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SCILLY ISLES, MAY 1915
Be good fish, be nice fish
It was mackerel they were after that day, because it was Friday. Mary always liked to cook mackerel for their supper on Fridays, but Alfie and Jim, his father, both knew she wouldn’t do it, and they wouldn’t have it, unless they brought her back enough mackerel to make a proper meal for all four of them. Jim and Alfie had prodigious appetites, which his mother loved both to grumble about and to satisfy. “I swear the two of you got hollow legs,” Mary would say in open admiration as she watched them wolfing down their mackerel yet again—three of them each she liked to put on their plates, if the catch had been good enough.
There was Uncle Billy to feed too. He lived in the boat shed on Green Bay on his own, because he liked it that way. It was just across the field from Veronica Farmhouse, where they lived, a stone’s throw away. Mary would bring him his supper every evening, but, unlike Alfie, he would, as like as not, complain if it was mackerel again. “I like crab,” he’d say. But then if Mary brought him crab, it was, “Where’s my mackerel?” He could be contrary, could Uncle Billy. But then Uncle Billy was contrary in many ways. He was different from other people, different from anyone. As Mary often said, that was what made him special.
The fish were hard to find that morning. It helped keep spirits up in the boat to talk about supper, to think about it, about how Mary would cook the mackerel for them that evening: dipped in egg, rolled in oats, then seasoned with salt and pepper. She fried it always in butter. The smell of it would be wafting through the farmhouse and they’d be sitting down at the kitchen table ready and waiting, mouths watering, savoring the sound and smell of the fish sizzling in the pan.
“Course, after she finds out what you and me have gone and done, Alfie,” Jim said, straining hard at the oars, “we could be on bread and water for a week. She will not be a happy woman, son, not happy at all. She’ll have my guts for garters, yours too.”
“We should go in closer to St. Helen’s, Father,” Alfie said, his mind on the mackerel, not his mother’s retribution. “There’s fish there almost always, just off the beach. Caught half a dozen last time we were there, didn’t we?”
“Don’t like going near the place,” Jim said. “Never have. But maybe you’re right, maybe we should give it a go. Wish the wind would get up, and we could do a bit of sailing. All this rowing’s half killing me. Here, Alfie. Your turn.” They changed places.
As Alfie took up the oars he found himself thinking of supper again, of the sound and the smell of frying mackerel, and then of how hard it was to remember smells and describe them, how sounds and sights were much easier to recall somehow. Once the mackerel was on the plate in front of them, they always had to wait until grace was said. Father and he were inclined to say grace rather too hurriedly for his mother’s liking. She took her time over it. For her, grace was a meant prayer, and different each mealtime, not simply a ritual to be rushed through. She would have liked a proper and respectful pause after the Amen, but Alfie and his father would be at their mackerel at once, like gannets. There would be strong sweet tea and freshly baked bread to go with it, and bread-and-butter pudding, if they were lucky. It was always the feast of the week.
It was already late afternoon and they had precious little to show for nearly an entire day’s fishing. Now that Jim wasn’t rowing, the wind was already chilling him to the bone. He pulled his collar up against it. It was cold for May, more like March, Jim thought. He looked at his son bending rhythmically, easily, to the oars, and envied him his strength and suppleness, but at the same time took a father’s pride in it too. He had been that young once, that strong.
He looked down at his hands, scarred, calloused, and cracked as they were now, ingrained with years of fishing and years of farming his potatoes and his flowers. He baited the line again, his fingers working instinctively, automatically. He was thankful he could not feel them. They were numb to the cold and salt of seawater, numb to the wind. Some of those old cracks in his finger joints had opened up again and would otherwise be paining him dreadfully by now. His feet too were numb, and his face. It was good to be numb, he thought, and just as well. He was wondering why it was that his ears hurt, why they too hadn’t gone numb? He wished they would.
Jim smiled inside himself as he remembered how the day had begun, at breakfast. It had been Alfie’s idea in the first place. He didn’t want to go to school. He wanted to come fishing instead. He’d tried this on before, often, and rarely with any success. It didn’t stop him trying again. “Tell Mother you need me,” Alfie had said, “that you can’t do without me. She’ll listen to you. I won’t be no trouble, Father. Promise.” Jim knew he wouldn’t be any trouble. The boy sailed a boat well, rowed strongly, knew the waters, fished with a will, and with that wholehearted enthusiasm and confidence born of youth, always so sure he would catch something. The fish seemed to like him too. It was noticeable that Jim often did better when Alfie was in the boat. With the fishing as disappointing as it had been recently in the waters around Scilly, Jim would go out fishing these days more in hope than expectation. Catches had been poor for all the fishermen in recent times, not just him. Anyway, Alfie would be company out there, good company. So he agreed to do what he could to persuade Mary to let Alfie miss school for a day, and come fishing with him.
