Now I know there have been mutterings. People have been asking, “Where is Steelyard and what is is he up to?” The rumours have been flying. I have fled the city in the arms of a rich widow, (can one flee in such a position?) I have been incarcerated by the authorities for crimes too heinous to mention, taken flight to avoid assassins hired by those offended by the pungency of my verse, or even worse.
But it is a dark secret and not one I would like shared widely. I have been forced to work for a living. There was no surfeit of coin swilling about in our family coffers and I have thus had to put pride to one side and ventured into the darker areas of commerce.
Now obviously one cannot appear the idle poet-about-town at one moment whilst being seen to engage in unremitting toil in a public place at another. So these matters have to be arranged to ensure that a fellow can be both discreet and discrete. Hence the Goldclaw Baths were the obvious place for me to take employment. Not at the Baths themselves you understand, but in the Kitchens below as a Kitchen Porter. Here I would arrive at dawn to tackle the mountain of dirty crockery left from the previous evening. That out of the way I and the other early starting Kitchen Porters would then assist the cooks preparing for the meals of the day. I would finish at noon, paid in cash for the long morning’s work. Also as my perquisite I was allowed a meal, a late breakfast, in the middle of the morning, and perhaps more importantly I could hand in my drudge’s garb and swim in the Baths before collecting my own clothes from the changing rooms.
Now you might think that this was very socially enlightened of our employers, thus enabling even the lowliest to partake of the facilities. In reality, the fact that you left your clothes behind meant they saved a fortune in petty theft and porters taking home food to feed their families. But it did mean that I emerged into the early afternoon with the stink of the kitchens washed off me. Thus when I went around my patrons later in the day, should any think to ask me how I spent my morning, I could languidly comment that I breakfasted late at the Goldclaw Baths and then swam for a while.
But one thing this employment has done is that it has reinforced my suspicion that cooks are, as a class, stark mad. By and large they are the sort of people who frankly should be issued with nothing sharper than those blunt round-nosed scissors schools issue to small children to teach them the futility of the lower orders aspiring to any sort of artistic creativity. Certainly they should not be allowed near sharp knives.
But as I pondered on this, I wondered how this came about and realised that this state of affairs exists purely because their employers are madder yet. Let me give an example. Our chief cook was Harrow. He was initially at least of a sensitive and delicate disposition. For him cooking was an occasion for solitary and silent creativity. So what with waiters constantly bursting into the kitchen and shouting that they wanted this or that, and if that, then with only a smidgen of the sauce, and the owner coming in and shouting that the service was too slow and customers were grumbling, one can see how he took refuge in the fortified wine used for adding to sauces. Finally he got to the stage where he couldn’t stand without two kitchen porters holding him up. At this point he was sent home in disgrace.
Next day he came back a reformed man and swore never to touch drink again. To be fair to him he didn’t, and in all candour I am surprised he survived a week. But he did. He had remained cold sober for nine days before he snapped and chased the head waiter through the restaurant area, brandishing one of the larger cleavers. The owner was, apparently, surprised by this turn of events.
Or then take Plumbottom, a strange case indeed. As cooks went he verged on unstable normality, his only foible was his love of plump women. So he used to make elegant little fruit tartlets which he saved for the waitresses, telling them they were light and airy and would keep them going. Their main ingredient seemed to be suet. I occasionally managed to acquire a tray full at the end of the day before they were thrown out and Shena would sell them to the Shore-combers. They loved them, reckoning there was enough in one of them to see a chap through a long day out on the sands in the bitterest of weather. Yet old Plumbottom was ensuring that each waitress ate three of four of them. They ballooned visibly.
To be fair, once one has spent enough time in the kitchens, the otherwise imprudent and self-involved world of the jobbing poet seems strangely sane and reasonable.