The float went down like a javelin, angling into the roiling copper-green water, and he knew that a mackerel had hit the bait. He was sitting with his elbows hooked around his knees on the rocky ledge beneath the point, a cathedral wall of granite at his back and an autumn groundswell slurping and slapping at the base of the cliff twenty feet below.
He waited for a moment, saw the float come up and teeter drunkenly, and knew that the fish was running up towards the surface, dragging the lead behind it. And then it arrowed down sharply again and he scrambled to his feet. On the lower ledge, with all the world at his back and three-thousand miles of ocean melting ahead under the falling sun, he felt like he was standing in the bows of some great ship.
He cranked the reel and the line came tight. The tip of the rod flexed, and he felt the living weight of the mackerel, pulsing harder when it tacked sideways against the pull. Then he could see it through the surface, a sliver of turquoise in the dark water, and then it was dancing vertically as he hauled it up through the last twenty feet of spray-dampened air.It was a big mackerel, almost two hand-spans long, glossy and quivering.
When he had tugged out the hook he slipped his fingers into the velvet space of the gills and broke the fish at the back of its head. He had learnt to do this himself; none of the friends’ fathers who had first brought him down to this ledge, and to others all along this hard coastline, had ever killed the fish they caught this way. They had simply unhooked them and tossed them down into some crevice amongst the clippings of line and the empty bait packets, and they would still be thrashing there half an hour later. It had always seemed needless.
He put the fish in an old Tesco carrier bag and, though there was little heat left in the sun, he tucked it in the shade where the rock folded in on itself at the back of the ledge. Its hard zebra-striped body had already stiffened, but there was still some flicker of residual electricity, and the bag rustled a few times.
When he had baited the hook again, looping an open knot around the sand-eel’s head to hold it in place with an old-remembered movement, he stood still for a moment. On the far side of the little bay the line of the coast was black in the lengthening light and the water was a flaming mirage. On the furthest point he could make out a single figure, upright as a fencepost, and he knew that someone else was fishing there. It made him glad.
To the north, away from the glare, the sea was dark, almost purple, shifting and shouldering against the tide. A lone gannet was beating westwards, paper-white in the paling sky. He watched, and saw it suddenly fold its wings and go down like a javelin. It was fishing too. He leant back, angled the rod over his shoulder, and whipped it forward in a long cast, keeping the tip pointing skywards as he watched the rig – bead, float, lead, swivel, trace, hook – arc up and out and down.
This time the float hardly had time to stand before it went down, and he knew that the first fish had been no one-off: they were feeding in the last of the floodtide as the evening drew in. For a moment he had a vision from below the surface, an infinity of silvery shards coming at all angles, flying shrapnel in a great green silence with his baited hook falling through them like a gannet.
It was another good-sized mackerel. It had taken the hook right down into its gullet, and it came up shining with a thin pink wash from its gills, looking like something alchemic; an ingot smelted from the dark ore of the ocean. As he caught it in his hand and scrambled back up from the lower ledge he felt a sudden silvery pulse of happiness. This was something forgotten. For the last eighteen months there had sometimes been contentment like a dull ache, but not this hotter thing.
This is good, he thought. This is right. This place.
He stayed fishing until the bait was all used up and there were fifteen mackerel in the bloodied Tesco bag. By then the sun had gone and the coast to the west had regained its third dimension. He could no longer see the other angler on the far point, and he clambered up from the ledge and across the long slope of thrift and rock samphire to the top of the point. The sea was a dull pewter down below now.
There was a woman walking towards him along the overgrown fisherman’s path as he came down from the point. She had a dog, a slim-shouldered collie with sharp ears, and when she saw him she called it back and stepped up off the path into the brambles to give him space to pass.
‘You caught fish!’ she said. There was an accent. Dutch, he thought.
‘I did,’ he said, and held up the bag. ‘You do know this isn’t the coast path? It only goes up to the point.’
‘Oh yes, I know.’ She smiled. ‘I only wanted to see the sunset, but I guess I’m too late.’ She smiled again and nodded at the west. ‘But there is still some fire.’
He looked back and saw the thin pink wash all along the horizon. ‘There is,’ he said.
She was older than he was, he supposed, but only by a few years; maybe forty, or forty-two, slim and narrow-hipped, with a walker’s physique that wouldn’t ever change its contours. She had thick dark hair, with a few first strands of grey, pulled back into a ponytail. Her face, a little weathered, was the sort that might have been plain on a girl of seventeen, but was now rather beautiful.
