(123-03-31) Oyster Club
Oyster Club
Summary: Esme and Camillo run into each other at the docks early one morning. They address the question of why some people grow and change and others don't; also, some oysters.
Date: 31/03/2016
Related: Many things with these characters.

Dawn comes early in summer — and two hours past it the day is promising to be a scorcher, and beneath a clear blue sky the city of Oldtown is striving to get its business out of the way before the sun can rise any higher.

Along Harbour Street, fisherman who were out all night are on their way to bed. Sailors on shore leave are on their way out of bed, poorer than they were the night before, but with exciting new hangovers to show for it. Fish is being bought and sold at a frantic pace, before it can spoil. The servants of the highborn and the wives of the lowborn are out in force. And, bobbing about through this early-morning human chaos is a bright yellow headscarf. It belongs to a small woman carrying a large covered basket.

Camillo is less conspicuous amongst the bustle, though moreso than he once was, since he now has a shirt with color in it. Still, he has a way of slipping through lines and among groups without disturbing the human waters around him. Until he appears near Esme in the crowd. "Good morning, Mistress Esme," he offers quietly.

His voice startles Esme; she turns in a quick blur of red and yellow and blue stripes, her basket over her arm and her other hand to her heart. "Oh! … Well, good morning to you, too," she declares cheerfully. It would appear she doesn't hold it against him. "What brings you out and about so early, eh? Hightower short of fish? I don't think much of those mussels," she confides in an undertone, nodding to the stall she just came away from.

"I didn't mean to scare you," Camillo says, bobbing his head apologetically. "Sometimes I just wake up early and I come down to the harbor," he says. "There's always something happening at the harbor in the morning that you can watch. And I got a piece of fish cooked up for breakfast. But I'm scheduled not to work today, probably."

"Oh, you only startled me," Esme insists in a chuckle, giving him as always the benefit of the doubt. He's such a nice young man. She takes a step nearer him so they won't be jostled apart by passersby; her basket serves as a decorous barrier. "Day off, then," she observes; "how lovely. What sort of fish did you have? Was it any good?" She blinks up at him with genuine curiosity. "I always give my son fish once or twice a week as a change from just eatin' up whatever's left over in the shop — but I'm not happy with what I've seen for sale this mornin'. It might be pork chops again after all, unless—?" She tilts her yellow head, awaiting Camillo's review of his breakfast.

"Oh," Camillo says. "I'm not sure what kind it is. I didn't ask. It had white flesh and was grilled up. I don't know if it'd be to your taste or not, Mistress Esme. I'm happy with very ordinary food."

Esme shakes her head at him. "If it was fresh and good and not too dear, that's all I'm lookin' for, dearie, I promise you," she laughs; "I ain't cookin' for lords and ladies and princes, am I?" Though the rumour on the seventh floor of the Hightower is that she did indeed provide viands for a picnic with Prince Dhraegon Targaryen a couple of weeks ago, and very pleased he was too. "Back the way you've come, then?" she asks. Her eyes lift in that direction; she nods in understanding. "Would you mind showin' me which?"

"It was cheap," Camillo confirms. "Didn't taste old." He turns and nods toward the stall, starting that way. "Well, I'm sure you have good taste in food, with the butcher's shop," he says. "You know quality."

"Aye, I do. Have to know it to trade in it," confirms Esme, falling into step beside him and just half a step behind, letting him lead the way. "… I used to work in a kitchen," she admits, "so I got into the way of knowin' the difference, and bein' picky about this and that. What's freshest, that's always the best, of course, even if it ain't the rarest or the most expensive…"

"So that's why I say," Camillo concludes, nodding, unsurprised by Esme's admission of knowledge. "I only cook a little. Always eaten whatever there is to eat."

"So many picky eaters in the world," points out Esme, glancing up at him with a quick smile, "it's always nice to meet someone who isn't."

Then they arrive at the fish stall whence came Camillo's breakfast. Esme proceeds, very sweetly, leveraging her age and sex for all they're worth, to cross-examine the proprietor regarding the quality and origin of his various goods. The result is three pieces of fish, wrapped and tucked away in Esme's basket upon a bed of ice she must have bought earlier; a small discount for quantity; and a free oyster shucked and offered across in its remaining half-shell for her to try, to settle the vexing question of whether she'll have a dozen of those too. She slurps it down delightedly.

Camillo accompanies Esme and quietly lets her do all the negotiating, making eye contact with the vendor only once during the process. He doesn't ask about the quality of the oyster right in front of the merchant, sure that Esme has her own process of negotiating and loathe to disturb it.

