It was the thud of a lobster pot against the side of his boat that bought him out of his daydream. Archie looked down into the water, a slate grey reflection of the cold sky above him. He felt the fishing line still resting in his closed hand awaiting instruction, smelled the tang of his catch, sleek, twitching and wide-eyed in the buckets. The breeze whipped thin grey hairs across his forehead as he slowly began to rejoin the present.
Had he finished for the day? He couldn’t quite remember. He looked up to where he thought the sun was, but couldn’t place it through the layer of cloud. He looked down at his catch. It was either still early or it was the end of another thin day.
What had he been thinking about? Better days. Yes, Iain and Arthur, on the big boat. The three of them, fearless and far from sensible on more than one occasion. Drinking in the laughter and the whisky. Better days indeed.
And Elsie, his Elsie. Now, back in the day, she was a catch, and he was the one she had chosen. He never really fathomed how that had happened, but she was the making of him, his anchor in the storm.
He was the last of them all he supposed. Yes, quite possibly the last of them. He had to steady himself against a rising swell, his hand reaching out to the rough blue rail. He looked at the line in his hand. A small knot in his puffy, weathered palm that needed untangling.
‘Well the fish won’t catch themselves’ he said.
He started to get the next line prepared and fumbled with some of the bait, scraps of small, slippery herring and shrimp. It felt like he had a thick pair of mittens on as he struggled to get the bait onto the hooks.
He took the boat across the bay to where he thought he might get better luck with the mackerel shoals. He cut the engine and unreeled the loaded line. There was a time when he didn’t have to search too hard for a catch, the fish were reliable, abundant, the sea was fertile. Fertile with fish and memories. Nowadays he was never sure if the effort would bring any reward.
A quick, sharp shower came down. A low tattered cloud from the surrounding hills purging its swollen tanks. It was all the same to Archie, rain or shine, although the cold bothered him more these days, didn’t let his joints move without the reminder of all the years now gone.
‘Just have to move through it’ he thought.
He watched the line disappearing into the sea and let the boat drift languidly in the bay, as he took in his surroundings. He was part of this landscape, born out of the very rocks, he knew every barnacled surface, every echo the sea had ever slapped in every cove. The salt air was his breath, his life. But who was he really doing this for anymore? He could barely catch enough to sell these days, and he only had the one plate to fill on the kitchen table now. Was it worth the trouble?
He started the winch to pull in the line, not really focused on the job at hand. The first few hooks appeared, apologetically empty. He barely noticed. Then something caught his eye just under the surface, coming up with the line. It was definitely larger than a mackerel, it loomed up towards the surface like a seal and then out it popped! And there she was, strung up like a Sunday ham ready for the pot in a sou’wester, oil-skin coat and galoshes!
‘Hellooo!’ she said, a huge beaming smile on her wet, dripping face.
Archie staggered back a couple of steps, staring open mouthed at this apparition.
‘Elsie?’ he gasped. ‘Elsie! What on earth……
‘Archie, my dear sweet man’ she said
‘Elsie. What are you doing here? In the middle of the sea? On my fishing line?’
‘Oh, well, you were sounding a wee bit morose, so I thought I’d come along and see how you were for myself. What fun, eh!?’
‘But Elsie, you’re dead, woman. Dead and buried. I saw you into the ground myself!’
‘Oh I know that, but there’s things out there Archie as you would not believe, my dear.’
He was quite stunned, gawping incredulously at her, as she quite contentedly swayed on his line.
‘Archie, do close your mouth dear. You look like one of those fish in the bucket. Now I have some things to say and I’ll not be here long.’
His mouth slowly closed as he clung to the rail, hanging on her every word.
‘I know it’s been tough on you my dear. You’re asking yourself, is it still worth it, should I just pack it in, hand the keys over to Sandy and spend the rest of my days in my chair staring into the fire? But that’s not you Archie, is it now? You belong out here. This sea runs in your veins, you’re as much a part of this bay as the seagulls and kelp and fish, and they need you as much as you need them. So, you’re a bit more unsteady on your feet, and it takes a bit longer to get things done. Well, there’s no hurry. You know, we’re all here, looking out for you every-day. You’re not alone.’
‘Who’s all here?’ he said
‘All those who love you. Ian and Arthur as well.’
‘They’re here!?’ He looked wildly around him expecting to see them sitting on a bouy or on the roof of his cabin.
‘Well, they’re not here now dear, just around, you know.’
He didn’t know, but he didn’t much care. Here was Elsie, in front of him, as clear as day.
‘You can do more than just bob around on your boat, you know.’
‘Well the boat’s all I know Elsie, is all I’ve ever known.’
‘I know dear, and I think it’s about time you started sharing all you know. The young’uns have forgotten how to husband the sea, how to care for it, nurture it. They need to slow, listen to it, learn to live with it again. You can help make that happen you know’.
‘Why would they want to listen to an old bugger like me, eh?
‘Because old buggers like you are what they are going to turn into, and if they have the right sense to listen, then they’ll still be fishing too when they’re thinning and shrinking’.
‘Hey, less of that you cheeky minx’.
They laughed at each other, holding their gaze. An old flame briefly glowed.
‘Oh! Time to go Archie dear. Now, take heed of what I said. You never know how life might turn.’
‘But I haven’t had a chance to…’
‘No time! I have to go’. She started gliding gently back down the line. ‘You look so well dear!’ she said with a huge smile.
‘But Elsie. Elsie! There are so many things I want to…..’
‘Bye bye dear, you take care until we meet again’ she said with a cheery wave.
‘We will meet again? Elsie!’
But she was gone, slipped beneath the waves like the launch of a matronly submarine. Archie stayed, looking over the side into the water, transfixed by the strangeness of what just happened. Did it really happen? He couldn’t tell. He was starting to gather himself, trying to get some semblance of normality back into his thoughts when he heard a sound, like an approaching rain storm on the sea. He looked back over the side of the boat and saw the water changing color, from its grey blue to shuddering silver and with a sudden burst the surface of the sea was boiling and thrashing, the sound fizzed and sizzled like a hot volcanic vent.
‘Well blow my misty head off!’ said Archie.
He hadn’t seen such a shoal in years, not since the old days when fishing wasn’t fraught with doubt and you could barely keep up with the catch. He reached up and flicked the winch on, watching the line draw in and every hook that came out was alive with its own iridescent silver blade.
‘Bless my soul’ He looked up to the sky. ‘You always knew how to set me back on the right path, didn’t you Elsie! Haha!’ he said, as he danced a spritely jig, splashing on the deck like a unburdened child.