The Weekend Read

In Praise of Radical Fish

By Alison MacLeod



21st Apr 2017

In Praise of Radical Fish
‘We were each capable of ugly things…’ Read ‘In Praise of Radical Fish’ by Alison MacLeod…

Brothers, I tell you solemnly: it is not easy to become radicalised in a seaside resort. There are distractions. There are deckchairs. There is all that soft, watery light. What can a brother do but hope that the flame of his anger survives the refreshing sea breeze?

It was the Bank Holiday weekend, and I had coaxed Omar and Hamid to Brighton from Peterborough on the promise of a pre-jihad team-building weekend. If we could maintain our anger there, I told them, we could maintain it anywhere. Except I was the weak link. I still had to find the flame within. On Brighton Pier, while Omar and Hamid brooded like ayatollahs, I struggled with an embarrassing excess of good cheer. The day was bright, the tide was high.

At the shooting gallery I managed to take out an entire row of ducks – only to spoil everything by returning to my brothers bearing cuddly toys.

Omar frowned. Hamid sighed. The X Factor buzzer sounded in my head.

Ham said, ‘No one may hold a cuddly toy when the call to Holy War comes.’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘It is written?’

He and Omar exchanged a look. Ham knocked my head.

We were waiting for the call from the Emir’s man on the Dark Web, aka The Recruiter. Hamid had acquired a second mobile purely for the purpose of the call, and it could, he said, come at any moment. If we were deemed proper, The Recruiter would tell us when and how to mobilise. He would get us maps, through a third party back in Peterborough, and a list of required kit.

Ahead of us, at the railing, a white guy vomited into the sea.

‘Lim,’ Hamid said to me, his voice public-school posh and low, ‘listen. I am grateful for your efforts, I truly am, but’ – he cast an eye over the pier – ‘wouldn’t a few lurid games of paintball in Peterborough have served? Brighton, I think, is a city of Kuffar. We should not be here.’

I was out of my depth when Muslims talked like Muslims. My father had always worked shifts and found it difficult to take me to mosque. I made a mental note to check the glossary in my Islam for Dummies – £12.40 RRP less my staff discount. Then I slapped Ham on the back and told him all would be well.

Omar also looked impressively miserable. How did they do it? I gathered the toys in my arms and assured them it would only strengthen us to confront and renounce the pleasures of Brighton. ‘Watch,’ I said.

The girl in the candyfloss booth was called Joy. It said so on her badge – only she had scratched out the ‘y’ in black biro.

‘Did your boss get your name wrong?’ I tried.

She was pretty even when she scowled.

‘I’m Lim,’ I added. ‘As in Limazah.’

‘I’m Jo,’ she said. ‘As in Jo.’

I smiled and arranged the toys, like supplicants, in a semicircle around her booth.

She rolled her eyes but laid down her flossy wand and stepped outside to see. ‘I don’t like it when customers use my real name.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said.

She beheld the many lopsided smiles, then bent down and tentatively stroked a furry blue dolphin. In the light of day, her skin and hair sparkled with a fine residue of spun sugar. ‘You’re nice,’ she said.

Nice? Nice? If only she knew. With any luck, by the following week, I’d be sporting a Kalashnikov and the unattractive early growth of a hard-core beard.

Her nose stud twinkled in the midday sun. ‘Here.’ She took my phone from my shirt pocket and typed her number in. Then, in a moment’s afterthought, she added her name.

Three taps.

I couldn’t help myself. I punched the air.

‘Bye, Limazah,’ she said, smiling shyly and returning to her temple.

‘Bye, Joy,’ I said, and I walked-the-walk back to Omar and Hamid.

If anything, their superior anger had only improved in my absence.

‘What was that white girl doing with your phone?’ asked Hamid.

I laid my hand on his shoulder. ‘Most worthy brother,’ I said, ‘I take my balaclava off to you. I really do. You are a gentleman and a scholar. You know what to be angry about. I can only follow your lead. That’s why we’re here. To learn. To be tested. We must think of Brighton as the Endurance Course of the Soul.’

‘Did you endure?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I confessed.

He sighed again.

