Matt Gemmell

Nets

10 min read

I had a fishing net. It was one of those cheap ones, on a long bamboo stick. It only cost 50p, but it was exactly the kind of net you’d want if you were a boy who had recently turned nine years old, and that’s exactly what I was. My net was green.

I remember that my brother had a red one, but I thought there was more chance of the green blending in with the algae and seaweed in the many rock pools along the coast. More chance of sneaking up on the interesting creatures that might be in there, and maybe catching a few. My brother was only five-and-a-half, so it’s understandable that this sophisticated thought was mine alone.

The summer was endless. It was the late 1980s, and every day we had both doors of the caravan wide open, with bead curtains across to keep the bees outside. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and that was just fine, thank you very much. We were on holiday there for two whole months this time, and it was only the second week.

Our dog Bruce, an Alsatian mix who was quiet and civilised beyond any other dog I’d known, was always nearby. He had no interest in the nets or the rock pools, but followed us on our explorations and would sit patiently waiting (or bask on a large rock) no matter how long we trawled every nook and cranny of the shoreline. I’d often glance over to check he was still there, and see him looking out to sea, motionless, as if contemplating larger things than barnacles and sea anemones.

He’d be looking so intently that I’d instinctively follow his gaze, trying to see what it was that so captivated his attention. I’d tell myself that I was making sure our pet hadn’t wandered off – but it was me who was comforted to see he was still by our side. To my eyes, the view was only miles and miles of ocean waves, off over the horizon and eventually reaching the Arctic Circle. I’d soon shrug and go back to my trawling. Perhaps he saw something I couldn’t.

The warm breeze was salty and rich with the smell of the sea, and the receding waves flowed over a thousand worn-smooth beach pebbles with a sound like applause. We’d been given hats to wear against sunburn, and we’d naturally discarded them as soon as we were out of sight of our mother.

Our haul so far was mostly algae, which was disgusting, or tangled bits of seaweed that snagged in the net. My brother had found a stick, though, and there was promise of anemones in a deeper pool out past the beach line. We’d have to climb out over the the large, black rocks, thrust upwards like the fingers of buried stone giants. We’d clambered around on them before, and we’d been warned away just as many times. But true danger is reserved for books and television, and everyone knows that little boys are invincible.

We gathered our nets and begin climbing up over the rocks. Bruce was below and behind us now, and gave a single bark. We paused, but that seemed to be all he had to say for the moment. We pressed on.

The waves seemed less friendly from this vantage point. The smack and hiss as they broke upon the seaward rockface had lost its fireworks-like appeal. The waves were tall, the wet outcroppings of black rock below looked suddenly cruel, and the sea was deep where blue fell away to darkness. Perhaps little boys weren’t entirely invincible after all.

“They’re in here!” my brother called, his tone carrying more raw triumph and untarnished joy than had ever been heard by anyone before. He had found a deep pool, nestled in a crook of rock that was hidden from the shoreline. Maybe we were the first to ever find it. Bright reddish-pink lumps clung to the sides just below the surface, calm despite the chaos of nature all around.

I hastened to join him, pushing away any thoughts of how we, too, were now hidden from the shore.

“See?” he said, pointing, and I nodded.

“Well done,” I replied, and I impulsively leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. It was the most natural thing in the world, and he grinned.

I had my net, of course, but my brother had a better idea – he had brought the stick with him. Maybe we’d be able to spear one of the creatures, and bring it off the rock.

The day was so bright. The sea was so loud. Gulls wheeled overhead, screaming in an alien language. He raised his stick.

I presume that seagulls can see very well indeed, by necessity. I wonder what one of the gulls far above our heads would have seen in that moment. Would the scene have made any sense? A sudden blur of motion, a huge dark shape between the two brightly-coloured beings around the pool, and then the smaller one crying out and losing his balance. I wonder if the gulls would even have been interested.

I have no idea how Bruce managed to get up onto the rocks to follow us. The first part of our climb from the beach side must have been six feet vertically. Animals can surprise you. That’s an important lesson to learn.

My brother was unhurt, falling only onto his side on a roughly flat section of rock beside the pool, several safe feet away from the drop to the sea. But he was five-and-a-half, and he’d had a fright, and so he cried. That was also the most natural thing in the world.

Bruce walked over, with understanding and apology written in his step, and licked the tears away until my ticklish brother laughed again. No harm had been done. We looked at each other, and then my brother lifted his hand. He hadn’t dropped the stick, and the sun made it cast a heavy black line across the pool.

Then the veneer of being nine fell away. The world was more than just this best-of-all-days. It was more complex than that. Some places were bright, yes – most of them were still bright, at least in that tender year. But some were dark, and hidden. Some had creatures going about their own lives, with still other undreamed-of ones flying far overhead. Those creatures had little knowledge of things like nets, or sticks, and certainly not boys.

And we abruptly knew, all at once, that it was better to keep it that way. For a mercifully brief moment, a child’s mind saw his own shadow fall across the natural world, and caught the edge of some ominous larger truth, quickly shied away from. My brother looked up at me, confused, but even at nine years old I had no sufficient wisdom for such a moment. He turned and threw the stick into the sea.

Bruce watched it go, stoic as ever. It was swallowed by a wave, but he kept looking out there for a moment, and then suddenly glanced away to the left, far down the shoreline. His ears pricked up, and his tail swished once, as if in recognition.

