Robert Morgan Skinner had never been keen on fishing. In his childhood his father had tried to instil into him his own love of the pastime, but his attempts, whether they were on the upper reaches of the River Clyde, or from a boat on their occasional family sorties to the Western Isles of Scotland, had all ended in failure.
The young Bob had been deterred by two things. Although he never said as much to his teacher, his instincts told him that ramming a hook into the mouth of any living creature and heaving it, struggling, from its natural environment might be morally questionable. More off-putting than that, though, he was bored stiff by the long periods of inactivity that angling asks of its devotees.
Eventually Bill Skinner had given the job up as hopeless and instead had concentrated on his son’s golf, with much more satisfactory results. A few lessons from the club professional had set the boy up with a smooth, rhythmic swing, and the hours that he was prepared to spend on the practice ground had instilled in him the patience that had been lacking on the riverbank. His handicap had moved into single figures by the age of fourteen and for the rest of his father’s life he had given him shots every time they played.
Bob smiled as he recalled their last round together: he had hit irons off every tee so that they could be close together all the way round, and so that the game would be as competitive as they both liked it. When he had been left with a four-foot putt for the match on the last green he had misread the line, and the ball had horseshoed out.
‘You missed that on purpose,’ Bill Skinner had said.
‘You’re bloody joking,’ he had replied. ‘There was a fiver on that putt; I need all the fivers I can get right now.’
So what, he wondered, would his dad have thought if he could have seen him sitting on the back of a cruiser in the Gulf of Mexico, strapped into a chair with a damn great marlin rod in his hand?
‘Concentrate!’ his wife urged him. For a second he thought that his father’s ghost had spoken.
The creature on the end of the line tugged hard, and he had to use all his strength to prevent the rod being ripped from his hands and its socket set firmly in the deck. ‘Let him run,’ said their guide. ‘This is a strong boy: there’s fight left in him yet. Give him some more line.’
Bob did as he said, until the skipper put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Okay, enough. He’s gone as far as we want. Start to put pressure on him now; start to reel him in.’
The struggle lasted for almost an hour, but gradually, Bob’s strength overcame that of the fish. Finally, as he drew it nearer the boat, it broke the surface in a great leap, trying to shake itself free of the line. It seemed to hang in the air for a second, a magnificent blue-white creature, its great dorsal fin and long sword in profile, and then dived back beneath the waves.
‘Let it go,’ said Skinner. ‘Cut the line.’
He glanced to his right, and saw the skipper’s grin, white teeth gleaming in his black face. ‘You sure?’ he drawled. ‘This is one big motherfu- fish that you got there.’
‘Yeah, and I can’t kill him. Cut the line.’
‘You’re in the chair.’ The man produced an enormous clasp knife from his pocket, opened it, reached out to take hold of the bow-taut line, and sliced through it. There was an audible ‘twang’ as the pressure was released from the rod; Bob felt it quiver in his hands.
‘You’re a good guy, boss,’ said the captain. ‘I wish more of my clients would do that, but all most of them want is their picture taken with a monster of the deep so they can boast to their beer buddies back in Boise, Idaho, or Middletown, Wherever.’
Sarah Grace Skinner shook her head. ‘I don’t get it. What’s the point of all this? What’s the point of fishing if it isn’t to catch fish?’
Her husband pointed out across the waves. ‘I caught him, didn’t I? I just chose not to kill him, that’s all.’
‘That makes you feel better, does it?’
‘As a matter of fact it does.’
She looked at him wryly, as the skipper took the rod and went to store it with the others. ‘When did you become so sensitive?’
‘When I was about fifteen, and I gave up boxing.’
Her expression changed to one of pure surprise. ‘You never told me you boxed.’
‘You never asked. And you hate boxing, so why should I bring it up?’
‘What made you quit? Afraid of having your good looks spoiled?’
‘There was nobody around who could do that,’ he shot back. ‘No, it was more the other way round. Junior boxers aren’t supposed to be able to do much damage. I could. Most of my fights ended early: the referees were good, and got in quick. So they moved me up a grade, let me fight older kids. In three fights I broke two ribs and a nose… all other people’s. Finally the guy who ran the club put me in with a senior; I think he meant it to teach me a lesson.’
