Sticklebacks

Sammy wandered along the road without feeling the need for a destination. In the summer holidays there was too much time in a day for a destination. It was the middle of the morning and he had already been twice around the cabbage field behind his home trying to find the puddle with the tiger-coloured newt. The weather had been warm and dry for a long time now, though, and the puddles had all gone. Where the newt had gone was a question that didn’t occur to him.

His journey had started at the farm on the other side of the cabbage field, but the spectacular ejections from the smelly pigs in their sty didn’t seem so funny without anyone to laugh along with, and his friends were all away. He had wandered on to the sweetshop along the road but he didn’t have any money and didn’t like the way the sweetshop owner kept watching him through the multicoloured tassels of the fly-screen behind the counter. So he kept on wandering, under a blue-blazing sky, over sticky-toffee tarmac so hot that it warmed the air around his bare legs as he walked.

Sammy was nine years old and stocky and muscular for his age. He wore a white tee shirt and blue denim shorts and white socks, none of which fitted properly. Trainers that were scuffed from climbing trees and playing football and sliding in playgrounds clung loosely to his feet. His dark hair was shiny but uncombed and he carried a stick that had until this morning been a branch of a small tree. He walked in the ungainly and disjointed way that young children do, their ability to coordinate their movements outpaced by the speed at which their bodies grew, though he could run with grace and a good turn of speed. In the absence of any friends he had been left to himself by his parents, who were each alone at home.

His parents argued a lot. They used to stop when he came running into the room after the shouting started but they didn’t bother any more. Lately they had started being silent with each other, which the boy hated even more than the arguments. They didn’t talk to him when they were together now, only when one of them was not around. It was uncomfortable being in the house these days, so the boy was always out playing or doing something that kept him outside.

His mother was on her own one day not long ago, and when Sammy came in, she knelt down and kissed him on both cheeks. He knew she was a pretty woman, even with the scar on her face. He could see that she had been crying.

“Are you happy, Samir?” she said.

“Yes,” said the boy.

“I mean, are you happy here?” she said. “In this place. Do you like this place?”

“Yes,” the boy lied.

“Good, good,” she said. “That’s good. That’s all that matters.”

Sammy arrived back on the road that led to his house. It was long road, full of unbroken houses made of brick, not concrete, with roofs were not flat. They were tiled and they sloped up to the sky. The gardens were green, there was no dust, and it was very quiet. These were the first things he noticed when he looked through the window the morning after they came.

It was too soon to go home so he turned away and kept walking. He had been on these streets many times of late so he decided to walk until he found somewhere he hadn’t seen before. He turned right and right and left and right, passing the diligently different gardens of the red-brick houses that all looked the same, and ended up on a long straight road. After some time he realised that he was on the road that led to the Big School and he thought about turning back until he realised that the Big Boys wouldn’t be there because of the holidays. Heartened, he carried on. He could hear the sound of cars getting louder and could tell that he was heading towards the dual carriageway.

He saw them at the same time that they saw him.

There were three of them, sitting on the ground in the shade of a chestnut tree. He thought again about turning back but saw that this road curved away from the droning traffic and the boys and so he kept on going. One of the boys stood up. Sammy recognised him. He was the boy who had been outside school at home time a few months ago.

The boy had tripped Sammy up as he tried to pass and started saying things to him, things Sammy didn’t understand. The boy had started kicking Sammy, not hard, not hurting, but he had kicked him there on the pavement. Sammy had stood up and hit the boy full in the face with a rock he’d picked up from where he had fallen. The boy had screeched and blood had come from his mouth. Sammy had just stood still, holding the rock, waiting for what came next. Grown-ups came and took them both away, and a little while later his father had come to collect him. Sammy told his father what had happened and his father had looked at the grown-ups. They had looked away. His father had said something else he didn’t understand and then kissed Sammy’s head and led him home.

The boys under the chestnut tree all turned away from Sammy.

Coming to the junction at the end of the road, he decided to turn left, away from the sound of the traffic. The houses became fewer but bigger, with bigger spaces in between them. Fields appeared on one side of the road, and then came hedges on both sides, obscuring his view from the pavement that he walked along.

Through a gap in the hedge he saw a ship.

The ship was a canal boat and it was sliding slowly along the canal that was hidden behind the hedge. Peering through the hedge he could see a towpath on the far side of the canal and, deciding that this would definitely be a good thing to explore, he carried on along the road looking for a place to cross. After passing a couple of houses he arrived at the end of the road and turned towards the sun-gilded waters of the canal.

