Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview

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Chapter 18 – The Boy Who Rode The Fish

“So you're saying the minute you smashed the abacus you just started to feel for what was going to happen?”

“Yes,” said Ambrosius. They were sitting around the fire in Stan's hovel, a celebratory bass roasting on a spit over the fire. The velvet evening was drawing dreamily in outside, lapping in rolls of nightfall over the land. Pleasant smells of cooking fish and wood-smoke oozed mesmerically through the close atmosphere of the interior, drowning out the usual sluggish, garbage stench of the urban air. They sat in silence for a while, drinking in the gentle cool of the gloaming.

“I used to sit round the fire like this with my dad.” said Stan after a short pause. There was something reluctant about his voice that hinted of a mellifluous sadness; such a quality often accompanies fond memories now faded but not forgotten. “He used to talk in rhyme and tell me these incredible stories; parables even. Have you ever heard of The Boy Who Rode The Fish?” As he said the words his eyes flashed wide in the firelight.

“No, I don't think so,” said Ambrosius, yawning. He was starting to slide down from the plateau of frenetic energy that his short buzz on the stock market had created. The warmth of the fire and the closeness of the tumbledown walls made him feel sleepy, but he tried to focus on Stan's voice.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday, he told me it that many times. I always wondered what it meant.” Stan smiled enigmatically. “You want to hear it?”

“Go on then,” said Ambrosius, leaning back into the darkness.

“Well,” said Stan, waving his hands in front of the fire like a conjurer. The flames hornpiped and tangoed, twisting into shapes of fish and men. “The story goes something like this...”

There once was a boy not ten years grown,

Who lived in a cottage all on his own.

His nephews and aunties and uncles were late,

His mother and father had met the same fate.

Every new Smugrise he would lay a flower,

 Over each earthy, tombstone-marked bower.


Through thick and thin, rain's pelt and thunder's din,

Through ice and snow and north wind's harsh blow,

Our hero would speak out some words for those below:

“One day I'll get out of here.

Ride out into that wasteland sere;

I'll go and then I'll be a man.”

Out beyond that barren land.


There once was a fish who would swim free,

 Out under the foggage-green mist of the sea,

'Bove the wilderness rocky and knife-sharp with slate,

Our codling would sliver and would undulate.

Moonlit and mystic, with animate power,

The winsome, young fishlet grew hour after hour.


Through scaly skin, the soul deep therein,

Through bad and good would outpour a flood,

And announce to the world to make understood:

“The wind is my bridle here,

My saddle the wasteland dear,

I'll never be held by man,

Who could my freedom dam?


Many would try to saddle the fry,

Till monstrous it grew and threw them aside,

With chomp-bit and blinkers and jodhpurs they came,

 And left broken-spirited, glumly and lame.

Every new Smugrise they all would come,

But riders of fish amongst them were none.


Through bumps on chins, tail's flick and whinny-spins,

Through bash-bish made felt the fish,

That all attempts to tame her surely would miss:

“You tie me with flaxen rope,

Frayed fibrous with vain hope,

Yet I always break loose;

That cord 'comes hope's noose.


One day the boy was watching the fish,

Buck as it threw men out into the mist.

With courage and daring and brave-heart he strode,

 Up to the fish who had never been rode.

“Not saddle nor bridle nor blinkers I need,

Sure as the Smugrise this fish is my steed!”


Those lacking faith, wide-eyed all said “Nayth,”

Those arrogant men that stood to him ken.

Then this bold young upstart walked right through them,

And taking hold the codfish,

Firmly and sharpish,

Whilst it dove to tack,

He jumped on its back.


Away across wasteland and desert he rode,

On and on until his face grew old.

The wind cracked his features and cold creased his brow,

 Until youth passed him by and “one day” was “now”.

His mind 'came accustomed to the fishes stride,

And his movements attuned the the swell of the tide.


But in time memory cheated him cleverly,

His pride at his ride petered aside;

Inside his heart the gratefulness died.

He looked at the ground,

That stretched all around,

And longing for its stillness

Bred in him an illness.


“I am mist-sick, ill

Of this fish so fickle.

I've rode him all my years,

But bond there is none.

Perhaps I'll step off him,

Climb down his great tail fin,

Then maybe he'll pine for me,

When I am gone.”


He stepped down.

He looked round.

The fish flew

To pastures new.

