When you find yourself in a situation in decline, I think you’ve two choices; get out, or resolve to sit tight and see how it ends. I’d finished building my last wall a few weeks ago and was living on what money I’d managed to save over the summer. I had just enough left to drink with, and it was in the pub I heard about a little work going next day at the fish-farm.
It was dark when I arrived at the pier The foreman was standing in a pool of yellow light from an old sodium lamp. Soon after I showed up the fish-farm workers arrived, the oldest by a long way, a man of about fifty with a face worn by the mean side of experience. A girl too, maybe twenty, blonde and slim, boyish. I’d seen her around often enough in the summer. She was from another species, with her cool blue eyes and smooth white marble skin. Women up here take on the lustre of precious things.
They’d arrived in two fish-farm trucks. The foreman had his own shiny Datsun. I got in with the older guy and two of the young men, hoped the girl might squeeze in with us, but she got in the other truck. Two minutes down the road, the young man sitting by the driver rolled and lit a joint. I took it when offered. I’d not had any in a few weeks. Happy with the prospect of being stoned, happier than expected, I laughed without meaning to. The older man wanted to know if there was a joke we might all share. I told him I was just thinking about something, nothing to concern anyone.
A way along the road, the pick-up in front stopped. We had no choice but to stop behind it. The girl got out and came back towards us. One of the young men got out of our pick-up and she took his place beside the older man. Nothing was said. I watched a little hypnotised as the prominent blue vein over her temple pulsed in the light from the dashboard.
We carried on down the track to a sheltered inlet at the furthest point on the peninsula, got out and stood around waiting for the foreman. No one spoke. Even I’d learnt to hold back with people in the last few years. We were still half wrapped in sleep, communing with ourselves. A light rain fell from the windless sky. Let the day work us out first.
The sea was black, but light slowly leaked down, lighting up the grey green rock of the skerries, letting the colour back in the yellow lichen on the rocks, the pale grass above the tide line. The waves slapped lazily at the wooden piles. I only have to smell the sea and things get a little funny inside. I think it must be the elemental in us still, the creatures we once were. Some of those round here you can see traces of their fishy roots, something in the the way they stare.
Another car pulled up; the old rusted blue Mazda owned by young Donnie Douglas. He lived with his father on a croft, the Gaelic name for the place was ‘the field of the golden-haired boy’. Donnie had long golden hair himself. That, and his simple nature set him apart, but like all of us, he badly needed work, had to get new tyres for his car after the constable from town had pointed out the steel showing in the sidewall of each one.
He’d said get them fixed by the end of the week, knowing Donnie for a worker and not wanting to leave him stranded. He’d done something similar for me a while back, when he saw my tax disc was long out of date. Let it slide even then. That kind of decency made us all well-disposed to him. When he came on his rounds at night, we’d hand him drinks until he couldn’t walk and had to be poured into the police car and sent home. Somehow he always made it back across the mountains.
We waited for the fish-farm boat, leaning against whatever we could find. Pretty much all of us had our eyes in the same direction. As the boat came round the rocks, we all straightened. The foreman handed me the standard fish-farm kit, yellow boots, heavy, white rubber apron and orange rubberised gloves, somewhere between butcher and surgeon.
We moved towards the boat as it came level with the pontoon. The fish-farm boys knew what they were doing, took the thick ropes and tied them off tight. The skipper sat high up in the cabin, austere as a god. Our foreman had both hands loaded with carrier bags, full of groceries which he heaved onto the boat deck. He called up to the skipper.
Here you go Ray ! Another week you won’t need to set foot on the land.
The skipper didn’t spare him a glance.
The pontoon was a halfway house between the sea and the land, but leaning more towards land. Even all of us jumping on one end didn’t tip it. The older man handed me a heavy plastic club, lead running down the middle of it. One of the younger men climbed aboard and stored the skipper’s shopping in the hold. When he opened the control panel for the hydraulic arm, you could hear the salmon leaping and slapping in the hold. Funny to think of a boat full of the sea, upon the sea with a skipper who could not bring himself to set foot on land.
Donnie said to me,
Have you ever done this before? It’s real simple. Just crack them on the the top of the head, just behind the highest point, but hard mind or it’ll just bounce off.
