(123-01-31) Strange Lives Club
Strange Lives Club
Summary: Sequel to Cheese Club and Rhubarb Club. Fortunately all these societies have exactly the same membership and meet at the same time, so as not to take up too much time in busy schedules.
Date: 31/01/2016
Related: Previous meetings.

The sky above Oldtown is pale grey and intermittently drizzling, the summer's heat is worsened by sticky humidity, and such weather has done naught to improve the tempers of anyone obliged to be out shopping in it.

The red and yellow grocery shop which opens onto Oldtown Square has taken on an unfortunate aroma of wet customers, to disperse which the doors have been propped wide open despite the rain. There's not much of it, and it's coming straight down with no wind to send it gusting inside. Three or four customers are browsing, and another at the counter is making life difficult for the girl behind it by means of her excessive degree of pickiness about neeps.

Mistress Esme has meanwhile for a few minutes' relief from sitting on her stool taken up a mop and a bucket; she is making her way from the innermost corners of the shop to those open doors, eradicating wet and muddy footprints from her floor. In this as in all things she is eminently thorough, never missing a spot, occasionally lodging a request for sideways movement with a too-lingering customer and sweetening it with a personal word or two. She is wearing yellow today. A great deal of yellow, striped with a fair bit of green.

Camillo has a shapeless hooded garment of oiled cloth that serves to keep the rain off him while he's out about his errands, though he's been known not to bother with coats or cloaks in a light rain in days past. He slips into Esme's shop from the Oldtown side. He can't much help the mud on his boots, but he does note Esme mopping just as he steps in and stops just inside the entrance rather than track his mud all over the shop. "Good day, Mistress Esme."

At his greeting Esme sets down the bucket she was shifting to a more convenient position and looks up, the words "Master Camillo, good day to you" already leaving her lips in a tone of pleased recognition. Then she glances down at his boots, raises an eyebrow, twitches her lips, and with her mop still in one hand shakes out over the threshold the doormat she picked up out of her way a couple of minutes ago and puts it down again for his use. Her sandaled feet nudge it into alignment with the doorway, next to where he's standing. "What can I do for you today?" she inquires.

"I'm sorry about the floor," Camillo says, looking down and stepping onto the mat. "I can lend a hand in a moment if you like," he offers further. "But I came because the cook's joints are paining her, yet she'd like a pound of sugar and one of flour." He looks uncertainly back over his shoulder. "Do you think the rain is near stopping?"

Esme looks surprised. "Oh, not to worry," she says to the first, "I know it's a fool's errand trying to keep my floors clean on a day like this. But that's the sort of fool I am," she explains with a wry shake of her head. "Just wipe your feet as best you can and we'll call it done." Which is more handsome an offer than she'd make to a fellow who wasn't apt to bring her so much business, and then to settle the Hightower's account so promptly each month.

She sets the bucket in the nearest corner, out of the way with the mop inside and its handle leaning up against the wall, and wipes her hands on her clean white apron. Camillo may occasionally have seen her in a less than pristine apron in the butchery — but never, somehow, in here. "I've been watching the rain all day, and I don't believe it means ever to stop," is her opinion, delivered as she retrieves a small empty sack from behind the counter.

Camillo does as he's told, but he still hesitates to go striding across the floor, hanging near the entrance. "If I won't be in the way, I might wait a little while even so," he says, looking back once more, then at last to Esme. "It would be a shame to get the flour or the sugar wet."

Flour lives in one of the big wooden bins beneath the windows at the front of the shop; Esme herself, by eye, scoops what seems like about a pound into the sack. "You're not in the way at all, Master Camillo," she promises; "the wet's kept people away most of the way. We've had a very quiet time of it." And, indeed, the customer who was being served when he came in has already put up her hood and tchtch'd at the rain and scuttled away at speed along the Shambles, and two housewives have converged upon the counter in company and will soon be gone as well. Rush hour isn't so rushy after all.

