IT WAS almost dark when the father and son arrived at the beach. There was a stiff breeze blowing down its length, carrying with it the tangy smell of the sea along with a whiff of rotting seaweed. They unpacked their gear from the car and pulled their rubber boots on before trudging through the shingle towards their spot, the man leading the way.
It was a long narrow strip of coastline, with railway tracks running along one side, the sea on the other and between them the pebbly beach. Other anglers along the shoreline had already lit their lamps and they moved slowly from one island of light to the next until they reached their own dark space. The boy was proud at how many of the men had acknowledged his father along the way. Most of them had already cast their lines and were hunkered forward on their seats, staring into the gloom, waiting.
His father put the tackle box onto the ground and started to unfold their two canvas stools.
The darkness was now almost total. Behind them the fencing that ran along the railway tracks had disappeared altogether and in front of them only a line of phosphorescence told them where the sea was. The boy listened to the waves breaking on the shingle. First there was the rattle of the oncoming wave as it reached up through the tiny pebbles; then the slow withdrawal . . . a hissing sound . . . which faded away into the night. But then a pause, as if the sea had grown tired of playing or had held its breath. Then it all started again, the slow comfortable rhythm of the sea.
In the distance the boy spotted the twinkle of far off lights moving out to sea; the Holyhead car ferry.
He thought how funny it was that there were hundreds of people behind those lights, laughing and talking and maybe even sleeping, unaware that here he was with his father, fishing, for the first time.
The man set up the two stools and put the tackle box between them, perching the gas lamp carefully on top of the box.
Shielding the match from the wind he lit the gas globe, waiting until he was sure it caught. Now they had their own island of light.
The boy watched his father's face as he adjusted the glow of the lamp and noticed how lined it looked. The faint creases had turned into deep slashes, his eyes lost in the hollow of their sockets.
They started to assemble the rods, their cold fingers fumbling with the nylon line as they passed it through the eyelets. After the lead weights were measured off and attached, the boy looked away as his father inserted a hook into the gaping mouth of a lugworm, pushing it further down until it disappeared.
"There, just like putting a sock on. Do you want me to do yours?"
"Yes please, " the boy said.
"See, " his father said and handed him back the rod, "that's all it takes. They don't feel a thing."
The boy nodded and took the rod from his father, swinging it gently from side to side, feeling the balance, his eyes avoiding the still-wriggling worm at the end of the line. He walked slowly down to the water's edge, the rod, like a giant spear, extended before him.
Holding the reel with his index finger, just as his father had shown him, he swivelled his hips to one side, bringing the rod back as far as he could. Then he spun quickly, whipping his arms around in a semi circle as fast as he could, his rod swishing through the air. At the last moment he released his finger from the reel.
He imagined the weights spinning through the night, pulling the line behind them, and counted the seconds until he heard a plop in the distance. Still holding the rod in both hands, he backed up the beach to his chair, inserting the rod into a tripod.
"That was a good cast Charley, nothing wrong with that, " his father said loudly enough for their neighbour to hear.
His father went down to the waterline and, with one powerful cast, sent his line spinning far into the night. The boy counted off the seconds again and then, faintly, he heard the weights hit the water.
His father came back and sat on the canvas stool, taking a can of beer from the tackle box and opening it with a hiss. They sat together like this for a while, the father sipping and the boy staring out to sea towards his invisible line, waiting patiently for his first bite.
"You know, Charley, just after your mother and I got married, before you were born, I brought her down here to this very spot and tried to teach her to fish."
"What happened?" asked the boy, trying to imagine his mother among these silent men.
His father took another sip and shivered, as if the beer was tainted.
"Women don't understand what it's all about, " he said, adding as an afterthought, "still, I'm surprised she let you come with me tonight, you must have been in the way. Has she been seeing anybody?"
The man asked the question casually, looking sideways at the boy, trying to see if there was a reaction. But the boy remained sitting quietly, staring out to the sea. There was a shout from further down the beach.
"Somebody's caught a fish; I'm going down to take a look. You keep your eyes on the rods."
The boy watched as his father left their circle of light and became just another shadow. A small crowd had gathered further down the beach. They mingled together, laughing and joking, looking down at the fish that had been caught. It was impossible to tell which of them was his father, all he could see were shapes walking to and fro around the lamp. It was getting cold and he was beginning to wonder why he had come. From the safety of his home it had seemed like a great adventure. Now he was beginning to feel cold and tired, wishing his father would come back. One of the shadows separated itself from the lamp and walked up towards where he was sitting. His father, smirking.
"Old Gus is using feathers tonight, he caught a few mackerel.
I would've thrown them back.
Wasn't worth the bother, " he said.
