The Arcade Market in the Commercial district is not the most prestigious of the markets in Port Naain. One will not find the truly exotic, but there again one will not find the grossly overpriced either. It provides decent quality produce. The price is higher than I would expect to pay, but if one uses a poet as one’s reference, one can easily be led astray.

I know one of the stallholders reasonably well. Jilliane Lanwaster is a regular at the market, selling vegetables. Now it has to be admitted that vegetables lack glamour. Spices and exotic fruit stalls hint at exotic places, with mysterious merchants passing hastily through fear shadowed lands to bring us their wares. Vegetables are somehow ordinary.

To be asked to write without blushing
On the romance of the carrot
The dark mystery of the parsnip
The wonder of the skirret
Shows that your patron knows nothing
And has the wit of a pierrot

Jilliane on the other hand is not ordinary. I see young women now tutting at her and treating her as if she were some old biddy who is losing her wits, but frankly she’d still dance round them, metaphorically and practically. As you see her now with her youngest son in attendance, peering at the coins in her hand through her pince-nez you’d wonder if he’s there to stop the old lady embarrassing the family. No, he’s there to do the heavy lifting and to learn how selling should be done.

I have known the old lady for many years. When she was in her forties she stopped me in the market and asked if I would teach her children to read and write. That I did, two or three mornings a week for several years. My pay? Every dinner time, when lessons finished, I joined the family in their midday meal. As much thick vegetable broth as you could eat, with bread broken into it, and a bunch of vegetables to take home to Shena to go with our evening meal.

It was there I learned much of Jilliane’s past. She was born on the street, her mother a common whore, and she might have been seven when her mother either died or finally abandoned her. The child lived by her wits on the streets, and at some point she realised that if she wanted to survive, she would need a trade other than that of a sneak thief. So when she was about nine, she started selling vegetables. Now some girls and young women sold fruit, but frankly that was often a charade, it enabled them to ply another trade in apparently respectable areas. Vegetables, Jilliane felt, were safe.

She had no working capital. Somebody put a basket down when they tried on a shawl at a market stall. When they looked round to pick up the basket it had gone. So now Jilliane had her shop.

Then she walked out into the countryside north of the city with her new basket, and in the darkness she worked her way through the vegetable plots.

She didn’t take a lot, she couldn’t carry all that much. Yet what she did take was perfect. Apparently she might take only two carrots from one plot and then worked her way through three more plots to make up a decent bunch.

This produce she sold. Slowly she managed to put away a few savings and with them she bought a wheelbarrow. By the time she was twelve she was visiting the various market gardens and purchasing produce legitimately. Her business slowly grew, and as she grew older, she discovered she had suitors.

I don’t think she was ever beautiful, indeed she might even have been described as plain. But she was obviously somebody who was clawing her way out of the gutter. She winnowed her suitors rigorously, picking through them with the same care that she showed when she was selecting vegetables.

Finally she accepted a proposal from a young man who had somehow acquired a wheelbarrow of his own. He accompanied her every morning to collect produce. This he did before going to his own place of work, he was a jobbing builder.

Once married, they managed to acquire a small parcel of land. This was a small patch of stony ground none of the local market gardeners particularly wanted. Jilliane purchased a large but elderly rowing boat. It was in a distinctly fragile condition, the timbers were showing their age and frankly the hull was held together by innumerable layers of antique pitch. She hired a cart and had her boat transported to their plot. Yarrow, her husband, built walls of turf and stone and the boat sat upon them as a roof. In this home they raised their family, adding further rooms as they were needed, and eventually there was a stable for their horse and cart.

Obviously there were setbacks. But Jilliane had not climbed out of the gutter to fall back. Those who regarded a woman on her own in the Arcade Market as an easy mark did so at their peril. Yarrow was engaged in purchasing and transporting vegetables, Jilliane stayed on the stall. It suited her because she knew her customers, her customers knew her, and she could keep an eye on her younger children. On one occasion, Goswit, petty thief and would-be protection racketeer did make a grab for the box with the takings in. He stumbled over a toddler, and was then nearly brained by a passing housekeeper who belaboured him with a tightly rolled umbrella whilst Julliane tied his feet together. When Yarrow arrived with the cart, he unloaded the vegetables, threw the thief onto the cart and dropped him off at the nearest watch house.

And today is the final day of our tour
Click below to see the end of this tale of Sue Vincent’s page


3 thoughts on “Vegetating

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