A chill in the air woke Ali. It was just a slight draft but enough to brush the hairs on the back of his neck upright, if he’d had any. He’d shaved them clean off though, like the sparse hair on his head. Back in the day when hair loss was his only concern, Madiha, his wife, had caught him researching transplants online. She’d laughed, slipped off her headscarf and shaken out her hair, ‘Want some of mine?’ If he concentrated, he could still feel its soft weight and silky texture.
Now, he slept in the dark green hat Madiha had knitted before he and Amal had left. England was cold, the building was ancient and draughty, and he was alone in bed. He pulled the thin eiderdown tighter around his shoulders for a moment before standing to face another day.
Stooping to avoid the sloping beams of his attic room, from the window Ali could see Amal on the street outside. She always left him without a sound. Such a slight little thing she was, the staircase didn’t even creak as she passed down it. Caught in the yellow glow of the light next to the zebra crossing, he thought she looked up so he waved, a small gesture just in case she could see him. Then he lost sight of her as she turned into the lane running between a row of terraced cottages and the wall built to prevent careless revellers from The Broad Face falling into the millstream.
The broad-faced man on the pub sign stared at him. Although the artist had tried to make the chap in a green tunic look jolly, as though he’d been having a good night out, his wide cheeks and bulging eyes were those of a hanged man, or a victim of drowning. Ali looked away.
He unrolled his mat for dawn prayers, a squeeze in the tight space between the bed and the wall. Then he prayed for Madiha, and little Jalal, prayed they had made it over the border to the camp, that they were safe. Prayed that one day he’d be with them again. Ali’s next thoughts turned to his daughter. He hoped she’d appear again before he went downstairs to work in the barber’s shop. Or perhaps join him during his lunchbreak. They’d walk beside the Thames while he ate a bag of soggy chips from Jono’s truck, and he’d put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him, away from the water.
For more years than he could count, Drew had witnessed every dawn. As the land breathed mist into the air, he headed towards the abbey fishponds, the nearest ones, that had once held fish for the monks’ table. Back then, he had watched as the fish squirmed, writhed and flapped in the holding pen, understanding their death was just a matter of days away, hours perhaps. They could sense it. Drew knew because as fishkeeper it had been his job to dispatch them.
Now, as he looked along the towpath, to a spot where the river widened and two colourful houseboats were moored, he saw Amal. He’d been watching her for a few weeks. He wondered when she would see him.
As the barber’s chairs were empty for the first hour after opening, Sinan, the only real Turkish barber working in the shop, just hung around chatting on his phone while Ali polished the mirrors.
The first customers were talkative for a Wednesday morning, but Ali had already heard too many men’s stories of what they’d been up to the night before and was good at giving the impression he didn’t understand their banter.
He hadn’t seen these two before. The bigger man, with thread-veined skin and a fishhook tattooed beneath his ear, sat in Ali’s chair. The thinner man settled in front of Sinan. Ali wafted a cloth around his customer’s neck and stropped a straight razor ready for use. As he set the steamer, he could hear them talking.
‘Tonight’s the night. I can feel it in my bones.’ As the big man spoke, Ali watched the fishhook writhe.
‘It won’t rain, will it, Jake? I don’t fancy that.’
‘Man up, Tom. All winter I’ve been tryin’ to bag ’er, but today, I’m feelin’ lucky.’
‘It’s still pretty dodgy out there. Need to watch our step.’
‘Full moon tonight, boy, that’ll make all the difference. She’ll be mine.’
The hot towels the two barbers wrapped over their customers’ faces cut off the conversation.
Amal was passing time, walking on a path winding to an obscure destination. As she walked, she thought of home. She transported herself from the damp, grey day and the overwhelming green of the flood meadows, to the stream an hour’s car ride from her home. To a spring day, when the fields were full of flowering chamomile, the sun was warm on her back, and she was joyful. She remembered her mother lighting a fire to cook the trout Baba had caught while she watched baby Jalal smiling and gurgling with innocent glee. The four of them together, happy, before the bombing started, before she’d had to leave with her Baba.
