It is a question that may need to be asked. Should night-soil collectors seek to rise above their station? I only ask because of the sad case of Jaysen. He was a night-soil collector and the son of a long line of night-soil collectors. He owned two horses and a cart and even employed a man or two to assist him when trade was busy. He had a good steady round, emptying pail privies on a regular basis, indeed some particularly sensitive houses paid him to collect daily.
Yet where most night-soil men live for the day when their sense of smell dies completely, Jaysen wanted more. Initially he was cautious, he merely branched out into emptying earth closets. It has to be admitted that those citizens of Port Naain who have pleasant grounds around their house often yearn for the rustic simplicity of the earth closet tucked discreetly at the bottom of the garden. Indeed for a household with a number of staff ‘living in’ it is a sensible option. So Jaysen decided that he would take on another cart and a man and test the market.
Here he was cunning. Because he wouldn’t be the man who arrived to wield the shovel, he decided that he ought to think of his professional image. Thus rather than just being Jaysen; he arrived, well-scrubbed, and announced himself as J Fanshaw, of Fanshaw Associates. The lad he hired, Darran, wasn’t the brightest, but he was keen and a hard worker, and looked after the horse well. So this side of the business did well enough to keep Darran busy and put a little silver in Jaysen’s pocket. Well one thing leads to another. The tasteful little sheds that keep the weather off the person using the earth closet do need regular maintenance. Darran was perfectly capable of assessing the integrity of such a structure, and he would report shortcomings to Jaysen. On the receipt of this intelligence, J Fanshaw would approach the householder. He merely pointed out that Fanshaw Associates did have skilled tradesmen on hand who could remedy any problems. In reality, the skilled tradesman was another acquaintance, Dwaine. To be fair he wasn’t a bad carpenter, and he used to get his timber for a very little money, buying it from the boatyards. Whilst a plank may no longer be suitable to take its place in a ship’s hull, it may safely be cut down and bits repurposed to replace the rotting timber in the netty door.
Had he been happy to stay at this level, Jaysen would probably have prospered. Unfortunately Dwaine wasn’t really a carpenter, he was a bricklayer, and he longed to return to his trade. Rather than lose him, Jaysen found bricklaying jobs for him and these and his carpentry managed to keep him busy. Indeed because Dwaine was adequately competent, that side of the business grew as well. Finally Dwaine managed to land quite a large contract for building a new jakes at the Sattir’s Drop. (When we say ‘new jakes’ this casts a veil over the fact that the ‘old jakes’ were the back street. The new jakes weren’t going to be anything fancy. Just a couple of bucket privies which the night-soil collector could empty every day. But the walls would be made of brick and the floor would be easily scrubbed cement.
At the same time Fanshaw Associates were approached by Madam Valnian. She had been pondering the four-seater earth closet in her garden. She felt it was in need of refreshing. J Fanshaw arrived and surveyed the site and agreed with her. Rather than just emptying the pit (which was of considerable size, given it had to serve four seats) it was agreed that it would be emptied, and then a new hole would be dug in front of it. The spoil from this new hole would fill the old hole, and the netty could be re-erected above the new hole. A price was agreed and Darran set to work. Because it was such a big job Jaysen accompanied him. He started preparing the groundwork for the new hole as Darran started emptying the old one. But no sooner had Jaysen taken the turves off the new hole that he experienced a revelation. There was obviously a belt of sand running through this part of Dilbrook. It occurred to Jaysen that this sand would be perfectly suitable for the building work at the Sattir’s Drop. Indeed from his point of view it was better than suitable, because it was effectively free, thus leaving a larger profit margin on the building job.
Obviously there was the problem of emptying the old hole and then finding something to fill it with. But as Jaysen not irrationally reasoned, the old hole was in reality full. So if they just placed the turves on the top of it to ‘seal’ it, then they could take as much sand as they wanted from the new hole. He set Darran to dig out the new hole and to load the sand in a cart for the Sattir’s Drop job. Perhaps unwisely, he told Darran to make the hole ‘good and big’ because he wanted plenty of sand.
So Darran set to work with a will. In point of fact he got two cartloads of sand out of the hole. But there was an issue. Obviously the size of the opening at the top was fixed. Similarly you don’t really want to go too deep as it then gets hard to throw the sand out. So he just widened the hole the further down he dug.
Now from the point of view of the customer, this isn’t an entirely bad thing. After all, it means that you aren’t constantly emptying the damned thing. So Darran got the turves laid over the old hole, and had the seats and everything moved over the new hole. At this point Madam Valnian and her butler inspected the work, they were well pleased.
Indeed if that autumn hadn’t been unseasonably wet and winter even wetter, there might never have been a problem. But unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to quarry as much sand as possible, Darran had taken the new hole rather closer to the old hole that was entirely wise. Indeed there might only have been an inch or so of sand forming a barrier between them. During the summer, this wasn’t an issue. Everything was dry. The contents of the old hole were as solid and immovable as if they were soil. But after weeks of rain, the contents of the old hole became waterlogged. Hence, one night, the contents of the old hole ‘slumped’. They broke through into the new hole. This meant that the netty on top was not supported at the back. Hence later that morning, under the weight of a cook, two kitchen porters, and a scullery maid, everything tilted disastrously. Fortunately the cook managed to retain her grasp of the situation, but the other three were precipitated into the abyss below.
Jaysen did the only thing possible. J Fanshaw disappeared, Fanshaw Associates ceased trading and Jaysen himself quietly went on working on the night-soil cart.
Then there was the landlady of the Sattir’s Drop to consider. What Jaysen never seems to have considered is that the earth closet acts as a soakaway. The liquid element disappears into the sand. So the sand that was used to build the privy was, to put it mildly, somewhat contaminated. So no matter how assiduously the landlady cleans and polishes the buckets and the walls, the place still stinks like a privy.
After this it might still be possible that you wish to know more about Port Naain.
As a reviewer commented, “I have read several of this author’s fascinating stories featuring the poet Tallis Steelyard, his wife Shena and all of his friends. I am always delighted and amazed at the quality of the writing and the accompanying artwork.
I was offered the opportunity to read Flotsam and Jetsam, the very first Tallis story and literally jumped at the chance.
All of Jim Webster’s Tallis stories are set in a different era and way of life. This one is unusual in that it is a complex murder mystery.
I never knew that Tallis and his wife lived on a boat in the beginning, but Tallis has always been a poet of some renown. Shena has a dubious job, one that might get her killed one day, and if you want to know why you must read the novella.
These unusual stories are exceedingly well written, complex and full of description, strange names and places, and colloquialisms from another time.
Every one delightfully different and a joy to read…”