Quiet into the night
The winter solstice is a major festival, a coming together for festivity, gift giving, over-eating, and in some cases, drinking more than is entirely wise. So children give presents to their parents. Normally husband and wife give each other presents as working out who is the head of the household can cause mutual embarrassment. Then employees give presents to their employer, families gather to give presents to the family patriarch or matriarch (the latter being the more common), the criminal classes give presents to crime lords, and mercenary soldiers give presents to their officers. In return the recipient of the presents will feast his or her subordinates.
As you can imagine this can involve a lot of running round the city trying to fit everybody in, especially if you’re a poet or a dunnykin diver. We get round this by not doing too much work on the day. So as they eat breakfast, the children will give their parents their presents. Then they will go to school and give something to their teacher. At the same time their father will go to work and present his boss with a present. There will be a nominal couple of hours work then the boss will halt everything for a lunch. Whether it consists of meat pies and bottled beer, or a four course meal accompanied by fine wines, depends on the nature of the employment. For the ladies it can be more complicated. If she manages the household she will have to be on call for the stream of chimney-sweeps, night soil collectors, and delivery boys, who will all wish to present her with a little something as a way of thinking her for her custom. She will, as tradition demands, offer them a ‘glass of something,’ and also as tradition demands, will take a glass herself so that she can drink to their good health and continued prosperity.
Once husband and children have returned home, the family will make their way (in some cases a little unsteadily) to the home of the family head where the process is repeated. Of course there are discussions, is the head of the family her parents or his parents? Annually, compromises are negotiated.
So for much of the day the streets are busy with cheerful (and in all candour, intoxicated) people going from place to place. But by the time the evening meal is served, the streets are empty. Only poets and lesser artists, desperate to greet one last patron, can be spotted, proceeding at a half run in the dark.
Traditionally, the evening of the solstice is wet, with drizzle or even driving rain. Perhaps one solstice in four is fine. As for snow, I can remember it on three occasions. It was the story of one of these that Hilary Anderson brought to mind when they talked about match girls.
I was making my way across the city. It was late and I was half running, half sliding, on the icy pavement. There was snow lying and there was even more snow blowing in. Visibility was not good. Then Mutt materialised next to me. “Tallis, I’m worried ‘bout the match girl. Her as sells ‘er matches at the top end of Ropewalk.”
Now here I venture into difficult territory. You will have noted in my description of the Solstice festivities that there is no provision made for the street children. To an extent Mutt and other ‘names’ among them will try to provide for their ‘people’. There are organisations which do try to provide something for them as well, but even they are forced to rely upon volunteers with no real family of their own to spend the evening with.
Then there is the issue of matches. Obviously it’s useful to have the ability to light a fire without having to worry about using burning glasses or flint and steel. A match will let you do that. But also it might spontaneously combust in your pocket setting your britches alight! I do carry a match on me. It rests in a tube of lead, which is capped with a carved wooden stopper. Wrapped around the tube is a piece of sandpaper. The idea is that if I get the match out of the tube without it taking fire, I will rub it on the sandpaper until the match explodes into flame. We also have a couple of matches stored safely around the barge, in case the stove goes out and cannot be resurrected.
But the combined convenience and dangers of matches have led to them being widely sought after, but only in small numbers. So we have the phenomena of the match girl. They will sell you one, two, or even three matches should you be so reckless. There are no ‘match boys’ as they are considered too inattentive be to allowed matches. But because of the nature of their trade, match girls are somewhat separate from the rest of the street community. They’re not entirely welcome in the lairs where children huddle together to sleep in safety. After all, the last thing you want is somebody next to you suddenly bursting into flame. Thus match girls live a somewhat lonely life.
I mentally reviewed my itinerary. I had seen the last of the patrons that I really needed to see. I was now headed for the home of Mistress Bream. She had invited Shena and me to spend the evening with her. It would be a small gathering, her family consisted of her, her son, Tyler, and her daughter-in-law, Illanthia. She would also have with her, Illanthia’s father, Crusher Tug. I could swing south, make my way down Ropewalk and see this match girl and then swing back again. I turned to tell Mutt my plans but he had already disappeared.
I found the match girl. She was huddled in a doorway, a dark shape against the snow. She stood straighter when she saw me, a potential customer. “Matches, Mister?”
“I’ll buy one please.” It was one more than I wanted and in all honesty it was probably one more than I could afford, but I had to start the conversation somehow.
She carefully took a match out of the box and handed it to me. I passed her a twenty dreg coin. She was definitely thin, and the paleness wasn’t just a reflection of the snow.
“What are you doing for the solstice?”
