Jimmy parted the brown lace curtains to watch the fishing boats heaving about in the bay. Although it was a force eight, he wished he could be out there working instead of hiding in the crumbling guesthouse.
A rat picked up a dead cockroach from the poisoned pile by the upturned corner of the carpet and gnawed on its carcass. It watched Jimmy with its twitchy, brazen eyes in the grey light of the winter afternoon.
Since the transmission of his dream, sleep had not come easily and his head still ached. He’d taken the deal from Grosvenor Media because of how many inmates had tried to kill him in jail. Now, the people of Britannia wanted to smash his head like a coconut for what his dream had made them feel during the broadcast.
He moved away from the window and heard his stomach rumble in the dusty darkness. An old banana skin caught his eye, so he took it to the corner of the room where a smudge of sunlight broke through the curtain. He sat down in a terminally rotten wooden chair and removed the boots that Heather had bought for him before he went to prison. Collecting them on his way out had been bittersweet because it was all he had left. He could still remember the look the guard had given him as he handed them over. Another at the gate said something as he clanged it shut behind Jimmy on his way out. Sounded like “dead”.
He looked at the worn-out scrap of paper on the desk with Heather’s number written on it.
For the last year, every time he called from the jail, the number had failed. She might have left him for another man, despite the tearful promises made through the sheets of Perspex and over the phone; despite everything that they had been through and everything they’d planned. She could be turning tricks in Leeds; sticking needles in her arms in some squat somewhere; at best, perhaps thinking about him while her new husband climbed off her. She might not even be alive.
The banana skin brought his boots to a shine as he scrubbed away at them. His mother had taught him that trick when he was a boy and it cheered him up to think of her. She always seemed to be wearing an apron in his memories, smiling and chasing him with hands covered in flour. He never thought of her crying on the edge of her bed when Jimmy’s father perished at sea on his trawler. At least, he tried not to.
Although he could not recall his dream, he knew it must have been something bad. The ticket agent had warned him to pull his scarf up over his face, which he had thought ridiculous until the other passengers threw him off the bus. The driver said that if he’d had his gun, he would have blown Jimmy’s head off and done everyone a favour.
He turned the grimy knob on the wall-mounted radio until he heard something other than the wind rattling through the window frames.
The public have been warned not to approach him, as he is considered dangerous. Grosvenor security have issued alerts across the mainland and set up checks at ferry terminals.
He felt a surge of sympathy for the fugitive, making him consider which island he would escape to, were he ever to become such. He could take his pick: he didn’t need a ferry. He had sailed more boats than he could remember. If it came to it, he might even be able to make it in a dinghy stolen from the harbour wall, if the weather would calm down for half a day.
He turned up the radio to hear Grosvenor’s head of security speaking in a swallowed Eastern Bloc accent.
If he is listening to this broadcast, we urge him to turn himself in as soon as possible, for his own protection.
The newsreader cut back in with his Sheffield lilt:
James Hoolihan was recently released from prison on early parole after agreeing to take part in the Totem program. He was convicted four years ago on charges of arson and corporate espionage after attacking a government building. Hoolihan and several others were protesting new legislation affecting the north-eastern fishing industry. A failed trawlerman, Hoolihan took up with violent activists against the new laws. He claimed they would result in over-fishing by large companies and provincial job losses.
When he realised that they were talking about him, Jimmy dropped the filthy banana skin to the floor and moved closer to the tiny radio speaker.
Grosvenor Media’s transmission of his dream resulted in a record number of complaints from those tuned in. Totem subscribers across Britannia reported nausea, panic attacks and a strong aversion to eating fish. Those in the capital were the worst-afflicted.
As antipathy towards Hoolihan builds, Grosvenor Security are urging the public to remain vigilant. Report any sightings by calling the following number …
He turned off the radio and parted the curtains. The sun was setting and the trawlermen were returning to harbour with their nets, but there was no sign of any Grosvenor agents. He had to make it to one of the islands on the next tide or they would surely find him. What did they want with him now? They only let him go yesterday.
The coloured, frosted glass of a tavern glowed on the corner, attracting bedraggled fishermen like moths. Jimmy could imagine the ale in his dry mouth. Knowing that he definitely couldn’t go there, he suddenly became thirsty. It had been four years and if ever there was a time he needed a drink …
Having tied up his shiny, banana-scented boots, he descended the staircase and saw a shadow lift its head from the reception desk. It was the same receptionist as when he checked in. Same white vest with plasma-stains, behind it the loose and tattooed skin sprouting with wiry grey hair. Same bulging eyes and hooked nose. Definitely the same smell, like sour milk, strong beer and cat litter. The only light came from a small wood burner in the corner of the reception hallway and hurricane lantern hanging by the door.
