First you must remember it had been a very hot day. After all it was the height of summer and about the only thing moving in Port Naain was the tide coming up the estuary and even that seemed strangely listless.
But still, that is a plea for mitigation rather than an explanation.
It was all because of Bongo Veel. Bongo was perhaps a generation older than the rest of us, but a fair poet, a convivial companion and a genuinely nice chap. So when it was his birthday, on the hottest day of the year, we asked him how he wanted to celebrate and after some thought he asked, “Couldn’t we do a poetry reading at the Goldclaw baths?”
Well this struck us as an excellent idea and we descended upon the place as a troop. Soon, stark naked and sitting around in cool water, drinking cold beer and taking turns to read our verse, we agreed that Bongo’s idea was indeed excellent.
As the day drew on then beer was replaced by wine. The atmosphere grew slightly maudlin until finally Bongo, after reading us a rather fine piece of work he had done, burst into tears. Now this in itself was alarming as Bongo was distinctly on the large side. Indeed he’d left portly behind in his wake and even his best friends struggled to call him chubby. So when he sobbed bits started to wobble, and when the wobbling started and things began to move, who knew where it would end?
Sympathetically we gathered round him to discover the source of his sorrow, and eventually we extracted the cause. Apparently he felt his wife considered him boring. She had hinted that he was not the man he had been in his youth.
Now this did cause some of us older members of the fraternity to ponder. After all, Bongo had spent most of his life as a Legist specialising in Port Naain commercial law with especial reference to the law of the sea. Worthy enough, profitable enough, but exciting?
I believe he was perfectly competent, he certainly knew his stuff. I remember when, for a bet, he recited the entirety of the third chapter from Brontan’s ‘Cargos, the rights, duties and legal quandaries inherent in third party carriage.’ This he did with terrific verve, in several different voices, to the amusement of his readers and the astonishment of the two clerks who sat with the book open on their laps as Bongo repeated it word perfect from memory.
But still, he felt his wife thought he was boring, so what to do about it? The discussion demanded another topping up of wine glasses and various ideas were banded about until Lancet Foredeck suggested that we have Bongo conveyed home, stark naked, on a palanquin borne by a score of naked harlots.
This was declared an excellent idea by all and sundry, Bongo cheered up immensely and a further round of drinks was ordered to celebrate. Then it was realised that we had to organise. Lancet was volunteered to acquire the palanquin and I was deputised to provide the score of naked harlots. Admittedly drink had been taken, but I still had my wits about me. ‘With what’ I asked them, ‘was I to pay a score of harlots, naked or otherwise?’
A collection was taken but broke down immediately on the fact that we were all stark naked and even our wine was going on the slate. I felt the harlots were unlikely to be so accommodating.
Finally Bongo summoned a waiter, and bade the waiter accompany me to Bongo’s cubicle where there was some money in his purse. The waiter would hand it to me. This was done, and now fully dressed I stepped out into the still warm evening air.
Initially I started off confidently enough; after all I had a purse which contained more silver than copper. Surely much could be done. Unfortunately this was not so. I approached first one madam and then a second. They listened to the request, and did calculations on the back of envelopes allowing for the amount of time this jaunt would last and keep their girls from paying work. I tried to get them to reduce the final figure, pointing out that they would gain considerable free advertising, but they countered with putting in a further cost for ‘loss of mystery’.
Eventually I had to accept that my funds were too slim to fund the enterprise. But what to do? I’d be damned if I returned to the baths with my metaphorical tail between my legs. So as I walked comparatively aimlessly along Diddlegill I heard my name shouted. I turned and there I saw young Virisia. She is an entirely charming young woman, something of a poet in her own right. She sensed my mood and asked what the problem was. Virisia is somebody you cannot lie to, as she walked alongside me I poured out my problem. She had the answer. “Tallis, I am late for a meeting of the Port Naain Young Ladies Terpsichore Society. You may not have the money to buy your dancers but surely you have the money to cajole dancers into coming forward. I could see her point immediately and forthwith we invested Bongo’s money in plenty of reasonable wine and a quantity of fruit brandy. Struggling under the weight of these burdens we arrived at the society’s meeting place.
