‘Hang on, stop!’
‘What the hell?’ Ron shrugged and enveloped the fish’s head with his dry chapped lips again, but again he heard a human voice bellowing from the deep and greedy cavern of his mouth ‘Hey!’ He slowly removed the fish and looked at it squarely on. ‘You heard me good, great. Please don’t eat me!’
Ron was starving. He had been eating titbits from a survival bag and seaweed for 33 days. Hallucinations were to be expected. Surely this was just another, but more vivid than the others.
‘Hey! You can’t eat me!’
Removing the fish again he replied, ‘And just why not? You’re not really a talking fish. My minds playing tricks on me, and the way I see it, the sooner I get some nutrients in me, the sooner I can start feeling normal again. Now shut up and let me enjoy this!’
‘Wait! We really are communicating here, I’m not sure how, but I understand you and you understand me. Besides, think about all the money you could make from a talking fish’
‘If I don’t eat you I’ll probably never see land again. There’s no guarantee I’ll even catch another fish.’
‘Hold that thought, I could help you.’ ‘How?’ ‘I could help you catch fish. It’s risky, but from where I’m swimming I don’t see another way.’ ‘How are you gonna to do that?’
‘I’m gonna swim under the boat, keep my eyes peeled and hope to attract a bigger fish for you to eat. In exchange you can set me free.’
‘Okay, but I’ll have to tie something to you so you don’t swim away before then.’
‘Fine! Take that loop of wire over there, make a snare and hang it just below the surface of the water. I will swim back and forth hoping to attract something big; I’ll keep him close on my tail, and as soon as you see me swim through the loop in the snare, you should be able to pull the snare tight around whatever is chasing me.”
‘Sounds like a plan. What kind of fish are you anyway?’
‘The most inedible kind’
‘No, I mean what species are you?’
‘I don’t know. I’m just a fish. What species are you?’
‘See, I’m just a fish and you’re just a human!’
I caught a fish that talks. 33 days at sea and nothing worth mentioning. Thought I would save the paper for especially eventful days such as this one – a talking fish! Of course I must be losing it, but I feel well. I’m thinking straight. Hell, I nearly ate the little bugger, but because of his clever suggestion I caught a bigger fish and ate really well. I’ve saved the gut for fishing line, and bait. I tried removing the skin in its entirety to make a hat. Making more hooks from the bones. No sight of ships. Badly sunburnt. The little talking fish is in a plastic bag with sea water. Said he would stay on if I told him about the southern oceans and all about the colourful reef fish in the tropics. He’s a good little critter!
That night, his 33rd under a sky that was like a spread of an infinite number of jewels on a blanket, Ron lay with the tarpaulin down and with his head propped against the heavens.
He would do this every night and try to identify the constellations he could name until blissful dreamy sleep swept him away. Years later, he would remember how wonderful it felt to have pure silence, infinite space, the sound of the occasional splashing of the water, and the soothing light of the moon.
The morning was a sharp contrast. His neck would be stiff and when he managed to peel open his eyes a flood of bright light pushed them shut again. Mostly, he would be woken by the heat, or by some recessive fear that his eyes would be pecked out by marauding sea birds. The day would continue as a struggle with the sun. The greatest battle out there was not exposing oneself to it too long. Ron had worked out to the best of his logic, and making best use of his survival equipment, a routine that he surmised was the most conducive to promoting health and survival. In the morning, since he would already be baking in the sun (a small sacrifice for falling asleep under the stars), he would slide around the side of the boat where the tarpaulin met the topsides. Here he could sit and wash himself down with salt water to cool off without risking it getting inside.
After sitting for a moment to dry, he would go inside the raft and drink one glass of water which had been filtered through the desalinating device the evening before. The hunt for food was of greatest importance. There was no time to waste – his little 10 pound fishing line, which was only 15ft long, would hit the water and he would sit most of the day waiting for something to nibble on the end of it. The line had to be manned since he could not risk having a fish swim frantically about near the inflatable life raft with a hook in its mouth. He had already devoured all the food in his throw bag, except for the soya mince which served as good bait until it became too soggy to stay on the hook. He noticed, to his increasing fortune, that fish are shade seeking animals, and in the middle of the Atlantic a large floating object is a cool oasis.
‘Jimmy, you awake?’
‘Jimmy you awake?’
‘I certainly am now!’
‘Morning. Hey Jimmy I’m not having much luck here, could you help out?’
