July 26th – The Pantomime of Crustown

As with yesterday, today’s festival centres around a place that was once outside the bounds of the City, but which found itself surrounded as Buentoille grew fat. Unlike yesterday’s monastery, the village in the south west, Crustown, retained some semblance of autonomy for some time after it was conquered by absorption. For a time it maintained a ‘green belt’ of farmland around it, just a few fields, but enough to stop rampant development. Eventually these were bought up. They resisted paying taxes to the King for a time too, until the tax collectors came with soldiers in tow. They were never large enough to be their own district, but the village elder maintained a (mostly ceremonial) post as advisor to the mayor of Marked Forest, the district of which they lay within the boundaries.

It took a few generations, but at some point Crustown stopped being just Crustown and started being Buentoille, too. People moved in and out of the homes, and despite the fact that they still had the village hall and the church, named after the place and not a saint, there was no longer a community of people who were authentic Crustowners. When the old village leaders died it no longer seemed so important to keep the place separate, to keep the land in the families and stop ‘outsiders’ from moving in. Yet the village didn’t disappear entirely; it remains to this day in the form of street signs, some of the original buildings, and today’s festival.

There were originally several festivals, each performances or ‘pantomimes’ are they were more frequently named, devised by the village elders to keep the memory of this place they loved alive. Only today’s festival survives, the others lost to unpopularity and water damage. Some of them told the story of the village’s inception, based around a pub which then became a pie shop that mysteriously burned down in the early 12th century. There’s a plaque in a place that probably wasn’t where it stood. Some of the pantomimes related to ‘the incursion,’ as the villagers called it, i.e. Crustown’s annexation by the City. The one that survives, however, is less obviously about the identity of this little place. It’s a ghost story.

The first thing that happens in the pantomime is a large fire, a bonfire burned in a small courtyard, next to where the plaque is. This happened last night, actually. Today, the ghost will arrive, a soot-blackened man or woman with charred nightclothes. For today they will go by the name of Gruban Umplet, the erstwhile owner of the long-departed pie shop who was asleep above it as it burned down. Apparently he was an upstanding fellow, the kind of person who always paid his debts and treated others with kindness, giving generously to the poor in the form of pastry goods. He surely would not have become a ghost were it not for the curse placed upon him by a witch, whose familiar he had allegedly butchered and baked into a pie, mistaking it for a regular pig.

For all of today, the ‘ghost’ is given license to cause mischief wherever they choose, on the condition that when asked to stop they must pose a riddle to their arrester. Should this person correctly solve the riddle they must then submit to their instruction, and perform some boring task until midnight. This closely mirrors the original story, in which Umplet became something of a terror after his fiery death, but was challenged to a battle of riddles with a quick-witted farmhand (these quick wits were apparently news to her family and friends; she had hidden them well).

The ghost, who apparently still smouldered at the edges, traditionally asks the classic riddle ‘If I eat I grow, but if I drink I die, what am I?’ (the answer, of course, is fire). The farmhand guesses correctly, then asks the ghost ‘I appear twice in a day, I exist where the sea ends, but do not occur in ponds, what am I?’ The ghost answered ‘the letter “a”,’ but were told that they had got it wrong; the correct answer was ‘the tides’. Of course, had the ghost answered the other way, then the farmhand would have switched to the alternate answer. As recompense, the ghost was tasked with returning all the tideline debris into the sea until it was entirely clear, and is presumably still doing so to this day.

To keep things interesting, the riddles now change each year, and are set only by the ‘ghosts’ themselves. Usually the mischief-making involves the pilfering of small items from local shops, especially the pub where they will pour themselves several pints, or mix some damnable concoction from several bottles behind the bar. As a result, the landlady of the Querulous Dandy has become something of a dab hand at riddle-solving. Some ‘ghosts’, who are picked from a hat each year, push the envelope a little far and go about breaking windows or peeping into changing rooms; expert riddle-solvers are despatched post-haste in these situations, but less extreme ‘ghosts’ are usually allowed a little fun before their inevitable chores.

Quite often the tasks the Umplets are set are merely cleaning up the mess they’ve caused, or paying off their excesses through their labour, yet some folk are more poetic with their task-setting. In 1749 a pantomime ghost was told that they must sort 3000 dried beans in order of age, and another in 1631 was tasked with counting the number of dandelion seeds in an acre of grassland. More recently, in 2001, a ghost woman was given a toothbrush and thirty six stones, and asked to make a bag of sand.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Treacle Smiles
  • The Festival of Swinging All the Way Back Around and Turning Inside-Out
  • The Festival of Modern Music