On a moist autumn day, long before the nicotine dressed his lungs in black for his funeral, my father severed the line with his pocketknife, set down his rod, and lit another cigarette. Mayfair from the newsagent: he had always been a man of quantity over quality. I traced the castoff line, limp in the water, back to the tree that had claimed it. Neither of us could fish, but fishing, maybe for reasons of primal origin, was seen to be one of those father-son bonding experiences. Well done, kid, you killed something. High five.
Bored, harried by midges, I watched him smoke. He once let me try one when I was six, and I hated it: good parenting is proactive. As for himself, he was a chain smoker. And an alcoholic. But a good father. Not only a man of quantity, but a paradox, too.
I could feel my childish anger bubbling inside me and, with it, the urge to shout at him to stop drinking, pull himself together, have a shred of consideration.
Even back then, though, in those misty, half-forgotten days, the twelve-year-old that became me understood that it was a private battle and any battle, no matter how fruitless or selfish, should be respected.
I moodily returned my attention to the river. It was the colour of dirty dishwater and twice as thick. Banks slick with dirt and litter sloped down to form thin crusts of flotsam. A rotting kingdom inhabited by Young Teams, promiscuous jakeys, and malnourished herons. I had never liked it, rife as it was with horror stories, from tarpaulin-wrapped bodies to terriers being swallowed whole by large pikes. Better that our line stayed cut, if there was truth in the latter. If they could pull in a terrier, they could do the same to me.
After all, I thought, I’m not big yet. But I will be, if I last.
I looked at my father again.
Tall, gaunt, held together by dark magic, like Boris Karloff in that old mummy movie, his skin was the yellow of chicken starting to go off.
He wasn’t lasting.
The fish kept low to the rocks, gulping her way through clouded water, avoiding the pink froth that blossomed on the liquid roof of the world. Objects rose from the riverbed. One, curved and rounded with thin, overlapping tentacles that weaved through lots of holes; another, small, cylindrical and bright red.
The fish swam harder.
Survival. Survival. Survival.
Her gut lay heavy with semi-digested larvae and mealworms.
Particles of filth drifted like spores and the gunk pressed down on the oxygen. At least, in this gloom, it was hard to spot the irresistible flash and wink of the feathered bugs that sometimes hovered overhead.
A survivalist must consider all angles. A survivalist must think like a survivalist.
This was, for better or for worse, the way of the fish.
‘We should have brought Susie,’ I said, hoping to distract him from his can of Tennent’s. Again, quantity first – as any alcoholic would tell you. And, anyway, the craft beer revolution didn’t kick off until after my father was dead. Not that a £6.50 double IPA would have romanticised the ordeal, but it might have given us both more time.
‘Fishing’s no fun for dogs, son,’ he replied, ‘and the midges would get into her coat.’
It’s no fun for me either, I thought, kicking a discarded Dr Pepper bottle down the bank. I could have been playing my Nintendo 64 – Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing – instead of digging in a Tupperware tub for worms and slapping my face to rid myself of midges.
I felt a stab of guilt as I remembered that it had been my father who bought me it. In spite of his unemployment, his demons, a dog to feed and water, he had bought me a brand spanking new N64. What state of living room armchair limbo must he have endured all so that I could get my fix of pixels?
My face burned hot with shame despite the first drizzle of autumn rainfall.
‘Right, hoods up,’ he said, although he made no move to pull his own over his baseball cap.
‘Rain is good for fishing, isn’t it?’ I asked, trying to renew my interest.
‘So they say.’
‘Is there anything in there worth catching?’
‘Son,’ he said, his voice taking on an all-knowing tone that I imagined all fathers adopted on such outdoor activities, be it fishing or wild camping, ‘there’s always something worth catching, so long as you’re willing to wait. Patience – that’s the key to most things in life.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Spooling a new reel for us. Well, I’m trying to. Och, to hell with it.’
He ripped open another can of Tennent’s.
I ignored this and started rooting around in the Farmfoods bag for a snack. I found a pack of own-brand Bourbon biscuits. I reached for one, but hesitated.
‘Do we have anything to clean our hands with?’
‘I want a biscuit, but I’ve been picking up worms.’
‘Just wipe them on your trousers.’
Raindrops drummed on the roof of the world, a summons to feed, but the fish had already eaten her fill and so she glided on. A bend in the river, along with a dip in the current’s strength, promised less debris, a swifter journey and, of course, easier breathing.
With clearer water, however, returned old dangers: the feathered bugs and their death-dazzle.
The fish swam onwards, mouth compressed into an O shape, propelled by the rapid-fire thought of survival-survival-survival.
And, while she was still on the topic of survival, which was always, there was the matter of the eggs. Clean water, insofar as was possible, was needed for the eggs.
Survival, thought the fish.
Thomas Anthony Fitzsimons. What was in my father’s name? Everything, or just syllables?
He met my mother when they were out walking their dogs: sort of like One Hundred and One Dalmatians, except without all the Disney – and Cruella de Vil was a can of lager. He had a head for numbers, having once worked in RBS. In a sense, he had been pre-equipped for his own downfall, his tools turned to weapons against him, able to make every penny count towards another swallow of poison.
I sat with my back to him, trying not to listen to the guzzling, an occasional, unstifled burp and, worst of all, the crack of a fresh can. He had reached the end of his first six-pack. I focused, instead, on the flotsam, challenging myself to a game of I spy.