‘Sure Ron, with what?’
‘Fishing man! Fishing!’
‘But, we already got you an albacore yesterday.’
‘Yes, but there’s no guarantee I’ll catch another fish exactly when I need it, I’ve got to keep piling up my food stocks here. I can always dry them.’
‘You have no faith in providence Ron’
‘Faith – you mean like in god? Well, any faith I had went kamikaze when I lost my boat to the storm and had to get in a life raft. If there was any residual faith after that it evaporated when the seventh ship I have seen failed to notice me in this giant orange throat lozenge in this bright blue ocean. I’m as conspicuous as a pork chop at a bar mitzvah for fuck sakes!’
‘Only 2 days ago you were delirious with starvation and somehow, while at the very end of your tether, you caught a talking fish, yours truly. I then helped you catch another fish, which if you ration it, should sustain you for a few days more. I’d say there’s been a little divine intervention here.’
‘Perhaps, but let’s say my delirium, rather than ceasing at the arrival of my respite, yourself, actually expanded into the ridiculous and fostered a most infeasible delusion that I can
actually talk to a fish, who not only speaks English, but knows of the world far and wide, and postulates on the existence of god. It’s completely ridiculous.’
‘Well it’s pointless me trying to convince you otherwise, and it’s quite inconsequential either way. It’s obvious that my presence, whether a conjugation of that frazzled pip you like to call a brain or a concrete and very real phenomenon that for all time has managed to avoid detection by your kind, is helping you survive.
Feeling happier, still restless, had more energy today. I’ve been eating better – no doubt about it. I have some pieces of albacore hanging to dry. Jimmy suggested collecting the oil drippings and putting it on my skin. It seems to give relief. I miss everything and everyone… I managed to put it all aside, although what does one think of out here, but everything they are without. Jimmy asked me about my family, Sandra, my wife, my kids. It’s lonely as hell, but I have him. God there’s nothing to do out here, but talk, we talk all day. He sounds so much like me sometimes, when I was younger – an idealist, an optimist with faith in things good and true. I am glad to have him.
That night a shower of green meteorites burst across the sky, and Ron lay there wondering if Sandra at that moment, after having a bath just after the sun went down as she did everyday, even in the summertime, would be leaning over the balcony in her white robe gazing upwards. He saw her now, her bum propped up in the air, not as firm as it once was, a little looser, it had lost its roundness, and although it was more pear shaped, he found it more seductive than ever. Of course he could never be so brutally honest with her, not any more, he hadn’t seen her in years. They had drifted apart after his little incident and were reduced to congenial strangers. They had separated against his wishes, meeting only to pick up or drop off their kids, Sahara and Blue. Conversation between them was restricted to the banalities of arrangements and awkward silences were filled with disinterested enquiries into his work. He tried to keep up a rapport of familiarity, jostling with her and teasing her about her obsessive cleanliness, keeping it light and playful, hoping that she would fall in love with him all over again. After seeing her he would often wonder what he was like during college. How much had he changed? Was he the same man now as the one she had fallen in love with?
There was a good coffee shop in the small town of Durnstil. The Black Bean was his favourite for two reasons. The coffee was hands down superior to the piss they served at Garmondo’s and it was conveniently placed directly across the road from Sandra’s bookshop. It was about at 9 every other morning that Ron, perched against a window on one side of the street, watched his ex-wife replacing books on the display shelf on the other.
He had convinced himself that this was only to admire her, while he enjoyed the most sensational cup the town had to offer.
She was gazelle like in her movements, and it was this gazelle like length in her arms that enabled her to reach the top shelf on the display stand where her assistant could not. Ron had come to prize this moment of her outstretched body straining against the fabric of her clothes as the highlight of his voyeur.
How odd, he chuckled to himself. His wife, the subject of his discerning fascination; a spectacle that awoke from its dark and dusty chambers the twisted beast that’s rejoices in the smug and private witnessing of inconsequential acts.
Had this become his mid morning matinée? ‘What am I doing here? Spying? Keeping tabs on the affluence of men in her life? This is ridiculous!’ Yet he continued watching.