There's a scale on the windowsill which matches the one on the counter, with the same row of weights beside it. Esme selects the one which weighs a pound. They almost balance. Another wee quarter-scoop does the trick. "Though if you are in a hurry, we might arrange something to keep them dry," she offers, glancing at him as she restores the pound weight to its place. They are lined up very neatly, those weights, spaced exactly an inch apart.

Camillo looks out the door, again. "Not such a hurry," he says. "She needs it for the morning, that's all. So I had to be sure to make it here before you close." He's let down his hood, now, and looks a bit neater than he ordinarily does. His beard is freshly trimmed, it looks like.

"Then you may as well give it a few minutes," agrees Esme, "and see if it clears… though I don't know, I really don't. I think it may be settling in for the night." She shakes her head and detours via the sugar (on a high shelf, away from marauding children) to her usual place behind the counter, where she sets down the open sack of flour and soon has the loaf of sugar (weight, one pound) wrapped up in a sheet of the usual cheap brown paper, and a ball of string in her hands to tie up the sugar-parcel and the flour-sack alike. "How are things with you, then?" she asks him round the housewives, who are sorting out with her shop girl's aid what goes in which basket.

"Fine, Mistress Esme," Camillo says, "Thank you. Is everyone here well?" Not that he's been away for so very long. But he seems to mean the question sincerely, all the same.

Setting his things aside neatly and wiping her hands again, not that they require it, Esme not only answers his question but apportions credit where it is due. "We're well, and we haven't done too badly overall this week despite the rain, I must say, thanks to the Hightower's custom." She nods in his direction and then enters into a dialogue on the subject of sewing tools with a young woman who has been browsing: thread is purchased, and a single shiny silver needle (those are kept behind the counter, with certain other items of value), and all of a sudden Camillo's the only customer left and the shop girl (addressed by name as Katla) is dispatched next door, as so often happens, to see whether she's wanted for anything in the butchery.

Camillo smiles slightly and shakes his head. But he waits until the other customer is gone to continue the conversation, so as not to interrupt business. "This is one of the most trustworthy shops in the city," he says. "I don't have to check your measures."

The most trustworthy little shopkeeper in Oldtown rewards him for that with an open-mouthed, eyebrow-furrowed expression of affected high dudgeon.

Then her face settles again into its usual undistinguished and indistinguishable arrangement of wrinkles and she shakes her head. "Check them as you please, Master Camillo; you know and I know it's no more in my interest to cheat a good customer than it's in yours to go elsewhere."

Camillo looks deeply worried for a moment that he /has/ offended Esme. He still seems uncertain when Esme speaks. "There are those who must be watched with a careful eye," he says. "But I think we all trust this place."

The poor boy looks alarmed. "And I'm glad you do," Esme promises him. "Enough to come inside—? Don't mind the floor," she reiterates kindly, "we'll be closing in a half an hour or so and the girl'll do it again then anyway."

"Perhaps I'd better leave my boots and coat near the doorway?" Camillo hedges. It's obvious he hates to think of making more work for anybody, whether it's Esme or her girl.

Esme looks him up and down. "You've mopped a few floors in your time, haven't you," she judges, smiling. "Well, do as you like." And she perches upon her usual stool, a hand twitching her skirts into a preferable arrangement in a gesture universal among womankind, from the Hightower to the Shambles.

Camillo takes his coat off and shakes some of the water out the door, then folds it and places it beside the mat. He removes his boots and leaves them sitting on the mat beside the coat, stepping into the room carefully. Now he's not threatening the clean bits of the floor, and he looks almost respectable in his new clothes. "I wonder what sells best in the rain, besides the obvious things."

The shopkeeper watches him with interest, especially when he reveals his new green linen tunic. He's never worn that before. She'd have remembered. "Oh, most things don't sell so well," she explains, "because most people think they'll put off their errands till the next day if they can rather than get wet. Though as you saw there's usually a bit of a flurry before closing-time, when those who've been watching the skies through the afternoon decide it's not going to get any better and they may as well just face it… That was," she narrows her eyes in recollection, "the busiest I've been all day, and that's the truth. On a fine day… Well, you've been in on fine days," she laughs. And occasionally hardly been able to get in the door.

