Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview

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Chapter 16 – Wining and Pining

“They don't sound very nice,” said Ambrosius.

“I'm afraid that's tough, sir. If you want a job in this city, you've got to work for the Company one way or another. Fish Stocks Limited has its finger in just about every pie there is. You go to your corner shop to buy some bread and get chatting to the owner; it turns out he's getting money off Fish Stocks Limited to sell their product only. You go to play handball on the local playing fields, it turns out Fish Stocks Limited owns them. You go to church, turns out Fish Stocks Limited is paying off the vicar to slip their name into his sermon. You can't get round it – you have to work for them, not against them.”

Ambrosius paused. “Do they pay well?”

There was a smile from Stan at this. “It depends what you do. The fishermen work for all the fish they can eat and a few pounds to fritter away on their vices every month when they hit land. You don't look much like a fisherman to me, though, if you don't mind me saying, sir.”

“You're right there,” said Ambrosius. “Are there any jobs where I don't have to see any fish?”

“Haha,” exlaimed Stan. “Of course, and they pay the best. It's a peculiarity of the way the Company works that the jobs where you don't have to get your hands dirty are the best paid. Well, you don't get your hands dirty with dirt you can physically see, that is, but mark my words the invisible dirt is there. People with certain eyes can see it, and maybe even hate you for it.” Stan lowered his voice. “That said, there are certain women who love that kind of dirt. I'm telling you now, you want to impress a chick, sir, all you've got to do is show them the dirt – money, that is – and they'll love you. Real love, as well.”

“Really?” asked Ambrosius. The image of Sunbeam broke to the surface of his perception.

“Really really. They go wild for a man with means.”

“And what exactly do these jobs involve?”

“You buy and sell fish. Only those fish are numbers.”

“I don't understand.”

“Well, say one company brings in a load of fish. They could go round selling them to loads of little shops, but they're fishermen, not businessmen. They find it easier just to sell the lot to a single person – the trader. The trader could then go round selling the fish to lots of little shops – this would take time and expertise, but some traders do this. However, imagine a trader comes along and buys up a load of fish, then there's a lull in the amount of fish caught, as happens sometimes. Maybe there's a storm and the boats can't go out, something like that. Anyway, people are desperate for fish that way, and they'll pay higher prices. Our trader can then sell his fish that he bought on the cheap to another company for more money. He doesn't even have to get his hands dirty with distribution. Indeed, he doesn't even need to see a fish. He does all his work on paper and takes a tidy sum. There are other things he can do, as well. For instance, he could say to a seller, “Look, I'll buy your fish off you and pay you for them next week at whatever the price is then.” If the seller thinks the price of fish is about to go up, he might do this deal because he thinks that he's going to get more money. The buyer is hoping that they'll go down in price, so he'll have to pay less.”

“It sounds like gambling,” said Ambrosius.

“Well, yes and no, sir. With gambling, you normally lose overall. However, if the economy is growing healthily, the stock market pays out more than you put in. It's sort of like priming an engine with fuel – you give these companies money and they use it to make more money, so long as they keep getting that constant input.”

“What happens if it stops?”

“You get a crash. It happens. When one person loses confidence in the system another person is more likely to lose confidence too. If you get enough people losing confidence, the effect amplifies itself and you get a massive decrease in investment. For the investor that means you can lose everything overnight.”

“I don't like the sound of that.”

“It only happens once in a while. Most people just don't think about it.”

“So if I take the money I've made off the loans and play the stock market, I could make even more money?”

“You've got it, sir,” said Stan.

Ambrosius thought for a little while longer. “In fact, you could say I would be catching fish, all be it indirectly.”

“You could think about it like that, yes sir.”

Ambrosius smiled. “More fish than anyone could hope to catch with a single line?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ambrosius cut into his steak and thought of Sunbeam's flustered promise. “Then I might make a fisher after all,” he beamed.

The two acquaintances finished their meals and ordered some hookfruit wine of an excellent vintage. They drank moderately, enjoying the sophisticated tones o f the wine, which was much too good for most people to appreciate (which is ironic as alcohol is a simple molecule with few pretensions). A healthy rouge filled our nascent businessmen's cheeks and brains, and the hours slipped by pleasantly.

“Look at the couple on that table,” said Stan covertly during a lull in the conversation. “That man is M. Hakefish-de-Montaigne. He is a regular at this establishment, but his wife is not. The waiters are very discreet.”

Ambrosius laughed.

“And look over there,” said Stan. “That is Colonel Flounder. He comes in here every night and orders plate after plate of spicy gumbo. Since his wife died he makes company only with his food. It's a wonder his belly doesn't burst.”

Ambrosius laughed again.

“And on the next table is Duchess Whitebait and her ladies-in-waiting. She owns a considerable share of Fish Stocks Limited. We shall not be approaching her for a job though, as she is a complete and utter cod wrangler. I have a contact in the Company who is much more approachable.”

Ambrosius nodded.

