You make an effort to give life a shot, and you get taken down by a fish assassin. It isn’t very encouraging.
Fish poison wasn’t the only toxin I’d been poisoned by. I had also been infected by a virulent strain of camaraderie that had left me weak and pathetic. It’s all very well trying to make these things work to everyone’s benefit, but it just isn’t possible.
You might be a sincere believer in the ideals of Karl Marx, but one day you will learn that your leaders are just petty fascists who will tell you whatever it takes to get you to do what they want.
Or you might be a heartfelt hippy, sharing love and weed with whoever needs it most, but one day you will learn that your leaders are just petty fascists who will tell you whatever it takes to get you to do what they want.
Even if you’re a committed member of the Nazi Party, one day, well, that one you should have seen coming.
The point is, you can’t make the world a better place for other people. They just won’t stand for you acting all high and mighty, like they needed your help or something.
I had to accept that things would always be as bad as they could possibly get, that was my starting position. I needed to improve from there.
Instead of traipsing around all la-di-da and fancy-free, I had to get serious. For all their uselessness, my party had found a way to keep their heads above water, usually by roping in some poor innocent like me to guide them.
That’s often the way of the world. The undeserving find a way to profit out of any situation, convincing themselves they’ve earned it, somehow. Meanwhile, anyone who tries to not get involved and do no harm, gets shafted. Usually by the undeserving.
Life wouldn’t be easier now that I wasn’t carrying a bunch of ungrateful retards, it would be harder. I needed to adjust accordingly.
“You’re still very angry, aren’t you?” said Wesley.
“No, I’m just thinking where I can sell all this fish.” I had them strung up on a pole, balanced on my shoulder. How much did fresh fish go for? For all I knew, everyone hated fish and it would be pennies.
“You can try the fish market,” suggested Wesley. She at least knew the city, which was useful. “If it still exists. It’s been a while since I went shopping.”
She knew the city from some time ago, which made her slightly less useful, but still a lot more useful than me.
I snuck back into the city without being stopped. There seemed to be a late afternoon rush hour, and I was getting good at blending in. Plus, there was a lot of dust being kicked up the wagons, so I don’t think anyone saw me.
The fish market did still exist. It was tucked away behind the main square, in a smaller, smellier square. It wasn’t very busy. It was getting late and most of the fish business was probably done in the early morning.
I tried selling my wares to the guys behind the stalls, but they weren’t interested. Disgusted might be a better word. Gave me dirty looks and told me to bugger off. I hadn’t expected a bidding war, but they were surprisingly aggressive with their rejection of my offer.
Apparently, they had official suppliers. Unionised and everything. Not only were they not allowed to buy from non-union members like me, if the unions found out what I was doing, I’d get my face beaten to a pulp. I was informed of this a number of times.
So much for that plan. The fish had started to smell a bit by this time, the afternoon heat doing me no favour. I was popular with the flies, though (can I call them flies if they have fingers and toes?).
My failure wasn’t entirely a surprise. Finding a buyer would be too convenient. I’d do better cooking it myself and selling it on the street. Fish on a stick.
Not actually a bad idea, but first I had another avenue I wanted to explore.
“Are there any fish restaurants here?” I asked Wesley. It was a desert town, but it had its own fish market, so there was a good chance it had a few places that sold fish suppers. I had seen the prices the fish were going for, and I could undercut them heavily. Sell direct.
The whole thing was a learning experience, like when I was back in Probet. Back to square one.
“You could try Fish Row,” Wesley suggested. “If it still exists.”
I was sure it did. No one would let a pun that bad go to waste. Fair enough. Off we went.
Fish Row did still exist. Having Wesley on board was proving to be pretty handy. She was like if Siri was actually helpful.
Of course, no one wanted my dodgy rogue’s gallery of fish. Each one a different kind of ugly.
They also warned me about the Fishermen’s Union. Quite the scary organisation. When they said you’d be sleeping with the fishes… you can add your own punchline.
I went from restaurant to restaurant. The smell of food cooking in various herbs and oils was making me hungry. I was getting to the point where I’d have to start my own business. Would that be illegal? Where did I apply for a license? Judging by the state of most of the restaurants, health and safety wouldn’t be an issue.
The final spot on Fish Row was taken by a small place that looked like it had closed down years ago. The shabby sign said ‘Damicar’s Piscine Cuisine’. Fancy.
The door was open, but not much seemed to be going. I stepped inside and there were a bunch of bamboo table and chairs. Does bamboo grow in the desert? Maybe it was imported. It was hard to tell, since it was all smashed up, along with a full dining set of shattered crockery.
More alarming than that was the smell. My fish were pretty stinky by this point, but their odour was completely buried under a sour, vinegary reek. It made my eyes sting.
There were a couple of candles almost burned down, barely illuminating the place. It was a wonder the fumes hadn’t caught light and sent the place rocketing into the sky.
Since we’re going through the senses, let’s not forget sound. Snoring. Loud and rasping. The sole inhabitant was lying on a filthy mattress, a big fat fellow constantly rubbing his enormous exposed belly in his sleep.
There was also another sound. Sizzling. I followed it out of curiosity, and found a small fire behind the counter, or what was left of the counter (something sharp and axe-shaped had gouged out chunks of it). It was on the floor, a small bunch of rocks in a circle with twigs in the middle, it looked like. Hard to tell because of the wok on top of it, filled with bubbling oil.
“That looks dangerous,” said Wesley.
One good thing about the lodger in my brain, she didn’t constantly natter on about nothing. Not that I’m saying women talk a lot, but she respected a guy’s right not to have to pretend to listen, which was rare.