The girl maybe couldn’t swing the club as hard as the fish needed, or maybe she wasn’t to be trusted not to brain one of us. She was put in charge of the lever that released the fish down the chute into a tray, where we were waiting with our clubs raised. The foreman had taken himself over to the tank where the result of our labours were going to end. He’d dragged a tatty, rather comfortable looking chair out from under a tarp, and there he sat with his notepad. Not a word between us. I guess we were all feeling the same tension before the scoop came over and the first load of salmon dropped into the holding tank. The girl pulled her lever and a paddle flipped the first few salmon down the chute.
My first thought, these were monsters, not fish. 30 to 40 kilos each, big as a child, dark green, slimy creatures of the deep, their skin covered in cankers, in places so eaten away their pale pink meat was exposed. This skin infection was the reason for the cull, and my wage. I’m pretty sure the sea is not meant to be farmed that way, seems to lead to no good apart from cheap food.
The first four hit the tray and we got ready to brain them, but full grown, maddened fish didn’t offer themselves up to be hit, thrashing about like I would if someone threw me into the deep when I couldn’t swim. Donnie made the mistake of putting his hand out to keep one still and got a whack on the knuckles. All but one of the fish-farm boys laughed. Maybe because Donnie screamed like a girl, high and trembling. And he was out; ten seconds into the day and he looked to be done. He took off his glove and the knuckle was a mess, the skin split, blood pouring out onto the grey boards of the pontoon. I got the tingle low down in my stomach, like a wire being drawn slowly through my body, same as ever when someone I know gets hurt, as if my body has its own kind of sympathy.
I kept looking up at the girl, at her fine skin and high cheekbones, brow-shadowed eyes, the lovely architecture of her face, thinking of the body beneath her oilskins, and her with the power over it all, measuring out death with her lever. Donnie moved back in among us and began again, one-handed but doing well. Sometimes a handicap can become a strength. He aimed more carefully, concentrated and struck quick, once on the back of the head, and once to bat it along to get its artery cut by the older man.
I got my first real blow in, surprised at the contact with the salmon’s body, so tautly muscled the whole affair had real spring in it; a good strike too, right where I was told. The effect was immediate and quite striking. The fish flapped over on its back, exposing a pale, soft belly, quivered violently like it was having a fit, then stopped. I pushed it on down the line. Same with the next one, the strange sensation on impact, the rubbery hardness, the click as I shattered bone that’s more cartilage. I felt no pity for the fish, nothing at all. It was a job to be done, authorised and paid for.
The day had begun around us and within. Another scoop from the boat to the small tank above us, the pale girl above us, beauty all around, the fish with their immediate problem, us with our more protracted sorrows. We weren’t killing as many as we ought, the hearts still pumping when the arteries were cut. Blood fountained in high arcs. After an hour there was blood everywhere, all of us covered in it, a bloodbath, the slats of the pontoon slick.
The foreman watched from his perch. After an hour or so he called over to us to take a break. We stopped for a smoke. I rolled one, damp, sticky from the salt in the air, but it drew well, hot in my throat and down into my lungs; a smoke’s almost always better in the wilds. There was little conversation to take a part in. I gazed out to sea, sitting in a coil of rope, my head against a post, shoulders and forearms tired, enjoying the cigarette.
Someone passed me another joint. The smoke curled in my lungs. I could have taken it down to the roach, but passed it on. Donnie took it with his good hand, smoked hunched in on himself. A couple of the fish-farm boys tried digging at him, but it bounced off for the most part I figured. Donnie had a brother special for his own torment, older and half a head taller, a dark- haired sadist who battered Donnie every Friday and Saturday after they’d been drinking. Donnie spent his life with wounds both fresh and half-healed.
I had to work hard to rise out the rope, trying not to stumble about. Dope deep in the blood now. A wrench to get back to the work. More greys now shaded the sky, like the painter couldn’t settle on finishing it yet, gloomy mountains standing out across the black, glass sea. Seals watched us from the rocks, drawn here by the smell of blood, like diners waiting on the buffet being re-stocked. Gulls gathering.
The foreman actually got up and came over to see if Donnie’s fit to go on. The older guy shakes his head, saying it with his eyes, but Donnie says he’s okay, showing how well he works with the one hand. His eagerness slightly spoils the effect. He looks at me for back up. All I can do is that stupid smile, how it’s okay because I’m a good guy.