He mused that watching her was much like remaining pasted to the couch when a soap opera follows a good show. The coffee: the main feature; his wife: presenting a snippet of predictable routine thereafter. The same performance of mundane routine, but where actors with their scandalous intent and childish meddling reveal the grotesque innards of their own weaknesses, her actions, resolved and decisive, revealed his. It was no longer an enlightened viewer watching the primitive squabbling of a benighted mediocrity, but a shameful reversal of roles where a dethroned lone audience, crippled with his own frailty of heart, watches the sure movements of a life moving forward without him.
He clung to the days when they were happy; the good old days. His fondest memories were of them living together in their first shared apartment. They were both in their final year of college. It was his idea to move in together. He had grown so addicted to her presence, her aroma; and her laugh that he now missed most of all echoing down the hall. When it came time to knuckle down in front of his books, he found he could not stop yearning for her. Concentrating was impossible. He needed to know that she was around, in his life, always close, never more than an arm length away.
That year they struggled and both had to work part time jobs, but it didn’t matter, and if anything it strengthened their loving bond. They laughed together as they cooked the strangest meals out whatever morsels remained in the cupboard. They often dragged a futon mattress onto the balcony and sat eating off their laps and looking over the city while drinking cheap wine. She would erupt with laughter at the faces he would pull while chewing, a piercing laugh that could wake the dead and one, he chuckled to himself, the neighbours found intolerable. He loved watching her pale nimble fingers dancing about the piano, the same dainty fingers that scratched his back whenever he asked – a touch second only to a mothers’. Nothing in the world felt so sensual, so divine. They were the perfect couple, passionate lovers and close friends; comrades in life. It was perfect and nothing could ever separate them.
But one day, several years after they had graduated, even though Ron believed that no woman could rival Sandra’s beauty he fell for a foxy fair skinned redhead. He had first seen her at a yachting convention. She was a sales rep for a marine electronics company. He had approached her stand to view a new range of chart plotter GPS’s and wanted to ask her some questions about a particular model, but she was engaged in conversation with another yachtsman. Later that day, he ran into her again while ordering a shwarma at a Greek take away joint on Moonly Street. Just as he had swung round clutching his lunch a shred of lettuce flew into her handbag while she was rummaging through it on the floor. She withdrew her hand and looked up questioningly. Ron was transfixed in a befuddled stare with his shwarma extended as if in offering, and she grimaced as if trying to hide a smile. She didn’t appear to recognise him and said ‘do you want this back? He smiled ‘no, no, I think I’ll just end up throwing it at somebody else.’ Now she smiled fully, and the huge upward curvature of her mouth lifted her right breast from her blouse just enough to hint at the coming of a miniature pink sunrise over a milky hill. ‘Oh just another inch and I’ll see those pink rosebud nipples’ he pondered.
Instantly, he had her figure sketched in his mind and he starred at her half blankly while the little Da Vinci’s of his memory etched their piece for later viewing. He remained frozen just long enough to make her uncomfortable and as if to save himself further embarrassment he smiled and wandered out onto the street before she could witness his reddening ears.
On the third occasion he got lucky. He walked passed her the following day. She was staring at a shop window admiring a manikin.
He found this strange and very quickly swung on his heels and said, ‘what is it about that manikin’s outfit that you adore?’
‘Hey it’s you from the schwarma place. Well, I was admiring her figure if you must know’
‘And was I admiring yours!’
She stood there aloof to his humour, and for a moment, he wondered if he had gone a little too far.
‘Thank you.’ she said with a smile.
He was never good at this; the necessary chat up that’s leads to a date that had to contain the right amount of humour without acting like a comedian, while seeming interesting without being ostentatious.
‘You know, I saw you at the yachting convention too’
‘Oh really? I don’t remember.’
‘Are you busy? Do you want to have a coffee?’
And there it was, the question that later led to dessert at her house and a lifetime of regret. He knew where it would lead, but the delicious redhead had struck deep in the heart of his secret desires – her hair a fiery whip, that rose the temperature of his groins every time she threw it to the side, and when strand fell across strand it seemed to create a static that made him feel fuzzy and light. He wanted her and he would have her. What Sandra didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her right? According to some religions a man is not obliged to be faithful to his wife and within these customs the words ‘husband’ and ‘faithful’ seldom share a sentence. Maybe he’d even learn something to take home to his wife’s bed.
