Mutt, dining with friends

xxx

I have often wondered whether it is possible for us to do without bureaucracy. Some will tell you that we need a bureaucracy because it supplies the underpinnings of civilisation and without it; we would lapse back to barbarism and within a generation would be struggling to remember how to make fire. It is notable that the people who claim this tend to be bureaucrats.
Still even in Port Naain we do have a bureaucracy. Yes, our system of Sinecures helps to limit it. The idea is that the various civic tasks that need doing are divided up into manageable chunks and the wealthy of the city bid to fund these tasks. They then ensure the work is done, using their own money and normally using their own staff to do it. In return they sit on the Council of Sinecurists which runs the city, in as much as anybody does.

But of course there are still bureaucrats. One group work on the collection of customs revenues, another group keeps an eye on the collection of those ground rents and similar that fall due to the city. A third and far larger group exists to inspect the work of the Sinecurists and ensure that they adequately fulfil the terms and conditions of their sinecure.

As one can imagine, the machinations of this later group can lead to friction between the Sinecurists and the bureaucracy. Thus the Sinecurists created a further sinecure, the holder of which has to monitor the bureaucracy, ensuring their efficiency and guaranteeing that there is no corruption. Inevitably this Sinecurist has a special section of the bureaucracy monitoring their work and ensuring that the Sinecurist in question does not exceed their powers.

Those who serve in the bureaucracy are not without their perquisites. As well as very adequate salaries and similar benefits, a pension is available. In reality few retire, most claim they enjoy their work too much. A more cynical citizenry assume it is because they dare not be away from the office too long lest somebody realise that the city performs perfectly well without them. The even more cynical assume that those working into old age are fearful lest being absent from their office might mean that their rampant peculation comes to light.

One of their most cherished perquisites is the solstice meal. Initially it was just a meal they paid for themselves. But they cannot eat it on the day of the solstice because it is a public holiday and they aren’t working. So they always held the meal, or rather the banquet, on the day before the solstice, when they were at work and therefore could conveniently foregather to dine.

Now the meal is paid for out of the Lunching fund. In theory the money in this fund comes from generous donations from local businessmen and the subscriptions paid into it by members of the bureaucracy.

Now, local businessmen, nervous of administrative zeal, have over the years been most generous. So in reality the fund can provide an excellent meal without the tedious need to collect the subscription income.

Then there is the solstice meal paid for by the city, out of city funds, as a gesture of gratitude. This meal is normally eaten two days after the solstice when members of the bureaucracy return to work after their well earned solstice holiday.

Finally there was, for many years, a third meal. With the appointment of a Sinecurist to monitor the bureaucracy, it was decided, by somebody long forgotten, that this Sinecurist must also pay for a solstice meal for all the functionaries. This one takes place four days after the solstice. In a desperate attempt to achieve some sort of inadvertent collateral benefit, the Sinecurists funding the meal stated that it would be held after the collected public servants had processed through the city, collecting food for the poor. This food was normally just boiled up in one huge pot and handed out free to all comers.

So on that day one sees a long procession of the servants of the city, resplendent in their formal robes, making their way along Ropewalk, through the Merchant Quarter and back past the Great Library and the Asylum. Most of them find it agreeable enough, maintaining that a walk helps the appetite.

During the year in question, Sarl Onwater purchased the sinecure which meant he had to monitor the bureaucracy. I remember Shena and I discussing his decision. It was over our evening meal, and Mutt was listening to our opinions. Finally, with a thoughtful look on his face, he made his excuses and left.

Sarl had a good year with his Sinecure. He’d obviously done his homework beforehand because over a score of jacks-in-office were soon working up to their waists in the icy waters of the Houses of Licentiousness where they were bound over to indentured servitude until they’d repaid the money they’d corruptly obtained from city funds.

Indeed not long before the solstice, Sarl pointed out that the formal procession of bureaucrats had to process ‘throughout’ the city. Obviously if taken literally this meant that the procession could have taken the best part of two days, but Sarl merely stated that he felt that the parade ought to cross the estuary on the Roskadil ferry and at the very least show their faces in the suburbs to the south of the Paraeba.

There was some discussion about this, but Sarl said that he merely expected the procession to gather in the area near the ferry terminal on the Roskadil side and perhaps sing a couple of ancient hymns to the genius loci of Port Naain. This was accepted as a not unreasonable addition to the day and it was agreed that in a few years it would doubtless be regarded as a venerable and much loved tradition. Indeed Sarl was congratulated upon his insight.

Sarl also suggested that the procession be moved to the fifth day after the solstice. Given that this is the day given to the celebration of the genius loci of the city, that too was considered reasonable.

In the days leading up to this third feast, Mutt’s behaviour was such as to cause comment. First he returned from the Goldclaw baths, clean! Both Shena and I were a little unnerved by this. Then he raised a most unusual request. “Tallis, could you perform at the Goldclaw baths on the day of the genius loci?”

“I could, but who is my patron?”

“Sarl Onwater.”

