The Metaphysical Diorama of a Fisherman

“The crabs cut ‘em … or plastic!” I nod understandingly. “Everything that comes to net ‘s not all fish!” he adds—delivering at first hand how inadequate waste management and irresponsible packaging impacts fishing. I sense it’s a counterargument to the accusation the industry itself is the main culprit in polluting the oceans.

Giant luths that flounder onto the beach to lay their clutch; boobies, gannets, and gulls with the garfish, mackerel and sardines they dive for, are tangled together in ownerless gill nets. Unemptied. They float like a sub-aqua Reaper off the Algarve’s beaches—ruthlessly effective for decades. They’re miserable foci of misadventure drifting the oceans with a community of unfortunates, waiting for their macabre destiny.

No that’s too quick, I can’t follow you!

For the moment, whoever is to blame for these calamities isn’t important. José sits on the Praia de Monte Gordo threading a needle through broken nets. His net management ensures they’re less likely to be problematic in the future.

With a short sharp knife, he removes loose ends from around the hole cutting the monofilament against his horny thumb then folding the fisherman’s knife into his calloused, leathery palm. He quickly makes a right-hand side knot tying the nylon twine from his needle (like the bobbin of a loom) to the filament around the hole. Tracing a path around it, he creates new knots and loops—those at the bottom of the hole interlaced with new ones at the top. The transparency of the nylon, complexity of the knots and intricacy of intertwining make it difficult to follow, especially as he skilfully moves the needle in and out, in and out, in and out at speed, pausing only

unexpected moments …

to swiftly tie a knot. I soon lose the path the twine’s taken.

“No that’s too quick, I can’t follow you!” I object.

“Once ‘gain,” he says readying another hole, and I prepare myself to follow the twine’s path.

His hands move slower, but it’s still difficult to follow the complex path of the needle. In seconds another hole closes.

“That’s quick!” I’m impressed by his dexterity.

He averts praise by nodding his head sharply sideways, believing his work is unexceptional. But it’s clear the fisherman repairs his nets with the eloquence of one who speaks sign language, and like a signer—apart from his hands—he’s quite still. His eyes follow neither the net that he occasionally spreads, nor the needle that he threads within it.

… the screech and squawks of gulls break the quiet

He pulls the next hole towards him, sensing where it might be by how the net drapes over his hands or runs through them. Occasionally it snags a callous or broken nail and he quickly shakes it free. He methodically works threading and tying the twine with a series of routine manoeuvres. I believe he could effortlessly close a hole blind.

“Pack my nets away ‘fore I have to do ‘em blind,” he quips.

“Your boy won’t follow you?” but I know the answer before I’ve asked.

“Hard work it is. He’s a builder. Easy money. Come out wi’ me for a season an ’ad enough… que foda!” and adds “Wa’er that’s pass the mill won’t make it work again.”

“Well … yes.” I understand.

José sits alone on a white plastic chair, its legs sinking a little into the sand. Till now his name has been the only contribution José’s son, Jnr, has made towards his father’s enterprise—painted port, starboard, and the stern of his father’s dory. When José’s final net is cast a spare dory will be left on the beach with no one to take it out. The family business lost. I feel sadness poignantly hanging in the calm of early morning. Only the screeching gulls break the quiet; goading the fishermen with plaintive squawks; taking pleasure in human misfortune. 

Occasionally José takes his attention away from the repairs, puts his elbows on his knees and lifts his head. His eyes brighten, “Six kilome’er!” he contests, pushing the net towards me.

“Six kilometres?” I question, not believing a net could be that long. Put together from a handful of nets, a tier would be no more than six hundred meters long. It would stretch from Monte Gordo to the next beach Praia de Santo António; Spain coincidentally nearly six kilometres farther eastward.

… the nets hang palinoptically in a dark void

For the purpose of measurement, I imagine the nets striding out of town parallel to the multi-storied hotels and residential complexes: the complexes all simple geometry, bands of concrete balconies, and glass. Up and down along the boardwalk they rise and fall like an erratic bar chart of occupancy or rental value. They bookend a few remaining villas—fin de siècle idylls with pretty column-ed verandahs and bougainvillea-ed front gardens—over which they cast their long shadows. Then past Monte Gordo’s esplanade of concrete the nets would run alongside untouched beaches of dunes and grasses until reaching Praia de Santo António, a few hundred fathoms from the Spanish border. This time without lifting his head a lopsided grin breaks across José’s face and to qualify his math he wryly adds, “Over ’ere.” He throws a hand towards what I suppose are piles of nets; they’re covered by plastic tarpaulins and placed in tidy lines between the dories. 

Whether collectively his nets might reach the border with Spain is hypothetical: José’s tiers are farther out and stretched square to the praia taking advantage of offshore currents. Placed end-to-end, they would—if not reach the coast of Morocco—make significant inroads towards Africa. Yet if the fishermen along the beach formed an amicable cooperative—and with the expectation that like José each one had ten tiers—placed end-to-end they would effortlessly cross the Straits of Gibraltar and arrive in the Moroccan port of Tangier. I’m disinclined to make this observation; even if this was practical or permissible, I suspect such a disparate union might break before the nets.

With such a combined length the task of repairing the nets is endless. There’s no beginning … no end. As one hole closes another opens. But knowing every hole loses fish, and therefore escudos, drives the work forward with an unexpected alacrity. After many hours ensuring their catch won’t elude them, when they close their eyes, the nets hang palinoptically in a dark void ahead of them. A needle moves monotonously in and out, in and out, in and out, with monofilament snaking behind it securing holes that continually open within the obscurity of their vision. 

Their nets might occasionally appear with their eyes open. Life passing behind an illusionary grid—an afterimage indelibly seared within their unconscious. A  strange mixture of reality and unreality. A problem would become a hole rather than a hole a problem. As instinct dictates, both real and imaginary holes are closed, so the fisherman’s instinct is to grab his needle. But monofilament, especially the illusionary sort, rarely resolves problems away from the beach.

And if the fishermen overlaid a metaphysical diorama onto the reality of their existence, it would  be a net—a chart to navigate life as far as they’d spread it. Their uncomplicated manner would follow the prescribed, familiar lines of the mesh, charming us with its straightforward simplicity. To the contrary, in rudderless times, their nets would be thrown in a chaotic heap half buried in the sands with no distinguishable form. The chart with which they navigate, lost.

For the most part they’re a model of introspection and independence

In the water, the nets hang from polystyrene floats and are weighted with concrete blocks on lead-lines. Submerged. Waiting. They stand upright like the volleyball nets on the beach; secured at either end by buoys, anchors, and iron bars that hoist colourful pennants. Bobbing conspicuously over the water like the inverted legs of synchronised swimmers, they pertly break the surface with the suggestion of seductive riches below. Above the water each fisherman owns a colour or two, the nets beneath the pennants and the fish they catch.

On the sands, the colourful chaos of plastic crates, buoys, fishing tackle, tools, nets, and pennants flying high above the gunnels of the boats, have an irresistible charm for holiday makers. Strolling along the timber boardwalk, suspended high above the beach, they overlook the diffident fishermen like spectators at a surf fishing tournament. It’s a break from sunbathing on loungers, sheltering in the shade of straw parasols, or overindulging on pastéis de Belém and Sagres in the boardwalk’s restaurants. 

Outgoingness may not be a prominent part of the fisherman’s character. For the most part they’re a model of introspection and independence. Masters of crewless dories. Free spirits. Like the fish that slip the nets, they’re buoyed by ocean swells and succoured by the providence of its fathomless depths. But avoiding aloofness, and with a little charm and patience, there are opportunities to sell directly to the public.

“How many you caught?” a young boy challenges José, shivering uncontrollably from an early morning bathe in an icy ocean.

He simply replies with discretion,  “Muitos.” which the boy seems happy with; though clearly, the fisherman hasn’t gathered his nets that were placed in the sea yesterday. They’re still soaking, with a catch he trusts is increasing moment by moment.

Concha! Concha! Concha!

