Photo Copyright: Jim Webster
Thorough Married by Jim Webster
There are many things about Port Naain which are not obvious to the outsider
and which we perhaps don’t talk about. It wasn’t until a stranger to the
city asked me about the large iron-hulled steamers that tie up at the deep
water berths that it even occurred to me to mention them. It’s because they
trade to the west.
Now west of Port Naain is an awful lot of ocean, with a few islands which
are perfectly adequate for marooning political rivals on but have very
little economic value. Then beyond them you hit large islands, some of them
being of a fair size. Some are or were inhabited, some probably weren’t. But
over some of them Port Naain exercises a degree of influence.
Don’t come to think this is the city building an empire. The city itself, as
represented by the Council of Sinecurists exercises an entirely benign
neglect of the topic. Individual merchants or associations of merchants have
over the years settled the islands. To be fair, Port Naain is not short of
potential settlers. Turn up at the Warrens or the Sump and offer people a
chance to eat at least two meals a day and have a roof that doesn’t leak and
they’ll be seriously interested in your proposition. Offer them a lifetime
of backbreaking labour, but on their own small patch of land, and you can
pick and choose amongst them. So whilst perhaps half the food eaten in Port
Naain comes from Partann or our northern hinterland, as much again crosses
the ocean in the iron hulls of these large steamers.
As a general rule, nobody ever goes there, except to settle. Similarly
nobody ever comes back, except as a crewman aboard the ships. Go west and
you abandon your past and enter a new world. But not everybody goes to be a
farmer. There are islands inhabited by natives who range in temperament from
placid and peaceful to fierce cannibals. Yet some of the islands have things
to offer the enterprising trader. Even cannibals can be persuaded to pick
the blossoms of various plants, drying them and trading them with passing
merchants for metal-bladed machetes and axes. These dried blossoms will be
sold for a high price to those who delight in drinking the delicately
flavoured and scented infusions they produce.
Once you arrive in the uttermost west, the large ships can only dock at one
or two ports. The islands are knitted together by scores of minor craft,
schooners, brigs or even smaller, which move from island to island. These
are licensed traders, most of whom arrived as farmworkers and realised there
were other options open to them. Then on many islands, certainly those where
the inhabitants are friendly, you will find a company agent. This
individual, although paid by one company, is responsible to all for ensuring
that the locals are not kidnapped and sold into slavery on one hand, and
that they don’t start eating traders on the other. They also have some
responsibility for encouraging the locals to produce goods suitable for
trade, and for ensuring there is a regular market that traders can attend.
Sneed Waterloop was appointed by an avarice of usurers to be the company
agent of the island of Watahoho. There is a school of thought that they
picked him because it allowed somebody to make a convoluted joke involving
his surname but I cannot vouch for this.
When Sneed arrived at Watahoho he settled in rapidly. He was a quiet,
unassuming individual, and was rather overwhelmed by the respect the
islanders, a happy laughing people. They were enthusiastic party-goers and
would think nothing of spending the entire day just sitting on the beach,
playing native instruments and singing plaintive native love songs. Whilst
he would agree that this was all remarkably quaint, Sneed had quotas to
meet. The locals were supposed to gather together, wash and dry, quantities
of various seaweeds which are sold in Port Naain as expensive delicacies. To
be fair to the usurers, they were willing to pay a fair price for the
seaweed, but alas, the natives had no use for money. After all it doesn’t
cost a lot to sit on a beach outside your rude hut and sing love songs.