The sharp-eared collie dog was sitting very quietly. He bent to ruffle the fine hair on its neck, and as he did so he looked and saw that she wore no wedding ring, and then immediately reproached himself scornfully for doing so.
‘What did you catch?’ she asked.
‘Mackerel. It’s a good spot, down there under the headland.’
‘Is it easy to get down there?’
‘Easy enough, but it’s a bit hard to find the way.’
She nodded. ‘So I won’t go tonight. But I got some watercress in the stream back there. And some blackberries too. There is everything here.’
‘There is,’ he said. ‘And there’s mushrooms in those fields up there at this time of the year, just on the other side of the gorse, there. You’d want to get there early in the morning really, though, before the slugs get at them.’
‘Perfect,’ she said. She had straight teeth and she showed the very bottom of her upper gum when she smiled. ‘Now I only need to learn how to catch fish. I’ve been living here for a year now, and I still haven’t learned fishing, so I must do it for next summer.’
‘You should,’ he said.
And then there was a little silence, and he ruffled the dog’s neck again and went on along the path, saying, ‘Enjoy the last of the fire!’
‘I will,’ she said; ‘thank you for the tips about the mushrooms. Enjoy your mackerel!’
The dusk was coming down thick and the fading light was almost purple.
The cottage was at the bottom of a row at the frayed easternmost end of the village where it trailed away into small, stone-walled fields with the moors rising beyond. There were two-dozen houses in the row. A few had tidy little gardens with geraniums and succulents spilling from stonework, but most had nothing but knee-high grass and dog shit and maybe a single tattered cordyline palm.
He let himself in through the side door, straight into the narrow kitchen, leaving the fishing rod and rucksack leaning against the downpipe outside. He fumbled for the light, then poured the mackerel out into the sink and rifled in the cupboard for the dirty blue chopping board and a knife.
He had been back here for a year and a half now, since the second month after his mother’s funeral, but the house was still full of her things: her worn furnishings and theyellowing paperbacks that had been fashionable bestsellers before he was born, and her low-voltage lightbulbs. Her wax jacket with the holes at the elbows was still hanging inside the rotting porch. In the bathroom too there were still some of her toiletries standing derelict in the dust, the creams split and oily.He had simply made small spaces for himself here and there. His own old things – a bicycle and a surfboard and a fishing rod and an air rifle – had all still been in the shed behind the house as they were fifteen years earlier. The bills came through in her name each month, and he paid them by cheque. He hadn’t really worked since he’d been herebeyond a few days of casual labour, and for all his proud frugality there would soon be nothing left.But he still hadn’t signed on – mainly, he knew, because he would have to give an address.
The mackerel lay in the sink like a pile of wet bullets. The tap dripped slowly onto them.
That tap, he thought, had already been coming loose when he wasstill living at home. And whenever he came back in the years that followed – less and less often, so that he hadn’t noticed his mother go from a strong, heavy-boned woman with hair like straw and a smell of the soil about her, to the greyed thing she had become – it was still loose and dripping. It wouldn’t have taken much to fix it, he thought, but it just went to show: you could keep on using something broken forever, if you handled it carefully.
He started on the fish, cutting through just past the point where he had broken their spines and peeling them back so the wormy tangle of guts came out in one bunch, then stripping the fillets from each side. He thought about the Dutch woman, and for a moment he let a firestorm of simple fantasy rage around him in the small yellow space of the kitchen. Then he dampened it quickly, reproaching himself, and simply wondered why he hadn’t offered her some of the mackerel. He’d be eating them every night for the rest of the week.
He let little conversational alternatives play out as he flicked the fish heads into the bin: I still haven’t learned fishing. I could teach you if you wanted. Really? Yes, why not;and no need to wait until next summer; the tides are good in the evening this week. You wouldn’t mind? Of course not; I’ll show you where the mushrooms are too. There’s everything here! There is!Did you grow up here? I did, but I’ve been away for a long time. My name’s Alex…
His mobile phone rumbled on the worktop.
One new message from Katy B.
He wiped his hands and swiped the screen.
What you up to?
Six months earlier he might have made some kind of effort, written ‘Chilling out’ or something like that. Katy B was seventeen years old. But he didn’t care now, and he thumbed a reply: gutting fish. He turned away but the phone rumbled again before he could pick up the next mackerel.