As she turned to walk back, she registered a flicker of light in the willows. It was a pretty, sparkling glow of warmth that faded then disappeared while she watched. She carried on towards the abbey gardens along the millstream, winding in and out between the trees and shrubs, making her own path. Then she saw the darting light again.
‘Hey!’ Amal turned to check all around. ‘Who’s there?’
She watched a boy, a young man really, materialise from the shade of the willows.
He smiled, ‘I’m Drew.’
‘Hi Drew,’ she said. He looked harmless, just someone in his late teens about the same age as her. Also like her, he was wearing loose trousers and a baggy top with a hood, except his were of rough looking cloth, logo free, and needed a turn in a washing machine. ‘I’m Amal. And I don’t talk to strangers. Well, I don’t talk to anyone anymore.’
‘We’d best not be strangers then.’ Drew brushed back his jagged-cut hair from out of his eyes, ‘Will ye walk?’
Side by side they trod the gravel path in silence, to where the Abbey once stood.
‘You’re new, aren’t you?’
Ali caught the eye of the man called Jake in the mirror.
‘Not a talker, are you?’ Jake continued. ‘Not learned to speak proper yet?’
Ali knew better than to rise to the bait. ‘I get by.’
‘When did you get ‘ere then?’
‘It’s been a month, just a month.’ Ali’s English had acquired a hint of the north during the two years he’d waited to be granted leave to remain. It was a long, bleak period, with no work to speak of, hardly any money, and days he thought he’d never see the end of.
‘Not from ’ere then, are you?’
‘No,’ Ali said. ‘Came down from Huddersfield.’
‘Yeah, and I’m from New York. Where you really from?’
‘It says Turkish Barber on the sign outside.’
‘You don’t look like him though, and he’s Turkish.’ Jake nodded towards Sinan, who, with his blue eyes and light brown hair, could have passed as a local.
‘What you doin’ ’ere? You should go back to Afghanistan.’
Only a man with no imagination, Ali thought, would talk like that to someone holding a blade to his throat. ‘I was born in Damascus, then moved to Aleppo.’
‘Why? Don’t they cut their ’air in Dami-whatsit?’
‘I’m not a Turkish barber.’ Ali knew he was talking too much. ‘I’m a Syrian engineer. A hydraulic engineer, to be exact. I was working on a dam project, that’s why I moved.’
‘And now you’re ’ere in Abingdon.’
‘Better not stay too long,’ Jake said.
Ali had lived through enough to recognise a threat.
As the dull March sun rose higher in the sky and the day warmed towards noon, Amal and Drew stayed together. They wandered the paths of the old abbey grounds, skirting the edge of the supermarket and the blocks of redbrick flats, talking now, as Amal tried to understand more about who she had become and who Drew was.
Drew loved to talk and chatted on about fish. He loved fish, but he talked about the monks with less kindness, explaining how much they ate, how they prayed and chanted together until they were alone with him when they swore and cuffed him about the head.
It was difficult for Amal to understand Drew’s words, but she got the gist and his long silences told her more. It was hard for Drew to understand Amal’s story too, but he knew she was sad, that her family had suffered, she had suffered, and she was restless.
So restless that in a flash, with a brief wave, she was gone.
Bag of chips in hand, Ali sat on a bench, looking over at Nag’s Head Island and the Old Gaol, watching the geese and admiring the stonework of the bridge that spanned a narrow point of the Thames, downstream of the weir and lock.
Even though the day was warmer, when she arrived and reached out to touch him, Amal’s delicate hand sent a cold shiver through him that touched his heart.
‘My sweet girl,’ he said, ‘you’re here.’
‘I can’t leave,’ Amal said. ‘Not yet, not until I know you’re safe. Mama and Jalal need you still.’
They sat in companionable equilibrium. Ali scrolled through photographs he’d taken in Syria, while Amal watched drivers slowing down to negotiate the bridge, walkers passing by with their sniffing, roaming dogs, and a group of women in quilted anoraks sitting at the café on the opposite bank. For some, life was normal, each day as expected, as it should be.
