by Vanessa Gebbie
Harry goes fishing when he needs to be alone, needs to work things out, needs to say sorry. He needs to say sorry to his wife, Bren, but he doesn't know how. It's late afternoon and he's out in the old dinghy spinning for mackerel; first time he's felt like being alone since he had his scare, his pacemaker. Half a mile out and he's caught two. The fish are flapping in a green bucket with an old piece of plywood for a lid, in less than an inch of thin red water. It's odd, he thinks, how mackerel don't remember the difference between small fry and spinning hooks. Nothing's retained.He's in the stern, right hand resting on the tiller, smoking. Knows he shouldn't. The outboard is idling, put-putting, and every so often the propeller lifts half-out of the water and the blades slosh and churn air. Landward, Harry sees his little Cornish village bobbing, the headland, the harbour, the beach, their shop, the grey church. The dunes and the caravan field. It's getting chilly. He zips his jacket, pulls the collar up.
There's a line over the side, fastened round the cross-strut of an old wooden 'H'. He pulls at it, holding the cigarette high between two fingers, feeling for weight. Now and again there might be the tug of a fish pulling back— then it's gone and Harry wonders if it was there at all.
Then, there's a tugging that comes straight up and finishes deep in his chest muscles.
He starts to wind the line in; turn by turn the fish gets heavier. Harry thinks about it breasting the sharp water, struggling. He thinks about it not winning, about it threshing into the air, about things unheard that will bubble from its throat. About droplets of water flying from its tail, blood on its scales.
Then he shakes his head, breathes deeply. Sea, engine oil, mackerel, blood, salt, tobacco. Lets his ears fill with the clatter of the old outboard, the slosh and clap of wavelets against the hull.
He took Bren out spinning for mackerel once, years ago. Just married and things settling, despite everything.
I've never liked fish, me, she'd said. Not many fish in Bradford. Slimy, aren't they? Then after laughing at catching one, she'd watched appalled, as Harry dehooked it and threw it, thrashing, into a box. But it's dying. It's hurting. It's not right.
She'd cried. Second time he'd seen that.
Now, Harry pulls on the line, playing the mackerel.
"Another catch. Big'un," he says. But he's forgetting. He's alone.
Who is Harry? Just an ordinary bloke in his late fifties, getting away from the wife, having a think. Harry of Harry and Bren. Harry the newsagent. Harry the sweetshop, the grocer. Harry the shop-that-sells-everything-you-could-possibly-want-in-this-little-harbour-village. Harry with the license to sell alcoholic beverages. Who's up every morning at five thirty to sort the morning papers, take the milk delivery, semi and full, clotted cream in white plastic tubs, yellow curls of butter in cellophane. Chickens from the butcher's in St Merryn, delivered by the green van, with sausages in poly-trays, mince. Harry whose shop is closing soon.
Harry who had a health scare a month or so back. Suddenly couldn't breathe, one hand on the counter, one on the till. Bren gone to the wholesalers. Fifty nine years landing - thud - a fist on his chest, while a woman from the caravan site was talking to herself, Cheddar or Double Gloucester? Why's the sell-by on the ham only tomorrow? Where's the Fairy Liquid? and Harry's mouth hanging open with a trickle of spit running down his chin. He didn't want to move in case his heart might founder on his ribs having cut itself adrift.
The water is green here over the shoal. The line disappears, darker and darker green, filament straight. The fish is fighting and Harry was thinking then, as he pre-saw the fish hanging in the air, arcing, bucking, its eye fixed. Time. How it sheds like water dropping off fish scales and falls back into itself. How you can see into it, like deep water. How the further away it gets, backwards or forwards, the more impenetrable it is.
And of course, if it is covering dark things, like the shoal, it is darker still. Harry drags deep on his cigarette, holds it, his heart ticking in his ears like a death watch beetle.
