Advent Stories #24

THE PIKE

Artwork by Caniglia
Artwork by Caniglia

Carpers further down the canal were using fishmeal and pellets to try to tempt the doubles, but Lostock wasn’t interested in them. Carp might fight for longer, but they weren’t as aggressive as pike. He didn’t like the look of them, those bloated and gormless mouth-breathers. They turned his stomach. He’d talked to bailiffs and other fishermen about the water. Some were happy to chat with him, others hunched over their gear like poker players protecting a good hand as he approached. They’d tell him what he already knew. They suggested he find another place to fish, that this place was dead now after long years of pressure, of inexperienced anglers fouling the stock. Nothing much left. I only fish here because it’s close to home and I can’t get around as much as I used to. In their eyes: Piss off. This is my swim. Sling your bleeding hook, or rather, don’t.

It was a deep canal; five feet in the main, sinking to six in some places. The margins were shallower and this was where most of the snags were to be found. Weed-beds, shopping trolleys, knotted drifts of ancient polythene. Over the years Lostock had lost any number of rigs to rusted, sunken bicycles or reefs of fly-tipped refuse. It wasn’t ethical to lose a baited treble hook in the water – no matter that they were barbless these days – so now he tested extensively the stretches he fancied, clearing the water of obstacles, or making sure of the depth so he could cast accurately above the bed. He noticed that in some areas near the bank the depth was similar to that in the middle. Pike were known to lie up against the bank or within holes. They’d be attracted to this extra foot or so of water. He knew he might be on to something when he found one such spot near a factory. Outflow pipes flooded the canal with warm water. Fish bliss. He’d often been told by his grandad that if you ever found an area like this, you should give it some time. Tend it like a garden, you’ll reap rewards.

So he’d bought a clean, empty paint tin from B&Q and punctured it all over with a screwdriver. He’d begged the fishmonger for a bucket of his waste and filled the tin with chopped heads, fins and guts. He’d added oil from a carton of mackerel fillets and left it by the heater in his shed all afternoon. He took the stinking tin to the canal in the evening and tied a rope to the plastic handle. It had hurt to do so, but he managed to sling it out to the swim he had his eye on. That bit of the water that roiled and rolled with the warm current from the outflow. He pegged the rope down and beat it into the packed soil of the bank and went home, checking first that nobody had seen him at work.

He ate. He bathed. He coated his skin in Imiquimod cream. He slept.

There never seemed to be any great stretch between closing his eyes and opening them again. He couldn’t remember his dreams any more. It was his skin, rather than the alarm clock, that brought him back. Skin so tight and dry it must belong to another body. It itched constantly, no matter how much of the cream he applied, or how often. The doctor wanted him to go for surgery, but Lostock had a thing about scars. Scars changed the way you looked. You became someone else, and he was only just coming to terms with the person that he had been shaped into. But then, maybe, it would be for the best if he did change. To be physically altered, to be at some part removed from the cast of his ancestors. The slightly prominent forehead. The downward slope of the mouth. It would help him to forget that he was the sum of a number of parts that were at best defective.

Whynt y’get ’itched, Jimmeh? Whynt y’settle down?

He turned away from the voice. He became absorbed by the routine. The flask of tea, the sandwiches – one beef paste, one ham and cheese – wrapped in greaseproof paper and tucked into the lunch-box with an apple, a Ski yogurt and half a packet of Malted Milk. His little radio, permanently tuned to TalkSport. He never listened to a word, but he needed the mutter and grumble to help distract him from more persistent voices.

A check on the tackle he’d loaded, the foldaway chair, the bait. He put the car into neutral and let the handbrake off. He coasted down the rise to the main road and only switched on the engine when he was twenty feet clear of the last house. Five a.m., and a white skin on the world. Everything shivering: the trees, the engine, the fine net of frost hanging in the air. He drove past a bungalow with a red Fiat 127 in the drive and he almost cried out. His first car had been a 127, a hand-me-down from his dad who was half-blinded by glaucoma and unable to drive. He remembered many journeys prior to that, sitting in the back seat. No radio. No seat-belts in the back. Wind-up windows. The most basic model. His mother: Oh, it’s got a ruddy engine then? An episode leapt to the head of the queue, the one time Dad took him and his grandad fishing. Grandad hauling in breath to a pair of lungs turned to worn leather after a lifetime of heavy smoking.

