Fish Stocks Limited by Michael Summers - HTML preview
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Chapter 20 – The Skeleton
Ambrosius got up early the next morning as the City was waking and packed some essential belongings into a small backpack. He went directly to the Fish Stocks Limited building and took two weeks off on holiday. His boss was surprised and a little bit annoyed that he was taking time off at such short notice, but Ambrosius had brought in a lot of money for the business and so he acquiesced. Whilst he was there, Ambrosius had his wages for the past five months made out to him in stock and, ignoring his boss's raised eyebrow, placed the certificate carefully in his bag. As he walked through the city streets, Ambrosius felt free; this perturbed him a little – he had grown accustomed to the mantle of a steady job and missed the rail that had guided his life for so many months - but still his mood was ebullient. He was going to get the girl, she would divorce Fathead, he would take her back to the City and then he would save the world. It all seemed so simple. It was as if his whole life had been building up to this. Little memories from childhood flitted back to him. Insults, jokes, unusual comments, all seemed to make sense. Yes, these two weeks would be the time of his epiphany.
He reached the edge of town and the great mist dykes loomed into view, filling the horizon with their oppressive barrier. You can't hold me, Ambrosius thought. It must be said that his optimism had now well and truly erred into the realms of the foolish; you don't think stupid little thoughts like that to yourself unless you are a fool. Wise men are marked by a silence in their heads.
“I'd like to charter a boat,” said Ambrosius at the harbour master's kiosk. The harbour master, a round, red buoy of a man with lank, shoulder-length hair that looked like it had tar in it, looked askance at the slight, nerdy looking figure before him.
“I'm not a rental service, boy,” said the harbour master. Then the suit Ambrosius was wearing permeated the rotund man's consciousness. He breathed out a sigh that smelt of ship's biscuit and rum. “What type of boat are y'after?”
“Just a small one. With a petrel engine.”
“Go down to the dockside, see. There's a big fishing schooner just come in. She'll be back in dock for a couple of weeks now, having the barnacles scraped off her hull. Speak to her skipper and he'll probably rent you out her jolly boat for a reasonable price. Speaking o' which...” The harbour master smiled, revealing a row of rot and gold.
Ambrosius put one hand into his pocket and extracted a silver sixpence. “Thank you,” he said, placing it on the counter top.
The jolly boat was light and quick; the mist parted in front of it and trailed in whipping vortices at its stern as Ambrosius sped along. The poor outboard petrel embedded just above the rudder was flapping ninety to the dozen, letting out the occasional squawk of protest, but Ambrosius was in the mood for speed and he kept the throttle threateningly tight round the unfortunate bird's neck. When he came to the jungle he had to slow a little to avoid hitting the trees, which towered above him and trailed creepers down to brush his hair and face. The myriad insects that propelled themselves through the mist splattered stickily upon the prow and Ambrosius' forehead, which, combined with the incessant bobbing and weaving between trunks, made this part of the journey unpleasant and mentally demanding. An hour or so later, Ambrosius was glad to be clear of the balmy jungle and o ut into the open expanse of the desert that separated him from the Hundred Boughs. He floored the boat, which planed over the surface of the mist, eating up the distance between him and the far-off trees that stood spire-like on the horizon. A flock of shrieker birds took off from the distant canopy, spots of black against the low morning sun. Minute by minute the trees of the Hundred Boughs grew larger and more life-like.
After another hour and a half, Ambrosius had reached his destination and he let the petrel rest, which it did whilst gasping avian curses in his general direction. The boat now hovered above the mist next to one of the hooktrees, an old moss-bearded giant with immense buttress roots that were frozen in a static kick. Ambrosius could not help but stop for a moment's contemplation. He was on the barrier between two worlds, two separate realities that filled different sections of his head and his heart. On this watershed he stood shaking, feeling things click and crackle between lives. He shook his head and clenched his fists to stop his hands shaking, but these suppressed tremors seemed to travel up his arms and shake his very brain. Now he was a City dweller, now he was a tree-dweller; back and forth between these polarities our dichotomous protagonist reverberated. The two seemed immiscible, the constituent memories that related to each seemed to separate out like oil and vinegar, forming a vinaigrette of vignettes, all bubbling to the surface of Ambrosius' perception and then settling down again back into the suspension of his subconscious.
