It took my gamekeeper grandfather more than a day to journey from Skye to Kent, a distance of 700 miles. He, and my diminutive Gaelic-speaking grandmother, took multiple buses and trains when they were forced to exchange tending Scottish highland salmon and grouse for rearing pheasants in the “garden of England.” I wonder how he felt, chivvying what were little more than pet chickens with attitude into the paths of men in tweeds wielding 12-bore shotguns that cost more than his yearly salary.
It took me less than a day to swap a sumptuous Seychelles sunset for the river music of a flirtatious Irish spring and the healing sight of the tide licking up then down the sands of the estuary in front of my home. It’s a distance of more than 5,000 miles as the crows fly, or would, if they were migratory. Ireland’s full of crows. They are the black confetti strewn by the wind at the wedding of intensive farming and the Irish landscape.
The daily tides are dictated by the pull of the moon, a reminder of greater forces at work overhead than Boeing or Airbus. The computerized timetables of the airline industry locked me into 23 hours of background airline buzz in straitjacket seats, shuffling up and tramping down airplane gangways. Victoria, Dubai, Manchester, Cork. At every stop plastic seats crammed with people awaiting a tannoy invitation to displacement by air; at every landing the bobbing heads of passengers expectantly cramming the aisle for the reassurance of shuffling feet saying, yes, we are getting off this flight and reconnecting with luggage and land.
The tide tables put numbers in grids to chart how the water inches up then down the estuary. I can work out from my little book when will be the best time to go barefoot or booted across the rippled surface of the sands, crunching over razor clams discarded by feasting seagulls. Or I can just sit and watch and know, through instinctive connection to rhythms as old as time, when the best hour is for a solitary walk across the bay. I cannot walk all the way across to the village of CourtMacsherry on the other side. There’s a permanent channel deep enough for fishing boats to get back at any tide. But I can get close enough at low tide to throw a stone across or read the names on village pub signs.
Flocks of birds skitter in their feeding as the waters inch up the estuary sand spit to slowly confront and then check the motion of the little silver river that flows eternally into it. They wait just at the water’s edge to see what the tide reveals. They are wading birds, but seem to have an aversion, like me, to getting their feet unnecessarily wet. They take off as the waves come in, just a metre or so, and then land again when the sand is uncovered.
The sandbank is big enough to plant a small town on. But in the space of three hours it becomes the fitted sheet of the ocean’s bed, a great stretch of sea on which fishing and pleasure boats bob like bath toys. There are two tides daily, two windows through which to feel the wind, rain or sun on your face, and smell the salt.
I needed to reconnect with that bigger world and those bigger forces when I got there. My own world had let itself be squeezed into a contortion of expectation that I might become a part of someone else’s. Heartache is the wound left when the jagged edge of reality tears the fragile fabric of hope. It is an ugly, uneven wound that heals slowly and hurts when you least expect it, that breaks out of the body’s instinctive mission to heal. Scars are campaign medals. They mean a great deal to the owner, little to anyone else. Everyone has them. And you are only aware of them when you touch them. The sooner healed, the sooner the superficial damage can be forgotten. The underlying pain never really goes away, like grief; it just gets incorporated into the accumulated mass of experience we call memory. Memory seems to have its own rhythms too, resurfacing when it wants. Consciousness has its own, secret table of tides.
Spring came like the tide in April and like the hurt too, in moments of warm sunlit promise punctured by sudden squalls of the last of the cold winter winds howling in. I smiled at the sight of the robins and the finches greeting me at the newly stocked bird feeder. Ours is a commuting relationship, but no less real for that. Since I found the cottage more than 20 years ago they have been more constant here than I have. Mine’s a gypsy, rootless, restless life. My grandfather and grandmother probably only did two 500-mile journeys in their lifetimes. I travel 500 miles regularly before the cabin attendant has finished the safety demonstration and wheeled out the aluminum feeding trough for 78 aisles of battery-hen passengers.
