The Sallow Tallow Man
by Joshua Blanc
Oliver had just opened up shop for the morning, and was starting up his various processes in anticipation of another lucrative day. He lit a lamp, which cast flickering light onto dim and greasy surfaces. Every morning there would be a fresh delivery of animal fat from the butchers in the area, with whom he had a special deal. There it was glistening in the hopper by the back wall, a vast mountain of it – at least, that’s what he expected to see.
Upon closer inspection, the mountain was more like a molehill. Being the only tallow man in town, the discrepancy puzzled him. His only competition was a soap-maker several blocks away, who made do with road-kill and entrails; and sometimes bought rendered tallow when these were short. Being far too busy to dwell on it, he put it down to a shortage and left it at that.
He scooped up a shovelful of fat and heaved it into the grinder, where it landed with a rubbery ‘thwack.’ As he turned the handle, ground-up off-white goo oozed from the nozzle into a giant pot. When this was almost full, he grasped the handles and carried it over to a wood-fired range. He set it down, and tossed a couple more logs into the stove.
Soon the fat would liquefy, then it was just a matter of straining out the lumps too stubborn to melt before pouring it into the pressure-cooker. This was suspended from a tripod above a fire-pit in the corner.
He stirred the pot with a big wooden spoon and hummed to himself in the eerie half-light. He heard the bell, a sharp little ‘ding,’ which told him there was a customer. Setting the spoon aside, he wiped his hands on his grease-spattered apron, and lumbered into the front room.
Oliver himself could be mistaken for a large lump of fat. He firmly believed that his stocky build and oversized stomach were what made him a natural at his job. He gave a crooked-toothed smile as he entered the shop, which was bright and clean in comparison to the black pit from which he’d emerged.
A man was waiting. It was Greasy Jack.
The aging man resembled a discarded sack of potatoes with a scrawny beggar inside. His legs and arms and neck poked out of holes in the tattered brown hessian he wore. Jack smiled a crooked-toothed smile of his own, and shuffled up to the counter.
Beneath the counter, in bins on slanted wooden shelves, were Oliver’s wares. These consisted of the finished tallow in its various forms; all of them a sickly shade of yellow. The unique colour was achieved by adding extract of Sallow bark to the tallow before allowing it to set. It’s chief purpose was to make the tallow look somewhat like butter. For Carmudgeon was a town of culinary heights and artistic delights, and no banquet was complete without a butter sculpture or two. Butter, however, was apt to go soft and lose its shape in the heat. A special blend of wax and tallow provided a much more reliable sculptor’s medium.
“I’ll ’ave a bar of my regular,” said Greasy Jack in a gravelly cockney accent, after an obligatory ogling of the wares.
“Run out already, Jack?” said Oliver, plopping a soap-sized bar of sallow tallow on the countertop. “That’ll be two-pence.”
“’Ere y’ go.”
The coin, already greasy, made itself at home on the thin layer of tallow gracing the countertop, and Greasy Jack took up his bar in both hands. He studied it closely with his bulging eyes, and gave it a sniff. “Ahh… peppermint.” He rubbed the tallow into his armpits joyously, and stowed the bar in the depths of his sack when he was done. “Cheerio,” said the old-timer as he shambled from the store.
Scented tallow was just one of many innovative products Oliver stocked. Admittedly, it was the only one that wasn’t plain sallow tallow in a novelty shape or measure.
He tossed the two-penny bit into the cash register and scratched at his greying stubble. He glanced at the grandfather clock ticking in the corner. It was early yet. Soon the customers would come pouring in. He returned to the back room to empty the moulds he’d filled yesterday, and was soon thoroughly engrossed in his work.
At length, another customer rang the bell. It was Phillipe DePuis, one of his regular culinary-artists. He wore a fancy ruffled shirt and a suit reminiscent of Turkish rugs. Hair cascaded down his shoulders rather greasily – an entirely non-tallow-related condition that seemed to plague these artsy types. With him was his butler, who stood waiting while he eyed the merchandise.
“Good morning to you,” said Oliver, now considerably greasier.
DePuis took out a pocket-watch. “Afternoon, surely?”