Hamid, a student of Islamic philosophy, had never travelled farther south than London, while Omar had never seen the sea except on telly. We’d met earlier that year at the Gladstone Street mosque in Peterborough and were all nineteen. Omar was unemployed, even though his father was big in dried fruits – Turkish apricots, figs, dates, sultanas, prunes. Omar and his old man had fallen out when Omar announced he’d rather die than follow in his father’s footsteps.

Die?

His father had laughed and mocked, and as he did, the words spilled uncontrollably from Omar’s mouth: ‘Yes, die! I will go to the Land of Honour.’

‘Ha!’ His father started shouting wildly in Turkish. ‘You think they will want you? With the amount you sleep? With the amount you eat? Ha! Do you imagine they will keep you in hair gel? But if it’s jihad you want—’

‘I will make plans,’ Omar bluffed. ‘You’ll see.’

‘—then it’s jihad you get.’ His father walked to his desktop, pushed aside a sticky bowl of prunes, clicked on easyJet reservations and opened a Google map of Turkey. ‘Here,’ he said, his blunt finger stabbing the screen. ‘Cross at Bab al-Hawa. Pack a compass. Don’t eat with your left hand. Don’t show anyone the soles of your feet. And send your mother a postcard.’ Then he clicked once, twice, three times, and Omar’s one-way ticket was booked.

I found him prostrate and trembling in the prayer room on Gladstone Street. ‘Listen, bro,’ I said, ‘you might not die. I mean, like, really. I don’t think martyrdom is strictly required.’ I racked my brain. ‘Besides, on Twitter, they’re saying it’s five-star out there.’ I slid my phone from my pocket and got down on my haunches. ‘Look at these pix. They’ve got Red Bull and KitKats, and shiny new PlayStations. I tell you, it’s Jannah on earth, man. And OK, if it gets too intense, think Plan B: Ahmed, that guy who works Saturdays at Thomas Cook, says that conflict tourism is the next big thing. Omar, bro, adventure here you come.’ I whistled. ‘I’m jealous. Like, really.’

He looked up at me with the eyes of an abandoned child. ‘So you want to come too? You mean it?’

My words dried up. My tongue wouldn’t work. For a moment, I could only rock on my heels and scratch my head. What had I done? Was I a true friend or wasn’t I? Was I a brother? Finally I shrugged. ‘Like, yeah, OK, why not? Hamid’s on his way. Why not us? Christ, yeah.’

Omar was so relieved he didn’t even tell me off for swearing in C. of E.

Hamid was an altogether different case. He was pure of heart, the idealist among us. He had dropped out of university in London when he’d discovered the campus was – as he described it – ‘a hotbed of liberal consensus’. Whatever that was when it was at home. ‘Alas,’ said Hamid, ‘I would have learned more about Holy War in a squalid backstreet Internet café in Peterborough.’ Why, he wondered, weren’t Muslims rushing to defend the lives of other Muslims?

I reminded him that, in the Land of Honour, he would have to avoid words like ‘alas’ and ‘squalid’ if he wanted to make a good first impression and not have a plastic bag forced over his head and tied at the neck on Day One. He nodded. Hamid was posh, not stupid.

We had three tickets left for the pier. On the ghost train, our carriage tipped and skidded through the darkness. Skulls flew past and severed arms reached out to grab us, but we maintained our hard-man faces, no problem. Then, out of nowhere, three headless horsemen bore down on us, like the Janjaweed out of Sudan, and we hurtled deeper into the underworld.

I have to be honest: the sound of screaming was my own.

There is much to overcome.

Take the nudist beach that afternoon.

We had positioned ourselves, clothed and vigilant, at the beach’s western boundary. The sun hammered down, and we passed a bottle of water between us. The point of the exercise was, I explained, to learn to harden ourselves to scenes of Western decadence.

With hindsight, naturally, I blame myself. But there and then, Hamid nodded. He liked a spiritual test. A scene of so much exposed flesh was, he said, an affront to all that was holy and good. Omar was less highminded. He shuddered at the evidence of what age and gravity can do to a body. I proposed that we remain in position on the beach until we had observed at least one beautiful naked woman. Could we overcome our lust? That, I said, was our sacred challenge, and

I, for one, embraced it.