There was a moment, not long after I got home and was taking coffee on the patio, when I flinched at the sight of a courting couple sloshing across the uncovering sands, arms around each other’s shoulders, two pairs of legs moving independently, but as one. It had always been my plan to take that same walk with someone now oceans away. There were other plans too, now broken, like the Ethiopian candlestick my removal company delivered in piles of cardboard boxes I had yet to open. I gave myself the job of unpacking and arranging this accumulation of travel trophies in that week. Superglue put the broken angel back together again in a few minutes. I tried not to think about how long it would take to mend my own broken wing. I just knew I was in the right place to make a start.
Life, like the tides, goes on. I also knew it would be healing to reconnect with the more enduring rhythms of existence, rather than the brutal finale of an airport goodbye for good, and the coda of hurt and disappointment.
Out of the boxes came the Pandora memories; paintings from Africa, a door-cum-bookcase from Afghanistan, shawls from Pakistan, mementoes, souvenirs, clutter all of it, but cherished clutter. Even the heart-shaped candle holder she had given me;
There was a batik someone gave me from Indonesia, the African “pot of plenty” sculpture my staff gave me when I moved from Africa to Ireland to heal another hurt, the killing of my staff by a mob in Mogadishu, Somalia on July 12, 1993. I survived that, safely in the office at my laptop. Even now, 23 years later, the experience and the trauma of that, and the guilt at being alive when three young people were dead, jetplanes out of my memory.
Ireland was where I healed then, and would heal again, I knew. On arrival in Dublin in 1993 a gentle Irish counselor professionally treated me for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Weekly he would put me into a trance and ask me to imagine “somewhere safe and beautiful” and weekly I struggled against embedded shock and the violent shrapnel of the experience, until the idea of a cottage by the sea and somewhere to fish illuminated the hypnotized moment and ripped apart the curtain of shock that separated me from my own life. And I told him so, and he said, “then that is what you must do.” I found and bought my home six months later.
A lot of the possessions I unpacked that week had followed me around three continents so it was a homecoming for them too. The cottage had changed, expanded by the builders’ bulldozers and block-layer’s practiced eye. It was two tiny rooms, and is now six. But the essential flinty charm of the place, something that had endured nearly 100 years when I first bought it, has never gone away. Nor has the view, of course, the essence of the place’s beauty in my private constellation. That view is my go-to image when things get rough, as they had.
I pulled out the parcels of paper-wrapped memories, feeling them, like a child with a Christmas stocking or birthday gift, to guess what they might be – a collection of tiny, sexually explicit Benin bronzes; plates and mugs from Nairobi and Nablus, fragile thin blue glasses from Kabul, most of them shattered, but a trio surviving the journey. And books, dozens and dozens of them, far more than the shelving available. All this experience in print and pulped paper, another library roomful of memory.
The most fundamental rhythm I needed to reconnect with, however, was casting a fly or a lure into the river. This repetitive act mirrors the arc of the fisherman’s life – a human dwarfed by the enormity of nature searching for a surprise beneath its surface. It is an expression of hope and the rhythm of repetition only strengthens its foundations. In the fisherman’s world there are five seasons – spring, autumn, summer, winter, and the fishing season, when it is legal to take a heart full of hope and test it against the natural world’s uncompromising reality.
I quickly rediscovered the rhythms of fishing; the preparation of the bag, the choice of the fly box, rod and reel, the selection of lines and clothing, the worldly paraphernalia of something essentially spiritual, of making connections and sense of the unknowable. April and May are not the best times of year to go searching for sea trout and salmon on small Irish water, but the act is more important than the science of sea-run fish returning to sweet water to breed. It’s the fishing, not the catching, just as the act of prayer is as important a consolation as a prayer being answered. My prayer was for peace and my petitions found answers day by squally day. I fished alone almost all of the time, knowing that every cast was another step towards new skin growing over an open wound.
The river was not too high, despite recent floods, flowing quite strongly and so clear you could count pebbles on the bottom. But the surge of water meant that the strongest flow of water, in the middle of the river, would catch the line and sweep it downstream too briskly for any fish to see the lure. When this happens, fishermen flick the middle of the line upstream in an action called “mending the line.” It slows the descent of the lure and gives the fish a better chance to see it, and the fisherman a better chance of catching. I did a lot of line mending that week, while less visible parts of me mended at the same time. The landscape seemed barely changed, every footpath as comfortable and familiar as my favourite jeans. But much water and time had flown under the stone arch of Inchy Bridge since my visit last September. You never fish in the same water twice, even if you stand on the same piece of bankside grass. The start of the season is an act of renewal of hope, a belief that there are more surprises to come. It is also recovery from the drab days of winter. Renewal and recovery. My mission was to find both.
