Spiking out from the lower railings, the pier looked like some animal defending itself. There weren’t any rods against the upper railings, where people sat on deck chairs, reading or sunbathing. Some leaned over, watching the fishermen below. The air smelt of salt, cigarette smoke, and lugworm. Every now and then a line was brought in, the bait checked to see if the crabs had got it. If they had, a pouch of damp newspaper was unrolled, and a fresh lug hooked up. They lay in the paper, like badly rolled cigars. You could buy them at the tackle shop at the pier entrance, but they weren’t fresh, and very expensive. Most men dug them themselves, at low tide: lone figures walking the sand in wellies, with a bucket and a garden spade, looking for the tell-tale casts. When they found them they dug quickly, before the worms burrowed away. The boy hadn’t believed, when he’d first been told, that a worm could move that fast. But they were worth it, worth all the digging. When they were fresh, all the fish ate them. So did the crabs. You could use ragworm too, but they were difficult to get. Red, like giant centipedes, and the most expensive bait, because you couldn’t get them yourself. He didn’t know where the bait shop got them from.
He wasn’t using worm today. Most of the men were, but they also had rigs ready for changing. One or two, with the best rods and big multiplier reels, were casting mackerel feathers far out, then reeling steadily in, then casting again. They would be the first to strike. The boy waited. His rod wasn’t good, and his reel was a freshwater, bale-arm reel, not a big one either. He was saving for a better one. Better rod, too. He had good line, though: 10lb and wound to the very brim on the reel, just as the bream fisherman had showed him, so that it wouldn’t catch against the edge of the reel, slowing it down. Now it was full. He’d tried a couple of practice casts. They were his best distance. Only a third of what the men with the best gear could cast. Maybe only a quarter. He knew that the further he got, the more likely he could strike. He watched the blue-green of the sea running with a small swell. He looked out to where the men with the best gear landed their feathers. No wonder they struck first.
The sun was hot on his neck. He looked down, between the cracks in the wooden planks. The great rusted struts of the pier, mussel-coated and hung with weed and lost fishing rigs, foamed white when a wave struck them. A gull bobbed between two of them, his head to one side, watching the men above for scraps. A crisp packet slowly circled one of the struts. At the base of the struts there were conger eels. If you ever landed one, you needed a special metal tool to keep its mouth open, or you’d lose a finger. They were nearly impossible to kill. Big as your leg. Someone heard that a child had been attacked by one, near some rocks along the coast. The boy always worried what would happen if you fell off the pier. One of the men had told him it was the barnacles on the pier struts you needed to worry about. They’d shred you to pieces if the waves pushed you against them. But it was the eels the boy thought about, waiting at the bottom of the struts, watching the surface.
The fishermen were eating their sandwiches now. Drinking flasks of tea. Rolling fags and joking together. The boy reached into his rucksack for the plastic box his mother had given him that morning. He ate the cheddar sandwich she’d made, and the salt and vinegar crisps. He left the Penguin chocolate bar till later. And the apple. He drank some of the orange squash she’d put in the old Robinson’s Barley Water bottle. They didn’t buy Robinson’s that often, but she kept the bottles to fill with the squash she bought from the supermarket. He didn’t like its taste much, but he was thirsty in the sun.
A glint of gold caught his eye. Lodged between two planks not far from his feet was a swivel. He took his fishing knife from his tackle box and prised the swivel out. One of the hoops was a little bent, but otherwise it was fine. Fishermen always left stuff. If you kept your eyes peeled. He’d found a packet of hooks before, some leads, three lugs wrapped in paper, feathers…
He jumped to his feet, scanning the rods to see who’d struck. There wasn’t much movement, most of them still fixed to the railings with car roof ties or tied with their own linen rod cases. One man was reeling in, his rod straight, his body relaxed, but his head was looking to his left, where the boy could now see the thin black outline of a rod curving seaward, juddering occasionally as its owner braced himself.
“Yup, I’m in!” the man repeated, his rod nodding again. “Definitely.”
“I’m in!” This from another man, beyond the first.
There was a scrambling along the rails, as lines were reeled in, and the lug-baited rigs changed for mackerel feathers. The air was soon cut with the swishing of casts, the grey lumps of lead trailing the bright, ragged shapes of their feathers out until the tiny splashes of white punctured the blue. The boy unhooked the lowest hook on his rig from his rod’s first, largest eye, letting the weight swing away from him. He turned round carefully, the men either side of him already busy with reeling or casting. He lowered his rod slowly. He knew he had to cast straight. He had to make sure he didn’t cross the lines of those either side of him. He tipped the bale arm over, took the loop of line around the front of his finger, feeling the rig’s weight in the line. He swung the lead away from him twice, then, on the third swing, he brought the rod over his head, twisting his body round to face the sea. The lead swung a bit to his left, didn’t cross the line of the man next to him, but dropped too short. He reeled in fast, so quickly that the lead jumped from the water, hitting the pier strut beneath him. The second cast was straight, and further. As he began to trawl the feathers back in, he thought he could feel the rod bend, but the next heave was smooth. His third cast caught the swing of the weight just right and went the furthest. He wound the reel handle once the lead had sung through the water, the bale arm clicking back into place. He drew the rod back over his head, trawling the feathers toward him, then slacking to let them sink, then drawing them back, winding and drawing. Suddenly, his arm was jerked forward, once, then again and again. His rod tip bent down as he drew it back, butting toward the waves and causing the cork rod handle to judder in his hand.
