Fish Man squats Fatima Mansions, a tumbledown townhouse on Pentonville Square. The building is in all day shadow behind iron tooth-pick railings on a scrap of dirt. The windows are boarded and the front door padlocked.
But the board at this window, here, is a sham. It is nailed once at the top of the frame, allowing a pendulum, hidden to the passerby, but through which initiates may pass. Fish Man glances up and down the paving, demonstrates, and into the building he disappears.
The lad looks at Tommy and he looks at the lad and, nodding, says with a tight voice, “Go on, then, Numbnuts.” He climbs through the window, steps into a sink and, balanced there, takes in the dim room. “Hurry up,” says Tommy. He drops to the floor and Tommy’s right behind him and the board drops back to the perpendicular.
The squat is damp; smells of weed, smells of unwash. A must smears the incensed air and when the air stirs, as it does now as they enter, dust motes rise and float and fall. The kitchen is dressed in an earlier decade. “Come in,” says Fish Man. He stands at the kitchen door, looking back, grinning. Something shining. He beckons and vanishes down the unlit corridor. Footsteps fading.
The legs of the sofa are missing, having been sawn and used for heat; so they sit with their knees to their chests like scallywags among a potpourri of cushions and throws. The curtains are vast rags, velvet remnants, nailed unskilfully to the frames, but more or less hiding the world beyond. The lad, for something to say, says what a nice place you have here. He’s being polite. But the more he looks around, the more he sees that takes his eye.
Hundreds of books on plank and housebrick shelves; more books stacked and scattered all about. On an ugly sideboard, a treacle coloured thing, a vast glass tank, backlit with a bare bulb, bubbles and burps and, within this green water world, yes, goldfish tease, and tiny black fish with trailing, sheer dorsals and tails, turn, languid beneath the gaze of an indolent marmalade coloured cat stretched across the arm of the red sofa. The lad scratched the head of the cat and the cat rose up beneath his hand magically.
Fish Man is explaining. “Reading is like milk before fish.” And this all makes some kind of sense to the three of them being stoned. Fish Man says he would like to make a gift to the lad. “For the misunderstanding. Take as many as you can carry.”
“I don’t have to swallow them,” says the lad. And Tommy cringes and Fish Man laughs and there is a gold tooth back there with a spade sign on it. “As many as you can carry,” he says. The lad gets up and wanders round the room. In the candlelight he peers this way and that, near and far into and away from the shelves. The spines of the books make him turn his head this way. They are mostly, what are they, novels.
Fish Man is explaining his inheritance. When she died she bequeathed the books to him. “The books bring luck.” And it is a measure of the man as to how many he can carry on his journey. The lad slides out a book here and there and judges it, weight-wise, in his hand.
“Don’t try and guess the weight, friend. The weight is unimportant. A pound or a stone, it’ll be your arm that becomes tired in the end. The important thing in accepting is knowing when to give up the weight. The weight will slow you down.”
They considered this awhile and the smoke hung in the room and Burning Spear rumbled. The lad perused the walls and here and there he slides out a book just a few inches and moves on. After some time he sits back down on the sofa and pulls the belt from his dirty jeans. It is a long thin belt of brown leather with a skull buckle. From behind the lapel of his jacket he produces a large safety pin and with some trouble he gathers up a bunch of his oversized jeans at the front and stabs the pin through. Nappy style. He clasps it back together again, stands up, places the belt on the carpet and starts to collect all the books that he has selected from the shelves. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He piles them roughly on the floor. 6, 7, 8, 9. Eventually he squats back down on the carpet and lays out the belt flat on the floor. He selects the books, largest first, and begins to make a pile of them over the laid out belt. After awhile he scoops up the ends of the belt and tries to buckle it up around the books. But there are one or two too many, the pile is a little fat. He has run right out of holes.
“A little fucking greedy,” says Tommy. But Fish Man says, no. That’s not the case. He picks up the knife again and kneels down onto the carpet with the lad. Fish Man holds one end of the belt, lays it out on the carpet and skewers the knife tip through the leather with a series of grunts. He lays the knife back on to the table and with a smile declares something foreign that sounds like magic. The lad buckles the belt around the books, stands and lifts the belted pile up, his fingers slid between the top book cover and the belt leather. A dozen books. Fish Man is beaming. Spade shining. He likes this.
They say their goodbyes and out on the Streatham High Road the lad sticks out his thumb and up pulls a car and within the hour he is free of the confines of London. By dawn it’s Southampton and this is where this ride ends. He loosens his belt, slides out the top book. It’s a dog-eared paperback called The Hollow Men by John Dickson Carr. He puts it on the dash and says thanks for the ride and please accept this as I have no money.