“By Gorm, you’re right. It’s been a slow day.”
“I’ll take a… fifteen pound block, I think, tallow man.”
Oliver went to the appropriate shelf on the wall behind the counter, lifted a large sallow slab from it, and dropped it onto the countertop. He then wrapped it neatly in wax paper. These artists didn’t like getting their servants greasy.
“There y’go, six shillings, if you please.”
DePuis tossed the coins onto the counter, where they instantly stuck to the tallowy surface. With a snap of his fingers he said, “Get that will you, Charcer,” whereupon his butler picked up the block and made his way awkwardly to the door.
Charcer managed to get the door open, hold it so DePuis could walk out, and then close it behind him without dropping the block. He placed the block in DePuis’ hand-cart, which was waiting outside, and tossed a coin to the young boy minding it – young Thomas Filputt, who often did errands for the Sallow Tallow Man.
DePuis started off down the street, and Charcer followed, pushing the rickety hand-cart and grumbling to himself. Oliver turned to resume his tallow-making, but stopped when he heard the door again. A tall man in a stern suit and possessing an equally stern moustache entered.
“Good day,” said Oliver.
The man merely nodded at him and linked his hands behind his back. He wandered up and down the shop, examining the tallow blocks with obvious distaste.
“So you’re the Sallow Tallow Man,” he said at length.
“That’s right, sir, in the business now for—”
“You’re not as good as that other fellow.”
Oliver almost fell over.
“Other fellow? Other fellow, indeed?”
“Yes. At the other end of the street. Calls himself the Yellow Tallow Man. His tallow is much more attractive, and people have been going in and out of his store all morning. Good day.”
Before Oliver could erupt, the man left the store.
Yellow Tallow Man? It’s practically piracy!
Oliver rushed over to the coat rack and replaced his apron with his big white sample coat, which had blocks of tallow nestled in its many pockets. He also donned his sallow cap, and thusly attired marched to the door.
Outside in the cobbled street he looked about for the Filputt boy. He gave a sharp whistle, and the boy came running.
“Yessir, Mr. Oliver?” said the grotty youth.
“Thomas, how would you like to make a shilling?”
“Get in there and mind the shop. And watch the clock. Every time the big hand is on a multiple of three, toss another log onto the fire under the kettle. Got that?”
“Multitude of three?”
“Look, I’ll show you. And do try not to throw-up this time…”
A minute or so later, Oliver was waddling down the street. It was bustling with gentlemen and their ladies, horses and carts, beggars, matchbox sellers, and waifs – some of the latter two one and the same. He was quite out of breath when he reached the end of the street and spied the Yellow Tallow Man’s busy shop. But for the name, it was a carbon-copy of his own.
There was a line of people at the door – a line! He fought his way through it to the counter, where a skinny little man in a spotless apron was dealing with the customers. On the shelves, and indeed on the counter, were slabs of tallow the likes of which he’d never seen; of a yellow hue so pure and vibrant that it put sallow to shame.
“You’re the Yellow Tallow Man?” cried Oliver, aware now that everyone was staring in silence.
“That’d be me,” said the man behind the counter. “May I ask who you are, and why you’re wearing such an awful hat?”
“The indignance! I’m the Sallow Tallow Man. My Store’s at the top of the street!”
“You mean the bottom of the street. This here’s the top.” Oliver was fit to burst, but the Yellow Tallow Man put up a hand and continued. “I’d wondered ’ow long it’d take you to get wind of my little enterprise. What do you think of the colour?”
Oliver spluttered, and took a bar of sallow tallow from his pocket.
“You, sir, are a cad, a usurper, an… upstart! I challenge you to a duel!”
And he slammed the block of tallow onto the counter with such force that he squashed it and left a perfect impression of his meaty fist.
“Sir, kindly remove your putrid block of congealed urine from my counter and get out.”
“Please, gentlemen,” said a man in the queue. “There’s no need to bicker. Surely there’s room enough for both of you in this fine city of Carmudgeon?”
“Mind your own business,” said Oliver, and shoved the man hard.
