“There are plenty more fish in the sea” were the trite words of consolation that both my Mam and Dad offered to me. Along with the “you’re young” and “you’ll get over it…..better before you’re married” platitudes which did nothing to soothe and only managed to further exasperate me. For the love of Neptune, did they not have the wits to understand that such fine specimens only came around once in a lifetime, if even that. Did they not understand, my firm belief that other people’s action and lack of attention had caused this egregious loss. Could they not grasp, as I lay in my bed that night, replaying that final fleeting encounter over and over in my overtired mind, while snotting out even more tearful mucus, that this day would be forever etched in my mind.
I knew in my heart that the disappointment and sorrow I had endured would be forever remembered (and so it has been),it was one of the first hardenings of my big, generous and tender heart.
It is said that our memory is a funny thing. One’s first recall of an event is the only true memory. Future remembrances are just recall of that first memory and subsequent recalls of an event are just memories of previous recalls. That is why two people over time will remember details of the same event very differently. “I was wearing red” versus “No you were wearing blue”, because their brains fill in the gaps differently over the recalls. It also depends on your style of memory in the first place. Now back to what I recall of that summery day.
I can’t quite remember the exact age I was, but I was young, still in primary school, probably 4th or 5th class. I can vividly remember the location. Dunmore East inner harbour with its beautifully proportioned small lighthouse and seawalls which I used run around as fast and as surefooted as a Bilberry goat. That was long before I lost the confidence to stand on anything higher than a kitchen chair.
It was definitely summer, not gloriously sunny but not raining, always a blessing when you’re going be sitting on a rock for a few hours. I can still smell the day. The pungent smell of seaweed mixing with the lingering odours of the previous week’s catch and the week’s before,( it’s a bit like the concept of layering in perfumery). The oil leaks from the small fishing vessels and trawlers vaporising like mechanical incense, and mingling with the sight and sounds of the resident Kittiwakes.
We had driven down onto the pier, which always made me feel slightly anxious as there is not a huge amount of manoeuvring space and I wasn’t sure of our car’s ‘chitty chitty bang bang’ capabilities if we ended up in the sea.We had got there early, to get parking and a good pick of the numbers. Dad drew his number out first and then there was the stealthy search for the two nearest available spaces to Dad, for my sister and I. Before too long the spaces filled in both inner harbour side and seaward side.
Greetings were cast up and down the pier. Commiserations made if the fishing spot drawn was a known tackle stealer. Stories about previous known fishing exploits drifted along on the breeze like small smotes of fancy, dancing like mackerel lures between us.
There is a camaraderie amongst fishermen and women that is hard to describe. It is zen like, calm and un-intrusive. There is plenty of banter but my recollection is, that it was for the most part gentle in nature. In fairness, given my age I’m sure there was a fair amount of self censorship going on amongst the fishermen. There is a settling in period. A testing of the lines and an arranging of tackle on the rocks like archaic shrines to the sea gods. You spread to occupy your allotted space and then with near synchronisation, the noise of chatter ebbs away and the whirr of the reels with the swish of the casting signals the start of the competition and the waiting begins.
As children we loved fishing competitions as it meant there was an end time to Dad’s fishing. It would be a finite expedition, not one to be extended by the never ending promises of just three more casts. In a location like Dunmore East it was relatively easy to be entertained by the other fishermen and their catches as you are all fishing quite close together. Muffled conversations stowaway on the breeze providing human accompaniment to the symphony of the sea.
Sunday strollers often would stop to have a look and a chat. As two young girls fishing we were something of a novelty. Sometimes people appeared to have the need to check if we could actually cast out. Fishing is undoubtedly an exercise in patience and for me, daydreaming. You can fish for hours and not get a bite particularly when ground fishing.
So there, I was ensconced in my own little world , looking vaguely in the direction of the tip of my rod but my mind was definitely elsewhere, ( my Dad used to despair when I was older and would fish with a book in one hand and the rod planted in front of me) when the palpable buzz of excitement and the whisper of a big fish reached my ears and broke my reverie.
Strollers had stopped strolling, but unbelievably a fair amount of rods had lost the attention of their owners. There was a thrashing in the water close to the rocks and a fisherman was having an unearthly battle with some huge sea monster. Not just any fisherman … My DAD. I abandoned my rod and with my heart racing I scampered over the rocks to get a better view, knowing not to get in the way of any potential landing site. Jaysus this was huge, Dad’s rod looked like it was going to break, Dad looked like he was getting pulled towards the water.
