Many of my colleagues are prone to being a touch sanctimonious. “We are Artists”, they say, contriving somehow to give the word artists a capital ‘A’ and hinting that it should be written in italic as well. Me, I just write poetry and endeavour to make a living so doing.
I remember one evening I was supposed to foregather with Lancet Foredeck in the Mott’s Head. I arrived in what I hoped was reasonable time, bought myself a glass of their ale and sat down to wait. In the end Lancet never did arrive, but that’s an entirely different tale. What did come to pass was that the Mott’s Head became busy.
I’m not certain why, it isn’t as if there was anything particular to celebrate, but suddenly the tavern was so full that if you were to drop an epigram into the conversation, three people would be insulted before it hit the floor. My table was appropriated by two young couples, who to be fair did ask if I minded them sitting there. I immediately said yes because I suspected one of their number couldn’t be expected to remain standing much longer.
One of the two young men was talkative. His companion might well have been able to match him quip for quip in different circumstances, but he’d reached the stage where, if he grasped his beer glass firmly in both hands, he could hope to bring it to his mouth three times out of five. Still the talkative one explained everything. They were men hired to work on the new battery at Nightbell point.
Nightbell point is the furthermost westerly point of Port Naain. It’s where the ridge that the city straddles reaches the great Western Ocean. At Nightbell point the waves hit the land, young couples venture forth on romantic picnics and it’s where the battery sits.
It had been decided that the battery needed considerable attention. The pounding of the years had started to undermine it. So a scheme was drawn up, money was found and the work was commenced. Many of us would travel to the point to just watch the labourers toiling; you’ve never seen the like. Firstly they used barges and great hammers to build a coffer dam. When this was done the water was pumped out. Men went into the area behind the dam and dug out the silt and the mud and dug all the way down to the native rock. Then they hacked through the rock until they reached a seam that was sound. This was to be the foundation of the new battery. All this by hand and with cranes powered by men turning windlasses. Then they set in place great cut stones and behind the stones they poured concrete and built up a solid base for the battery to be built on.
It had been generally thought within the city that given the conditions, indentured labour would have been used. But instead they hired men with experience and a willingness to work, and these men could labour. They were well paid, well fed, housed in reasonable comfort, and they worked long days. Then, every so often, perhaps because the weather was rough, they’d be taken by barge to Port Naain, they’d have cash poured into their pockets, and they’d be let loose on the city to relax. And the two men I met in the Mott’s Head were doing their best to relax.
And the girls with them were an interesting pair. They both wore the somewhat low cut satin blouses that were a hallmark of their profession at the time. The dark haired one was a little older, but had a slight hardness to her. It was perhaps a necessary characteristic of her trade. Even as she sat down I felt she’d assessed and categorised me. Her companion, with a fairer complexion, appeared less sure of herself, and seemed to look to her darker companion to take the lead.
The two girls remained quiet, listening, the drunker of the two men merely stared at his glass in an almost porcine stupor, and the talkative one did his best to be sociable enough for all four of them.
Finally he asked what I did for a living. So obviously I told him I was a poet. He was fascinated.
“Tallis, I’ve never met a poet before.”
“You have led a sheltered life my friend.”
“Can you do some poetry for us now? I’ve never seen it done. How much does it cost?” With this he fumbled in his pocket and dumped a handful of coin on the table. He was rooting amongst it trying to find something suitable to proffer when his dark companion took charge.
“Poetry isn’t about money Ern, it’s art. Here’s a twenty-four dreg. That’ll do.”
She pushed the coin away from the rest of his money, pulled his purse out of his pocket and put the money back in his purse. With this she glared at me as if defying me to complain, but I smiled at her. She wasn’t pretty, neither was her female companion. If they’d been pretty I might have met them on the arm of an older man at some more fashionable venue. Like me she was earning her living selling what she had to sell, and she was giving Ern good value. “What are you called mistress?”
Ern answered for her. “This is Jeri. She’s alright. The other lass is Cloe and that’s my mate Vonny.”
I thought and then I said.
“Remember tomorrow or the day after
When your head hurts and your stomach roils.
Jeri protected you, guarded your spoils
From poets, panderers, beer and disaster.”
“Hey that’s good, that’s good, you’re in a poem Jeri.” He paused, “Can you write it down or I’ll forget it.”
I found a scrap of paper and wrote it down. I rolled it up and dropped it into the top pocket of his jacket. It was up to Jeri whether he still had it in the morning.
She smiled at me and pushed the coin across the table, and then she said. “Come on, it’s time we moved on, your mate needs some air.” With that she got them to their feet and out of the door. I confess I thought that would be the last I saw of them, two hard working young men, with the beer and the girls they’d hired for the evening.
