Fresh Water by Neil Brosnan

 Neil Brosnan. Since winning the 2004 Bryan MacMahon short story award at Listowel Writers’ Week, Neil Brosnan’s stories have been published in a variety of anthologies, Ebooks and magazines throughout Ireland and Britain. He is also a former winner of the Ireland’s Own short story competition and has been short-listed in many other contests.

 

Fresh Water

By Neil Brosnan

“Have you got a fishing rod?” Tony blinked, wondering what relevance fishing could have to his summer job as a hotel porter. The manager eyed him expectantly from across his desk in the tiny office at the rear of reception.

“Yes, I’ve got one at home… someplace. I used to…”

“Good! You know the river, so?”

“Well, sort of…”

“If I wanted to catch a fish tomorrow, could you show me where to go?”

“I suppose so but the water is…” The boss was nodding impatiently.

“Right, so you’ll act as guide for one of our guests tomorrow?”

“But the water…”

“It beats cleaning toilets!”

“What time?”

“Eight, sharp. It’s Mr Shanahan, that American in two twenty-three. You needn’t wear the white shirt.”

“I could bring my wellies?” Tony suggested hopefully.

“Wear whatever you want.”

Locating the rod and reel was easy: they were still exactly where Tony’s mother had stored them some five years before, beneath the rafters of the turf-shed. Unearthing the rest of his tackle proved more difficult. Tony’s frantic campaign of rummaging through drawers, cupboards and rusting biscuit tins drew the inevitable question from his father.

“What are you looking for?” A pair of enquiring eyes twinkled from above their reading lenses.

“Fishing gear, I thought I had more than this.” Tony indicated the few spinners, hooks and other oddments resurrected from a variety of glory holes.

“What brought this on all of a sudden? You haven’t been near the river in years.”

“They want me to take a resident fishing tomorrow.”

“But there’s no water. This is the driest summer for years. No one in his right mind would go near the river in its present state.”

“He’s an American.”

“Oh! Well, in that case, I wish you luck.” Tony resumed his quest to the accompaniment of rustling newspaper.

The hotel lobby was empty except for a mountainous figure whose meaty fingers ceased drumming the reception counter at Tony’s punctual arrival.

“Mr Shanahan?” A pair of pale blue eyes appraised the speaker from beneath the brim of a feather-festooned bucket hat.

“Are you the bellboy?” The voice was deep but not unfriendly.

“I’m supposed to show you the river.” Self-consciously, Tony changed hands on his uncoupled fishing rod.

“A bellboy who doubles as a ghillie? It could only happen in Ireland. My rental car is out rear. Let’s go!” The American’s broad shoulders shook with mirth as he led the way to the car park. Tony’s jaw dropped at the array of equipment piled in the back seat of the Ford Mondeo.

“Mr Shanahan, did you bring all this gear from the States?”

“Sure did. Some guys golf; I fish! I’ve caught everything from blue-fin tuna off Key West, to steelhead trout in Alaska. What do I call you, kid?”

“Tony.”

“Hi, Tony, I’m Bill.” Tony accepted the proffered hand. Bill’s enveloping grip was firm but not severe. “So, Tony, I guess I’m gonna need a permit or something. How do I get fixed up?”

The proprietor of the tackle shop was a shrewd businessman and knew a good thing when he saw one. In ten seconds flat, he had established that, extensive though it was, his customer’s knowledge of fish had been gained totally on the other side of the Atlantic. For a good half-hour, Bill got the undivided attention of his keen dark eyes as, one-by-one, each exquisitely tied fly was unhooked from the hat and thoroughly examined, only for the shopkeeper’s neatly groomed head to shake in tolerant sympathy.

“Oh, they’re lovely flies, sir, beautifully tied… a work of art… Did you tie them yourself? Amazing! You’re a gifted man, to be sure… but… you know how it is… horses for courses… different strokes… The problem with fish is this: a fish will only go for what he’s accustomed to. These flies represent the types of insects and larvae that you have in America. We wouldn’t have nearly as many… Young Tony there could tell you. No, sir, we’ve nothing like them here at all!”

