It was a lovely morning in Launcelot: birds were chirping in the hedges, flowers were slowly exposing their gentler parts by unfolding dresses of near-infinite delicacy, and greengrocers were climbing down from their over-night trees to begin their daily toil. The sun had just risen in the East, and in the Northeast, another one had followed shortly afterwards, to the puzzlement of astronomers across town.
I was making my way down the Basketmakers’ Canal in a small motorsloop I had borrowed from a friend. The aim was to take Miss B. out on an excursion up the Brome to Chelsea Magandrica, where a newly opened teashop had got twelve cups out of thirteen in the last issue of Cordhamptonshire Tea Biweekly – a feat virtually unparalleled in living memory! The queues were predicted to be a mile long by noon, and therefore it was my earnest desire to get a good, early start.
The sloop – most unfortunately named The Empress’ Ladle – had been made ready the evening before for an all-day excursion, with butterfly nets, a selection of literature on interesting subjects, some tea in a thermos flask to see us off until we got further upstream, and a variety of other essential things. My friend’s macaw – named Prospero – was perched in the (furled) sail, arguing with the wagtails, fantails and lyretails that sat in the ferns on the walls of the canal.
I passed the Reginald’s Oak Café, and the smell of freshly plundered aubergines wafted over me. I was, of course, beset by an urge to buy some (that was, after all, the purpose of the smell in general and the promulgation of it outside the shop in particular). I steered the sloop to the canal side, had a boy tie it up for me, and placing Prospero on my shoulder, I entered the café.
The aubergines looked well plundered, with warm raspberry jam and mashed mangoes poured in as equal proportions as humanly possible over them. The whole thing was covered with a thin layer of dark purple meringue. I knew the eponymous proprietor of the café, and I knew that he was a man who knew his business, and kept his aubergines well plundered. I dare say that no one in all of Cordhamptonshire can quite plunder an aubergine like Reginald Oak.
“One pair of plundered aubergines for me, and one for my fair lady friend,” I told the boy behind the counter, he acquiesced, and placed them in a small basket for me. I wished him a fortuitous day, and went back to the sloop, placing the aubergines well out of reach of Prospero, who was a quite fat macaw – precisely because my friend seldom took such precautions – and therefore rarely left the rigging unless you carried him.
I had barely pushed the sloop out of the canal side and settled myself in the rear, before I heard a familiar voice issuing from across the canal. It was Miss B., evidently in a somewhat heated discussion, though the exact words could not be heard. I re-exited the sloop, and looked around. Her voice was issuing from the Duncan Mindbeasts’ Famous Ice-Cream Parlour on Dunnock Lane. As I approached, the discussion became clearer. Miss. B. was expressing her astonishment and outrage over something in a language that ill befits being written down and read by anyone with a gentle mind, whereas Mr. Mindbeasts had adopted a somewhat deflated tone.
I entered the shop.
“Well, I remain of the opinion that Sir Lucas is a carnivorous son of a haberdasher’s assistant, and we should register an official complaint about his behaviour,” Miss B. was saying, as I entered (though I have taken the liberty of replacing some of her words with less crude ones, so as not to scare away or offend any ladies or people with fragile nerves among my readers).
“Good morning, all,” I said, with as much cheeriness as I could muster, in an attempt to lift what I perceived as an atmosphere of gloom in the room. Miss B. sent me an unusually acrimonious glare, forcing me to take a step back. “What now?” I asked, “What on earth could be amiss to convert such charming eyes as yours into kernels of anger? Have they raised the tax on tea? Repainted the town hall again in one of those ghastly colours like pink or teal? Or is – the Empress’ forbids! – the 80s back in fashion?”
Miss B. gave me a forgiving smile, and said, “You truly live such an uncomplicated life. I envy your delightful optimism in the face of a grave and tumultuous future. But I guess you have not heard the news, and thus your smile is one of ignorance, rather than one of design.”
“As of today,” Duncan Mindbeasts interrupted, “I am no longer the only proprietor of an ice-cream shop in Brindean.”
