I have written previously about the Rattlestone Sisters of Philanthropy. But perhaps I ought to delve more deeply into the impact they inadvertently had on Rattlestone. This collection of perfectly sensible and modestly well-to-do ladies effectively recreated Rattlestone. But not necessarily as they would have hoped to.
One of the early impacts was on the local young women and girls of the village. They had a life path laid out for them. They would do what their mothers did, marry a fisherman, keep house, have children, be widowed young, marry again, be widowed in middle age, and then grow old alone. To be fair, it wasn’t a bad option compared to that of the sons of Rattlestone. The Rattlestone graveyard is interesting in that very few named males are interred there. The men of Rattlestone die at sea and their bodies, if found, are washed ashore in a condition where they’re no longer recognisable.
When the ladies of the Rattlestone Sisters of Philanthropy summered in Rattlestone, they didn’t bring domestic staff with them. Indeed many couldn’t afford them anyway. Back at home in Port Naain, they might have, ‘a woman who does’ but that was the limit to their extravagance. But now, on holiday, they rather begrudged time given to washing clothes and similar. So many would pay a handy local girl to do those essential domestic chores.
The system worked well. Young women earned cash! That’s something young men rarely saw, they merely had a share of the catch credited to them for their ‘keep’ and were reminded that after all, they were going to inherit a boat.
As time went by, the ladies who holidayed in Rattlestone gradually became more prosperous. Their husbands, working at their desks in various counting houses or other offices would slowly manoeuvre themselves up the chain of promotion and would acquire increased perquisites as well as an enhanced honoraria. Thus their wives, older, wiser and more self-assured, demanded more than just the occasional assistance from somebody who came in to ‘do’. They demanded a maid.
At this point who better to hire than the young woman from Rattlestone who they already knew and trusted? So a steady trickle of these women left the village and entered the world of Port Naain. As word got around about their capabilities they became more widely sought after. They had the toughness and self-reliance of Partann (dealing without squeamishness with whatever the cat had brought in or the dog (or child) had vomited onto the carpet without the Partannese habit of over-reacting. Thus if a male guest (I will not use the term gentleman in this context) made an improper suggest to a maid from Rattlestone, she would merely knock him down. A more Partannese maid would probably stab him multiple times. This causes all sorts of unpleasantness. In the longer term, these Rattlestone women would marry in Port Naain and settle down there.
But what about the young men of Rattlestone? With the young women of their generation disappearing, what were they to do? In the short term, the influx of summer visitors inevitably brought older daughters looking for adventure and younger widows or divorcees looking for consolation. Sometimes these liaisons lasted for longer than the summer season.
But some families did bring maids. Similarly others migrated into Rattlestone to provide the services the visitors expected. So the village expanded with bakers and similar trades. These tended to number a lot of young women within their workforce. A number of them were courted by local lads and married.
But just as the young women of Rattlestone took the attitudes of Rattlestone to Port Naain, the young women of Port Naain brought the attitudes of Port Naain to Rattlestone. More and more fishermen started running fishing trips for visitors, or providing a ferry service. The money was better and brought with it a greatly increased likelihood of dying in your own bed at a reasonable age.
The next turn of the social screw came when some of the Rattlestone Sisters of Philanthropy, older and more prosperous now, discovered they had social obligations they had to fulfil in Port Naain. But the children obviously needed to be sent out to Rattlestone where they wouldn’t get underfoot and could benefit from the fresh air and a more active lifestyle. The obvious solution was to send them with the maid. A Rattlestone woman born and bred, level headed and sensible, she could be relied upon to keep them out of trouble.
To an extent this was true, but not perhaps in the way the mother might have expected. A woman who could swim before she could walk and had spent her youth in and around boats automatically assumed that keeping her charges out of trouble meant going to sea in a small boat where she could keep an eye on them all. Minimally clad, if clad at all, a whole generation of Port Naain children were introduced to the joys of swimming and messing about in boats.
Now let us not forget, these are useful life skills. The young man or woman who can fetch a small boat up the beach through the surf is employable. Especially if they know the beach so well they can do it at night and without being noticed. Why on Domisa would a smuggler attempt to cope with both the corrupt authorities and established criminal cartels in Port Naain when he can just lay offshore and have his goods run up the beach by local experts who have excellent contacts in the city?