Get him sorted or he’s out. We can’t take any hold ups on this. You know time’s tight.
One of the younger fish-farm boys puts down his club. He and Donnie go back to the pick-up to get him bandaged. The fish don’t stop on his account and we have a struggle to keep on top of the killing. They began backing up in the tray, crowding each other, cheek to cheek, stone silent. I got a fancy they ought not accept their fate. They should rebel, try to run.
We were relieved when the other two returned, Donnie’s hand dressed in a clean white crepe bandage, looking like he’s half-way ready for the big prize fight. I imagined him getting hit on the same spot again. Another fine, electrified wire drawn out of my balls into my gut. But before we could get back to it, the girl came down of her high chair, walked up and took Donnie’s hand up in both hers. I thought she was going to check the bandage, but she raised his hand to her lips and, with what looked to me like all the tenderness might be left in the world, kissed the spot over the damaged knuckle. No one said a word. She went back to her place and started the mechanism and the fish came tumbling down again. I could see something in the eyes of every man. A kind of anguish. I guess mine were the same.
We all started up again. Soon the moment slipped away. But we knew it had happened; the girl sat straight and tall in the chair. First to break the silence, with club raised, one of the younger men.
You’re even more dumb than you look, fucking around with other men’s things.
Donnie ignored him. I settled into a rhythm that suited me, a whack or two, then a peer at reality. Stoned, it was kind of simplified, the acuteness of sensation, the eyes observing for a tired mind, finding some pleasure in the mechanics of it, reducing the gaze to the tray and the maddened fish, then a look out to the sea, the bound rocks, the changing light, always back to the girl somehow. Up beyond the cloud, the sun slowly consuming itself. I can’t imagine a perfect life. Perhaps the lives of some saints. Not mine, nor anyone here.
Everyone had fallen into the maelstrom. The work was progressing, the water in the last tank bright pink with blood, foamy, the land behind grey-green with its lichen covering, gunmetal sea, low grey sky. There was a rhythm to it all, the beat of clubs on solid flesh, the slap of fish in their death throes, held by the slow thump of the boat’s diesel engine. Donnie had tears running down his cheeks. The same fish-farm boy who’d stuck it to him about the boyfriend said,
Donnie needs his mummy.
Donnie didn’t look up, just kept on clubbing the fish as hard as he could.
Soon after that was when it happened. Donnie raised his club again, quicker this time, and brought it down hard on the poor boy’s head. There was a nasty crack, and the boy fell like a stone, his face grey. At last the foreman got off his seat. He couldn’t run – you could see his left hip troubled him – but he did kind of lope-waddle over.
Is he breathing?
No one moved. The old boy said,
I think he’s killed him.
Donnie was crying and laughing like a lunatic.
Get him up on the tray at least!
Three of us picked him up between us, laid him out in the tray among the salmon. He looked peaceful. Someone folded his arms over his chest like the carved figure on a tomb. I thought that was too much. The girl hadn’t moved. The foreman called up to her,
Don’t send any more fish down until we sort this out.
What are we going to do?
We have to get the police. He’s murdered the poor lad.
The old boy nodded at Donnie.
No, wait, let’s think.
The foreman, out of all of us, seemed keenest on reason. Donnie was at the edge of the pontoon now, staring out to sea, tears dripping off his jaw midway between his chin and neck.
We stood around waiting, unsure of what else to do, already coming round to a reconciliation with the boy being dead. Then I noticed the crowning Donnie had given him had opened a long thin wound above his hairline and the blood flowed freely from it. If blood flows, the heart pumps.. Before I could point this out, a salmon tail smacked him across the face. The boy groaned. The foreman finally did some work, hauled the boy upright, held him there while he came round. The old boy tried to help, but the foreman had it covered. Big men have a natural strength, comes from hauling their bulk around. The boy was still white, but slowly the colour returned and his eyes focused. The foreman let him go and managed to get out the way before the puke hit him. Looked like his whole stomach came up, lumps first, then thick orange stuff, finally, with the last painful heaves, something like watery gravy.