Random.Mum’s in town for the night. I’m bored.
And then again, before the screen had time to fade: And horny.
He scraped the rest of the fish back into the carrier bag, dumped them wearily in the bottom of the fridge, and went to wash his hands, gently bracing the loose tap as he opened the flow.
Afterwards, after she had panted and grappled under him, and after he had heard her say, ‘Come in me, baby,’ – which he took as a joyless absolution – they sat on the sagging sofa downstairs and he rolled a joint. He hadn’t smoked for years until he came back here.
When she had tapped the last of the ash into an empty mug she said, ‘Pub?’
He sniffed. ‘I guess so. But maybe you go on a bit, so we don’t come in together.’
She scowled at him. Her face was not plain, but he wasn’t sure it was beautiful either. ‘Um, why, Alex?’
‘Because I kind of don’t want everyone in the village to know I’m fucking you,’ he said without any difficulty
She snorted. ‘A bit of news for you Alex: I’m pretty sure everyone in the village except my mum already knows you’re fucking me.’
He said: ‘For fuck’s sake, Katy.’ Then he got up heavily. ‘Did I leave my coat upstairs?’
Inside the pub Katy went straight into the back room where there was a clatter of pool balls and the other kids were squawking at each other like gannets.
‘I’ll have a cider,’ she said without looking back.
He sat at the bar. There were half-a-dozen others there already, men whose ages ranged from the vicinity of his own on upwards towards seventy – solid, lumpen figures all of them – and one woman he remembered from school. She was solid and lumpen too, and the contours of her figure had shifted with the tide.
‘Here’s a man who might be able to help you, Derick,’ said the landlord, nodding at him but speaking to an older man, sitting at the far end of the bar where the wall was hung with dusty images of shipwrecks and mine buildings. ‘Pint, Alex?’
‘You’re not working at the moment,are you Alex? Do you fancy giving me a hand laying the floor slab for my extension?’ the man at the end of the bar said.
He shrugged, and handed the barman a crumpled five-pound note. He had no intention of buying Katy a cider. ‘Yeah, sure. When do you want to do it?’
‘I got to order stuff in, so maybe the start of next week if the weather’s fit. Shouldn’t take more than a day, I reckon. I’ll give you fifty quid for it or something.’
‘Yeah, ideal.’ He sucked at the suds on the top of his drink. No one spoke for a moment. Pool balls clattered in the back room and one of the kids shrieked, ‘Oh my god!’
‘That Katy’s some girl, isn’t she?’ Derick said.
He didn’t look up. ‘I dunno. I thought she was a bit of a twat, actually.’
Derick grinned. ‘I expect you was at school with her mum, wasn’t you?’
He didn’t feel like smiling, but he let them see him smirk. ‘You got planning permission for that extension, Derick?’
The older man laughed hard, and the laugh rolled back through the other drinkers at the bar. ‘What do you think?’
He looked up at him properly for the first time and smiled. ‘That’s the stuff.’ Then he said, ‘Got a few mackerel down the point tonight…
It was almost one o’clock when the landlord, with his thin tattooed forearms and sad, sunken face, said, ‘I’ve got to get to bed, so you lot better drink up.’
Katy and the other kids were talking about going to some house on the estate beyond the playing field where they would sit around smoking and playing fragments of songs on their phones.
‘I’m going home,’ he said.
‘I’ll give you a ring Sunday about that floor slab,’ Derick said. ‘Still your mum’s old number at the house, isn’t it?’
He walked out along the level road a little unsteadily, between the jumble of old cottages and mildewed bungalows and boxy new-builds. Where the land dropped towards the last houses he could see the high country opening beyond. The walls between the fields were white in the cold starlight.
He thought of a warm window glowing somewhere out there, beyond white walls but still within walking distance if only he knew the angle. He thought of wild watercress and mushrooms and blackberries and mackerel and what you could make from all of that.
Inside the kitchen the loose tap was dripping into a sink full of fish scales.
Tim Hannigan is a Cornish author who usually writes about Asia. His first book, Murder in the Hindu Kush, was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, and his second book,Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, won the John Brooks Award. He’s written guidebooks and magazine features about everywhere from Marrakesh to Kathmandu, but he’s about to hang up his backpack for a while to embark on a Midlands3Cities/AHRC-funded PhD focussing on travel literature at the University of Leicester.