‘Good evening, sir. Get you anything?’ the receptionist asked.
‘Got anything to drink?’
‘There’s a tavern just over the road on the corner, sir.’
‘I can’t go there.’
‘I understand,’ said the receptionist.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I know who you are.’
‘Were you tuned in to the transmission?’
The old man nodded. ‘I went to the city for it.’
‘What did I dream? Why are people chasing me?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Maybe not, but you know. That dream is still somewhere inside your head. They want it gone. Along with your head.’
‘Why did you take me in if you knew that they’re after me?’ Jimmy asked, placing both hands on the reception counter.
‘Because you’re like me,’ the receptionist rested his scaly, yellow hand on top of Jimmy’s. Jimmy withdrew his hand and tucked it into his jacket pocket. He tried to ignore the sensation of tiny parasitic creatures under his skin.
‘I have to get a drink,’ Jimmy said, wiping the cold moisture from his forehead. ‘Anything will do.’
The receptionist rummaged under the counter and reappeared with a corked bottle of yellow, cloudy liquid. ‘Anyone found out I gave you this, I could lose this place.’
‘This guest house is yours?’
‘Took it over when my mother died.’
‘Wouldn’t hurt to run a duster over the place once in a while,’ Jimmy said, as he watched something slither through a crack in the wall. He picked up the bottle. ‘What’s this?’
‘Homebrew: go easy on it.’
Jimmy uncorked and sniffed the moonshine. ‘Doesn’t smell too bad,’ he lied.
‘Glad to be of service, sir.’
‘Can I give you any money for it?’
The owner smiled, revealing his brown and uneven teeth. As he leaned forward, he propelled his rotten stink toward Jimmy, forcing him to hold his breath. ‘It’s on the house.’
Jimmy nodded and headed back up the staircase.
‘I’ll let you know if anyone comes looking for you,’ the owner shouted after him.
Everything was damp, dusty or dirty in the guesthouse, including the mattress on the bed. He tucked his jacket under his backside and sat down, holding the bottle up to what light there was. He tried not to inhale as he took a swig.
The stuff was brutal. He’d tasted similar aboard the trawlers and swore off it after one batch crippled him with a migraine at sea. It burned his taste buds and coated his mouth with chemicals as he tried to swallow it. His diaphragm heaved and he sprayed the mouthful across the cold room, clouds of hot breath following the rejected fluid.
Even if he was able to stomach enough homebrew to get to sleep, Jimmy had no idea what tomorrow would hold for him. Perhaps he wouldn’t even make it to the morning: Grosvenor’s men might come for him in the night, drag him out of bed and throw him back in his cell. The mattress felt even colder as he resigned himself to never seeing Heather again. Even if he could find her, he didn’t want her involved in this: she deserved better.
He placed the bottle of evil on the table by the window and sat down in the chair, its frail legs threatening to collapse. The wind whistled through the masts in the harbour, carrying the belches and laughter of fishermen smoking outside the tavern.
Baked sea bass and tarragon carried on the wind briefly, but the mouldy, damp smell of rat shit on old floorboards soon came back. Then came battered cod and lemons, making Jimmy’s stomach rumble. He hadn’t eaten anything since leaving the jail and his body was beginning to feel heavy.
Watching the bloated, red-faced men wipe food from their beards made hunger gnaw at his insides.
The scent of mussels in garlic wafted through his memory, reminding him of the meals he had enjoyed with Heather. She didn’t like the fancy restaurants, so they often ended up in some back alley, family-run bistro. The glow from the kitchens and the candlelight would refract through the bottles of wine. She’d reach her perfect hands across the table to play with his hook-scarred and rope-calloused fingers. The smiling owners were glad to see love bloom in their establishment.
Jimmy prodded his jacket pocket to check that the scrap of paper with Heather’s dead number was still there. It crumpled reassuringly as he tried to imagine how the conversation would go, should the number work this time.
It would mean another trip back down to reception, but by this time, the room had grown so cold that he couldn’t wait to get out of it. As he descended the staircase, he followed the scent of burning pine to the parlour. The owner sat in front of a smouldering hearth, striking a match for his pipe.
‘Do you have a phone?’ Jimmy asked.
‘We have, sir,’ the owner said, blowing out the match and rising from the armchair that was leaking stuffing all over the floor. ‘If you would follow me …’
From behind the reception desk, he produced a bright red rotary dial telephone that chimed as he placed it down on the counter.