Esme passes back the empty half-shell to be dropped in the bucket reserved for such detritus and licks a droplet of brine from her lower lip. "Ah, now," she sighs, "that's from down Three Towers way unless I miss my guess, isn't it…? Aye, I'll have a dozen, dearie, but if you'll give me the loan of your knife we'll eat 'em right here." She looks to Camillo and nods, keen to include him in the fun; and for her second payment she receives the shucking knife handle-first and a compliment upon being such a discerning customer.

Camillo lifts his eyebrows when Esme says they'll be enjoying oysters now. "Oh," he says. "Is it all right?"

Round the corner of the stall is the high narrow table, more of a shelf really, where Camillo stood to eat his breakfast: Esme tucks her basket beneath it and, provided with a plateful of oysters, sets about the beastly business of shucking them with hands as determined as they are practiced. "D'you not like oysters?" she asks innocently, blinking at him. Then, with a sidelong glance to where the elderly proprietor is serving another customer, she adds in a much lower voice, "Better here, so if any of 'em are dead we can ask for fresh, see? Take 'em away and it could be anyone's fault. I don't mind payin' for a special treat like this now and again," oysters are not at all cheap, "but I want my money's worth, eh?" She quirks an eyebrow at him and offers him the first oyster, wet and gleaming in its half-shell.

"No, I'm pleased to eat them," Camillo replies. He doesn't seem picky about much, when it comes to food. "If you don't mind sharing. But I'm sorry it's always me taking advantage of your generosity."

"Well, it's your day off," allows Esme generously. And, to be frank, she has every intention of eating more than half that dozen, her breakfast having been somewhat abbreviated by a button lost from Edmyn's shirt and then the need to get out in a hurry to beat all the other housewives in Oldtown to the freshest fish. "It's nice to have somethin' special on your day off." She lifts the second oyster and makes similarly quick work of it and is already onto the third, greedy but very businesslike. "Seen anythin' interestin' this morning, while you've been lookin' round the harbour?" she asks in passing.

"Days off are still new to me," Camillo comments. But her question provokes a cock of his head. "Interesting," he repeats. "Well. I saw some partings that probably were meant to have happened before light, only the sun's coming up earlier now," he says. "I saw a sailor's wife come down to collect him when he'd been at gambling all night. She seemed like she would've been happier to find him with a girl than making debt markers. And there's a fishmonger called Lex I heard argue with his wife about whether their accounts are straight or whether there isn't a little something missing. I think she knew there was," Camillo reports softly.

Chewing her next oyster Esme listens with the liveliest interest in her clever black eyes. She frees another poor defenseless sea creature from its place of safety and offers it to Camillo; then, swallowing her own, already shucking another one, her mouth forms a rueful smile. "Aye, I'm sure she would've been," she agrees in a similarly low voice, "round here the girls are a sight cheaper than the dice… I know which one Lex is,” she mentions, without looking round at his stall, “I’ve dealt with him before; but today he didn’t have much for sale that was worth the eatin’. Trouble all round, it seems. Maybe he’s been tryin’ to hide it from his wife, so as not to worry her till things turn round,” she suggests. “Or maybe the stock is so poor because his mind’s on some new hobby he’s found.” She winks at him and lifts a glistening half-shell to her lips: just a respectable housewife out on a little spree, enjoying her oysters and her gossip.

Camillo is slow about eating his portion so that Esme can be sure to get all she wants, but he does eat. He looks slightly doubtful at Esme’s conclusion. “To tell the truth, I wondered whether it wasn't her who’d made the deficit.”

Esme’s eyes gleam. “… I misunderstood you, then,” she murmurs beneath the chattering and the haggling and the hawking all around them. “That’s more interesting, isn’t it? It always is with a woman.” She pauses, knife wiggling away inside the shell of a particularly tough oyster. “Now, with a man, it’s bound to be the same three things — one of ‘em or all of ‘em — but with a woman, it’ll be more personal, more individual in some way. You mark my words. It ain’t that we don’t do foolish things,” she explains, generously including herself with the rest of her sex, “but that we do them in our own ways. Usually. I’m not always right,” she hastens to add, “but goodness knows I see a lot of life, across my counter.”

“I suppose you do,” Camillo agrees. “It must be strange, watching the same people come and go for years. I imagine you learn a lot about a family by their orders,” he adds, looking thoughtful. “Things you can hide from your neighbors might be harder to hide from your shopkeeper.”