Deep in the green he hears his father when they still had the farm, perched above him on the tractor, red faced. July, it was. Hot. Their five acre given over to the caravans for the first time and Harry, sixteen, helping out. Don't want you mixing with their likes, his father says, but then made him take the money. Help manoeuvre the vans. Drag a few out of the mud with the Ferguson. Deliver the milk, bread, remembering to add a few pence a time.
His flesh crawls now, giving up memories. The excitement of the "Unknowns", new people in the village. People who stayed and played at house in flimsy caravans for five days, seven days, ten, fourteen. Unknowns with their kids and dogs, their otherplace otherlife accents, blaring transistors, Brylcreemed hair. Their talk of factories. Social Clubs. Their smell. Aftershave and sweat. Their white shirts, rolled up sleeves, silver watches. Black trousers and side burns. And the girls. High breasted. Backcombed beehive hairdos and suspender belts when the village girls still had partings, kirbygrips, short socks and sandals. And their smell. . .the beach. Cockles and mussels.
He rests his arm on the side of the boat, flips his cigarette into the water and watches the butt bobbing on the memories.
He hears himself in the caravan field, behind the communal wash house with its mud-spattered whitewashed walls and green scum under the outside tap, he and a girl called Janice, heady with beer and strange cigarettes. His voice, cracking, Of course I've done it before, and Janice, black roots and gold hair, her fast hand unzipping, playing him, his breathing hot, sharp, his fingers under, inside, slippery. He'd come over her fingers, her skirt. He hears the dripping of the scummy tap. The laughter. Then the lies to his mates on the harbour wall. See her, that one, yellow skirt? I done it to her. Taking his mates up the hill to the caravan field later and calling for Janice, walking behind them all giggling down the lane, watching her thin ponyish calves, the blue-white of the backs of her knees when she hitched her skirt high over the stile, the flash of dark between her legs. To the dunes where she let them, one after the other…in a pale hollow where a gull had made a meal of a catfish head and left bone, skin with a feeler still attached…where he watched pale bums jumping in the marram. Where she said, that's enough now, no more and please— no more, then just no, please, but he hadn't done it yet. And where he did do it, slipped it in like a fish swimming against the current while two boys held her. Uh, uh. One two and he was gone.
He remembers fishing the next day, alone, marvelling at himself, Harry the man, standing different, shoulders straighter, legs braced against the rocking of his boat, every muscle in its place, taut and bragging. He remembers the mackerel that day, how he pulled the hooks from their mouths, tearing the skin because he could. How he squeezed their bodies, flapping, until their eyes bulged and their gills ran scarlet, dripping back into the sea, the gulls screaming.
Harry sighs. Checks the fish in the bucket, heaving and twitching against each other.
He'd lied to his parents over why he needed to see the doctor. He'd gone alone, sitting legs apart on the bus, jouncing through lanes alive with fuchsia and sunshine to be told he'd caught something with a name that belonged in text books, in jokes. In 'what not to do' books. In books that tell you you'll never get better from this. Learn to live with it. And one, found in the library, darkling on a dusty shelf, preaching that it was "divine retribution for the profligacy of a generation".
Time falling into itself, dark over its shoals.
Sixteen. That summer weighs heavy. Nothing was the same again. Even after they'd gone home the unknowns left themselves in the village like a virus. The local girls demanded hairspray from the shop. Spray deodorant. Pale lipsticks. The boys grew their hair and made cowlicks. Leaned against walls and smoked. Glowered, transistor radios to their ears.
Harry resumes winding the line. Watches the green water. Feels the fish thrashing, and between the movements, the steady pull of the lead weight. He wonders if it's true that, like they say, fish feel no pain, how on earth 'they' know, and if they use the right instruments to measure it. The weight making his arm, his shoulder, heavy, heavy.
Fair game, the girls in the caravans, every summer after that, on their factory social weeks. What was to lose? Jennys and Judys, Glorias and Gails. Stellas and Sheilas. Their black-horizoned eyes and stiff hair, their foreplay talk of machines and foremen, punch cards and union meetings. A different language. Different skin. White factory legs and tight skirts. Cockling and musselling in the marram and not a care.
