A Closer Look at Greeming & Trulph

Les Sklaroff

From toad to Multingale - it's all in a day's work. And where Smirt rules, there's no room for larks.

The shop door opened with a melodious ping, gradually admitting a small boy walking backwards, his arms wrapped round a cardboard box which reached from waist to chin. Every few steps he had to perform an awkward hop as the box began to slip and needed to be pushed back up with a knee. Each time this occurred the contents of the box resonated with a mildly discordant tinkling, like a chandelier caught in a draught.

From behind the counter stepped Greeming & Trulph's newest recruit, with a welcoming smile. "Hello. Let me help you with that. My name's Myris. Goodness, I hope you haven't had to carry this very far." She rested the box safely on a conveniently low table. "Now, what can we do for you?"

Relieved of his burden, and still a little out of breath, the boy used a shirt-sleeve to wipe his brow. "Brix," he panted. "Noffar. Mida. Sez. Fican. Gerrifixt. Smine."

Myris handed him a tissue, which he accepted gratefully and used to mop his flushed face. She attempted a translation. "Your name is Brix?" He nodded. "And your dad said if you can get it fixed…?"

"Then I can keep it," Brix supplied, now somewhat recovered. He produced a slightly crumpled holocard. "Dad said I should give you this."

"Thank you, Brix. Well, we'd better have a look at what's inside the box." He nodded again. Myris glanced at the card, then pocketed it, carefully lifted the box flaps and peered inside. "Crimlings! This must be at least fifty years old!" She went to a drawer and extracted a small torch, a fine brush and a pair of calipers, and spent several minutes inspecting the contents of the box. Various sounds ensued: a faint whirring, a cross between a low whistle and a drumroll, a rapid progression of plucked chords, a silvery fluting which modulated into a resonant 'cello-like vibrato, ending in a diminishing series of husky coughs.

"Brix, I think you'd better take a seat while I have a word with Mr Smirt." She led him to a comfortably upholstered chair from which he could survey an entire wall of shelves intriguingly stocked with labelled containers, while she returned to the counter. As he waited, other assistants appeared from time to time, to collect or replace items, or to consult one of the screens behind the reception area.

"Mr Smirt? A boy has just come in with an early model Follard Multingale in need of repair. A boy, yes. I counted all thirty-two tubes, the fan is intact, and the central shaft is free from obstructions, but I think some of the magnetic prisms may be out of alignment, and a few keys seem to be loose. Do we have spares, in case anything needs replacing? Oh, good. Yes, of course, I should have checked the catalogue, I'm sorry. Yes, sir, local. Park Street West. I have, yes. No, he brought it in himself. Once it's working he'll be allowed to keep it, he says. That's what I thought, Mr Smirt, very lucky. Thank you, Mr Smirt." Myris keyed a printpad, which duly extruded a numbered ticket.

"Well, Brix, we think there's a very good chance this Multingale will play again. If you're happy to leave it with us for a few days, we'll see what we can do. A Multingale is a rare and beautiful instrument. It's self-tuning, of course. It may take you a while to learn to control it properly, but I'm sure you'll enjoy discovering what it can do. We'll let your dad know when it's ready." She handed the ticket to the boy. "Look after this, and bring it with you when you come back."

Brix beamed at her from the doorway. "Thank you, miss. I can't wait to tell m…." The end of the sentence was lost as he made his exit with a surprising burst of speed, but a yell of what sounded like pure glee could be heard above the dying chime of the doorbell.

The firm of Greeming & Trulph (Accessories) is still to be found in Snoak City's southside commercial district. There it occupies three floors of a stoutly respectable building in Welfage Road, and has managed to continue trading through the economic vicissitudes of more than two centuries. Regular custom has prevented the ground floor shop from stultifying into a museum, but it has retained the original crowded shelves, pigeon-holes, tiered drawers and display cabinets familiar to successive generations, and a characteristic complex of aromas which included beeswax, turpentine, sawdust and possibly hessian. Although their goods covered a multiplicity of categories, G&T(A) considered themselves specialists, in that they catered to very specific individual needs.

