We are always advised not to work with children and animals. Frankly I have never experienced difficulties in this regard. Working with children is easy. In my experience they are far more focused and mercenary than any adult I’ve worked with. One merely has to step back a little, let your junior colleague work their magic with the audience, and then step forward again to assist with the business of collecting the money.
Working with animals is something I’ve rarely done, and to be fair on the first occasion I did it, it went far better than could be expected. This was the time when I worked with a great red forest ape. These creatures, who apparently frequent the forests of the Muldrean on the far side of the Aphices Mountains, are rarely encountered in polite society in Port Naain.
My encounter came about because of Gumption Silvernant, miser, Sinecurist, and occasional if inadvertent patron of poets. Somebody had one of these apes and was determined to make money by displaying it in Port Naain. It had been agreed that the creature would be placed on show in a marquee erected outside the building housing the Council of Sinecurists. Somebody pointed out that they needed more than just a wild animal and perhaps it would be good to have a poet or something as well. Old Gumption was doubtless still pained by our last meeting and suggested me as the perfect poet for the occasion. Indeed I believe he suggested that I ought to entertain the crowds from inside the ape’s cage rather than merely sharing the same marquee but fortunately this detail was left out of the final contract.
The ape and I were to perform for a week, three hours in the morning, then a break for a late lunch and a further three hours in the afternoon. There was no evening session as it was felt the ape might become over-tired.
I arrived on the first morning and the ape and I looked each other over. It was an impressive specimen. Standing erect it was twice my height and four or five times my weight. It was a creature of solid muscle and when it opened its mouth displayed impressive dentition.
The first morning I would read aloud for a while and the ape would knuckle its way around its cage. Then I would rest if there was nobody about. To be fair it was a little bland, and at lunch time I felt something had to be done or we would have dissatisfied clients.
The last of the morning clients left and our lunch arrived. The ape was given a mixture of fruit and dried meat plus a bucket of water. I got a meat pie, some bread and cheese and a bottle of beer. I made it my business to sit close to the cage, but outside arm’s reach. If you are to be colleagues it is always best to appear collegiate. As I poured beer into a glass the creature reached out through the bars towards me. I inadvertently stepped back and the ape became agitated. At this point I looked around for a keeper, but none was present. I was unsure what to do. Then I noticed the ape appeared to be fixated on my beer. Greatly daring I put the half full bottle on the floor and pushed it nearer the cage using a brush. The ape grabbed the bottle and proceeded to drain it with evident enjoyment.
That afternoon everything went so much better. As visitors entered the ape would utter ferocious roars, tugging at the bars of the cage, (and visibly bending them even though they were of considerable thickness.)
Then I would start reading poetry and the savage beast would appear to be consoled by my words and would sink slowly down and listen to me with rapt attention.
When I stopped reading the ape would hammer on the bars, scream and display more hideous yellowing fangs than any mouth really needed. But as soon as I started to read again it would sink into attentive silence. Between ourselves I’d go so far as to claim that the effect was most impressive and my reputation as a reader of poetry was greatly enhanced by it.
Finally our afternoon shift was done and the marquee was closed. I was paid for the day, with a substantial bonus from tips. Coins cast into the ape’s cage it swept up and pushed through the bars to me when the audience left.
Next day I was prepared. I’d spent most of the ape’s tips on four bottles of decent quality beer. Before the earliest visitors were allowed in I passed my companion the first bottle.
Everything went well from that moment. The ape gave forth such hideous cries that our audience was two or three times that of the previous day. His antics, hanging from the cage roof and casually bending steel bars with his feet, were truly remarkable. Yet when I started to read, it adopted a pose of absolute fascination, leading members of the audience to comment on the effects of good verse, properly delivered.
At the end of that day the sum of the tips we had received was considerably in excess of the money I was paid for performing. Again the ape pushed the money through the bars to me. Before I left I passed it the last bottle which the creature took reverently and placed on the floor next to its bed. Then grinning at me it climbed onto the bed and pulled a slim volume of verse and a set of reading glasses out from under the pillow. Then with beer in one hand and verse in the other it curled up and started to read.
It may be that you might not realise that Tallis Steelyard has just produced his second book of stories and anecdotes. This is book, ‘Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter, and other stories,’ is available from the first of June.
Were Tallis less busy he’d doubtless remember to thank me, Jim Webster, for the efforts I make on his behalf. But you know what it is with someone like Tallis who is constantly in demand. So I just get on with writing his stuff down for him and from time to time making collections of his wit, wisdom and jumbled musings available for a grateful public.
Tallis does have a blog, it is apparently de rigueur now for all writers.
Riding in on his coattails I’ll merely mention that my own books can be seen at: