Almanac Short Fiction: Floundering

Night Fishing at Antibes (Peche de nuit a Antibes), by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, 1939. (Source: WikiArt.)



(to A. L.)


The car pulled off the road into the gravel parking area. It halted facing the bay, its headlights casting a smooth glow upon the shallow waters that rolled in and gently lapped the shore.


“Do you think we’ll get any, Dad?” asked the boy.


“We should. Some blokes from work come down here, and they seem to get a few,” the father answered, flicking off the headlights.


Momentarily, all was still in the cold darkness.


“Come on then,” he said to the two boys – his son, Rod, and Rod’s best friend, Mike.


Both boys were excited about going floundering, especially Rod, but, looking out the window at the blue-black waters of the bay and the vast star-pricked sky, he knew it was going to be freezing out there, compared to the warmth of the car. He was glad he was wearing his lumber jacket and that he’d just been bought a pair of gumboots. And he wondered if the long shiny nail he’d fixed with metres of string to the base of the broomstick would hold firm when he speared a flounder.


Rod’s father opened the boot of the car and passed the makeshift spears to the boys. Then he gave each a powerful torch, finally getting his own spear and torch out and shutting the boot.


He and the boys walked across the gritty moonlit sand. Rod watched the nail at the end of his spear move up and down and from side to side as he walked, and wondered what would happen, in what direction the nail would be pointing, if he stumbled and fell over.


They arrived at the water’s edge. A chill wind blew across the bay.


“Now you boys be careful with those spears, and don’t drop your torches in the water,” said Rod’s father.


Rod imagined how painful it would be to spear himself in the foot, but it was only a passing thought. It would be really good if I get a flounder, he thought to himself. He usually caught nothing. Mike generally caught something and Rod thought that if he did too he would prove himself further to his friend.


The three had waded out a little way, and stood a few metres apart in the shallows. Each was shining his torch into the water and could see the sandy bottom clearly, unless he shone it too close to his rubber boots, in which case he could see the sands his boots stirred up rising and then slowly returning to the bottom.


Time passed slowly for Rod. The wind continued to blow cold off the water. He gazed for a while at the lights of the city on the other side of the bay.


None of them had yet sighted anything resembling a fish.


They continued to explore the bottom with their torches. Suddenly, Mike drove his spear into the water. Rod and his father instantly stopped their own endeavours and looked across. Mike pulled his spear out, looking at Rod and his Dad ruefully.


“Did you see one?” Rod asked, thinking it was typical his mate would have a chance to spear one and he wouldn’t.


“Bad luck,” quipped Rod’s father with a chuckle. “Moved a bit quick for you, eh?”


“Yeah,” said Mike.


“Remember, you’ve got to aim slightly ahead of them, to allow for when they move,” said Rod. “They’re pretty quick.”


“Yeah,” said Mike, knowing that fact only too well.


The three continued searching in silence with their torches, the boys with spears more at the ready than before, encouraged by the sighting of the fish.


More time passed. Rod felt bored, and the cold was getting to him. It didn’t seem to be bothering the other two, so he didn’t make a fuss.


Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of his father driving his spear into the water.


Mike was looking too.


“Got ‘im,” said Rod’s father, raising his spear to reveal a smallish, slowly flapping flounder, neatly speared through the middle. He walked back up the beach, put the fish in a plastic bucket and resecured the nail to the broomstick.


Rod spotted a flounder with his torch. He saw its brownish form gliding along the bottom, now and then sending a small scuff of sand up through the water. It stopped suddenly, apparently mesmerised by the torchlight. Rod, startled, stabbed his spear stiffly at the immobile fish.


He jerked his spear out of the water, at the same time feeling the weight of a large flounder on the end of it. The fish was just hanging onto the nail and that was all. He didn’t know what to do, to stop it falling back in. He could see blood coming from a wound in the centre of its back and over the shiny nail on the end of his broomstick. Rattled, he allowed the spear to drop slightly. The wounded flounder splashed into the water.


Mike, who had moved further away to explore a new area, saw the fish hit the water and urged loudly, “See if you can still get him!”


“I am!” said Rod, shining his torch around in a flurry. But his search proved fruitless.


He thought about the flounder and felt unhappy. He didn’t actually have the fish, so he couldn’t take it home and show his mother or tell his friends at school. There seemed little chance of spearing another before the evening was out. Also, he didn’t like the idea of the dying, possibly dead, fish still somewhere in the water. And that it was him who had failed to finish the job.


“Come on in fellas!” Rod’s father yelled from the beach. He’d had enough. It was getting colder and later.


Rod and Mike waded in through the shallows and stood on the sand near Rod’s father. Rod looked into his father’s bucket at the dead flounder, which neatly fitted the bottom. It seemed to Rod to be a lot of time and effort for so little.


The three put their gear back in the boot and got into the car.


They drove, past the Point Henry aluminium refinery on their left, where Rod’s father worked, with its many bright lights glowing on shiny metal and into the darkness. Past the marshy land where the New Australians could be seen looking for snails on Sunday mornings, past the moonlit pans of the saltworks on their right, past the tin sheds of the frozen chicken company on their left. Then, after turning right at the traffic lights of the Point Henry turnoff, back along the road to the city.


As they drove through the city centre, Rod looked at the illuminated front windows of the shops and offices, feeling vaguely sad but at the same time entranced. The city at night always made him feel this way.


“Can we stop and get some fish and chips, Dad?” he suddenly asked, throwing a quick, support-seeking glance at his friend. Mike returned the glance with friendly sympathy, but the thought of fish and chips didn’t really do much for him.


Rod’s dad frowned when he heard his son’s question. Silence followed.


“Oh go on!” said Rod, with playful good humour in his voice, hoping it would sway his father.


“No. Not tonight. Too late, anyway,” said Rod’s father, annoyed. “We’ve had tea.”


“Please!” Rod pleaded. “Just some chips and potato cakes.”


“No!” said his father, more annoyed, closing the matter.


Rod sat back and sulked, thinking it wasn’t fair that he couldn’t have fish and chips. Then, as they were going over the one-lane bridge across the Barwon River, he remembered the patty cakes with the green icing his mother had made especially for him. He’d have a couple with a cup of tea when he got home. They were beautiful. Mike could have some too, but he was hoping Mike would prefer the pink or the white ones, so there would be more green ones left for his school lunch tomorrow.


The thought of the cakes with the green icing lifted Rod from his sulk. They arrived home a few minutes later, after passing the golf course and the gravel road that led down to Buckley’s Falls.


* * *


That night Rod slept fitfully. He had a dream about the flounder he had speared. Upon re-entering the water, the fish became animated again. It swam erratically, into deeper and deeper waters. Suddenly it died, and rose slowly from the bottom. A pair of black, pitiless eyes sped towards it through the ill-lit depths.


In a quick swallow it was all over. The flounder joined the bull’s skull complete with horns, the rusty tin cans, and the other refuse and half-digested fish in the animal’s stomach. The twelve-foot bronze whaler then glided onwards, constant in its search for prey, sensitive to all the tremors and reverberations, however minor, that disturbed the stillness in the deep waters of the dark night.




Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, has just been published (late 2020) by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Recent other writing includes screenplays for films with a tertiary education purpose.


  1. James Walton says

    Terrific story Kevin, full of that strange foreboding to the end……Pity about the fish and chips!

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks Jim. I don’t write many short stories, and it feels good when one sees the light of day occasionally!

    And yes, my father wasn’t generally swayed by a kid moaning in his ear.

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