He’d listened to his dad moaning about the Prime Minister, about his lack of a pay rise, about the quality, or lack of it, of the beer at The Imperial. He didn’t understand a word of it. He just watched his Grandad’s hawkish profile, his wet blue eyes, the dry, sucking slit of his mouth. Later, when the deck chairs had been set up, his Grandad sat and watched his rod. He didn’t speak. He never spoke, not to Lostock, anyway. He always wore a faraway look, as if he was remembering his youth, before asbestos, or smoking, or pneumonia took it away for good. He’d never been hugged by the man, though he’d opened his arms to him when it was time to say goodbye. His grandma hugged him plenty; enough for the both of them, he supposed. What remained of his white hair curled out from beneath his cap like the barbs of a feather. Dad showed him how to thread the line through the eyes of the rod and attach a float, the lead shot, the hook. They’d brought bait in labelled Tupperware tubs: breadcrumb, sweetcorn and maggot. His Dad told him there was a trick to making a maggot wake up quickly after a night in the fridge.

‘Pop one in your mouth for a few secs, warm ‘im up, then hook ‘im on.’

But Lostock wouldn’t do it. His mum had told him that a boy had done exactly that on a fishing trip, and something in or on the maggots had infected him, burned his tongue and his lips and his penis from the inside out. He was all blisters now and he would never have kids of his own.

‘Y’talkin’ nonsense, Barb. Don’t fill the lad’s ‘ead wi’ shite like that.’

‘I ruddy amn’t. You let him put maggots in his mouth and I’ll play holy hell, Bill Lostock. See if I ruddy don’t.’

His dad showed him how to keep a finger on the line while you were casting, right up until the last second. Grandad’s float was orange, Dad’s was yellow and his own was luminous green. He stared at it for hours. He stared for so long, that the float became superimposed on eyelids whenever he closed them.

Waterwolf. Slough shark. Old Jack.

‘Jack’ll take your fingers,’ his grandad told him, while his dad went off to take a piss. ‘If you don’t show him some respect. Almost killed my father.’

The mere lay before them like a trembling brown skin. Lostock was shocked into silence, by the suddenness of grandad’s utterance, and the way his voice sounded. it was really quite lovely: rich and liquid and touched by inflections that didn’t sound like anybody he knew in his home town.

Grandad had been on a boat as a child with his father, Tom, fishing for pike, when the pike rammed them. His father and he both fell into the water. Grandad almost drowned. The pike rammed Tom in the face, scarfing down an eye. Grandad managed to pull himself back into the boat and splashed at the water with the paddle until he was sure the fish was gone. He didn’t know who was screaming the most, him or Tom. Other fishermen on the bank had been roused by the commotion and waded out to them.

‘Is that the worst thing you ever saw?’ Lostock asked him, and his voice had been tiny in the oppressive room, under the cracked Lancashire slur of his grandad, leaning over him with his hawkish face, the grim, sharkbow mouth.

‘It were the worst I ever felt. Watchin me dad go into the water and see that monster try to drill itself into his head.’ He leaned closer. Lostock smelled tobacco and Uncle Joe’s. ‘We all of us have a chapter like that. A black chapter. Sometimes you write it yourself. Sometimes some bastard writes it for you.’

His dad came back then, face red from the sun. They stayed until dusk and packed up, empty-handed, his dad cursing the water and the idiots that were supposed to stock it. Kev Beddall had told him there were scores of perch in the mere. Big ones too, five pounders. He reckoned there might be a British record in that water. ‘Kev Beddall’s got shite fer brains,’ he remembered his dad saying. His grandad resembled a fish discarded on the bank, sucking uselessly at the air, waiting for the priest to batter the life from him. He had wondered if maybe his grandad was a pike in disguise, and might be better off in the water. Lostock had stared at his dad in horror, wondering if he had read his own black chapter yet. They stopped off at the pub on the way home but he couldn’t swallow his Coke for the fear that swelled in his throat.

