Flicke’s Portrait

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20/10/2015 by paulinebsc

Flicke looked over his jailer’s shoulder at the room, not knowing what to expect. To his surprise the room was large and nicely furnished. Only the bars on the windows showed that it was a cell. There was a movement, and Flicke stopped looking at the room and regarded its inmate. The man was a redhead, with a bushy forked beard and smiling eyes.
‘’Henry Strangways, Gerlach Flicke.’ The jailer made the introduction brief. ‘You two are gonna be together for a long time, I hope.’ He chuckled evilly, shutting the door behind Flicke as soon as the man had dropped his sack of belongings inside the door. Flicke heard the door lock behind him.

His cellmate pumped his hand enthusiastically.
‘My name’s really Strangwish. Strangways is just the name they convicted me under this time.’
‘This time? You’ve been here before?’
‘The Tower of London is my second home.’ His laugh was infectious. In spite of the circumstances, Flicke liked him immediately.
‘What are you in here for?’
‘Piracy. They really think they’re going to finish me this time.’ He laughed, merrily. ‘Some chance. I’ve got friends in high places. How about you?’
‘And plotting to get rid of the Queen?’
‘Nah. I stay well away from politics.’
‘Ah well. They say the queen is seeing spies everywhere. How about your love life? Wife? Sweetheart?’
‘No nothing like that.’ Flicke’s eyes flickered downwards. Strangwish recognised that look. He looked his companion up and down.
The man was slim, and beneath the solemn looking greying beard his lips face had a somewhat effeminate look. Nothing obvious, but Strangwish had recognised the guilty look.
Flicke raised his eyes to see if Strangwish was accusing him before he remembered that Strangwish was a pirate. Long sea journeys with few women available. Of course Strangwish knew what was what. For the first time he smiled. Strangwish did his best to breathe steadily when the smile hit him. He had been here alone for too long.

Strangwish helped his new cellmate to unpack. The sack contained a few clothes, a hairbrush and a couple of books. Most of the weight, however, was because of the large box of dried plants and a stack of paper.
‘What’s all this for? Are you ill?’ Strangwish asked, his bow creased in puzzlement.
Flicke looked just as puzzled then realisation dawned.
‘They’re not herbs; they are to make paints with. I am a portrait painter by trade. Second only to Hans Holbein’ he boasted, taking a handful of brushes from a box and placing them into a pot on a small table which lay by the bed.
‘There ain’t much to paint in here.’
‘There’s always something to paint, even if I have to do it from memory.’
Strangwish clapped Flicke on the back, nearly knocking him off his feet.
‘Good, it’ll help keep your spirits up if you’re in here for long.’
‘Do you think I could be?’
‘No idea, sorry. Perhaps if you take mass like a good little Catholic, they’ll let you go.’ Flicke’s spirits were lifted more by the man’s infectious laugh than his words, but once he started to laugh he felt some of the depression in him start to lift a little. Not much, but it helped.

That night was long. Flicke didn’t know how Strangwish could sleep in here. He humped his pillow back into place for the umpteenth time and tried to rest, thankful that at least the pirate didn’t snore.

Strangwish was on the deck of the ‘La Concepción de Zubelzu’ watching his men attack another Spanish ship. He had captured the ‘Zube’ over a year ago and she was a fine ship, especially for a pirate. Capturing her would have been difficult if her crew had all followed orders, but many had abandoned ship, and some of them had been put in place by Strangwish before she sailed to make the boarding easier. The only Spaniard who had died was their captain, who had committed suicide rather than be held to ransom. Having this ship with its recognisably Spanish rigging made it easy to fool Spanish merchants into allowing her alongside so they could rid the merchants of their cargoes. Usually Strangwish would lead a raiding party but this time, following a bout of sickness he was barely strong enough climb the ladder to the deck of the Zube, so Phillipe had led the charge. Phillipe had been part of the original Zube crew, and was the only one still serving on her. He later claimed that he decided to switch sides on his first sight of Strangwish. A week after the capture Strangwish had found Phillipe in his bed, and he had been there almost every night since. Phillipe made Strangwish feel good in a way no woman could. Strangwish looked over to the other ship, assessing the action. All seemed to be going well. Spanish sailors were not known for unswerving loyalty to their captains and would have heard on the ‘sailor’s rope’ of gossip about the conditions and relaxed discipline on the Zube and the distribution of profits which was unparalleled on any merchant or navy ship. Phillipe and his sailors had the captain and two sailors trapped in the fo’c’sle. Phillipe had his cutlass drawn and was fighting against the captain.

Strangwish leant over the side of the ship, clutching his stomach, but there was nothing left to retch up. When he lifted his head to see the action, Phillipe had climbed into the fo’c’sle and was confronting their captain, who cowered in front of him. Things changed in an instant as one of the other Spaniards ran forward with his dagger and struck Phillipe.

