by Paul Kimm
EVER SINCE THE FIRE Paul had become “the moron” at home. He hadn’t known the word previously, but there was no doubt what it meant. It wasn’t a universal name. Only his dad used it, but it hadn’t existed before the fire. Now it did.
It first came out, the new name, about two weeks after. His dad’s hands were still in bandages. His mother was out of hospital. His brother was ten days old. Late afternoon, his mother was undoing Dad’s bandages, applying thick cream, and wrapping fresh ones. It was Friday. It was fish supper night. Paul was always sent to the chippy to buy the fish and chips. It was true he didn’t understand the ordering system for fish and chips. It had its own unique way of describing numbers. “One of each” was a wrapped packet of fish and chips and “two of each” was two separate fish and two lots of chips, but you couldn’t seem to go past that. You couldn’t say, “three of each.” When you got to three you had to say, “three fish and three chips.” Sometimes the fish shop man joked and said, ‘What? Only three chips?’ and everyone in the shop laughed. He only said things like that when the shop was full with enough people to laugh with him though. Paul had asked his dad if he could just say how many bags of chips and how many fish, but he insisted on the common grammar for it. The order was “two of each, with an extra fish, one of them with scraps, two mushy peas and buttered baps, wrapped up” which meant three fish, two bags of chips, two polystyrene pots of mushy peas and two pieces of fat bread packed in cling film, and all of it, except the bread, tightly compacted in newspaper. The order was always the same. His dad’s instructions were the same, but with the new name included this time.
‘Write down two of each, an extra fish, one with scraps, two mushy peas and buttered baps or the moron will get it wrong.’
And, even though Paul’s mother always wrote the list for the chip shop, his dad added,
‘I’d write it down myself if my hands weren’t covered in blisters!’
The bandaging continued for two weeks and at each Friday’s chip shop order, and numerous times in between, “the moron” term was used. On the third Friday the bandages came off.
‘Since I’m rid of those bloody things, and your poor mother doesn’t have to sort me out every day, I reckon you and me will go fishing tomorrow. If you can’t order fish, maybe you can catch them.’
The next morning Paul and his dad set off to the beach. The walk was just twenty minutes, but took them past all the smells fish brought to the town. Fish and chip shops, even after closing, had the hum of vinegar around them. The fresh seafood shops, just opening up, their briny molluscs in trays outside and the sweetness of crab in the air. Then the harbor stench, an industrial scale smell of sea creatures and mud, before walking down the slipway to the beach.
His dad assembled the rod. It was twice Paul’s height. He threaded the hook and weight. He tilted the rod behind him, a foot of line dangling from the end. The rod whipped forward, slicing the air, and the line whistled through the blue sky for a few seconds and plinked in.
‘Now what, Dad?’
‘Nothing. We wait.’
‘I don’t know. How long is a piece of string?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Exactly. That’s how long we wait.’
After about fifteen minutes the end of the rod started twitching like it was a living thing of its own. His dad straightened and started reeling in. Paul watched the faint line angle its way inland. When the end got to the shallow inches near where they stood the otherwise calm surface spluttered. He could see the fish’s tail, fins and head fighting between air and water. His dad wound the reel until it was at their feet. Paul had never seen anything so alive. The alien flatfish body, both eyes on one side, was wild with movement. It battled for release from the hook sticking through its cheek. It was bounding off the ground, gulping against the air all around it.
‘Get the thing off the hook then.’
Paul froze. As he had when he’d seen his father’s hands on fire.
‘Don’t just stand there! Get the fish!’
Paul couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t touch something so massively alive. He couldn’t handle the idea of its skin against his own. Its eyes wobbling, wet and unctuous like the blisters on his father’s hands. His dad shoved the rod into the sand. Stepped forward. Grabbed the fish. Uncurled the hook from its face. He then threw it, spinning, back into the sea.
‘You moron! If you can’t even pick up a fish, there’s no point. We’re going home.’
Nothing was said for any of the hollow twenty minutes walk home. Paul thought about the fish. He thought about the chips, and the fire.
Back home his dad put the rod in the under-the-stairs cupboard. Went to the living room, switched on the television, and the murmur of cricket commentary came on. Paul followed him in.
‘I’d like to try again, Dad.’
‘You’d like to try bloody what again?’
‘Fishing. I can go by myself even.’