They each nodded. Hamid checked his phone to make sure we hadn’t missed The Call. Then he switched on the camera, and, with an outstretched, rigid arm, held the zoom at the ready. ‘Good man, Hamid,’ I said, clapping him on the back. When the moment came, we would not spare ourselves a single detail.

But the woman never appeared. In Brighton it seemed only families, gay men and old people took off their clothes. To make matters worse, Omar kept leaving desperate voicemails for his mother to ask if his father had backed down yet. When he called again, his old man picked up.

As I say, I blame myself. But if Omar hadn’t started shouting, itemising for the benefit of his father’s moral outrage the jihadi excesses he would perpetrate in the family’s name, we might not have had to run like maniacs from the three coppers who laid siege following complaints from the public. Before we had the chance to harden ourselves to even one naked female, they gave chase.

While Hamid had the purity of heart and Omar, his father’s business brain, I had the reaction time and speed, even, it seemed, on beach pebbles. Back in Peterborough, I walked ten hours a night across the Amazon warehouse – otherwise known as the Fulfilment Centre. The Centre is the size of seven football pitches, and my average pick-rate was one product every twenty-nine seconds. Even as I speak, the proof is on the warehouse wall, in a Black Maxi Shatter-proof Poster Frame, RRP £19.99. My ‘Employee of the Month’ picture.

Everyone there calls me ‘Legs’ because 1) I am fast and 2) no white person can ever remember ‘Limazah’. Joy was the first.

I never knew it till the day Omar asked me to flee with him to jihad, but I wanted to know what fulfilment meant when Amazon wasn’t number-crunching the shit out of it.

At the police station, Omar and Ham weren’t detained for more than a few hours, but they were cautioned for public disturbance, and now were known to the police. It was difficult to say how much the cops knew about Omar’s jihadi boasts to his father, but the truth was, he’d been giving it large there on the beach.

Those few hours alone were not easy for me either. Would Omar and Ham be released? Were the cops still looking for me? Had they seized Hamid’s phone? Had The Recruiter made contact even as they sat in the interview room?

Perhaps it was the trance of the surf, or maybe the sweet smell of suncream, but when Omar and Ham finally returned, I clasped each to my chest in a spontaneous show of happiness and brotherly love.

Omar frowned. Hamid sighed. Where was my righteous anger?

The X Factor buzzer sounded again.

Then Omar’s phone rang and we jumped. It was Omar’s mother. His father, she told him, hadn’t relented. Omar could only return home to pack a bag for Turkey.

‘Tell the old prune I can’t wait to go!’ he said. But as he ended the call, he had to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand.

‘No, no, no,’ I counselled as his knees gave way and he sank to my beach towel. ‘Hold on to your anger, bro. In the days to come, it will sustain you when your feet are blisters, when your eyes are blind with sand and when you’re cursing yourself for having an iPod in your pocket instead of toilet paper.’

Hamid was angrier and more committed than ever. Another neighbourhood in his parents’ native city had been flattened that very morning. Plus, he added, the tea in the police station had been of the poorest variety and quite frankly, an insult. Did the English working classes strive to be common?

Back on the prom, we spotted CCTV everywhere. At last, even my cheer faltered. Were we now being watched?

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘we need to disappear.’

‘We need to get our arses underground,’ said Omar.

‘We need a phone signal,’ said Hamid.

Because everything still depended on that call.

 

‘The Sea Life Centre?’ said Omar.

As if he could do better.

‘Think,’ I said. ‘How often do you see coppers out enjoying a family attraction?’ Omar and Ham strained to recall. Earnestness, I feared, would be our undoing.

‘Go, go, go!’ I ordered, and we sped down the concrete stairs, with Ham pulling up the rear.

A welcome sign said that the Aquarium had been enjoyed by families since 1871. Omar said they must have been, like, really, really bored in the olden days. There, beneath the coast road, the Sea Life Centre stretched out before us in vaulted Victorian gloom. The air was humid. The lights were dim. The tanks gleamed. I took a deep breath. ‘Try to look normal,’ I whispered. ‘Try to blend in.’