“And that,” said Stan, nodding towards a table in the corner, “is Miss Striga Hermonthica. She is a parasite and a temptress, and my one true love. She always dines in here alone, and when I have the money I order her a bottle of wine and she blushes as if she had any demureness and lets me sit with her – nothing more, you understand. It has been that way for seven years.”

“Have you never thought to ask her out... I don't know, to see a show or something?”

“And ruin something perfect? No, she takes my wine, the drunkard, and talks to me as if I were a king. I hate her loveliness.”

“You seem to entertain some contradictory emotions regarding her,” said Ambrosius.

“As is the way of the heart. I entertain all emotions in their superlatives for her, but they will always be flowering and never fruiting, for fruit rots. It is just as well that my longing for her is nothing more, otherwise my emotions would tear me apart and leave me broken and alone, shovelling gumbo down my throat like the colone l over there.”

Ambrosius smiled. “One day you'll...”

“One day? Are you trying to sell me a loan? I don't think like that. I see things as they are, and accept them as that.” He paused. “Do you have a love?” The question came suddenly, tagged on to the end of the sentence like a full-stop.

Ambrosius was caught of guard by Stan's staccato enquiry. “Sort of,” he said.

“Ah, let me guess: you love her but she doesn't love you.”

Ambrosius nodded, then downed the rest of his wine uncouthly. “I think she may have done, though, a long time ago,” he said after he had swallowed. “I took her for granted and she ended up marrying someone else. The wrong man.”

“A commonplace tragedy,” said Stan. “And you hope to win her back?”

“She said that the day I catch a fish will be the day she loves me. I've never caught a fish in my life.”

“Ah, so you have been cursed, sir. But does that curse fulfil a purpose?”

“How so?” asked Ambrosius.

“You are to become a most fishful gentleman, sir. The quest for your woman's love will drive you to great heights here in the City.”

“Hmm,” grunted Ambrosius. “Whether that is a good thing remains to be seen.”

“That would depend on your definition of goodness; whether it resides in your heart or your head.”

“And what do you think?”

“Like I say, I don't think,” replied Stan.

“A good answer,” said Ambrosius. “I do think, but I still don't know. I reckon most people in the treetops would say your heart, whereas most people here in the City would say your head – if they didn't identify certain other are as of their anatomy, that is.”

Stan laughed. “Their bellies, of course. What do you say?”

“Maybe goodness is in your hands. If your job relies only on your hands it's pretty hard to do anything too bad. Sure you can hit someone, but you'll get hit back and sooner or later you'll come up against someone who's tougher than you. If you use your head, you can do some really nasty things. You don't get hit back, so you kid yourself that they are actually good.”

“Maybe you're right. You should know that you will be using your head a lot in the line of work you are going to pursue.”

“It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.”

“Excellent,” laughed Stan. “You've got the right attitude, sir.”

“Why don't you go into that line of work, Stan?”

“It is not for me,” said Stan. “Ever since my fall I've... well, I've not been right in the head. You wouldn't know it to talk to me, but there are things which struggle inside me. If I become too involved in the world then bad things happen.”

Ambrosius decided not to pry too deeply. “That must be hard,” he said.

“You know, it is, sir. I feel like I'm never quite a part of the world, even when I'm in control of it. It is most disconcerting.”

“Sometimes it's better to be aloof.”

“Aloof? Detached is a better word. Stone cold, statuesque, like a painting on a wall. Is that really a way to exist? I try and have my input on peoples lives but it is always vicarious; I may work through a person but never as a person. I long to be one of those stupid, drinking, laughing slobs that grace the plane t with their dirt, but I just can't seem to settle.”

“You seem to have plenty of friends round here,” said Ambrosius, thinking of the nefarious characters who had hailed them from the shadows on their way back to Stan's place.

“That's because I help them. I have a brain on me, which I use to facilitate their various sins. When I have my influence on people a car thief becomes a used car dealer, a mugger becomes a loan shark, a drunkard becomes a publican and a scumbag becomes a politician. It's the effect I have on people; I make them successful.”

“Isn't that a good thing? You're pulling people out of the gutter, sort of like a guardian angel.”

Stan sipped his wine before continuing. “Yes, I do a very similar job to an angel. Angels help people in their darkest hour, as I do. There seems to be a difference with me though, which makes me sad. I can't help but help the wrong people. Everyone I make successful is corrupted by that success. I sometimes try and prevent it, but it just seems to be the way of things. Nowadays I just go along with it.”

“You shouldn't feel bad about it,” said Ambrosius. “You try your best.”

“You're indebted to me already though, you would say that. The truth of the matter is that I have corrupted you.”

“I shan't hear any of that. I corrupted myself, you were just a catalyst.”

“A catalyst? We all have our destiny in death, sir, but we would never call a murderer 'just a catalyst.' No, I cause terrible things to happen and that makes me feel terrible without ever even erring myself. My only sin was to fall off a ladder, yet here I am, lost in a world of sin and depravity, drinking a fine wine with an innocent man whose soul I have tarnished. My melancholy is justified. And my smile...” Stan gave that impossible beam that stretched from ear to ear. “My smile is just a way of showing how sharp my teeth are.”