‘Are you going to catch them and stare at them again? You like a good stand and stare, don’t you?’
‘I’d like to have a go though.’
‘Aye, well, you can do what you want. Now, let me watch the cricket in peace.’
The next day Paul didn’t watch his usual Sunday morning TV. He had a quick breakfast and left the house with the beach caster over his shoulder. He made the same walk as he’d done with his father the day before. The same smells directing the way and defining his goal; to get a fish and bring it home. Paul reached the beach and looked out to the calm North Sea. The air was sharp with salt. He inhaled a breath as long he could. Held it. Let it out for as long as he could. He thought about yesterday’s fish, its manic, violent dance on the wet sand. He left the beach. He wasn’t going to catch a fish himself. He’d ask for one. Maybe borrow one until he was better at catching them.
At the end of the harbor pier, some trawlers had come in. Fisherman, confident in their bodies and movements, were hurling crate after crate of fish from their boats to be caught at the top of the wall. The sound of water and work filled the air and they couldn’t hear Paul’s voice.
‘Could I have one fish, mister? Sorry, mister, could I have one fish? Excuse me, mister.’
His voice didn’t rise into earshot so he inched forward.
‘Hey up, lad. What does tha’ want?’
‘Could I have a fish, mister? A fish to take home?’
‘Tha’ wants a fish, does he?’
‘If that’s ok, mister.’
‘No. Lad. We’ll not be giving fish away. Our livelihood this is. Try down at seafood shops. See if they’ve got summat for yer.’
The fishmonger was putting out the boxes of shellfish and crabs. There were no customers yet and the street around was empty.
‘Excuse me, mister. Do you have a spare fish?’
‘What’s that, son? A spare fish?’
‘Yes, please. Do you have one I could have for home?’
‘No. We flaming well don’t! Clear off you cheeky beggar.’
Higginson’s fishmongers was the only other Paul knew of. When he got there it was busy. Inside the small shop four women filled the space. Two more were in the queue outside and some more examining the trays out front. He burrowed between two ladies who were crossing over each other’s arms to reach fresh mussels on one side and some whitebait on the other. Right under Paul’s nose were half a dozen plump, speckled fish. The two women leaned in more closing him in and almost squashing him out. No one had seen him. The crush pushed him lower until he was leaning on the floor, a fish’s face up next to his. Its bulbous eye protruding at him, its complete wetness, its open, dead mouth. Paul closed his eyes.
His dad’s scream had shaken the kitchen. Paul had run in. Fire was shooting from the top of the frying pan like the back of a jet engine. A tall, neat and angry flame. His dad bellowed at him to get a wet towel. Paul had frozen. His dad yelled again. The long kitchen was too thin for Paul to run past his father, past his fury, and the chip pan blaze. Instead he bolted in the opposite direction, went out the front door, darted to the rear, entered the back yard, ran the outdoor tap, soaked the towel, sprinted into the kitchen, and handed the dripping towel into his father’s burning hands. His dad wove the towel around his hands, putting out the flames, then dropped it over the chip pan fire and its rage died instantly.
Paul didn’t remember much more until the casualty department at the hospital. His father’s hands were coated in blisters. The whole back of his hands were like bubble wrap with liquid spheres the size of golf balls. The nurse deflated them, drained them, and dressed them.
Paul opened his eyes. He pulled open his plastic bag. Reached out his hand. Put his thumb in the fish’s mouth. Slid it into the bag and made for home.
‘You’re home quickly. Did you catch one and run away from it again?’
‘No, I got one.’
‘You never! You caught a bloody fish?’
His dad left the living room and came into the kitchen. Paul placed the plastic bag with the fish, bait, hooks and weight in it, on the kitchen top. His dad opened it up. Took the fish by its tail. Held it up to the light from the window.
‘Well I never! You caught this did you?’
‘This morning? On the beach? You caught this fish?’
‘Yes. In the same spot.’
‘That’s a good catch that is, son. We’ll have this for our tea I reckon.’
His father ruffled Paul’s hair, wrapped the fish back in the plastic bag, and placed it on the top shelf of the fridge. With his hand on Paul’s shoulder, they walked into the living room, sat side by side on the sofa, and watched the cricket together.
Paul Kimm writes about his working-class upbringing in the North of England. He has had publications of short stories in Literally Stories and Northern Gravy. Twitter: @kimm_paul.