Sneed struggled to get them to work at all. Food was plentiful, the fishing
was good, and the island was covered with food producing plants. There were
even small dart and coneys to trap for the adventurous. If they did any work
at all, it was because they liked Sneed and hated to see him looking
Finally Sneed realised that something had to be done. If he had only a dozen
settlers from Port Naain, he’d soon meet the quota. But of course he wasn’t
allowed settlers. Then it occurred to him, whilst he could not import the
inhabitants of Port Naain, he could perhaps breed them. After all, if he
married a local girl, their children would be at least half the way to being
the sturdy stock of Port Naain. Mathematically it was obvious that if they
had twenty-four children, he’d have his dozen settlers. Not only that he’d
be able to supervise their upbringing and ensure that they were ardent
Further consideration showed the problems of the scheme. It would take at
least twenty-four years to assemble his labour force, and probably a further
decade before they were swinging into full production. Somewhat despondent
he slumped down by the fire on the beach and listened to the love songs. Two
of the village maidens, realising he looked sad, snuggled up to him and
plied him with palm wine. It was then he had his inspiration. Why not marry
more than one wife? Two glasses of palm wine later saw a full flowering of
his genius, why not marry them all?
Next day he gathered the entire community together and announced that the
great masters whom he worked for had instructed him to take a wife. Not only
that but they were so determined to honour the people of Watahoho that he
was to marry every woman between the ages of eighteen and fifty, whether
they were married or not. After some thought, one of the locals asked “Are
you marrying them separately or all together?”
Sneed had thought about this one. “Definitely going to marry them all
separately, perhaps at monthly intervals.”
Somebody else asked, “So you’ll have a separate marriage ceremony for each
“Absolutely,” said Sneed. “Then after the honeymoon she can go back to her
husband if she wants.”
The details of the ceremony needed sorting out but Sneed was willing to
negotiate. Thus the usual ceremony was where the bride and groom were
feasted together with the rest of the community for two days. Then the happy
couple would retire to the honeymoon cottage for the next week, where they
would be supplied with food, including the fabulous honeymoon wine.
Admittedly it was just palm wine spiced with various herbs, but on trying it
Sneed found he rather liked it. During this week the rest of the community
could sing love songs on the beach day and night if they wanted. But after
the week was up, Sneed negotiated that everybody would collect and wash
seaweeds for a week until Sneed married his next wife. With that the whole
process would begin again.
Now the business went rather well. With reason to work, the community
comfortably achieved its quota and Sneed received a number of flattering
letters of commendation from his superiors.
If there was a fly in the ointment, it was that, as the years passed, these
marriages didn’t seem to produce any little Sneeds. At the end of a decade
he’d married every woman on the island, some several times. All of them had,
at some point, produced children, but none of these children could be linked
in any way to him. Still he was not a man to give up easily. He redoubled
his efforts, married them all again, repeatedly, until finally his health
gave out and he collapsed. He had to be carried onto a boat by his weeping
brides. Eventually the usurers decided that the best thing they could do for
such a loyal servant of the company, one who had sacrificed his health for
the good running of the business, was to ship him back to Port Naain to
You’d see him, wandering like a ghost around the wharfs, always looking
westwards, talking to anybody who’d just arrived. What finished him was
meeting on traveller who had news from Watahoho. Apparently his successor
had been talking to the locals about their customs, and in the discussion,
one of the locals told him about the spiced palm wine they served during
honeymoons. Apparently it acted as a contraceptive.
And now we’d better hear from Jim Webster.
So here I am again with another blog tour. I’ve released two collections of
short stories from Tallis and if you’ve enjoyed the one you just read,
you’ll almost certainly enjoy these.
So what have Tallis and I got for you?
Well first there’s, ‘Tallis Steelyard. A guide for writers, and other
stories.’ The book that all writers who want to know how to promote and sell
their books will have to read. Sit at the feet of the master as Tallis
passes on the techniques which he has tried and perfected over the years. As
well as this you’ll have music and decorum, lessons in the importance of
getting home under your own steam, and brass knuckles for a lady. How can
you resist, all this for a mere 99p.
Then we have, ‘Tallis Steelyard. Gentlemen behaving badly, and other
stories.’ Now is your chance to see Port Naain by starlight and meet ladies
of wit and discernment. There are Philosophical societies, amateur
dramatics, the modern woman, revenge, and the advantages of a good
So come on, treat yourself, because you’re worth it.