Randall had always felt at home on a boat. Like his father and grandfather before him, he’d been a fisherman as soon as he was old enough to carry a tackle box. The pursuit fit him well. The solitude of the sea more calming than any library, and the gentle rocking of the waves more comforting than any stiff drink or soft bed.
Whilst threading his line, his knuckles creaked like the loose boards of the pier. Hands hardened from oars, rods and salt water weren’t the only mark from his long life. His shrunken bladder was a daily alarm call, forcing him to rise well before dawn. Beating the rooster’s call however gave him the extra time he needed to get out to his favoured spot.
Rather than use any modern technology, Randall relied on the teachings of his father. He’d followed the circling gulls, depending upon their squawks like others trusted the beeps of their machines. He put his faith in their eyes and stomachs, rather than wires and screens. Today was particularly slow going. The winter winds chopped angrily against the water and bit into his exposed flesh. He fumbled the simple knots and dropped his lines repeatedly before he was ready to cast off. Fervently he rubbed his palms together, a desperate camper trying to get a fire going, and surveyed his surroundings.
The gulls were already diving optimistically into the frigid water, unperturbed by the dim light, but Randall’s lines lay listlessly. He sat patiently, hands deep in his pockets, watching the faint glimmer of daylight as it rose slowly over the sleeping village. The first of the fishermen’s boats began to make their way gracefully from the harbour, a sight he enjoyed only marginally less than watching the local women glide along the streets, their flowing dresses teased by the wind in the manner of a ship’s sail. Say what you want about the hardness of the winters, the women on this coast were some of the world’s finest and most gentle. Yet in all his years of watching, Randall never found another that matched up to Prudence.
There are two ways that Randall remembers the past. One door his mind goes through is full of the deeds he has performed and the lines he has mouthed. The memories behind that door may be embellished or slightly foggy around the edges, but they’re all based in reality. Contrary to logic, Randall has found that the longer he lives, the smaller the collection behind this door has become. He’s spent many evenings in the local bars with the other fishermen, the older ones recalling stories involving Randall that he has no memory of. He laughed and nodded in all the right places, but in truth their words drifted through his mind’s nets, not catching upon any memory he held fast to.
The second door, one which his mind often frequents, contains spin-offs from these memories. Sometimes based on real events, other times simply his hopes or wishes, they’re the things that he didn’t do or say but wishes he had. In this way he finds himself living the perfect life that was never his. He revisits these so often that sometimes they overshadow his reality.
Through the first door he can’t remember the last time he saw Pru, but through the second he sees her every day. While his skin has weathered, his hair whitened, she remains as perfect as she always was. He envisions her unblemished citrine skin, those enchanting emerald eyes. Whenever he wanders through the market his mind forever tricks him, catching a fleeting glimpse of her vibrant ruby locks. Sometimes the way the morning sun plays on the stained glass of the church tricks his peripheral vision, making him jerk his head and curse Christ for his deception.
His boat still bobbed alone in the water when he felt the tug of his first catch, the string snapping tight. He smiled to himself and set to work. While other men pursued bigger hauls, using trackers, trawl nets and venturing out into deeper waters, Randall was content with a more modest catch, enough for dinner and to collect a few coins at the market. He reeled it in, his experience letting him work on instinct and as he knocked its head he knew he’d need a few more to fill his quota for the day.
He knows he has drifted and, although there are no landmarks at sea, he senses that he isn’t far from where it all went wrong. His rods had been statues that day but, just as he was about to give up, one of them dipped rapidly. Instinctively, he’d grabbed the handle, immediately feeling the unusual strength of his catch. He gave the line some slack to make sure it didn’t snap, knowing that he couldn’t immediately fight it. Instead he teased it, letting it pull his boat along in an attempt to tire it out.
He can’t truly remember if the size of the fish comes from door one or two. He’s certain it was the biggest he’d ever hooked, though an old saying warns never to trust an angler’s measurement of an uncaught catch. He was no stranger to the waters even back then, but he’d swear that no fish, before or after, had given him a fight like that one.
Try as he might, Randall couldn’t tire the fish, only his own patience. As the pale light of dusk faded he tried to reel it in. Having already lost track of the hours, so too did the fish slip from his grasp. He didn’t dwell on the missed opportunity for long, as its release felt like the breaking of a spell. It was much too dark for him to still be on the water. By the time he’d returned to shore, the table he’d reserved was long deserted. This wasn’t the first time he’d been late to meet her, and she’d warned him that he had only one more chance. He ran to her house and tried to explain, but the more he talked about the fish the less interested she seemed in his apology. His plea for one more chance was answered by a slam of the door.
He asked again and again, but never got the answer he wanted. Soon she was dining with another man. A banker. A solid, dependable man who gave Pru all that Randall couldn’t. He was promoted soon after and the pair moved to the city. He hadn’t seen her since and never learned what happened to her, but he still held on, refusing to give up on this catch.
He vowed to never be late again, never to put himself or his work before someone he cared for. The next morning he was the first man at the harbour and the first to set off. He wanted to make sure he gave himself plenty of extra time to land his haul, because he would also be the first one back on land each evening.
The other fishermen – his seniors, his friends and especially the new ones – all think he’s a fool. By looking to the past he’s missed out on so much. Surely after so many decades he could afford to let go and live in the present? Each day, he sees the life with Pru that never was, and with each passing year it becomes more real to him, so much harder to let go. Even alone in his boat he can hear voices mocking him, yet he continues to ignore them. He has his own belief, strengthened by his years as a fisherman, knowing that if he wants to row forwards he must look back. Come sunset he’s going to be where he has been every Friday since Pru left. Sitting at that same table, in that same restaurant, putting himself through the agony she surely felt.
Randall was dragged from his reverie as his lined dipped. He reached forward, letting out a groan as his muscles complained about his sudden movement. He felt the pull of the fish, far from the size of the one that had aggrieved him all those years ago, but still knew it was too much for him. Cutting the line, he gazed into the water as it swam off, its fins shimmered a bright red before it turned and dove deep into the darkness.
This story won first place in the August competition on LifeOfWriters.com, which had a theme of ‘regrets’. The story originally had an extra paragraph at the end, but I’ve tweaked it since.
Judge feedback: “You have written an amazing story with many regrets in it, one of these being love. The way you narrate the story is warm and heartfelt. You get the reader hooked from the beginning — we like Randall and feel his emotions intensely. That is a great task to accomplish for a writer! You have written a wonderful story.”
Illustration by Daniel Greenhalgh.