“I do pick up little things like that sometimes,” confesses Esme, almost apologetically, between oysters. “Though some people, if they want somethin’ out of the way, of course they’ll go to a shop where they’re not known rather than puttin’ it in a regular order. I always wonder if that’s what’s goin’ on when someone I don’t know comes in for one particular item and looks a wee bit awkward payin’. It does happen, now and again. Perhaps,” she chuckles softly, as though the idea has only just occurred to her, “I ought to get together with some of the others and swap our odd ones out. I’m sure we’d find it pretty amusing. Though of course,” she remembers herself, and sighs. “It’s not my business, is it? Not really. It’s just natural to be curious, I think. Here, have another one,” she suggests, passing him one of the few remaining oysters.

Camillo takes the suggested oyster and consumes it without particular delay, since there are fewer remaining now and Esme has had some for herself. “I suppose it isn't, but then…maybe there are times when someone would be grateful if you took note of a bad situation. If you could help,” he imagines, looking in the general direction of the shop. “I can't suppose you’d do anyone wrong.”

“… Well, I hope I’d try not to,” says Esme seriously, drawing back a little from her casual, confidential posture. Her back straightens. “But, you know, if it’s other people’s lives — you can’t always do anythin’ at all, can you? Might be taken amiss, might make it worse. I’m tempted sometimes to interfere, but I try not to unless I’m sure of what I’m doin’. And it’s hard to be sure.” She sighs. “Every action a person takes, well, it’s goin’ to have at least three consequences you don’t expect, and at least one of ‘em somethin’ you wouldn’t want. You might take that risk for yourself, but then, you might not want to for other people. You see?”

Camillo nods in his slowish way. “I understand,” he says. Then, predictably, he looks thoughtful. “I suppose it's impossible to know,” he says. “What will happen. Whether they will be grateful or angry. Whether you're mistaken. I'm bad at making such decisions.” He tightens the corners of his mouth and shrugs. “I usually err on the side of…not talking. Things come out wrong anyway. But sometimes people need the person who will talk, too.”

“… Now, someone who comes to me,” Esme goes on, “that’s different, of course.” She looks up from the oyster and the knife in her hands, to meet Camillo’s eyes and give him a little smile. “I’ve sometimes been able to put people in the way of makin’ a change or so in their lives, and I’m glad to do it… Amazin’, isn’t it, the way you can taste the very sea they were born in—?” She salutes him with the final oyster and savours the taste of it with a low ‘ahh’.

Camillo smiles a little in return, perhaps to acknowledge the nudges he’s had from her, and assure her that they are not unwanted. “I think you're very kind,” he concludes. Then he looks out toward the water. “Have you ever been at sea?” he asks. “I never have.”

And Esme’s smile broadens just a tad, in receipt of his message, before she looks to the fishmonger to catch his eye and compliment his fine fresh oysters. She takes a few steps along, away from Camillo, to return the knife she was using and drop a quick murmured word in his ear — his answer is audible, a cheery, “Right you are, mistress.”

Then, wiping her fingers on a handkerchief fished out of one stripey sleeve, she comes back to Camillo to pick up their conversation and her basket from just where she left them.

“Out on the Sound sometimes,” she says conversationally, “or along the coast a little way. My late husband had a little boat, a twenty-two-footer. A while ago now, of course.”

Camillo is nothing if not patient enough to sit still while Esme returns the knife and has her word with the fish seller. “A boat,” he repeats. “Did you fish with it? Or only keep it for…the pleasure of riding in it?” he wonders. “You know, His Grace Prince Dhraegon is said to be very fond of boats,” he adds as an afterthought.

With her basket restored to her arm, the fresh salty taste of her oysters still in her mouth, and a friend to chat with, Esme looks rather pleased with her morning so far. She gives Camillo’s arm a gentle pat to encourage him to stroll along with her, back the way they came: well, that’s the way he was going when she interrupted him, isn’t it? “Oh, we fished all right,” she chuckles. “Didn’t catch, but we fished… I know; His Grace has got some beautiful toy ones,” she says admiringly, “I’ve never seen my son so impressed. Master Flox and I’ve spoken of takin’ them out together on a real boat, but I don’t know if it’ll come to anythin’,” she muses. “He always did like goin’ out on the water when he was a boy. My Edmyn, I mean.”

Camillo is pliable as ever, easily brought along with Esme's movement. “Master Flox…I think he can bring most anything about. A truly good servant can do almost anything.” Camillo says. He pauses, then, looking Esme's way. “I…should perhaps tell you. He told me you are courting when I saw him last at the Hightower. It isn't my business,” he hastens to add, “But I think it's very nice. I don't know him especially well, but I think he is serious in his work and that says a great deal. I think.” He nods once, piece said.