His words, said with the gravity with which a juggler manipulates a set of balls which he know may at any moment mysteriously turn into grenades, sunk like unchained anchors into the Queen’s Square Docks of my mind, passing through the murkiness and shoals of sardines before settling heavily in the muddy depths where only those specially trained for the purpose and those in pursuit of the Madam Rothschild’s legendary pearl necklace, said to have been dropped at that very place, dare to tread.
A chilling sensation ran down my spine, and Prospero, who had been sitting on my shoulder, cheerfully chewing my hat, cawed ominously.
“There is to be… competition?” I must have asked, as I could clearly hear a voice similar to mine saying those precise words. All thoughts of the remarkable new tea shop in Chelsea Magandrica were dispelled before the enormity of what I was told.
“I was walking down Mint Street this morning on my way here,” Miss B. said, “when suddenly I was accosted by a young boy in an ice-maker’s apron who was giving away free samples of one of the most horrible concoctions I have ever put in my mouth. Putrid, stale, repellent, objectionable, cardboardy – I find all these terms highly relevant. Why, I had to go here immediately just to cleanse my mouth.”
“And the worst thing is,” Duncan Mindbeast said, “that this… this ice-cream (oh! lamentful language that lack suitable synonyms for even the most basic words!) is being sold at only half the price of mine.”
He wrung his hands on his ice-maker’s apron, and looked positively dejected. I had not seen Duncan this distressed since a shipload of pistachios sank off Aukness and he had to put up the dreaded “This item is most regrettably out of stock; hopefully this will only be temporary, and we beg our customer’s understanding and patience. As a small token of our shame over this state of affairs, we offer you a 10% discharge on all vanilla ice-cream!” sign over his famous Floating Pistachio Surprise.
“Who would so such a thing?” I asked. “And how did he persuade any shopkeeper to give up his stall for so paltry and underhanded a reason? Bribery? Threats? Inheritance?”
“There was no need to persuade anyone at all,” Miss B. said, in a voice like a caravel swooping down the Spanish Main. “The new shop has been opened at the back of Serafim Saville’s House of Seeds.”
“Serafim Saville,” I said. “It all suddenly makes sense.”
“Apparently he has opened similar ice-cream shops in Tilly-off-Brome, New Channel, and Sevenside this year,” Duncan said. “There was an article about him in the Low Quality Food Enquirer, which I of course read at the barber’s last week, and it said that he now has an seed-and-cheap-ice-cream empire that spans seventeen districts! He even employs a man with a cart in Welding!”
“Surely you mean that he has a cheap-seeds-and-even-cheaper-ice-cream empire,” Miss B. interjected. “I got some seeds for my chickens from him last year for what I believed was a good price, and they turned out to have been cursed by a witch woman in the South Seas, and three chickens ran away, breathing fire, before I realised what was going on. He refused to take them back, of course, claiming that the curse would kill anyone who took custody of the seeds a second time.”
“But surely,” I tried, “if he has so many shops, and it is popular enough to even have a mobile unit, the ice-cream may be at least partially edible? I mean, some flavours may be more tangible than others. Far be it from me to actually advocate this beastly business” – the stare Miss B. had given me had been similar to that which one might give to an erstwhile lover who, you discover, had starched all your underwear before leaving the house – “but ice-cream is still ice-cream, and I refuse to let even the purportedly vilest ice-cream in town go untested. I have a sloop waiting outside which will take us to Tilly-off-Brome in a matter of minutes, and we can taste it there without Serafim ever knowing.”
To make a long story short, we disguised ourselves as nuns, and drove the sloop all the way up Tye Bay and through the Wall Canal at Arcchester to Tilly-off-Brome and while the trip there was delightful, the ice-cream most certainly was not.
The moral of this story, which will be continue shortly, is:
To clear our mouths we had to eat
The aubergines – a tasty treat! –
For Saville left in both of us
A taste quite icecrimonious!