And now this story is award-winning!
As you might imagine, there are occasions when I can spend a fair bit of time kicking my heels in kitchens or other waiting areas. If I’m acting as Master of Ceremonies for a patron (whether my role is granted a formal title or not,) this enforced idleness isn’t something I’ll experience as I will be endlessly busy. Indeed as one elderly lady of my acquaintance once said, “Tallis lad, you’ve barely had time to spit.” She paused briefly and added, reflectively, “But why you’d want to is beyond me.”
But on other occasions when I’m merely one of those asked to entertain, I sit with the others awaiting my turn. Under these circumstances I much prefer to wait in the kitchens. Normally there are people working, and food is constantly being prepared, nibbles are sent out and glasses washed, and once you’re established as somebody useful or amusing, you are sitting pretty. It’s a bad night if cook doesn’t stick a plate in front of you and ask, “Do you think there’s enough spice in these?”
Also in a kitchen you get all the gossip. Everybody who is anybody makes it their business to be there. This isn’t just domestic servants but also tradesmen, the watchman courting a downstairs maid, and often the sedan chair bearers who are waiting to take the guests home.
It was whilst I was waiting for my cue that I sat chatting to Baldo Fortweight. It must be remembered that Baldo is more than just a sedan chair bearer; he is the elected overseer of the guild of sedan chair bearers. He is the man they look to should their case need presenting to the Council of Sinecurists, it is he who is expected to stand up for the individual sedan chair bearer should his trade lead him into trouble with the law. But he’s not some remote figure; Baldo carries a chair with his brother and they ply for hire with the others.
I teased Baldo that he’d got himself a cosy job for the night, sitting in a warm kitchen drinking coffee with the cook and a few others. He smiled and relied that it was almost as good as an adultery run.
Of course we all then wanted to know what an adultery run was. Apparently when your prosperous adulterer (male or female) wishes to attend a rendezvous at the home of their potential co-respondent, many will choose to arrive by hired sedan chair, thus enjoying anonymity. But after a night of illicit pleasure they don’t want to tramp the streets searching for a chair to get home in, so they will ask the bearers of their chair to wait in the kitchen until they’re needed, perhaps early next morning. Of course they have to pay the bearers of the chair they travelled in a generous retainer to compensate them for lost work. The bearers pocket this money and settle down to get a good night’s sleep in the kitchen.
The problem, from a sedan chair bearers’ point of view, is that these jobs don’t come along all that often, and Baldo as their elected representative pondered on how he could get his members more of these well paying tasks. Then he had his brainwave. He and his brother were carrying a person to a party, and as their fare disembarked, they asked Baldo for the token.
Now you may not realise, but all sedan chairs have a number. The bearers will normally have a couple of lead tokens with this number stamped on it. Thus if you go to a party where there are a number of hired chairs left waiting, when you want to leave you merely have to pull the token from your pocket and you’ll know for certain which chair is yours. A simple and eminently practical system; I commend it to other, less fortunate cities.
Then as Baldo handed over the token, the fare commented that they might not be the person going back in the chair, but even so, drop the new passenger off at the house where they had collected the fare. Also they were given a large tip because it was going to be an adultery run.
Baldo was struggling to grasp what was going on and so the fare elucidated further. Each person invited to the party had left their spouse at home. The guests at the party, after drinks and suchlike, would throw their tokens onto a bag and then everybody would pull one out at random. The person with the token would go to the appropriate sedan chair and would be taken to their tryst with an unknown but waiting paramour for the night.
Apparently Baldo had stumbled upon a particularly concupiscent group. It seems that in that set, the men would take the sedan chairs to the party on one occasion, whilst the ladies stayed at home waiting to see who arrived. On the next occasion the ladies would take the sedan chairs whilst the men remained at home.
Immediately Baldo realised that this arrangement was indeed heaven sent for his chair bearing colleagues. As their representative he felt he was duty bound to increase the popularity of the custom, thus giving more of his colleagues a chance to benefit from it. But how?
He gave the matter considerable thought and finally decided on a whispering campaign to bring the idea to as many potential enthusiasts as possible. So he and his colleagues would talk to lady’s maids, proprietors of tea shops happy to share a little scandal, those who dress a lady’s hair and others. Over the following weeks and months the concept of the ‘token party’ spread through Port Naain society.
Obviously many merely laughed at it. Others were shocked, even scandalised, but inevitably a few were drawn to it. Slowly these like minded souls sought each other out and gradually a number of hostesses decided that as these token parties were apparently ‘all the rage’, they too ought to organise one.
The problem is that they lacked the experience or expertise of the original group. Also they lacked the discipline. Hence things kept going wrong. Perhaps the party goer would neglect to explain the system to their spouse. This person might, or might not, be alarmed when the wrong person snuggled up to them in bed later than night.
In another case one lady waited for her husband to go on a business trip, before inviting her inamorato to take part in a token party. She went to the party whilst he remained at home in her house, waiting to see who would join him.
Everything went well until the gentleman of the house returned home unexpectedly in the middle of the night, to discover, to his surprise, a couple of total strangers wrapped in passionate embrace in his bed.
As we sat round the table discussing this, one of the maids commented, a little heatedly, that Baldo and his colleagues were undermining the sanctity of marriage. Baldo’s defence was interesting. In the case of one couple, the husband had gone to the token party. He’d never thought to glance at the number on the token when he got it from the chair bearer, and so when he pulled his token out of the bag he never realised it was the one he’d casually tossed in an hour before.
Due to a combination of nerves, excitement, and the darkness, he never realised it was his own house he was sneaking into. Indeed it wasn’t until dawn that the couple realised that the person in bed with them was the person who was actually supposed to be in bed with them. Baldo claimed that it had quite reinvigorated their marriage.
It did occur to me that you might, for some reason, be contemplating fleeing your employer/creditors/loved ones (delete as necessary)
If so you could do a lot worse than to purchase what is sure to become the definitive guide on the topic, ‘Tallis Steelyard, Six men in a boat.’
Alternatively if you just want a good story, then buy it anyway, it’s yours for £0.99