There are a few minor civic tasks I perform, treasured because they do actually pay, and even more for the few perquisites that accompany them. Take, for example, my position as secretary to the ‘Committee for distributing alms to the worthy poor.’
This committee was a minor sinecure, costing the Sinecurist a mere twenty alars. (A gold alar is a week’s wages for a working man.) But that worthy individual would solicit donations from his or her fellows and because it was considered a good cause, donations would be forthcoming. I’ve known the committee have over a hundred alars to hand out.
The procedure was simple, the committee would meet. A string of petitioners would pass before it, pleading their cause. They would be given a qualified approval or would be turned down. In the next week I would investigate those who had the qualified approval and check that whilst they might have exaggerated for dramatic effect, they weren’t actually lying. Once approved the committee would meet briefly to hear my report, and then adjourn for an excellent lunch. The committee members paid for their own lunch but would always invite me to be their guest so they paid for me as well. Then at the end of the meal, a small hamper would be prepared, along with a couple of bottles of nice wine, as ‘A sign of our gratitude that your lady wife has been able to spare you.’
So when Madam Galwart purchased the sinecure I rather assumed matters would continue as normal. But when she met me immediately before the first meeting she rather abruptly disabused me of my assumptions. There would be one meeting, followed by Lunch. Also I was instructed to address her as Mistress Ditty, as she wished to pursue her ‘charity interests’ under her maiden name.
Well the latter isn’t entirely unheard of but I wasn’t sure how the system was going to work. At the meeting itself she announced various ‘Housekeeping’ details. The first was that she felt that the Committee could at least provide a meal for those who served so diligently. Also she intended to made savings. Because the committee would only meet for the morning, the secretary’s honorarium would be dispensed with, as would the secretary’s presence at the lunch. She didn’t want to besmirch the good name of the committee by leaving it open to claims that it was wasting money on those who were not amongst the deserving poor.
It was at that point that I realised a verse I once penned, in the heat of the moment, had come back to bite me. It was after a bitter argument with two Sedan-chair bearers, a sommelier and the lady herself that I wrote
Toast of the City
It seems that she was not one who wished to forgive, forget and put the past behind her.
Still I sat at my little table off to the side of the room and continued to take notes. The first claimant was one Mona Galwart. A young woman of twenty, or thereabouts, smartly dressed and self assured, she showed a remarkable family resemblance to our Chair. Indeed once you realised young Mona was older Mona’s daughter, the resemblance and the self assurance were both explained.
Younger Mona explained that after gaining her degree at the University she had become interested in the poor of the city. As part of her interest she studied the work of our committee and suggested that we might have a problem in differentiating between the deserving and undeserving poor. (As an aside this isn’t a bad observation, and it was part of the reason for hiring me. But I feel that when you take a young widow who is faced with going into prostitution to pay off her late husband’s debts, give her a couple of alars, and overnight convert her into a respectable seamstress whose two children are a credit to her, then the committee might well have been doing something right.)
Older Mona looked positively excited by younger Mona’s revelations. She agreed absolutely and encouraged the committee to look favourably upon the proposals put forward by this bright young woman. The committee, largely handpicked by the Chair, did indeed bend a welcoming countenance toward the younger Mona and awarded her fifty alars to fund her researches!
As I took the minutes in a fair hand it did occur to me that buying a sinecure for twenty alars and using it to pay fifty alars to your daughter was a good investment.
The next supplicant to appear before the committee was Salman Hullent, currently the Superintendent of the city’s Insane Asylum. This post is also a sinecure but not, alas, a profitable one. You can make some small return hiring out lunatics to entertain folk at the less prestigious social events. There is also steady money to be made by providing superior services to lunatics from wealthier families. But as a rule the sinecure makes a steady loss. To be fair, sinecures aren’t supposed to be money making opportunities and most Sinecurists accept this with good grace.
Master Hullent explained that there were problems with the drainage and the cells in which the poorer lunatics were accommodated were perpetually damp. He wanted fifty alars to cover the cost of the necessary renovations. Personally I felt Master Hullent was ‘trying it on.’ Previous chairmen would have had their footmen eject him bodily from the premises. However Master Hullent had taken the precaution of being married to the younger sister of our Chair. She almost fawned upon him, lauded to the skies the good work he did for the poor, and the money was signed over.
It was at this point that the staff of the hotel where we were meeting came in with trays of coffee and sugar fancies. Madam instructed me to go through and see how soon they could break for lunch. I went through into the outer parlour to see a remarkably sumptuous buffet being laid out. The waiter in charge confirmed that it was indeed ready. He left and I closed the doors behind him, placing a chair across the handles so nobody could come in from the kitchen.
I confess that I was more than a little torn. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be paid. But equally obvious was the fact that all the money the committee had was already spent. I peered out through the window and could see a considerable queue of folk waiting to present their cases. They had less chance of getting paid than I had.
There are times when it does not pay to tarry in thought. I was wearing my long coat with the large inside pockets. I placed a bottle of white wine and a capon on my left side. This I balanced with a bottle of red wine and some sausages on my right side. Then I opened the door onto the street and explained the situation to the assembled deserving and undeserving poor. I intimated that I would leave the door open behind me and they might wish to silently avail themselves of the food that put out. With that I returned to the committee and informed them that the food would be another half an hour.
As I suspected, the sugar fancies had all gone and no cup of coffee had been placed on my mean table.
Madam brought the meeting to order. There was but one more thing on the agenda. She felt something had to be done about feeding the poor. She talked passionately about how important this was to her, and what a valuable part of the committee’s work it was. But she cautioned that merely giving the poor money was not the answer as they would only spend it badly. The poor had to be guided by the counsel of wiser heads, to ensure that they didn’t act against their own best interests. So rather than money she had managed to acquire a quantity of bread. It was at this point she gestured to a sack on the floor by her. I was instructed to open it and it was indeed full of bread. Madame proudly informed the committee that it had been donated by a number of bakeries. Looking at it and even surreptitiously prodding it, I’d guess that none of it was less than three days old. I was then instructed to take it out to distribute to the poor whilst the committee retired to a well earned lunch. I bowed low, picked up the bag and made my way out to the street, going via the outer parlour. It was empty. Not merely had the deserving and undeserving poor taken all the food, they’d stripped it of crockery, cutlery, furniture and indeed they’d even taken the rugs from the floor and the ornamental plates hanging on the walls. I accelerated my pace and disappeared down the first side street that I came to.
My cousin Thela is a temple dancer at the Temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. The temple has a soup kitchen and whilst the bread was old, soaked in a broth of vegetables, capon and white wine; it would go a long way.
Shena on the other hand, does an excellent dish of sausages in a red wine sauce that I am particularly partial to.
Oh, and whilst I have your attention, I could mention that I have finally succumbed to the demands that as well as poetry, I produce prose.
So a number of these stories have been collected and bound together to form a slim book called, “Tallis Steelyard. Shower me with gold, and other stories.” Some of the stories are of course are from this blog, some others have appeared elsewhere in the blogs of those who have been my patrons over the years. Some of the stories may never have seen the light of day previously.
Not only that but they have all been subject to the harsh scrutiny of an editor, the redoubtable Mike Rose-Steel, who has, perhaps unwisely, insisted that in certain places I allow the truth more room to run free. I am considering this suggestion and may ask for a second, and perhaps even a third opinion. There are times when one can have far too much truth. Veracity is good, but can, I feel, be overdone.
This work, a slim volume of almost infinite delight, is now available for purchase. Hasten if you will to