February’s winning story
My father’s green hunting jacket still had his smell on it. It was way too big for me so I had to roll up the sleeves three times before my hands could see daylight. The last time I saw him wearing it was when he took me to Crick’s Bend, where the salmon were all funnelled into a stream only a couple of yards wide. Easy pickings but we didn’t catch anything. He’d gotten too tired and we came away after only a half an hour. He coughed all the way back to the car.
That was probably the last thing we did together.
I felt in one of the pockets to check if he’d left anything behind, a sweet wrapper or a hook or something. He hadn’t. In the blade cold of town at this hour, nothing moved. I turned the corner on to Wine Street and a mangy, wire-thin cat shot out in front of me and scrambled beneath the bonnet of a parked car. A woman dressed in tights and a denim jacket clip-clopped down the steps of the St David’s Hotel. The wind blew up from a side street and she pulled her jacket tighter around the bare knobs of her shoulders. She didn’t look at me as she made for home, somewhere up the hill above the town’s mournful sunken streets.
In 20 minutes I was at the docks, by the flour mill where I always went. Soon I had the big net in the water and the first maggot rigs of the morning tied. The tick tick of the reel and the delicate plink as the estuary eased open. The sky barely a whisper shy of night. The flour mill was due east so its big shadowy hulk would hold off the dawn for a while longer. Fish prefer the low light of dawn and dusk, when they come to the surface to feed. In a few minutes the first one — a medium-sized mullet — was thrashing around the inside of the bucket. It takes a surprisingly long time for the life to seep out of a fish. In the end it comes to a kind of serene acceptance that its days as a fish have drawn to a close. Its mouth puckers foolishly in search of life, its little glassy eyes alert to the end until they are no more alive than a pair of shirt buttons.
By half past six there were a dozen or so in the bucket. The distant thrum of traffic had begun to float over from across the river. It was still very quiet where I was by the flour mill because no one liked to work in flour mills any more. There was more life in the bucket of mullet than there was in the flour mill. It’s a sorry way to go for a building big and imposing enough to be able to put the skids on the dawn.
I sat on the grass for a while, drinking a can of Coke. The estuary sucked at the dock walls. It had already come up a couple of inches since I’d been here. A cormorant skittered over the estuary and flapped into a thicket of beech trees on the far side. An office block over on the quays caught the infant sun like a small exploding star. I packed up my things and walked back towards town. The sky had cracked open and thin needles of nervous light probed the length of Ship Street and all up along Summerhill. It clambered over bus shelters and shopfronts and railings and splintered pavements, a sad reticent light that belonged to another time. I turned back on to Wine Street. There was more life here now. Haroun the Moroccan was rolling down the awnings of his sweet shop. Jimmy Napoli with his neat Italian moustache and dirty apron was sweeping cigarette butts on to the road. An old Datsun farted its way past the Klondike Arcade as big balls of blue smoke trailed behind it like a consumptive steam train. Every couple of seconds it would jerk and almost shudder to a halt but somehow it kept moving. The driver wore a battered straw Fedora. As he broke a red light, he looked at me and saluted. He took a long slurp from a can of something and he and the Datsun drove off in a volley of farts.
I came to the Yerba Buena café, and as usual, the Poles were standing around outside, hedging their bets on a day’s work. I looked in the window to make sure Ambrose was there. I put the rods and the net and the bucket down on the footpath outside and asked the Poles to watch them.
— Of course, one of them said.
I went in. There were two more Poles in high-vis jackets sitting drinking small cups of coffee. They spoke quietly and furtively, with mouthfuls of consonants. They had one eye on the boys outside and when the vans would pull up and take them away. When they did, it would be their turn to stand out the front and hedge their bets. A few years back, it was like a conveyor belt of vans and Poles, but now with the way things were, it had reduced to a trickle.
Ambrose was behind the till scrubbing a chopping board.
— Good morning, Philip, Ambrose said. You out early again?
— I was, I replied.
I looked over at the high counter by the window where a couple of younger guys in suits sat eating pastries and reading newspapers. They had looked up when they heard Ambrose speaking to me.
— I was wondering, I said to Ambrose, if you’d be interested in taking a look outside.
