“Lost Things” is one of my personal favourites in the Sourdough collection, I think possibly because there’s a genuine comedic turn to it. It’s black comedy, to be sure, but I love Jez and her way of looking at things, I love how she interacts with Faideau and the Robber Bridegroom, even when she’s scared she can’t keep the smartassery concealed. Most of all I think I love that there’s such a vein of sadness running through everything she says and does, though most folk in the story aren’t perceptive enough to catch it.
“Lost Things” is the last story in the little triptych roughly in the middle of Sourdough, with “Ash” and “The Story of Ink” being the first two instalments of her life. Rob Shearman said in his Introduction to Sourdough “Some stories bounce off the other, so that what may read simply enough is thrown into colder and disturbing perspective by the tale that succeeds it. ‘Ash’ is a haunting tale of witchcraft – but it is made great by ‘The Story of Ink’ that follows, which turns ‘Ash’s’ redemptive ending on to its head with harsh irony – and ‘Lost Things’, the black comic tale of yearning for a mother’s love that follows, gives an extra twist to the pair of them.”
I love that she tries to put things to rights – even though nothing that’s happened was as a result of her actions – and yet, as always in these stories, nothing quite goes according to plan.
I’m just a boy, I keep telling them. A common footpad.
No one believes me. Which shows that (a) they’re a suspicious lot, and (b) not as stupid as they look. But still, it would be nice if someone believed me just once. It’s partially true: I’ve been working as the cook’s boy (although working is a very strong word) for this group of robbers and thieves, but I’m actually a girl. And I’m a map. The map.
Well, maybe not the map in the greater, more universal sense, but the map for which this lot are looking. They just don’t know they’ve got it. Or, they didn’t until yesterday afternoon when I tried to dodge under the Boss’s arm (strictly speaking, he’s a Robber Bridegroom but that’s a bit of a mouthful every time you address him) as he tried to swipe me for some infringement and grabbed my shirt. The damned thing’s so old it’s got no strength left in the weave. The moment pressure greater than a summer breeze got hold of it, it tore and left me in all my small-breasted, seventeen-year-old glory as an object of unhealthy interest for the merry men.
I’ve been able to get away with being a boy because I am seriously flat as a board, no bosomy wench me. In fact, the worst that could have happened as a girl would have been a bit of rough shagging, but the Robber Bridegroom saw the map, didn’t he? So I was stuffed, wasn’t I? I mean, my virtue’s safe ‘cause he’s got me under lock and key (well, lock and key in the sense of a withy cage in the back of the outlaws’ cave), with orders that anyone who touches me will be strung up from the nearest oak tree and left to hang until the flesh drops off his bones.
I’d like to tell them that I’m a princess in disguise running away from a arranged marriage, but I’ve got no hope with that porky. My accent screams “nasty part of town” with bells on, and when I lived in the city I spent more than enough of my time dodging the Peelers, I can tell you.
I’m no one important, but someone who was important got their hands on me for a time. He inscribed this bloody map on my back, about ten inches by ten inches, the map to the places where lost things go. The Boss has been looking for it for some time now.
The door to the cage creaks opens, and I jump. The breakfast delivery may be a chance for escape. I tense in case I can get past whatever idiot they’ve sent. I must look for all the world like a rabbit set to bolt – which looks pretty silly, really.
Faideau, a tall wiry boy looking not much older than me, stands in the breach, in one hand a lump of bread, in the other a wooden cup of what is probably curdled goats’ milk. I’d have called him friend until yesterday. He gives me a look of exasperation. ‘Honestly, you’re just determined to piss him off, aren’t you?’
‘Oh shut up. Give me that, I’m hungry.’’
He hands over the bread and the cup. I hate goats’ milk but it’s the only thing will soften the bread. He pulls something green from his pocket and waves it at me, teasing.
‘An apple! You stole that from the Boss’s private stash,’ I breathe in admiration. He grins and sits down beside me on the bed of dried bracken. With surprising strength, he twists the fruit in half and hands me my share. As I grab at it, Faideau eyes the tattoos that cover my right index finger, but politely doesn’t mention them.
I bite into the juicy sharpness. I’m even happy to share – it’s the first bit of fresh produce I’ve had in three months for the Boss is a dog-in-the-manger when it comes to this sort of thing. Whenever we manage to hijack a shipment of vegetables and fruit, there is no sharing. Although don’t know why I thought the lair of a band of footpads would be a haven of tasty treats.
