Having a ball

Port Naain has many quaint customs, and few quainter than the foam runners of the Three Mills Beck. It is not often they get to practice their esoteric sport but if they do, it is worth watching.

You might notice that on a river with eddies and whirls, you can get foam on the water. Sometimes, if conditions are right, the foam forms into a ball and sits atop the water. To be honest, you could watch some rivers for a lifetime and never see this phenomena. On others, perhaps once or twice in a decade if you were lucky. But on Three Mills Beck, whether by a freak of nature, or perhaps by the long forgotten artifice of man, it will happen most years.

The spotting of the first foam ball is a signal for great excitement. Immediately the ball is seen, somebody rings the bell at the Shrine of Aea in Her Aspect as the Personification of Studied Enthusiasm. Immediately the young men of the district sally forth, bearing their foam sticks. These wooden poles, twice the height of the wielder, are unique to the area. One end is forked and between the tines of the fork is woven a web of silk or cotton threads. The other end is somewhat like a shepherd’s crook. The use is simple, with one end you capture the ball of foam, with the other end you haul your colleagues out of the water should they fall in.

On most occasions the event is simplicity itself. Once the bell rings the game is afoot and each young man will scour the river for the ball. Once spotted, he will capture it with his foam stick and bear it in triumph to the small square outside the shrine where all the maidens of the area await. The young man places the foam ball on the head of the maiden who has stolen his heart and is rewarded with a dimpled smile, or in the cases of the more extravagant, perhaps a kiss.

But on some occasions the great bass bell is rung, and this tells those playing the game that matters are graver. Sometimes a foam ball can grow so large it starts to move, swallowing up other balls as it travels, until it may in point of fact block the beck, or at least break out into the estuary. This, the locals feel, must be prevented at all cost. Such a ball would draw the attention of the city to Three Mills. The inhabitants of the area would rather continue their traditional pursuits under a cloak of anonymity.

Should the great bass bell be rung, then the rules are changed. It is possible, if not actually necessary, for the contestants to cooperate. It is probable that it will take the careful efforts of several of them to jointly lift the ball of foam out of the river and carry it to the square.
It is at this point that difficulties can arise. Firstly, can all four agree on one particular maiden? On one occasion where the contestants did, this led to fisticuffs and the resulting brawl had to be broken up by baton wielding temple wardens.

Even if several maidens are summoned to stand close together so that the ball can be placed on them all simultaneously, there is still room for misunderstanding. Who exactly named which maiden? Why are there more maidens than successful contestants? Again acrimony can result. Not only that but whereas the maidens will normally dress in a particularly winsome manner so they look at their best when awarded the foam ball; should the bass bell ring, they will go home to put on their oldest clothes in preparation.

Over the years, variants of the scheme have been tried. At one point it was decided that the sport be restricted to married ladies (this was after one particular brawl that had to be broken up by men-at-arms hired for the purpose), but this fell into disrepute when it was noticed that due to a certain lack of dexterity and unsteadiness of hand, no married lady was capable of placing the foam on the head of her own husband.

Then they tried allowing the maidens to be the contestants. Here there was an issue in that the maidens fell into two schools, those who wished to capture the foam ball; and those who wished to look winsome, and had no objection to capturing the ball provided their hair was not disarranged. Eventually it was decided that the maidens may not have been entirely appropriate when some of them discovered that if they dressed appropriately and then got suitably soaked, they attracted far more gratifying attention than could have been achieved with mere winsome.

The older men were offered a chance to partake but turned it down on the not unreasonable grounds that whilst there were some dangers chasing the foam ball, they were as nothing to the dangers faced by the man who inadvertently placed the ball on the head of the wrong lady.


Should you want to know more of life in Port Naain

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As a reviewer commented, “I know, without any doubt, I’ll thoroughly enjoy any book written by this author – especially if it features Tallis Steelyard and Maljie collaborating to right any wrongs.
The blurb gives some hints but if that’s not enough to tempt, add three capering Prophets, a ‘demonic’ attack, a hair raising egress
from a rapidly descending balloon, creative bureaucratic archiving practices and … more … MUCH more.”

18 thoughts on “Having a ball

    1. I try to do one a week, but went to see my daughter up near Edinburgh and that threw the timetable.
      On the other hand I was walking with her when we saw the foam ball on the river and at least half the ideas are hers 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  1. We are a month away from the annual Beetley Rubber Duck Race, held on the small river locally. I might just be in time to suggest that they change this to a Foam Ball capture!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The advantage of rubber ducks is that you can rely upon them. They will be there on the day you want., Perhaps you could suggest a compromise and have a large sponge duck who would sink full of water and could be pulled out with one of the poles? Then you could gather the most winsome of the maidens of the community to award the sponge duck to?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You should rearrange your life so you have time to read it in a leisurely manner 😉
        I’m sure Tallis would even suggest a wine to sip as you read it


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