Tim and O’Barry as they talked.

“Will you be pleasing us with any madrigals this evening?” asked Big Tim.

O’Barry sighed and looked off in the distance a bit, over to where the Twats would perform later that evening. 

“I don’t know,” said O’Barry, eventually. “Madrigals were something we did quite a bit a few years ago but that’s not really the sound we make now. We’re more into the chanson scene these days. I don’t know, it’s just what we’ve been coming up with now, you know?”

“Indeed,” said Big Tim, and waited for O’Barry to go on.

“I feel like everyone is doing madrigals now, but it’s become a bit like watered down claret – the Twats’ll play madrigals all night, you know?” He nodded toward that end of the bar. “The chanson scene is just a bit less crowded, I think.”

“Yes,” said Big Tim.

My eavesdropping was interrupted by Mutton losing his grip on a hurdy-gurdy and his brother’s custom-made pan pipe, all of which knocked over a lyre and produced a terribly loud oath from Mutton, who then set to scurrying about to pick everything up.

 We had a laugh at that, even New John, and I imagined De Vere noticing a nick in his precious pan pipe later on and having his whole evening upset. I snickered into my last gulp of ale at that. He’ll need three or four Golden Lion waitresses to soothe him tonight, I thought. 

The bastard.

Big Tim got up to leave and shook O’Barry’s hand. His stare seemed to linger on O’Barry, though its subject was drinking deeply of his ale by this point. Big Tim nodded at us as he passed.

“Gentlemen,” he said. On the way out, he pretended to stumble into Mutton and almost knocked the pan pipe free again. We roared, and he looked back at us and winked.

 De Vere came back in the tavern then and almost bashed together with Big Tim. He spread his arms wide and said “The Biggest Tim!” though Tim just stepped aside and waved a hand in the air on his way out.

“We really should get that cart checked,” said New John after a while, though none of us paid him any mind. She’ll get us to Colchester for next market day, I thought, right as rain.

Neil McDonald lives with his wife and son in Waterloo, Ontario, surrounded by an assortment of black and white cats. His work has appeared in Soft Cartel, The Flash Fiction Press, and the Story Shack. 

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