But all pleading, all reasoning, proved to be quite useless, as Jim had warned Alfie it might be. Mary was adamant that Alfie had to go to school, that he’d missed far too much school already, that he was always trying to find ways of not going to school. Any excuse would do: working out on the farm, or going fishing with his father. Enough was enough. When Mary insisted with that certain tone in her voice, Jim knew there was very little point in arguing, that she was immovable. He persisted only because he wanted Alfie to know he really wanted him out there in the boat with him, and to demonstrate his solidarity. When Alfie saw the argument wasn’t going his way, he joined in, trying anything he could think of that might change her mind.
“What does one day off school matter, Mother, one day?” “We always catch more fish when there’s the two of us.” “And anyway, out in an open boat it’s always safer with two, I heard you say so.” “And I hate Beastly Beagley at school. Everyone knows he can’t teach for toffee. He’s a waste of space, and school’s nothing but a waste of time.” “You let me stay home, Mother, and after I’ve been fishing with Father, I’ll come back and clean out the henhouse for you, and fetch back a cartload of seaweed to fertilize the lower field, whatever you want.”
“What I want, Alfie, is for you to go to school,” Mary said firmly. It was quite futile. She wasn’t going to give in. There was nothing more to be said, nothing more to be done. So Alfie had trudged off reluctantly to school with Mary’s words ringing in his ears. “There’s more to life than boats and fishing, Alfie! Never heard of a fish teaching anyone to read or write! And your writing ain’t nothing to write home about neither, if you ask me!”
When he’d gone she’d turned to Jim. “I’ll need six good mackerel for tea, Jimbo, don’t forget,” she said. “And wrap up warm. Spring it may be, but there was a keen wind out there when I went out to feed the hens. That boy of yours forgot to do it again.”
“He’s always my boy when he forgets,” said Jim, shrugging on his coat and stepping into his boots.
“Where else do you think he gets it from?” she replied, buttoning up Jim’s coat. She gave him his peck on the cheek and patted his shoulders as she always did, as he always liked her to do. “And by the way, Jimbo, I promised Uncle Billy a crab for tomorrow—you know how much he loves his crab. Nice one, mind. Not too big. Not too small. He don’t like a crab all chewy and tough. He’s very particular. Don’t forget.”
“I won’t forget,” Jim muttered under his breath as he went out the door. “Nothing’s good enough for big brother Billy, eh? You spoil that old pirate rotten, that’s the truth of it.”
“No more’n I spoil you, Jim Wheatcroft,” she retorted.
“Anyway,” Jim went on, “I’d have thought old and tough and chewy would have suited an old pirate like Long John Silver just perfect.”
When it came to Uncle Billy, it was always this kind of good-natured banter between them. They had sometimes to share the humorous side of it, because the harsh truth of so much that had happened to Uncle Billy in his life was often too painful to deal with.
“Jim Wheatcroft!” she called after him. “That’s my big brother you’re talking about, and don’t you forget it. He ain’t neither old nor chewy, just in a world of his own. He’s not like the rest of us, and that’s fine by me.”
“Whatever you say, Marymoo, whatever you say,” he replied, and with a cheery flourish of his cap, went off down the field toward Green Bay, mimicking Uncle Billy’s favorite ditty just loud enough for her to hear: “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
“Jim Wheatcroft, I heard that!” In response, Jim gave her another wave of his cap. “And you take care out there, Jimbo, you hear!” she shouted after him.
As he went down to the boat, Jim was marveling at Mary’s endless patience and constant devotion to her brother, but at the same time he felt more than a little vexed, as he always did, at how oblivious Uncle Billy seemed to be to all Mary had done for him, and was doing for him every day of her life. He could hear him now, singing away out on his boat in Green Bay, “the good ship Hispaniola,” as Uncle Billy called it.
It hadn’t been a “good ship” at all, not to start with, just the remnants, the rotting hulk, of an old Cornish lugger, abandoned long ago on the beach on Green Bay. It was five years now since Mary had brought him home from the hospital and installed him in the boat shed. She had made a home for him up in the sail loft, and he’d been out there on Green Bay just about every day since, whatever the weather, restoring that old lugger. It was she who had told him about the old lugger in the hospital, and as soon as she got him home encouraged him to get back to boatbuilding, which he’d loved so much as a young man. She was convinced that he needed above all, she’d told Jim, to keep busy, use his hands, be the craftsman he once was again.
Everyone, including Jim, had thought it was an impossible task, that out there in all weathers the lugger had deteriorated too much, was too far gone, and that anyway “Silly Billy,” as they called him all over the island, couldn’t possibly do it. Only Mary insisted he could. And soon enough everyone could see that she had been right. When it came to boatbuilding, Silly Billy—whatever you thought of him—knew well enough what he was doing. Day by day over the years, the old lugger in Green Bay was becoming young again, and sleek and beautiful.