I sat at my table for little while after my guests had left, but already others were casting covetous eyes upon it and I decided to move before another party sat down, trapping me in my corner. I made my way through the crowded bar, out of the front door, and nearly tripped over a drunk lying prone on the floor.
I looked carefully; it’s considered bad form to tread on another poet, or even to abandon them in this state. I recognised Vonny. Cloe was trying to drag him off to one side. I bent down to grip one of Vonny’s arms. “Where’s Ern and Jeri?”
“Jeri said she’d take Ern on, I’ve got to get this one back to the barge.”
“Back to the barge?” This was something I hadn’t come across before. Normally drunks try and avoid the wharves as there is too much risk of waking up in the hold of a ship with a career as a seaman stretching before you.
“Yes, he works for the company on the Nightbell, and they want their lads getting back to the barge at the Floating Wharf so they can get them back to work tomorrow.”
I looked at Vonny. I couldn’t imagine what sort of work he would be capable of tomorrow. If you wanted somebody to groan and tell you they felt like death, I’m pretty sure he could cope with that, but I couldn’t imagine him being capable of anything more constructive.
She dragged him a little further, but it was obvious she would struggle to get him to the end of the street on her own. At this point memories of my own previous delinquency flooded back to me and I thought of those who had, from the kindness of their hearts, rescued me from the results of mine own folly. It was obviously my turn to take charge.
“Right, we’ll move him properly. First let’s prop him up against the wall.”
This we did, eventually, and once vertical Vonny seemed to awaken somewhat. I got Cloe to stand on Vonny’s left and put his left arm across her shoulders, and I stood on Vonny’s right with his right arm across my shoulders. Obviously it doesn’t sound terribly poetic, but it’s the easy way to do it. Then I kept my left had ready, so the first sign that Vonny was going to vomit, I could grab the hair at the back of his head and point his face forward, so he wasn’t sick over Cloe or me.
It was in this manner that we made our way through Port Naain to the floating wharf. Now I have no doubt that some at least of you are wondering about my reputation. Here I am; the leading poet of my generation, in the company of a lady of negotiable affection and a drunken labourer. How could I look the city in the face after this sordid episode?
At this point I must confess that in my experience, that being a poet can excuse any number of minor transgressions. Firstly, patrons are almost disappointed if their poet leads a life of genteel probity. Poets are expected to be somewhat notorious, perhaps even a touch rakish. So even with Mistress Hanchkillian, if she were to hear about this episode, I would not merely tell her the truth, I would probably embellish it with hints of even more sordid episodes. At this she would laugh and tell me that the truth was never adequate for a true poet.
But still, back to the night in hand; we three adventurers made our sordid way to the Floating Wharf. We got to the head of the wharf, and there, sitting on a bollard, reading a penny dreadful by the light of a lantern, sat an elderly man with Pince-nez. He looked up at the sound of our footsteps.
“Oh, another one, fetch him down the wharf.”
The floating wharf is hinged at the landward end, but the seaward end floats so that it’s always at the same height compared to the side of a barge tied to it. So Cloe and I made out slow way along the wharf to the barge. Here our guide, Pince-nez consigned to jacket pocket, assisted us in lying Vonny down on a canvas sheet. By my count he had a round dozen comrades lying next to him, some snoring drunkenly, most just lying there. The old man pulled a vintenar out of his pocket. “Here you are, reward for safe return, who do I pay it do?”
Cloe stepped back and gestured to me. “Give it Tallis.”
I pocketed it and Cloe and I made our way along the wharf. At the end I tipped my hat to her and wished her good night.
I’d walked perhaps twenty yards along the road when I heard running feet behind me. I turned rapidly, keeping my back to the wall but poised to flee in necessary. It was Cloe. She grabbed my arm. “Please take me home Tallis, I’m terrified.”
I looked at her, “Cloe, I cannot see my lady wife being entirely enraptured if I were introduce you as a member of our household, however temporary the arrangement might be.”
“No just get me back to where I live, it’s just I don’t think I could get there on my own, dressed like this.”
I glanced round. In the shadows I could see figures watching us. This isn’t unusual, some places down along the river front hire night watchmen, other places provide a home for vagrants and other itinerants. They aren’t people I would regard as a threat, unless you were too badly gone with drink to run away.
“Where do you live?”
“Friendship Gardens, just off Three Mills Prospect.”
Well that gave me plenty to think about! I gave her my arm, on the grounds she’d seized it with an iron grip and showed no signs of letting go and so we set off. I took the longer route; I didn’t want to pass through the Sump, not with Cloe already nervous. My companion never said a word until we arrived at Three Mills Prospect. Here the area was starting to look somewhat more affluent. Now whilst I’m not going to say that ladies of her profession were unknown in the area, those catering for the cheaper end of the market tended to stay away.