I confess to being somewhat suspicious about this. “Why hasn’t Sarl contacted me himself over this?”

Somewhat airily Mutt merely said, “He didn’t want you to be bothered with trivial details.”

“Well given it’s the day after tomorrow, isn’t it about time he started being bothered?”

“Oh it’s something you can do without needing to prepare, so don’t bother planning anything.”
With that he left.

On the morning of the day of the genius loci, I made my way to the Goldclaw baths. I confess to being unsure of what I was going to find. I found Sarl, ensconced in a wing-backed chair made from plaited cane. It was placed so he could oversee the main door to the baths. A steady stream of street children, largely shepherded by Mutt and his myrmidons was making their way through the door and into the great bath.

As each child arrived at the bath they would cast off their assorted rags and soon there were over two hundred of them swimming in the warm waters. Mutt and his friend Jillet did not join in the bathing. Already well scrubbed both stood on the side of the bath talking to Sarl. Mutt displayed a long and razor sharp poniard which he somehow had secreted upon his person and Sarl inspected it with obvious approval. Given that Shena had repeatedly tried to confiscate it, I was glad she wasn’t present. Then Sarl’s sedan chair bearers entered with his chair. Sarl handed Jillet into it and passed in her crutches after her. Then she left with Mutt jogging behind her.
By this point I had decided that merely being mystified served no purpose. I would undoubtedly be put in the picture soon enough. Thus when Sarl turned to me and suggested that we teach the children some of the hymns to the genius loci of Port Naain, it seemed an entirely reasonable proposal and I happily went along with it.

Perhaps an hour later, some of Sarl’s people arrived with a great pile of clothes. These seemed to be the hand-me-downs from his family and friends. Now we had two hundred clean and well dressed children who could make a reasonable attempt at three or four of the best known anthems. Admittedly there was a frantic dash to their old rags when Sarl suggested they be taken away to be burned. This dash was followed by a hasty secreting of childish treasures, small amounts of cash, and easily concealed edged weapons in their new outfits. When my cousin, Thela Drane arrived, dressed in her formal robes as a temple dancer, followed by a score of lesser temple dancers, I merely smiled sweetly at her as if I knew what was going on.

With Thela and her dancers acting as marshals, Sarl and I formed the other children up into what might approximate to a column of twos. Then singing the best loved hymns to Port Naain we marched in procession to the Grand Sinecurists’ Dining Room. At some point in our procession we were joined by Mutt and Jillet, the latter still being carried in the sedan chair.

Now I suppose it behoves me to keep you up-to-date on other events. Obviously I had no knowledge of what was occurring at the time, but I think you’ll find it enlightening and will make things clearer if I tell you the story as it happened, as opposed to the order in which I discovered what was going on.

It seems that the procession of bureaucrats had been transported across to Roskadil on the ferry. They had processed a little way for the look of the thing and had sung the two ancient hymns. Then they had processed back to the ferry. Once on the ferry (which they pretty well filled) the crew cast off and started hauling on the great rope that provides guidance and motive power.

Suddenly the rope parted, just like that.
Now with rope ferries this is a known problem and the crews always keep a close eye on the rope. In this case the crew swore blind that the rope was in excellent condition, except for one very short length where it had obviously rubbed briefly on something really sharp, and had parted.

The ferry started to drift downstream and the passengers all started shouting for help and gesticulating. Normally a passing boat will throw the ferry a line at this point and order will be restored. But the estuary seemed strangely empty. It must have taken more than an hour before anybody apparently noticed that anything was amiss and a boat was sent out to deal with the situation.

Obviously the ferry had drifted a fair way down the estuary by this time, given that the tide was flowing out, and it probably took another hour or so before the rescue craft caught up with its quarry. There was then a frank and open exchange of views.

The senior bureaucrat wanted to know what had taken their rescuers so long.

The leader of the rescuers apologised but explained his crew of oarsmen were weakened by hunger, given that they were paying so much tax on wharfage and similar that they hadn’t the money left to put food on the table. Thus they were forced to miss meals so their poor starving children could eat.

The senior bureaucrat begged leave to doubt this.

The leader of the rescuers stared thoughtfully out to sea and commented that he thought a storm could blow up soon.

At this point the senior bureaucrat realised you don’t have to be a seaman to know which way the wind is blowing. He replied that he would certainly give some thought to the matter when they got ashore and would produce a document which set forth the new level of charges.

The leader of the rescuers produced a document that had been prepared earlier and offered it to the bureaucrat, stating that he trusted it would be suitable.

The bureaucrat scanned it and commented that obviously he’d have to read it first.

The chief rescuer turned to a colleague next to him in the boat and asked if he could feel rain in the wind.

The bureaucrat said that to save time he could initial the document, but the potential rescuers felt that it ought to be formally sealed and made binding. Purely by chance one of the rescuers had with him such a seal, plus the wax. He claimed that he’d found them in the street where somebody had obviously dropped them by accident and he’d picked them up intending to return them.

The bureaucrat signed and sealed the document and the rescuers tied a rope to the ferry and started to tow it back to shore.