Looking up at all those tiny holes in the night sky he wished Sandra could have been more forgiving. How many couples did he know whose love had been stricken by a sudden rogue wave of temptation, strong enough to shake the vessel of love, and send the captain reeling off his helm, but righted by the sense of duty to his heart’s course and able to steer the bark back to port. Ron had righted himself, he cheated once and regretted it, but when the ship came to port it was closed to him. Sandra was a stalwart believer in true love; in the old school notion of unshakable compromise, forgiving him seemed unthinkable, a transgression of her dignity and she inexorably held to the Christian decree of a sanctimonious bond when broken is lost forever.
Ron had cried at her feet while she stood there stiff in the cold, and pounded the puddles that were forming around them. The rain and tears began as a symphony, together as one, for surely what existed between them was sanctioned by some divine order – and if all history, all life and all creation happened towards our own end, if life was a stage whereby everything possible could be experienced and where thousands of angels could muse at the ultimate conclusion of a tumultuous broth of forces and human faculties – love or another, in its most hungry consuming, needing, blending height, how then had those angels, those watchers, those attorneys that pardoned weakness and made concessions for frailty’s sake, not come to his aid, aligned as they were to his feeling? Why had they not come when he had laid himself waste at her door?
He pleaded and the heavens seemed to plead with him. Was he to blame if it was all staged. The redhead: she had been thrown in his life story, she was from nowhere; she was a vixen moulded by gods own hand to throw him off tack to test his strength. And he had failed. And she was lost. She left him that day, taking everything with her; her belongings, her smile, her scent, her dimples, her warmth.
‘Are you crying Ron?’
‘No, no of course not’
‘Coz it really looks like your crying – there are rivers that begin at your eyes, run down your cheeks and end at your chin – I’d call that crying.’
‘Yeah, yeah so I’m crying, big deal’
‘That’s good; I like a good cry now and then.’
‘How do you even know when you’re crying – you’re completely submerged in water’
‘Okay, I was bullshitting you, fish can’t cry; I was just trying to make you feel better. Feeling better?’
‘Look man, we’re okay. Right now we’re okay; we’ve got some food …’
‘It’s not that’
‘Ron turned away.’
‘The woman hey?’
‘Yup, Ron nodded and managed a smile’
‘C’mon big guy you’re torturing yourself. You don’t need those thoughts right now. We need to keep our head about us. It’s been three years Ron, you can’t do this to yourself man. You’ve got to forgive yourself, there’s no-‘
‘I didn’t plan to get to the Caribbean Jimmy! I never sold my house or my car in order to buy a boat. I woke up one morning, grabbed all the food I could find and set off for the yacht club. I’m a yacht broker. I have access to dozens of boats, and it’s my job to know them inside and out, from the thickness of the anchor chain to the make of the water pump, I know how much food is on board, how much fuel in the tanks, when last the cutlass bearing was replaced – everything! I stole a boat Jimmy.
I headed Northwest knowing I didn’t have enough stocks to last until the next landfall. St. Helena was 700 nautical miles Northwest of me when I pulled the plugs.’
‘What are you saying Ron?’
‘I came out here to die Jimmy. I never intended to make St. Helena or the Caribbean. I couldn’t handle it any more – the loss, the loss of my soul mate, I couldn’t get away.
My thoughts were always of her. I tried. I cleaned out my house; chucked away everything she had ever given me – t-shirts, shot glasses. I took up hang-gliding, went to counselling and still she was there, always staring, condemning me, she haunts me from when I wake, and does not let me sleep. She’s everywhere!’
Ron no longer seemed lucid, but distant and aloof. He stared blankly into the dark abyss before him – his eyes level with the horizon, where one vast blackness met another even vaster.
‘Even now I see her; she’s a devil, ha-ha you devil!! Look At her many eyes, burning and flaming!’
Ron shot to his feet pointing, his head heavy with blood and rage; his mouth spewing hellfire.
‘Look she comes, even here to find me! What more is there of me for you to destroy! You have taken my heart, do you want my blood also? Is there no peace! What stars have lit your way to me even out here, you callous wench! Leave me aloooooooone!
I came out here to die anyway, engulf me why not with your burning eyes. Look she comes!’
‘Ron that’s a ship! That’s a god-dam ship!’
‘Huh? What!! Hahahaha! Do not be fooled my good man-fish. Can you not see it is the unforgiving and sadistic love of my life! I’ll recognise that queer chin anywhere.’
‘I believe that is the faint outline of a ship’s hull.’