Then Bren. Harry almost forgets to breathe. It's as though the little dinghy isn't big enough for the air he needs. Wonders if they'll invent a pacemaker for lungs. Wonders if pacemakers help the heart to love as well as beat when the heart throws in the towel? Not that he'd need that. . . .
Bren, seventeen to his twenty three, with her high voice and small hands, the pulse in her neck like a moth caught under the skin. Bren who didn't smell of shellfish but ice-cream. Sweet. Her scalp. Sweet as new wood. That feeling that washed over him, prickling like sand blown across the beach. No marram. It was as though he was holding something made of glass, a bubble with freckles.
Harry does breathe in, deep, breathes in the mackerel smell, the blood, and shifts the plywood again with one foot. One fish is rigid. The other pulsates, its tail twitches; one eye locked on Harry, the other unseen, unseeing, touching the bottom of the bucket.
He's back there holding Bren's hand. That other summer. Sitting on the harbour wall, the swell of her little breasts rising, falling, like the sea. She talking about the city, chimneys, traffic, noise. Men called 'Sir'. Clattering typewriters. Ribbons that run out of ink. Changing jobs. Trams. Tickets. She saying that her name was really 'Bren the Clippie'. How it was so peaceful here, a sort of peace that settles right into your stomach. Harry hears her voice. Its edge. The way she said me, her lips in a smile, instead of my.
Peace, right here in me stomach, she said, patting her dress. Blue gingham. Harry knowing there's only two, three layers of cotton between her hand and her skin. Patting in time to the waves patting the side of Harry's boat as time drips off the scales and falls back into itself. Harry hears the sounds, sees the tiny hairs on her forearm in the sunshine, the lift of her chin and a white ear.
Eeeeeh, she says over the years, heels drumming on the granite blocks of the harbour wall, but it's quiet, in't it? as though she was in church and the quiet was too much. Two whole weeks of seeing her, between the farm work and the caravan field duties. 'Walking out' with someone infinitely precious like old couples did, and no funny business.
Until the night before Bren was due to go home. And that evening they walked on the headland away from the village, up past the pig farm, laughing at the smell, and on to where the rocks fell away into the sea like they'd been pushed and frozen. And there, the aloneness was too much, the sun going down was too much, the sound of the sea saying hushhh like a mother sending her baby to sleep was too much, and the high cry of a gull brought tears to Harry's eyes.
What's the matter? said Bren.
Harry, who thought it was the sound of the gull, found himself saying, You. You're going home? and there, on the soft turf beside an outcrop of rock a little way off the path, Bren whispering over and over that she loved him, they loved each other, quietly.
Harry is sitting holding the line, a hot pebble rising in his throat, his eyes squeezed tight shut against the tears.
He thinks of a day not long after the loving, when the caravan field was empty, harvest almost over. A day when heat hung over the fields like a fire that would not go out and the air pressed in solid on all sides. Returning tired, hot, to the farm at the end of the day, leaving the tractor and trailer ready for the morning. His father waiting for him inside the front door.
You have a visitor.
Going into the house, blinking in the sudden shadows. Brenda at the kitchen table fingering a best cup and saucer, tea untouched. Harry remembers, although he hasn't thought about this moment for years, that she was wearing a hat. A pale green sun hat pulled over one ear. Her eyes huge.
His mother taking him aside, out in the hall, hissing, What is she here for?
Sitting in the boat, everything is melting. The headland, the village, the harbour wall, solid granite melting and flowing, up, down. . . . Harry remembers Brenda's words, slow, joyless, falling into the hot evening air like shovelfuls of dark earth on wood.
Who will want me now?
And his reply.
It is the first time, here on the boat, that Harry has allowed himself to think in bright primary colours about his marriage to Bren. And the thinking spawns side-canals, full of deep green stagnant water, bubbles from the ooze staggering to the surface and breaking slowly.
