Listening out for mackerel

Patrick Cotter grunted and shifted from his position on the grass and his shirt fell from his face. He settled down again but the skin on his upper arms, which had been a clear white an hour before, was now mottled red and his face was in the full glare of the sun.


‘Feck Patrick if you stay there much longer you’ll look as good as boiled lobster’ the man said.

‘Get yourself up and put your shirt back on and have a drink to cool yourself down.’

Patrick Cotter stirred himself from where he was lying on the grass and turned over pushing himself as he went with his elbows. He looked up to where we were standing.

‘Will you feck off and get me a pint and then let me go back to sleep.’

‘I’ll buy you a pint if you tell me what you were dreaming of down there. Was it a nightmare, and you being pulled from the sea and then taken back to a kitchen and dropped in a pan of water because you are red enough now and then you wake up on someone’s plate all covered in butter.’

‘Feck, will you get me that pint, it is too hot to be sat here with nothing to drink.’

‘Tell me your dreams Patrick Cotter and I’ll buy a bottle.’

He turned again on the grass and sat up so he had his back to us and he could look out over the sea. He put his shirt back on, his arms beating the air as he went, and breathed deeply.

‘I’ll not need a bottle’ he said.

We stood quiet and out on the water we could see that the boat which had been fishing off Owen Island was coming in.

‘Who is that out there coming in. He had some mackerel out there. He’s got them in a metal bucket and some of them are kicking their tales still. That’s lonely tattoo to make out in a bucket. ‘


‘Have you not heard the sound of mackerel as they come out of the water? A man can be out there pulling his line in and all he will hear are a few gulls coughing in the air above him and the slap of water against the side of his boat. But down there in the water there is a whole rush of noise as the hook is pulled up against their lip and a fish is caught short as the rest of them swim on ahead.’

He rubbed the back of his hand against his mouth and he looked dissappointed.

‘You’ve not heard them have you?’

‘Did it not occur that a mackerel might make a sound as it is caught and there might be some indignation in that.’

‘Will you imagine for a moment if some great feck put an axe in the side of your face and then pulled you up short through the very air that you breathe and then takes a piece of sharp wood to the back of your head. If you were lucky there’d be no time to make a sound.’

‘It’s the sound in the water they make. Most men they are only in there for such a short time they don’t give themselves a chance to listen. But if you’re in a boat out there and there is not too much going on put your head over the side and into the sea for a while and tell me what you can hear.’

‘Once your head is in the water you will need to shake the air out of your ears. But once you have done that keep still and listen. It will be quiet for a while but then you will hear it deep down below like a great rush of wind through trees thick with leaves. Down there it is so dark there is nothing to see but there could be a million fish moving by so solid in the water they could stop you from sinking.’

‘You want to know about my dreams. Well I dream on the noise that those fish make as they move through the water. Now will you feck off into the pub and get me a pint.’

The man with the black beard looked at my empty glass and nodded his head before walking back to the open door of the pub.

Patrick Cotter watched as the blue boat pulled up the pier. The man in the boat tied it up and then lifted out a metal bucket. We could hear the noise that it made as he dropped it on the concrete of the pier. The man pulled himself up out of the boat and standing on the pier picked up the bucket and walked down the pier, onto the road and then left up the hill to the pub.


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