Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Big Catch

Danny had watched the shoreline of the tiny island fade over the horizon, its single tree waving forlornly from the shelter of the stoic church, with trepidation outweighing the usual gut churning sensation.

There were too many stories of accidents circulating the one village pub in the harbour where they waited out their shore time between fishing trips. Over the years of course boats would falter in bad weather; that was only to be expected. In more recent years boats had been lost or damaged by nets that seemed to have been snagged by naval submarines – though incidents were always strongly denied by the authorities.

Battling the sea was part of what trawling was all about. It was the draw for many of the men, weathered and beaten early in life, and for the women who waited for them and lived as best they could in the absences. As long as they understood the odds, all of them, as long as they could see that the fight was fair in the long run. Men would lose their lives, sons would lose fathers and wives husbands. But then the sons would grow and take on the wreck of the boat, repairing it and setting out as their own captain, continuing some unspoken mission of anachronistic survival. As was the case with Danny.

Danny only felt accepted in the company of other trawlermen. He could see the withering looks of other passengers as he travelled by train to see family or friends in the big city; the frowns at the oil stained clothes and bodies, the disapproval of the emptying bottles of monk-produced tonic wine and the greasy takeaway food, the shudders at the strong language and coarse jokes. What did they know about him and his life. How did they think he should spend his rare safe time?

The last boat to disappear had been The Scottish Rose and Danny had known a couple of the crew, at least to share a few drinks and laughs in The Mishnish of an evening. So Danny was shaken by their loss because he knew some of the faces of the men whose bodies had not been recovered. But it was also the sight of what had been left of the boat, Danny’s boat being one of the search and rescue party that reached the scene of the mayday signal: the shards and splinters of wood, the matchsticks of rigging, the floating patches of net, and, above all things, the thousands of dead cod, their lifeless eyes reflecting nothing but death all around.

Danny’s own trade was scallops not cod but he had had his own close shaves in the past, the teeth of the dredger catching something it was not flexible enough to skim over as it snaked over the sea bed, scratching at the surface and throwing grit and scallops into the metal nets. Once, it seemed like a lifetime ago, he had been caught in a rough Atlantic blowout, the waves coming too quickly for the boat to adjust to their rocking, and the boat had listed over to the starboard side. Just as it seemed the boat would go all the way over, tipping Danny and his frightened crew into the unforgiving icy waters dark and deep, a brief lull in the storm had allowed them to get themselves right again. Danny’s dad had always taught him that it wasn’t the height of the waves that would do for you, it was how close together they were the affected whether or not they tore you apart.

But Danny had never seen a boat so completely stripped and destroyed as this The Scottish Rose had been. The usual causes didn’t make sense for this. An inquest, hastily put together so that it could be quickly forgotten, recorded an open verdict and expected life to carry on as before.

How could it?

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