She looked at me as if I was a little simple. “Nowt.”
“I’m off to catch up with my wife and some friends, you could come with me.”
She looked at me warily. “Who are you?”
“’im as ‘angs round wi’ Mutt?”
I suppose I could be described in those terms. It’s not how I would describe myself on my business cards, were I ever to have some printed, but it was probably fair.
“You could put it like that.”
She assessed me coolly. “Yeah well, I got a business to run.”
At this point I could have looked meaningfully up and down the empty street, but if I had, I would have lost her. I merely nodded. “She’s a cook, you could probably sell her some matches.”
“If it’s Solstice, I should give her some.”
I held out a hand. “We’ll worry about that when we get there. My present to her is a poem.”
“Aye, they said as ‘ow you’re a poet.”
She took my hand, it was cold. We walked along, and after three steps I noticed she was limping. I looked down at her feet. They were bare and one was leaving traces of blood in the snow.
“Right, we cannot go on like this.” I opened my coat. “You sit on my shoulders, I’ll fasten my coat over your feet. Otherwise you’re going to get frost bite.”
I guessed she was eight or nine, but she was light for her age. With her settled and my coat fastened as much as I could, we made our way through town. Given the way the snow was getting heavier I decided to cut through the Sump. The narrow streets and overhanging roofs meant that the streets were freer of lying snow. They were also far emptier than usual. Even footpads and their ilk have mothers to visit on the evening of the Solstice.
I slipped into the house via the scullery door. As I entered the kitchen the heat hit me. Hastily I unfastened my coat. Illanthia appeared and helped the girl down. “Good evening, Tallis. And you are?”
“Lucerna. I am a match girl.”
Illanthia nodded as if the detail was important. “We’ll discuss business and buying matches when we’ve got you warmed through. She put a stool in front of the fire. “Sit here, I’ll get you both a drink. We’ll have you warmed up before you go to join the company.”
She mulled ale, left us to drink it in silence and disappeared. Ten minutes later she reappeared. “We’ve got some clothes that must have belonged to my sister-in-law. They’ll fit you Lucerna. Tallis can clear off out and join the rest of them and you and I can have a look and see if there’s anything you fancy before I throw them out.”
I can take a hint as well as the next man. Still clutching my mug I made my way through the house to where I heard the sound of barrel organ music. Tylar was demonstrating his latest barrel. I sat down on a divan next to Shena and listened. When the music finished, Mistress Bream turned to me. “And now I expect a highly coloured version of why you’re late joining us.”
“Well, apart from the usual problems of patrons demanding I stay just a little longer, I was sent on a quest by Mutt and had to rescue a princess.”
Mistress asked. “And the princess?”
“She will arrive shortly.”
“Shena, how do you manage to live with your husband?”
“I keep busy.”
“Entirely sensible my girl.”
Illanthia entered the room accompanied by Lucerna. The girl was wearing shoes and socks, a dress that almost fitted and she had obviously bathed and washed her hair.
Illanthia announced, “This is Lucerna, she is lodging with us.”
Mistress Bream drew herself up and said with great formality, “Your presence graces our company.”
The child curtseyed clumsily. “I got my own business but I said I’d help out an’ pay for my keep.”
“Your own business?”
“I sells matches.”
Mistress nodded sagely. “A useful trade. I know a lot of ladies round here won’t have them in the house and their cook is always having to send out for them. I have no doubt you’ll do well in this area.”
I too had no doubt the child would do well. Mistress Bream would ensure people knew and Lucerna would become the first port of call.
Illanthia turned to her husband. “Tylar, can you come and give Lucerna and me a hand getting the table set and the meal served. Then when that’s done the rest of you can come through to eat.”
With that she disappeared, and Tylar followed her hastily out. Mistress Bream regarded me steadily. “And that is the princess you had to rescue?”
“Indeed. She might have been lucky to live through the night.”
“It would appear she is a fiercely independent princess.”
I shrugged. “She is a lady with her own business interests. I have no doubt she and Illanthia will work together well enough.
Later that evening Lucerna and I would do the washing up. I noticed the rags she’d worn had been washed and were drying on the clothes horse in front of the fire. I nodded towards them. “You’re keeping them?”
“Yeah, well who’d buy matches off me dressed like this?”
Should you wish to spend a little more time in Port Naain you might want to explore some of Tallis’s other stories
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Includes the unexpurgated account of the Mudfold and Cockeren feud, the dangers inherent in light music, and how Tallis first met and wooed Shena.
As a reviewer commented, “The sheer ingenuity of Jim Webster’s short tales never ceases to amaze me as I work my way through this, and his other books.”