I always try to be helpful. After a life time doing this I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s all been worthwhile. Let me give you an example.
I was helping a patron of mine, Madam Halwhistle, run a soiree. At one point I thought the whole event was going to implode because she was in a bad mood with her husband. I tentatively enquired as to what the problem was. It appeared that Master Halwhistle provided labour to the various wharves. Obviously he never did anything so vulgar as to hump bags of grain himself, but he hired foremen and each would put together a gang. Master Halwhistle would then be approached by ship owners who needed a boat unloading and he would have a gang waiting on the wharf as the boat tied up. All in all an efficient system, the ship owners liked it because they knew there would be well trained labour waiting for them, the men liked it because they were kept in work and weren’t having to chase individual ship’s captains for their pay.
Unfortunately each week the men would all turn up at the Halwhistle residence to collect their money, each one armed with a chit from their foreman saying how much they’d earned. Madam wasn’t entirely happy with this, and her neighbours were even less impressed.
So when I offered a sympathetic ear Master Halwhistle made a suggestion. He’d send a clerk with the money, and I could set up an office under an awning and pay the men down on the wharf. The remuneration was generous for an afternoon’s work so I said I would do it, after all how hard could it be.
On the first day we tried it, the clerk, accompanied by two burly men openly carrying axes arrived at the barge. We went onto the Stonecutter Wharf and I set up an office on a crate. The clerk and his muscular comrades left and I started handing out money. Each man would step forward, proffer his ticket and I would pay him the sum on the ticket. Everything worked beautifully.
For the next two weeks everything went swimmingly
A Poet paying out money
Is an unnatural thing
But on Stonecutter Wharf
Wrapped in his scarf
Tallis Steelyard pours silver
And everything goes with a swing
But then we ran into a problem. The wives started arriving. The man would step forward, present his ticket, and I’d barely got his money counted out before some woman would swoop in, snatch it, and stalk off. I would look at the downcast man and he’d merely mutter, “It’s the wife.”
Now from my point of view this wasn’t an issue, but the foremen got together and approached me. It seems the men were beginning to mutter and there was rumbling discontent.
Now I couldn’t see the problem. After all, these men were complaining to their foremen about their own wives. If they couldn’t control their own households, they could hardly expect a poet to step in to restore order.
But the foremen persisted. Apparently this hadn’t been a problem under the old system as the wives had been loath to venture into Dilbrook. Thus they were forced to take what their husband claimed he had earned. Now they could strike at the source.
That night Shena and I discussed the matter. It was Shena who suggested the ‘aged mothers’. It seems that a lot of the men were not married but instead lived with their mother. These were often ladies of respectable age. So at Shena’s suggestion I invited these ladies to attend upon payday. But you cannot expect a lady of such age and implied gravitas to loiter amongst the crates. Shena was more cunning that that. We slung a tarpaulin between two piles of crates and put in some smaller crates as seating. Then we served infusions. The final stroke of genius was that Shena told the ladies that if they fetched cake to share, they could have their glass of infusion free.
The first time we did this there was nearly a riot as those living with their mothers feared they too would lose their entire wage packets. But this didn’t happen; mothers seem to be far less bothered about this sort of thing than wives. They seem to exert a more subtle and successful control. Not only that, but as Shena had suspected, the presence of the tea drinking matriarchs seemed to deter the younger women. The sotto voice comments along the lines of ‘Sort of woman who wears nothing under her clothes’ or ‘she really shouldn’t wear that colour’, and hints that the younger women ought to be providing cake for their elders was enough to put off anybody with delicate sensibilities.
That being said, women of delicate sensibilities are not married long to Port Naain wharf rats. The younger women acquired their own sheet of tarpaulin and boiled up some water of their own and suddenly there were two camps, glowering at each other. The senior tenants of Stonecutter Wharf approached me, complaining that they were forced to tiptoe around their own wharf, and it wasn’t even possible for a chap to swear when somebody dropped a barrel on his foot.
Shena pondered this, then on the next payday she dropped into the older women’s tarpaulin, sipped infusions and ate cake and suggested that it was a pity they only did this once a week. Surely they could make a little money for themselves and do it every day? There was serious discussion over the butterfly cakes and next week the ladies came every day. Word spread rapidly round the wharves that home cooking was available. By early evening the ladies were dividing quite respectable sums of money between themselves and a business was born.
Now the younger women had watched this, and were no fools. Nor, to be honest, were they as incapable as the older ladies had suggested. Within two or three days they too threw open their catering to all and sundry. The senior tenants were happy; the ladies were too busy making money to bother about what anybody else was doing.
The next payday went well, the wives were far too busy counting their own money to grab their husbands’ wages and I thought we’d got the matter settled. Alas no. A week later and the foremen gather to tell me the men are muttering that when they get home after a hard day’s work there’s no meal ready for them and if they want to eat home cooking, they had to queue and pay for it along with everybody else.
Shena suggested that we get the older ladies to offer cookery lessons for the men, so they could cook their own meal, but frankly by this point I’d had enough. I tendered my resignation.
I’m a poet
A transcendent bard
A flexible fellow
But some tasks are too hard