Where else would you find a device for retrieving objects fallen behind a heavy wardrobe? Or obtain replacement stands, flanges, handles, drive-belts, switches, wheels and spigots (all in an astonishing variety of sizes and materials) for equipment which though possibly obsolete is worth preserving? Perhaps you need to diagnose the health of a tree, repair a cracked stone, drill a right-angled hole, embalm a dead ant? Such problems are child's play to Greeming & Trulph, whose cumulative experience is seemingly limitless, and whose shop assistants, like Myris, are trained to be unfailingly calm, courteous and helpful to customers.

In the basement, no such decorum prevails. It is here that deliveries are received and recorded, goods sorted, repairs effected, orders checked, packed, addressed and despatched. As a functioning system it has grown to work reasonably well. Most of the half dozen staff have been there long enough to have learned to co-exist, and the banter is generally light-hearted, although Frotty Proxton's lamentations seemed to be drawn from an unfathomable well, and could be provoked by anything from a misplaced pencil to a change in the weather. In contrast, Ched Pellet, her senior by several years, continues to tell, at every opportunity, what he fondly believes are amusing anecdotes about his adventurous youth.

If the ground floor is the visibly placid duck, the basement is the strenuously paddling feet, where unseen entangling pondweed needs to be shaken free from time to time.

The duck's anatomy does not allow the upstairs offices to share the same metaphor, but here the atmosphere is less fraught. Wielding benign authority in this upper domain is the experienced Norry Smirt. Smirt had become an apprentice at Greeming & Trulph, partly on the strength of his evident intelligence, but mainly because as a boy he had shown an uncommon dexterity with string. Under the watchful eyes of Braithe Greeming and Scrythorn Trulph he had progressed from packing, at which he excelled, to sales, where he was duly respectful, then to stock management, which suited his orderly mind. He was finally promoted to his present exalted position, where he was answerable only to Nestra Greeming, now an elderly widow with little interest in the firm's day-to-day affairs, and to Plenitude Trulph, sadly orphaned after the unfortunate incident of the so-called 'aerial' baboons. Young Trulph, now in his twenties, was content to leave the firm's resources in Smirt's capable hands while he travelled far afield in search of previously unrecorded prehistoric rock art.

From his office window Smirt looked out on to the rear garden, watching the sculpted flaunts looping and spiralling among landscaped hummocks and pools. A movement under the far hedge caught his attention, and he had the brief but bizarre conviction that he could see the questing snout of a pangolin. At that moment his e-screen buzzed. He wondered whether it was Myris again, but it was Pellet informing him that an expected consignment of glassware had just arrived. Smirt thought about mentioning the putative pangolin to his two junior colleagues, but through his open door he could see that they were in deep discussion about an inventory problem, and chose not to disturb them. He rubbed his eyes, crossed the room, thumbed the slider and descended to the basement.

"Nine boxes of pipits. Mr Smirt, not one of them broken."

"Thank you, Pellet. Section B19, if you would be so kind. Top shelf, to avoid anything crushing them. And it would help if they were correctly labelled P-I-P-E-T-T-E-S, like little pipes. A pipit is I believe a kind of lark, and I'm afraid we have no room for an aviary."

"Understood, Mr Smirt. A kind of lark, you say? Ha! That reminds me of when I was with Zoony Filiver at Fodd's Crossing. It was just beginning to get dark when we saw this huge pile of what looked like fishbones in the snow, and Zoony said…"

"Another time, perhaps, Pellet. We've all work to do today. Ask Mrs Proxton to give you a hand with those pipettes, and don't forget about the labels."

Yes, Mr Smirt. Little pips. I'll see to it."

"Not pips, Pellet. Pips are for spitting. Little pipes. Pipes for, um, well, sucking."

"And blowing, Mr Smirt."


"Blowing. Like blowpipes. When we were kids we had this competition with straws. You'd chew a bit of paper until it was soft enough, then stick it…"

"Ah yes. Quite so, Pellet. Now, if you will excuse me, I really must…"

Smirt turned hastily and strode with some relief back to the slider, finding it disturbingly easy to picture old Ched Pellet as a jaunty, gregarious, carefree child; the kind that joined gangs and indulged in pranks, rather than the more serious kind (as he supposed he had been) who enjoyed pursuing more solitary interests. As he returned to the office he tried to focus his thoughts on his next scheduled task, but instead found himself wondering about the urban incidence of pangolins.

