So you get up at 4.20am, although you’ve been awake since 3.30.
The sky is black. There’s a clammy closeness to the morning (even though it’s really night). The cockerels haven’t started up. There are stars out. The lights over the alley-like streets that connect the centre of the village continue to blaze.
You make tea. You listen to the various phone alarms going off around the house. A few bottles of Moretti into the cooler box and a couple more of prosecco and it’s out into the square, with hats and sun cream.
Ivo and Monica hove into view in the noisy Ford estate. Clare and Joss pile in. You follow in the second car, along with Alice, Lottie and Michael. The Ford is belching fumes. Turning into Via Meassa, a sinuous, green gloom of a country road that everyone uses as a commuter cut-through, it becomes evident Ivo is not happy. He stops, backs up, does a U-turn and heads back home, barking through his open window, “Non funziona”, instructing you to meet him at the far end of the road, when he has transferred all the gear from the Ford to his Citroen Berlingo. As he grinds away to change vehicles, a dirty candyfloss of diesel smoke hangs in the air.
You wait on the fast moving main road at the other end of Meassa. Michael stays awake and alert. Lottie and Alice sleep in the backseat. The Berlingo sweeps past and you set off in pursuit. It will be a journey down from the mountains of an hour-and-a-half. Your Volkswagen estate – the Beast of Wolfsburg – guns along in the dark, its UK oriented headlights sweeping across the oncoming traffic. You hope the approaching drivers are not being too blinded. You keep your distance from Ivo. He doesn’t bother with indication. Roundabouts become gambles at a roulette wheel as you lurch after him.
After the tunnels and galleries of the autostrada and the inky black blocks of high mountains above, you sweep down to the flat lands. The road curls around in a elegant loop through hectare after hectare of prosecco vineyards. You speed through ribbon villages and towns on the Conegliano road. Dawn licks the dark sky. Villas, apartment blocks and nameless industrial buildings jostle with each other for roadside space amongst vines and farmland. Avenues of pine trees stretch away into the lightening gloom. The magical soup of morning light is ladled fully across the horizon. You drive into the canal zone between Pordenone and Caorle, an in-between waterworld of reeds and canals, fruit farms and the abandoned dreams of families that cobweb ruined, lonely buildings.
You touch upon the outskirts of Caorle itself, a comfortable resort whose skirts dip into the northern Adriatic. You’ve been here a few times, to rent your umbrella and sunbeds for a day amongst hundreds of others. There parades a beguiling democracy: flab mixed with fit, tattoos flaunted alongside clear skins, lustrous hair tresses paired with bald, elderly heads. Eastern European tourists tuck in with dynasties of Northern Italians, the latter devouring their Corriere newspapers. Caorle is a place of late 20th Century Hotels – the Majestic, the Splendid, a hundred others – whose promising addresses, run with eccentric family pride, line streets that team with bicycles and beachwear shops. This is a resort that encourages all-comers to do their thing but fit in with everyone else while they’re doing it.
You dive off as you approach the back of the town’s outskirts and head west. A sharp turn leads to a shopping arcade that must have looked temporary thirty years ago. An air of abandoned theme park prevails. You stop and get out to join the others who have gathered, forgetting to put on the hand brake until called out by Michael, the dependable, your son’s most frequently visiting friend. With no harm done, you join the group with whom you will spend the day – there are twelve people in total – to gulp an espresso while Ivo speeds to a bakery for rolls and brioches.
Moments later, you follow Ivo once more, via a thinning road past bungalows that remind you of Shoreham or Bexhill, to a scrubland parking place and the dockside. It is not yet 7am. It is 24 degrees centigrade. There isn’t a cloud in the sky.
Your vessel is a rusting baked alaska of a boat, two crumbling levels squashed on top of each other. Your nostrils twitch to a faint but persistent reek, not unpleasant, the very essence of fermented sea life. Introduced to your 80 year-old captain, he eyes you with measured scrutiny. Bobbing a snow white head, he asks, “Are you Scottish?” of your wife, when she dishes out Ivo’s homemade salami into the bread rolls. “No. Why?” she replies. To which, he opens his roll to reveal just two meagre slices. Clare pops another couple in for him. He smiles and pads off back up to his wheelhouse.
As you set off, through millpond water in the canal mouth before the sea, there is a pause amongst the group and then preparation starts in earnest. Comparative, competitive fishing chat in dialect grows from a murmur among the Cirvoiese, as they unleash rods, lines, hooks and carry cases. You step around toolboxes, overflowing with weights, grotesque lures and nameless grommets. Bait is fetched from the forward deck, where polystyrene boxes of sardines and squid defrost into black soup. Tiny sardines have their tails tied in fishnet loops while squid are deftly cut into strips. The boat’s engines open up and your occasional glances over the creamed-surf sternwave are met with a diminishing view of Caorle. The army of umbrellas and sunbeds defend the empty beaches. Invasion will come later.
Ivo expends extraordinary, ever-giving energy as he lines and hooks rods for all six of your party. As the boat steams 12 nautical miles straight out to sea on the light swell, he places the rods on the rests around the deck with care and speed. With sixteen or eighteen rods pointing off the boat, your craft bristles like a gunship. You marvel at the staccato bursts of machine gun fire of Ivo’s speech patterns as he harangs you with indefatigable positivity. It is going to be, he convinces you, a good day.
At a nod from the captain to his single crew member, you lurch to a stop and hear the clank as the anchor chain plays out. There is a moment’s drift. The engine surges and goes silent. The rope attached to the chain checks you against the current. It is only forty feet to the bottom. In one direction, lost in the haze, is the shuffle and clamour of Venice. On the opposite horizon, a smudge indicates the mystery of Trieste.
