Stephen Coyle

The Salmon

The cold rain pelted my back as I trudged my way home from the river. The sky was split in two. To the east, where the rain was coming from, it was dark and gloomy. Ahead of me, the road glistened as the low winter sun peeked through the clouds. I squinted a little as the odd puddle cast its light straight into my eyes. But I was in a good mood. My left arm was weighed down by my tackle box, and my right by a hefty salmon.

The sound of my footsteps ebbed away as my mind wandered to my dinner. A pot of spuds, with butter and garlic, and the fish I’d spent the better part of the day waiting for. The odd humdrum thought would pull me back to reality: the hope that the fire I’d lit before leaving hadn’t died out; wondering if I had enough butter left; how much I was craving a cup of tea.

When I got within sight of the house, I picked up my pace a bit, wanting to get in out of the cold as quickly as I could. As I drew within about a hundred yards of the driveway, I noticed a young man standing near the door, holding a bag.

“Well, how’re you doing?” I asked as I got near.

“I’m alright thanks. I was wondering if you had a room I could stay in?” came his reply.

I must have given him a strange look, because he started into a stammered apology before I’d even had a chance to reply. He said something about getting me mixed up with someone else. I’d never been in the business of letting out rooms, so I suppose I probably did give him a strange look. But the funny thing was, I had recently been thinking about doing just that. It was just me and the cat in the house. There was plenty of extra space, and a bit of extra money certainly wouldn’t go amiss, these days. I decided it must be a sign.

“No no, it’s alright.” Thinking on the hoof, I continued, “I have a room for rent, yes. Sure let’s get in out of the rain before we chat any more.”

“Great, thank you,” he said, sounding relieved.

The door of my house is a big, heavy thing. I fumbled with the handle with my full hands, pushed it open with my shoulder, and made my way into the hall. It wasn’t a lot warmer than outside. I beckoned in the visitor, and he followed appreciatively.

He was about my height, average I’d call it, with dark hair and brown eyes. Probably in his mid twenties, but to be honest everyone below forty looks like a youngster to me now. His skin was a bit pale, but not unhealthily so, and his soaking wet clothes made it easy to see there wasn’t much to him. But, on the whole, I’d say he seemed fairly well looked after.

“Hang on there now a minute,” I said as I headed into the kitchen to set down my accoutrements and gather my thoughts. Feeling the fire’s warmth on my face as I went in, I thought I better not leave the lad standing in the hall much longer.

“I’m Francis,” I shouted to him, “come on into the kitchen and warm yourself up. Have you dry clothes with you?”

“I’ve plenty yeah, thanks,” said the visitor.

He came into the kitchen, but looked a bit sheepish when faced with the prospect of changing into something dry, or even taking off his coat. I wondered if he was just embarrassed at the sight of me pulling off my soaked jumper and reaching for a dry one hanging near the range.

“Don’t be worrying, I’m foundered after spending half the day in that rain and can’t get the dry clothes on quick enough,” I said, trying to lighten the mood a bit. “I can show you your room if you’d rather get changed there.”

“That would be great, thank you,” he said.

My house isn’t that big, but I’ve space for a guest or two. Downstairs, there’s a big room that I use as a kitchen and living room, and my bedroom is across the hall from it. Upstairs there are two smaller rooms, one with a spare bed, and another full of whatever doesn’t fit in the rest of the house.

“No bother.” I beckoned him to follow me as I hiked up my dry pair of trousers, and walked into the hall.

The slaps of my feet against the cold, wet hall tiles were soon replaced by the loud creaking staircase, not used to the double load, which in turn gave way to the steady drip of water from his coat onto the carpet once we’d reached the landing.

“I never asked your name?”

“Oh, of course, I’m Thomas. Tom,” the visitor replied, and stuck out his hand for me to shake.

“Nice to meet you, Tom,” I said as I took his hand. “I’m making salmon and potatoes for dinner, if you’d like some.”

“That would be much appreciated, thank you,” he said.

“Lovely. Well listen, get yourself changed, and then come down and warm up by the fire whenever you want.”

Tom shot me a warm smile, nodded, and went into his room. I went down and started peeling potatoes and preparing the salmon.

It had been about an hour and a half since we’d parted ways. I was in the kitchen making my long-awaited dinner. The cat, who’d since come back from her daily hunt, was curled up by the fire. I had the radio on low. Tom came in, and sat down at the table.

“Well Tom, you’re looking a bit warmer now anyway,” I said.

“It’s definitely nice to be inside, in the heat,” he replied.

The cat pricked up her ears at the sound of his voice. She hurried over to him, and got what looked, for all the world, like exactly the scratches she was expecting.

“That’s Dorothy,” I said. I felt like adding that she’s not usually so keen on strangers, but in all honesty there haven’t been enough strangers in the house to know that.

“Hello, Dorothy,” Tom said, as she pressed her head into his hand for more pets.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”

“It smells great!” said Tom.

Tom seemed to be feeling at home remarkably quickly, for someone who was tripping over his words trying to speak to me an hour or two ago.

“Well Tom, what brings you here?” I asked, while I served our dinner.

“It’s a bit of a long story, I suppose. But I’m on a journey, looking for someone.”

“Who are you looking for?” I asked, curious.

“I can’t really say,” he replied, and looked down at his food.

I was a bit confused by this answer. “Why can’t you say?”

“Em, it’s because I don’t really know who I’m looking for. Just that I’m looking for them.”

This reply didn’t clarify much for me, but the lad was clearly uncomfortable with that line of questioning. So I decided not to pry any further for the time being. We spent dinner having an enjoyable discussion about this and that, he seemed like a kind-hearted fella. Before long we were loosened up and having a good laugh together.

“How about a hot whiskey now before bed?” I suggested.

“Sure let me make it,” Tom suggested. “You made dinner, it’s only fair.”

“Aye, but you’re paying me for dinner, remember,” I smirked at him.

He got up, went to the cupboard and got the whiskey, the cloves, a lemon and my wee tin of cinnamon. He heated up some water by the fire, got out a couple of glasses, sliced the lemons and made us our hot whiskeys. I watched intently as he did it. He knew where everything was, and made it just the way my own mother showed me how to, years ago.

“I’ll tell you, you’re the only person I’ve met that wasn’t related to me, who puts cinnamon in a hot whiskey,” I said.

Tom seemed a bit flustered at this. “Em, well, that’s just how I was shown how to make them.”

“Who showed you how to make them?” I asked, with genuine curiosity.

“It was an old friend of mine.”

“And did your old friend live in this house?” I asked, with a wry look on my face.

Tom’s face drained of its colour when I said this. Worried my teasing was being taken the wrong way, I continued hastily.

“Because you fairly knew your way around my kitchen! But I suppose there aren’t too many cupboards here, it wouldn’t take a lot of searching to find everything.”

Tom eased up at this. We drank and chatted until bedtime.

“How long will I have the pleasure of your company then, Tom?” I asked.

“Six weeks I think, maybe six-and-a-half. If that’s alright.”

It was a fair bit longer than I’d been expecting, in truth. Whatever little thought I’d given the idea, I’d had in mind that folks would stay a night here or a night there. This was more like having a lodger. But it was proving nice to have the company.

“I don’t have a lot of money, but I do have some,” Tom added.

“Ah listen, we’ll sort that out, don’t worry.”

We finished our last drinks and headed off to bed.

Tom was an easy guest; he kept himself to himself. We had meals together and enjoyed each other’s company. He’d go out some days, and any time I asked how he got on, he gave fairly vague answers. I didn’t pass too much remark at first. But it felt as though he got a little less at ease with each passing day. About ten days after he arrived, I noticed he’d begun to look tired, with shadows under his eyes.

“Tom, are you feeling alright?” I asked one morning.

“Yes, fine. I didn’t sleep too well.”

“When I can’t sleep, there’s usually some kind of a reason,” I said.

“I’m a bit tense. I can’t really say why,” Tom said plaintively.

I can’t say was a favourite expression of Tom’s. I usually expect a dunno or some such from someone when they hear a question they don’t want to answer, but with him it was always like he wanted to say more, but felt he couldn’t.

Another ten days or so passed, and Tom’s condition worsened. He became more distant, even forgetful. When I referred to things we’d spoken about in the days before, he’d often forgotten them. Even the times he remembered, his acknowledgements had a distant air, seeming almost feigned. The shadows under his eyes had intensified, they developed a greenish tint, almost like bruises. His complexion had grown slightly mottled, with reddish marks at a few spots on his nose and temples.

“Tom, you must be sleeping very badly to be looking like that. What’s going on with you?” I asked.

“It’s hard to explain, but I’m not sick. I know that much. So don’t worry about catching something.”

He seemed almost embarrassed, I could tell that he didn’t want me to ask any more. He had been going out less and less as the days wore on, and spending more time in his room. He was like a shadow of the man who was here those first few days. Had it not been for his being at home all the time, I would have worried he was getting mixed up in something dangerous.

“Why don’t you come fishing with me in a few days? It’ll do you good to get out of the house a bit, you’ve been very cooped up.”

“That would be nice,” he responded, smiling weakly at me.

“Time to go to the river!” I shouted in to Tom that Sunday morning.