Camillo has probably never worn anything that was deliberately dyed any color before. He finds himself a place to stand where he won't be likely to accidentally knock over any goods. Not that he typically moves in a careless fashion. "Well, I suppose it is all right if you have fat times to get you through the lean," he says.

Of course Esme, scrawny creature that she is, looks as though she has lean times all year round. But she nods, agreeing. "Oh, indeed. And of course, I don't rely on just the one business," she reminds him candidly. "No matter the ups and downs, there are always people with coin to spend and an appetite for meat — our regulars receive their daily orders, no matter what — and the girls who clean for me are busy under grey skies as they are beneath blue."

"I'm pleased to hear it," Camillo says earnestly. "There is little better resource than a kind shopkeeper who keeps the Seven in her heart." Apparently her faith matters to Camillo as well.

That appears to embarrass Esme slightly. "Oh," and she glances away, giving one of those dismissive shakes of her head, "I wouldn't go so far as that. A good resource for flour and sugar and sides of beef, to be sure." She hesitates. "I know all the tricks, of course," this in reference to weights and measures and the cheating of customers, "and I don't deny the early days were difficult — but I began as I meant to go on, and I've given neither my neighbours nor the Seven above cause to frown upon my dealings, I trust."

Camillo lifts his eyebrows when it seems for a moment she might say that she's dealt falsely in the past, but when she says she hasn't, he appears to accept that immediately. "You're right that it's wisest," he puts in. "It is worse to be cheated than anything, I think."

"Cheating the very people one relies upon for one's livelihood isn't only immoral, it's foolish," Esme opines, setting a double seal of disapproval upon such practices. "We intended from the beginning to settle down in Oldtown, and how could we have done that if we'd got a reputation for short measure?" She lifts her eyebrows. "As well stock shoddy goods. No, Master Camillo," she reassures him firmly, leaning nearer with her forearms upon her counter, "word of mouth is how a shop like mine lives or dies — and if there's anything wrong it will come out and be told in every kitchen in the city in no time."

"There are shady dealers who survive, but I don't know how," Camillo says. "But even if you had hard times to start, the shop seems in excellent shape, now," he says, an eye roaming over the goods displayed. "It is a fine location, worth whatever price you had it at."

"We were blessed indeed to find ourselves upon this corner," agrees Esme in a softer voice, as though even now she's appropriately thankful to the gods for guiding her and her husband's steps here. "When the opportunity arose I knew we had to buy, even though it was more than we'd imagined paying… I knew, somehow, if I could only have the shop on the corner, I could make it all back in a few years and we'd be so much more comfortable here. And the Seven, I think, saw fit to make it so." She sighs, giving her head a wistful small shake. Those really are very green spots on her yellow headscarf.

"Do you find," Camillo asks slowly, with a certain sense of taking care about the question, "That you get more traffic from the Undercity than you would like?"

The question imparts a certain hesitance to Esme likewise. She bites her lower lip, contemplating it as though it were one of those shoddy goods she was just mentioning, set out now on her counter. "I don't necessarily know, do I?" she asks. "…. Well, with the girls, one knows," she concedes, shrugging, "but apart from that. I might wonder, once in a while, but on the whole it's best not to. Anyone who pays on the nail and doesn't cause trouble in my shop is welcome to buy, that's how I feel. I don't ask those questions, Master Camillo, I don't feel as though it's quite my business."

Camillo lifts a hand to dismiss the question along with her response. "As long as you aren't harmed or troubled," he says with a single nod. "I only wondered how it might be for you."

Her expression softens into a smile. "It's kind of you to ask, Master Camillo, but the truth is I tend not to have trouble in here. I keep myself to myself," she explains firmly, "and treat everyone who comes in equally — I've never started any trouble, goodness knows — and I'm not near prosperous enough to be worth anyone's bothering with, if you see what I mean."

Camillo nods. "I understand what you mean," he confirms. Protection rackets and the like are hardly unheard of. "I'm glad of it. Sometimes…in the Undercity, as long as people feel they're being treated with respect, they'll be more well-behaved than one might expect."

