As Maljie or any other temple warden will tell you, their duties are many, varied and onerous. Thus when Maljie was indisposed, (whether through illness, enforced penitential spirituality or some other quixotic entanglement, the burden tended to fall upon the shoulders of Laxey, the sub-Hierodeacon. Whilst the Shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm is not the largest fane in Port Naain, it is not without its distinguishing features.
Because of its situation, at the foot of the Sinecurists’ Grand Stair, it is the temple of choice for the smaller of the Sinecurists’ ‘devotional’ events. Thus on certain days the quiet running of the shrine is disturbed by gatherings of wealthy worshippers who displace the mendicants from their snug corners and generally upset the smooth running of the establishment. Still, when faced with the smug and prosperous, Maljie had ensured that all were well trained in the darker arts of the temple warden. She ensured that there was always one member of the temple staff available, who would sally amongst them bearing the largest and most heavily ornamented collection bucket. This they would wield with pugnacious gusto.
It has to be admitted, in defence of the Sinecurists, that they ensured that these services would be scheduled some time in advance. This was to ensure that adequate time had been given to cleaning, and perhaps more importantly, to the floral decoration. Within many temples those tasked with the flower arranging split into small cliques who fight amongst themselves, gossiping and backbiting with impressive bitterness. At least Maljie had managed to stamp this out, and had created among the flower arrangers of the Stairway Shrine a happy unanimity. They were united in their fear of Maljie.
The problems came when Maljie wasn’t present. If she was away too long the centrifugal forces inherent within coteries of flower arrangers would reassert themselves. Alas when Laxey was forced to take over her duties, suddenly the flower arrangers became his responsibility. To be fair, given time, he would doubtless have managed to reach a happy accommodation with them, probably ruling through fear as Maljie did. But on this occasion, distracted by other matters, he was forced to treat them as if they were reasonable people in the pious hope that they might attempt to live up to his estimation. By and large it worked, except for the day of the Sinecurists’ mortification. Here the Sinecurists were scheduled to forgather in the shrine and face ritual verbal castigation from the incumbent and such visiting preachers who had managed to secure for themselves this prime spot in the annual preaching rota. The floral decoration for this event is sombre, to be in keeping with the occasion. Some considerable time before the great event, Laxey returned to the shrine, having spent the day completing a series of errands, to discover the flower arrangers had been at work. Not only had they been victims of an almanac failure, they had allowed their enthusiasm to get the better of them. Instead of the sombre simplicity expected, the effect was described to me later by one jaundiced mendicant as, “Like the preparations for the wedding of a pimp with limited colour vision.”
But before you fall into the trap of believing that the burden on Laxey’s shoulders was intolerable, he also had to deal with the ladies of the kitchen. This is not a formal assembly, but a collection of individuals who when needed, silently gravitate to the scullery where they will spend their time elbow deep in the washing up. Given that these are largely the same ladies who had produced the fine selection of homemade cakes, scones, jams and suchlike for the repast, it might be thought that they should be given a chance to bask in the reflected glory from the catering. But they would arrive early to help ‘set up’ and leave late after everything had been put away. Laxey had learned early in his career that time spent with them wasn’t wasted. They knew everybody, they knew who had been married to who, who had wanted to marry who, and who would have had to marry who but got lucky. They also knew who was struggling, who had discovered that there was less week than money, and who needed a visit to a doctor they couldn’t afford.
But to be honest the biggest problem was the bells. Now every shrine, fane, temple or other place of worship will have a bell to summon worshippers. In Port Naain, for some reason, bigger was always considered better, as with the Great Bell of Aea, pictured above. The Stairway Shrine had a bell tower designed to hold half a score of bells. Yet in reality just one trifling bell hung in solitary state. Until that is Maljie was summoned to the bedside of one of her gentleman admirers. As he lay dying, he bequeathed to Maljie and the Stairway Shrine his collection of nine tubular bells. These Maljie and the gardeners loaded onto five ox drawn drays and hauled to the shrine where she had them hung in the bell tower whilst everybody in authority was otherwise engaged.
To be fair, the bell tower was adequate for the task. There were no structural problems, and the nine new bells, each taller than a man, hung in a circle around the original central bell. Not only that, but the tower had been sensibly constructed. The shaft was thick-walled, and both the belfry floor and the intervening floors were heavy. On the other hand the belfry itself had large openings to allow the sound out. Thus even when there were nine mendicants in the belfry belabouring the tubular bells with their bell hammers, within the shrine itself, very little could be heard.