I’d close my eyes, pick a letter, and then start searching.
I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…T.
Tights. Tizer bottle.
Easy one: Buckfast (in both 35 and 75 cl variants).
‘Son?’ The tremble in my father’s voice made me turn around.
‘That new guy your mum’s with…does he make you call him dad?’
I shook my head.
‘Do you think of him as a dad?’
‘Well, he lives with you, and you only see me on weekends, and I just – I –’ he started to cry, while continuing to talk, ‘I d-don’t want him to t-take you away from me.’
His Tennent’s can fell from his hand and foamed into the soil.
‘Wh-what if be-becomes your new d-dad?’
Each sob racked his haggard frame, and then dwindled to a small whistling in his throat.
‘Wh-what i-if I won’t m-matter anymore?’
A spindle of snot hung from one of his nostrils. He made no effort to hide or remove it.
‘Don’t be silly, Dad – that won’t happen.’
I nodded. ‘Promise.’
‘O-Okay.’ He tried again, gruffer. ‘Okay.’ Cleared his throat, sniffed a few times, and began to wipe the stickiness from his face with a yellowed handkerchief.
It seemed wrong to watch him, so I turned away and wandered out along the bank.
A pair of neds, signified by their blue-yellow Berghaus Mera Peaks in much the same way that the tropic hue of a frog signified its toxicity, had set up camp further down on the opposite side. They had a small fire on the go and, as far as my eyes could tell, were cooking square sausage.
Better than Bourbon biscuits, I supposed.
Here, it was clean, the taint diminished. The fish notched the gravel with body and tail, brush stroking a new formation into being, until, soon, the redds were complete and she could proceed with her grand purpose.
She slotted herself into one of the grooves, and released a cluster of orange eggs. This she repeated in each groove, so that the redds resembled a tilled field teeming with planted seeds. All the eggs required now were a male to fertilise them.
The fish sank into the gravel, exhausted. Blood beaded from where the plastic ring cut into her silvered skin; the other five rings, draped over her back, made movement difficult. No matter how furious a wriggle the fish worked up, the ring only tightened.
There was no escape.
The fish rested in the shallow water, every breath a struggle.
She did not even notice when the hand plucked her from her world and tossed her onto the grassed lip above the bank.
Another hand pinned her in place.
Survival, thought the fish.
The object struck her once and burst her left eyeball.
S—v—l, thought the fish.
A second blow dashed her brains from her head.
The rain dripped from my nose and fell in dollops from the leaves. My father had spent the last fifteen minutes sitting with Zen-like stillness in his foldout chair, perhaps in an attempt to harness some inner machismo that might carry him past the embarrassment of having wept in front of his son.
We had caught nothing, other than the chance of a cold.
I didn’t disturb him, maybe being too young to realise that disturbance was precisely what he needed; a firm shake from his loneliness.
In a moment of irrational anger – or so it had seemed – I picked up the tub of worms and upended them into the river, dirt and all. Would they drown or be eaten first, I wondered.
‘Why did you do that?’
I started. My father was watching over my shoulder.
‘Putting them on the hook would’ve been worse,’ I said, defensive.
‘Putting them on the hook catches a fish, and a fish is food.’
‘They’re food for the fish.’
‘Fine,’ he said, ‘but you could have just let them live.’ He began to pack up.
Even though I had a point, I felt a bit ashamed.
Adult’s privilege, however: their point mattered.
My father swayed on his feet as he rounded up his empty cans. The hems of his jeans were speckled with wet mud. His cloud of smoke and booze reached me through the rain.
‘Seeing as we’re nearby, do you want to go back to your mum’s?’
I almost answered yes, but there was something in his face that he couldn’t hide, and I said that I would rather go back with him. It was true that I did want to see Susie: maybe we could take her for a walk later.
We finished getting everything together, then made a painful return trip through the nettles and back onto the cycle track. It was good to leave the trees, their closeness, behind.
There was now enough daylight to see my father properly. Same sallow skin, but his eyes looked sunken, the purple-black welts of sleeplessness beneath them more pronounced.
I knew, from staying over at weekends, that he stayed up drinking and watching television until he fell asleep in his armchair. I had never seen him use his bed.
‘Are you okay?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Are you not well?’
‘What? I’m fine. Has your mum been saying otherwise?’
He tilted his head at me and smiled his creased smile. ‘Son, I’m fine.’
‘I promise that people are strong – and your dad’s one of them.’
He clapped me on the shoulder, and kept walking.
‘You shouldn’t drink so much,’ I said, abruptly.
‘I like a wee drink. It’s a grownup thing. Don’t worry about it.’
My father increased his pace, leaving a gap between us. The wind blew the rain in sheets and I knew he wouldn’t hear me anymore. I suspected that was the idea.
But once he had taken the lead, I saw his shoulders slump.
I should take his hand, I thought. Just take his hand and walk with him.
I realised, and not for the first time, that I was all he had – well, there were two daughters, half-sisters of mine, but they didn’t bother, so fuck them. It was me: only me.
Yes, so take his hand.
I closed the gap he had made. I was at his side.
Reach out – a few centimetres – and take it.
But I didn’t.
I didn’t hold my father’s hand.
Kevin McGowan is a writer based in Stirling, Scotland. He has had numerous poems and short stories published. His first chapbook, Eastern Thistles, was printed by Hybrid Press (Dreich) in 2020.