Like a puff of frozen breath in midwinter, regret for time lost escaped from Amal as a sigh, ‘I love you, Baba.’
When Ali checked the time and stood, Amal gave him a swift kiss. All Ali felt was the chill touch of her lips on his cheek. He held his hand there, until the sensation passed.
The afternoon was slow in the barber’s shop. During the Covid-19 pandemic, so many men had bought their own clippers, watched online videos and learned to use them, that business wasn’t exactly bouncing back.
While Ali was adding some extra shine to the taps and shower hoses, a young man came in.
‘Hi, guys, I need your help,’ the young man said. ‘My hair needs to look like I’ve washed it with animal-fat soap and cut it with sheep shearing scissors. Can you do that?’
Sinan looked up from his phone. ‘Yours,’ he said, and waved him over to Ali’s chair.
It was hard to tell the customer’s age. Ali assumed he looked younger than he was; to him English men usually did. Perhaps he was in his twenties, even though he looked about seventeen.
‘I’ll help you get the look you want if you’re sure that’s the one for you. I’m Ali, by the way, your stylist for today.’
‘I’m Sam. It’s for a play.’
Sam was polite, the sort of kid Ali wouldn’t want to see getting into trouble. Or even regretting a rash haircut.
‘What’s your part?’ Ali was ready to listen. There was no one else waiting for his services, and Sinan was still looking at his phone.
‘It’s first night at the Unicorn Theatre. Do you know it?’
Ali sat Sam down in the chair and adjusted the height.
‘Yes, but I’ve never been inside.’
‘You must come. Here,’ Sam opened his wallet. ‘We each get two tickets to give away.’
‘You don’t have family who’d like to watch you perform?’
‘They’re in Spain so they can’t come. Take them, please. Bring someone.’
‘Thank you,’ Ali said. ‘I’ll only need one, though. It’s just me.’
‘I hope you’ll come. Like the theatre building, our play is set in medieval times, when the monks ruled the town and all around here. The script’s written by a local historian who uncovered a true story about the monks’ young fishkeeper. It’s a sad tale of superstition, bullies, and murder.’
‘I’ll be there,’ Ali said, ‘I don’t get invited out much these days.’ He saw his smile reciprocated by Sam’s reflection. ‘Now, about your hair. Are you sure? They won’t give you a wig?’
‘I’m sure. It’ll help me feel in character, be more natural.’
‘Shall I give you that shaved head look monks have too?’
‘You mean a tonsure?’ Sam laughed, ‘I don’t think I need to go that far! I’m the fishkeeper.’
Ali sprayed water onto Sam’s hair. ‘Fishkeeper?’
‘Yes, back then there were people working for the monks, but they weren’t monks. Didn’t have the same vows, or the same beliefs. That’s what the play’s about. No spoilers, but the fishkeeper served up the truth alongside the carp. He knew what was right, and what wasn’t, and he spoke out. That upset the monks, of course.’
‘Of course.’ Ali continued hacking at Sam’s hair, sawing tufts off.
‘So, it didn’t end well for him. He was drowned.’
‘Drowned,’ Ali echoed, his hand frozen mid cut.
His weak hand – the one that had let go of hers, that couldn’t hold her against the waves that tore her from him. He’d tried so hard, so very hard, to keep her close, until he couldn’t any longer. The coastguards had recovered her and six other souls, brought them to the beach where he’d been washed up and was waiting.
He put down his scissors and said, ‘Nearly done.’
Her skin had felt damp and cold to the touch, her hair smelled of the sea and felt like seaweed. On the shingle, somewhere by the Aegean, he’d sat hunched over her, cradling her against his chest, feeling the weight of her slight body against his, unable to let her go again, even in death. He thought his tears would never stop flowing.
Ali took some wax from a tin and rubbed it between his palms to warm it. ‘Drowned.’
‘Our playwright,’ Sam said, ‘told me the fishkeeper still haunts the millstream. I’ve never seen him. She says she has, but I’m not sure I believe her.’