‘Nonsense! What lies before you is but another apparition of my own hang woman; cupid’s delinquent child, manipulating the dark forces of night, from whence she first came, and that she, through her wicked art, has ingratiated herself. Her sorcery has culminated in this careening leviathan that seeks to run us through. Ha ha ha go ahead, it’s what I want, I win devil woman! I win!’
The old Chinese gentleman had been staring directly at him without flinching since he boarded the train, although he had no idea that he was to board any train at all. He recalled standing at a hot dog stand outside a barn where his friend’s dad, a butcher, would drag pig carcasses. After being served a hot dog the cook, who also appeared Chinese, but with a long equine nose like a Vienna, scolded him “you take what you’ve been given, oh and look what you’ve been given. You go over there’
He was suddenly standing on an escalator which ran right into the belly of a World War 2 bomber aeroplane. Once inside, the scene changed to that of a train carriage and he had sat in front the Chinese gentleman who he then noticed had his hand raised palm up, and on it, a sardine. Looking around him he noticed that all the other passengers were elderly Chinese gentlemen all wearing the same duck tailed tuxedo and top hats; they too had their hands extended and were offering in unison a sardine. Glancing down at his own hand he saw in it a knife. An irate, hot tempered little Asian woman suddenly appeared in front of him rapping on his forehead with something like a spoon ‘where is ticket fool man?’
‘I …this is what he gave me… Reggie the hot dog man”
‘Oh and that’s enough now, you think you can eat it?’
The rapping grew more painful with each thump and as he looked up to identify the weapon his focus fell on a brass tube of some sort, it seemed flared at its lower end, and as it swung away from him each time, he would have a brief period in which to inspect its detail before it thumped again on his cranium. He pulled his head backwards and felt that it had become weightless, and that in fact it was on a pillow, a damp one. The brass bugle swinging from its lanyard hung from the bunk above him, and beyond it a dull yellow wall and a wash basin. And then as if answering his desire for comprehension, the room came alive with flooding memories, and the walls reflected motion pictures of riotous waves- a mural of Homer’s odyssey, but what bobbed and rose between trough and crest was not a yawing wooden frigate, but an orange throat lozenge resisting the tumult of wind and swell, a starless night above it.
He kicked the covers off him, and looked around the room once more, trying to extract something more from his surroundings that would ‘… fish, I smell fish, fish, fish. Jimmy, Jimmy!’ Leaping out of bed he reached for the cabin door, pried open the thick steel frame and wheeled down a dimly lit corridor. His weak legs and the ships slow sideways rocking had him colliding from one wall to the next until he reached a heavy closed door at the end.
He could see heads moving through the port light and noisy conversation in a language he couldn’t make out. He swung the door in and immediately a noisy ship canteen turned quiet as a library with 50 startled round faces turned to him expectantly, wide eyed and open mouthed.
At the centre of each table, like some greasy alter, was a pile of bones. Ron ran to the nearest table grabbing a plate from a frightened seaman. ‘Where’s Jimmy? Is this him?’ The Chinaman reeled backwards using the table as his spring board to propel himself away from the crazy white man. ‘Where’s Jimmy? You buggers are eating him! And you! You’re eating him too!’
Ron turned sharply, ‘I’ve got to put him together, I can put him back together again.’
The crew were stunned, and did nothing to bat his hands away from their food as he grabbed a piece of fish from one plate and took it to another to see if they would fit together ‘No that’s not it, maybe that one’. He continued from one table to another, clutching stolen fillets, and rotating and comparing sides until he had assembled a jigsaw puzzle of a partial fish layed out in the middle of an unoccupied table. ‘Now if I can just find his he—ad!’ Tears began streaming and this last word come out in a dual syllable as the foggy madness cleared from him.
‘Mister?’ From behind him came a heavily accented voice.
Again it came, and this time Ron noted the compassion and tenderness of a faceless voice that struck a harmony with similar trials of the human condition. ‘Mister, you’re safe. You seek your friend, I know. He is there. The captain pointed to a massive salad bowl and in it Jimmy swam contentedly.’
Ron walked over to it excitedly and said, ‘Hey little guy, I guess you were right, you were right about a lot of things. What happened anyway, how did we get here?’
Jimmy continued swimming back and forth and stopped as close to Ron as his habitat would allow. It could not be said whether the focus of his wide angled vision had settled on Ron, but his mouth opened and from it a bubble rose.
‘That is a very rare fish. There’s no chance we would have eaten, small as it is.’
The captain looked at him with surprise
‘It’s incredibly poisonous of course’