They sat for a while longer, the father sipping his beer, the boy trying to read a comic, holding it as close as he could to the light.
The boy's rod twitched.
"You have a bite. Now stay calm, don't pull it in too fast or you'll lose it, " his father said, speaking rapidly, words running together. Feeling nervous now that he had hooked a fish, the boy took the rod from the tripod and felt a definite tug. He started to reel in the fish, remembering to do it slowly at first, walking towards the waterline as he did so. His father came behind him, stumbling over the landing net, cursing.
Then the struggle began. The strength of the fish passed down the line and along the rod into the boy's arms. He could picture it in the black sea, confused, struggling to get away from the pain of the barb in its mouth. He had to grab the rod further up to ease the pressure on his hands but still the fish pulled and twisted with all its might, turning one way and then another. It took him to the edge of the beach and then into the water. He could feel the cold pressure of the sea on his boots.
"It's a bass, it must be, " his father shouted into the night.
The boy pulled and reeled and pulled and reeled until, for the first time, he saw the struggling fish. It appeared, a series of sparks, struggling for its life. His father shouted encouragement to him in a voice he had never heard before, an intense voice. The fish dived again, bending his rod almost double, then, suddenly, broke the surface, arcing from the water and bending from side to side in a last desperate bid for its freedom. He reeled it into shallower water but still it raced backwards and forwards trying in vain to reach the deep again.
Suddenly, it just gave up struggling and swam from side to side, waiting. His father waded further into the sea, waves lapping over his boots now; the landing net extended in front of him.
"Bring it to me, bring it to me, " he shouted over his shoulder to the boy. Then he scooped it triumphantly out of the water with the net, holding it dripping over his head.
"It's a beauty, " he said excitedly as he marched up the shingle towards their lamp.
"What is it?" asked their nearest neighbour who had joined him.
"A sea bass, five pounds at least.
My son caught it, " his father said breathlessly, looking down at the thrashing fish.
Some of the other fishermen had come up the beach and now formed a small circle around the fish. The boy, who had stayed down at the water's edge, stared up at the group of men. They looked like ancient hunters, their excited faces illuminated in the yellow gaslight. He could hear the fish thrashing sporadically on the shingle. Then his father turned to him, holding out a small wood baton.
"Here, " he called down, "put it out of its misery."
He made his way towards the circle of men and they parted for him, allowing him into their midst. Staring down at the writhing shape on the shingle, he saw, up closely for the first time, the fish that he had just caught.
He could see its pink mouth opening and closing in a silent struggle, as its lean body twisted and turned from side to side. The saucer-like eyes seemed to be staring straight into his, asking:
"It's alive, " he said finally, looking over at his father.
"Of course it's alive, what did you expect?" his father said, laughing too loudly.
"I don't know, I never thought about it. . ." he said, his voice trailing off.
His father pushed the baton towards him again.
"Do it Charley, do it now.
Quickly. Don't make it suffer."
The boy stared at the baton in his father's hand but made no move to take it. Again he wished he were at home, in the warmth and safety of his own room, playing a game on his computer.
Nobody spoke. The only sounds now were of the waves breaking on the shore and the sporadic flapping of the fish as it lay on the shingle. One by one the anglers turned and drifted away and he was left alone with his father.
Finally his father let the baton drop from his hand, bent down and picked up the still body of the fish. It lay across both his hands, a once-beautiful creature, now still and lifeless. He looked at it for a while as if deciding what to do with it.
"I'm sorry, I just couldn't do it, " the boy said.
"Sometimes things don't turn out the way you expect them to, " his father said in a flat voice. "It's your first fish; there'll be more."
"Are you bringing me back home now?" he asked his father.
"To your mother's house?"
The boy's head nodded and dropped in shame. His father turned away from him and began taking the rods apart and packing up the equipment. He wrapped the fish up in some newspaper and then put it into a plastic bag.
The last thing he did was to turn off the gas lamp and their little island of light was lost to the darkness. They walked back down the beach towards the car park, his father leading the way. This time the boy had to struggle to keep up with him. Some of the fishermen called out goodbyes but his father didn't answer them. A light rain had started to fall and all along the beach the fishermen were donning their waterproofs, getting ready for the long vigil that lay ahead.
Tony O'Reilly is from Walkinstown in Dublin. He has been writing fiction for about five years. In 2005 he was accepted for the TCD Writers Workshop under writer-in-residence Eilish Ni Dhuibhne and has since written a number of short stories. In 2006 he came second overall in the UK first Bookforce Undiscovered Authors Competition for his novel 'Sentinel'.
Now living in Dalkey, Co Dublin, he is working on his second novel 'Sanctuary'.