José, in thermals, fleece, bib-and-braces and boots, with a coarsely stubbled chin, deeply furrowed brow and thin white mane—that flies in the wind—digs inside the pocket of his fleece and takes out an unusually large cockle shell. It’s almost the size of a scallop. They stand together; the fisherman, a large man, clothed to withstand the forces of nature and the naked youngster with his smooth tight olive skin beaded with salt water. His black hair—shiny from the surf—stands-off his scalp like the wires of a hairbrush. The boy hangs onto his scrawny chest with his slender arms, clutching his sandy sweatshirt, shorts and sandals. He tries keeping the remaining warmth inside himself. José holds out the pristine shell in his cracked hands. It’s perfectly white. Chalky outside but polished inside. It’s rare to find one so big. The child stares intently into the shallowness of the giant cockle shell rubbing his index finger over the inside surface; he’s fascinated by its pearliness and glassy smoothness.

A few of the boy’s fellow bathers call him from the boardwalk, eager to warm themselves off the beach. He returns shouting excitedly, “Concha! Concha! Concha!“, not able to lift his eyes from the shell.

José is a cockle shell.

A bit dry and rough outside but polished inside.  

Apart from the boys there are few other tourists to charm along the boardwalk this early spring morning. A few amble sheepishly with their dogs, who mark one territory after another. They’re occasionally passed by fluorescent clothed joggers who take delight in their own vigour—pedometers strapped to their arms, biometric watches around their wrists, and earbuds connected to smartphones clipped to their waists—whilst others with long hiking sticks stride out towards Vila Real de Santo António as though walking-out across the Arctic tundra with a sledge and huskies.

Looking towards Santo António a sea fret rolls towards us. It soon swallows the fishermen. In their uniform of navy blue and white checked polar fleeces they appear and disappear, floating like apparitions between ghost ships run aground. They continue to search for holes. Their demeanour doesn’t change. They appear more spectral, though unaffected by the weather closing in around them. Neither are they bothered by screeching seagulls and skuas that arrive with the fret. They swoop, dive and flutter above the sand, antagonistically flapping over the heads of fishermen in displays of ill-tempered belligerence. Fighting over scraps, they fly at each other tearing mouthfuls of fish gut from another’s beak. They’re disillusioned savage pterodactyls malcontentedly scavenging the beach. They’d readied their bills to empty the oceans but content themselves with scraps.

… a fish out of water

“Seagulls on land, storm in sea.” José says: the pterodactyls know where to take shelter. For now they’re also safe from the Grim Reaper. “We wait,” he says.

“The boats can’t go out?” I ask ingenuously.     

“Go out, they’ll run o’er the nets!” mutters José as he readies his dory, surprised anyone might think a fisherman could clear their tiers in a fog bank.

“Then they’ll says we litter our nets in the wa’er,” he adds defensively. I hear quiet whispers of agreement through the fog.

Raising my collar against the chill and chides of the fisherman I kick sand from my boots against the boardwalk’s timbers and order coffee from a beach café … the morning passes. Eventually, lifting my head from the newspaper I see through the remains of the fog a pair of headlights, sidelights and boat emerging over the high water line. The JCB has a cabin, rusty wheels as large as the paddles of a Mississippi steamer, and tugs José’s dory from the water to its sandy berth. It’s been a good day. He’s already pulled and cleared his nets. The plastic crates are overfilled with gilt-head bream, mackerel and sardines; they occasionally jump into life, flipping and flapping onto the flat bottom of the boat.

Dragged along the sand his dory ploughs deep furrows. It rocks from side to side, teetering on the keel it leans on one chine and then the other. It’s like a fish out of water. No longer the master of its own navigation, it’s like an undecorated carnival float; a modest one at the tail end of a parochial Algarvian carnival. 

Conspicuously, but without flamboyance, José and his dory inadvertently act their part for the boardwalk’s spectators. The dory his chariot, he stands heroically boathook in-hand, held as plumb as King Neptune’s trident. As the procession passes, he pushes out his chest and stares proudly ahead, lacking only Neptune’s coronet that would—at least for today—crown him King of the Sea.

Second edition. The first edition of this article was first published by Sad Girls Club on the 10th of September 2020.

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