I was lying in bed one night, I had somehow drifted awake. I lay there listening to the rain drumming on the roof of the barge. Before I drifted inconsequentially back to sleep, one name occurred to me. Madam Nita Horsefall.
Madam Nita was, and here I must insist, is, somewhat older than me. I was a young poet when I first met her and confess that somehow we ‘hit it off’ from first meeting. She obviously liked my style of poetry which often gives the impression of being a little improvised, or even off the cuff. I confess to loving her wit and humour. But also she was a remarkably kind lady as well. She also had the knack of drawing personal information from you.
So I had barely been in conversation with her for ten minutes before she had elicited my date of birth and age. Almost gleefully she turned to the hostess and announced, “Fancy that, Agnes, your poet was born on my wedding day.”
From that day on, every year she sends me a brief note wishing me well on my birthday, and I send a similarly brief note wishing her and her husband all the best on the occasion of their wedding anniversary.
Still, I was a little surprised when I was summoned to her house. I had barely been admitted into the withdrawing room when she announced, “Tallis, I have to get younger. Quickly.”
Now this came as a surprise. Madam Nita has many advantages. Good bones, a love of active pursuits, and also her oldest children were boys. Nothing ages a lady more than daughters. Whilst she is still trying to be thirty something, they are desperate to be achingly sophisticated and twenty something. When a lady is introduced to you as younger than her eldest daughter claims to be, you know that matters are getting out of hand.
Tentatively I asked, “Why?”
“Because I’m expecting a baby.”
I confess this response, unexpected as it was, left me nonplussed. I offered tentative congratulations for this unexpected but happy event, but Madam Nita bushed them off.
“No Tallis, I have to have a baby because it will save the career and hopes of some poor young woman.”
I thought rapidly, “Your daughter?”
“Happily married and, although it has not yet been announced, expecting her own. So she cannot help.”
“And the young woman?”
“You don’t need to know those details, but there are some details you can help me with. After all, it’s common knowledge that you were born on my wedding day.”
Immediately I could see where she was coming from. “Personally I have always disapproved of child brides, you were far too young.”
She smiled appreciatively. “Good, you grasp the gist of my argument. But my husband and I have worked these details out on our fingers. We could gain a few more years if you were younger as well.”
I asked cautiously, “How much younger?”
“Ideally ten to fifteen years.”
I did a rapid calculation, “That means that Shena and I married when I was eleven and she was nearly twelve. I’m not entirely sure she will approve.”
“Well I always felt that Shena never looks a day over twenty.”
There is no comment a loyal husband may safely make to statements like this. Still I was not persuaded that this was a deception we could make in an entirely convincing manner. Also I felt that I had to raise the issue of Madam Nita’s daughter. The way Madam Nita was winding back the years, her daughter’s pregnancy presented an insoluble stumbling block. Indeed if the daughter wasn’t happy to join the conspiracy, she might face the embarrassment of discovering she was older than her mother. Whilst ever willing to assist a patron to the best of my ability, I felt that this was a task too difficult even for me.
I promised Madam Nita that I would give the problem a lot of thought. I went away pondering deeply, and was still giving it some thought a couple of days later when I drifted into the Shrine of Aea in Her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm. It was there that I found a number of people, clustered around drinking coffee. Maljie and her sister, Margarita, were both present, as was Laxey. Maljie was cradling a baby. Obviously as a man of wide experience there is a limit to the number of things I find incongruous, but frankly I would have been less surprised to find her clutching the severed head of an old enemy (Or even a new one). Still, the baby had a mother, who was present, and who was keeping a maternal eye on the scene. Then the baby was passed down the line of ladies, (as is the tradition in these cases) ending up with Margarita. She handled the babe with professional efficiency and announced that she intended to have twins. One now and one in another eight months or so.
The more I thought of this, the more it appeared that I had found a solution to Madam Nita’s problem. Why shouldn’t Margarita have the baby? In this case there would be no unfortunate finger counting, nobody would dare to raise difficulties, and, as Laxey said, it might keep Maljie busy as well. All in all the scheme had immense potential.
Thus and so, I put the new scheme to Madam Nita. She could see the advantages, but would the mother-to-be share our enthusiasm? There was only one way to find out, Madam Nita would have to discuss it with her. Arrangements were made for a meeting. Obviously the two ladies wanted somewhere where they could meet anonymously, and yet not seen to be engaged in some sort of conspiracy. Thus Ropewalk, in the pouring rain, was an obvious choice. Obviously Madam Nita had to have a reason to be out, and what better reason that she was going with her poet to look at potential venues for the meetings of a literary society she was contemplating founding. Hence I stood in the lee of a pie-woman’s cart listening to the rain beat on the tarpaulin and drip into the puddles in the street. At the same time the two ladies, indistinct in the wet gloom, walked and talked.
But finally it was agreed. I, sodden as I was, was the first to be told the good news. Once the baby was born, it would be deposited on Margarita’s doorstep. (I raised the issue of it being Maljie’s doorstep as well, but I was assured that there would be a note to ensure the child found the right parent.)
Later that day, before anybody had time to panic or to do anything silly, Madam Nita would arrive, congratulate Margarita, coo over the baby, and then she would introduce the mother. But not as the mother. Instead she would be introduced as ‘a young woman she had brought along, knowing that a nursery nurse would be needed.’
Obviously I discussed this with Laxey, who would have to help with logistics. Somebody would have to keep the street clear and ensure Margarita had chance to find the baby before the mendicants discovered it.
Laxey made a note in his diary, and I promised that I would get word to him closer to the time. It was at that point he made his final observation on the subject. “She did say she wanted twins, another in eight months or so.”
I explained that I had pressing invitations to visit Oiphallarian and other distant cities later this year. Friends I hadn’t seen, patrons whose patronage I had not enjoyed, for far too long. Hence I felt it would be unwise to rely upon me to arrange a second convenient birth. I felt that my life was complicated enough as it was without adding further entanglements.
Should you want to know more about Port Naain and Tallis Steelyard,
As a reviewer commented, “I never have to think about whether or not I should buy one of Jim Webster’s books, I buy them without hesitation, knowing I’m going to enjoy reading them and have all of them so far.
The characters, scenes, Port Naain, etc, are all believable, engrossing and the storylines cleverly constructed, even in the shortest of his tales.”