As you know, I am clean shaven. This isn’t because I have any animosity towards beards. Indeed there are times when I have grown a beard. This is normally when travelling in haste without having had time to pack a razor (or anything else for that matter). But still, once I return to civilised parts, I will shave. If nothing else, Shena prefers me clean shaven and in this her word is law.
Still once a poet grows old and venerable it appears almost compulsory to sport a beard. I’ve noticed the trend amongst those a generation or so older than me. Abruptly the dashing young poet who appears barely middle-aged will unexpectedly sport a beard suitable for keeping soup off one’s shirt, often combining it with pince-nez for added gravitas.
Thus and so I tend to keep my ears open, to detect any sense amongst my patrons that they feel that I am trying to appear younger than I am. In this I confess I am aided by the fact that should they accuse me of aging, they are damning themselves. A considerable number (not alas as high a proportion as it used to be) are older than me. Thus by remaining comparatively youthful, I allow them the luxury of denying advancing age. Poetry is not the least of the services I provide my patrons.
Thus having shown that I am not against beards, I can now recount the tales of the Great Mother Dancers of Port Naain. Theologically the ‘Great Mother’ is subsumed into the various aspects of Aea. Indeed theologians debate amongst themselves (turgidly and at great length) as to whether Aea has superseded the Great Mother, or whether there never was a Great Mother and it was Aea all along. The Great Mother being merely the name she used amongst simple folk too unschooled to cope with the post hoc eschatological reality.
The dancers themselves tend to be drawn entirely from the comfortably prosperous (but not wealthy, they have their own, more exclusive eccentricities) who gather together to dance their dances. Apparently these dances are those of the peasantry who lived here before Port Naain was founded. A majority of the dancers are male and ridiculously bearded (false beards of dyed horsehair are often worn by those who cannot cope with a suitable beard when not dancing). They will don their white garments and half will brandish a cudgel and the other half dance whilst playing a guitarlele. The ladies who take part wear long white flowing dresses to stress their purity.
Apparently the dance symbolises the attempt by the rich incomers (the guitarlele players) to seduce the innocent maiden who symbolises Port Naain. The cudgel wielding dancers, doubtless representing outraged fathers, dance to drive off the rakish debauchers of innocent femininity. Apparently the aim of the ritual is to help Port Naain to return once more to an innocent era. So this great metropolis becomes once more a collection of peasant villages living in harmony with the world.
After the dancing, the dancers return once more to their ordinary but well remunerated lives as apothecaries’ assistants, bookbinders, usurers’ clerks, cutlers, coach makers, hatters and breeches makers. Apparently if you want to advance socially at certain levels of societies, then joining the ‘cudgel and guitarlele dancers’ is a good way to do it.
Bollop Farsnare was one who saw the opportunities. He was a book-keeper who would take the chaotic accounts of a small business and would produce some semblance of order. This is a service sought by such folk, but it demands a nice discrimination on behalf of the book-keeper. He must create accounts that convince the usurer who is loaning money to the business that his investment is entirely safe. At the same time the accounts ought to look distinctly disappointing, should the Council of Sinecurists call in the accounts to check to see whether the principle in the business ought to be purchasing a sinecure. Bollop, who was articled to Thassat Deal, was entirely competent in this field.
As a prospective member of the Great Mother Dancers, Bollop hadn’t the patience to learn the guitarlele, so joined as a cudgel dancer. In this he found, to his dismay, that he was partnered on a regular basis with Rastan Toberview. Rastan was a more senior book-keeper with Thassat Deal, and was not merely Bollop’s senior at work, but being the guitarlele dancer, was senior in the dancing partnership.
Even more distressing, from Bollop’s point of view was that the lady who would dance with them, Emelda Fane, seemed to think highly of Rastan. Bollop’s attempts to win her got him nowhere.
Things came to a head when at one dance, Rastan danced in a particularly provocative and mocking manner. Indeed at one point in the dance he insinuated that not merely was he enjoying the favours of Emelda Fane, but was also to be appointed Bollop’s line manager and was looking forward to giving him the most tedious and poorly paying tasks. At this Bollop snapped. Whilst music is, metaphorically at least, the most powerful of weapons, the cudgel, briskly wielded, surrenders nothing to metaphor. Bollop belaboured Rastan with vigour and enthusiasm, and the other man’s attempts to defend himself with the guitarlele merely lead to it getting smashed.
The affair degenerated to fisticuffs involving over a score of participants and Bollop was asked to leave. As he stalked proudly away from the stricken field, Rastan shouted after him that his employment with Thassat Deal was finished and no other reputable establishment would engage him. At the edge of the field he was met by a muscular gentleman with a broken nose and considerable facial scarring, indicative of him having led a life which involved being punched a lot.
“‘Ere, Bollop, you any good as a book-keeper?”
Bollop, still angry from his recent confrontation had no hesitation. “I’m not articled but I’m a damned sight better than many who are.”
“It’s just that ‘Barbarity’ Valin is always on the lookout for decent staff, and somebody who can work a set of books as well as use a cudgel like you just did could be the sort of person he’s looking for.”
Seeing some hesitation on Bollop’s face, his companion added, “Some of the book-keeping work is legal, and you don’t often have to use the cudgel.”
Bollop briefly considered his career prospects, and bowed slightly to the other gentleman. “You have convinced me. Let us away to Master Valin’s residence so that I may enter his employ.” Admittedly being a senior clerk with Barbarity Valin isn’t perhaps something you’d brag about, but the money is good, and frankly the business, shorn of hypocrisy as it is, runs to higher moral standards than many apparently more respectable concerns.
And now a brief note from Jim Webster. It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories.
The first, available on kindle, is:
Tallis Steelyard, preparing the ground, and other stories.
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
The second, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is:
Maljie. Just one thing after another.
Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.
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