Once he’d got it all out, the boy seemed righted, pale but functioning. Once his wound was dressed we were set back to work. We took to it with a will, aware we were behind now, relieved not to be dealing with anything worse. Down they came, flapping again and we hit them again and they died same as they had and the blood sprayed up again on the ones we’d missed. The sameness of these creatures precluded any sympathy; each was exactly as stupid as the other, exactly as furious in their movements.
After another hour or so, and not a moment too soon, the foreman called over.
I’d forgotten to bring any food. Soon as I realised, my stomach started complaining. I’d made a sandwich, but in the cold and dark of the caravan, half asleep still, I’d left it on the counter. The dog would have eaten it soon as I left.
Donnie came to my rescue, gave me half a sandwich of cheese on white bread, with huge lumps of butter his ma had neglected to spread. Even hungry it was hard going, but looking at him I wasn’t going to make an issue of it. Giving it to me seemed to make him happy again. His girl hadn’t come down from her high chair, but her eyes were on us. I fancied I could feel their heat like a lamp close to my face. The others had spread out on the pontoon, on whatever seats they could fashion. Everyone was tired. I could see it in their faces. Their arms hung defeated. Silence reigned, all of us concentrating on chewing and resting our bodies. The old boy had half a roast chicken on his lap, fingers and lips greasy. I was working my way to swallowing a large lump of salted butter without being sick. The foreman was on his mobile. I couldn’t hear his half, but you could see it was a difficult, anxious conversation. He kept looking heavenward, shaking his head, his lips tight. Mysteries in everything. The others too, books maybe but no pictures on the cover, nothing to tell me what they contained.
The sea salt air lay sticky on my skin. A wind has arisen, another westerly, almost warm for the time of year. It brought air breathed out in America, washed and rinsed by the Atlantic, a clean wind. I imagined it passing right through us all, carrying away our dead cells. Then another joint came round, oily and fat, the paper damp; Everything’s affected by the sea. I drew the smoke deep into my lungs.
Okay ladies and gentlemen, haul yourselves up and get back to it. The light’s already going.
Donnie was the first to get up. The rest of us soon followed, last the old boy, his limbs a little stiffer than ours from occupying the same cramped position while he ate. It felt as though I was beginning again, apart from a substantial weariness with killing
The skunk was at work. Different from the resin I grew up on, a heavier sedative, less trippy, like you could lie down for a lifetime staring at the shadows. I rolled a quick cigarette to extend it. Worked with it clamped between my lips, squinting at the smoke. Smash. Back of the head. Flap, down the line in its death throes. Smash another one. It looked right up at me, opened its hard mouth, wanted to say something, to protest. I was reading something literary that week, which put the reason fish don’t sing down to the sea making enough noise for them both with all its roaring and groaning.
A hard pain was developing behind my eyes, radiating out to my temples, which made me want to quit. I could see the bed in my caravan clearly, waiting for me. As if he could read my mind, one of the younger men passed me a little plastic container with some white powder in it.
This’ll keep you going…
I rubbed some into my gums. Speed, the familiar petrol taste trickling down the throat, something like excitement mixed with happiness; the beginning of a ride. I handed the container on to the next man, took up my club, sniffed hard to drag some saliva up and back down into my throat. I didn’t stop killing, but my whole being was waiting for it to kick in. And it did. Like a freight train and the world was a great wolf, the sea its breath, ragged and wild from the chase across the heavens. The mountains on its flanks.
We were slipping over in the blood, getting up, falling again, but all with no effort. The foreman didn’t care what drugs we took, as long as we kept on with the work. He’d been on the phone off and on most of the morning. The last call turned his face purple with rage. When it was done, he came over.
I’ve got to go. Jack will take charge. Just stay on it for god’s sake. I’ll be back as soon as I can.
He nodded at the old boy, who grinned despite himself. Donnie produced a silver hip flask and handed it to me with an exaggerated wink; whisky, the great disease. Fire in the mouth, fire going down, then up into the brain, the sensation dimmed a little by the speed, to my regret.
Put that away, and get on with it, said the old boy.
Relax Jack, he’ll be expecting you to prove what a fuck up you are.
This from the natural leader of our group, a shade cleverer than the others, larger and self-possessed.
The owner of the dope, said
How about we have another smoke Jack, then we can get on and finish this.
