‘And is it something you’ll be wanting then? Or are you just after watching other folk work?’ Mr Cusack looked up at me from the deck of his boat, several feet below where I stood on shore. He spoke gruffly, but with the sort of friendly gruffness that the men of Munfrees reserved for not unwelcome breaks from their labours. The gruffness was to let you know that he was busy, as you clearly were not or you would not be bothering him, but—and this was part of the gruffness too—you were not to abuse his willingness to stop and talk with you a bit.
I had been standing there for several minutes waiting for him to acknowledge my presence, wondering when it would be all right for me to speak. I was still unsure of myself around the villagers. Their lives were devoted to activities unfamiliar to me, and in the first days after we arrived in Munfrees I had peppered them with questions. My mother and Aunt Alyce had encouraged me to be curious. Unlike the other behaviours they tried to instil in me, curiosity was a habit I was happy to pursue zealously. But I quickly learned that the inhabitants of Munfrees did not always welcome children’s interruptions. My ‘What are you doing?’ would elicit a scowl and a dark look more often than an answer. That didn’t stop me from being curious—but I usually exercised my curiosity at a careful distance. That day, however, I had a reason for being there, and that emboldened me now that I had received permission to speak. ‘My aunt sent me to ask, Mr Cusack, if we could please have a fish tomorrow.’
‘And did she say what kind? There are lots of fish in the ocean. Is it a whale she’ll be wanting or a mackerel?’ He shook his head with the amused puzzlement that the villagers often greeted the ignorance of outsiders such as ourselves.
Mr Cusack was the only commercial fisherman remaining at Munfrees. Old Mrs Ahern had told us that when she had been a girl, there had been a dozen, and small boats had crowded the sheltered inlet just north of the last house in Munfrees. My aunt had asked if it was possible to buy fish in Munfrees, and Mrs Ahern had explained the villagers’ arrangement with Mr Cusack. But as often happened in Munfrees, the present quickly led to the past.
‘The boats were painted all different colours, so you could look out and tell who was setting out or returning.’ She stared toward the inlet where the boats had been anchored. At some time in the past, a stone wall had been built out in the deeper part of the inlet to provide a mooring. The landward side had been filled in with dirt and rocks to form a level open space that was used for drying nets and unloading catches. ‘Those men were so proud of their boats. Everything about them had to be perfect. Treated them like a member of the family, they did. Better than their families, some of them. They always painted them in bright colours, and in the evening when the water was still and all the boats tied up along the wall, the reflections shimmered in the water. When I was small, I used to pretend that the water was covered with bright cloths, just floating there on the surface. Like the clothes the bishop wore when he came to confirm us, all red and green and gold. It was magic.’ She paused and sighed, and then voiced the frequently heard lament, ‘Ogh aye, that’s all gone now. The others have all died or given over fishing or moved elsewhere. There’s only Donal Cusack now.’
Mr Cusack’s May was usually the only boat tied up alongside the old stone wall. True to tradition, he had painted his boat. The hull was blue and the small cabin a bright red. Unless the weather was truly foul, every day but Sunday Mr Cusack left Munfrees at first light and returned in mid-afternoon. He sold most of his catch further south, to the processing plants in Killybegs. Anyone in Munfrees who wanted a fish would ask him the night before, and Mr Cusack would bring it back the next day. He expected you to meet his boat, however, and have a basin ready to carry the fish back home. He had told my aunt that the first time she asked him for a fish. ‘I’m not a deliveryman,’ he said. ‘I’ve been working all day, and I’m ready for a pint and a smoke. This isn’t Dublin, and I’ll not be waiting on you. You clean the fish yourself or have the lad do it. And there’s no credit. If you ask me to save you a fish and don’t have the money, then you won’t get the fish and you’ll not be needing to ask me again.’
‘She says, a whitefish please, enough for our tea tomorrow and then for a fish pie the next day, Mr Cusack. And she says to ask, please, if she could have some heads for the broth.’
Mr Cusack considered the request for a moment and then nodded. ‘Tell Miss Collins she will have her fish. And it will be three shillings, lad.’