No kids. Just in case. . .and now he looks at the dinghy, empty save him in the stern, and it's as though it weighs deeper in the water— carrying the ghosts of one, maybe two sons sitting there with him, fishing. Big now. Grown-up. The ghosts are joshing and play-punching, calling each other names, grinning. Calling Harry an old fart.
The line catches on something. Harry stands up and the boat rocks a little.
Steady on, old fart, say the ghosts.
Then one says, Race you Dad, and the voice is younger.
Teenaged. Eager. Harry is walking to the pub, one son each side, and the door swings wide to let them all through laughing. Get 'em in Dad. . .
Then he hears, take me fishing with you, Granpa? and feels small hands pulling at his overall in the shop.
Harry shakes his head, blinks, and the boat is empty again. Silent. A herring gull is flying overhead, head down, eyeing the bucket.
Harry has freed the line. He gives it a tug. The fish is still there, pulling, and he is winding it in. There's a knot in the line. That's half way.
The farm sold, the shop bought. The agreement that there would be no other shop. The caravan field, smart, with its own laundry, the old wash house pulled down, a new shower block.
They were happy, weren't they, he and Bren?
Wasn't there happiness in choosing postcards by the hundred, betting which would sell out first? Always the cartoons. Making little shelves for the sweets, low down, for the kiddies to choose. Lugging the papers in their twine bundles. Doing the puzzles and crosswords on yesterday's before they were taken away. Wasn't there happiness in the deep scent of warm strawberries, raspberries in punnets from the villagers' gardens? Happiness in buying in that special Camp coffee for old Mr Brock, silver tweezers for Bella at the pub, oatcakes for Malcolm the harbourmaster.
Maybe less happiness in getting in goods for the caravan field. Multi-flavoured potato crisps. Chocolate spread. Sandwich spread. Bright orange drinks.
There was happiness in catching Brenda on the foldable steps, reaching up to put a bottle of gin on the top shelf, her blue overall rising round her thighs. Happiness in catching her tired at the end of the day, daydreaming, so far away she doesn't come back at first when he calls.
Earth to Bren? Where've you gone this time? His hand on her shoulder.
Nowhere love. Just woolgathering. . . The fish is fighting hard now. Harry looks over the side, but can't see it yet.
Was there happiness in going to Church every Sunday? Harry looks back to the village, to the church squatting like a fat pigeon on its little hill above the houses. At least the church was always there, didn't change. Not like the caravan site— bought by a leisure company who replaced all the statics, planted little gardens, sold timeshares, made an area of wood-clad caravans like little log cabins, called the whole place "Happy Lands". Fifteen acres now. Most of what had been his father's farm. Rebuilt the washhouse. Added a whole row of shops. Surf gear. Launderette. Pizzas. General Stores.
Harry feels dizzy. Maybe too much sun this afternoon. He sees the caravan field, dotted with white like so many gulls on the waves. Checks the fish in the bucket again, and now they are both rigid, lying next to each other like blood-soaked lovers.
Sex. It was OK, wasn't it? They fell into a ritual, letting each other know by signals whether it would be on. Or whether the wanting would have to be enough. And always, even the times it was 'OK' there was a black beetle that spat tar waiting at the back of his mind, ready to bury its head beneath the skin and raise blisters that itched and wept. Harry even gave the beetle a name. Janice. Never really talked about it. It was just there, as immovable as the headland. As unpredictable as the sea.
Then. A few months ago, his heart. And he wonders if it may have worn out because he used it so much. But it's fine; he hardly knows he has a pacemaker, now. And Bren was marvellous. Everyone said.
But what does everyone know? Yesterday. Bren in tears in the kitchen, sitting at the table, straight backed, her hands round a blue mug, staring into it as though something would rise through the meniscus.
I don't love you, Harry, she said. I can't find peace with you.