Bill swallowed it hook, line and sinker and, so engrossed had he become in his buying frenzy that, without Tony’s gentle reminder, he would have left the premises without the very license that had brought him there in the first place. Once back in the vehicle, Bill shot a questioning glance at his guide.

“So, not only did you lose your snakes but you’re fresh out of bugs too?” The heat rising on Tony’s cheeks had little to do with the brilliant sunshine that blazed through the car windows.

“We have some bugs, but not as many as you’d have in America…”

“That’s a good answer, kid. I guess all the clever ones didn’t emigrate after all. So come on, Tony; you’re the guide, find me some fish!”

“Do you want to fly-fish or spin?”

“Why don’t we try a little spinning first, just to get the arms going?” The car swayed as Bill rotated his huge shoulders in anticipation.

“There’s a place about two miles back, on the other side of town, we could give it a go there.”

“Your call, Tony.” After some initial difficulty with the Mondeo’s alien gearshift, Bill completed a passable three-point-turn.

Tony proved himself a competent navigator and soon the car was bouncing along the final few yards of the rough stone passage that led to the riverbank. Before Bill made any attempt to set his tackle, he opened the car-boot to reveal a veritable treasure trove of outdoor-wear that would have left the tackle-shop-man speechless. Bill had a question as he donned a beige great-white-hunter jacket.

“Does this spot have a name?” He indicated the stretch of mirror-still water before them.

“It’s known as The Otters’ Hole.

“The Otters’ Hole.” Bill savoured the name. “I thought it would be bigger.”

“There are some wider pools nearer town but they wouldn’t be as deep. We can go someplace else if you like.” Tony got the distinct impression that his words had gone unheard. Bill’s eyes seemed to be focussed on some point high up in the distant mountains.

“The Otters’ Hole.” Bill repeated. “No…. no, right here looks good to me.” He eased his buttocks against the shimmering rear wing of the vehicle and forced his feet into a pair of green waders. “Ok, kid, you’re doing good so far. Why don’t you bait up for me and we’ll go for it?” The request took Tony off-guard. Bill grinned at the look of confusion on the youth’s face. “Come on kid, you’re supposed to be the ghillie. It’s your turf, your bugs, your call!”

“But what…? I mean… would you prefer a minnow or a flying condom or a German sprat or what?”

“What have you got?” The big man lurched upright, stamping his heels into position inside the waders.

“A blue-and-silver minnow.”

“That sounds good to me.”

They fished the pool, up and down, for well over an hour without as much as a nibble. Tony cast wearily upstream and winced as a dull pain throbbed beneath the point of his right shoulder. With a sigh, he secured the treble-hook on his first runner and placed the rod against the bumper of the car. Suddenly Bill’s voice boomed from his position on the opposite bank.

“Hey, kid, you’re not giving up already?”

“It’s a total waste of time; there’s nothing there.”

“Look around you, kid! Don’t you see all this beauty right here on your doorstep? Can’t you hear the bees, the birdsong? Can’t you smell the flowers, the hay? Would you really prefer to be back in that stuffy hotel right now?”

“No, but…”

“No buts, kid. Life’s too short for buts. Take a break and we’ll have lunch in thirty minutes!”

The whiz and plop of Bill’s lure signalled the end of the brief exchange. Tony stretched out on a grassy mound, beneath the shade of a mature willow, and heard and saw and smelled. Soon the daily routine of the hotel seemed light years away…

Tony had no idea how long he had slept but he awoke with a start to find Bill’s towering bulk grinning down at him.

“Sorry, Mr. Shanahan, I…”

“A sure sign of a clear conscience, kid… and my friends call me Bill!” Encouraged by Bill’s light heartedness, Tony pushed himself up on his elbows.