On the other hand, the noise travelled over the city for a considerable distance. Attempts to remonstrate with the mendicants ‘playing’ the bells fell on ears that whilst not actually deaf, were stuffed with wax, wet paper, and a number of other things. Then to ensure complete aural well-being, the players would wrap towels tightly around their heads, and as a final nod towards safety, they’d put their hoods up as well. This meant that not only could they not, happily, hear the bells, they couldn’t hear any complaints; and were almost unrecognisable anyway.
Now initially, when there was only one bell, the temple warden would merely despatch the nearest and most expendable mendicant to toll it. After all there was one note. But with the nine, more care was needed. Maljie spent hours in the bell tower, prodding her well muffled mendicants with a stick when it was their turn to strike a bell. Soon the noise ringing out over that part of the city might even be mistaken for music if the wind was in the right direction.
But the danger of ringing bells was that this can attract bell-ringers. In Port Naain and surrounding areas, these are a group of outlandish individuals. By day the person may be a perfectly reasonable lawyer’s clerk. They might be a minor but responsibly tally clerk in a usurer’s office. Or alternatively they might be a respectable seamstress or work diligently behind the counter at a reputable tearoom. But once they are released from their employment and their time is their own, a change seems to come over them.
On discovering a new peal of bells, bell-ringers have to play them. This is not merely a desire, it appears to be a compulsion. Not only that but they do not merely play tunes on them, but instead perform some complex mathematical feat which whilst not displeasing to the ear, can go on for an inordinately long time.
Apparently because this performance is mathematical, its length apparently depends upon the number of bells rather than the tune they are playing. I confess that the concept was explained to me. Unfortunately the lady explaining it, with great passion and considerable verve, was a bell-ringer. Thus she started by assuming I knew far more than I do, and went on from there to explain further using concepts of which I am utterly unfamiliar. Consequently I confess I understood nothing. But the idea that the number of bells should dictate the length of the work strikes me as being as illogical as saying that to write a longer book, our alphabet must acquire more letters. Now I am willing to admit that the failing is mine, but I recount the anecdote both to try and give you a glimpse into the enthusiasm of the practitioners, and my own failings in this regard.
But in the case of the Stairway Shrine, a group of bell-ringers heard the bells and decided they must ring them ‘properly’ and managed to get a letter of recommendation from an archimandrite and two supporting hegumens. (As an aside all three signatories lived outside the city) This they presented late one afternoon when there were only mendicants about and Laxey had not arrived to prepare for the late service. To be fair, during the service the bells provided a sonorous background. People even commented favourably as they shook the incumbent’s hand and made their way home.
Laxey was left to clear everything away, and on the way out of the shrine he saw one of the bell-ringers carrying a hamper up to the belfry. He asked what was happening.
The bell-ringer put the hamper down. “Oh we’re playing them through, thought we’d do them properly. So we’ve got a spare team up there and we’ll need something to keep our strength up.”
Laxey could see this. “So how long will you be playing?”
“Bad to tell. Never done nine bells before but we reckon it will be over thirty hours.” With that the bell-ringer picked up the hamper and disappeared up the ladder into the belfry, shutting the trapdoor behind him.
Laxey made his way out into the street. He was more than a little perturbed. Here, outside the temple, the din was almost oppressive. He made his way along the street to the rooms he shared. Inside the building, he still struggled to hear the comments of one of his fellow residents over the noise of the bells.
After a simple supper he made his way to bed, fitted earplugs and pulled the sheets over his head. Then he pulled the pillow over his head. It was all to no avail, he could feel the vibration of the bells through the frame of his bed. After what seemed like an eternity, he gave up all attempts to sleep. He sat up and looked out of his window towards to bell tower. Maljie had always commented to him that the bells had a soporific effect on her, lulling her to sleep. It was then that Laxey remembered that Maljie lived with her sister some distance from the shrine.
As he looked out of the window he saw a group of mendicants clustered around the door of the temple. Sighing, he dressed, collected the keys and made his way to join them. More and more people from the neighbourhood were gathering, some had reached the abusive stage. Several had attempted to storm the shrine, but were defeated by the thickness of the locked door.