We were greeted with a group of young ladies struggling to get over their surprise at my presence, accompanied by a not inconsiderable quantity of drink, but Virisia explained it all away by telling people it was Bongo Veel’s birthday and he had insisted that they be brought into the celebrations.
Now here I discovered another side of Bongo’s character. Yes I knew he was charming, courteous and an utterly decent fellow. But I hadn’t realised he was one of those older men who seems to act as a surrogate uncle for innumerable young women who occasionally have problems that they would not feel comfortable sharing with family or somebody of their own generation. These young ladies drank Bongo’s heath with enthusiasm.
Now as I passed round wine and topped up glasses, Virisia suggested that it would be nice if they could do something for old Bongo. She allowed the discussion to run for a while, gently bringing it back on track if it showed signs of straying. I on the other hand was growing impatient. My fear was that if I took too long, Bongo and my erstwhile companions would have reached the stage where walking unaided was no longer possible. I confess that I’ve always found trying to balance the drink intake of two groups of people some distance apart difficult. It is especially difficult when one group has started drinking some hours before the other group. On top of that I had to allow for the different resistance to alcohol in the two groups, but balance it with the enthusiasm with which the dancers were drinking. Frankly I despaired and just hoped that Virisia had things under control.
Finally Virisia, apparently in all innocence, asked me if there was anything Bongo had set his heart on, and so I poured out the story of the palanquin. To be fair I did not mention harlots, and instead substituted beautiful young women. In all candour I could not imagine Bongo being at all upset if I substituted beautiful young women for the specified harlots, although I know Lancet does get rather precious about getting the details right.
There was some discussion, and with growing enthusiasm they started going into the details of how things would be done. By the time the wine was finished I was somehow surrounded by nearly three dozen young women dressed much as nature had intended. We danced out of the society building, through the city to the baths. It probably caused some comment but given the warmness of the night and the way the city had sunk into torpor; less comment than you might have expected.
At the baths we discovered two problems. First Lancet hadn’t been able to find a palanquin. I suppose that wasn’t too surprising, but to be fair to him, he’d acquired a chariot of sorts pulled by two large cats. Seeing as how the chariot had to be sturdy enough to support Bongo, it was going to take more than a couple of cats to pull it and him. Obviously my arrival with three dozen fit young potential chariot pullers solved that problem.
The second problem was that Bongo had reached the stage where he could probably sit up without too much assistance but no longer had the coordination to manage much more. Fortunately we were not short of people to provide any assistance. So with no more ado, we set off.
By now we had attracted some attention. Over fifty people of both sexes, stark naked, dancing and singing as they pulled a chariot through the streets does seem to bring out a crowd. The crowd followed us to see what was going to happen next, until finally we arrived at Bongo’s house. It is a modest dwelling in a quiet street. The streets round and about are filled with small family houses, homes to prosperous artisans and minor lawyers and usurers for whom solid success has been a long time coming. Thus as we danced down the street towards it, windows opened and people came out to see what was happening.
Finally outside Bongo’s door we stopped and Virisia knocked on the door. Madam Veel opened the door, stepped outside and looked around, taking in the situation. Then she quietly pointed to me and Lancet and gestured for us to bring Bongo into the house.
It wasn’t easy getting him upstairs but with Virisia behind pushing him and Lancet and I on either side we managed it without impropriety. With Madam Veel’s guidance we got Bongo into the marital bed and before we’d got him properly tucked in he was fast asleep and starting to snore.
Madam Veel gently tousled what was left of his greying hair, thanked us for fetching him home safely and escorted us courteously out of the house. Then, a little deflated by the anticlimax, we all made our way back to where we had left our clothes.
Oh yes, and next morning, Shena and I were awakened at some godforsaken hour by a messenger from the supervisor of the Goldclaw baths, who wanted to know what he was expected to do with a chariot and two damned big cats.