Enough! Ambrosius grabbed hold of the rough bark and hauled himself out of the jolly boat. Now his tremors were gone, now his simian climbing instincts kicked in and made fast and unshakable his grip. He started his ascent and as he did so for the first time in a long while he felt the atmosphere of the treetops start to ooze back into his soul. There were exquisitely subtle undertones to this homely miasma; the smell of hookblossom, the smell of bark, the smell of his own sweat even, all seemed to trigger deep memories that bred a sense of familiarity to make his stomach fuzz as though he had just downed a glass of warm brandy. As his efforts brought him nearer the canopy even the quality of light was different, having filtered through an atmosphere less permeated by the damp of the mist.
It was not, however, until he lay panting on one of the boughs not far from his home, his birthplace, that something very marked happened: things started to have Superfluous Capital Letters. A hooktree was now a Hooktree, a hookfruit was now a Hookfruit, and, most importantly, a fish was now a Fish. This peculiar sacredness hit Ambrosius like a slap in the face with a wet flounder, and he was dazed by it temporarily. He got to his feet and looked about him. Nobody was to be seen. The place was eerily silent. This lack of movement, this silence, this death of bough-slapping feet - something was wrong. Uncannily the static surroundings absorbed his breathing, until his chest felt tight and it was as if the very fabric of the trees pulsed to his inspirations, as though he was trying to move hard bark and solid wood with each gasp. He shook himself. This was all the product of his sudden change of environment, a peculiar nervous effect generated as part of his mind's attempt at so sudden a readjustment. He would snap out of it soon enough. So what if nobody was about? It was the middle of the afternoon and many people took their siesta round about now; people always shunned the sweltering heat of the midday Smug and dozed in the cool of their shacks. He focused his mind. Only one priority stood silhouetted in his mental headlights – Sunbeam.
Throwing his concerns over his shoulder, Ambrosius strode and swung purposefully over bough and branch. In less than five minutes he was outside Sunbeam's door and knocking urgently. Rapraprap. Rapraprap. Raprap...
The door creaked open an inch under the force of the knocking. Ambrosius pushed further and it swung open, revealing an interior that was black as a moonless night. The midday Smug beamed in through the open door in geometrical perfection, creating a small triangle of illumination in the murk.
“Is anyone there?” tested Ambrosius to the darkness. “I say, is there anybody there?”
A voice that seemed swamped by the blackness called out – call it a call, one may, but it was more of a squeak or a croak or a gasp. “Who's there?” It was female and quiet. It seemed to Ambrosius not unlike Sunbeam's voice, only broken in two, now high, now low. “We don't have any, so you might as well try robbing someone else.”
“Is that you, Ambrosius? I thought you were...” Sunbeam trailed off. “You're alive?”
There was a shuffling from the interior, but no shape emerged. Ambrosius did not know this, but that shuffling had been Sunbeam trying to stand up.
“I've come back to...” Ambrosius paused. He hadn't really thought how he would phrase this. “I have become fishful,” he said after ten seconds had dragged. The words seemed lost in the ink shadows of the shack.
There was no response.
“Come into the light where I can see you,” said Ambrosius.
“You've become fishful?” The question was asked with a mixture of disbelief and something else, something which Ambrosius could only identify as disgust.
“Yes, I thought you would...”
“Would what, Ambrosius?” The words were spat rather than spoken. There were more shuffling noises from the depths of the shadows and stifled gasps.
“Well, you set me a challenge, you see,” started Ambrosius uncertainly. “You said that the day you loved me would be the day I catch a fish.”
“A Fish?” emitted Sunbeam. And she laughed long and hard and hollow, a laugh that Ambrosius didn't understand. She stopped suddenly. “You say it like it's a rock.”
“Sorry, I meant a Fish,” said Ambrosius.
“You have it here?” asked Sunbeam. All of a sudden there was a frantic edge to her voice, a desperate edge. Ambrosius could hear her take some faltering steps across the room and stop just on the edge of the darkness.