He scanned the water. Nothing, just the blue-green depth shifting in small waves. He could see his line, tight as it entered the sea. The rod bucked again and he pulled and wound. Then suddenly a slash of silver shot from left to right three feet beneath the surface. Then another, then two, almost simultaneously. He wound the line with the rod out in front of him now, bucking and bending. When he heaved again it lifted the first fish from the water. Two more followed, shaking wildly either side of the untaken feathers.
“I’ve got three!” he shouted.
The man to his left glanced at him and smiled, intent on his own winding and trawling. The boy reeled until the top feather was a foot from the smallest eye of the rod, then he tipped the bucking line over his head and let the three wriggling fish down onto the wooden planks behind him.
They were perfect. Bright and fresh and hard-looking. They seemed to him to have come from another world, somewhere tropical, a warm ocean far away. Their top halves were blue-green and iridescent, curved through with lines of black, giving way to the shimmering silver beneath, metallic as it caught the sun, the water flashing as the fish slapped their bodies hard against the wood. He looked up. Wriggling forms dangled in the air or thrashed on the boards all round him, flashing silvers and blues amongst the blurred forms of the fishermen. There was movement everywhere.
He bent over the first, largest fish, and unhooked it. He held it tight, its taut shiver of muscle struggling in his grip. He put his finger in its mouth, feeling the small sharp jag of its teeth, and pulled backwards until he heard the gristly soft break of the neck. He dropped the now crooked-backed form onto the decking, its last involuntary spasms slowing in the sun. When he’d killed the other two, he grabbed the rod, let the lead swing back to cast, but the line slipped from the hook of his finger during the cast and the weight veered through the air to his right.
“Fuck’s sake!” the man said angrily. “Stay there. Don’t wind anymore.”
“Sorry.” He could feel his face reddening. “The line slipped.”
The man passed his rod underneath the boy’s with one hand, took it with the other and walked quickly back to his spot, shaking his head. The boy’s next cast was so short, the one after that not much better. The man to his left hauled in five mackerel, which meant the boy had more space to his left for the next cast. It was a good one. He trawled once then immediately felt his rod jerk forward, hard, and again, the line pulling to his left, shuddering. He wound and wound, fighting the tugs that dipped the rod’s curved tip. A large flash of silver glanced the pier strut beneath him, then turned and shimmered back just beneath the surface. He wound more slowly now, so the fish would come out of the water straight, and not swing against the struts where they would be knocked free or the line would break. They came out and up okay. Four this time, the highest one big and fat. That was the one he’d seen beneath the surface. He killed them quickly, dropping them into the carrier bag where he’d put the first three. The next cast wasn’t so good, but as he reeled in they struck anyway.
“Right in close, now!” someone shouted.
Four more casts brought eleven fish. He couldn’t cast out fast enough. He didn’t even kill the fish, just left them slapping the wooden planks. It was the same all along the pier, the sudden wet slapping of hundreds of forms. The whole deck was like an enormous palm, jangling silver coins.
They never stopped. His arm ached with reeling and trawling. As he wound one lighter strike in, he was struck again, close to the pier, and the rod jerked hard down. He leant back to lift the fish clear of the water, but it caused them to swing against the struts. One fell back into the sea, but the line didn’t catch on the struts, and he lifted the remaining five over the railing.
“That would’ve been a six,” he said out loud. No one was listening.
He crouched among his catch. A dozen wriggled and flipped themselves, some flapping away towards the next man’s place. He grabbed them back and began breaking their necks. Then he saw his knife, open in his tackle box. He turned it in his hand, its blade leaden dull compared to the molten silver of the fish. He held one fish and quickly cut its throat. A dark blood poured out, almost brown, only lightening to red when it spilled across the fish’s bright belly or onto his hand. He cut the next one, and the next. They didn’t die as fast this way, but the way the blood poured from them made him feel somehow that this was more important, more real. He was a fisherman. He had to do this; the blood proved it. The blood was on his forearms now, and on his shorts, on the knife handle and the cork butt of the rod. It stained the wooden planks, shimmering wet and sparkling where fish scales shone in it. Gull cried overhead. Some of the men were gutting their catch now, chucking the guts over the rail where the gulls dived and squabbled for them. His head felt light, too empty. The sun was hot against him and the smell of fish was everywhere. The blood, too, smelt. He recognised its smell. There were three fish left to kill, but he put the knife down and broke their necks. He looked at the smallest one, twisted and juddering still, and he threw it over the side.
