Read an extract from Cynan Jones’s short story ‘The Edge of the Shoal’, which has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017. You can read extracts from all the other nominees on our blog.
[ Shoal /ʃəʊl/ - noun 1: a large number of fish swimming together. 2: a hidden danger or difficulty. ]
He swings the fish from the water, a wild stripe flicking and flashing into the boat, and grabs the line, twisting the hook out, holding the fish down in the footrests. It gasps, thrashes. Drums. Something rapid and primal, ceremonial, in the shallow of the open boat.
Flecks of blood and scales loosen, as if turning to rainbows in his hands, as he picks up the fish and breaks its neck, feels the minute rim of teeth inside its jaw on the pad of his forefinger, puts his thumb behind the head and snaps.
The jaw splits and the gills splay, like an opening flower.
He was sure he would catch fish. He left just a simple note: “Pick salad x.”
Briefly, he looks toward the inland cliffs, hoping the peregrine will be there, scanning as he patiently undoes the knot of traces, pares the feathers away from one another until they are free, and feeds them out. The boat is flecked. Glittered. A heat has come to the morning now, convincing and thick.
The kayak lilts. Weed floats. He thinks of her hair in water. The same darkened blond colour.
It’s unusual to catch only one. Or it was just a straggler. The edge of the shoal. Something split it from the others.
He retrieves a carrier bag from the dry bag in back and stores the fish. Then he bails out the blood-rusted water from the boat.
Fish don’t have eyelids, remember. In this bright water, it’s likely they are deeper out.
He’s been hearing his father’s voice for the past few weeks now.
I’ve got this one, though. That’s enough. That’s lunch.
The bay lay just a little north. It was a short paddle from the flat beach inland of him, with the caravans on the low fields above, but it felt private.
His father long ago had told him that they were the only ones who knew about the bay, and that was a good thing between them to believe.
You’ll set the pan on a small fire and cook the mackerel as you used to do together, in the pats of butter you took from the roadside café. The butter will be liquid by now, and you will have to squeeze it from the wrapper like an ointment.
The bones in the cooling pan, fingers sticky with the toffee of burned butter.
He was not a talker. But he couldn’t imagine sitting in the bay and not talking to his father.
There is a strange gurgle and a razorbill appears, shudders off the water, flicks its head and preens. It looks at him, head cocked, turns as it paddles off a few yards. Then it dives again, and is gone.
This story was read on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 19 September; you can listen to it on the BBC website. All of the shortlisted stories are available in the BBC National Short Story Award 2017 Anthology, published by Comma Press, price £7.99.