To be honest, I wasn’t thinking at all. I had a little misunderstanding with the Authorities in the city and well, I hid in a cart that was rolling its way along Busynothings Alley and out under the main gate. Didn’t realise it was going to be stolen by this lot. I fell asleep and didn’t wake up while the whole stand-and-deliver business took place. At least, that was the story I told them when they found me. I said I wanted to stay, that my name was Tobias and I was a young thief on the make. The Robber Bridegroom advised me quite kindly that I’d be seeing some illegal things and I’d better work out which side my bread was buttered on. I saluted him smartly and set about making myself useful. I attached myself to the cook because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought there might be extra portions, spoons to be licked – and know how well that went.
Plans are strange things, never moving in the direction you’d like them to go. This is something I’ve known all my life but still I get that fizz of surprise when something goes wrong. I guess I’m what you’d call an optimist.
‘No cutlery?’ I ask politely, thinking a knife might have been useful. He snorts.
‘Who do you think you are, Lady Muck?’
‘Well, it’s not so much for me as for your own sake, my sloppy friend. The Boss does like his cutlery and if you’re going to be doing my job, you’ll need to sharpen up your act, boyo.’ I warm to my theme. ‘I mean, I may have been slack, but I never forgot the cutlery.’
‘Slack is the least of your worries, Jezzy. You should think about the other words the Boss’s been using, like liar, cheat, sneak, thief …’
‘We’ve fallen in with thieves, Faideau. Maybe he didn’t mean me specifically,’ I say.
‘He started the sentence with your name, put in a few profanities, then inserted the foregoing adjectives.’
‘Strictly speaking, I think they may be nouns.’
This is what my life has come to – arguing points of grammar with a skinny brigand. I should never have run away from home – or perhaps I should have run further.
‘Whatever.’ He shrugs. ‘And by the way, what did you think you were going to do when you got out? How far do you think you’d get?’
‘Well, I wasn’t really thinking,’ I huff at him airily. ‘The Boss, did he use the phrase skin alive?’
‘No, but only because he probably hasn’t thought of it yet. He’ll be sending someone else soon, I reckon, just as soon as he calms down and starts to think of this as fortuitous.’
‘Where did you learn these big words, Faideau?’ I tilt my head, examining him closely.
‘My mum brought me up proper,’ he says ungrammatically, as if he can fool me; but I know better. I know he’s lying. His mother taught him nothing because she wasn’t around. I run my tongue around the cave of my mouth, checking hopefully for any stray bits of sour-sweet apple. No such luck, so I start on the stale bread, dunking it into the bitter milk.
‘Thanks, Faideau.’ I really am grateful.
‘Welcome,’ he says gruffly. I want to ruffle his dark curls but that might be taken the wrong way. He finishes his half of the apple and stands. ‘Better tell the Boss what he wants to hear, Jez. It will go easier for you.’
I roll onto my side, feeling less grateful, and don’t bother to watch him leave. The door clacks shut behind him and I’m left looking at the damp rock wall, watching the trickle of moisture wind its way through dark green moss.
‘You knew I was looking for it.’
‘Well, strictly speaking, sir, I didn’t.’ I hedge. Faideau rolls his eyes in despair and the Boss turns his glare upon me. His eyes are a fetching blue, I must say – and he’s got a good face. There’s just that thin scar on his chin, gives him character – makes him look, well, rakish. Is it any wonder he’s got brides lining up to throw themselves and their wealth at him? He’s charming and I suspect some of them would still succumb to him even if they knew how badly things were going to end. A true Robber Bridegroom, he believes in death doing couples part. He seems to be getting a bit tense. I sigh.
I’m half-naked with the Boss’s second-in-command, Jones (a nasty fat little man), holding me still, with the Boss’s third-in-command, Hopney (a nasty skinny little man), running his hand down my spine. I hope he’s washed his hands. We’re in the Boss’s personal cave, and the only other audience member is Faideau.
The Boss waggles a finger at me.
‘You knew I was looking for it and you deliberately concealed it from me.’ He emphasises my sin with a poke to the chest. It’s quite forceful and takes my breath away. I don’t like being poked. Faideau is watching my face, then his eyes drop and he squints at my chest, at the raised scar over my heart.