At the word ‘courting’ Esme gives an amused little shake of her head, and a different kind of smile touches her lips. Fond. Almost… shy. “It ain’t a secret,” she maintains, looking back at Camillo after this moment taken to compose herself, “and yes, that’s what he calls it. I think it sounds a bit daft at his time of life, let alone mine,” her head tilts confidingly toward him as she admits this, “but there we are. It’s nice of you to say, dearie, and to try to put in a word for him. That you would, that says somethin’ too, eh?” she insinuates. “But, I’ll tell you what. He doesn’t need words put in. I know him well enough to think very highly of him all by myself. … Now, if you want to put in a word for me,” she chuckles, “please go to it.”

Camillo tilts his head slightly with a faint smile that is mostly in his eyes. “I don't think it's so strange. I think it's good, if people can…Well, it seems like obstacles get worse when you get older. The reasons to turn away. So I think…” He trails off, but his sentiment is plain. Then he waves a hand in a low gesture. “It's honest,” he claims. “Like it will be when I put in the word for you,” he says, and that is faintly teasing, to go by his expression.

“Aye, well,” sighs Esme, giving him a crooked sidelong smile as they skirt another fishmonger’s stall which is sticking out far too far into the way, “the gods only know between us we’ve a fair few o’ those reasons. I reckon you’ve met two of ‘em. But then, that’s what we have in common, too, isn’t it. So we’re just seein’ what we see.” She holds her basket close in against herself to keep it from being jostled by someone else passing in a great hurry, and looks up at Camillo. “D’you want to keep walkin’ along with me for a way? I don’t know what you had in mind for your morning; I’m goin’ home to open my shop, but by way of the market. There’s a special kind of onion I want,” she explains, “for the sauce to go with Flox’s lunch tomorrow. I don’t have any in — they’re not always easy to get — and if I can’t get hold of one today I’ll have to think of somethin’ else to make him.” She quirks her eyebrows. “I haven’t even asked after your plants yet, have I? That’s not very gracious of me, what with you puttin’ in a word and all.”

To be teased by Camillo is a rare experience. Esme appears to be enjoying it.

"Oh," Camillo says, nodding at Esme's invitation. "Yes. I have no special plans for the day. But the seedlings still seem to be surviving," he lets her know. And he smiles a bit. "I don't mind if you don't ask every time."

"Anythin' that's growin', changes," points out Esme as they continue together through the warming city streets, with fewer passersby to dodge as they leave the vicinity of the docks. "Anythin' that's alive, come to that — even me," she chuckles. "So that's why I ask, dearie. And I'm glad they're doin' well. Survivin', and puttin' out the odd tendril, just the same as the rest of us."

"Yes, I suppose that's doing as well as one can hope," Camillo agrees, bobbing his head. He glances up to see the path ahead of them as they go. "Do you think people always grow?"

As with all his questions Esme listens and answers seriously. Yes, she can walk and philosophise at the same time… "I'm sad to say I don't think they do," she admits. "Some people get so far and no farther — they become stuck where they are and that's the end of it, they'll be the same till they die. But I hope I'm not like that," she confides; "it's interestin' to me that, even at my time of life, there can still be somethin' quite new."

"Why is it that way?" Camillo wonders. "Why do some people get to grow and find new things while other people don't?"

A couple of steps later Esme muses: "I think some people are frightened of change. They find safety in what's familiar, and in knowin' that at any rate things probably won't get worse if they just keep on as they are. So their minds aren't as open to the good changes they might be able to make, as… someone who's not frightened of the bad ones."

"Are you not frightened by change?" Camillo asks, looking to Esme's face. "Do you think you are more brave about it than most people are?"

There's no hint of uncertainty in Esme's face. This in itself may be a hint. "Oh, p'raps I'm braver than some," she allows lightly, "but not as brave as others, to be sure. I know I'll manage, that's all. I always have done before."

Camillo furrows his brow thoughtfully. "I'm sure you'll always be fine," he says. "But isn't it that…everyone manages, until they don't?"

"I suppose that's true," admits Esme, "but knowin' you're goin' to manage, that's half the battle. It's no good goin' round thinkin' you might not, or worryin' what you're goin' to do, and so on and so forth. You have to get your head right or you'll not get anythin' else right." She adjusts her basket on her arm and lifts her chin slightly, walking along with a jaunty step, heedless of the trail of Gs spilling along the street at her heels.

Camillo squints a little, as though not fully understanding, but he nods. "I suppose you always have to try, no matter what," he concludes, perhaps unaware of how banal it sounds.

"That you do," agrees the little shopkeeper, whose own shopping is much on her mind as they arrive at the market she mentioned. "… Now, shall I tell you all about onions next, dearie?" she suggests with a quirk of her lips.

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