All I knew about this was that I caught a glimpse of the ferry floating out towards the sea as we made our way to the Grand Sinecurists’ Dining room. But still such things do happen and there is always a rescue.

At the dining room, Sarl and Thela took the head of the table, the children seated themselves around it in an orderly fashion and Sarl summoned the somewhat bemused Maître d’hôtel. He announced that the bureaucrats had most generously decided to dig deep into their Lunching fund and fund a meal for the poor children of the city. Thela, on behalf of the Temple of Aea in her aspect as the personification of chastity, gratefully accepted this generous gesture on behalf of the city. She rhapsodised on how lucky the city was to have such large hearted and generous servants. The Maître d’hôtel bowed, said nothing and kept his own counsel.

After such heart-warming news had been imparted, the meal was served. The Maître d’hôtel  clapped his hands together and his staff sprang into action. Perhaps two score of them ferried elegantly prepared plates between kitchen and table. The food was excellent. I doubt I’ve ever eaten horrocks so tender. The soup course was a revelation, the pâté was exquisite, the selection of deserts such that some of the children couldn’t make their minds up and had to have two or three. Finally there was the cheese board, truly an object of wonder.

Alas but all good things come to an end. Eventually Sarl stood up and announced that we now had to go and meet sundry office holders as he’d just had word that their ferry had been recovered and would soon be arriving at the dock.

Immediately the children were formed up in column of twos again and singing moderately sweetly, they processed down to the wharf where the ferry was just being secured. Already waiting was what seemed to be an inordinate number of temple dancers, formed up in neat rows. On top of this there were not one but two hierophants. One I recognised as a friend of Sarl’s. As an aside, because senior priesthoods are so poorly remunerated, they lack social status even if they gain authority through spiritual direction. Thus the wealthy and well-connected rarely aspire to hold these offices and they are one route by which academically gifted children from financially poor homes can rise in society.

When the assorted, storm-tossed and somewhat weather beaten bureaucrats disembarked, they were greeted by dancers and the choir of freshly washed and almost cherubic children, all apparently giving thanks to Aea for the rescue. Personally in their position I would have immediately become suspicious. Still they seemed to feel that this was no more than their due, such can be the blindfolding effect of a culture of entitlement.

The two hierophants formed up a grand procession, bureaucrats in the middle with dancers and singers around them and led the long winding column back to the Grand Sinecurists’ dining room. By now I was getting footsore and a little weary, but still I kept up, I was frankly fascinated to see what happened next.

Outside the dining room one of the hierophants called for order and silence fell on the procession. It also fell on the large crowd that had gathered to see the spectacle. I was surprised to see a remarkably large number of Sinecurists scattered amongst the audience.

In his booming voice the hierophant thanked the assembled public servants for their diligence throughout the year. But more importantly he thanked them for their most open-handed gesture of digging into their Lunching fund to fund a meal for the poor children of the city. He confessed that he was personally awestruck at their generous intent to make this a lasting tradition. Thus he announced that the temples, galvanised into action by such munificence, had decided that they would handle all the administration. He felt that it was obvious to all that our hard working office holders didn’t need an extra task. So in consultation with Sarl Onwater, it had been agreed that the entire Lunching fund would be transferred to a temple account, and Sarl had made provision for a deduction to be made, automatically, from the salaries of all bureaucrats, to be paid into this fund. This announcement was met by rapturous cheering from all assembled, save perhaps from the stunned office holders in the middle of the procession.

With this, the dancers went on their way, the children faded from the scene, and I hastily joined Sarl and the two hierophants before anybody thought to pin the blame on me.

I arrived in time to see them watch as young Mutt assisted Jillet into Sarl’s sedan chair for a trip home.

One of the hierophants smiled and commented, “A charming child.”

The other seemed lost in nostalgic reveries of his own youth, and merely commented, “Delightful.”

Sarl stepped forward put his arms around their shoulders, “Gentlemen you’re right, she is. Aea alone knows why she hangs around with Mutt, a more devious little devil I’ve never come across.”

“Yes,” said the first hierophant, “A credit to the city. I wonder when he’ll want my job?”

His fellow priest pondered briefly, “Why should he accept the demotion?”

In the dining room, the tables had long since been cleared. Still, as Sarl pointed out to the tired and hungry functionaries who were thronging the hall, there was always the food they had collected for the poor being cooked up in one great pot. If they were hungry they could have a bowl full of that.

♥♥♥♥

It’s always good to have something to read whilst relaxing after an excellent meal!

It just got a review.

“An assortment of Tallis Steelyard tales to make the reader chuckle, laugh, wipe away a sad tear, and all emotions in between.
Every story is a stand-alone gem.”

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21 thoughts on “Mutt, dining with friends

      1. I merely quote Dickens!

        “I took a good deal o’ pains with his eddication, sir; let him run in the streets when he was wery young, and shift for his-self. It’s the only way to make a boy sharp, sir.”
        The elder Weller, on the rearing of his son

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