Pellet found Frotty Proxton deftly sorting a batch of small wooden propellers into a purpose-built tray, its compartments of different dimensions already tagged with their respective product codes.

"Frotty, my little sunbeam, Mr Smirt would like you to lend me a hand shelving some glass."

"Don't try to butter me up, you old wretch. What glass? And why couldn't he ask me himself?

"He was in a bit of a rush, poppet. Nine packs of pipits, no, wait…" He consulted a scribbled note. "Pip-ettes. Nothing to do with birds," he added helpfully.

Frotty frowned, looked up suspiciously to see whether he was trying to make a joke, then rummaged in her handbag, and withdrew a small mirror and an aromatic handkerchief. "I'll be along in a minute. Where's it going, this glass?" She dabbed carefully at various parts of her face.

"B19, Frotty. Right, I'll collect some labels, then load up and see you there."

She pursed her lips at the mirror, and for a few moments daydreamed herself back through the years to a sunlit party on a lawn. The sea glittered in the distance. She had allowed her little sister to weave ribbons in her hair. Her friends wore long flowery dresses, and they all giggled when the champagne cork popped, already a little tipsy from sipping cocktails under the polka-dot parasols. Later, with her back against a tree, she had kissed that handsome dark-haired boy with the green cravat. He had reminded her of the actor Trafford Croles. What was his name? Tulver? No, that was the pet tortoise. Her eyes abruptly re-focused. Now what on earth had prompted that surge of nostalgia? Then Ched Pellet's words echoed faintly, and she sighed as she made her way to the storage area. "Be nineteen, Frotty," he had said.

The Follard Multingale had been moved to a repair bench, awaiting the expert attention of Mosper Belk, a retired airship technician who also enjoyed music, horology and horticulture. He had almost finished work restoring the simulated croak of a mechanical toad, a repair job for old Crojent in Yarp Street, but he was distracted by the voices of Harvis Drile and Strappy Underfox from the adjoining sorting department.

"…not what I meant, Harvis. Anyway, they won't bend enough to fit comfortably. And there's no point in supplying any of the older ones, because…"

"They snap too easily. I know. Farglesharp would send them back with a letter of complaint, and you couldn't blame him. Farny's very particular about the quality of his materials."

"Of course he is. Remember the trouble with those blending sponges? So either we find a way to reinforce these things…"

"…or risk losing the custom of Farglesharp's Art Market, which would not please Mr Smirt. Let's see, what about a polymer bath to ensure pliability?"

"…and a spray coating, say, of powdered quartz?"

"Yes. Making each unit not only flexible, but strong…"


"…and mildly abrasive, so it could also be used as sandpaper."

"Good. Multifunctional it will be. Farny will appreciate that."

They moved away, allowing Mosper to resume his concentration on the toad-croaking mechanism, a fiddly affair involving a membrane stretched over a small drum which was struck by the rotating flaps of a kind of miniature paddle-wheel. This revolved by means of a concentric cog which engaged the freshly cut teeth of a new ratchet. Mosper relished his work. He regarded it as a form of healing, a re-awakening of functions that had been impaired. His sensitive, assured fingers made final adjustments to the tension of the tiny springs, and he realised how much he was looking forward to the satisfaction of working on the nearby precious Multingale, whose glorious musical potential surpassed even the most raspingly resonant of croaks.

Keeping the firm's inventory up to date, while still a vital and continuous task, was no longer the laborious process it had once been. Cabinets of bulky files had been replaced by neat portable e-screens on which any detail of the stock could be made available, and the work of an entire department of closely supervised clerks was now performed by Norry Smirt and his team of two: Raeni Lorium and Selm Irringer.

Both graduates of Sparagulan College, this dedicated pair had joined the firm independently some ten years previously, and had found the work so congenial and rewarding that the idea of seeking any other employment now seemed absurd. While they deferred to Smirt's experience, they had in common an open-minded curiosity and the stamina to worry at a problem until it yielded a solution. Raeni, tall, her long dark hair neatly pinned back in Pareonic style, had an unselfconscious straightforwardness that some found intimidating, but her grace of movement had always attracted admirers. The solemn-featured Selm was by nature more reserved, although he could be coaxed to talk with enthusiasm about almost any topic that had engaged his interest: the construction of ancient coracles from supple willow and hide, the fundamental importance of bubbles, the imminent extinction of native speakers of Chon… Raeni had been unexpectedly disarmed by his sense of humour, and there had developed between them a trusting relationship which contributed to their very capable teamwork.