“Any luck?”

“Not a tiddler but at least we’re out in the air.” Humming softly, he turned back towards the car. Tony allowed his head to drop back onto the grass for a few minutes before Bill’s urgent bellow sent him clambering to his feet. “I didn’t bring you out here just to lay about all day!” Mustering apologies, Tony rushed towards the car only for the words to melt in his throat at the scene before him. Bill had laid a tartan rug on the grass and on it he was placing a huge plate of assorted sandwiches. Agape, Tony accepted a steaming mug from the grinning giant before finally recovering his speech.

“What…? How…?”

“The breakfast waitress put it together when I told her that the bellboy was taking me fishing. A gullible Yank might call it a touch of the céad míle fáiltes but it’s my bet that she’s sweet on you!” Bill winked exaggeratedly as he filled his mug from a litre-size thermos flask. “The tea was her idea too; I’d prefer coffee.” Tony indicated his mouth, hurriedly stuffed with a ham sandwich, as his excuse not to reply. He need not have worried; it seemed that Bill knew when enough had been said.

Silence reigned until Bill had rinsed the mugs in the river and scattered the surviving morsels of food for the attendant birds to squabble over. As he lit a thick cigar, he shot a sidelong glance in Tony’s direction.

“So, Tony, have you graduated high-school yet?” Each syllable was clouded with little plumes of smoke. Tony breathed deeply, visibly relieved at the change of subject.

“I’ll be doing the Leaving Cert next year, in June.”

“Then what? Do you have any career plans?”

“A lot will depend on how my results go.”

“You’ll do good, kid, but I guess there’s more than one kind of success. Take today, not a fish in sight but I’m sure having fun.”

“Don’t give up yet, there’s still a lot of river left.”

“I’m all set, lead the way!”

Tony decided on a spot about a half-mile upstream. As they neared their destination, Bill became strangely agitated. His eyes darted from side to side of the road and his breath came in short shallow gasps. Without warning, he stamped the car to a skidding halt beside the pillared entrance to a large period house.

“What’s…?” Tony’s concerned gasp was stifled by the restraining jolt of his seatbelt.

“Are you ok, kid?”

“I’m fine, it’s just… Are you all right?” Bill’s breathing was still laboured but, when he turned to face his passenger, it was excitement rather than panic that brightened his eyes.

“I’m good, kid. I can’t remember when I last felt this good. Could we stop here?”

“This is where we’re going. There’s a passage beyond the house.”

“Won’t they mind…the folks in the big house?”

“No, these are club waters. We’re perfectly legal.”

This time, Bill chose his own spinner and whistled softly as his eyes drank in the hypnotic stretch of tree-lined water. Absently, Tony’s gaze wandered towards the trees but this time he wasn’t just looking at birds; his eyes were now straining to identify the different species. Names like: goldfinch, sparrow, blue tit and wagtail formed on his tongue. Swallows and swifts soared and swooped in quest of the clouds of insects that hovered over the little mud pools at the side of the shrunken stream.

It was almost two hours before Bill made his way back towards the car. Tony noticed the heaviness of the shortened stride but the old eyes held a boyish glint.

“I got a bite, just below The Soldier’s Pool, a good tug but I just didn’t…”

“The Soldier’s Pool? I thought you’d never… How…?”

“How do I know that it’s called The Soldier’s Pool? I recognised the The Otters’ Holetoo; I just wanted to hear you say the name. I know this river as well as I know the veins on the backs of my own hands.” Bill laid his rod against an ash sapling and eased his bulk onto the grass. “The story goes that, in old Johnson’s time, a couple of soldiers from the barracks in town made a night-raid on the salmon in the pool. Old Johnson spotted them from the big house and crept down with a shotgun. They say that he fired in the air and the lads panicked. The poor guys tried to cross at The Bull’s Ford but one of them must have missed his step in the darkness. They recovered the body next morning.”