She was right, it didn’t look very safe. At least the candles were in holders. This was literally setting the floor on fire.
But, oddly enough, it smelled wonderful.
You could only tell when you were close, but whatever was cooking was sweet and light, but spicy and pungent, and yet fresh and sharp.
“Hey, no, don’t,” mumbled the formerly prostate proprietor of the establishment. He came scrambling along the floor towards me, at a speed that belied his size.
I backed off, but he didn’t go for me. He spread out his arms, protecting the wok. “Take what you want, but leave the food.”
There was no fat-shaming this fucker. He knew his priorities.
He eyed me with a desperate, hungover, red-rimmed stare. “Did my uncle send you?”
“No, he didn’t. And don’t worry, I don’t want your food. Do you want to buy some fish?” He was my last hope, but I wasn’t hopeful. Customers weren’t exactly lining up to get in.
“Really? You’d sell to me?” He had tears in his eyes.
“Sure. How much?” If there was a story here, about the hardships of running your own business, I planned to make my sale and exit swiftly before hearing it.
“Ah, money is in short supply at the moment, I’m afraid.”
Great. Finally find a buyer, and he’s broke.
“What if you paid me after you sold it?” I asked. Judging by the heavenly odour from his wok, the boy could cook.
He jumped to his feet. “Sir, I am Damicar, at your service. Please, let me inspect your fish.”
How could a girl refuse an offer like that? I displayed my wares for him, like the brazen slut I was.
“Oh, I see. How unusual. Very different. Each one unique.”
He seemed surprised at the variety in my catch. It wasn’t looking like it was going to be my day.
“Not good?” I asked him.
“Not good, great. Fantastic. This is just the challenge I need to raise me out of this stupor I’ve been languishing in. You, sir, are a godsend.”
I wasn’t sure which god he thought had sent me, but he might want to ask for a refund. Still, he didn’t seem put off. And I liked that he kept calling me sir when he had to be around my age, probably older. It wasn’t easy to tell because he had one of those round, pudgy faces that could be anywhere between fifteen and thirty.
He looked a bit like Oliver Hardy, which I guess made me Stan Laurel, which was fine by me. A wonderful English actor who played the fool and was actually a bit of a genius. He ran the show, and Ollie turned up in between rounds of golf. A winning combination.
“You think you can cook something up?” I asked.
“Indubitably, sir. Everything is manna from heaven in my pot. My secret is onions. Yes, sir, you heard me correctly.” He opened a drawer, one of the few not broken, and revealed it to be stuffed full of what looked like spring onions, but really big and thick. He took one and began chewing on it. The source of the rancid smell became clear. “The simple desert onion, much maligned, rarely understood. They ridiculed me, and threw me out of the chef’s union. Warned me to never cook in this city again.” He shoved more onions into his mouth.
There were a lot of unions in this place (as well as a lot of onions). I wondered if Arthur was responsible. He seemed the type to get things organised with his depots and warehouses. The docks were probably unionised, too.
“Is that why the place is like this.” Indicated the smashed up furniture.
“Yes, yes.” He took out another onion and bit down into it. If this was his regular diet, maintaining his girth was even more impressive. “They didn’t fancy the competition. Stopped the wholesalers selling me meat and fish. Even then, my vegetarian dishes were sublime. It was the onions! The secret ingredient. Slowly melting to a golden-brown that melts on the tongue. Sir, allow me take you by the hand and lead you to Brown Town.”
He put his arm around my shoulder. I hoped Brown Town referred to the onions.
“Even now, can you smell it?” He waved his hands over the wok, and I could smell it. My stomach gurgled appreciatively. “They couldn’t stand my culinary innovations. Jealousy, sir. Trashed my small little dining shack, left to me by my father, and forbade their suppliers from supplying me.”
“They blackballed you.”
“Indeed. The blackest balls you’ve ever seen, sir.”
He was presuming a lot, but at least it was in the right direction. “I can get you more fish.”
“Like these?” He didn’t seem keen.
“Just tell me where the best place to get them is. I’m very good at catching anything fish-shaped.”
“Very well. Let us first see what we can do.” He bent down and pulled up a floorboard, reached down and took out a box. Inside was a set of knives, polished to a mirrored sheen. “Perhaps you could straighten up the place. Once they smell what I’m cooking, they’ll be beating down the door.”
Seemed like a reasonable request. I began tidying up. If he was as good as he seemed — none of the other places had smelled as good as his simple onion fry up — we might actually have something.
An hour later, I had the place sort of presentable. The mattress went in the alley out back. The bathroom, I locked the door and blocked off with the remains of a cupboard. If we were attacked by monsters — and when was I not attacked by monsters? — then that was where they would come from. They might have been in there already. I wasn’t going to prod anything to see if it moved.
For the main eating area, I went with a Japanese vibe, very low table and chairs. Didn’t really have much choice. I found more candles and got the whole place lit up. Fire hazard? Almost certainly. But lovely.
Damicar was a demon with those knives, turning the fish into instant sashimi. He had several woks going, each with its own ring of fire on the floor, each smelling great. Lots of onions. He was constantly grazing on them at the same time.
The street outside was filling up, and people were showing interest, although no one had come in yet. We were on the verge, though.
I stepped outside for a moment, thinking I might be able to attract some customers with my smooth sales pitch (pointing at the open door, mainly), when I saw them coming down the street, the welcoming committee. I could recognise them by the sticks and clubs they were carrying.
About bloody time.
Next chapter is available on Patreon now for patrons.Afterword from Mooderino