‘I’ll work this into your hair to get a choppy look, then you’re ready.’
Amal was drawn back to Drew. During the afternoon, he shared his world with her, showing her how the water voles burrowed into the riverbank, and where the grey heron nested.
He explained more about his life as keeper of the fish. Touched on the darkness in men’s hearts. His regrets. He couldn’t forget all the fish he had grown and cared for then watched as they gasped out their last breaths, choking on air. He had blood on his hands too, he knew that, but not the evil intent of those men.
Amal offered kindness and comfort. And as Drew glowed beside her, she absorbed his warmth.
Feeling even more unsettled than usual, Ali couldn’t face staying in his box of a room in the attic above the barbers. He tried hard never to think of death, especially death by drowning. He was a man who had been fascinated by water all his life. His earliest memories were of playing with twigs and stones to divert any rivulet he could find. At school he’d studied hard to understand geology and physics, before attending the best university for engineers in his country, where he’d met his clever, beautiful wife.
But fate and politics had determined his course and turned him into a barber in Abingdon.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to watch the play. Instead, he changed into his running kit and headed across the stone bridge and along the raised pavement, pounding his unhappiness with each stride. At a crossroads, he looped back towards the river across the waterlogged meadows, not even noticing the wet seeping through the fabric of his trainers as the injustices of life seeped into his soul.
Jake was on his own. His skinny friend, Tom, had chickened out and stayed at home. He’d left his car in the public car park near the cricket pitch while he went to get some grub from Jono’s truck in the town square. He’d need enough to keep him going for an all-nighter.
Determined to get to his spot on the bank while the moon was rising, Jake was in a hurry. He didn’t look around, didn’t even notice the lights dancing through the reeds as he tanked his way towards the bridge.
Sam had arrived at the theatre early, to warm up and focus. As he unpacked his bag, he realised he’d left his phone in the car, so he headed back there. He ran past The Broad Face, down the steps to the riverbank and headed under the bridge towards the car park. In the shadow, he didn’t see the bulk of a man in front of him.
It was a careless collision.
As Sam stammered out an apology, the big man he’d bumped into pinned him against the rough stone abutment, strong fingers pressing into his throat.
‘Want me to smash yer face good ’n proper, pretty boy?’
Jake’s grip was firm; Sam tried to shake his head, make a sound, break free, but he couldn’t. He heard footsteps, someone running, breathing heavily.
‘Leave him!’ Ali’s fury echoed under the archway carrying him forward, fist raised, ready to break Jake’s nose. ‘Here’s your chance to get rid of me. Want to try?’
Jake’s fishhook tattoo writhed, as he gulped. He turned, putting space between them, turned again, and called back, ‘I’ll get you, barber man, you and pretty boy here. Just wait.’
The lights in the reeds briefly merged and then separated, flaring and fading, following Jake as he drove off.
Sam was unsteady, so Ali waited while he caught his breath, then walked him to his car to get his phone.
‘Ali, thank you. I owe you.’
The full moon rose, reflecting in the still pool near Thrupp Lake. Steadier now, Jake concentrated on setting up three baited lines and chumming the water with crabmeat and chili boilies to attract his prey. There was a lot Jake wasn’t good at, but he knew how to fish.
If Jake had noticed two lights flickering above the trees then seen one dive down into the dark water leaving an effervescent trail, he might have mistaken it for a falling star.
He didn’t have to wait long before one line tugged. As Jake reeled his catch in, he braced for a struggle.
But it was easy to land.
And there it was. Not a Common Carp, or a Mirror, or a Black Carp, but a beautiful, silver-scaled monster of a Ghost Carp that shone as though lit by an internal flame.
A giant Ghostie.
The first night of The Fishkeeper closed to great applause from the nearly packed house. There’d been only a few empty seats and, after what had happened under the bridge, Sam didn’t expect his barber to be in the audience. He hoped Ali had gone home and kept clear of Jake.