— What do you have?
— Mullet mainly. Two or three pollocks.
Ambrose stroked his chin and grimaced.
— I’m not sure, Philip. I mean, I’ve got the menu covered for the next couple of days.
— Your menu’s got stuff with fish in it.
— It does, but ah, not those kind of fish.
Ambrose was always very mild-mannered, even when he was telling you to fuck off out of his café. Everyone from around Wine Street liked Ambrose. In school when we were read the Bible stories, it was Ambrose’s face I imagined on all those guys who miracles happened to.
The suits looked up briefly from their newspapers and smiled to one another. I looked at Ambrose for a few seconds, then at the suits, and then Ambrose looked at the suits too. The suits were out of place in a café like the Yerba Buena. There was a time when they wouldn’t have ventured so far down the hill.
— All right, Ambrose said, go and get them and let’s have a look.
Just as I was outside, a big Ford pickup pulled up on the kerb. The driver rolled down the window and shouted at the two Poles to get in. They did as they were told. In the bed of the pickup there was a cement mixer and a selection of long-handled tools. It was their lucky day. Before I had the chance to pick up my bucket of fish, the two guys who had been inside the Yerba Buena were now outside on the footpath. They were an efficient operation. The smaller of the two held the door open for me. I went in and placed the bucket on the floor in front of Ambrose’s till.
— Fine size, Ambrose, I said.
Ambrose came around from the till, took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and put his glasses back on again. He sighed heavily. He didn’t say anything for a long time.
— How does a fiver sound?
— Ten, I said.
Ambrose picked up the bucket and walked back around the till, to a large sink by the fridge. He poured the fish into the sink and came back with the empty bucket and handed it to me. Then he went back to the till and took out seven euro coins.
— Here you go, he said.
— Thanks, Ambrose, I said.
— While you’re here, he said.
He reached over and removed the cover of a pear cake and cut off a slice and wrapped it in a napkin.
— Thanks, Ambrose.
I put the coins and the pear cake into separate pockets of my father’s green hunting jacket. The jacket possessed a vast number of pockets, most of which I was still in the process of discovering. When I went outside, only one of the Poles was standing there. He had been the one who had held the door open for me.
— Your friend got lucky? I said to him.
— Yes, he said, smiling. Lucky.
I walked up Wine Street, to the Klondike Arcade and sat on the kerb outside and ate Ambrose’s slice of pear cake. I was very tired. I felt like I had put a full day down, though it probably wasn’t even nine o’clock. I put my hand in the pocket with the euro coins and played with them for a bit. Across the street, the guy who owned the Cash for Gold shop was leaning against his door with his eyes closed, smoking a long thin cigar. He was very still and quiet like he was listening to an opera on the radio. I sat there for a long time, slowly eating the cake and watching the Cash for Gold guy. He was very engrossed in his cigar and the imaginary radio opera. Something entered the corner of my vision and I turned my head to see a small tabby cat slink along the footpath in front of the Yerba Buena. It looked like the cat from earlier on but I couldn’t be sure. She was walking with purpose, like there was somewhere important she needed to be. I looked closer and saw there was something dangling from her mouth. A glint of sunlight caught the dead glare of a shirt button eye. I stopped chewing and watched as the combination of cat and fish padded off down the dusty hollow of Wine Street. She passed the Pole, who had decided his ship hadn’t come in, and was starting into his slow trudge home. He was walking very slowly with his head turned to the ground. All that coffee meant he was in the red today. It was a long time to tomorrow morning, but somehow we both had to figure out a way of getting through until then.
About the author
Aidan O’Donoghue was born in 1980. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, The Moth and is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead. His poetry has been published nationally and internationally. He is working on a novel and a short story collection. He lives in Cork with his wife and two children.
How to enter
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty and appearing in the Irish Independent on the last Saturday of each month, is open to writers who are Irish or resident in Ireland. Stories submitted should not exceed 2,000 words. Up to four poems may be submitted. There is no entry fee. Writers whose work is selected will receive €120 for fiction and €60 for poetry. You can email your entry, preferably as a Word document, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address and contact number, as well as a brief biographical paragraph. Only writers who have yet to publish their first book can be considered.