 *

Lostock reached the swim, his head thick and itchy with unpleasant memories that had not encroached for many years. His grandad had died maybe two or three years after that fishing trip, the only one they’d shared, and he could barely remember a conversation between them. It was as if Lostock did not exist when they were in the room together. His grandad stared straight ahead, at the wrestling on TV if it was on, or if not, at a space above it.

‘Lived longer than I will, though,’ Lostock thought now as he set up his rig, fixing a wire leader to the line to foil the pike’s teeth, attaching a circle hook, digging through the tubs of deads for some suitably tasty lure. He cast nervous glances east, to the factory, and what lay beyond. His skin trembled, as if in recognition.

The sun was a bare thin line skimming the houses in an area that had once been known as Arpley Meadows, where Thames Board Paper Mill had stood. He used to cycle up Slutcher’s Lane to watch the cricket matches there in the summer, and root about in the grounds because sometimes you could find spare rolls of gaffer tape as large as a tyre. He might take some bin liners with him and fill them with the shreds and offcuts from the factory, caught in the guttering and ditches like wizards’ hair. He went round the lanes near his house, selling it as bedding for rabbits and guinea pigs, a bit of pin money to keep himself stocked up on hooks and fresh line.

He’d kept that green float, for luck, and he used it now. He cast into the swirl of warm water by the outflow pipe and settled into this chair. He put on his sunglasses and cricket hat. He angled his umbrella against the coming dawn. He waited.

Basal cell carcinoma. This skin cancer was, the doctor had related to him, a result of ‘solar damage’, as if he was no different to some kind of satellite. Plaques and lesions had formed and grown on his legs and arms, the skin becoming sore and red and even, in some places, scaly and crusted. The doctor wanted Lostock to go for surgery, had impressed upon him that this form of cancer was eminently survivable, but he didn’t want any knife near him. Which left him with dawn and dusk to hide his face, and a scarf when these uninhabited acres became dotted with loners like him.

Whynt y’get ’itched, Jimmeh? Whynt y’settle down?

He closed his eyes to his dead mother’s voice as if that might provide her with an answer that would satisfy her. She had, probably rightly, blamed his obsession with the fish for his inability to land what she called a proper catch, a keeper. His objections were down to his skin, but it wouldn’t wash with Mam, who had always made it sound as though he was to blame for his condition. No Lostock ever ’ad the skin cancer befowah. And we sunned ussel’s daft, got sunburned and everythin’. All I can say is you int made of the same gristle as the rest of us. You daft get.

He hadn’t the heart to mention all the holidays they’d taken to Rhyl and Prestatyn and Aberystwyth when he was a child. Every summer in a caravan, two weeks of traffic jams, his dad pissed every night, and a diet of burgers, chips and ice cream. Dawn till dusk out in the high 70s without sunblock sucking down warm, sugary lemonade, always thirsty because of it. And when he woke up in the middle of the night in agony, his skin the colour of boiled lobsters, blisters the size of footballs on his legs, his mother had sterilised a needle with the flame from a cigarette lighter and lanced them, then squealed at him to sleep on the sofa when the lymph from within drizzled on to his sheets. That had happened so many times he couldn’t count them. His GP had gone spare when he saw the scars. He ordered his mother to either keep him out of the noon day sun or slather him in factor 50.

What’s that pale nobend know about suntans an’ doctorin’? his mother had wanted to know. Ant got no ruddy clue and how dare he shout at me like that? The jumped up snot-nose bastid. What is he, twelve years old? An’ thinks ‘e’s God’s gift to ’ealin’?

Thanks, Mam. Thanks for everything.

His first memory of his Mam: reaching out to her from the pram, her oval face framed with prematurely grey hair, her brown eyes wrinkling under a brown smile. The filter between her brown fingertips. She used to dip his dummy in rum laced with honey to get him off to sleep. She forced it in his mouth like a plug that was slightly too small for the sinkhole. One time, she caught a ragged fingernail on his lips and he cried so hard his throat hurt and the breath snagged in his chest –

The green float disappeared beneath the surface of the water. He stared at it a moment, thinking of the fake emeralds around his mother’s throat as they dipped below the scalloped neckline of her dress. He wondered where she had bought that, or who had given it to her. Behind every trinket, a story. She would –

Christ.