We stood around waiting while he rolled one. Jack liked the stuff enough to allow it to undermine his new authority. Donnie slowly drained the flask and put it back in his jacket. The girl remained where she was, almost forgotten for a time; we were focused on the spliff’s progress. More speed went round. The sun almost broke through as it dipped towards the sea. I dreamt of warmth coming from it. First shivers of tiredness and the cold, before the speed-train went on.
The fish in the tray stared at us. We’d show them all before the day got much older. Again I raised my arm, brought the club down on the spot just behind the highest point of the head. The weight of the club remained convincing. Another one, and the others joined in. The rhythm of work started again. I looked up at the girl, inviolate in her high chair.
They weren’t finished baiting.
Hey Donnie, about earlier, I didn’t mean it. You’re a virgin aren’t you, so you can’t have fucked her.
No, but I fucked your mother!
My mother died years ago.
Your sister then…
Donnie stepped away from the tray, turned to the boy. Our new foreman raised his hands, the club in one.
Donnie, his sister’s only about 10…
Donnie kept his eyes fixed on the boy.
She gave me a great blow-job…
The boy turned and struck out in one smooth quick movement, hit Donnie in the mouth with the club. Donnie drew back, spat blood, feeling around in his mouth for the remains of his teeth. His eyes clouded over. I thought he was going to fall, but remarkably didn’t seem to be in much, if any, pain. Maybe the dope and speed had numbed him. He rooted in his mouth and found the teeth, put them in his pocket, bent and charged, sweeping the boy up round his waist and dumping them both into the tank with the dead fish.
No one moved. Donnie finally surfaced. He was holding the boy under the water, wrestling to keep his head submerged. The boy would drown if one of us didn’t do something.
Donnie was much stronger than he looked. I’d watched him once pull a small speed boat up from the bottom of the sea with a rope. It was his brother’s and he’d sunk it by doing tight turns in a choppy sea. Donnie, kept hold of the line attached to the boat, and having rescued himself, stood on his small row-boat and hauled this thing up, hand over hand. It took him half an hour but he kept going. Terror may had a hand in it.
Eventually the leader got into the tank, hauled Donnie off and dragged the boy up and out. Donnie stood there, head raised to the sky, the veins in his neck standing out like ropes. The boy was white as a sheet. Then he puked again, nothing but clear water, all over the pontoon already swimming with blood.
Donnie sank to his knees in the pink foam, fisherman among dead fish. His body shook with tension. The gulls wheeled close in above him. We stood around watching, unsure what, if anything, we should do. But the world takes care of its own staging. Suddenly the sun shot through a small break in the cloud. The day had been improving without my really noticing it. The cloud had thinned and patches of blue begun to appear, until finally the fabric had torn out to the west. Donnie’s golden hair seemed to catch fire. The light softened his dirt-streaked face, and a great howl released itself.
Jack took some control over things and somehow we finished up. Not Donnie though. He got out that tank with a look in his eyes like he’d been given the all-clear on some disease. He showed me the denture plate that had contained his front teeth and winked like it was a big joke. He left without another word to any of us. The girl followed him with her eyes but remained in her high chair. When he’d gone we took the clubs back up with what felt like a lasting, serious intent. The fish never knew what him them. I never knew either, not about that or anything else. We only stopped when it got dark. I guess we’d killed a good third of the fish.
When I got home that evening, my dog had managed to eat the Christmas pudding I’d never got round to eating last year. I thought I was saving it for this year, though I don’t like the stuff. Perhaps I’d been saving it for her all along. She lay on the floor groaning and farting. I sat in the one chair and watched her suffer. In me there was a perfect, deep peace, as if all questions had finally had the answers they required. The world had resolved upon an idea and stopped spinning. We would head off into space or fall into the Sun and be consumed.
Despite the residue of speed, I slept like a baby, woke to the sun rising over the mountains in the east. I would not go back. Me, Donnie, it made no difference. They’d kill the fish with me or without us. I would take the dog and we’d walk it all off into the mountains. There was a small waterfall and a deep pool beneath it. I’d skinny-dipped into it this summer just gone, floated there dappled with light, listening to the sound of water splashing on rocks and itself. I’d been happy. It was too cold today, but we’d go there again and I would have a go at remembering how it felt. And for what it’s worth, I think any of us, if we had the power to make others happy, would. It’s where we differ from God.
By Vince Wells