Gaspar Fishmart was an artist. Given the sort of people who call themselves artists nowadays I’ll be more specific, Gaspar painted pictures. They might be strange and occasionally disturbing pictures, but they were still pictures; in spite of the fact that he specialised in working with several different shades of black.
He was by nature parsimonious, which given his income was probably fortunate. It’s relatively easy to combine penury and parsimony.
He drank that ‘wine’ you can still buy in bottles with no label. You know the stuff? They make it by half filling barrels with the pomace left when the grapes have been crushed. The barrel is then topped up with water and a gallon or so of that cheap spirit they produce by fermenting sweet kitchen waste. The barrels are laid on rollers so that they can be easily turned to keep the contents mixed.
Not only did he drink the damned stuff, he used to buy yesterday’s bread and dunk it in his ‘wine’ to soften it enough to chew.
There were two things he didn’t stint on, one was the quality of his paints, and the other was the lichen he smoked. Paint I can understand, it’s a tool of the painter’s trade and you want the best your patron can afford. The lichen is another thing entirely. There are a score of different sorts of lichen with many different uses. Scarlet is the most common and in small quantities, stirred into wine; it can have useful medicinal properties. In large qualities it can be euphoric, hallucinogenic, priapic or a strange combination of all three.
The problem is that because the best lichens are scraped off rocks high up in the mountains, just below the permanent snowline, vendors cut their produce with all sorts of rubbish. I once earned a day’s pay working as a clerk to an apothecary who was paid to check some samples.
Sample 1. This consists of very fine sawdust which seems to have been stained with an alcohol based red dye. I would assume it is from some hardwood, to get dust so fine.
Sample 2. This seems to be powdered lichen of some sort, I am pretty sure it contains no scarlet from the High Aphices, but seems to be coloured using the same dye as Sample 1.
Sample 3. This is High Aphices lichen, but of poor quality. It is what we used to refer to as ‘sweepings’, a random mixture of all lichens handled and spilt. Again an attempt has been made to colour it, but because it is actually High Aphices lichen it will not take a dye and instead a fine scarlet powder has been mingled with it.
Sample 4. This is genuine red lichen, but is bark lichen, I assume collected in quantity comparatively cheaply from forests to the east. It has some properties, is quite good medicinally when coping with fevers, and it also can induce a mood of calm and relaxation. It is sometimes mixed into various infusions for this reason, so if you get a glass of tea with a slightly pink hint to it, this is the reason. Actually it is a most useful lichen and provided it is modestly priced, it is worth having in stock.
Sample 5. This is composed of wheat flour of sorts. It is the flour that is left after the better stuff has been fully extracted and is mainly hammer ground bran and similar with a high mineral content but enough proper flour to allow the alcohol based red dye mentioned above to be used.
Sample 6, This is genuine scarlet from the High Aphices, of perfectly acceptable quality, of a standard I would expect to find unless I was being asked to pay extra for the rare premium powder.
Sample 7. A middling sample, it is from the High Aphices and some of it is scarlet, but it has some admixture of lesser (but genuine) powders and a little red colouring. It is the sort of stuff I would expect to see sold in a small town off the beaten track, probably for a similar price to that charged in Port Naain for the real thing. I would not expect to see it in Port Naain where the clientele should be more discerning
Sample 8. A most unusual sample, it appears to be lichen, and appears to be scarlet, but it is not from the High Aphices and it is not common woodland lichen. I suspect it may be either another mountain lichen, perhaps from Lady Madrigals Petticoats perhaps, or perhaps traded from further east. Thus and so as I don’t know it, and don’t know what it was sold as, I cannot really tell whether it is a genuine item, worth more than the scarlet from the High Aphices, or something acquired cheaply as a substitute.
But back to Gaspar Fishmart. He didn’t stir his lichen into wine; he smoked it, which is the action of a madman. Given the nature of the muck commonly sold as lichen it is as likely to explode as to give you a soothing smoke. That being said Gaspar took considerable pains to acquire the better samples.
Whenever anybody asked him about why he spent so much of lichens, he’d merely gesture to his paintings and say that they gave him the visions he painted. Cruel friends pointed out that he was spending a fortune on lichen to inspire excellent paintings nobody would buy. Indeed kinder friends suggested he follow the more traditional route beloved by successful artists of serving reasonable wine and then painting easily sold pictures of pretty young women wearing no clothes.
I remember drinking wine with him one evening, (I’d taken the precaution of taking along a bottle I’d acquired earlier in the day) and when discussing his paintings, he started to look a little devious and gestured me to silence.
“Tallis, I’ve some paintings I want your opinion on.”
“Well I’m hardly an expert, but I do know that if I were willing to buy a picture, then it’s probably one that will be snapped up by others.”
He brushed my comment away with an impatient gesture and led me to his studio. There he went to a number of paintings hanging the wall, covered by a sheet. He whisked the sheet away with a remarkably theatrical gesture. There were four paintings. The first showed a cellar, dark, dank, and lit mainly by the iridescent fungi growing on one wall. In the centre there was an abysmal foaming obscenity of a creature, horned, tentacled and with its flaccid body coated with matted hair. Off to one side was the second source of light, it was coming through a partially open door. Peering through the door was a young woman of breathtaking beauty, looking upon the scene with the satisfied expression of one who has been searching the house all day for something and has finally found it.
The second picture was of a tomb-yard. The city skyline, silhouetted against a rising moon, almost resembled Port Naain. In the foreground was the same young lady, clad in close fitting silver samite. She was leaning against a tombstone in a manner which displayed the curves of her figure to perfection, and she appeared to be engaged in friendly banter with an anthropomorphic serpent who was gesticulating with a human thighbone.
The third picture was shocking. It was a painting of the studio. The young woman was engaged in studying the first two pictures and was pointing out a feature of them to a dog faced creature that crouched at her heel. As I recognised the scene I hastily looked round to see if we had been joined by a third or fourth party.
The fourth picture was not yet completed. In the centre was the young woman. This time she was seated on a chair, one leg languidly crossed over the other, resting her chin on one hand, whilst the other hand rested on her knee. She was gazing out of the canvas.
Whilst the woman was finished in exceptional detail, the chair she sat in was less distinct. At one moment I thought it to be carved wood, at the next; it was obviously constructed from bones. The rest of the picture was in darkness, any illumination seemed to be coming from the lady herself.
I shook my head and stepped back from the pictures. I had lost track of time, so long had I been entranced by them. “They are magnificent.”
There was no answer and I looked round. Gaspar was gone. I hadn’t heard him leave so I called his name, and again there was no answer. I searched the house and still could not find him. Finally, realising that I had left my hat in the studio, I returned. I glanced once more at the four pictures on the wall and noticed that the fourth picture had changed subtlety. It was as if the light that was coming out from her had finally penetrated the darkness. As the woman sat in her chair, the dog faced creature, dimly illuminated, was curled at her feet. The serpent in human form stood to her left, and there, at her right hand, was Gaspar Fishmart, pipe in one hand, his other hand resting lightly on her shoulder.
Should you wish to venture more deeply into the world of Tallis Steelyard, I suggest you contemplate spending the magnificent sum of £0.99 and purchasing
As a reviewer so wisely commented “This is a collection of stories about Tallis which go to show that it’s not all drinking afternoon tea or partaking of soirees for a jobbing poet. We discover some of his early life, some of the society feuds he became entangle with, and the story of how he met his wife and acquired the boat on which they live. Great little tales!”