Which is an interesting admission, coming from an upper servant at the Hightower. "Do you think so?" Esme asks quietly, tilting her head.

"I do," Camillo confirms with a soft bob of his head. "I think…some people become fierce in search of respect. The people who live there…they'll never get it with money or a fine position. Not most of them, not from most people. So they go another way."

Esme just looks at him. "I've been trying to recall, lately," she admits, "when you first came in… I've usually got a good enough memory for that sort of thing, but you, you're a quiet one, not a fierce one. You don't stand out. I should think a little over two years, am I right? That's about when I remember you, at any rate. Two years and a few more months…?"

"Something like that, perhaps," Camillo says. "I'm afraid I don't reckon the years closely, Mistress Esme. I have no shop ledgers to keep."

"I'm always looking backward or forward," admits the little shopkeeper, "what's been wanted before and will be again. I'm sure you are to a degree in your line of work, too… You may not keep any ledgers yourself," she taps hers, "but I don't doubt there's a woman somewhere in the Hightower who has charge of a linen book, and then there's a steward keeping track of every flagon of wine and every keg of ale, and your cook knows when she's running short for the morning well before they've taken it into their heads to decide what they'll have for breakfast. There's no magic in predicting the future," she chuckles, shaking her head, "to know what they'll want before they know it themselves. One only has to look at what they've wanted in the past."

"Oh yes," Camillo says. "And I have to keep track of it more now than I once did. But I never counted much before that," he admits. "I have a better sense of things in the last year or so."

"Mmm. That makes sense." Esme nods sympathetically. "There's not always much difference between one day and another, is there?" But she doesn't pry — oh, no. Except into his change of garb, a far more neutral subject. "That's a nice enough green," she admits, nodding to his tunic. "New, is it?"

"Not very much," Camillo agrees. He does return Esme's gaze, but it's hard to tell if he understands her suspicions or not. Then he looks down at himself when she mentions his shirt. "Oh. Yes. I realized…it probably isn't very good to my employers if I look disreputable. People ask if they pay me enough."

"I never assumed they didn't. Only that you're not married," the little shopkeeper explains, "and not used to thinking of such things."

Camillo smiles slightly at that interpretation. Apparently he prefers it to the assumption that the Hightowers are stingy. "You see a great deal, Mistress Esme," he says. "I never gave it much thought. But now my rank is higher…I felt I should at least not be a negative representative."

"Oh, most men are that way," Esme shrugs; "you get up in the morning and you're thinking of what's the first thing you've got to do, not whether the piping on your tunic matches your breeches. My husband would have put on anything at all if I didn't lay out his clothes for him. Edmyn's the same, of course." Her son tends to be dressed in plain, clean, well-fitted, well-mended garments of dark blue or dark green, beneath his aprons. Sober attire, compared with Esme's own preferences. "But I shouldn't have said you were a poor representative. You have very nice manners," she reminds him candidly, "and you're considerate and honourable in your dealings. That speaks more highly of the house you serve than a pretty tunic, to be sure."

"I'm glad you think so, Mistress Esme," Camillo says with a serious expression. "The Hightowers have been very kind to me and I would not wish to fail to repay them properly."

The shopkeeper's thin colourless lips form an approving smile, for she finds this sentiment praiseworthy in him. "I'm sure you do." Then she glances away out her windows, to the square empty of hawkers and their barrows, almost wholly bereft of passersby — and those few hurrying along as swiftly as may be, hoods up against the persistent drizzling rain. "I don't think I'll see anyone else in today," she confides, for Camillo himself was her last customer, and that was a good twenty minutes ago now; "I'm not throwing you out, mind, but I'll make a start on closing up." She slips down from her stool and raps her knuckles upon the connecting door next to the counter.

"Oh," Camillo says, looking out at the rain. "I don't want to stand in the way of your work. And it doesn't look much like letting up, does it?" He picks up his packages of flour and sugar. "The cook will be very pleased to have this," he says appreciatively.

"You're not in the way in the least — and it's a nice change, you know, to have someone to talk to besides the girl." And Esme has just time enough to lower her chin and lift her eyebrows, one sensible older person to another, before the said girl comes through from the butcher's shop, apron bloodied.

"Change your apron," Esme says to her first of all, "and then you may as well put up the shutters. I think we've done the best we can for today."

Already untying her apron-strings from about her slender young waist, already retreating into the back room, the girl utters: "Yes, Mistress Esme."

"Can I help you, then?" Camillo offers, gesturing with his packets to the shop in general. "To do the closing-up?"

"That is kind of you," Esme asserts, rather proudly, as though she personally has been bringing him along to such heights of courtesy. "But there's not enough work for three, there really isn't — not today at any rate," she chuckles, "when we've had the time to do most of it as we went along." Her girl reappears in a clean apron, settling a cloak about her shoulders; she has in one hand a pair of wooden clogs, which she puts down and steps into on her way out to see to the shop's colourful shutters. "There's always more next door," she nods over her shoulder to her son's butchery, "but then, the day's work isn't usually finished there till later. I step across and help usually when we've shut up on this side," she explains.

Camillo tucks the packets into the bag he carries with him, and goes to get back into his boots. Then he dons the coat over the bag to help protect it. "I hope you'll all stay dry and well," he wishes while he's still doing up the tie on the front of the coat.

The already dim light in the shop fades piece by piece as the girl closes each shutter and fastens each latch. Esme, behind the counter, is lighting an oil lamp which she'll carry upstairs with her in due course. "Seven keep you, Master Camillo, and I hope you shan't have too wet a time getting home." She pauses. "Do you mind if I ask you something? I know it's none of my business…"

Camillo looks up from his coat and blinks at Esme. There's a momentary hesitation, just long enough for someone as perceptive as Esme to notice. "Go ahead," he invites solemnly.

Perhaps Esme notices it, perhaps she doesn't. She gives no sign. "I've been wondering," she admits, still fussing with the lamp, "who it is who thinks you ought to find a pastime. Who they are, I should say, you did say 'they'."

"Oh," Camillo says, blinking thoughtfully as he tries to remember exactly who's been telling him so. "Well. A few people that I know. Another senior servant who works at the Hightower, now. I think Ser Desmond, the newly-knighted Northman, agreed. And perhaps one or two others of my acquaintance."

Nothing he says seems to ring any bells with Esme. She nods. "Well, I'm sure they're people whose opinions you trust," she allows respectfully, "but if you don't mind my saying so, I hope you won't go so far as to let anyone tell you you ought to be… different, if you see what I mean. That's all."

Camillo looks uncertain about that, pausing where he is. "I don't know what to think," he admits. "I think…I am not always quite like other people. I don't know in what ways I can, or should, change. But…I think when people say this to me it is with good intentions, at the very least."

"Well, there's something in considering if you can change for the better, and in seeing if you can please your friends without doing harm to anyone else," agrees Esme, "but just make sure that includes doing no harm to yourself, Master Camillo. You'll keep yourself in sight, I hope. There's nothing wrong with being a little bit different. It's not always an easy thing to be, in this world of ours, but there's nothing wrong with it," she maintains. Her quietly firm tone, in combination with her diminutive height, the wisps of grey hair coming loose from beneath her headscarf, and those work-worn old hands clasped upon the counter, gives her an air unavoidably grandmotherly.

Camillo touches the back of his head before he pulls up his hood. "I hardly know what to be," he says. "I've had a strange life, somehow. But maybe it's less strange, now."

Again Esme just looks at him and nods, and doesn't ask the questions she knows he really can't want her to ask. "You'll decide in your own time."

Camillo bows his head in response. "Thank you," he says, "For your advice. You're always kind to me." He lifts a hand. "Be well, Mistress Esme."

The girl comes back into the shop, stepping out of her clogs on the threshold and picking them up rather than risk the floor she knows it's her turn to mop. And Esme's hand lifts to mimic Camillo's gesture. "Watch out for puddles, dearie."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License