My mission accomplished, I was in no hurry, and I sat down on the old wall, with my legs dangling over the water, a few feet seaward from where Mr Cusack’s boat was tied up. The sea was calm that day, and each incoming wave lifted the water only a few inches or so. The shape of the inlet and the position of the wall to one side meant that the waves flowed down the inlet perpendicular to where I sat. Each wave would rush the wall, lifting the seaweed attached to the stones and raising the water toward me but not so close that my topboots were in danger of getting wet. I could safely entertain thoughts of being swept into the water and going home soaked.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I watched Mr Cusack as he cleaned his nets and washed down the deck of his boat. He must have been in his late sixties or early seventies at that time. Years of exposure to the North Atlantic had permanently wrinkled his face and hands. His clothes were for a much larger man, as if he had shrunk over the years. He was almost lost within them. It was warmer than usual that day, and he had tossed his yellow mac up onto the wall beside the other gear he planned to take with him. He wore an old white pullover and had pushed the sleeves up, exposing thin forearms corded with muscle and ribbed with hard veins. His small boat rocked with every wave, but he compensated effortlessly for the motion, as if years of waves had imprinted themselves on the movements of his body.
He worked for about five minutes without appearing to notice me. He wasn’t even looking at me when he asked, ‘And what does your aunt put in her fish pie, then?’
‘She says that she will teach me how to gather sea lettuce and mussels and we will have those in the pie.’
‘Lots of potatoes. And onions too, I think.’ At best my notions of what went into a fish pie were vague. The dish clearly contained fish, and it was a pie, but that exhausted my knowledge and my expectations. I had eaten fish pies before, but not with the attentiveness to the contents the discussion had grown to demand. My aunt had proposed the idea earlier that day as a way of using what was available for free along the shores of Munfrees. Mr Cusack seemed to expect potatoes, and so I supplied them. Onions showed up frequently in Aunt Alyce’s cooking, and they seemed a probable addition.
He considered those ingredients for a moment and then said thoughtfully, as if he were tasting the pie in his imagination, ‘I like a bit of cabbage in mine.’
‘Me too.’ I tried very hard to sound as judiciously adult as Mr Cusack.
He gazed at me speculatively as if testing my remark for irony or mockery and then chuckled, ‘You’ll be thinking then that a bit of cabbage improves most everything?’
It was my turn to test that ingredient against my imagination. ‘Well, not a pudding. You wouldn’t want cabbage in a pudding.’
‘Now, lad, old Mrs Sheahan that lived next to Feelihy’s shop—you know that house to the left?’
‘Well, she made a fine cabbage pudding. She was famous for her cabbage pudding. They even knew about her cabbage pudding down in Sligo. She sent them down by the mailman’s cart. Even the magistrate used to beg his housekeeper for a slice of Mrs Sheahan’s cabbage pudding.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘She died and took the receipt for her cabbage pudding with her. Nobody knows how to make it now. So you’ll never get to taste it, lad. Tis a pity. You tell your ma and your aunt about it. Maybe they can put it in one of those books they’re writing. Old Mrs Sheahan and her cabbage pudding that was famous down to Sligo.’
I took Mr Cusack’s willingness to talk to me as permission to engage in further conversation. ‘Where do you catch the fish, Mr Cusack?’
‘Where the fish are, lad. That’s the only trick there is to fishing. Go to where the fish are if you want to catch them.’
‘But how do you know where they are?’
‘Can’t tell you that, lad. That’s my secret. If I tell you, then you’ll be able to find your own fish. Won’t need me. That wouldn’t be half clever of me, would it?’
‘I won’t tell anyone. I promise. And I don’t have a boat. I couldn’t go out. Unless you took me.’
‘I can’t do that.’ Mr Cusack was suddenly serious. ‘It’s dangerous out there, lad.’
‘I’ll be careful.’
‘No, it wouldn’t do. It’s only luck and St Peter that’ve kept me alive this long.’ He said this with such finality that I knew better than to ask again. My disappointment must have shown because his next words were, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you where the best fishing is. But you have to promise not to tell anyone.’
I solemnly vowed never to reveal the location of his fishing grounds. He stepped off his boat and sat down beside me. He looked around, scouring the vicinity for anyone who might overhear what he was about to say. When he was satisfied that we were alone, he pointed out to sea and whispered, ‘You see that island out there? Some fish like to feed in shallow waters, around islands and such like. And that’s where I’ll be fishing tomorrow.’