So as you can see, over the years, slowly and imperceptibly, Rattlestone and its inhabitants changed. I suppose it happens everywhere. But Rattlestone, being a smaller community, perhaps changed more quickly. Yet obviously the changes didn’t meet with universal approval. Bottos Varn was the individual who perhaps kicked back most vigorously against fate and the inevitable march of progress.
Bottos was one of nature’s curmudgeons. But under the influence of his wife, he managed to mind his manners and allowed himself to be both friendly and helpful.
Thus, one fine afternoon, after he and his wife had finished mending his net, he hung it from the two posts he, his father, and his grandfather before him, used to dry their nets. Then he and his wife went over the net one more time checking finally for any other problems that they might have missed.
A voice came from further up the beach. “I say, you, yes you with that damned big net. Don’t hang it there, you’re blocking the view.”
Bottos looked up to see a large group of ladies gathered around the incumbent of the Shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm. The Rattlestone Sisters of Philanthropy had retained their devotion to arts and crafts, and were always looking for new arts to explore. Their annual sale of work remained pivotal to their year. It was the preparations for this highlight of the social season that had drawn a party from the shrine. Maljie had personally supervised the scrubbing down of a number of mendicants who were considered presentable enough to serve as porters. Weighed down under their bundles of needle felting brushes, felting mats, punching tools, needles, finger protectors, great bales of suitable wool, books of suggested designs, half-completed projects, three-quarter completed projects, projects that ‘just need a few final touches’, the mendicants staggered through the pleasant spring sunshine. When encouraged with the words, “There’s nothing like a nice relaxing walk in pleasant countryside,” one was heard to mutter, “The last time I was this relaxed was when somebody suggested we relax by painting the inside of the shrine.”
It appears that as Bottos hung out his net, the incumbent was showing the ladies the techniques of advanced needle felting. At the time she was doing something with a rolling pin and a tube of felt that she had made earlier. Tearing their eyes, with considerable difficulty, from the demonstration, some of the ladies in the group had noticed what Bottos was doing. One of them was gesturing at him. He was immediately tempted to gesture back, but he didn’t. One reason for this was his lady wife was standing firmly on his foot. So he swallowed whatever retort he had lined up and he and his wife picked up the net and took it down to a set of poles well off to one side. As a way of signalling her approval, Madam Varn cooked a special evening meal. Bottos dined on meat. Given the prevalence of fish in the diet of the village, meat is something of a treat. And not just any meat. This was a nice cut of horrocks cooked long and slow with a lot of good vegetables. With this gesture she let Bottos know, in a way words would never have achieved, that she approved of his actions.
The poles Bottos had hung his nets from did have the advantage that they were not blocking anybody’s view. They had the corresponding disadvantage that they were out of sight. Later that afternoon, a group of the mendicants, deciding they were going to be fishermen, borrowed the net and a boat and went out to make their fortunes.
They and the boat were finally washed in with the evening tide. The net was also washed ashore, tangled and torn, on the rocks of the headland.
When Bottos asked, not unreasonably, who was to fix his net, he was told, in no uncertain tones, that he was a grasping oaf thinking only of himself. What about the poor innocent youngsters who had been terrified by their ordeal and could have been drowned?
Again, remembering the wise words of his wife, he swallowed several possible answers and next day Bottos, his wife, and her widowed sister, set too and mended the net. This time Bottos hung it out to dry on some poles well down the beach but easily visible from his cottage.
That night was a high tide with no moon. A party of juvenile smugglers (I am assured that they had no connection at all with the Shrine), who had gone out earlier, brought their boat in, riding in on the tide. Confused in the darkness they ran the boat up the beach on one of the larger breakers. This carried the boat into the net that Bottos had hung there.
The adolescent criminals panicked, shouting that it was a trap. They cut their way out of the net and fled.
Next morning, Bottos, his wife, and her sister, surveyed the ruins of the net. Together they dug around in the shed and pulled out the oldest and dirtiest net, wet it nicely and strung it across the family’s traditional poles in the middle of the beach. Then Bottos made his way to Port Naain. There he signed on with the customs authorities to act as an informer, keeping them abreast of smuggling activity for a small retainer. He also agreed to accept somewhat larger and more regular sums from various smuggling organisations within the city who tended to frown upon freelance competitors undercutting their margins.
It is entirely possible that you might wish to learn more about Maljie and the folk of Port Naain.
Three collections of stories about her are available. The perfect Christmas Present for friends you’ve just not seen for too long.
The Amazon links are
As a reviewer commented, “Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.”