“Well,” said Ambrosius, rummaging in his bag, “I think you'll be pleasantly surprised...”
“You've got a Fish! Ambrosius, you've got a Fish!”
Ambrosius continued rummaging awkwardly in his backpack. “Now, I'm sure it's in here somewhere.” He stopped. “Do you remember your promise, Sunbeam?”
“What promise? Out with the Fish, oh please, out with the Fish!”
“You said the day you loved me would be the day I caught a Fish.”
There was a silence. Then Sunbeam croaked, “If you have a Fish then I love you, Ambrosius.” The words were as bitter as wormwood.
Ambrosius seemed oblivious to that bitterness. In his monomania he could hear only their literal meaning. He rummaged with renewed vigour in his bag, and at last his hand grasped at what he had been looking for.
“You have the Fish?” asked Sunbeam intently.
“Better than that,” said Ambrosius, taking his hand out of the bag.
Before Ambrosius could say any more a hand shot out of the darkness and grabbed him by the wrist. Ambrosius looked down at that hand that gripped vice-like at his skin. It could have been a skeleton's, it was so thin.
“Where is the Fish? I see only a piece of paper!” The voice was cracked and broken, as though the speaker had been cheated of some great hope.
“Sunbeam,” said Ambrosius, trying to take in the skeletal appendage that grasped his own. He tried to project his voice and make it sound firm and manly, but instead it wavered. “This piece of paper is worth eight hundred thousand Fish.”
There was silence again. The grip around Ambrosius' wrist was so tight that it hurt. Indeed, where Sunbeam's nails dug into his flesh deep purple-red marks were being incscribed. At last the unbearable silence was filled again with that hysterical, hollow laughter. It pealed time and time again, inhuman, cold laughter that chilled Ambrosius to his bones. Then, out of the darkness loomed a face. The cheeks were sunk, the eyes desperate and wild, the lips cracked. In all respects it was gaunt and wasted, and it was a terrible face, because it was the face of Ambrosius' love.
“Look at me, Ambrosius,” said Sunbeam. “For the past year I have had no Fish. Do you know how terrible it is to starve? Yes, there were Hookfruit, but nobody can survive on Hookfruit alone. I should know; there was a point when I would gorge on them to fill my screaming stomach, but still the gnawing, relentless hunger remained. There is nothing on this planet like true hunger, Ambrosius, nothing.”
Sunbeam's eyes burned into Ambrosius' and he couldn't speak.
“But you know what is the worst thing?” continued Sunbeam. “Through all those days and weeks and months of suffering, I held out one hope. That hope was you, Ambrosius. I knew you had gone out into the Mist to try and kill the monster. I thought,” again, Subeam laughed, “I thought that you would bring the Fish back. And now you stand in front of me with this... this piece of paper? Do you know how soul-destroying that is?”
“But all you have to do is come back with me to the City and...”
“What is a 'city'?”
“It's where lots of people live, down in the Mist...”
“In the Mist? I am not dead yet. This is my home, Ambrosius. How could I leave all my fellow Piscadors to die, even if there were all the Fish I could eat back at this 'City'?”
“Forget them, Sunbeam. We can be rich, rich and well-fed.”
“No, Ambrosius. You may have found the riches of hell down there in the Mist, but you will not drag me down there too. I have made my peace with myself, having thought my life to be ebbing away. I will not break that peace.”
“So you're just going to stay here and die?” Ambrosius exclaimed. An anger had crept over him unbidden. What a stupid, pointless, preventable way to go!
“You have a fire in you that I did not see before. You've changed,” said Sunbeam. The words were dry.
“Yes, I've changed,” said Ambrosius. “I'm not a stupid, feeble, push-over any more. I am a man of means.”
“Then bring the Fish back.”
Ambrosius clenched his teeth. “You can't ask me to do the impossible.”
“Yes I can. I can and I am.”
“Then you're even more stupid than I thought!”
“You can call me what you will. Go back to your city, find a replacement for me. I know you love me, Ambrosius.” This was said with a cruel mirth to it. “But you'll just have to find someone who looks like me. Yes, do you know any skeletons in the City?” She laughed but her face, lit by the triangle of Smuglight, showed tears at the edge of her eyes.