‘I’ll give you some privacy,’ he said, heading back towards the parlour.
Jimmy drew the scrap of paper from his pocket and flattened it out in the dim light of the hurricane lantern hanging above him. As he put his finger into the dial for the first digit, the wind rattled the front doors, making him jump. He dropped the earpiece and it bungeed to the floor on its curly cord before pulling the whole telephone off the reception desk. The phone dinged and chimed until he silenced it by holding it to his body, as if it were a thrashing fish. He placed it back on the counter and tried again, darting his eyes back and forth from the piece of paper to the dial. Some childish part of him always hoped that it wouldn’t ring dead one day. That Heather still loved him and had waited for him; that she had a good reason for stopping her calls and visits.
The click of a line connection made Jimmy’s heart beat harder. He touched one hand to his scrawny cheek as it started ringing out. What would he do if she answered? For eighteen months, he’d been rehearsing it in his cell, but he still had no idea how it would really go.
The sound of her voice muted him and made his eyes shimmer.
‘Hello? Is anyone there?’
Jimmy still didn’t reply.
This time she whispered. ‘Jimmy, is that you?’
‘It’s me,’ he answered. ‘You ok?’
‘I’m sorry, Jimmy. I can’t talk.’
‘I’ve missed you,’ he said.
‘I missed you too, Jimmy, but things –’
‘Come with me to the islands: I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘They’re looking for you.’
‘Grosvenor? They won’t find me: I’m in the back end of nowhere,’ he said, watching a fat roach climb the wall.
‘Not just Grosvenor. Big Fish have put a bounty on you.’
‘They’ve been after me since the protest,’ Jimmy said.
‘It’s not the protest: it was the dream. No-one’s eating fish in the capital anymore.’
‘All their contracts in the city have dried up. Their stocks have bombed. They’re blaming you.’
‘Come with me tomorrow.’
Her voice was brittle. ‘I can’t.’
‘They won’t find us.’
‘It’s not that,’ Heather said. ‘I’m pregnant.’
Jimmy nearly dropped the phone again.
‘Who is he?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Who is he?’
‘It’s Alan,’ she sobbed.
‘You were so fragile: I didn’t know what you might do in there.’
‘So you just left me hanging?’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do.’
Jimmy’s eyeballs felt leaden, pulling downwards into his jaw, which was still dropped. His stomach felt as if someone had grabbed it like a fish, seconds before its death.
‘Take care of the baby, Heather,’ Jimmy said, and dropped the receiver back in its cradle. He folded his arms on the counter and buried his face in the sleeves of his jacket, which smelled of old rain.
Of all people, why did she have to run off with his old boss?
The guesthouse owner startled Jimmy. ‘How about a drink?’
He looked up from his sleeves to see the man pulling on a scruffy reefer jacket and a woollen hat. ‘Out there? I can’t,’ Jimmy said, sinking his face back into his sleeves.
‘Of course you can,’ the owner said, patting him on the back on his way towards the door. ‘There are some people I’d like you to meet.’
‘They’ll turn me in for the bounty.’
‘Big Fish burnt half of our boats when we refused to sign their contracts,’ the man said. ‘You’re a hero in this town.’
‘Who are these people?’
‘Come and see,’ the owner said, opening the front door.
Inside the tavern, it was dark with most of the light coming from the roaring fireplace. Gnarled men admired the froth on their beer or watched the darts match that was taking place in the corner. A tall blonde woman of about thirty with dangerous cheekbones stared at Jimmy from behind the bar, her long fingers clasping an ale pump.
‘My friend here is hungry. Too late for fish and chips?’
‘It’s never too late for you, my dear,’ she glared at a large man in a white apron as he was lifting a tankard to his red face. ‘Robert! We have customers.’
The man dropped the tankard back on to the thick oak table. ‘Bloody hell. I’ve just wiped everything down. Tell them to sod off.’
Robert looked round and his boyish eyes widened in his stout head. ‘I didn’t realise it was you,’ he said, before disappearing through a door on the other side of the bar.
The blonde woman was still staring at Jimmy when she approached their table with their beer. Having been inside for so long, he couldn’t help noticing the shape of her body. She put down the drinks, sat next to him and whispered in his ear. ‘Someone is coming for you tonight.’
‘We travelled to the city for your transmission. We saw your dream.’
‘No-one will tell me what it was.’
‘It was so beautiful. Your guilt, especially.’
‘I didn’t know I was guilty.’