‘And did it?’
‘It sure did. The guy caught me a good one in the first round, but not good enough. The red mist came down and I ripped back at him, just one punch: knocked him unconscious. It took them five minutes to bring him round and it was another ten before he could stand up. They kept him in Law Hospital overnight as a precaution. I tell you, Sarah, I’ve never been as scared in my life, before or since. I knew the lad I hurt: he was a decent bloke, with a nice girlfriend and a good job. He hadn’t meant me any harm, yet I could have killed him.’
He glanced down at his hands: they were bunched into fists, still clutching the marlin rod. ‘So I took my gloves off,’ he said, ‘and I never put them back on again to hit another man. I joined a martial-arts club instead.’
‘What’s the difference?’ Sarah challenged. ‘That’s even deadlier.’
‘In theory it might be, but in practice it’s not. What I did was largely non-contact, but more than that, it taught me mental discipline and self-control, how to sublimate my aggression. I admit that I don’t always manage to do that, but over the piece it’s served me well. Our kids will all study judo and karate, if I’ve any say in it, just as my Alexis did.’
‘Wait a minute,’ she protested. ‘It may do our younger son some good, but Seonaid’s only two! And as for Mark, he’s a thinker, not a fighter.’
‘Thinking is a big part of what it’s about. Plus, he’s the sort of quiet kid who can get picked on… and our daughter won’t always be two.’
‘I see,’ Sarah mused, ‘so it was mental discipline that allowed you to let that fish go, was it?’
He grinned. ‘No. I just couldn’t see us eating him on our own.’
She laughed in spite of herself. ‘What about the hook?’ she asked. ‘It was hardly humane to leave that in his mouth, was it?’
‘He’ll get rid of it now the tension’s off,’ said the skipper, as he returned, with everything tidied away. He looked at her. ‘What say, lady? You wanna try the chair?’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. I’m tired out just watching that. Take us back to Key West, please. The sun’s on the way down, and I’d like to get there before dark.’
The captain nodded, and climbed up to the high cockpit. A few seconds later the cruiser’s big twin engines roared into life.
The journey back to the dock took almost an hour; they let it pass without conversation, content to watch the ocean, and then, as it came into view, the island chain that formed the southernmost tip of the state of Florida.
On the quayside, as Bob gave the skipper a fifty-dollar tip, Sarah headed for their rental car. She was behind the wheel when he joined her, and the convertible’s roof was packed away. ‘Straight back to the hotel?’ she asked.
‘Might as well. We’ve done the Dry Tortugas National Park, we’ve taken the Sunset Cruise, we’ve swum with dolphins, and we’ve ridden the Old Town Trolley. I reckon we’ve seen all the sights.’
‘There’s one more I’d like to see,’ said Sarah, casually.
‘I’d like to see you smile as if you meant it. I’d like you to look happy that you came out here to join me.’
‘Didn’t I look happy last night?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘I couldn’t tell in the dark. But I doubt if you looked ecstatic’
‘You seemed pleased with yourself.’
‘I like fucking,’ she retorted. ‘But that’s all it was, and you know it. I enjoy making love a lot more, and you haven’t made love to me in a while.’
He shot her a sudden piercing glance. ‘Not like he did, you mean?’
Sarah started the Sebring convertible, slammed the lever into drive and roared out of the car park.
‘Sorry!’ Bob exclaimed, his voice raised over the engine.
‘If I believed you really were…’ she broke off, easing down her speed ‘… I’d ignore your question. But I don’t, so I’ll answer it. You’re right: not like Ron did. There’s been no real tenderness between us for longer than I can remember and, Bob, that’s something I need. I have to feel that you care for me when we’re vertical as well as horizontal, and I haven’t, not for a while.’
‘So you went looking for that tenderness somewhere else.’
‘No!’ she protested. ‘It found me.’
‘And if I really believed that…’