Any other fish and he’d have lost it. But it was okay, with pike, to take your time. Most of them attacked fish acrossways, content to wait until they arrived back at their lair to turn their meal around and eat it head first.

‘Hi Jack,’ he said, without realising. He struck into the fish and the immediate resistance of it corded his forearms; it was a big bastard, maybe twenty-plus pounds. The far bank, the factory, the wedges of leaden cloud rising on the horizon, all of this receded until his focus took in only the tip of his rod and the boiling surface of the canal just beyond it. It was in such moments, when the world mostly went away and he was blindly connected to the animal on his hook, that he felt anything like alive. His mind stopped harking back to a time when he wished he might have been happier. It did not pick at the scab of his grandfather or mope over the decay that drove his parents apart. His skin was just a dull sack that contained him, rather than a complex structure that was degrading, conspiring to pull him apart. There was a single, pure thought. How to deliver something from one element into another.

The fish fought for a long time, longer than he was expecting. He wondered if maybe after all he’d struck into a carp, but then the fish rose and its duck-billed head became visible. An eye swivelled towards him from just under the surface, with its fixed black pupil like a hammered tack. He was granted a view of its pale belly as the fish rolled away from him, all bronze, gold, rust. It was endless, ageless. The fish sank and Lostock felt the tremor of its body as it flexed, finning for depth. The line had broken. Now Lostock felt a pang of guilt through the brief depression of his loss; fish hooked deep enough might starve to death because the hook and wire trace couldn’t be removed without damage to the delicate gut.

He put down his rod and cleaned his hands. The winter sun was finding a way through the mist, despite being unable to rise much higher than the factory roofs. Lostock got out of his chair and stretched his legs. Fighting the pike, and all that remembering had tired him but it was still too early to turn to his lunchbox. He poured out another beaker of tea and took it downstream to the hump-backed bridge. The road was cracked, studded with pot-holes. On the other side of the bridge it split into two. One branch curved left and cleaned up its act before it met the main roads on the outskirts of town. The other branch ended after a hundred yards at a steel fence locked into place with breeze-blocks. The factory beyond was out of bounds, awaiting the wrecker’s ball, presumably, or a slow decay into the foaming acres of autumn hawkbit and mind-your-own-business.

There was a security poster fixed to the diamond links with nylon ties, but in all the hours Lostock had spent on the canal bank he had seen no sign of a patrol. No white vans. No dogs. He placed a foot against the fence and it bowed inwards; someone had been here before. Further along, where the fence became lost within a tangle of branches and brambles, it was torn and buckled. Lostock pushed his way through, careful not to snag his sore skin on any of the metal claws, and approached the factory entrance. The door had been recently secured with what looked like old railway sleepers bolted across the frame. The ground floor windows were boarded up with fresh panels. He took a mouthful of tea and spat it out: cold. He’d been standing on the forecourt, staring up at the building, for fifteen minutes. Cramp laced the backs of his calves. He shook it out and walked around to the side. The hair on his back and shoulders was rising but the temperature, if anything, had improved since dawn. Ducts and pipes, corroded by time and rust into metal wafers, sprawled from the factory wall like something gutted. He placed his hand against one of the less ruined conduits and felt warmth. He remembered the outflow pipe at the canal, with its constant drizzle of warm water. What had they made here? Was the factory abandoned after all?