Strangwish screamed in horror at his loss.
‘Hey! Calm down! Everything’s alright, it was a dream.’
Fighting to leave the dream Strangwish clung to Flicke, accepting the comfort of the arms which were stroking his hair, trying to calm him, exactly as Phillipe used to do.
‘Not a dream, a memory’ he whispered in a hoarse voice.

It took a long time for Flicke to soothe Strangwish so that the strong grip on his arms lessened. He felt tears on his neck, where the pirate’s face was hidden in his hair.
‘Sorry’ his companion was clearly embarrassed.
‘You can’t help what you dream.’ Flicke eased them into a more comfortable position. ‘Tell me about it.’
He didn’t know why, but Strangwish trusted the man, and obeyed Flicke’s quiet words. In a disjointed tale, he described his dream. Flicke had a knack for asking the right questions, and soon he knew all about the relationship between the two pirates, and what it had meant to Strangwish. When the story was finished they lay holding each other until morning. Flicke offered comfort just by being there, knowing words would do nothing.

Three days passed, and nothing was said about the incident. The two men talked of other things, Flicke talked about his paintings, his ambitions, his drinking companions and the hi-jinks they had indulged in. Strangwish told him about ships and sailors, and also about drinks and pranks. As they chatted Flicke painted quick sketches showing the bare outlines of people he talked about, or imaginary scenes. Not knowing how long his supplies would last, Flicke painted them all as miniatures, saving on both paper and paint.

‘What did Phillipe look like?’ He asked Strangwish a week later, chalk in hand.
‘I’m sure he was.’ Flicke chuckled, ‘but I need more detail than that to draw him.’
Strangwish looked at him in surprise.
‘Well he had a long thin face.’
Flicke’s chalk moved over the paper.
‘Like that?’
‘Not quite so thin.’
Flicke rubbed off a few lines with the side of his finger and redrew them.
For the next few hours the two bent over the paper, as Strangwish directed Flicke’s talented chalk-covered fingers, until they reached a true likeness.

Strangwish gave Flicke a hug of gratitude, only to find his embrace returned with force. There was hardness against him in a place that Flicke would not have his thick stick of chalk. He looked down in surprise as his companion looked up with eyes full of lustful need. Strangwish raised an eyebrow in surprise as Flicke’s lips met his. The lips aroused sensations Strangwish had tried to forget since Phillipe’s death, and he found himself returning the kiss with ardour. He didn’t understand why, but the effort put into creating Phillipe’s portrait had allowed him to put his former lover to rest, emotionally. Flicke had made him aware that it was time to move on.

Three months later Strangwish looked into the sleepy eyes of his new love, then at the portrait still on the table by his bed. As his lover sat up, the pirate took hold of the miniature and gave it a long look.
‘How would you feel if I destroyed this work of art? ’
Flicke smiled. He knew Strangwish was signalling his readiness to move on from Phillipe.
‘Fine. It was fun to do but I don’t feel attached to it.’
Strangwish crumpled it, and threw it to the floor.
‘Could you do one of yourself for me instead?’ he enquired.
‘Don’t be silly, I can’t see myself.’
‘We could do the same as we did for Phillipe, or …’
He picked his ornate mirror from a shelf. A year or two earlier his pirates had removed the contents of a ship voyaging from Venice, containing a box of the new glass mirrors which had recently started to be sold to the very rich across the rest of Europe. They had sold the rest, but Strangwish had taken a liking to this one and kept it. Flicke looked at himself in the mirror and grinned at his lover.
‘I never thought of doing that before. I’ll make it a double-portrait, to symbolise our love.’

Flicke was pleased with the painting. The portraits appeared to be on separate panels, and looking outwards, but he had turned them slightly inwards so that their love was not seen, just hinted at. Strangwish had hated sitting still long enough for the portrait, and had ended up looking far too solemn and Flicke knew that he had missed the twinkle in the man’s eyes, but the beard and hair looked just right.
‘What do you think?’ he asked, frowning. ‘I think it needs something above our heads, but I can’t work out what.’
Strangwish held the picture to look more closely. Flicke’s portrait held a palette, Strangwish held his favourite lute.
‘Looks fine to me.’
Flicke clapped his hands together.

‘I know what the painting needs, an inscription just big enough to fill the space.’
‘I don’t know, you’d have to write it very small.’
‘I can do that. I’ve done it before. How good is your Latin?’
‘My tutors tried to get it into me, but I was more interested in fighting and adventures. Why?’
‘I’ll put a Latin inscription my side, and an English one on yours’ that’ll confuse people.’
He picked up his chalk to draw guide lines on the paper, and mixed up a gold coloured paint.
He smiled, wondering if the painting would ever be seen by anyone other than the pair of them and their jailers and what they would make of the words he was going to write.

The picture which inspired the story, now called ‘Gerlach Flicke; Henry Strangwish (Strangways)’ which inspired this story is owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The story is fiction, but the people are real.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerlach_Flicke and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Strangways_(pirate).


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