Ambrosius wrestled with himself. “I do love you... no, not any more... I'll never find another like you... but you're just a stupid.... don't make me do this, Sunbeam! Come away with me!”
“Never,” said Sunbeam, and there is none more terrible a word for a lover to hear. “You'll know where to find my bones. You can fawn over them all you like.”
“Does it really have to be like this? I've worked hard for my Fish and now they mean nothing to you.”
“I can't eat pieces of paper, Ambrosius. When you catch a Fish with your own brawn and cunning, catch a Fish that you can see, smell, feel through the line. Then you are my man. You know where Fathead is?”
Ambrosius stood in silence.
“Fathead is out with his line cast. He has been gone for a fortnight. You know, he would die at that line for me. He might well have done already.”
“But he doesn't love you like I do,” said Ambrosius. “Deep down you know this.”
“I'll know nothing when I'm dead.”
“But you know that I will never make a Fisher. How can I ever bring you back a Fish?”
“If you loved me you would be able to move mountains.”
“Romantic codswallop!” cried Ambrosius. Then he controlled himself. “Sunbeam, I love you. But you have set me a task I can never do. To look on your face is agony now for me; I will spend the rest of my life running from this last image I have of you, this gaunt, pale wraith of everything beautiful and innocent and good. Your eyes will hunt me to the ends of the world and I will have no rest.”
“Then so be it, Ambrosius Codwich. I would have it no other way.” Only love could have nurtured such a statement.
“You like to know that I suffer?”
Sunbeam gave a cracked smile. “It will sustain me.”
The petrel screamed and revulsion danced in Ambrosius' brain as he jerked forward and away, away for ever from his home, from love. His face was a mask; suffering lay deep in the crypt of his soul, booby trapped with vicious spikes of self-loathing. Every time he tried to access a fond memory of Sunbeam those cruel barbs shot forth and, as his mind lay bleeding, the living skeleton of Sunbeam loomed over him, and the whole of his mind's eye was eclipsed by that terrible, cadaverous face – his mask twitched and ticked but still did not give way. With every yard that trailed behind him he was further from himself, from truth, from light. He was not conscious of it but with every flap of the petrel's wings he was becoming a thing of darkness, like the shadows of Sunbeams hut.
Now Ambrosius was infected with this thing that was spreading over the world – call it a pisconomic downturn, the apocalypse, the evil tide; call it what you like. He bore the seed of shadow in his soul, and it was growing fast, sending out a tentative hypocotyl to quest for light and to turn it to shade – indeed, to make Ambrosius himself a shade, a spectre, a ghost. He steered the boat down into the mist, until he could see only a few yards ahead. At such a high speed the danger of collision with an unseen obstacle was great, and adrenaline surged like a balm through his tortured brain. Gnashing and weeping tearlessly, Ambrosius hit the jungle and trees whipped past on either side of the boat. He slowed despite himself and steered in between the trunks, trying to occupy himself entirely with the steering of the boat. But it was still there, Sunbeam's maniac laugh. In her love she hated him, and he could do nothing but love her wholly in return.
It was late afternoon as Ambrosius neared the mist dykes of the City, the petrel now lamed and chuntering along pitifully at the stern, causing the boat to slow to a funereal crawl. To say Ambrosius felt better now he neared the City would be incorrect – he felt worse. But that feeling was of such a negative quality that it had its own kind of lure, an addictive property that caused Ambrosius to lap it up like it was slaking some kind of thirst. And another thirst whelmed him, a thirst that was more literal – he wanted absolution, and, as everyone who has ever been in this state knows, the promise held by a beer glass was calling strong. The mist gates opened just wide enough for the jolly boat to pass through, and Ambrosius piloted it to the docks and moored it. He told the harbour master that the crew of the schooner to which it belonged could find it at the quayside, and that a bill for a new petrel could be sent to his office in the Fish Stocks Limited building. He knew that such an address would probably put the skipper off claiming any damages.
So, with leaden heart and a storm in his head, Ambrosius hit the Cannery Arms.