‘Great job, mate,’ an older man who was playing the Abbot, gave his back a hearty slap. ‘Drink time now. Let’s go to the pub.’
‘I’ll join you,’ Sam said. ‘I just need to get my head back into the twenty-first century.’
Although Sam loved the play, it was tough. The fishkeeper he played was a lad younger than him, mistreated and abused by men the boy should have been able to trust. When he tried to speak out, they silenced him. The final scene, when three monks surrounded the fishkeeper, wrapped him in sacks and chains and then threw him into the millrace, was emotionally draining.
Sam stood by the stage door, breathing in the night air to focus his mind and fuel his body. Glancing upstream towards the lock, he saw a figure lit by the full moon perched above the weir. It looked dangerous.
Standing on the second bar from the top of the safety rail across the weir walkway, Ali felt his shins pressing hard against the metal as he leaned out over the water. How far could he go, he wondered, before he reached his tipping point.
‘Get off!’ The voice was authoritative. ‘I said, get down from there.’
Ali lowered his right foot, clutched the railing, and soon stood with both feet back on the ground.
‘I wasn’t going to let go,’ Ali said.
Sam looked into the dark eyes of a man just back from the brink. ‘You could have slipped.’
‘I can’t do it, not now, not while there’s hope my wife and baby boy may still be alive.’
‘But you could have slipped.’ Sam’s voice softened, ‘Tell me about them.’
‘I will,’ Ali said. ‘One day.’ He paused and let out a short laugh, ‘Just then, you sounded like my fourth-grade schoolteacher.’
Sam laughed too. ‘I am an actor.’
Jake couldn’t believe his good fortune. In all his years of fishing, he’d never had such a remarkable catch. It sparkled and flickered as it moved and gleamed in the moonlight. It was spectacular. A certainty to make the local news, Jake thought.
A single light, like a firefly, flitted just above the surface of the water as Jake set up his tripod and his phone to livestream. Picking up the fish was easy as it was much lighter than he’d expected and motionless. He posed for the camera, cradling the huge Ghostie in his arms, a wide grin on his broad face.
Then the beast twisted, more vigorous than any carp he’d ever handled. Its tail whacked the tripod which splashed down, phone and all, into the water. The fish was unrelenting, pushing hard against his chest, fins scratching his face, until he felt his knees give way, and his feet slip sideways in the mud.
As he went down into the water, two flickering shapes sped back into the trees.
Later that night, Amal took Drew to visit her father.
At first, Ali didn’t realise they were there then he noticed an unusual warmth spread through the sparse attic room and a faintly brackish smell.
She knelt by his bed, her face close to his.
‘Go my sweet girl. I’ll be alright.’
Alone, Ali pulled his green hat down to keep his ears warm and dreamed of a chamomile scented spring day with his family.
When Sinan arrived at work on Thursday morning, he thrust a copy of the Abingdon Crier at Ali.
‘See that? The guy from yesterday?’
Stills captured from Jake’s livestream took up half the front page. They showed him standing in the water in his bibbed waders, his arms outstretched and empty.
‘He looks like he thought he was holding a fish,’ Sinan said. ‘His mate who was in here yesterday too, Tom, the one I shaved, well he said Jake sent a message saying he’d caught a giant Ghostie. But he can’t have, see, ’cos Tom says in this,’ Sinan flapped the newspaper, ‘there aren’t any around here to catch, and he should know as he writes fishing articles. And all the local fishermen agree there aren’t any Ghost Carp anywhere near Thrupp.’
‘What about Jake? What do you think happened to him?’ Ali asked.
‘It’s weird, right? How can he just disappear like that? His car was nearby and his stuff still on the riverbank. It says here there was one set of footprints, his. No others. No clues from his phone ’cos the cops pulled it out of the mud. No one knows what happened.’
‘I guess we’ll never know then,’ Ali said.
‘Man,’ Sinan shook his head. ‘And we thought yesterday was quiet. Fancy a pizza later?’
‘Tomorrow,’ said Ali. ‘I promised a friend I’d go to the theatre tonight.’