Not a thought did pass,

Through the mind of the bass,

For the old-man-child,

Who once had rode wild.


He lay down to rest,

And found heavy his chest,

His eyes were glassy and pale.

And with nobody there,

To mourn him or care,

His heartbeat started to fail.

“Oh woe, oh woe,

With my big toe,

I spurred the gurnard on,

But now it's my end,

I'm nobody's friend,

And all my glory is gone.”


Ambrosius rubbed his sleepy, fire-tinted eyes. “Is that it?”

“What do you mean is that it? I really like that rhyme,” said Stan.

“It's just a load of nonsense.”

“There's wisdom in nonsense, though,” said Stan. “I'm telling you, you're starting to ride a big bass with your new job at Fish Stocks Limited. I just want to make sure you know that the Company won't have any more of a thought for yo u when you're of no use to them than the fish in the poem.”

Ambrosius shrugged. “But what about the ride?”

Stan smiled. “That's the attitude, sir. The ride will be great, there is no doubt about that. Don't think about what will happen afterwards, that's my advice. But I thought I'd tell you the tale anyway, just so you can't say you didn't know. Just so you can't use the excuse of innocence or ignorance, whichever word you might like to use.”

Ambrosius was half asleep. “You are a contradictory character, S tan. You encourage me to get a job one minute, then tell me some rhyme about an ungrateful fish the next.”

“Just warning you, sir. Like the rider of the fish, you won't be liked for your success. You'll die in the metaphorical wasteland, sir, and God knows what will happen to your soul afterwards.”

“I don't have a soul, Stan, just a brain.”

“Everyone has a soul, sir. I should know.”

“Oh?” Ambrosius emitted interrogatively.

“I told you about my fall from the ladder.”

Ambrosius nodded.

“Well, I had a near-death experience. I say 'near', but I think I might have actually died, just for the blink of an eye. I went to heaven, you know, what with having been a good and honest man up until that point.”

Ambrosius raised an eyebrow. “You hallucinated, you mean?”

“Call it what you will. Anyway, I felt this great cosmic awareness, like everything made sense all of a sudden. In short, I saw God's plan for His creation.”

“Sounds pretty intense,” said Ambrosius doubtfully.

“It was. The trouble is, I disagreed with Him. I thought He was being unfair to people, punishing them for being weak.”

Ambrosius made a disinterested noise. “So how does this relate to your soul?”

“Well, He picked up on my thoughts. He knew I was against Him. So I was called into His presence and he explained to me that I could not stay in heaven. He said that there was something wrong with my soul, that somehow it wasn't up to scratch. I was thrown out of heaven and had nowhere else to go but back to the land of the living.”

“I'm finding this pretty hard to believe,” said Ambrosius.

“It's true,” said Stan. “It's one of the reasons why I shunned my respectable life. Why work hard to be good when the fate of your soul is written in the Book of Life from day one?”

Ambrosius sighed. “If you believe in all that codswallop, then I can see your point. If God is omnipotent, then he determines your actions, and if that's the case then you can't help being bad. What's the point in being punished for something you can't help?”

“My point exactly. It's unfair.”

Ambrosius though for a second. “You know, I believe in a purely mechanistic universe. There are rules for everything. If you knew the position and properties of everything in the universe then you could predict the future exactly. So it's not just your belief in God that raises the question of free-will. I suppose the thing you've got a problem with is punishment. I reckon people are punished for leading bad lives in this world; if you steal you go to prison; if you lie, nobody trusts you; if you're violent then you end up getting hurt. So there's still that problem of punishment for purely mechanistic, predetermined wrong-doing.”

“Yes,” said Stan. He poked the bass that was roasting over the fire with a stick. It was ready. “What is free will anyway? I have never heard an acceptable definition. Perhaps it is God's will that we are his slaves. Perhaps we would like this world even less if we were free.”

“You think we couldn't handle it?” asked Ambrosius.

“I strongly suspect that we couldn't. We are at our happiest when we do things automatically; we hate things that break our routines. I think that if we were given a totally free will over anything, we would freak out.”

“What a depressing thought,” said Ambrosius.

“The fish is ready,” said Stan, taking the spit off the fire. “We're like him,” said Stan, looking the bass in the eye. “We just can't see that infernal line, then we're pulled by it into heaven or hell.”