Laxey explained to the crowd that the noise was nothing to do with him, and that their shrine had effectively been misappropriated. So attempts were made to attract the attention of the bell-ringers. Obviously the noise was so loud and they were so well muffled that there was no hope of communicating by shouting. So attempts were made to throw a small child onto the roof so that it could climb the tower and enter via a belfry window. This failed because the noise was so loud that the child was forced to retreat.
Finally, well after midnight and with the cacophony still continuing, Laxey had a brainwave. He summoned some mendicants and they made their way to the home of a sympathetic ships’ chandler who lived barely a hundred yards from the temple. He listened to their shouted plan and immediately agreed to it. They made their way to his warehouse and each of them made their way back to the shrine struggling under the weight of two large scattergun cartridges. Because of the risk of piracy some vessels do carry scatterguns and obviously they have to buy the cartridges from somebody.
By the time Laxey and his ammunition bearers arrived back, the watch had also arrived. They too had had no success in attracting the attention of the bell-ringers. They watched Laxey and his cartridge bearing minions with wary interest. Finally one came across.
“Excuse me sir, you weren’t thinking of shooting at anybody with them cartridges?”
Laxey checked the man’s uniform. “No sergeant.” He shouted over the noise of the bells, “I intend to open the cartridges, take out the propellant and pack that against the base of the north wall of the tower. Then we’ll detonate it, and hopefully it’ll bring the tower down.”
The sergeant shouted back, somewhat warily, “Isn’t that a bit drastic sir?”
One of those living nearby had come across and heard the bellowed conversation. “No it bluidy well isn’t.” He pointed towards the false dawn. “It’s nearly bluidy morning, we’ve had this all night.”
Watching Laxey start to dismantle the large cartridges the sergeant backed carefully away. He and the other watchmen held a huddled discussion, shouting into each other’s ears in order to be heard.
Finally one of them waved Laxey across. “Are you still thinking of blowing the tower down sir?”
“I’ve had an idea I thought we could try. I’ve sent one of my lads to get some firework rockets. Perhaps if we could fire some of them into the belfry it might attract their attention.”
Laxey thought about it. “It might just work.”
“Then I’d ask you to remove the explosives from the base of the tower, just in case a rocket falls short.”
An hour later, a dozen mendicants armed with lengths of dubiously acquired downspout aimed their improvised weapons at the belfry. Behind each of them a watchman prepared to light the touch paper on a rocket as it lay snugly in the pipe.
With some concern, Laxey noticed a group of senior clergy, among whom he recognised the incumbent, running up the road towards them, shouting and gesticulating and making signals to stop.
Laxey nudged the sergeant who glanced down the street and saw the assembled clerics. “Sorry sir, I cannot hear a bluidy thing for the bells.” With that he dropped his hand and the watchmen lit the touch papers.
Estimates vary. Some, among them the bell-ringers, claim that most rockets entered the belfry and ricocheted around inside. Others, perhaps more dispassionate in their analysis, thought that only one, or perhaps two, had entered the windows. Still the effect was everything the sergeant had hoped for. There was a brief moment of wild discord and then silence.
To be fair, Laxey felt that the rockets were neither his idea nor his responsibility. He had managed to quietly hide the propellant out of sight in a broom cupboard and felt that he ought to have got away with it. Unfortunately even as he was stacking the explosive safely away, one of the mendicants decided to use some of it to ‘loosen’ a door that had jammed. As it was, it blew the door across the street narrowly missing a party of senior ecclesiastics who were discussing the situation with senior watch officers.
There again, looking on the bright side, the retreat centre Laxey was sent to for his spiritual welfare, whilst admittedly austere, was very strict on the rule of silence.
As you might have noticed we’ve stepped to one side to allow the blog tour to thunder past. It’s just that when Maljie has a tale, a tale has to be told.
And we have our first review
“This author has created a rich world, filled with interesting characters – of whom Maljie is one of the most colourful. Her life and adventures are presented though the gossip of the poet Tallis Steelyard who has a sharp eye and a sharper tongue. Reminiscent somewhat of Pepys’ diaries about the small and large events of London, Tallis is a better writer. And why is Mr Webster dangerous – too much of my money is being spent on his books.”