Polperro

The old clinker rowing boat crept slowly across the dark water, between the rocks that loomed up each side of the entrance to Polperro Harbour. The local fisherman, an old-looking man with a deeply tanned and wrinkled face, who we had decided to call Granfer, dipped his oars in the water and leant against them in a slow and efficient movement. At the end of each stroke he lifted the oars from the water and reached forward for the next one, leaving a gurgling swirl in the water on each side. I turned and looked as these swirls merged with the line of ripples left astern, reaching back toward the harbour. The shore lights, dancing on the calm surface, slowly dropped further and further into the distance. Then, as we turned around a little headland, they disappeared behind the rocks, and it was deeply dark, darker than anything I had experienced, just the long flash of the Eddystone light and the occasional pinpoints of ship lights keeping us company.

I was ten years old. I sat very still and quiet, for I knew the grown-ups had debated whether I was old enough to go fishing that night. My best friend Lesley, a year younger than me, and a girl anyway, had been left behind, deemed too young for this adventure.  Dad was next to me in the stern, and beyond Granfer in the bows my big brother John sat with Bill, Lesley’s dad. I watched the water flow just below my elbow, a thick blackness, so unlike the cheerful blue of daytime.

After a little while, Granfer stopped rowing, pulled the oars into the boat, and scrambled to find a small anchor on a long line in the bottom of the boat, which he dropped over the side. Slowly and deliberately he got out a fishing line, untangled the feathered hooks, dropped them over the side, and paid out a length of the line. After securing the inboard end he handed it to me, saying, “Youngest first!” He showed me how to hold it over my finger so I could feel when a fish bit.  A bundle of excitement, I stared at the line, concentrating hard at the point where it disappeared under the surface. Grandfer set about giving the others their lines, but before he has finished I felt a tug on mine.

“I’ve got a fish!” I cried out, and everyone laughed. Of course I hadn’t got a fish so quickly. “Well, if you think you have, pull the line in and see,” said Dad, so I hauled in the line hand over hand, looking deep into the dark water.  Quite quickly two slivers of silver appeared in the water, and the shortened line moved this way and that in the water as the fish struggled against my pull. “Two fish!” I called out, and everyone laughed again, this time in excitement.

Granfer showed me how to lift the fish over the side, careful not to get the hooks in my hands.  I watched open-eyed as he looped the hooks out of the fishes’ mouths and threw them in the bottom of the boat. They flapped around for a while, then lay still. He cut down the belly of one with a sharp clasp knife, slit off a strip of flesh and fixed it to the hook. “Try that, young man,” he said as he handed me the line. I dropped it back in the water and watched as the oil from the mackerel spread over the water surface and the hooks disappeared down again to the depths.

Soon we were all hauling in fish: mackerel, sea bream, the occasional bass. At one point, John pulled in one with a long spike on its nose, like a miniature swordfish. “We won’t eat that one, but it will do for bait,” said Grandfer. I remember pulling in my line time and again till the bottom of the boat was full of over thirty flapping fish, and we had caught enough.

John pulled up the anchor and Grandfer started his measured strokes again back into Polperro. “How do you know the way?” asked Dad. “I just keep the Eddystone light over my stern,” he said, “And that leads me right back in.” It had been is so exciting, I hadn’t time to be cold, but now I started to shiver. I was soaking wet. Each time I pulled in my line, I had coiled it neatly into my lap—I didn’t want it to be tangled in the bottom of the boat. So my jeans were soaked through. Everyone laughed again, although not unkindly, and as soon as we were ashore Dad took me by the hand and walked me back round the harbour wall to the Watch House where we were staying.  John and Bill followed later with the fish.

The last thing I remember is standing naked in front of Mother while she rubbed me down vigorously with a towel.