“I hope I go to heaven,” said Ambrosius. “I don't like the sound of hell.”

Stan put the bass on a large plate and started carving. “Nobody does. I get the impression not many people avoid it, though.”

“So you think you're damned?”

“I lead people into sin now, it's virtually my job. You think there's a place for me in heaven?”

“If God's all-powerful then everything is his work. You might be leading people into sin so that they can realise what sin is, then repent and be saved.”

“You mean I could be doing evil for the greater good?”

“Yes,” said Ambrosius.

“I'd like to believe that”, said Stan with a sad glint in his eye. “I really would. But I don't.”

Ambrosius awoke the next morning early and pulled aside the tarpaulin that served as the door to Stan's hovel. The Smug cast warm light over the tower-studded horizon, shimmering between the buildings and giving the City an odd ruby-hued quality. People were just starting to emerge from the womb of the night's sins, groggy eyed and throbbing-headed, still half full of beer and stone. A million livers desperately churned out detoxifying enzymes and a million minds tried desperately to remember (or forget) the previous night. Such concerted attempts to escape reality do indeed twist its very fabric; there were rents in the space-time continuum that were still healing this morning, and the sanguine light of dawn was the best (albeit unwanted) balm. Ambrosius could feel the closeness of unreality. He sensed it in the way the tower-blocks defied gravity; he sensed it in the way people who had felt invincible the night before were reduced to gutter crawling mortals in the rubicund dawn; he sensed it in the way bits of paper could change lives and build fortunes. This was a city of oxymorons, where the impossible was not only possible but drudgingly routine. And it was a city built on infinity fish; for in the minds of the occupants that grew like bacteria in its agar crevices, tomorrow was today was yesterday. They accepted this dawn as infinitesimal, something that did not require any special appreciation for it could be repeated indefinitely. But Ambrosius was worried. He was worried that everyone was wrong. He was worried that the fish were running out.

This worry he held inside him was in direct contradiction to the buzz he had felt as he had moved fish with paper yesterday. He wanted to be the hero and save all the fish, but there was also an urge to be an anti-hero and exploit them even more. He knew that he could not walk away from his job at Fish Stocks Limited – he had been addicted since the moment he had entered the trading floor. Yet it pained him to think of Sunbeam starving. Perhaps he could work for the Company and become powerful enough to change the way they operated. Yes. He would hold that in his mind. Of course he would. That's exactly what he would do. He had the power to do that, didn't he? Just crank the ratchet-hold of the company one bit tighter, then maybe he could...

“You're up early,” said Stan, stretching. He saw Ambrosius' abstracted look and walked over to where he stood in the doorway. “What's on your mind?”

“Oh, nothing much,” said Ambrosius. “I was just thinking about this pisconomic downturn. You think it's going to be that bad?”

Stan patted him on the back. “Yes. I think we're going to run out of fish.”

“What will happen?”

“I think we'll die,” said Stan. “It won't be quick and it won't be dignified.”

“And there's nothing we can do to stop it?”

“No. It's fate.”

“I don't believe in fate.”

“Don't then,” said Stan. “But it is.”

“Well I'm going to change things. If we manage the fish carefully we can all have enough to eat. It's about stewardship, not dominion.”

“Ha ha ahem,” Stan let slip. “Stewardship not dominion? Just because you call it something different, doesn't change what it is. There are ten million people living in the City. They eat on average a fish a day. How long do you think that c an go on for, even if we were the best bass stewards imaginable?”

Ambrosius was silent for a while. “There's got to be a way,” he said at last.

“Why? You don't believe in God. Why should there be a way forward for us?”

“It just seems, well, stupid if after all this time we die because we haven't got any fish.”

“You know, I agree. I believe in God and, even though I disagree with him on some points, I still hope against hope that he's going to come through for us on this one. He made the planet fishful once, he can do it again.”

“Fish from heaven? I don't think so,” said Ambrosius.

“No, not as unsubtle as that. But there must be a way.”

“You're not being very specific.”

“That's because I don't know what's going to happen,” said Stan. “It is the lot of everything that crawls on the face of this planet to be unsure about things. I just hope for the best, but don't listen to me. Like I say, there's something wrong with my soul.”

A complex smile lay on Stan's lips.

Ambrosius returned Stan's odd smile. “Anyway,” he said. “Tomorrow starts today. I think it's time to go to work.”