The noise my brothers made as they got out of bed would wake me up most mornings. There were four of us in the one room, split between two sets of bunk beds. Two of my brothers had to get up early six days out of seven and head down to the brewery for their shifts. I would be dozing, enjoying the extra half hour I would have in my pit before I had to get up for school. I would lie with my eyes closed and hear the rattle of breakfast being made downstairs, the grunted morning conversations between my brothers and my mother and father.
When the time came to get up myself, I’d be greeted by the sight of the swelling in the mattress above me where Flynn slept. Flynn didn’t have to get up for work. He did not work then. There wasn’t much work to be had. He proclaimed to be looking, but seemed to do more sleeping than looking, if truth be told.
Rarely did the sun come through the crack in the curtains with any fervour. But on the day in question, it did so with gusto. It was a fine, clear morning, and I put my school uniform on quietly so as not to disturb my older brother in the bed above mine, the dreaming lummox. I went downstairs and toasted two slices of bread, which I then lathered in margarine. I ate in my mother’s shadow as she stood in a brown dressing gown, her hair up in curlers. She was smoking and looking out the back window at the unkempt garden where the cats from next door did their excretions, much to my father’s fury, and the cemetery beyond the fence. I finished my toast, rubbed the crumbs off my collar, slurped the last of my tea down, and headed out the door.
The sun shone brightly as I walked down the hill from Gurranabraher towards the River Lee. I dodged the puddles, some of which had oil in them. Little rainbows had formed. Down through the streets and off the estate, I passed the big houses where the people I did not know lived. I could see across the valley towards the buildings of the Mardyke and the land south of the river. I thought about the day ahead and the talk that would be going on among my classmates. I turned onto the footpath that led down to the Shakey Bridge. They call it the Shakey Bridge because it shakes. It’s always been that way. It must be safe, but when my brothers would shake it, using the force of their combined strength, I would always feel my knees go weak. But even they, with their worldliness and their muscles, were not able to bring down the Shakey Bridge. So it continued to shake and shake.
As I crossed it that morning, I looked down at the river. I liked to see the eddies and the swaying currents as the water flowed beneath me, coming from the hills out west and circling the city before expanding into the big harbour to the east. Sometimes on the rare warm days of summer, we would go down to Youghal or Cobh and spend the day by the sea. I have a memory of a butterscotch ice cream that I dropped on the stones and Flynn being forced to share his strawberry one with me even though he didn’t want to and even though I didn’t like strawberry. In truth, there were no real winners then.
As I looked down from the Shakey Bridge towards the Lee’s cold waters, something caught my eye in the thick reeds on the Mardyke side. A fish was caught in something; it had tangled itself up and was in a bother. I went down towards where it was writhing. It was a big thing, a salmon. I could see the sheen of its scales in the sunshine, the spots on its back. It was in clear distress but there was enough water around for it to be all right for a while yet.
My brothers and I had often tried to catch the salmon that leaped over the weir farther upstream by the Western Road. We had some luck sometimes, stunning a couple and taking them home for Mother to cook. She was always torn between gratitude and annoyance. A salmon dinner was not a luxury we would typically have, so to feed the family with a fish caught by her sons’ endeavours was something to be thankful for. But the cutting and gouging and slicing was a task of much labour, and the stench in the kitchen afterwards could not be masked by the smell of cigarettes for a few days at least.
This salmon I looked at now though, this tangled fish, was bigger than anything we had caught before. It would be a prize catch for whoever got a hold of it, that was for sure.
The ground around the reeds was muddy and sticky, and it was a fair drop down for a lad of my height, barely four and a half foot tall and in a hand-me-down school uniform. I didn’t like the thought of it being stuck there, but I didn’t know what else I could do. Plus, I didn’t want to turn up to school covered in sludge and face the wrath of the nuns, all while trying to hide a salmon from any onlookers. So I left it where it was and went onwards to school. I did my sums and learned my verbs and adjectives. I said my prayers with the other boys, kicked the football around the yard, and threw stones at the crows in the trees in the back field.
Then another school day was done, and I headed home again. When I crossed the Shakey Bridge on the way back, the tide had come in and I couldn’t see the salmon anymore. I wondered if it had escaped, had untangled itself despite its lack of arms.
When I made it home, Flynn was reading the newspaper on the chair by the fireplace and scratching his belly. I told him about the salmon. He asked how big it was and I told him it was a fair size, stretching my arms out accordingly and telling him how it was superior to anything we had ever seen off the Western Road. He said it would be getting dark soon and the tides were unfavourable for catching huge fish trapped in reeds, but he would take a look with me in the morning.