Harry sighs, puts the wooden 'H' under his boot, lights another cigarette. He shuts his eyes, feels the lift and rock of the waves, and wonders whether the fish can feel waves under the surface. Whether surges happen on the sea bed and scramble families of mackerel, so that, if mackerel can love, they never find each other, ever again.
I have tried to love you, she said.
Harry pulls his collar up further. Smokes, taking in great lungfuls. The sky is grey, the sea is dark. Deep. His fish? He's forgotten the fish. He pulls on the line. It is still there on the end, he can still feel it struggling, but weaker now. The steady tug of the lead weight is more obvious. Closer to the surface. The last fifteen feet or so is thick green line, and he can see the fish now, a silver shape in a dirty grey-green sea.
I wanted to leave you, she said. So many times.
Bren looked at him in their kitchen and named them; the men she would have left him for. A litany of strong bodies, nearly thirty years in the telling. Villagers. Real fishermen. Farmers. An artist. A father of three who took a caravan five years running.
Did you sleep with any of them? Harry said through a haze, reaching for her hand, feeling her wrist bones. Seeing the moth struggling under the skin of her neck.
The mackerel breaks the surface. Writhes. Harry stands up, cigarette in mouth, swinging the fish high, watching it bucking, flicking silver and red droplets, hitting him, flailing at him, spattering his eyes, his lips.
Bren's voice was so quiet that Harry had to lean forward. No Harry. . . .. Her eyes, grey, looking straight at him yet through him, as though her gaze pierced his skull and fled, ending somewhere in a distant galaxy where there really was peace.
I loved them too much for that.
Harry sits down, gripping his fish behind the gills. He can feel the flesh moving under its scales. He could twist the hook out fast but he doesn't. The mouth gapes. Harry pulls the hook to the side. Keeps pulling. It stretches the mouth open, wider, wider, then slices through the cartilage, breaking it open. He hears a high sound in his head and drops the spinning line on the floor of the boat. He is cold.
The mackerel drips blood onto his sleeve, its eye silver as a mirror. Harry leans forward, and, looking the fish in the eye, he presses the cigarette end to its flesh and holds it there, his hand shaking, until the hissing stops.
He kicks the plywood aside and throws the fish into the bucket where it lies across the others, flicking. He can see the burn on its side, dark. He reaches down and moves it, turns it over so that it is lying alongside the others, half in the water.
Harry leans back and listens to his heart in his ears. Like the rush of the tide coming in over the rocks. He keeps looking back at the fish, waiting for it to stop moving. Waiting for it all to be over. And when it is, when the fish does not move any more, he thinks that perhaps it is not quite dead, and nudges it. The fish shudders. Something slight pulling at a muscle.
Harry lurches to his feet, staggers. He bends, picks up the bucket and throws it and its contents back into the sea with a shout, crimson-silver-green, and the herring gull that has been following the boat cries and swoops. Two dead mackerel torpedo rigid into the water but the new catch floats. The gull stretches its neck, its feet, its beak towards it, wings roiling the air, and Harry flicks his hand at the bird. But the bird persists, lunging at the fish and Harry waves his arms, shouts "Get off you bugger. . ." and the bird hefts itself back into the air.
Harry leans out over the side, lowering his hand into the sea until the wavelets meet it and carry the mackerel into his palm. He cradles the fish loosely under the surface, letting the water flow over its body, lifting its gills. He moves his hand back and forth, back and forth, rocking the fish, willing it to have a heartbeat, his heartbeat, faster, panic, fear, pain; the embryo of a memory. His fingers relax. The mackerel lies there for a moment, flickers and is gone.
Vanessa Gebbie is a writer, a teacher of Creative Writing, and Assistant Editor of Cadenza Magazine (www.cadenza-magazine.com). Her debut collection of short fiction—Words from a Glass Bubble—is out from Salt Publishing. Her competition successes include a First Prize in The Daily Telegraph Novel Competiton 2007, and Second Prizes in both Fish and the Bridport Prize 2007.