Never beneath notice?

I spend a lot of my time working in the houses of other people. It’s an inevitable side effect of my position as the finest poet of my generation. But my position is anomalous. I am not a tradesman to be restricted to certain rooms. Nor do I expect the housekeeper to assign an officious maid to supervise me and ensure I don’t walk muck into the front rooms on my dirty boots. Yet the tradesman may legitimately work in the master bedroom, a sanctum I make a point of avoiding. Similarly I am not ‘company’ but nor am I ‘staff.’

In many houses I have a degree of liberty below stairs. It is assumed that I will gravitate to the kitchen. Either because, if I am organising, I will have to coordinate things with the cook and her minions; or if I am merely performing, I’m out of sight and out of the way until I’m needed. This is expedient. A wise poet cultivates cooks and all those below stairs. I have chopped kindling, carried water, held things ‘just so’ and generally been useful. I have given honest opinions on the seasoning of stews, the stitching of hems and the cleanliness of a scullery floor. Thus when I venture into the kitchen I am regarded not as an interloper but as a potential asset.

This does mean that as I walk through Port Naain I will constantly stop to bid good morning to yet another lady. Shena has been known to comment that walking with me involves her being introduced to half a dozen different ladies who are cooks, housekeepers, downstairs maids or similar.

Now there are some in a household who are not really in the household. Attached to the kitchen is the scullery and in the scullery one finds scullions or scullery maids. Now in Port Naain, and I have no doubt usages vary, a scullion is a mere hiring who comes it to work for a period of time and is paid when they leave. In this they are a little like poets, or the lower grades of kitchen porter in the catering trade. Scullery maids, whilst still so far below the salt that rumours of this mineral are almost unknown to them, are on the staff and ‘live in.’

Scullion (if female) can hope against hope to hear the cook say, “She’s a good worker, I’m sure if I have a word with the Mistress we could take her on as a scullery maid.” A male scullion is doomed, the male entry to the household is as ‘boots’ or similar. The only route from the scullery for the male leads back into the outside world.

A scullery maid who is hardworking, pleasant and teachable can hope to rise. After all she legitimately enters the kitchen to collect items to wash and unlike scullions (who dine in the scullery) will be expected to eat in the kitchen, albeit at the lowest place at the table. It is not impossible that Cook will ask her to stir a pan to stop it boiling over, should the kitchen maid be busy. She is in the household and whilst her rise is neither quick nor inexorable, the role of cook or even housekeeper is not out of her grasp.

It was many years ago I noticed Beral. She was the scullery maid in a house I was summoned to perform at. I made a point of learning the names of all the staff, a technique that has served me well over the years since. Beral was unusual in two ways, one was her black cat. It wasn’t exactly a kitten but it was young. It stayed in the scullery with her but still, I’d never come across anybody else in domestic service who was accompanied by a pet. The other way Beral was unusual was the amount of embonpoint she displayed.  

Now this latter point is worthy of note. In every respectable house, the rule is that female staff dress with decorum. Madam might wander around the house in dishabille but staff, never. To be fair to the Madam in question, her state of undress was due to the need to have a proper fitting and the only full length mirror was in a different room. But there were red faces and one assistant gardener who had been asked to deliver flowers to the various upstairs rooms had to be hustled downstairs to the kitchen by a sharp-witted upstairs maid and given a large medicinal brandy to help him recover.

Still I seem to have wandered from the point, Beral was distinctly unusual. My first thought was that Cook would have a firm word with her at some point, but after I’d left, so as to spare the girl embarrassment. But I noticed that whilst her dress would draw comment in the street, nobody in the house appeared to notice it.

I would have thought no more about it, except that two years later, in a different house, across the city from the first, there was Beral, up to her elbows in the washing up, her black cat watching her from the draining board, and her blouse as revealing as ever. I nodded to her as I entered the kitchen and she said, “Good day, Master Steelyard.”
A year or two later I came across her in another house, still distinctly dressed and with her black cat. I confess I felt a little sorry for her. She seemed a hardworking and personable enough young woman. I would have expected her to have risen above the scullery by this time. Could it be that her penchant for low cut blouses was denying her promotion? After all, tucked away safely in the scullery she would be out of sight. Promoted even to kitchen maid, she might come into contact with family or even guests. This posed a problem. How does a gentleman tactfully tell a young lady that she is displaying too much bosom? I tried making oblique comments to cook and to the kitchen maid, but they gave the impression that they had barely noticed Beral and couldn’t bring to mind any distinguishing features.