He remembered this place from his childhood. You could see its saw-tooth roof on the bus to and from school if you sat on the top deck. His grandad had worked here, but he had no idea what he did. Dad told him he did carpentry in his spare time, and had constructed the frames for the houses that backed on to the M6 through some of the villages dotted around south Cheshire. But this didn’t look like any kind of timber factory. He saw now, how, if he climbed on to the pipes that swarmed from the shattered housing, he’d be able to lever himself up to a window that was only partially obscured by chipboard. The lure of the fish was only so great now that he was in the shadow of the factory. He felt the delicious tremor of criminality, unknown for years, since minor indiscretions as an underage drunk, or shoplifting bars of chocolate from the corner shop. He placed his cup by the pipe and hoisted himself on to it, realising, too late, that if the metal gave out under his weight he would injure himself badly. His skin was in no mood for cuts or abrasions. It held, but it made plenty of distressing creaks and groans. Flakes of rust and paint fell psoriatically away. As he drew closer to the window, there was a smell of chemicals and mildew, reminding him of the bathroom at his grandad’s house, before he was moved to the home. He was fond of harsh-smelling products: Vosene, Listerine, Euthymol, TCP, Dettol. He would never have touched a jar of moisturiser. It was a wonder he had not dissolved in some of the things he slathered on his own skin.

Lostock pulled at the chipboard; it broke apart under his fingers. He pushed it away and gazed through the open window-frame. The factory looked as though it had been abandoned in a hurry. There was a melamine table with a mint green surface covered in a film of grease and grime, peppered with plates and mugs. A padded jacket hung on a chair. Beyond that was a cavernous area swimming with motes. His fingers till sang with the tension from the fish and he didn’t feel the dull pebbles of glass that remained in the frame as he levered himself into the factory. His boots crunched on more of that glass and the dust and dead insects of God knew how many years. The air was cold and old. It smelled of feathers and spoors. There was a rich, mushroom odour underpinning the faint chemical ghosts. Empty paint tins stood glued the floor by rust and their own leakages. In a corner, a pair of vermin-chewed boots stood facing the wall. Layers of paint and plaster peeled from the walls, revealing the lathe beneath, like rudimentary ribs in a creature that had been ignored by evolution. A calendar clung to what was left. Much of December woman had leeched into the tiles above a bowl containing a boulder of solid sugar. Her face was smeared, her eyes accusatory. Leaflets explaining how to join a trade union were a gummed mass considering a leap from the corner of the work-top. Lostock moved through the room, hating the gritty echoes that his feet threw up. He opened a door into a corridor flanked by offices. All of them were empty, the furniture flogged, the fittings and fixtures stolen, or stripped out by renovators abruptly stymied by the plummeting economy. He found himself on the floor of what might have been the Human Resources base. There were yellowed dockets and invoices spilling from a file swollen with damp. They mentioned paper orders and quotas for recycled pulp. What he’d smelled all along was not the dank organic stench of mushrooms, but the ancient rot of paper. He meant to leave then, sick of the smell, and the way the air was somehow coalescing around him, the tiny fibres of cellulose tickling his nostrils and blanketing his lungs. But something about the smell was growing more familiar to him, the further along this corridor he progressed. Under the factory odours was something domestic, but not of these times. It was a mingling of notes that fled as soon as they arrived, like a word that would not sit still on the tip of the tongue. Napthalene, suet, the hot cotton scent of antimacassars scorching by direct sunlight. Bleached hardbacks on a shelf, barely touched in fifty years. Brasso. Wright’s coal tar soap. Camp coffee.

He was standing in an office without understanding how he’d reached it. Depressions in the floorboards showed where a desk and chairs had once stood. Gaps in the grille across the window allowed him to see his deck chair by the canal. What was he thinking? There was a couple of hundred pounds’ worth of gear lying there, waiting to be nicked. But he was rooted. Something in the air: this smell, this peculiar mixture of smells that he’d not known for thirty years. He stared at where the desk would have been, and tried to imagine the shape of the head of the man sitting behind it. He found it hard to believe that people might have come to him to ask his advice on an aspect of work, when he was so very recalcitrant in his private life. Lostock imagined him at Christmas parties, or outings, tie off, the neck buttons undone. Handing out pints, helping women into their coats. ‘Thanks, Jack. Bye, Jack.’

There was a large plastic rubbish bin in the opposite corner. Somebody had made a half-hearted attempt at clearing out the room but had either given in or stopped when it became clear the building was a hopeless case. He saw great clods of hoovered up dust and carpet fibres, whiteboard markers, broken in-trays. There was a manila file in there too, with Lostock’s initials on it: J.K.L. James Kenneth Lostock. Inside were pictures drawn by a child, yellowed by time around the edges, pitted here and there by thumbtacks. Pictures of the man who had owned them, all gigantic faces and arms akimbo. Here was a picture of Grandad holding a fish in his fist. Lostock did not remember drawing them, but there was his name at the bottom of each page, with the ‘e’ and the ‘s’ back to front.