So it began, the most monumental battle between man and fish that I ever witnessed. Dad with the skill of an aquatic chess player made his move. With the line in danger of breaking , he let off a miniscule amount of slack. There was no margin for error. If this eel managed to get her tail or body around or into any crack or crevice it would be game over. It was vital to keep her on the surface. Dad was able to move imperceptibly closer to where the high tide waters were providing sanctuary for this magnificent balsar of a conger eel.
Inches of ground do matter. For a fish to qualify as part of your catch in a competition, you have to be in control of your rod, when the fish is landed. There was no way Dad’s rod alone was going to bear the weight, so he directed a fellow club member to his gaff. This gaff had been forged by my father’s blacksmith hands. A gaff is a stick with with a hook or spearhead attached used for landing big fish. Dad’s always favoured the hook, bound to the stick with precision and twine and unknown substances ( some of which come to think of it, might have been my other sister’s nail polish) and more twine and finished off with an outer layer of bright yellow insulating tape. This was his custom made gaff made to fit his body.
Three times, my Dad brought her closer to the surface, flailing, thrashing and executing powerful corkscrews in the water in her bid for survival. Three times the gaff appeared to connect with her powerful jaws and she was partially raised out of the water as if to let us behold in awe,the broadness of her girth, the splendour of her long sinuous body and the power of her jaw as she shook her head free of the gaff hook again and again.
With the third slip, she twisted and writhed and controlled her tail rather like the propellor of a boat in reverse and snap; the line was gone, she was gone , disappearing quickly under the cover of seaweed, back down into the depths to her lair.The crowd started dispersing, the murmurs quietened, rods were returned to.
I was gutted and forlorn with salty tears racing down my face, stuck on my watching rock immobile. They were angry tears. I was mad. This was a betrayal of biblical proportions in my mind, this was St.Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, denying Jesus.( convent education- what can I say!) Three feckin times, was he feckin blind, the mouth on that thing was huge!! Did they not know how much I wanted that trophy in MY HOUSE.
The 1st prize included a “gold” replica of the lighthouse in Dunmore East, it was a perpetual trophy but your name was inscribed on it and the year of winning. The competition was known as the ” Guinness Open Championships” so people came from far and wide to compete. I had coveted that trophy over the years but I also believed with every fibre of my being that Dad deserved to have his name on that trophy. With a fatalism born of disappointment I knew in that moment that he never would.
And so it was. I now know that often when life throws disappointment at you over which you have no control you look for someone to blame. I unfairly blamed the gaffer who bless him was a lovely man.( Actually if I’m completely honest I still have a residue of blame & resentment that I can’t rationalise away). He was probably even more disappointed than I was. The things I wished on his tackle for quite some time would have made grown fishermen blush.
The truth was she had bested two grown men, she would migrate and spawn. Yes she would have truly been the scaly shimmering pinnacle to a lifetime worth of fishing tales and she would have been a specimen catch that won the day but it was her day not ours.
Dad was disappointed too, tired even. He was absolutely having none of my accusations of deliberate ineptitude and was infuriatingly philosophical. Plenty more fishing to be done Jillian, go back and check your rod, re-bait”.
With as much poor grace as I could muster, I dragged my heels back to my rod. With the remnants of the crowd making their way back towards the lighthouse I lifted my rod and started reeling. Ah feck( honestly I only knew two ‘bad’ words back then..feck and flip) I was stuck. I tried reeling in, shaking the rod, trying to loosen the line, no joy. Oh the shame, to add insult to injury ,I had to go and get Dad who was a magician at freeing line and saving tackle to help me. There were still more spectators than normal about, my pride was hurt. I was coming down from the mad rush of adrenaline and still tearful and I wanted to go home.
Dad took the rod, gave it a tug and promptly handed it back to me….“For God’s sake Jillian, you’re not stuck , you have a fish, bring it in”. It was hard, I was small, but land him I did, the biggest conger eel that I have ever caught to this day. Big enough to win third or fourth place on his own in a senior open competition.
On any other day I would have been euphoric. I claimed a silver plated tray as my prize that still resides on top of the china cabinet in my Mam’s house. I still have mixed feelings when it occasionally catches my eye. Truth be told though, I feel like I did on the day, it’s poor consolation for one that got away.