They were gone. Rods leant against the railings. Rigs were changed back to lug and weights, or lug on a float. Hands wiped on rags, cigarettes were rolled, flasks of tea poured. Someone opened a can of Coke. The boy was thirsty. He drank from the bottle of juice, gulping the saccharine taste that he didn’t like. He wished he had a Coke. When he looked down, the last of his fish were still spasming. The first carrier bag was full. He got out another and divided the fish evenly between them. The blood was drying. He could feel it cracking on his skin. He knew he should begin cleaning them. He took the first fish from the bag. It was one of those he hadn’t cut. Its head faced awkwardly up and back, its mouth wide open. He picked up his knife and sliced it down the underside from the throat to the vent. He slid two fingers into the cut and drew them down, forcing out the guts. They dropped in a slimy mess onto the wooden boards. He picked another fish from the bag and gutted it. The third on was one of the ones he’d cut. He had to make this second cut join the first where it hung round the fish’s throat in a smudge of dried blood. The guts plopped onto the boards. The sun was still hot on his head. He looked at the bag full of fish all needing to be cleaned. He wondered why they called it that. To him they seemed much cleaner when they were whole, perfectly shaped and bright, fresh from the clean water. Not now, when they lay, stiffening in a bag, their bellies open, their brightness dimming. They didn’t shine now. They seemed so different: dull and still. Something had left their bodies with the life, something that hadn’t been able to stay in the muscles and the scales and the fins where it had been less than an hour ago. Everything about them was still the form of a fish, still exactly a fish, but they were nothing like the things he’d pulled up from the blue. It was if the molten silver had cooled on their sides, the colours dimming. They weren’t exciting anymore.
He looked up at the old woman.
“For fish? For a bag?” she added.
He shrugged. He thought she had a foreign accent.
“I give two pound. Yes?”
He shrugged, then nodded. He put the gutted fish back into the bag and picked it up. It was heavy. He wondered how she’d carry it. He climbed the stairs to the upper deck.
“I haven’t gutted most of them yet,” he said, looking at her. She was short. Her face was lined, and one of her eyes didn’t close properly when she blinked.
“No worry.” She put out one hand and dropped the coins into his hand. With the other she took the fish and turned away quickly. He watched her go. He looked at the coins. The day ticket to the pier had cost fifty pence. He could buy a Coke now, but he knew he wouldn’t. He would save the money, put it towards a new rod and reel. He walked back to his gear.
“She’s an Eytie,” said the man to his left. “She’s often here. Fresher’n anythin’ she’d buy in the shop. She knows that. They love fish, they do.”
The boy began to clean the remaining bag of fish, but after half a dozen, he’d had enough. The slimy guts round his feet stank. He trod them through the cracks in the boards and watched them splash into the water. He thought about the eels waiting below. He packed up his things. Many of the fishermen were leaving now. He felt hot and tired. He still had a two-hour walk home. He knew the bag would be heavy. He’d gut the rest when he got home, though his mother would be angry at all the mess and smell, at the little scales left round the edge of the sink.
He walked along the pier towards the promenade, looking down through the last of the wooden planks, watching the sea change below to shingle, then to the edge of the promenade’s concrete foundation. Then he was on the pavement, the road ahead of him jammed with cars waiting at the lights. A family walking towards him looked at the bag of fish.
“Look how many, Mum!” said one of the children, a little girl, pointing.
He crossed the road, turned up the hill until he came to the botanical gardens. He’d cut through there to the end of the old High Street, then into the park that ran the length of the lower town. After that, it was along the main road till he was almost home. Already the bag was hurting his shoulder. He swapped it from hand to hand, but the plastic began to dig into his skin. He stopped and wrapped his fishing cloth round his hand to protect his skin.
By the time he got home, he was hot and very tired. His shoulders ached, and it would take him almost an hour to gut the rest of the fish, and clean the sink in the kitchen before his mother came back from work and praised his catch, and complained about the mess in the sink, and put the bag of fish inside another bag which she then put next to the other bags of fish in the bottom of the big chest freezer in the garage. When they moved house two years later, his father would empty the freezer, and throw all the bags of fish away.
Craig Dobson’s had poetry and fiction published in Poetry Ireland Review, The London Magazine, The Interpreter’s House, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Daily, Agenda, The North, The Rialto and Active Muse, among others. He lives and works in the UK.