Archie and his unexpected catch

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.







two men in a boat

From a distance, the boat doesn’t seem big enough to seat two people. Cartoonishly top heavy. It drifts where the water takes it, the occupants unconcerned with their direction and the vagaries of the wide, living river.

Two men sit, legs stretched out before them, heads tilted slightly back, a look of blissful disinterest on their faces. A couple of fishing lines, taut and a little way out into the water. Their day is consumed with the lack of anything in particular.

The sun moves across the sky.

“What have you got in?”
“Got a Woolly Bugger in at the moment”
“Wet little Woolly Bugger”
“Wet and seemingly unattractive….”

A vision of fleshy lips and brilliant scales thrashing on the end of a line flash across their minds.

“…what about you?”
“Thought I’d try a Bunny Leech first, maybe tickle their fancy with a Parachute Adams if all fails”
“I have a good feeling about this afternoon”
“Yep, me too. It is a beautiful day.”

Their eyes watch but their minds wander like tree fluff untethered in the breeze, time allowing thoughts to settle in slow sedimentary layers. No rush. Regular mugs of tea are poured to help mark out the slow passage of time and gaps where conversations might be.

“Did you watch The News last night?”
“I didn’t. I was making these little beauties for today.”

He holds up a fly and studies it with fascination, the sun exploding a bright yellow ball of fluff with a barbed hook protruding from one end.

“They’ve found a new type of Dinosaur. Can you believe that? After all this time, and they’re still pulling up new bones”
“Biggest of the herbivores they reckon.”

He lays the fly gently down in a box next to other intricately weaved enticers that will never catch their prey.

“…mind you, they’re always finding new species of living animals as well. Animals we never knew existed…still.”
“That is true. From the way way back to the way way forward. Evolution never stops”
“We are but a blip along the way”
“A blip”
“Better enjoy the blip”
“It’s our duty I think”

He picks up the flask and takes a peek inside. Empty. Little slaps of water on the side of the boat. A dragonfly darts towards the trees, a drunk on a mission and the sun continues to warm and soften.

“You know, I don’t think there are any fish in this river.”
“As sure as nuts is nuts, there are no fish in this river.”

They think about this unequivocal statement all too briefly. Light on the water dances like notes from a harp.

“Shall we call it a day?”
“Indeed. Our time here is done.”

They move to retrieve and stow their props. The little motor grumbles into life and putters them by inches back to the bank.

“Same time tomorrow?”

They pack their untroubled gear into the car








the lightness of being

He sat quietly, legs dangling over the side of the rock, looking at the tumbling hills and valleys stretching out before him. He’d been there a while, arrived earlier than they had arranged, an unconscious desire to get started on the journey. The heat of the sun folded around him with an occasional breeze as a cooling companion. A perfect day for new beginnings.

He heard the stuttering steps of someone negotiating the rocks behind him and soon she stood there, hesitant for a while, before softly lowering herself to sit.

‘I’m glad you came’ he said
‘It was touch and go, but I needed to go out for coffee, sooo….’

He smiled briefly. He’d always appreciated her sarcasm. He glanced at her through the glare of the harsh morning light.

‘This can’t be easy for you so it means a lot to me’
‘I know it does’ she said ‘and truly, I’m finally happy to be here’.

She looked out at the familiar landscape, slowly cooking in the summer heat but still green, pungent, peaceful……beautiful.

‘I couldn’t let you leave on your own, especially on a day like this. It would have been selfish of you not to share it’

She was inwardly biting her lip, trying to suppress the bubble of rising panic and she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep the brevity up.

They sat quietly for a while, comfortable in each other’s silence but also trying to find the right words, the right way to steer themselves in the direction of least harm.

‘I suppose you haven’t had a change of heart?’

He didn’t reply

‘No, I guess not’.
‘It’s not that I haven’t thought about it’ he said, ‘I have, a lot, over and over, but this is so much more than just a set of circumstances or a tangle of feelings. It’s been a way of life for me for so long and I just can’t keep doing it. It has to change’.
‘It’s taken me a while to fully realize that’ she said.
‘I’ve never felt I belonged here I don’t think, even when I was younger. But you go along with it then, trusting it will change, that something will come along to make you say “oh yes! That’s what’s going to make everything fit”, but it never has. Being here has always felt like a weight on my chest and I don’t want to die gasping for breath’

It had been so difficult for her to see things from his perspective. They had experienced pretty much the same up bringing, the same schools, the same neighborhoods, the same messy teenage years, the same dysfunctional, joyous, maddening families. It had only given her strength, a solid base to jump from knowing she had an inbuilt safety net. But this place had always crushed him.

‘I found someone to take the cat’ she said.
‘Thanks. Did you tell them about his food? That he likes his paws massaged? He hates people trying to touch his belly’.
‘Yes, they have the full run down, don’t worry, they’ll take good care of him”.
‘Will you visit him every now and then, you know, just to make sure he’s OK?’
‘Yes, I’ll visit. Every week. Promise’.

She looked at his hand, sitting flat on the rock next to her and wanted to touch him. Maybe the smallest caress would shift the balance and make him realize she felt more than just friendship, make him re-consider, make him stay. But she knew the scales were too heavily tipped. All the doors were closed.

‘I suppose I thought I could be that thing, be that savior to transform your life here, to show you how good it could be. Silly. Silly and arrogant really’.
‘No, not either’ he said, ‘just human. Our need to help others. It’s the instinct that helps keep the tribes alive, but it doesn’t work for everyone’.

A warm gust of wind blew across them, a reminder that nothing stands still for too long.

‘I have to go’ he said.

She was staring at her feet, bright painted toenails peeking out of her sandals. A little ironic splash of happy looking back up at her.

She turned to look at him. Such a beautiful face. Those smiling eyes that she thought about so often, but with so little to smile about. She felt a slight tightening in her chest.

‘I do wish you didn’t have to’ she said

He was looking straight ahead now, out beyond the perceivable horizon, to where he felt the journey waited.

‘There’s no more room on this road, the pavement stops. I have to go’
‘I know’ she said, ‘I know’.

She lent over and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

‘Safe travels, wherever they take you’.

They looked at each other for a moment with an understanding of the finality of it all. Then he lifted himself up very slightly and pitched forward. For the briefest moment her body braced, ready to reach out and stop him, but just as quickly, faltered.

She watched him fall. The gravest of realities seeming so unreal in that moment. And as he disappeared she could feel the tumult, the anguish and the pain that had wracked him for so long, fly away like a bluster of Autumn leaves, stripping him bare to his most perfect, beautiful self.

‘Goodbye my friend’ she whispered, with a smile and a tear in her heart