That night, I felt a great tiredness fall over me, though there was no good reason for it. I went to bed early and did not hear the three brothers I shared my room with coming in at the various times they did. Flynn was usually the last to turn in, but I did not notice him clambering up onto the top bunk that night, so far gone was I.
Despite the inevitable pints he would have drunk the evening before, Flynn was up and ready to go with me when I headed to school again the next day. His breath was acrid but I remember his eyes were focused. We walked down the hill and when we reached the Shakey Bridge, he started to rub his hands. The tide was out again and the wind was up. We went right down to the bank, to where I had seen the big thing. The reeds swayed and shifted, and then suddenly it was there right in front of us. We saw the shimmer of its back as it showed signs of life, but far less enthusiastically than it had the day before.
In a flash, Flynn had his shoes and socks off and was rolling his trousers up to the knees. He clambered down onto the reed bed, and was soon ankle deep in mud. Awkwardly, he made his way over to the fish, and got down on his hands and knees to untangle it. After a few moments, he stood up with this huge salmon in his hands. It did not have the strength to fight off his advances, its mouth opening and closing gently and its eyes growing increasingly glassy. He passed it up to me and I can still feel the weight of it. I thought about how it might taste with butter sauce.
Flynn put his socks and shoes back on and took the salmon from me. He had a look that showed a mix of determination and excitement, and I had never seen that on him before. I’d seen it now and again in some people, in my other brothers when they went off to the races or to a dance. But in Flynn it was a rare thing. As we parted he said thanks boy and carried the fish across the Shakey Bridge and back towards Gurranabraher, while I went off to school. Such was the look he had in his eyes, though, that I wondered whether Flynn had grand plans for that salmon, plans beyond dinner time.
The crows managed to evade my stones that day. I recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Angelus and Hail Holy Queen with the other boys, ate my lunch, listened to some of what the ancient lady in her black-and-white attire told me, and ignored much of the rest.
The end of the school day came and I strolled back across the Shakey Bridge with my backpack on and the salmon long gone. Its kin may have been lurking deep in the Lee’s waters, but I did not see them that day, nor ever a fish comparable to the salmon Flynn had taken in his arms just a few hours earlier.
When I walked through the door of the house, I heard a strange and breathy whining. In the kitchen, Mother sat at the table in tears and Flynn was consoling her. I stood still in the hallway listening to them, looking through a crack in the door and hoping they didn’t realise I was there.
“It’s for the best, Mam, honestly. I don’t have any hope of getting a job here and there’s plenty over. I’ll be back and forth and over isn’t that far away. It’s not like I’m going to the other side of the world.”
Mother wouldn’t look him in the eye as Flynn hovered over her. Her wet eyes just kept looking out of the window as she made small whimpering noises between drags on her cigarette.
“I have to do it now while I have the money from the salmon Oisin found. It’s a sign. Something good has come my way for once. It is meant to be, you have to believe that. It’s my lucky day, that’s what the man at the English Market said when he bought it off me. I know you don’t want to hear it, but going to England is something I need to do.”
I felt a big knot form in my stomach and it didn’t go for a long, long time, long after Flynn had gone. It would get worse whenever I saw Mother looking listlessly out of the kitchen window, as she seemed to do a lot of the time.
The period between watching Flynn console Mother at the kitchen table and his departure is something I don’t remember well. My brothers were imbibing plenty and though I was too young to drink, I went with them to the pub on Blarney Street on Flynn’s last night. Father looked after me while Mother stayed at home. He bought me lemonade and crisps and explained that sometimes people needed to do things that seemed strange and alien because the alternative, the not doing of the thing, was somehow worse. He told me not to worry and that Flynn would be back soon enough and that maybe I should ask him if I could sleep in his bed while he was gone. I wouldn’t dare do that though and told him as much.
My brothers were fierce drunk by the time I left with Father. They were singing and shouting as we slipped out the door and they didn’t return for a few hours more.
I did not sleep well that night, in part because of the snoring and coughing and snarling coming from the three drunken fools I shared the room with. I remember thinking Flynn would be sick as a dog the next day.
I must have drifted off at some point because I was awoken by cursing and my working brothers feeling sorry for themselves and holding their heads as they struggled to pull things together before heading down to the brewery again.
I looked upwards but there was no dip in the mattress anymore. Flynn had already slipped out before anybody had awoken. He must have taken his bags and headed to the docks early, not wanting to say goodbye without the veil of imbibement. I could picture him there, green and groggy, awaiting the ferry to Swansea.
I crossed the Shakey Bridge twice more that day but could not bring myself to look down at the water.
Sean Dudley is a freelance copywriter and historical researcher based in Leicester, UK. He has a BA in English and American literature from Goldsmiths, University of London, and an MA from the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History.