“Where exactly in Friendship Gardens are we going?”
“Number seven; it’s the big house with the six dormer windows on the front.” We walked a little further and Cloe then asked, “Is it midnight yet?”
Given that I rarely possess a watch I wasn’t able to be precise, but midnight is the one hour that every bell in the city chimes. I’m not sure whether clockmakers and their like are prone to insomnia and cannot see why others should sleep when they cannot, or whether it’s purely some old city bylaw that they’re forced to comply with lest they lose sundry unnamed perquisites, but midnight in Port Naain can verge on the cacophonous. That a Cloe obviously didn’t know this indicated to me that she was a young lady who was either fresh from the rural areas around the city, or was normally tucked up in bed asleep by this time.
“No, midnight hasn’t struck yet, but it cannot be far off.”
“I promised I would be back for midnight.”
“Who did you promise?”
“Mistress Biggs, the Housekeeper. She gave me the evening off so I could ‘walk out’ with a young man.”
“So you work at number seven.”
“Yes, I’m a downstairs maid.”
I was beginning to grope my way towards understanding here.
“And you decided you’d add to your wages then Cloe?”
Cloe remained silent, I think she had spent most of the time we had been walking pondering upon what she’d decided and why. I tried again.
“So you have to be back for midnight.”
She responded eagerly to that. “Yes, I promised Mistress Biggs I would be and she’s kind to me.”
“Didn’t it occur to you that with the profession you’d chosen for the evening, matters could inevitably have meant you getting home late?”
She was dismissive, “Oh I hoped I could get it over with quickly.”
I decided that I ought to try a different approach. “Cloe, think about Vonny and Ern. They’re labourers and probably good ones, right?”
She was obviously trying to work out what I was driving at but eventually she said, “Yes I suppose so.”
Now then, I’ve got all the equipment they’ve got, but I wouldn’t be a good labourer, I’m a poet. My equipment is right but I don’t have the right attitude to be a labourer. Does that make sense?”
“Well Cloe, you’ve got all the equipment for earning your living on the street, but you don’t have the right attitude. Does that make sense?”
She was quieter for longer, which I thought was a good sign. The fact that she was still relaxed as she leaned against me and hadn’t tensed also reassured me.
“Yes, I see what you mean.”
We turned into Friendship Gardens and Cloe stopped. She reached over a garden hedge and pulled something out of a hiding place. “It’s my coat.”
She slipped it on and fastened it up. She now stood before me a slightly nervous housemaid working for a respectable family. “Do you mind walking me all the way to the door of number seven? Mistress Biggs will be reassured if she sees me escorted home.”
I escorted her half way up the side of number seven, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek and almost fled inside. I made my way home and showed Shena the money I’d earned for the evening and she just laughed.
Over the years I’ve been in many houses in the Friendship Gardens area, but I’ve never seen Cloe again. I suspect that even if I was in the house where she was working, she’d have managed to keep out of my sight. I presume she wouldn’t have wanted the risk me recognising her and saying something unwise. Yet everybody has episodes in their past they don’t want to be reminded of.
But I do occasionally wonder about her. By my reckoning she could have daughters of her own by now. But you know the old saying, “Why do fathers worry about what their daughters are up to when they’re put late at night? Because they remember what their mother was like at that age.”
For anybody who enjoys the tales of Tallis Steelyard, more are indeed available for an almost nominal sum
As a reviewer said, “In this entertaining book by Jim Webster, the reader is treated to the ins and outs of sedan chair racing in Port Naain. Sedan chair racing comprises of chairs, transporting various wealthy ladies of impeccable social standing, borne by fit young men called sedan chair bearers, which raced each other through the streets. The ladies are not at all good sports and all sorts of interesting cheats take place during these races which are bet on by those in the city with a propensity for gambling.
We are introduced to a number of intriguing characters. Mistress Bream is one, an elderly lady whose decreased mobility is depriving her of the fun and social interaction she yearns for. Her various supporters arrange to have a special chair with wheels built for her and Tallis, a poet and the hero of the story, is invited to visit and view her new acquisition. This is the start of an extraordinary tale the results in Tallis seeing Mistress Bream’s son chasing a pair of sedan chair bearers with an axe and being coerced into finding out what has caused this odd behaviour. Tallis’ quest for the truth of the matter leads him to meeting Mistress Graan, the wife of a local gangster, who wishes to be seen as more cultured. Tallis agrees to assist her with hosting a poets soiree and he soon becomes embroiled in her ambitions, including her desires with regards to the sedan chair racing in the city.”