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New Ceres Tontine Group, Seventh Meeting
The President of the New Ceres Tontine Group opened the seventh meeting with the litany. “Two dead by hanging. Three by knife. One by gun, five by carriage, eight by illness, two by drowning.”
The people murmured softly, concealing their delight.
Mary scuffed her feet, bored already. She had expected a celebration; the seventh meeting was only three days after her seventh birthday and she had stepped into the great hall in her new button-up boots proud as a peacock and ready to be celebrated.
Her mother had some sweet ginger for her and hissed, “Mary, don’t be a goose. You’re done with birthdays for the year.”
Her brothers, the five of them, all older, sat around her, keeping her safe in their circle. They spoiled her each birthday. They made her toys, found her treasures money couldn’t buy. There was not a lot of wealth in the family, which was why only Mary was signed up to the Tontine.
The coffee men walked around the auditorium with their pots, dozens of them in shiny satin coats, pouring the coffee with stony faces.
“Look at that fool,” Mary’s father said. “Does he think we don’t know he’s working his father’s business? There should have been a test for quality of character for entry to the Tontine, and that fellow would not have passed.”
The man’s name was Calvin, Mary thought. There was a boy at school called Calvin, and he often tried to hold her hand, though the teachers had asked him not to.
Calvin marched between the coffee pourers, watching them as if looking for errors. These workers did not make errors. They knew how important the coffee was.
“Hot coffee! Hot coffee!” Calvin called. The adults tutted and looked away.
“Why he thinks he needs to sell I don’t know. His father never sells. He lets the business sell itself. It’s coffee, for Ceres’ sake.”
Mary felt sorry for the man. He had no friends, no parents with him.
“At his age,” her mother said. Mary thought he must be more than twenty-five, because her oldest brother was twenty-five and this Calvin looked older.
Her father was as distracted as ever. Other fathers shook his hand; they said, “Good job of a tough business, Charles.”
Mary knew they called him an Alienist, and sometimes ‘New Ceres’ foremost alienist’, but she was not sure what that meant.
“I want to go to the Market. They are handing out sweeties, my teacher said.”
“Hush, Mary. Your great-grandmother will give you a sweetie at home if you listen carefully here.”
The President glared at them. “And greetings to our own Tontine Mary, the youngest of us all. Don’t the newshounds love you, young one? You’ll make us proud, won’t you?”
Mary shrank from the expectations of the people in the room. She was too young for such responsibility.
It was late when they came out. Mary was so tired the lights of the street seemed to twinkle like stars. She loved the stars. She didn’t like the newsmen surrounding her, asking her questions about her favourite doll, why she wanted to be rich … silly questions for men to ask a girl.
Her father said, “The next person to come near my child will find themselves arrested and up before the courts.”
At home, Mary’s great-grandmother clapped her hands in Mary’s face. “Don’t blink,” she said. She was so weak the effect was lost; her hands were slow and barely created an impact.
Mary had time to prepare. The old woman told her, “You’ve got good blood. No reason you won’t live forever. The women live long in our family. Much longer than the men. And we can look after you, Mary, keep you safe. Nobody can keep boys safe. The only thing I ask of you, Mary, is that you birth healthy children to keep our line. We’ve got Coopers going back to the French Revolution.”
Mary squinted at her. If she asked what that was, Great-Grandmother would tell her for a very long time. It frightened her, the idea of great age. She felt nothing but horror and revulsion at her great-grandmother. How angry her parents were at her demonstration of such.
“She’s sacrificed a lot to buy you a place in the Tontine. You should be grateful.”
The woman was so old, her skin was almost transparent, and Mary felt ill at what she called ‘the insects’ inside her; her beating heart pushing blood through her veins, crawling. Her hair was still dark and thick, though.
“You have a direct, verbal link going back hundreds of years. The main thing you can bring, Mary, is long life. You need to stay safe, for the sake of the Coopers.”
Great-Grandmother winced; her stomach gave her pain.
“I’ll bring you a cackeral, Grandmother,” Mary’s mother said. Mary decided to hide away. She hated cackeral, the fish they cooked for those who needed to go to the toilet and couldn’t. She thought the fish was full of bowel motions, and she couldn’t understand why anyone would eat such a thing.
She sat on her swing outside, feeling sorry for herself.
Her family loved her dearly, and she knew that should make a warm place in her heart. People told her love keeps you warm and your belly full, but she had to disagree.