This is another of those episodes from Maljie’s life that I heard from Laxey, the sub-Hierodeacon. It was just after he returned from his week-long silent retreat. Given that the food had been basically vegetables in one form or another, he was cutting himself thick slices of mott ham with the determined air of a man who had a lot of catching up to do. Indeed he might even have been stocking up ready for the next one.
Still when I think about it, the guilty party behind this story is in point of fact Halwallow Timbartson. This grandly named individual was a mott farmer in a small way just outside the city. He lived in one of those villages which is almost, but not quite, a suburb. At irregular intervals he would arrive at the local inn with a pile of tickets. He would announce ‘buy one and win a mott.’
The inference would be that the mott in question had already had an appointment with the butcher, although there was nothing said explicitly. The locals would all buy a ticket for the look of the thing, but they’d encourage visitors from Port Naain, (who’d perhaps arrived looking for bucolic scenery, rustic charm, or merely the chance to continue their adultery without the neighbours prying.) to buy as well. As it was, the mott was always won by a visitor. Apparently it was worth buying a ticket just to be present to see the look on the face of the winner, when they were introduced to their mott, who was small, alive, and remarkable active.
For old Halwallow, he regarded this as a good way of disposing of the runt of the litter for better money than he got for a properly fattened mott. For the locals it was a chance to laugh at the way a sophisticated city dweller was fooled. In the case of the city dweller it was something of an embarrassment. Indeed there were a number of occasions where old Halwallow allowed them to give him the mott back, but only if they paid him to take it.
The reason that the pranks of Halwallow are relevant to our story is simple. One of those who bought a ticket, thinking he might possibly win some mott meat to take home was the first (or perhaps the second) of Maljie’s mother’s husbands. Perhaps because drink had been taken, he shrugged off his surprise at what he had won, paid extra for a piece of string, and walked the small mott home with him.
It is unfortunate that the family at the time lived in the Merchant quarter. Had they lived in Dilbrook, most houses have enough of a garden to locate an inconspicuous sty. But in the Merchant quarter gardens tend to be small and largely overlooked by the neighbouring houses.
Still the current incumbent in the role of husband arrived home with the mott. After some discussion is was agreed it was too small to eat, so they’d keep it and allow it to grow larger. After yet more discussion they decided to name it. One school of thought was that it should be called ‘Breakfast’ to ensure people kept focused on the ultimate objective. Another school of thought wanted something more grandiloquent. They favoured a name along the lines of, “A dark comment on the nature of modern civic life.” Finally a compromise was agreed and the family settled on the name of Balthusia. This was the name of an elderly maiden aunt of Maljie’s mother, of whom the family had had considerable expectations. Unfortunately the lady in question had passed away and had entirely failed to leave them anything in her will.
Balthusia, (the mott, not the elderly maiden aunt) settled in nicely to life with the family. A small sty was provided, screened by flowering shrubs. It was felt unwise to mention their new acquisition to the neighbours. Whether this was because of a fear of provoking disapproval or jealousy is impossible to say after this length of time. As always in these matters, the care of Balthusia was left to Maljie, who fed the young mott table scraps and suchlike.
Balthusia grew. Indeed it grew prodigiously, so that after a few months the sty had to be made larger and even more flowering shrubs acquired to screen it. Indeed it wasn’t long before Balthusia weighed more than young Maljie. Still the young mott was a cheerful, happy, and trusting creature, asking for nothing more than remarkable quantities of food and occasional displays of affection. Indeed Maljie got into the habit of creeping out to the sty, last thing before bed, and giving her mott a last titbit and a good-night scratch on the back. This latter always elicited little mottish squeals of pleasure.
Unfortunately one night, when Maljie approached the sty, she realised that Balthusia was no longer there. A swift examination of the pen indicated that one side had totally collapsed. To be fair, given the calibre of the carpentry involved, a gust of wind or even a sneeze could have achieved that. So Maljie searched the garden for her errant mott.
As mentioned previously, it wasn’t a large garden. It didn’t take long to see where Balthusia had taken advantage of a rotten board to push her way through into the garden next door. Still Maljie had the advantage that where a middling sized mott could go, so could she. She followed. A quick search of that garden indicated that Balthusia was not content with grubbing through the vegetable garden for interesting roots. She’d pushed on the back door and it had opened for her. Greatly daring, Maljie followed her into the house.
Here tracking was easier. It was a bright summer’s night with a full moon. Maljie could follow the muddy footprints across the tiles of the hall. At the foot of the stairs Maljie halted, the footprints had finally ceased. But then she noticed on the stairs, it was obvious that Balthusia, in her excitement, had had an urgent bowel movement. On tiptoe (to avoid sundry substances) Maljie went up the stairs.
She found Balthusia sitting, most contentedly, upon a rug on the landing. Maljie gestured for the mott to come to her. Balthusia, comfortable and ready for sleep, ignored these suggestions. So Maljie was forced to act. Even with a string fastened around the mott’s neck, there was no way she could pull the creature. It was too heavy. So she decided to cajole her. She scratched the mott’s back.
This, as expected, produced little gasps of pleasure, and as Maljie moved away, Balthusia moved to keep up with her, so that the scratching could continue. Slowly, they crossed the landing. Unfortunately the little squeals of pleasure grew louder, and control of bowels and bladder grew less certain. Then from one of the rooms off the landing Maljie heard a female voice.
“Franan, I can hear a mott.”
“Nonsense woman, go back to sleep.”
“Franan, I can hear it, listen.”
“Nonsense woman.” Then Maljie heard the sound of heavy footsteps. “There’s nothing there.”
With that, the door opened and a large elderly man peered out. “Gods, there’s a bluidy mott on the landing.”
Maljie wasn’t sure whether it was his unexpected appearance, or the tone of his voice, but Balthusia was galvanised into action. She plunged down the stairs, dragging Maljie in her wake. Once they got to the garden, Maljie managed to steer her back to the rotten board, and from there it was comparatively easy to hide the mott in their kitchen whilst she hastily camouflaged the gap between the two gardens.
It was agreed something had to be done. Some hasty research produced the interesting information that female breeding motts of a decent weight were currently in demand. Indeed Halwallow Timbartson himself admitted he would be happy to pay good money for Balthusia, but rather expected to have her delivered. The family pondered this. After the events of the previous evening it was felt unwise to merely lead their mott out of the house on a rope. The neighbours might well leap to the entirely reasonable conclusion that this was the mott who had defecated on their landing and stairs. It was felt that the situation might become acrimonious.
So after mature consideration it was agreed that a two person sedan chair should be summoned. This was done. The bearers were frankly surprised by their passenger, but were mollified by the offer of cash. The chair was brought into the house and Balthusia, with Maljie to keep her company, boarded. The blinds were drawn and the bearers set off.
After the trip the chairmen all agreed that it had been a good run. Even Balthusia was somewhat lighter than their usual run of passengers, and Maljie, in comparison, was no weight at all. So things went well.
But to keep Balthusia contented, Maljie had to resort to scratching her back. This was entirely successful and she sat contentedly and caused no trouble. As one of the chairman said, they probably weren’t the only two person chair in the city with the blinds drawn down and little squeals of pleasure coming from it.
Should you wish to know more about the world of Port Naain, you could do worse than read
As a reviewer commented, “Tallis, the well-respected (he says) Port Naain poet, becomes embroiled in a bit of sedan chair racing, with all its associated betting and a side order of bullying and corruption. He is helping to arrange a large social gathering to introduce a widow to the social circle and we see how important it is to have a resourceful poet on the task.
Another good fun adventure from Port Naain, with a different voice narrating it.”