Nymphs and Chimney Sweeps.

Nymphs and chimney sweeps

It has to be confessed that as a child, Maljie was often short of money. Still she did what she could to remedy this, but was wise enough to realise that blackmailing older siblings was not a sustainable business model.

Thus one particularly hot summer she got the idea of having a pool. Given that it hadn’t rained for a month and the sun had beat down, day after day, this was an entirely reasonable plan. Indeed, rather than the regimented straight lines and harsh stonework of a formal bathing establishment, one suspects that Maljie had in mind a more sylvan scene. Thus she picked a time when her mother was out and enlisted her co-conspirators to start digging in a flower bed.

Now there is logic in this. Most of Port Naain is built on clay (or at least dried mud). So any hole dug should automatically hold water. Also the presence of the remaining flowers and a shrub or two would ensure a certain ambiance. After an hour or so of digging steadily, and cunningly using the spoil, rammed well down, to raise the sides; Maljie decided the time had come to fill the hole with water.

Buckets, pans, jugs and the full impedimenta of the water carriers’ trade were gathered and the children carried water and poured it into their hole. This they did for hours yet the hole stubbornly refused to hold water.

What to do? Whilst the others kept on carrying, Maljie inspected for leaks. She smoothed the sides, she examined the bottom. But of course by this point the bottom was trodden up and invisible under a layer of liquid mud. Indeed it has to be admitted that Maljie was also invisible under a layer of liquid mud. Still the water refused to stay in the hole. Finally Maljie discovered that when she stood at the bottom of the hole and wiggled her feet, she could feel a hard surface below her. Careful inspection indicated a seam of gravel. Just how this came to be there, or where it led, Maljie didn’t know. Still she tried smearing the mud above it in the hope that this would seal. Even as she did this her myrmidons continued to carry water.

Now when you stop and think about it, if you have children pouring water into a muddy hole, there is almost no chance that they will stay clean. Especially if they have just dug this hole. And with time, as they passed ceaselessly backward and forward through the house, the mud would slowly accumulate on the floor, the furniture, the doors, and in extreme cases, the ceiling. (Note I have been reliably informed that they got mud on the ceiling, I share your confusion as to how comparatively small children could have achieved this.)

Time passed, and eventually even Maljie’s mother had to return home. With the finely tuned instinct that many children have, Maljie’s associates faded silently away and disappeared leaving Maljie standing in the mud. Retribution was both vague and preoccupied and Maljie emerged from the situation neither richer nor poorer. Indeed she had almost forgotten the episode. Then a week later she overheard people taking about somebody who lived two streets away. Apparently, for no reason anybody could understand, their cellar had filled with muddy water.

Still, Maljie’s financial situation remained distinctly suboptimal. She had to think of other ways of earning money. It was as summer faded into autumn that she had her next brainwave. She overheard her mother discussing chimney sweeps with a neighbour. There was a feeling that it was perhaps wise to consider getting their chimneys swept before winter.

Maljie had a revelation. She could offer chimney sweeping services. Not only was she something of a gamin child, but the children within her circle of acquaintance were of similar build. Cleaning chimneys looked like child’s play.

What she discovered was that there was resistance, both from consumers and also competitors. In Port Naain the job tends to be done by competent adults who are skilled with the brush and the rods. The use of children, (except for the fiddly bits) is frowned upon. Mainly due to their habit of finding a quiet corner, going to sleep and then coming down claiming the job has been done.

Indeed many sweeps will have with them an apprentice, somebody in their teens or even older, who will undertake the tricky work. It has been commented that because chimney sweeps tend to take on slender apprentices, that we see a process somewhat like selective breeding. These slender apprentices go on to become sweeps who in turn take on slender apprentices. Indeed I am forced to admit that I cannot bring to mind any burly sweeps within my circle of acquaintance.

Another problem Maljie discovered was that customers will unwilling to pay her and her team as much as they’d pay an adult. Their reasoning was obvious. Would this new business deliver the same guaranteed results that they’d seen previous businesses deliver?

Hence Maljie was forced to take short cuts. She didn’t have a set of rods and a brush. She couldn’t afford a set and no sweep was so foolish as to let the tools of his trade out of his sight. Initially she hadn’t regarded this as a problem, because she’d assumed they’d brush the chimney by hand from inside. But this is a slower method even if it is somewhat more painstaking.

Still she had a solution. One of her party with climb onto the roof and drop a rope down the chimney. The rest of her team would pull the rope. Initially the idea was to pull a child down but it was soon discovered the child could be replaced with a suitable bush.

This technique, frowned upon by her competitors, is not a bad one. It suffers in that with the brushes, working from below, you can control the rate at which you bring soot down. Dragging a bush down leads to all the soot coming at once. Thus it is vitally important to not merely have the householder put down dust sheets. You must also hang a heavy cloth across the fireplace as well. Still it is one of those mistakes that you never make twice. Certainly not in the same house.
Another method Maljie tried was that of introducing a domestic fowl into the chimney from above. This can, in point of fact, work better than the bush on a rope. Firstly you don’t need a team of grubby children at the bottom. Also there is no soot encrusted rope getting the floor dirty. But you do really need somebody there to catch the fowl in a sack or similar as it exits from the chimney.

This isn’t difficult. The fowl apparently becomes somewhat disorientated in the descent and is easily captured. This makes it an economical system. It only needs two of you. Yet on one occasion Maljie heard the cry from above to tell her the bird was about to be released. She then heard the unmistakable sound of the creature descending. But it never appeared. She waited but nothing happened. Greatly daring she risked looking up the chimney, which isn’t a course of action I would have recommended. There was still nothing.”

Finally she heard, from a neighbouring room, a lot of crashing and squawking. Unbeknown to her, the builder of the house had economised and had one chimney serve two fireplaces. Previous sweeps, working from below, had worked this out but had said nothing lest the householder used it as an excuse to demand a discount. The fowl, descending, had taken ‘the other’ fork and had exited via the wrong fireplace.

Maljie was left with a dilemma. She could recover the fowl and face up to the ire of the householder. There was a possibility that that individual might find their righteous wrath assuaged by the discovery that from now on they could negotiate a discount and get their chimney swept more cheaply. Or she could abandon the fowl (which she had purloined on her way to work) and just disappear. She pondered, briefly, and fled.

Now you might wonder why I am telling you this. After all these are old stories. But I felt that the point had to be made. When Maljie suggests that we could have our mendicants cleaning chimneys, these are not the words of, ‘an elderly curmudgeon.’ (Or as I heard one mendicant describe her, “A cantankerous auld witch.”) The words represent the studied advice of one who has been there and has done the job. Albeit some years ago, and perhaps young people were tougher then.


Should you wish to know more about Port Naain

Life for a jobbing poet is difficult. You have to be flexible with regard to your art. One day you’re organising an elegant soiree, the next a pie eating contest. Yet all the while you are striving to raise the tone and to ensure that decency, dignity, and an appreciation of the fine arts prevails.
And sadly it appears that the more honest your attempts, the more noble your endeavours, the more likely it is that you end up making enemies. Tallis helps out the family of an old friend, obliges a patron, and does his best to aid the authorities in the administration of justice. Each time he merely manages to upset the powerful, the petty, and the vindictive.

“As a reviewer commented, “Any story that contains immortal sayings like “I will merely point out that whilst the little ship did not lack ambience, it was an ambience that clung, and it took three washings before I could get it out of my shirts.” Is well worth reading.
Additionally, this tale refers to maps, missing gems, pie eating contests and even a marimba – what more could a reader want?”

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