He wished his grandad back for the first time, then. He thought he might be able to help him, in the way the doctors and his parents had not.

Whynt y’get itched, Jimmeh? Whynt y’settle down?

Is that the worst thing you ever saw?

Lostock was 12 when he went fishing for mirror carp with his best friend at the time, a boy from his class at school called Carl. They’d cycled to the gravel pit, mist-covered and grey this particular winter morning, with rods already set up and baited, pieces of corn infused with vanilla extract speared on their hooks. Lostock had told Carl vanilla extract was a bit gay, but Carl said the fish liked it, that they wouldn’t spit the corn out because of it.

They ditched their bikes next to the pit and pitched a tent. They made their casts and sat watching the tips of their rods. Soon Lostock dug into his rucksack and started divvying up their breakfast. Morning rolls spread with peanut butter and mashed bananas, cold crispy bacon wrapped in kitchen paper, a flask of hot chocolate. Lostock was bored after a couple of hours. He wasn’t the fishing nut; he’d agreed to come along with Carl, who had a passion for carp. It had sounded like an adventure. It was just cold and dull.

He told his friend he was going to do a round of the pit on his bike, maybe see if there was anywhere to do some jumps. Carl waved him off. Something made Lostock turn to look back at his friend, when he was on the opposite side of the pit. A figure, slight and pale, wearing a Lord Anthony covered in Star Trek badges and jeans so faded they were almost white.

Almost immediately he heard the sound of cows lowing. He turned toward the noise, nervous. He didn’t like cows. He didn’t like their thick pink tongues licking at too-wet nostrils. He didn’t like their swollen udders and the caking of shit around their tails. They stank. They attracted flies. He drove his mother berserk because she was worried he wasn’t getting enough calcium inside him.

There were no cows in the field. He could hear the groan of morning traffic rising from the main road, a couple of hundred metres away. And this lowing.

He scrambled through the sludge of rotten leaves and mud, splashing cold, dirty water all up the back of his cords — and his mother was going to clear his lugholes out over that when he got home — and found his way barred by a fence. Behind that was a couple of parked cars and an open door. The sound was coming from that.

He thought to go back to Carl and ask him about it; he knew his way around this place, but instead he dumped his bike and climbed over the fence. He went to the door and peeked inside. There were five men in white gowns and helmets, like a team of weird construction workers dressed up as ghosts. One of them turned around and Lostock was aghast to see an apron slicked with blood. He stepped back out into the cold air, glad of it in his chest, smacking him in the face. He thought about getting back on his bike and cycling to a phone booth, calling the police. There was murder going on here.

He had to make sure. He ran around the back of the building, where lorries were backed up against open bays. He heard the cows again. And other noises. Screams and squeals. This sounded nothing like the deaths that occurred on Kojak. Through a window he saw cows being led to pens. A man with what looked like a large black wand bent over them and pressed it to their heads. There was a hiss, a deep ka-chunk sound, and the animals dropped.

He didn’t know whether what he felt then was relief or sickness. It was just another kind of murder, after all.

He was thinking of bacon sandwiches, and whether he would miss them if he decided to become a vegetarian, when he heard another scream. This one was altogether different. It was high pitched. Somehow… wetter. It suggested a knowledge of what was happening to its author.

He ran back to the windows, thinking of intelligent animals, wondering crazily when the British public had developed a taste for dolphins or octopi, and saw a long steel trench with lots of metal teeth turning within it. Someone had been piling indeterminate cuts and wobbling, shiny bits of offal from a plastic chute into one end but had got his arm trapped. His mates were running towards him and the man was screaming shut it off, shut it off. Thankfully, Lostock couldn’t see his face. He didn’t say anything else after that, because the auger ground him into the trench and he was killed. He heard the scream cut out as if he’d flicked off his own power switch. He’d heard, even at this distance, through the glass, the pulverisation of thick bone. He’d seen the teeth of the machine impacted with flesh and torn clothes. His face had risen from the trench, scooped up by a blade, like a bad horror mask on a pound shop hook.