He came to a bridge.  It was a swing bridge with a big timber arm that allowed it to be manually swung to one side of the canal to allow barges to pass, as it must have done for the barge that was now chugging unhurriedly into the distance. He realised that it must have been opened and closed by the people on the boat. Crossing the bridge would take him to the towpath that he wanted to explore but, looking to his left, the boy noticed the concrete platform over which the bridge swung when it was opened. The top of the platform was almost level with the water and he could tell even from here that the water was clear enough to see into the depths of the canal. The boy looked around in that innocent-at-the-moment way young boys do when they know they are about to do something wrong. Seeing that there was nobody around to stop him he hopped through the little barrier beside the bridge and on to the puddled concrete platform. Crawling towards the edge of the platform he knelt down in a relatively dry patch and peered into the water.

The sun bounced occasionally off the ripples on the surface of the water further along the canal but his attention was fixed on the small world he could see in the shade beneath the bridge. Weeds like wet green hair clung to the sides of the platform and to the stones and bricks and rubbish of the canal floor. Grasses and stalks and other bits of loose vegetation floated lazily past on the gentle current. Eddies and whirls stirred the world below him. It was as if a gentle breeze was passing, blowing through this underwater world, shushing silently over the green plants and rocks and passing on to the place where breezes die. The peacefulness of this world entranced him. He put his hand into the cool water and noticed the insects skating along on the surface of the water skittered away from the disturbance caused by his hand. A sudden flash of electric blue above the skating insects caught his eye. It was a dragonfly and it darted and hovered and darted again, under the bridge, over the water and the canal banks, flying haphazardly up and down and this way and that, busy with an unknowable urgency that was at odds with the lazy summer day.

He watched the dragonfly for a while until it disappeared from view and then he returned his attention to the water. The water flowed by unhurriedly but still produced the odd plop and gurgle as it flopped against a flat surface or a cavity. A sudden flash of silver in the water echoed the electric blue flash in the sky from a few moments ago. He stared into the water but couldn’t see anything. Looking further out into the centre of the canal he could see nothing because the reflection of the sky painted an impenetrable sheen over the surface. Looking closer to the platform again he concentrated hard, flicking his eyes randomly around the depths that he could see. He decided that this was like trying to spot lightning and so instead focussed on a fixed spot in the water to see if he would be able to catch sight of the silver flash from the corner of his eye. He knew it was a fish of some kind and he was desperate to see it.

There it was. The fish swam out into the centre of his field of vision from the area under the sheen. It swam in the same way that the dragonfly flew, side to side and up and down, but in a less haphazard manner as it swam against the current of the water. It shot forward and paused and shot down and paused and then back up and to the side and repeated variations of this sequence, all the time facing into the current. The pauses were of varying lengths but often lasted up to ten seconds, which gave him time to study the fish. Its sides were silver, shiny, like metal, and the sunlight reflected by the sides was what had caught the boy’s eye. The back of the fish was darker, a faintly striped grey-green colour, while the front underside beneath the mouth appeared to be orange. It wasn’t a big fish, perhaps only as long as the width of the boy’s hand and not much fatter than his thumb. The most noticeable thing about the fish were the spikes along the back. He eventually decided there were three of these, although it was difficult to be sure as they weren’t always raised up. The mouth went pop-pop-pop as it breathed. The boy thought it was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen. He wished that he could catch the fish and take it home.

The concrete platform was surrounded by a wooden frame that the bridge swung onto when it was opened. The boy decided to edge out onto the frame to get a better view of the fish. As he did so he noticed that up against the edge of the platform was a patch of water that was shielded from the current by a protruding slab of concrete. The water here was still and clear, like a pane of glass, and in it he saw another fish that had been hidden from view until now. The fish was floating on its side on the surface of the water and was obviously dead. He realised he could just reach it by laying full length on the platform and stretching his hand out under the wooden frame. Scooping the fish out by cupping his hand underneath it, he placed it in a puddle on the platform.

It was the same kind of fish as the one in the water, although not identical as it seemed fatter and less patterned Lifeless and out of its natural environment, the fish still fascinated the boy. He pulled gently forward on the leading spike of the top fin and doing this raised the other spikes. He fanned the dorsal fin behind the spikes and ran his forefinger along it. He fanned the broad caudal fin and held it up to the sun and saw the golden spines that gave it form. He noticed that the eyes of the fish did not seem perfect, as if the artist who created her had painted them in a rush. The artist had still had enough patience to make the skin shiny and decorate it with little dots and flecks that changed colour when held at different angles to the light. Placing the fish carefully back in the water, he sat and watched it for a long time, the reflection of his own head framing the floating fish. This was the first time that he understood the meaning of the word beautiful.

The water was cold as he slid into it. Beneath the surface, the canal looked like a long room filled with slowly moving furniture, the waving green weeds dappled with light from above. He breathed in and the water filled his lungs and he tried to cough but couldn’t. He kicked and struggled for a little while but the panic soon left him as he surrendered to the dreamy comfort of floating.

The last thing he saw was the stickleback.

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