Second Place in the University of Liverpool Writing Competition 2022
We remember the house we grew up in and its totem pole washing line leaning to one side in the back yard like a dead tree, rust-brown and oily, the orange flakes coming off on your hand when Mum yells not to touch it. We remember the concrete and little sprouting shoots of grass like what she fed us on a Sunday with the overcooked chicken. The soot-black bricks as if the house always wanted it to be night, and I did, pretending to be asleep while my brother snored in the bed next to me, and I’d look out the window at the black and silver world, the crooked washing line, wet concrete and grass.
‘Come on then, if you’re coming,’ I’d hear most mornings. My dad and his brother – Uncle Robert – stinking of the flesh of outdoors, a cold smell like sour milk, covered in what my brother said was Old Spice, which I thought was another thing to put on your Sunday roast. I remember their boots; big hefty things like boulders, the black of the rubber soles like the gums of a dog, dried mud, laces fastened only once with impossibly tight knots, scratches and scuffs exposing a history long before me.
My brother, Matthew, loved going fishing. He’d be ready before I was. I got washed in the sink, the gold shine of sun through the frosted glass, shining on me; I remember how I looked, thin face, skin like paper not yet written on. I brushed my yellow baby teeth. Got dressed. I didn’t have boots, just a pair of dirty trainers, the scuffs in the rubber like the first few wrinkles in an aging face.
I remember the lake. Matthew, my dad, and Uncle Robert. I remember the cold, but I also remember how the cold looked. Like a bright glare from a cold fat sun through a thin mist between hard bare branches. I could see my breath. I watched my dad’s breath. A white cloud. There and gone. There and gone.
My uncle leaned back, holding the line, tight as piano wire, that pulled from the fish beneath the water. My dad helped him, grabbing his brother’s forearms and yanking against the weight of the fish. His arms filled with many cords and wires. His sunburnt skin covered in a light blonde fur. Matthew and I just watched them pulling the line, almost expecting a marionette puppet to come dancing out of the lake, but eventually this huge fish emerged, jelly-like, mouth open in a wide O, black wet pebble eyes. The silver green trout flopped on its side, the slime caught in the shining sun, glowing, this heavy thing, like a baby, frantically breathing, and the stink, a vinegar and salt smell clung to my clothes forever hanging on the bent washing line left out to dry. I held it in my hands. It was cold and heavy. Thick like muscle. My uncle patted me on the shoulder and it felt like it was me who’d caught the fish, as though my brother and I were the two grown men fishing in the lake that cold morning. Everything looked bright. In my memory, anyway. The sun must have caught in the lake. My dad’s face and my uncles face burned into the retina of my mind.
I stopped hearing that voice in the morning calling me to get a move on. My dad developed a sadness with Uncle Robert not being around anymore and the fishing trips became fewer and fewer. Dark patterns formed under Dad’s eyes and in the corners of his mouth, which was wide and drooped down like the mouth of a fish. He took up a second job when my sister was born and it was as though he was so tired he refused to talk to me or my brother anymore. You forget things. You forget the fishing trips and you forget the people around you.
One night I stayed awake and looked out the window. It was quiet and the night was black. If I stood there long enough, I’d see the cats begin fighting over who got to sit on the corner of the fence. Their fur up in fluffy plumes, screaming at each other like children. I woke up Matthew and his hair was sticking up like the cat’s fur and it made me laugh. We sat on the windowsill for a few hours watching the cats scream at each other until we both fell asleep. We dreamt of the lake. I don’t know why.
I began to lose my sight in my mid-thirties. Had to wear glasses to correct my vision, at first just for reading and then to help me to see. The world was a blur without them. My glasses were the first thing my wife, Charlotte, noticed about me – before we were married. ‘Like Coke bottles,’ she said, laughing, her teeth white polished marble, her eyes wet and almost black. Six years after we met, Luke was born. As a baby he had a habit of taking my glasses off my face, and each time he turned into an indistinct blur, shapeless; it became impossible to form new memories.
‘I won’t be able to see you anymore, you know,’ I said. ‘What have I got if I can’t even see you or Luke?’
‘You don’t need your eyes to see,’ she said. Her mouth moved in slow-quick rhythms like waves in water.
The lake was smaller than I remembered. The branches still bare, balding with the age of winter, the cold chill underneath my clothes, in my bones. I didn’t see much colour, there never was much colour that time of year, but my eyes didn’t recognise how the world looked anymore. The place was like a drawing; I could have drawn it myself and stepped into it to remind myself how it all looked. There was something on the water, I thought maybe it was a boat. I squinted but couldn’t quite see it.
We remember the house we grew up in –
Every so often I remember everything, but the world became so different. Matthew put on a lot of weight, short, stubby, but dressed well with shirt and tie. Hair combed and neat. I recognised his eyes. My sister, too, with a thin face like Dad, stood shyly at the kitchen window holding her arms across her body into a mangled shape of a cross.
‘Don’t you remember when we went fishing?’ I said.
‘I never went,’ my sister said. ‘I was too young, and then you all just stopped going.’
I looked out the window. The washing line was gone by this point and there was just a little rusty stub sticking out the ground like a bone. The house was stripped bare of all memory making our voices echo against the hard blank walls. The sign out front – FOR SALE.
‘There’s a lot of memories in this place,’ I said. ‘A shame to see it go.’
‘More memories on that lake,’ Matthew said, and laughed.
‘I don’t know why you haven’t taken Luke there yet,’ my sister said. ‘I’m sure he’ll love it there.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t be much use on a boat these days,’ I said. ‘I think I’ll be blind by next summer.’
‘There’s more to it than just looking at the place,’ Matthew said.
I thought about it. I thought about the times we had, fishing on that lake. I thought that, years later, I’ll take Luke fishing. Charlotte will join us. The smells and sounds all very familiar, and Luke’s voice sometimes sounding like Matthew’s voice at that age. The sounds of water, of birds, of Charlotte’s voice, Luke yelling in delight at catching a fish, and I’ll feel the thudding of its strange thick body bashing itself against the wood of the floor of the boat. I’ll ask him to describe it to me and he’ll try and I’ll laugh. The vinegar and salt stink, water sloshing, bubbling. Trees whispering on the bank. We’ll remember this and he’ll remember more after me. The silver salt tang running along the sides of my tongue from the fish flapping about in the boat, and my son laughing and laughing and laughing, and Charlotte laughing and laughing, and I won’t know anything else but those sounds but that’s all I’ll really need in that moment in time.
© Michael Holloway
Cover image by Sven W on Unsplash