I followed the direction of his finger. I shook my head. ‘There’s nothing out there.’
‘Well, that’s where I catch my fish. By that island.’
‘But there’s no island there.’
‘Well, you can’t see it today. It’s called Tomorrow Island, and it’s there where today meets tomorrow. It’ll be right where I need it to be tomorrow.’
‘So I’ll be able to see it tomorrow.’
‘No, tomorrow it will be today, and then the island won’t be around. It will already be in tomorrow’s tomorrow. It’s never in today. That’s why we can’t see it. It’s always at the edge of tomorrow.’
‘But how do you know it’s there if you can’t see it? What if your boat crashes into it?’
‘I’m not in any danger if I stay in today. Now if I were in tomorrow, it would be a different story.’
‘Does anybody live there?’
‘Now how would I be knowing that, lad? I would have to get to Tomorrow Island to find that out.’
I could see Tomorrow Island in my imagination. I knew that Mr Cusack was pulling my leg, but the story was to my liking and I began to embroider it. ‘I bet lots of people live there. But they don’t know about us. Because we’re in yesterday to them.’
‘Well, now, people have been telling me that you’re a clever lad. And I can see that you are.’ He smiled and then braced an arm on the ground to balance himself as he prepared to stand up. ‘We’ll talk about it another time. For now, I better get on. Things to do before I go to bed. You tell your aunt she’ll have her fish tomorrow.’ He took two or three gingerly steps as if unsure that his legs would support him. ‘Ah, it’s hell to grow old, lad. Avoid it. That’s my advice to you.’ He rotated his neck slowly to the left and then to the right to loosen it as he walked back to where he had left his gear and bent over to pick it up.
He turned to look at me again. ‘What, lad?’
‘Do you think you’ll ever reach Tomorrow Island?’
‘Of course. One day. That’s the thought that keeps me going. One morning I’ll sail out to do a bit of fishing, and there will be Tomorrow Island, right where I need it to be.’ He looked over my head toward the ocean. A wistful look crossed his face.
When he said nothing, I prodded him to continue. ‘What happens then?’
‘I’ll settle down. It’s a better life there, I’m sure of that. I’ll be young and sturdy again, and the fish will jump right into me boat. I won’t even have to set me nets. So I’d be a fool to come back here. Anyway, there’s no coming back from tomorrow, is there? So even if I wanted to come back, I couldn’t.’
‘But . . .’
‘Ah, lad, leave off. That’s enough talk for a day. You had me saying more today than I usually say in a week. Whenever I start talking, I end up saying something foolish—that’s what I’ve found in this life. Better to keep me mouth shut. Now you, you talk so much you’ll soon run out of things to say. They’ll be other days. You don’t have to say everything today. You spend all your words today, and you won’t have any tomorrow. You’ll be like Michael Garrity. Fond of hearing hisself talk, that one was. He talked so much that he grew thinner and thinner. Just used hisself up in talking. He got so light that one day he was standing in front of Feelihy’s talking away and the wind just picked him and blew him away up over the hills, and we never saw him again.’ He was smiling at me as he said those words. So I knew they were friendly. I wasn’t so much being told to keep quiet as to save the conversation for another day.
He turned away for a final time and began walking up the street. I almost offered to help him carry part of his gear, but something about the set of his shoulders and the careful way he held his head up told me the offer would be refused. He might have forgiven me for insinuating that he needed help—I was after all an ignorant child from Dublin. He would have considered a similar offer from anyone else in the village an insult. I would guess that the only day anyone carried anything for Mr Cusack was the day they took his corpse in a coffin to St Anne’s for the funeral mass.
The wall was anchored on the seaward end by a little hillock of shale. I stepped up onto it and looked out to sea. The ocean was calm that day, and a golden path of sunlight stretched across the water toward the horizon. I traced it out as far as I could see. At the end of the path, the dark, faint mass of Tomorrow Island hovered at the edge of the world. I felt that if the sun would remain in the sky long enough, I could walk there.
And on Tomorrow Island, a boy much like me stared back at yesterday along the golden highway.