‘Over killing the fish. You’re not like these others.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Jimmy said, drinking half of his tankard in one go. ‘I don’t remember my dream.’
‘Well, of course you don’t: it’s your subconscious,’ she replied, eyeing him up. ‘But what a subconscious.’
‘Who’s coming for me?’
‘They’re probably already here. You’ll see for yourself,’ the guesthouse owner burbled through his beer.
The woman glanced at the old clock above the bar. ‘We’ll have to leave soon: the tide’s high.’
‘What about our fish and chips?’ the guest owner asked. ‘I’m going to see Robbie in the kitchen.’
Jimmy couldn’t believe that they were talking about food: someone was coming to kill him.
‘Am I in immediate danger?’
The barmaid reached into the front pocket of her apron and withdrew a small revolver, hustling it towards him beneath the table.
Jimmy took it and rested it on his knee, out of sight. ‘Are you serious?’
‘We’ll take care of things once it’s done.’
‘I don’t want to kill anyone.’
‘Then you shouldn’t have called Heather,’ the woman replied. ‘They knew you’d call her the first chance you got.’
‘They traced the call. She let them do it. Didn’t she?’
‘She was never any good for you, Jimmy.’
The door of the tavern opened and a man walked in, dressed in an expensive overcoat and a cashmere scarf. His cologne was strong enough to rise above the stale beer and pipe smoke even while he was stood by the door, looking around the room. When he approached their table, Jimmy recognised the stink.
‘Hello, Jimmy,’ the man said.
‘Bailey,’ he replied, taking a drink of his beer and refusing to meet his stare. ‘What a surprise.’
‘You spoke to Heather.’
‘It just happened.’
‘Happens all the time, Bailey,’ Jimmy said, tightening his grip on the revolver underneath the table. ‘Don’t give it another thought.’
‘You should turn yourself in,’ Bailey replied. ‘I work for Big Fish now. I can cut you a deal.’
‘None of the deals I make ever seem to work out in my favour,’ Jimmy said, finally meeting Bailey’s eyes with his own. ‘I don’t make deals anymore.’
‘You need to reconsider.’
The barmaid caught Jimmy’s eye and gave him a smile that no-one else could see.
‘Consider this, Bailey,’ Jimmy said, standing up and pointing the gun at his forehead. Everyone in the place stopped what they were doing.
‘You won’t shoot me,’ smirked Bailey.
The guesthouse owner appeared from the kitchen with two newspaper parcels of fish and chips in one hand and an old sawn-off shotgun in the other. He had it pointed at Bailey’s chest. ‘He might not, but I will.’
‘Who are you?’
‘Does it matter?’ the old man said, cocking both hammers of the shotgun.
‘I can get him a deal if he comes with me tonight.’
‘Grosvenor and Big Fish will have him killed,’ the barmaid said. ‘And you know it.’
‘Tell your bosses that we’ll send any more Big Fish goons back in bait buckets,’ the guesthouse owner said. His yellow finger brushed the trigger of the sawn-off.
‘Go back to Heather: she needs you,’ Jimmy told Bailey, feeling his larynx tighten as he thought of the family that should have been his.
‘She’s been crying since you called: she always deserved better than you.’
Jimmy dropped the gun and launched himself at Bailey, catching him with a blow to the nose. Blood erupted from his obnoxious face. The fishermen at the nearest tables stood up and rushed to grab hold of the Big Fish fat cat. One of them pulled a gleaming fillet knife from his jacket and held it next to Bailey’s left eye.
‘You want us to do him, boss?’ the knifeman asked the guest house owner. ‘We can get rid of him on the high tide.’
‘Let him go,’ Jimmy said.
The guesthouse owner walked closer to Bailey, pressing the sawn-off up against his bloody nose. ‘We gonna see you again, Mr. Big Fish?’
Bailey was standing in a pool of his own urine as he shook his head.
‘Be on your way, then. And don’t forget to give your boss the message.’
Bailey’s shiny brogues slipped and clacked as he sprinted out of the tavern. As the barmaid picked up spilt chairs and the fishermen put away their weapons, a car engine outside droned away into the stormy night.
‘Let’s get you out the back way. The tide is right,’ the barmaid said, pulling on a yellow fishing slicker.
‘Right for what?’ Jimmy asked.
‘To get you to the island.’
‘Lock up for me,’ she said, handing a bunch of keys to the guesthouse owner.
‘Thank you. I don’t even know your name.’
The old man smiled and handed him a newspaper bundle of fish and chips as the barmaid dragged him away. ‘Enjoy your dinner, Jimmy.’