Lostock was sick where he stood, violent and without warning. It was as if someone had punched it out of him from within.

He didn’t remember climbing back over the fence, collecting his bike, or returning to Carl.

‘Where have you been, you bone-on?’ Carl demanded. ‘You nearly missed this.’

He stood back to allow Lostock a look at the mirror carp lying in grass. It was enormous. It seemed deformed. Its skin was olive-coloured, there were maybe four or five scales, dotted near the tail and the dorsal fin. Its eyes protruded, its huge mouth gawped, gasping in the air. Lostock felt suddenly detached from nature. He couldn’t understand how this thing could still be living, how it could have come into being in the first place. There was this sudden impact in his mind about the outrageousness of animals. He had sucked up science fiction films since the age of five and stared out at the night sky wondering if aliens truly existed without giving any thought whatsoever to the bizarre creatures that lived on his own planet. Elephants. Rhinoceroses. Squid. Mirror carp. Here was as weird as you could get. He saw Carl for what he really was, a network of organs, blood vessels, bones and nerves. A brain with ganglia. Meat. The boy in the snorkel parka was gone for ever. Everything had changed.

‘I have to go home,’ he might have said. He didn’t remember cycling back.

 *

He returned to the canal bank and loaded a hook with bait. The skin on the back of his hands was a mass of red striations. It felt loose on his face, like a latex mask he might be able to get his fingertips under and peel away. Despite the stink of the canal, and the constant breath of the exhaust coming down from the main roads, he could smell the sweet riot of decay pulsing off him. He pushed it all away and concentrated on the green float as he cast the rig into the water. Almost immediately he saw the pale underbelly of a pike as it rolled on the surface by the far bank. Something was wrong. Lostock picked up his landing net and ensured his disgorger and his pliers were in his pocket, then hurried over the bridge to the other side. It was the same pike he’d caught that morning. He slid the net beneath it, careful not to startle it away, but this fish was going nowhere. There were ulcers all over its body, he could see now. Maybe where the fish had been fouled by careless anglers in the past, or something more serious. Struggling with the weight, Lostock brought the fish ashore and got it on to its back. It must have been forty pounds. He placed his legs either side of the body. With his gloved hand he grasped the pike’s chin bone and tugged it upwards. The mouth yawned open, revealing a coral-coloured throat. Nylon line reached into the shadows. Lostock clamped the line between his pliers and wound it around the jaws; the gut rose into the mouth, revealing the embedded hook, awash with blood.

‘Christ, I’m sorry,’ Lostock said.

With his other hand he used the disgorger to remove the hook and pushed the gut back with the blunt end while holding the head as high as he could. His muscles burned and trembled under the weight of the fish. Its eye was fixed on Lostock the whole time. There was a cold, ancient wisdom there, and despite the circumstances, and the poor condition of its flesh, Lostock, as ever when he was in such close proximity to pike, felt an immense swell of wonder. He heard his dad’s voice, softened by beer, and a twelve-hour shift at the depot: They’re mean-looking buggers, and they fight hard, but they have a glass jaw, them pike. They die easy.

 *

He slipped into the water and drew the fish in alongside him. He tried to coax some movement from it, but it kept rolling on to its flanks. The majesty of it. The power. All potential was reduced in the end. Every spike of adrenaline was only a temporary thumbing of the flatline’s nose.

Because you have nothing else. Because you want to say goodbye.

The cold crept through him, despite his exertions with the fish. His skin no longer troubled him. The pain was like something viewed through thick fog.

This fish had been around for millions of years. He wondered if it was related to the one that had attacked his grandad as a child. He wondered if, in some freak of longevity, it was the same beast. And there was a jolt of alarm as he considered the fish might be faking its sickness, and only wanted to trap him. But that passed. And he kept on with his ministrations. He got down low to the surface, close enough to smell the mud in its flesh, and he whispered to old Jack until night concealed everything.

 

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