‘With fucking fish?’ asked Omar.

The place was packed and noisy with Bank Holiday families. Perfect. My heart stopped thudding. We slid through the cavern of the public hall, past the snack stand, and started to relax at last. There was no sign of Security, no one with bad-ass flaks or Bluetooth.

So we pressed our faces to the tanks and became schoolboys all over again. We had time to kill, didn’t we? Omar and I made kissy fish-lips at assorted occupants of the tanks, and even Hamid laughed because, man, some of those fish were big ugly sons-of.

‘Ham,’ I said, ‘check. How many bars on the phone?’

‘Three,’ he said.

‘Result,’ I said.

Children’s voices bounced off stone walls and pillars. At the rock pool, we stirred up the starfish and prodded the crabs. I walked sideways for a time, for a laugh. But I admit: something deep in my gut wobbled when a hairy mofo of a catfish looked me in the eye. I knew it and it knew it too: a primitive, unspeakable understanding was hurdling the space between its brain and mine.

We were each capable of ugly things. ‘This way!’ I said, waving us forward and deeper. And deeper still – past tanks of pulsating jellyfish and pale electric eels. We stood, watching the eels slide between red fingers of coral. ‘Ham,’ I called over my shoulder, ‘how many bars now?’

‘Two!’

Up ahead, an octopus writhed, all arms and suckers. ‘Allah made a mistake with that one,’ I laughed.

Hamid boxed my ears.

Which is when we turned a tight corner and it appeared: a shining glass tunnel of water and light.

‘Allahu Akbar,’ whispered Ham.

It was beautiful – beautiful like nothing I’ve ever known in Peterborough. Beautiful like it would be on the inside of one of those snow-domes, only with fish floating past instead of snow. I suddenly felt small, small like a barnacle stuck to the rock of the world. But if I was that small it was because the world was big and, inshallah, eternal. A crazy kind of calm washed over me, and there, underground and on the run, I felt my heart lift.

We stepped inside the tunnel, pointing and gawping. Light pulsed across the glass, and it morphed from soft purple to blue to green. Enormous sea turtles paddled by. Sharks hovered overhead like guardians. Stingrays zipped and glided. Streams of bubbles rose up and, as we walked on, a bower of angelfish and butterflyfish moved with us.

All was one there, underground. There were no borders. No walls or checkpoints. No them, no us.

Omar’s mouth gaped. His eyes shone. Ham shuffled forward, staring at the pure white bellies of the sharks overhead.

Classical music dripped from the walls. I thought, it’s like that tunnel they say appears when you die.

Which is when Omar’s phone bleeped and he fumbled for it. ‘What the f—’

I eyeballed him. We couldn’t risk complaints.

‘I don’t believe it,’ he said, blinking back tears and grinning all at once. ‘It’s a text from my mother. It was a big wind-up. My father wanted to teach me a lesson. I’m flying to Turkey next week to oversee a shipment of dates.’ He raised his eyes to the bright glassy sky and gave thanks. ‘Dates!’

‘Bro,’ I said, ‘I’m really, really happy for you. Like, really.’ And OK, maybe I was happy for myself too. Cos, as of that moment, I was off – the – hook. A free fish.

Hamid, devout radical though he was, clapped Omar on the back. It was big of him. A shoal of Boy Scouts moved past, their chatter briefly deafening. Then the hush returned to the tunnel and we heard the ringtone of Hamid’s phone.

da nuh
da nuh
da nuh da nuh da nuh da nuh

The theme from Jaws.

Hamid froze. Omar and I froze. Even the shark overhead froze.

We looked at the display. ‘It’s him,’ said Ham.

The Emir’s man.

We stared for long moments at the throbbing screen. A baby sea turtle swam up to the glass and stared too.

Then Hamid swallowed hard and, with one gentle swipe of the finger, ended the call.

‘The Moving Finger writes,’ he said,

‘and having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.’

‘An old Persian poem,’ he murmured.

Omar stood blinking, dazed with relief. I seized Hamid’s head between my hands and kissed it hard. In the water above us, a troop of striped clownfish bounced in the current.

And moments later, as we stepped up into the soft light of evening, I suddenly remembered Joy.