“I’ve never heard that story. How…?”

“My mother was from here. She emigrated to Liverpool when she was fifteen and then, a few years later, on to New York. There she married my father, a Connemara man. He was a cop but was shot in the line of duty just before I was born. Even as a baby in the womb, I was big – too big for my mother to birth. She survived, but only just and she couldn’t have any more children after me. The two of us were really close and, night after night, she’d tell me stories about her home and the landmarks of her childhood.” Bill paused for a moment to catch his breath; Tony’s curiosity was aroused.

“What was her name?

“Mary O’Connor! Her father was Bill; he was the cowman up at Johnson’s.”

“My grandmother was O’Connor, we could be…”

“We could maybe do the family tree bit over dinner?”

“I might have cousins in America? Your family…?” Bill’s great head shook slowly, his chin drooping lower with each half-turn.

“Sorry, kid, there’s only me! Mother died when I was about your age and from then, until six months ago, I was too busy getting rich to think about marriage or children. When I was diagnosed, I decided to sell the lot and come over here for Mother’s fiftieth anniversary; it’s today!”

“Diagnosed?” The question was out before Tony could stop himself.

“Yes, kid, the Big C! They said that, with Chemo, I might get a year. Well, I’ve managed six months without it, so I guess every moment from here on is a bonus. So come on, kid. My guess is that The Badger’s Inch is about a mile upstream.”

Bill assembled his fly rod and, with a quirky grin, added an unlikely looking specimen from his headgear to the pair he and Tony had already selected from the new stock. An instant after the third graceful cast, Tony heard Bill’s reel scream as a well-timed strike set the barb of the American fly in the gaping jaw of the elusive quarry. The superbly game creature leapt high into the air before making a dash towards the cover of a little clump of bulrushes beside the far bank. Bill allowed the fish run until the tension eased on the line. Slowly, carefully, the experienced angler began to rewind, constantly alert for the fish’s next surge for freedom. For twenty minutes, Tony marvelled at the struggle between instinct and craft until the resistance of the salmon was eventually broken by the lethal combination of man and technology. Silently, Tony held the landing net in readiness until Bill deemed the moment right to finally land his prize. Even as he grabbed the net, Bill was thinking a move ahead.

“Tony, bring that camera from the glove-box!” In the seconds that Tony was absent, Bill had not only landed the salmon but had crouched to a classic angler’s pose with the fish held on display across his chest. “Hurry, Tony, get a few shots… good boy… good… just one more…. Yes!” Tony watched incredulously as the American splashed back into the shallows, leaned forward and gently lowered the exhausted creature to the water. Bill manoeuvred the salmon in the current for a few moments then straightened painfully, wiping his hands on his jacket.

“You let him go?” Tony winced at the disapproval in his own voice. Bill took a few shambling steps forward, before flopping wearily to his knees.

“Tony, of the three of us – you me and that fish – which two have most in common?” The wheezed words were barely audible.

“I suppose, you and I, we’re…”

“Human? Yes, but that’s a young salmon, a grilse, making his first trip back to fresh water since he went to sea as a smolt, perhaps three to five years ago. I guess, you could say that he’s just graduated high school. What right would I have to cut him off, after he has battled to survive the dangers of thousands of miles, trying to get home to the very spawning grounds where he was hatched? Mark my words, Tony, when you set out on the voyage of life, there will be fat old codgers waiting for you too, waiting to lure you into their net, with all the newest gadgets from the tackle shop. I took their baits, I took their dollars and I took their crap, while they took my time… my lifetime. Now, it’s too late.” Bill lurched violently forward, his bowed frame jerking with each racking cough.

After few laboured breaths, Bill resumed in a hoarse whisper.

“They’ll want your time too, Tony, and you’ll be tempted but, wherever life takes you, just remember this: no amount of salty sea can ever compensate for a single mouthful of fresh water!”

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