from an imaginary Lucerne diary.
But on that warm Sunday morning, instead of playing in the street with the other children, I was with my grandfather at the lake, helping him to shove the boat off the cart and into the water. The rods, lines and plastic buckets to hold the fish were already in it. When we climbed in, we had to sit almost with our knees touching in order to fit into the narrow space. My grandfather grasped the oars with his thick calloused hands and slowly rowed us out into the middle of the lake.
“Don’t fidget,” he said to me. “You don’t want to tip us over.”
From the other side of the lake, we heard an outboard motor starting up. Other people liked boating here, too, and nearly all of them had boats which, though small, had been purchased with engine attached from a boat shop in town. My grandfather was the only member of the community who sailed out over the lake in his tiny hand-built, hand-powered dinghy. I realized when I was older that the other boat owners thought my grandfather was a comical figure, huddled in his boat with his cloth cap stuck to his head in all weather, staring at the water and trying to ignore the other boat owners while they puttered past him their hands on their tillers and a patronizing smile on their faces.
With every upstroke of the oars, my grandfather’s hands reached forward until they were a few inches from my chest. I had to resist the urge to back away each time. I tried instead to concentrate on the blade of the oar as it cleaved the water, dragged a seal-like wave up, and rose again in a rain of droplets. We were in the middle of the lake in a few minutes. I watched the columns of white smoke billowing from the tall chimneys of the power station while my grandfather got the rods ready. He put one in my hands and said: “Swing it back like a bat, then flick it so the line travels out. And don’t hit me with it.”
He demonstrated by going first. The line went out about twenty-five feet and the hook dropped into the water with a faint ‘plosh.’ It took me a few goes until I got it right. I got the hook away from the boat on the ppposite side from his line. And then the waiting began.
I don’t know how long it was before the first fish bit. It seemed like a long time to me, unused as I was to prolonged periods of enforced inactivity. A man on the shorelines had shouted to us. My grandfather recognized him, and they exchanged a few sentences full of coarse language and laughter before the man on the shore disappeared into the trees. I didn’t even notice the movement in my line until my grandfather shouted: “You’ve got one!”
I started, and let go of the rod. It slipped from my hands, and my grandfather caught it just before it fell overboard.
“Careful. Here. Reel it in.”
I took hold of the rod again, clumsily, and began turning the lever on the reel. I turned it the wrong way at first, which caused my grandfather to shout impatiently at me. Finally the line started to spool backwards. The hook jerked in and out of the water as it returned to the boat. I knew that there were only minnows in the lake, not any big fish, but my heart still pounded as if I expected to see a pike or a perch loom out of the waves.
I hauled the rod up, and there was a skinny black fish, wriggling in the air. I felt a white hot thrill in my entire body, and the strange sensation of wanting to cry at the same time.
“Bring it over here,” said my grandfather. He grabbed the line, deftly took the fish from the hook, and threw it into the bucket. I watched, slightly sickened, as it flapped feebly against the plastic walls.
“Aren’t you going to kill it?” I asked.
“It’ll die soon enough,” he said.
I grasped the edges of the boat with my bony little hands, and then I looked away.
Suddenly the water started moving below the boat, lifting us, gently at first, rocking us from side to side. The little motor boat was cruising past us, not close, but close enough to send waves a few inches high pulsing towards us. My grandfather grabbed the oars to prevent them slipping into the water. He looked towards the other boat with a dark look in his face. The man in the other boat, who was wearing a white captain’s cap with a gold anchor insignia, raised a hand and waved at us. He was already turning his boat away from us, so he didn’t see one of the waves splash over the edge of our boat and knock over the bucket with the fish in it. Swearing loudly, my grandfather grabbed the bucket and tried to catch the fish in the other hand, but it easily evaded him and was back in the water within seconds.
He rowed us back without saying a word. The water felt cold and oily around my feet, but it didn’t seem to bother him. Something else was on his mind. I kept expecting him to say something, about the other boat, about me, about the fish. But he wasn’t a great talker at the best of times, and he remained silent as we got to the shore, tipped the water out of the boat, and dragged the boat onto its travelling cart.
I never went fishing again, not with my grandfather nor anyone else. The fish I caught and lost that day was the first and last that I ever caught anything.
For some reason, this all came back to me today on the quayside at Lucerne.