She lay there at anchor as Jim walked to the fishing boat that morning, resplendent in green paint, Hispaniolapainted black on her side. She may not yet have been finished, but the fine and elegant lines of her hull were evident now to anyone walking along Green Bay. And now with the mainmast up, which Uncle Billy had raised only a few weeks before, she was looking almost complete. With no help from anyone—Uncle Billy liked to be on his own, work on his own—he had brought her back to life. Uncle Billy may have been odd—that was the general view: a bit “mazed in the head,” they usually called him—but with the work he had done on that old lugger over the years, plain now for everyone to see, he had gained the respect of the whole island. He was still “Silly Billy,” though, because they all knew where he’d been, where he’d come from, because of how he was.
Walking across the sand on Green Bay, Jim could see Uncle Billy up on deck. He was running the black and white Skull and Crossbones flag up the mast, as he had done every morning since the mast had gone up. He had the Long John Silver hat on that Mary had made for him, and he was singing. Uncle Billy had his ups and downs, his good days and his bad days. This morning he had the hat on and he was singing, so this must be a good day, which, Jim knew, would make life much easier for Mary. He could be a cantankerous old goat when he was in one of his black moods. And for some reason Jim had never understood, when he was like that, he was always nastier to Mary than anyone. Yet she was the one who had saved him, brought him home, and the person he loved most in the world.
It was because Jim was so busy admiring the Hispaniola, so preoccupied thinking about Uncle Billy, that he had not noticed until now that Alfie was out there, clambering about on Penguin, the family’s fishing boat, making her ready. He was untying her from the buoy, then rowing her in toward him over the shallows. “What d’you think you’re up to, Alfie?” Jim protested, looking over his shoulder nervously. “If your mother sees you…”
“I know, Father, she’ll have my guts for garters—whatever that means,” Alfie said, with a smile and a shrug. “I missed the school-boat. Real shame. You were there, you saw it go without me. Right, Father?”
Jim was unable to conceal his delight. “You are a very wicked boy, Alfie Wheatcroft,” he said, climbing into the boat. “Don’t know where you get it from. We’d better come back with plenty of good fish then, hadn’t we? Or my life, and yours, won’t be worth living.”
Out at sea, an hour or so later, they were fishing off Foreman’s Rock. It had been a hard row for Alfie against the current all the way along Pentle Bay, and Jim could see he needed a rest. He took the oars from him and rowed over to check his lobster pots. Between them, they hauled up three good-sized crabs from the pots off Foreman’s Rock—so, a crab for Uncle Billy, and two to sell—and there was a nice squid in one of the pots, which would do nicely for bait. And Alfie managed to catch a couple of pollock as well. “Good for fishcakes,” Jim grumbled, “and not much else. Your mother don’t like pollock. We can’t come home with nothing but pollock. We got to find some mackerel.”
“St. Helen’s,” Alfie said, reaching for the oars, and starting to row again. “They’ll be there, dozens of them, Father, waiting for us, you’ll see.”
It was a flat calm now, hardly a ripple on the sea, and the tide took them quickly toward St. Helen’s. Wary of rocks, they came in with great care, Alfie rowing gently toward the shore, toward the only sandy beach on the island. Jim dropped anchor. This was where they had caught their mackerel only a few weeks before, a dozen or more, and big fish too, all of them inside a few minutes. Maybe they’d get lucky again.
Both of them knew they would have to get lucky. Mackerel were like that. You could be out fishing all day right above them, and the line would come up empty every time. Or they’d be down there begging to be caught, it seemed, and then they’d jump right onto your hooks and come up shining and silver and wriggling on the line. Jim remembered how delighted Mary had been with them before, when they came home with their great catch and showed her, how she’d given them both the best of hugs, and told them there weren’t two other fishermen in the world like them.
Jim dropped his line into the sea. “Come on, fish,” he said. “Have a little nibble, have a little bite. Be good fish, be nice fish, and then Marymoo will give us more hugs, and tonight we’ll have the best supper of our lives. Come on, fish. What are you waiting for? I’m not going away till I get you, lots of you.”
“They’re down there,” said Alfie, peering into the water on the other side of the boat. “I can see them. Bet I catch one before you do, Father.”
It was a long while later. Neither had caught a fish, nor even felt a suggestion of a bite. Both were silent, deep in concentration. Alfie was sitting there hunched over the line, gazing intently down into the clear blue-green of the sea below, the fronds of weeds waving mockingly up at him. That was when he first heard it. The sound seemed at once strange to him, out of place somehow, not right. Alfie looked up from his fishing. It came from the island, a hundred yards or so away, from somewhere near the shore, a soft cry, a whimpering. A seal pup perhaps. But it was more human than that.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Morpurgo