‘I’ll thank you not to stare, young man.’
‘Focus, Tobias – oh, I’m sorry, what is it now?’
‘That’s better. Now where was I?’
‘About to let me go?’
‘I don’t think so. Oh, yes. You knew that map was of an abiding interest to me and you wilfully concealed it from me.’
‘Honestly, what did you expect me to say? I know we’ve only just met, Mr Robber Bridegroom, but would you like to see the map on my back? Your record with the ladies isn’t so good. I don’t know you from a bar of soap, but oh well, why don’t I just trust you with my life?’
‘And you were the worst cook’s boy I’ve ever seen.’
‘I’m not actually a boy, am I?’ May as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I figure.
‘I should have known from the mouth on you,’ he notes, wise in hindsight. His voice softens. ‘It must have hurt – who put it there?’
‘A man. An old man, who found me on the streets.’
‘This old man …’ he prompts.
‘That’s all, an old man with money, strange tastes and powerful friends. He took me in, said I had lovely skin, that I was a wonderful canvas – I thought he was going to make something of me, a lady.’
‘Silk purse out of a sow’s ear?’
‘Something like that,’ I agree, taking no offence. ‘But all he wanted me for was the map. Tied me to a bed when I was finally fed and healthy and a bit fleshed out. Inked me up.’
‘Why did he let you go?’
‘Who said he did?’ I raise an eyebrow. ‘Men came and broke into the house. I was still healing, the skin on my back seeping every day but when I heard them break down the front doors and yell for the old man, I wrapped a shirt around me, broke a window and climbed out. Scarpered across the roofs as fast as I could and disappeared for a time. Don’t know what happened to him.’
My lies and the fragments of truth I remember mingle so well that I can hardly recognise which is which. I cobble them together like a beggar’s cape. I don’t tell him that I’ve jumbled the order of events, that I knew the old man. I don’t tell him about what I left behind.
‘Where did you hide?’
‘No point telling anyone is there, if I have to do it again?’
He nods in an offhand manner.
‘Then I ended up here,’ I say truncating my tale as much as I dare. ‘I joined your band and have been masquerading as the world’s worst cook’s boy ever since.’
‘You were pretty dreadful – but you never forgot the cutlery.’
I give Faideau a triumphant look. He jerks a couple of fingers in the air to tell me what he thinks of that.
‘So, what am I going to do with you, Jessamyn?’ asks the Boss. I know it’s a rhetorical question, but I can’t help but hope.
‘Send me on my merry way?’
‘Not going to happen, I’m afraid. I need what’s on your back.’
‘Well, as long as you don’t plan to separate me from my skin, I guess I’ll stick around,’ I advise resignedly. ‘Perhaps I could have my old job back?’ In truth, I have no intention of staying. Unfortunately, he seems to realise this.
‘Nice try. You’re my map to where the lost things are, Jez, you’re not going anywhere.’ He sits in the old armchair covered with green velvet; there’s only one for no one sits in this room but him. ‘What about the finger? Is that part of it?’
‘No, just for decoration.’ I take a deep breath. ‘Boss, it isn’t a good idea.’
‘Shut up and stand still.’
‘And will get colder still if you don’t shut it.’
‘Look, I’m just going to say this, then I’m done,’ I announce and continue before he can bellow at me. ‘There’s a reason things get lost, and by lost I mean dead.’
‘She’s not dead, she’s lost,’ the Robber Bridegroom grumbles. I shake my head.
‘Lost is a euphemism for dead, Boss. “Dead Things” just doesn’t have the same alluring ring to it. What I’m saying is that you won’t be finding your missing socks there. Some lost things are meant to stay that way and it’s best not to go looking. Sometimes the lost things – they look back.’
‘Are you quite finished?’ he asks politely.
‘Quite.’ And he takes a bandana from his pocket and stuffs it in my mouth, tying it tightly at the back of my head. I try to say ‘that’s totally unnecessary’ but it doesn’t come out anything like that. The Robber Bridegroom runs his hand across my back, as if he’s reading the map with the tips of his fingers, as if my skin will commune with him. He begins to croon.
‘So close. Much closer than I thought. We’ll be there soon, together again soon.’