The solitary spiritual quest aside, there is a special kinship amongst fishermen and women as unspoken and closely guarded as freemasonry or Syria’s Alawite Islam. Those whose paths cross at the water’s edge know that fishing, like living and dying, is essentially a solitary experience, one that can be shared but not experienced.
Peter Wolstenholme, my fishing guru, enjoys the transfer of expertise from master to student. It is part of his impish charm but also a reflection of a life well spent. We met at a pool deepened by the winter’s floods and fished it both, fruitlessly, but in the knowledge that one day soon we would both be connecting with excitement and revelation.
On the way back to our cars, as another squall drove showers before it, he ignored the track to where we were parked and walked further up the bank “to have a look at a pool.“ I followed a few steps behind but hurried at his urging. “Climb up that tree lad and have a look down in the pool. It’s unbelievable. There are big fish down there.”
And so there were. From a few feet up a tree trunk I counted 36 big, chunky sea trout fresh in on the very incoming tide I had seen from my cottage, occasionally rubbing against the stones on the river bottom to shake off the sea lice that prey on them as they return. These were no minors but adult, grown fish, a grey armada in a vee-formation facing upstream, working out from the taste of the water and with senses we barely comprehend whether or not it was the right time to head further upstream and spawn. I supposed they felt that the rains would come down hard, that the river would rise sharply, and that they could make their way swiftly with nature’s radar to the places where they were born and would now breed themselves. Five year’s older than me and fifty younger in spirit when it comes to fishing, Peter took my rod and tried to cast at them from downstream, while I clung to the tree and directed his aim. It was fruitless, of course. These newly-arrived sophisticate survivors were not going to fall for some bright, splashy human’s lure in broad daylight. They were too intent on falling into the rhythms of their own existence, the river’s and the weather’s.
We went home. We both knew that in a couple of months or so, when the weather warms and the rain is infrequent and unpredictable, similar shoals would rest in pools like this and wait for the time to travel further. On summer nights, when the moon is low or obscured by the curtains of clouds, the fish will attack small flies for reasons we can only guess at. Fish are not supposed to feed on their journey to the spawning grounds but they do attack lures that have some of the colours of the things they eat in the sea – shrimps, krill, and small fish. Our flies are fashioned on that belief, and a suspicion that breeding fish can become aggressive and attack what they see as intruders. To encounter one of these fine things in the middle of black summer’s night is to understand the meaning of the phrase “life and death struggle.” A fisherman may cast one or two hundred times in a night and forget every one of those acts. But he does not forget the moment when he feels, through three metres of rod and many metres of line, the touch of another form of existence altogether, followed, abruptly, by the determined battling of a being intent on staying in its watery world, and not joining the fisherman’s on the bank.
There was a prize-giving dinner that night by the fishing club and I went to accept a cup for a competition I had won the previous season when two small specimens were enough to earn the silver on a slow night for fishing altogether. It was fun to be amongst fishermen in their suits and ties instead of boots and Barbour. I’ve known many of them for 20 years and we have watched each other’s faces and jackets grow more creased and our bags and waistbands sag.
The talk may sound trivial, of monsters lost and landed, but beneath it all is an awareness that life is a mystery that fishing does not unravel, but it does illuminate in moments of transcendence underpinned by a conviction of hope. It’s like love, the belief that another being can elevate existence. But for the fisherman, the connection is not with another person, but to electric tug from eternity.
It was way too cold to fish that night. No-one did. The fish are not feisty when it is cold. So I sat on my patio and watched the tide undress the sands by the light of an almost full moon.
And then I watched it cover the sands again, licking its way back towards the estuary mouth where the river ends, and my hopes begin.
I slept deeply that night in my own bed, for the first time in many painful days.
Hargeisa, Somaliland, May 2016