Port Naain has a vast array of dance styles. Some are danced by couples, some are danced only by women and some are danced only by men. There are peasant dances, sailor’s dances and in Port Naain at least, ordinary working men will sometimes dance ‘boot dances.’ In these men wear their heaviest working boots and beat out complicated rhythms on the floor. They demand agility, dexterity, a good sense of timing and stamina.
Sometimes a devotee of these boot dances will arrange a performance. They’ll put out the word and the men known to be the best will saunter in and clatter their way through their routines. The best of the best are picked and on the night of the great performance, the theatre (and the bar) will be packed to standing room only. I would that poetry readings attracted such enthusiastic audiences.
It was Valdun Treewater who realised his ambitions through boot dancing, which is a surprising achievement for a man who never put on a pair of working boots in his life. Valdun was the younger son of a wealthy family, and had worked for many years in his father’s usury business.
His father had been parsimonious to the extreme and he had converted the top storey of the house to a loft-warehouse. Thus he could store commodities he’d either purchased on purpose, or had been inadvertently left holding because he couldn’t sell the contract on quickly enough. As various family members had married, rather than ensure they had the wherewithal to purchase a home of their own, father had merely partitioned the house, so each of his offspring had a suite of rooms for their family.
Finally not long before his last illness, father had decided to sell the loft-warehouse. After all he didn’t need it and cunningly he’d included within the deeds the duty to maintain the roof. Valdun, the only unmarried sibling, decided this was his chance. He purchased the top floor on the grounds that he could at some point convert it into a desirable residence for himself.
Yet on his father’s death Valdun discovered that his older brother and three sisters conspired to have him written out of the will and he found himself out of the street with only the clothes he stood up in and the deeds to a vast echoing loft space.
So he had to cast about for employment just to keep body and soul together. Now he was a biggish chap, but wasn’t really cut out for labouring. He’d not last a day unloading sacks off a grain boat. But he saw a niche and slotted himself into it. He provided a tally-checking service for the men working on the various wharfs. Each man had a tally stick and for every so many sacks the man carried off (or crane loads he helped to load) the foreman would cut a notch in the tally stick. Each foreman has his own notching blade, so just putting your own notches on the stick wasn’t going to work. A foreman could spot a notch put in by somebody else.
So the workman would then take his tally stick to the clerk who would tot up the notches and pay accordingly. But there could be a large number of notches, and the price paid per notch could also vary. We are talking immensely complicated calculations here, the sort where men have to take their shoes and socks off to cope with the big numbers. To add to the potential for confusion, there were often deductions for various reasons, be it ‘dead horse’, book money, tally money, or even boot rent. So Valdun would just sit on a barrel outside a clerk’s office and the workman would show him the tally stick, give the rate per notch and the deductions expected, and Valdun would work out the numbers in his head with remarkable speed and precision.
Now there were problems. The clerks didn’t like him and the employers of the clerks didn’t like him. They complained to the Wharf committee, demanding that Valdun be removed, because thanks to him a number of clerks had been beaten up.
The Wharf committee looked into the matter. Most of them were men who’d unloaded boats in their time. They merely pointed out that it wasn’t Valdun who was getting the clerks beaten up. The clerks were getting beaten up because they were attempting to cheat the men handing them tally sticks. Upon mature consideration the committee recommended that the clerks stop trying to cheat people.
This didn’t go down well, but there the matter rested.
But Valdun was still more than a little irritated with the way his family had treated him. He pondered his revenge long and hard. Finally chance offered him a solution. As they queued to be paid, a couple of the workmen were dancing. This led to a general conversation and one remark led to another. Finally one of the dancers turned to Valdun. “You’re a smart chap as can do numbers. Why don’t you organise an entertainment.”
Much to Valdun’s surprise this met with nods of approval. He suddenly realised that whilst he wasn’t ‘one of them,’ the men on the wharves trusted him and perhaps even liked him. So he promised to think about it.
To be fair to Valdun, he genuinely did think about it, and the more he thought, the more opportunities seemed to present themselves to him. Finally he made arrangements to hire the Boot maker’s hall, and set about gathering his cast of dancers.
He had decided that he wasn’t going to follow convention and present a string of virtuoso individual dancers. Instead he decided that he would have team events. He lay awake at night, his brain fizzing with ideas. He could see line after line of heavy booted working men hoofing their way up and down staircases as virtuoso performers strutted their stuff at centre stage. Next day he started recruiting. He was absolutely open about his penury; he couldn’t afford to pay a single brass dreg up front. He would just cut the dancers into a share to the ticket money. Sensible men listened to him, hitched up their britches, went through their routines, and when accepted they signed on the bottom line.
But where to practice? He couldn’t afford to hire a hall, and if they practiced in the open everybody would see the show for free. Yet he owned the perfect practice space, his loft-warehouse.
That night, and every night for weeks men would quietly climb the outside staircase to the loft and Valdun would guide them through the routines he had in mind. He wasn’t precious about it, they were the dancers and if one came to him with a better idea he was happy to take it on board. The centre of the loft floor was marked out to produce an area that was the same size as the stage at Boot maker’s hall. Across this marked area two, three, even four score of dancers stamped and pounded their way through their routines. For hour after hour they would practice, slowly perfecting their performances. Finally late into the night, or even early into the morning the rehearsals would draw to a close and men to go home to snatch a few hours sleep before work.
This did not go down well with Valdun’s siblings and their families. The constant pounding not merely kept them awake at night, it jolted pictures off the walls. As you can imagine their displeasure did not bother Valdun one jot. He merely pointed out that according to the deeds he was entitled to full and unfettered use of his property.
At this point the family decided to take stronger action. They hired a score of bruisers to bring the rehearsals to a close. Unfortunately they’d miscalculated. The battle was brief, vicious and lasted a bare ten minutes. Those thugs still capable of walking were allowed to drag their more severely battered comrades down the stairs and away. Then the rehearsals recommenced with, if anything, even more vigour.
Word gets out, especially when some of the various unofficial working men’s friendly associations got to hear about it. One known assassin was left pinned to a door, his daggers thrust through the lobes of his ears. This was purely on the off-chance that he had taken up a contact on Valdun. So nervous did some of the criminal community become that they started ostentatiously buying tickets for the show Valdun was planning. Indeed they bought so many tickets that Valdun had to extend the run of the show for another three nights.
The show itself was a success. Obviously it was sneered at by every critic in the city, but given that the intended audience never read the critics, this was hardly a problem. Valdun could pay his performers generously and still made a large profit. His way ahead was clear, he started booking other halls and commenced rehearsals for the next show. Men flocked to the auditions, and at any given time there could be over a hundred practicing their footwork in Valdun’s loft.
At last the family capitulated. Valdun purchased their shares of the house for purely nominal sums.
It has occurred to me that you might like to read more about Port Naain. For 99p you can get
A Much Arranged Marriage
As one reviewer commented
Tallis, Sheena, Benor & Mutt get involved in another assignment from a Patron concerned about an old friend of hers.
As usual, things are not always what they seem at first, so lots of research required, which turns up some very puzzling things.
Another great tale from a Master Storyteller, involving rescues of (not so young and fair) maidens (well, not exactly Maidens), rooftop escapades and having conversations with a Silent Order…
He even manages to include a reference to one of his other books in the story without missing a beat.