It is some years since I last performed in Rattlestone. Frankly I am not in good odour with the Sisters of Philanthropy. I will insist, to my dying day, that it was not my fault, but so be it.
Rattlestone is not a fashionable resort. It isn’t far from Port Naain, you can walk there in a day, but in the season there is a regular coach route. Although calling these lightly converted tumbrels, ‘coaches’ does stretch the truth somewhat. The village itself tended to attract those who have aspirations but little money. Rather than building themselves luxurious villas, the Naainese who colonised Rattlestone purchased small fishing cottages in the village itself.
The cottages tend to be inhabited for most of the summer, and even for spells in spring and autumn. It is likely to to be wives and children who spend their time in the village, husbands remain in Port Naain working. It does mean that Rattlestone society is a little unusual. The presence of an unattached man (by which I mean anybody over the age of eighteen who does not have a wife keeping a tight grip on his collar) can cause all sorts of rumours to pass through the community. Still I don’t want to give the impression that Rattlestone is some sink of debauchery. People are ostentatiously proper.
Still, it should be remembered that these are not wealthy families. The husbands are usurers’ clerks, not usurers. Money is not exactly tight, but there isn’t such a surplus that they have it to splash around casually. Even at home, having domestic staff is rare. Indeed the only maid I remember seeing in Rattlestone was remarkably pretty and her mistress was making sure she wasn’t left behind in Port Naain where she might inadvertently tempt her master into impropriety.
Even so, because everybody feels they are on holiday, clothing is casual, dining is informal, and the cottages are small so housework is minimal. On a fine summer’s day, many households will spent the daylight hours on the beach.
As evening falls, families will return back to their cottages where they will eat their evening meal, traditionally centred upon battered Downfish. Now the Downfish is unusual in that it is caught far to the north and brought south in the ice boats over winter. The fish are stored in the Rattlestone ice house which is deep underground to keep it cold. In the ice house, skilled artisans remove the swim bladder and several other bladders. These are then chopped fine and dried slowly, eventually producing a fine powder known as fish lichen. This is sold in Port Naain for considerable sums and is much used in medicine. It is both a mild painkiller and mild euphoric. So the patient, on taking it, realises that the pain isn’t as bad as they thought and feels much cheered by the discovery.
The fish itself, somewhat cut about after this ordeal, is unsaleable in the normal way of things. But the bones are removed and the remaining fish well mashed and mixed with small amounts of egg and flour. Then they are made into blocks the size of a child’s hand. These can then be battered and fried in a pan and are perfectly acceptable.
There is much discussion on the matter but personally I feel that the flesh of the Downfish must be impregnated, at some level, with fish lichen. Certainly evenings in Rattlestone are tranquil. Children, tired after spending all day on the beach, are soon in bed and sleep soundly. Mothers will sit in the gloaming and sip a final glass of wine before going to bed themselves.
Now the ladies, even though in holiday mood, felt the need to do something to occupy themselves. Somebody came up with the idea of doing acts of charity and thus the Rattlestone Sisters of Philanthropy was born. The first problem was finding recipients for their giving.
Now there are people in Rattlestone who could do with help. There are plenty of elderly widows living on their own. But their neighbours, whether members of the Sisters of Philanthropy or not, already had the matter in hand. With no particular fuss, neighbours would cut firewood, give a cake or whatever.
It was the same with the local vagrants. In Partann a vagrant has to be careful, in the wrong part of the country you could just end up sold into indentured labour, ‘for your own good.’ But in this particular corner of Partann, those of a wandering disposition have a mental list of welcoming houses. Doors they can knock on, secure in the knowledge that they’d be fed, in return for doing a few odd jobs.
But then it occurred to the Sisters, they were all from Port Naain, they knew what poverty was. So they decided that they would do things which would raise money which could be donated to sundry benevolent institutions within the city, judged worthy of support. Each lady had her own ideas as to how she would do this. One sat and knitted woolly hats whilst watching her children playing on the beach. Another produced embroidered panels to let into the front of a bodice. Some would cook and sell the produce of their kitchens.
Some of the cottages have gardens and I know ladies who sold bouquets of flowers. One lady, Maggini Berl, decided to sell vegetables. In previous years she had grown a few carrots successfully, so decided that she would build on previous triumphs. She turned the entire garden over to carrots.