"Trellis pins," Raeni announced. "Three types: self-locking, rectractable and quatrefoil."

Selm tried to read her teasing smile, decided it was attractive but oddly distracting, so put a hand over his eyes in order to concentrate. "'Self-locking' seems feasible, but I'm not sure that 'retractable' is a necessary option, so I'll say no to that one. 'Quatrefoil' sounds rather too fancy, too ornamental for such a simple device. I'll go for 'self-locking' only."

"Commendable logic, Mr Irringer," said Raeni. "'Retractable' was a bluff. But so was 'self-locking'. As you said it's a simple device, basically a plain brass rod. And 'quatrefoil' is certainly fancier, since it applies to the design of a decorative button - a totally different product, but also listed as a trellis pin."

"For someone whose integrity I admire, that is truly devious. A button, indeed. Well, the earliest known buttons were of course decorative rather than functional, fashioned from sea-shells. Bronze Age." She raised an eyebrow. "Excavations. Chandus Valley," he explained.

The game they were playing had evolved naturally from their work, and was designed to test their respective familiarity with the firm's extensive inventory of some hundred thousand distinct items. They played it only when there was no active update in progress, and Smirt was happy to allow such recreation, knowing it could only sharpen their skills.

Selm stood up and began to pace slowly. He found that movement helped his thinking. As he passed a window he glanced down at the garden, smiling approvingly at the languidly twisting flaunts, idly noting the glint of sunlight on the scaly tail of the pangolin curled under the privet. Raeni looked up expectantly. "Ready?"

"Working on it. Give me a moment." Something was nagging at the fringes of his memory, deflecting his attention. "Let's see. How about bottle traps? Are they height-adjustable?" He knew as he spoke that he'd inadvertently given her an easy one. Then he frowned. "Thought they were nocturnal," he muttered.

Raeni answered before he could pursue the thought. "I would have to ask whether you are talking about plumbing or collecting insects, but in either case I would say definitely yes. Doesn't the non-plumbing variety need to be hoisted into tree-canopies?"

Selm sighed. "Your're right, of course. It's just as well we're not playing for money, or I'd be seriously impoverished."

A winking light on the screen in front of Raeni signalled a requisition from Repairs, as Mosper Belk itemised the parts needed to restore the Multingale. She beckoned to Selm, noticing that some of the components were unfamiliar. "Rotary baffles are no problem, and of course we have oscillators and reciprocators, but what about these?" Selm peered at where her finger pointed. "Paracoustic grid. Hmm. And a quintillating coil! These are relics of an earlier age, Raeni." He resumed his seat, keying in the Main Index. "But we wouldn't want to disappoint Mosper. Let's find them for him."

Having completed his entries for the pipette consignment, approved the revised Farglesharp order and signed the invoice for Crojent's repaired toad, Norry Smirt settled down to what on balance he regarded as the rewarding task of selecting fresh stock. The principal sources were end-of-line clearances, usually either 'unbeatable' or 'exclusive', from wholesalers, or (usually more interesting) miscellaneous items which had been the property of enthusiasts.

If a visit to private premises was required, Smirt tried to ensure that the firm was represented by members of staff from all three departments. He had introduced this democratic strategy to boost morale, to serve as a learning experience, to allow for friendly conversation and occasionally to reveal initiative. It was also in some measure Smirt's way of compensating for the sterner discipline once exercised by old Braithe and Scrythorn, who had maintained a strict pecking order. They would have thought it dangerously lax to allow underlings such as Ched Pellet into a potential customer's home, but, as Norry Smirt had confidently hoped, outside the building Pellet's attention-seeking reminiscences had been tempered by a sense of responsibility which had carried through to his ordinary duties. In truth, everyone at Greeming & Trulph had benefitted from this more relaxed and inclusive régime. "They're a pretty reliable crew," thought Smirt with some satisfaction, as he resumed the business of the working day, of which very nearly an entire hour had already irretrievably slipped into history.

© L. J. Sklaroff 2014 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 00:57 Sat 22 Mar 2014
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