I followed his gaze again, but the only thing visible in that direction was another section of cobble-littered beach, leading up to a rise with a large patch of gravel on it. Cars parked there sometimes, bringing families with picnics, and boys with nets. But it was still early, and the main car park further up was still sufficient, so that gravel patch was almost certainly deserted.

All the same, with the sun in my eye, I thought for a moment that someone was parked there; a single unfamiliar car, alone. I shaded my eyes and saw that I was wrong, the patch was indeed empty, then Bruce glanced around at me. His expression was unreadable.

We got down from the rocks and back to the beach without incident. Bruce actually jumped the full six feet down at the end, with a grace that was as impressive as it was unsettling. He was clearly less than us, because we had houses and cars and aeroplanes and everything else, but very occasionally he reminded us that he was also more.

We were back on that beach dozens more times before the summer ended, but we never climbed back out over the rocks. By the time school reconvened in August, I had managed to forget that there was anything more complex about the world than the pressing daily matter of being nine, and having a little brother. Let the years bring whatever enlightenment they must, at their own pace.


The nets are still on sale, in a shop in the little town near the beach; they cost four times as much now. There are even green ones, which is only right and proper. I saw them today. I didn’t buy one this time, just as I haven’t for the last quarter of a century.

I bought a newspaper instead, then my wife and I went along the street to another shop to find an engagement gift for some of our friends back in Edinburgh. We managed to find something, which takes a bit of the pressure off our schedule on Saturday. That’s when our holiday ends, and I’ll be driving us the 200 miles or so back down south and home. Hopefully there’ll be time to do a load of washing and get it hung up to dry before we go out that evening to celebrate with those same friends.

The weather today was reasonable, so we drove to that stretch of beach. It’s beside a beautiful old art deco outdoor swimming pool, now slowly being reclaimed by nature. It sits in a bay below the cliffs, with a golf course along the top. It was completely deserted, under a grey sky.

The gulls still wheeled, and the waves still crashed. I parked on the section of gravel above the cobble-strewn section of beach, without really thinking about it. We went for a walk and took some photos, and I sent a couple to my brother with my iPhone.

The wind started to pick up after half an hour, and we went back to the car. I was about to drive us back to our holiday cottage when my wife suggested we stay for a while longer. We sat mostly in silence, each looking out to sea with our own thoughts. Many memories welled up for me, as memories tend to do. My wife, in her wisdom, gave me as much time with them as I wanted.

I looked out at the sea, and it was black rather than blue. It’s September, of course, so I couldn’t hope for the sunlight and warmth of that long-ago July. The sky was slate, filled with clouds, and troubled. I got a text message from my brother as I sat there, responding to one of the photos I’d sent. He asked if it was of the rock that Bruce had jumped down from.

I hesitated to reply, looking out to sea. Occasional gusts of wind shook the car, and I could hear the waves even with the windows up.

I’d taken the photo less than half an hour before, and if I’d turned my head to the right I could easily have picked out the rocky outcropping where the anemone pool was. I even considered doing that very thing, and looking. A brief glance would do. The gulls screamed overhead.

I didn’t look. I stared fixedly out to sea as the waves churned, and I didn’t turn my head. If I had, I’d have seen a dog there – an Alsatian mix – and a boy, and a younger boy. The boys’ faces would have been dark with the easy tan of youth and unassailable health, and their cheeks would have been pink with the flush of adventure. They would have held nets.

I’d have been too far away to see if the elder boy’s brow was creased with a moment of confusion, as he shaded his eyes from sunlight I couldn’t see.

I truly believed I’d be nine forever, just as I believed I’d be eight forever the year before. I adjusted this belief on a yearly basis, and I’m still doing it today. It’s an eminently manageable process, as long as you don’t often cross paths with your own history. I know that. I think everyone does.

But I’m drawn to these places. I arrive back, I see that so little has changed, and something shifts beneath the ground. I topple, as boys easily can when startled, and then I regain my footing – but not on the level. In these places, where the memories are thick like cobwebs and where calendars seem untrustworthy, the ground is more like a rockface beaten by the surf. One foothold is stable, hooked against a spur, and I’m thirty-four and married, and it’s 2013.

But the other foot is on an angle, inches below, and slippery against seaweed and salt water. With the barest shift in balance, my perspective changes, and I’m nine. It’s a summer that’s too brightly-lit and perfect to ever be repeated, I have my brother and my dog beside me, and the future is anything but a single car parked in a silent place under a grey sky.

There are places where the veil of the past is thin, and they have an intoxicating power. We’re drawn to them, but we can only examine them superficially before we realise the truth: we can’t ever get back there, but nor can we ever be free of the yearning to. The places themselves have become traps, for unsuspecting creatures unable to avoid them.

We go back, in our minds and even physically, and just stand there (or sit, with the windows up if it’s cold outside), and figuratively press our faces against the glass. Lost in nostalgia and inevitable melancholy, for a past we can only partially remember. How stupid we’d seem, if other creatures watched us from a hundred feet above the white crests of the waves.

What limited animals, they’d perhaps think. How little they know of the sky, and of wings. They leap, but only fall. They swim, but only sink.

If I were such a creature, I’d quickly lose interest, and I’d probably turn and fly out to sea.

But I can only stand on the shore, held fast in the net I’ve made for myself, and look.