Now you might ask, how would the Sisters sell their produce? Now let us be fair to them, they had thought everything out. They would hold a ‘sale of work.’ Not only that but they would make it a fashionable event so that people came from Port Naain to visit. To ensure it was fashionable, they hired me to act as master of ceremonies. Then to ensure it was well attended they used blackmail. Each of the Sisters would contact family and friends. They would metaphorically twist arms, stressing how all this was for charity. I know some who threatened to reminisce about disreputable deeds folk had hoped were long forgotten. Either way a good crowd was confidently expected.
With a date to aim for, the various ladies were encouraged to greater efforts. In the case of Maggini Berl, she was both worried and delighted that her garden had produced a bumper crop of carrots. Not only was she doubtful about whether she could sell such a huge quantity, there was also the issue of them being at their best. Who wants leathery carrots? It was then that a friend suggested she make carrot wine. Maggini threw herself into the task. Sugar was bought in great quantities. Empty wine bottles were collected from friends. Demijohns were brought from Port Naain. Indeed once she had got into the swing of things, Maggini even bought in a few sacks of carrots from farmers locally. After all, for wine, you didn’t need the first quality, she discovered that if they were a touch leathery, it merely gave the wine body.
When the big day drew close, people started to arrive. Two days before the Sale of Work, I saw Maljie and her sister Margarita arrive. Margarita is an accomplished artist and had promised to put some pictures in the sale. In the general busyness I lost sight of them, and later I saw Maljie sipping a glass of carrot wine with Maggini. It was obvious that they were deep in discussion and glasses in hand I saw them heading off to the ice house.
Obviously I was busy. I had two carpenters making extra trestle tables for those ladies who’d decided they would exhibit their wares after all. To be fair, I’d been expecting this sort of thing, which is why I had carpenters and timber waiting. Then I was organising the pitching of tents (already booked by families determined to make a holiday of the event) and discussing logistics with the caterers who were paying the Sisters of Philanthropy for the privilege of feeding the putative hordes.
It was late the next afternoon that Maljie shouted me across from where she was sitting on the beach. “Tallis, take a sip of this.”
I complied, cautiously. The drink had a flavour of sweet carrot, but it was chilled almost to freezing point. It was light and refreshing, and as far as I could tell, was virtually non-alcoholic.
Maljie passed me another, smaller glass. “Now try this.”
This second glass was very different. The flavour was similar, but far deeper and there were considerable subtleties. I suspect that it was virtually pure spirit. It roiled in the glass. I looked at Maljie.
“So what have you done?”
“Freeze distilled it. I took some to the ice house and let it freeze slowly. Then I poured the alcohol off into one set of bottles, and the water, when it thawed, went into a second set of bottles.”
She gestured at the bottle she’d poured the first glass from. “The thawed ice produces a light, refreshing drink which you can serve at family meals, secure in the knowledge that the children can drink it with no ill effects.”
I pointed to the second bottle. “And what about that? I assume it’s the pure alcohol.”
She clutched the bottle to her bosom protectively, “This is the stuff worth drinking.”
During the evening I noticed that more and more of the Sisters of Philanthropy were sitting and chatting with Maljie on the beach, sipping from small glasses. I thought nothing of it, and because I was going to be busy during the following day, I made sure I had an early night.
Next morning as I walked down to the beach for a quick swim to wake me up properly, it was obvious that the evening had been a good one. Sprawled on the sand, surrounded by a litter of empty bottles, the Sisters of Philanthropy greeted the day with drunken snores. What could I do? I dragged an old sail over them leaving them to sleep it off, and got on with the Sale of Work.
You may wish to explore Partann further.
Hired to do a comparatively simple piece of mapping work Benor should perhaps have been suspicious when the pay seemed generous.
Will he ever get to the bottom of what is going on?
How rough is the rough justice of rural Partann?
How to clean out a privy with a crossbow. Welcome to the pastoral idyll.
As a reviewer commented, “All Jim Websters expected miniaturists eye mix of detailed world and character building, whimsy,keaton like madcap action and philosophy. Excellent as ever.”