“Right,” said the Yellow Tallow Man. “Assaulting my customers now, are you? You want a fight, you’ve got one. Billy! Come an’ mind the shop.”
A freckled-faced lad got behind the till. The Yellow Tallow Man got into his own sample-coat, and a bright yellow cap, and he and Oliver parted the stream of customers and paraded into the street.
Oliver stood ready at one corner of the store. The Yellow Tallow Man took his place opposite, and each sized the other up. The scrawny, clean-shaven, curly-haired Yellow Tallow Man didn’t look strong enough to crack an egg let alone lift a tub of rendered beef fat.
“Name your stakes, Sallow Tallow Man.”
“The loser closes his shop,” said Oliver.
“You’re that certain you’ll win?”
“I’ve never been more certain in my life.”
“Very well, then, you’re on. On the count of three.”
Oliver flexed his fingers.
Both men’s hands went to their pockets.
Tallow whizzed through the air. Oliver had thrown first, and a lump hit his opponent in the ribs. But the tallow had become soft and squishy from the sweaty jog down the street, and the Yellow Tallow Man barely flinched. What was more, he was quick on his feet and dodged lump after lump that Oliver threw.
Oliver had to contend with tough bricks of tallow, and was hit by more than he could dodge. His only saving grace was his cushioning layer of fat, which practically cancelled the hardness out.
Customers and passers-by crowded around them now. A few enterprising souls, and there were a lot of those in Carmudgeon, began taking bets while others made them. A few unlucky bystanders were stung by flying tallow themselves.
As one man hurled a piece the other countered, and so on until at length both men ran out of tallow to fling. But rather than give up and call it a draw, they resorted to picking up the spent ammunition and sending it back.
“How’s it feel to be hit by your own tallow, Yellow Tallow Man?” said Oliver, ducking a lump of his own.
“It’s a treat,” said the Yellow Tallow Man, “after being pelted with yours!”
The crowd grew, the cheering got louder, and the tallow-stains multiplied faster and faster. Oliver felt his breath giving out. But his opponent also showed signs of fatigue.
“You’re a disgrace to the profession,” he huffed.
“And you should be made into tallow, you overstuffed gourd!”
Finally, resembling walking advertisements for laundry detergent, both men collapsed onto the slippery cobbles to the deafening cheer of the crowd.
“’Ere, who’s won?” said one of the onlookers.
The Yellow Tallow Man picked up a nearby lump of tallow, and crawled on his belly towards Oliver. Oliver, splayed on his back and wheezing, picked up a lump of yellow tallow and waited for the man to get close. But the Yellow Tallow Man gave out, and lay there just a few feet away drawing in great greasy breaths and smiling. His teeth weren’t even the least bit crooked.
Oliver breathed a great sigh, and contemplated the yellow tallow he held in his hand.
“How do you do it?” he asked when he had sufficient breath.
“Hmm? Do what?”
“Make it so… yellow?”
The Yellow Tallow Man smiled again, and tapped his long beaky nose with a tallow-smeared finger.
“A special new food-grade dye,” he said.
Oliver sat up, then with much wobbling and slipping about got to his feet. He offered a hand to the Yellow Tallow Man, who took it and pulled himself up.
“Would you like to come down to the public house and discuss it?”
The Yellow Tallow Man thought for a moment.
“Sure, why not?”
Together they picked their way across the greasy cobbles and headed off down the street, discussing their methods and chuckling about the state of their dress. Behind them, the puzzled onlookers settled their bets and went about their business. Anyone who tried to traverse the tallowed patch of cobbles fell about, providing much amusement for the rest of the day.
A couple of urchins gathered up much of the tallow and built of it a tallow man. It was neither yellow nor sallow but something of both, plus a bit of brown from the dirty old street. Their fun was soon cut short by a greasy chap in a potato sack who leapt from the alley. He chuckled to himself, and began dismantling the tallow man – contriving to cart off as much of it as he could. As he worked, he muttered a little rhyme which soon found its way to the lips of every girl and boy in Carmudgeon, thus passing into folklore:
Tallow Man, Tallow Man,
Tallow me quick,
I’ve ate too much tallow,
And now I feel sick!