The Edge of Uneasy Virtue
K. Ryan, 2005.
Note: Forgiveness needed in advance for the footnotes. Also, the song Broken Hearted I'll Wander is not mine. It's labelled as 'traditional', so I suppose it belongs to Ireland. The lines that set this scene were, 'Polly was relieved. She didn't take to the girls. Oh, this profession could bring anyone down, but she'd gotten to know some of her town's ladies of uneasy virtue and they had an edge she just couldn't find here.' The whole thing takes place some months or weeks before Monstrous Regiment.
"Pint of shandy, w-wench."
Polly Perks worked behind a bar, and this, she supposed, made her a barmaid. Then again, barmaids were supposed to wear things that put what Polly didn't think she had to advantage, and they were supposed to smirk, and things. The sort of things that her mother had always warned her about without ever actually telling Polly what they, actually, were. Since this made barmaiding an Abomination unto Nuggan, and Polly could never see herself suggesting anything other than 'drink more water, else you'll be pissing blood tomorrow' to patrons anyway, she knew there was probably another name for her. (i) Besides, she was more of a grinner than she was a smirker, when it came to it.
Still, looking at the fine specimen of adolescent manliness in front of her (ii), Polly wished that she really were a barmaid, so that she could have a half-decent smirk handy. For some reason she only felt mildly insulted that when the boy had called her 'wench' it had been half a question. There was something refreshing, or possibly tragic, about the whole situation. Borogravia didn't have very many sons left, but it was nice to see that those who were still there didn't need their brothers to know how to walk into a bar by themselves. Polly had often wondered if talking the talk, walking the walk and making the arse of oneself had been mysteriously planted in them from birth. I'm a man, a man I am, and this is what I do.
Polly fixed him his shandy.
"'ta, sweetheart." There was that half-question again. More than half a question. More like three-quarters. Really, though, it didn't do to generalise. The collection of limbs, hair and grudge-bearing skin who was reverentially sipping his beer and lemonade as if it were 't'auld hard stuff' was not the archetype of all men. (iii) There was her father, for one, and Paul, for another. He was coming home on leave next week. This was a wonderful thing; some kegs needed hefting, and he would love the strange influx of pigeons that had been flying about the place lately. Probably be able to tell her exactly why they seemed to be migrating out of season, too, even though Polly did think the little tubes she could see attached to their legs had something to do with it. He was in ------(iv), right this moment. She hoped it wasn't raining.
Silence shouted at her. Polly straightened, not surprised to see Molly (v) 'Declare' Flanders leaning easily in the doorway, making people uneasy. Polly could see why; she was wearing red.
"What're you having, Clare?" Polly asked the question unthinking, then resisted the urge to clap her hands over her mouth and hide under a dimity scarf. Mol Declare was known for…declaring.
The girl cackled. It wasn't an ugly cackle. It was the sort of cackle that implied that things could be a hell of a lot better than they ought to be. "Bob," she said, to much groaning from the assorted Not-Bobs. "But I'm up for a hangman."
The shandy-drinker spluttered.
Polly shook her head, ducking down to fetch an evil little bottle. Her father had topped it up from his boot only that morning. "That stuff will kill you," she said brightly, as the other woman walked up to the bar and leant on it with one bare elbow. (vi)
Molly shrugged. "That's how you know it's good. Now, I would have ordered a Long Slow Screw Against the Wall," she said, with an easy grin, "but I don't think you offer that somehow, Poll."
Some of the whispered comments that were going around were so loaded they could have dressed themselves up and bought the Duchess. Polly blushed, she'd come close to graduating from Bar School Suspect (Yet Useful) Education. "'fraid not, Clare."
"Eeee, that's a shame." Molly was winking at her. "No crème de cake?"
"You mean cacao?"
"Oh, that too."
"Well, no. Bit hard to come by. We don't even have any cake. Or crème. Even for you, Clare."
"You're a charmer you are, Poll!" Molly was laughing, she was also leaning more—with both elbows. "To all's except you I'm just a plain ol' Moll."
Appreciative muttering. Polly shrugged. "Where'd you get the taste for hanged men, then?"
"Battlefield. Where else? I had a Johnny, once. Lovely fella. Dead now, 'course. Dressed myself in men's ap-par-rel to follow him, and everything." Molly sighed, looking no older then a charitable 25. "I was younger then, of course."
"Ap-par-el?" Polly poured the drink, carefully, so as not to dissolve the glass.
"Yep. Button-up drawers."
"But…that's an Abomination," Polly whispered, only to feel intensely stupid for saying so. It drew a yawn from Mol Declare.
"Them's easy to do, once you start, them Abominations."
Polly could believe her. The woman made moving a coaster look like an Abomination. She was five feet nine inches worth of urban legend, not that Munz could ever be called urban, or even legendary. Ladies who took up Molly's position (vii) were, of course, 'fallen', but Molly looked like she had willingly bungee-jumped off the edge of virtue and was still laughing as she went down. She made the uneasy look…easy, which was probably why most of the Great Grandmothers of Borogravia hated her so much. "So…what did you do?"
"Sweet Polly Oliver! Haven't you heard the song?" Molly eyed her drink, and something in it blinked back at her. "Broken hearted I'll wan-der," she sang, badly. "For the loss of my lover. He was my bon-ny li-ight horse-man, in the war he was slai-ain."
"Oh, slai-ain. Sorry, Clare."
"Yep. And the horse. Not to worry, pet. I was expecting it, you know. You really do have lovely hair."
Polly blinked, startled by the abrupt change in subject. "Er…thanks. People say it's my crowning glory." She almost flinched when Molly reached out and stroked a curl with a finger.
"Wish I had a glory."
Polly mentally stepped on the little figure in her head that, for some reason, wanted to mumble, 'well, you've got two, actually, plus….' "Your hair's not bad," she managed.
"It's boring," said Mol Declare, and Polly saw that she was right, not that anyone with nerve-endings would notice. "Well, Poll, I'm off."
Standing, Molly walked behind the bar and pressed Polly a shilling, smirking at her. "Sorry for not drinking, lovie," she murmured, "but I don't want to die just yet. I'll settle for that wall, me."
She left, as they say, as quick as she came.
Polly, watching, surreptitiously made rubbing motions, trying not to yelp.
Molly Declare had pinched her bottom.
(i) There is such a thing as prophetic reasoning
(ii) That's to say, big hands, bigger feet, general grease, emaciation and facial eruptions so volatile they should have been fighting Borogravia, which is definitely male but never exactly 'manly'.
(iii) The archetype for all men was, according to the Book, Nuggan. This was one area of holy writ that even the most devout treated with scepticism, however, as only a very select percentage of mortal men went around wearing underpants on their heads.
(iv) Polly was so used to censor mutilation it had become a permanent part of her thought-process, sometimes causing confusion when she spoke aloudabout ---- or west of ----------------------- .
(v) There always is one. Narrative demands it. Screw originality. (X)
(vi) Elbows have never been the most attractive of features, or even that funny, so this deserves remark, and an elbow someone remarks upon must be something.
(vii) Along with numerous others, har har.