Chapter Nine – I Am Ahab
We took Uncle Archie’s little white fishing boat the “Tigress” out in the early spring sunshine that Saturday morning. The sea was deep blue and calm, and between the gentle rocking of the boat and soft put-putting of the outboard engine, it was relaxing, sort of hypnotic.
As Uncle Archie reeled in fish after fish, I watched the waves and forgot my fear of the sea. I still hadn’t been sleeping properly and as I sat there in silence, contemplating my “Kart-toons” high score records, I fell asleep.
I awoke to Uncle Archie shaking my shoulder and a different scene entirely. Gone were the idyllic cotton white puffs in a powder-blue sky, replaced instead by an angry black cloud that stretched above us as far as I could see. The sea had begun to swell and drop, chopping up surf that splashed down onto us like a salty preview of rain to come. I pulled the zip of my coat up close under my chin as the wind whipped around the small white vessel.
“It’s blowing up a storm Greg. Get under the cabin, we’re heading back in.”
Uncle Archie cut quite an imposing figure, towering above me, his white beard framed against the black sky, staring out into the distance. He was clearly in his element, a man of the sea battling against the whims of the weather. He was ready for action. I just felt a bit ill.
Rubbing my eyes, I stood up, and stumbled into the shelter of the cabin as the boat tipped madly beneath me, scattering the rods and bucket full of mackerel (all Uncle Archie’s work, I hadn’t had a bite) across the deck. My stomach churned like the waves licking over the sides of the “Tigress”.
Uncle Archie handed me the now empty mackerel bucket and took the wheel. As he spoke, a shaft of sunlight burst through the swelling clouds above and lit him against the dark waves like King Neptune himself.
“Use that or hang your head over the side. You’re a bit green around the gills lad. Hold on tight.”
Behind him, something enormous and green surfaced from the ocean, just for a second, before disappearing into a gigantic wave. The “Tigress” rose up and up, tilting as it climbed the frothy peak. I ducked back down and held on for dear life.
One of the mackerel thrashed wildly against the wooden post of the bench-seat, its gills opening and closing desperately. I threw up my cornflakes and then some into the stinking fish bucket.
The rain began to fall, huge drops bouncing back up from the boards of the deck as we rocked crazily from side-to-side like a bad, fishy-smelling fairground ride. I led groaning in the corner of the cabin, soaked to the skin through my hoodie, covered in sick and bits of fish as the boat rose and fell beneath us. Uncle Archie started whistling some cheery shanty. What an asshole. He looked down at me and smiled.
“Cheer up boy, just a little squall, nothing to worry about lad! We’ll have fresh mackerel for tea, how about that?”
I lowered my head into the bucket and threw up again. I was dying. How could he be so cheerful? His confidence didn’t make me feel better, it made me feel pathetic, flapping about on the deck like a gasping fish. My friend, the mackerel, had given up the ghost. I took his lead, curled up into a ball and closed my eyes.
Now if this was a Hollywood movie, I’d leave it there, in the foetal position balanced atop a wall of water, caught between the heavens and the briny depths, Uncle Archie cackling like a bearded madman. But I feel at this point I should come clean.
I opened my eyes to a beautiful morning, floating serenely on a sea so calm it could have been a mirror. Uncle Archie showed me how to cast my line correctly and I caught three fish, one of which was bigger than any that Archie managed to catch that morning. He had packed a picnic lunch which we ate together, cheese sandwiches, apples and, bizarrely for him, a grab-bag of cheese Doritos.
As we ate, he told me a little about his wife and daughter, my aunty and cousin, and how they used to come out on the “Tigress” every weekend the weather allowed. My aunty used to make the picnic and they would spend hours floating and chatting, my cousin sunning herself on the deck. It made my weekends spent trawling around DIY stores after Dad seem even worse than they were. I was jealous of my Uncle and his idyllic life by the sea.
Out there, on the boat, away from the distractions of modern life, I suppose I felt happy for the first time in weeks. Although I didn’t want to admit it, my Uncle seemed more human, more normal than at any time since we’d been forced together. I had met him for the first time that Saturday morning on the sea.
We moored up at the harbour and carried our gear home together through Polpollo. As we walked Uncle Archie told me stories about the village; about the time a fat Labrador got his head stuck in a bin in the square and the time when a masked man from the next village across had held up “Miss Miggin’s Tea Shop” with a dessert fork and made off with £8.39. Best of all, a woman that lived at number 49 Betty Woons had been arrested for riding the cannon on the harbour wall in “a state of undress” and rather worse for wear one slow Sunday afternoon. I began to look at Polpollo in a different light. It wasn’t just a diorama, People, real people, actually lived there in amongst the painted cottages and postcard views. I looked forwards to meeting some of them.
When we got home, Uncle Archie asked me what I wanted for dinner. I suggested we order a pizza. This was almost as bad as if I’d suggested we stick Michael Parkinson on a spit and roast him in the garden. Archie was incensed.
“What do you want that foreign muck for? Bread smeared with god knows what and they charge you fifteen bloody quid. We’ve got the fruits of the ocean here boy.”
He thrust the bucket at me.
“I don’t like fish Uncle Archie, you know I don’t. It was fun catching them with you, but…”
“But, what? Spit it out lad! You don’t like fish because you’re used to McDonalds and all that towny rubbish. Do you want to eat or not?”
I held my tongue. He’d set his jaw at me and I could see the fires of righteous indignation burning in his eyes. He was on to his favourite ranting topic now, The Modern World. I left the room. He called after me.
“Mackerel it is then Greg! I’ll do some mussels too if you’re lucky”
He always had to have the last word. I went to my room, shut the door and piled all my stuff against it. I would not be eating tonight. I laid back on the disgusting bed and listened to the entire discography of Green Day over and over as, outside the window, the sun set and then rose again.