No reply.

“Tom?” I said outside his bedroom door.

“...yeah?” came a faint reply.

“Are you still wanting to come fishing with me? We spoke about it a few days ago?”

The door opened after a moment, and Tom opened it looking just awful. The shadows under his eyes had developed into full-blown bruises and the red marks on his face had developed scabs.

“Jesus Christ Tom, we need to get you to the doctor if this doesn’t improve.”

“I’ll be ok, I know it,” Tom said, sounding every bit as bad as he looked.

We walked down the road together. The air was cold and the sun shone strongly through the gaps in the rain. A day not unlike the one on which we met, though with a bit less rain. For much of the the walk, there was no sound but our boots on the gravel.

“Have you ever been fishing before?” I asked.

“No, em, never,” Tom replied. “I don’t know much about it.”

“Don’t you worry, it’s easy to learn. People have been doing it for a long, long time.”

Tom listened intently as I told him stories of how I learned to fish. How my father taught me, and was always a better fisherman than me. How his father was always a better fisherman than him. When we arrived at the river, he watched and took in everything I showed him.

“We’re going to try and catch a salmon, the same fish I cooked for us the night you arrived with me,” I said.

“Oh, yes, that sounds nice,” Tom said with a slightly confused tone.

“The thing with salmon is that they’re born in rivers, then spend their lives in the ocean, but they come back to the rivers to spawn. To lay their eggs,” I told Tom.

“They have to swim upstream, in the opposite direction to everything else, to do it. They’re a remarkable fish,” I continued.

Tom listened, seeming interested, but lost in thought.

We fished for a few hours, chatting a little here and there. Eventually Tom felt a tug on his rod, and I saw a spark of excitement in him for what would be the last time. We smiled and laughed as he attempted to reel in the fish, and our faces lit up when we saw it was a big one.

We brought it home, and I made the same meal we had on our first night. He seemed to remember nothing about that night, though; I even had to show him every step of how to make a hot whiskey. It was beyond obvious that something was really wrong with Tom.

The following morning, Tom never came downstairs. I went up and knocked on the door to no reply. I opened it, and went into the room for the first time in the month since he’d arrived. He was laying on the bed, very drowsy but conscious, at least I could tell that much. The scabs on his face had given way to open wounds, and I lifted up his shirt to see more bruising on his stomach.

Any questions I asked were met with tired groans and vague answers. Not knowing what else to do, I rang Doctor Hegarty. He came out and examined Tom.

“Has he been in an accident?” the doctor asked, stepping onto the landing to talk to me.

“Not that I know of, anyway. He’s been getting sicker over the last couple of weeks. Getting forgetful, developing bruises, that sort of thing.”

The doctor seemed confused. “Francis, he’s been beaten up. Is he involved in any shady business?”

“Jesus, not that I know of. He’s hardly left the house lately, and the stairs make plenty of racket so I’d have noticed if he was heading out at night.”

“Well, keep a close eye on him, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of head injury beyond a few punches in the face. He’ll get better, he just needs to stay out of trouble for a few weeks,” the doctor scolded. “Francis, be careful with these lodgers, he’s not worth the trouble.”

I bristled at the doctor’s presumptions about Tom. “Listen Doctor Hegarty, as long as he’s going to be ok then that’s all the advice I need from you.”

“Alright then, Francis, give me a call if he takes a major turn for the worse.”

As the days passed, Tom’s condition continued to develop in the wrong direction. His bruises intensified, his facial wounds opened even more, and he became agitated when I tried to help him. But in spite of this, I fed him, and looked after his wounds as best I could.

One morning, about six weeks after he arrived, I woke up to find Tom gone. I looked everywhere around the house, and the garden, but there was no sign of him. In a panic, I headed down the road towards town, hoping to find him. I asked everyone I met along the way if they’d seen him, thinking he’d be hard to miss in his current state. Eventually I got to the town, and began asking in pubs and shops if anyone had seen the injured Tom. To no avail. One pub landlord did mention that a young man named Tom had been in the night before, having a very intense discussion with a group of other men. He matched the description of my Tom, but he said he was in perfect health, not a blemish on him. So I continued searching.

By nightfall I’d had no further luck. Feeling hopeless, I went back home. I checked Tom’s room in the hope that he might have appeared back. Still no sign of him. As I began tidying up the room, I noticed a purse on the nightstand, and an envelope beside it with my name on it. I opened it, and it contained a letter, dated the day Tom arrived.


Thank you for your hospitality these past weeks, it’s meant the world to me.

I can’t tell you what happened to me, but you’ve given me a good way to describe it.

Time is a river, and I am a salmon.


Published 17 December, 2023