Then I never saw her for a few years. This is not unusual. Domestic staff move on, and if they go to work for somebody who isn’t one of your patrons, then you lose touch with them. Also they marry, have families, and if you see them at all, it will be in the street as you greet each other in passing. But then I saw her again. By my reckoning it was perhaps fifteen years since I’d first seen her. I had been asked by Cook to collect a nice joint of horrocks on my way to the house. It was supposed to be something of a surprise for the master’s birthday, and so I slipped into the kitchen via the scullery door so I couldn’t be seen from the front of the house, carrying the joint. There in the scullery, busy with the washing up was Beral, her black cat watching her. Now it is entirely possible that she had acquired another cat. This one was far too young to be the one I’d first seen fifteen years before. I said, “Good morning, Beral,” and she turned and said, “Good morning, Master Steelyard.” Not only was she still displaying more cleavage than one of her social status would be expected to, she had not aged at all.

Now with scullery maids, they have a pretty hard life, and if they don’t get promoted to something easier, they can grow old prematurely. Certainly their hands, in water all the working day, will grow red and chapped. Yet Beral’s hands were those of a well-bred young lady who’d never had to do a day’s work in her life. I smiled vaguely at her and carried on with my errand. All the while I was desperately trying to work out how long I had known Beral. Had I miscalculated?
Over the years I still keep coming across Beral. I have only ever seen her in a scullery, normally with both arms in hot water up to the elbows. Then a few weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine, Andeal Quillabin. He’s an artist. A painter and a good one. He was commenting that he had a new project. He wanted to paint domestic servants and similar. He felt that this would allow him to shine a light on parts of Port Naain a lot of people didn’t see. So immediately and for no reason I can put a finger on. I suggested he paint Beral. I spoke to her mistress and got her somewhat bemused permission. Then I explained it to cook, who was also somewhat surprised, but who gave the project her blessing and let Andeal set up his easel in her kitchen. So Beral was painted, and to be fair she appeared to have quite enjoyed the experience. Indeed, in the thirty or more years that I’ve known her, all she has said to me is, “Good afternoon, Master Steelyard.” On the occasion of being painted, she said, “Isn’t this exciting, Master Steelyard.”

I had two reasons for wanting Andeal to paint the portrait of Beral. The first is that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. But no, Andeal described and painted exactly what I saw, which is, as far as I can remember, exactly what I saw thirty or more years previously.

The second reason I asked Andeal to paint her was I am unlikely to be here in another thirty years. With Beral’s likeness fixed, I have asked one or two of our younger painters and poets to keep an eye on her. If in thirty years’ time she still looks like her painting, she hasn’t aged for over sixty years.

Obviously my solicitude for a scullery maid amused them but they said they would do this to humour me. I wonder who will laugh in thirty years’ time?


In case you wish to read a little more from Port Naain


In this volume we stand shoulder to shoulder with Maljie as she explores the intricacies of philosophy, marvel at her mastery of pre-paid indemnification plans, and assist her in the design of foundation garments. When you read this, not only will you discover just who wears the trousers, but you can indulge in a spot of fishing and enjoy the quaint fertility rites of our great city. This book contains fashion, honey, orphans and the importance of dipping your money in vinegar to ensure it is safe. Indeed you may even learn how to teach a cat to dance.

As a reviewer commented, “

I’m not sure what it is, but there is something irresistibly uplifting about the Maljie stories – well, to be honest about all but the very darkest tales by Jim Webster about Tallis Steelyard and his strange friends and acquaintances of Port Naain.

Maljie has to be the uncrowned queen of Port Naain, although I would not be surprised if one day we find she became queen too, it would be a completely Maljie thing to do, but she is a woman who needs no other authority than her own intense personality.

This is a book to cheer and warm, but it is packed with social commentary as well and no small amount of wisdom too:

“The law is like a monster which will gobble up everything in its path. But because it’s an elderly monster, lame and blind in one eye, it depends on people to help it. If the people are grown-up then sometimes you get justice and sometimes you get mercy, and sometimes you might get both.”

So with wisdom, with cleverness, with cunning, with a smile on her face and always with enough – usually very subtle but sometimes laugh out loud – humour to make you chuckle, Maljie dances her way through the pages of this third selection of her memoirs.”

13 thoughts on “Never beneath notice?

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