Some people are remarkably gifted. They are born with immense talent that just bubbles up out of them, and they merely have to use it to see constant improvement. There aren’t many of those people. Aside from myself I can think of perhaps two poets, a number of musicians and several painters. Obviously there are doubtless bouncers, coiners and those who follow horses with a shovel and a bucket who are also instinctively talented, it’s just that their talents are not perhaps celebrated in the circles that I move in.
When it comes to painters, perhaps the best example was Nedan. He was brought up as one of a large family on a small farm, and from his earliest youth would be found sketching or painting. As the third or fourth son, there was never going to be a living for him on the farm, so he came to Port Naain. I suppose that the poet in me cries out to claim that he came here seeking fame and fortune. But in reality, he was looking for work. He soon found it, as a waiter in one of the city’s many restaurants.
He was hard working, handsome, courteous, and generally well liked. Also, if the place was quiet, he took to doing sketches on the menus. Some were scenes from home, some were of diners, and some were just the view from the window. On one wet afternoon, nobody came into the restaurant for over an hour, and Nedan ended up doing some quiet elaborate work. When somebody did come in, they glanced at the menu to decide what to eat, and in growing wonder, studied the picture. They asked Nedan who the artist was and when he confessed that it was him, they asked him to sign the menu, and after their meal left him a one alar tip and took the menu with them.
Over the next few weeks, the owner got more and more enquiries from people who wanted to book a table with an autographed menu. Somewhat bemused she asked Nedan what was going on and he explained. Not willing to upset her customers she purchased a lot of cheaply printed menus with plenty of space for illustrations and Nedan was allowed time to sketch. The restaurant did rather well and everybody would have lived happily ever after.
Of course there is always a problem, and in this case it was the cook. Cooks are strange people. Frankly, given my kitchen porter experience I feel I can speak with authority on the issue. Most cooks are people I would not willingly allow near sharp knives. They are jealous, fickle, excitable, or just mad. They are also used to being the star of the show. When staff in the kitchen discovered that the success of the restaurant was based not on their culinary excellence but on the scribblings of the expendable nobody who carried their carefully wrought masterpieces to the clientele, there was fury. The cook chased Nedan out of the restaurant, threatening him with a cleaver.
Other restaurant owners hired Nedan, because he brought trade. Collectors of his sketches would follow him from one eatery to another, keen to purchase another of his works. He’d barely get settled in before there would be a jealous uprising in the kitchen and Nedan would be forced to flee again.
Now you might ask why Nedan didn’t just exhibit his pictures somewhere more suitable. There are galleries in Port Naain, they would have been ideal. Unfortunately Nedan ran into another problem. Artists in this city split into a warring camps. Those who can paint, and those who probably cannot but claim they don’t because they’re exploring the frontiers of art, and thus sneer on those who can paint. One thing both groups have in common is the fact that they’ve almost certainly had an expensive education, and know all the right people. Nedan struggled under the duel disadvantage of being obviously talented, and equally obviously, ‘not one of us.’ None of the galleries would exhibit his work. Those gallery owners who contemplated doing so were warned off by the combined artistic community. One gallery owner told me that he’d been invited to a meeting with several leading artists in the city. They’d pointed out to him that Nedan’s paintings were notoriously flammable. Indeed it was pointed out that the unsanctioned materials he used were prone to spontaneous combustion. This explanation was followed by the pious comment, “You’ve got a nice gallery. It would be a pity if something happened to it.”
Nedan was rather at his wits end. Things had come to the point where he couldn’t even get a job as a waiter, never mind an artist. I even introduced him to Silac Glicken of Glicken’s Printers. I had a scheme where Nedan would do illustrations and I would do poems to go with them. Frankly he was the only artist I could afford. Artists are always paid cash, in advance. But Nedan was willing to work for a share of the sales price, just as if he was a writer. Silac did some calculations and decided against the project, even though he did admire Nedan’s work.
Ironically Nedan’s salvation had little to do with his talent. He was rescued from penury because he was just a really decent young man. Let us not beat about the bush here, there are fewer of these than there ought to be. So it was that when Mistress Lecia took over the small eatery her parents had built up, she sought out Nedan. Lecia was a better cook than her mother. To be fair to both ladies this wasn’t as big an achievement as it should have been, but still Lecia was competent. She was also wise. She bought better ingredients than her mother used to buy. She spent a little money on painting the place, and got rid of the old bench seats and replaced them with a fine selection of chairs she purchased from those who do house clearances. Finally she reduced the number and variety of dishes she offered to her customers. With almost brutal self-awareness she restricted her offerings to those dishes she could cook. This contrasted to her mother’s policy of offering dishes she felt that she ought to be able to cook. Or indeed those dishes which she probably could cook if enough people bought the dish so that she could practice doing it.
But most importantly of all, Mistress Lecia snapped up Nedan and brought him in as the waiter.
Her usual clientele was liked him, because Nedan was difficult not to like. They were impressed with his pictures and Lecia put a few of them up on the walls as decoration. But of course those who appreciated his work and purchased his sketches flocked there to eat.
Under these circumstances, everything went well. With Lecia as the cook there were no problems with jealousy. After all she might have been a reasonable cook, but she was an excellent businesswoman. Of course she married him.
For anybody who likes the world of Tallis Steelyard, more awaits.
As a reviewer commented, “In this entertaining book by Jim Webster, the reader is treated to the ins and outs of sedan chair racing in Port Naain. Sedan chair racing comprises of chairs, transporting various wealthy ladies of impeccable social standing, borne by fit young men called sedan chair bearers, which raced each other through the streets. The ladies are not at all good sports and all sorts of interesting cheats take place during these races which are bet on by those in the city with a propensity for gambling.
We are introduced to a number of intriguing characters. Mistress Bream is one, an elderly lady whose decreased mobility is depriving her of the fun and social interaction she yearns for. Her various supporters arrange to have a special chair with wheels built for her and Tallis, a poet and the hero of the story, is invited to visit and view her new acquisition. This is the start of an extraordinary tale the results in Tallis seeing Mistress Bream’s son chasing a pair of sedan chair bearers with an axe and being coerced into finding out what has caused this odd behaviour. Tallis’ quest for the truth of the matter leads him to meeting Mistress Graan, the wife of a local gangster, who wishes to be seen as more cultured. Tallis agrees to assist her with hosting a poets soiree and he soon becomes embroiled in her ambitions, including her desires with regards to the sedan chair racing in the city.”