You are gifted a spot amidships on the shady side of the boat and told to get on with it. Juggling your allotted rod and a beer thrust into your hand, you cast for a few minutes. A brief cry of triumph goes up. In the stern, Renato, a neatly moustached man in a multi-pocketed fishing waistcoat, hauls in a mackerel of perhaps a pound-and-a-half. He continues to do this about every five minutes for the rest of the day with metronomic regularity. He appears to have exchanged a fishing hook for a magnet.
Not much is happening around your line. The sardine tail in its coil stays intact and unvisited. Small shards of collapsing sardine from a string bag dangling off the bow swirl past in the current to entice passing shoals to join your party. After Renato’s first catch, the Cirvoiese start landing fish after fish as if in a fairground. The cooler boxes around your feet thud percussively with reverberating mackerel and pollock as the numbers pile up. Paolo, the geometra attending two rods between you and Renato, maintains the smug air of an Italian Alan Bennett as he spools his many successes onto the deck at your feet.
There is a sharp cough from behind. It is the octogenarian captain. Without asking, he takes your rod from you, reels in and looks at the bait with disgust. Throwing it contemptuously into the water, he threads a postage stamp of squid. Casting, he looks into the water for about 15 seconds then hands the rod back without ceremony. There is a fish on the line. With a mixture of shame and satisfaction, you hoik a decent sized mackerel out of the sea. By the time you turn to thank the man, he has already disappeared back into his wheelhouse. Conflicted, you feel infantilised and full of gratitude. But while he may have helped you catch the fish, you have caught the bug.
For about two hours, with the occasional break for a redistribution of beers, rolls or a chat, you fish. Your mind drifts to the glorious neutrality of the here and now. Although the current is evident, the sea calms to near glass. Two or three boats sneak up and anchor in your patch, feeding off both your captain’s instinctive knowledge of where to find fish and also the sack of fragmenting bait, spreading around you. A couple on a smart, white sports cruiser start fishing 100 yards away, both wearing the smallest triangles of cloth imaginable. She has three and he just one. A wavering breeze dispels the thickening heat but gives every indication of commitment issues.
Lunch is announced shortly before midday. The taciturn crew member dishes out penne putanesca in small plastic bowls. Tomato-rich, anchovy-seasoned and olive-festooned, there is a satisfying, salty ‘gnyaah’ to the food (as Fergus Henderson might say), helped with liberal gratings from the parmesan block. Tumblers of icy prosecco are thrown back. You fall on deep fried, crispy squid, prawns and fish as a follow-on, before Paolo hands you a slice of raspberry jam torte. It is the rewardingly dense handiwork of his wife (who has stayed at home). Concluding, the crew member encourages you to correct your espresso with viscous sambuca.
The girls in your party retire to the upper deck and sunbathe. The boys continue fishing beside the Italians. An encroaching stillness becalms your early afternoon. After your morning’s catch – a desultory three or four small prizes – activity in your patch of water ceases. The ground bait sack is empty. Renato continues, somehow, to pluck mackerel from the sea, but others’ luck dwindles. Once or twice, a flurry of interest is raised when small fry break the surface, scattered meteor showers of tiny fish escaping something bigger, but whatever is in pursuit gives your hook a wide berth.
Heavy with heat and lunch, torpor trips your concentration. You sit, your back to the engine housing, your legs outstretched on the wooden bench. Sleep is instant. You probably snore but then so does Joss beside you and your neighbours cradling their heads on their arms at the table. Unconscious for a few, stupefying minutes, you wake to a scene drained of colour. Stumbling on the metal ladder to the upper deck while your eyes adjust, you join Clare and Monica who are both sunning and chatting, keeping a benign watch over you all.
Returning to your post, you try a little casting, but your heart isn’t in it and neither, apparently, are the fishes’. Before long, the captain signals time to draw stumps and you steam away from your pitch, looking back at the little boats on its boundary, still fielding with hopes of a catch heading their way. The Cirvoiese begin the serious business of beheading, filleting, cleaning and (although not for the mackerel) scaling the fish. Ivo deals with over sixty, our combined haul, before throwing the bits off the stern. From nowhere, a shower of predatory, rasping gulls screech down to fight over every morsel. The beady-eyed winners take all, swooping away from their shrieking competitors.
In the last few minutes of your return to shore, a languid state of grace descends upon the dozen of you. You sit with the Italians in companionable silence, each staring at your own, particular horizon. The spell is broken as you tie up with a flurry of deck clearance and the carting of the gear to the cars. You are forced to step back from the ovens they have become as you open the doors. You say a sincere farewell to the captain and, with air conditioning up to the max, you follow the others to a bar in a town just off a roundabout, close to the motorway home. Goldfish bowls of iced beer are served to you all by a smiling Chinese bar owner. You fight to pay for the drinks but fail spectacularly, so slide in a second round, shortly after.
As you drive on home, every passenger sleeps. Tomorrow, you will cook the fish fillets over the barbecue in silver paper, with lemon, rosemary, white wine and garlic before driving back down to Venice airport with Michael and Lottie. If you allow it, the sense of an ending will flood in to the evening, with the prospect of the drive back to England a day or two away. You have been here a month. Beyond the Dolomites, the Val D’Aosta, the Mont Blanc tunnel and Dijon lie your new job, Alice’s new university place and the wettest October on record.
The party mood brushes those thoughts away, banishing them completely. Instead, you totter in to your little courtyard, your sunburned skin too tight for your face. Dusk is an hour or two ahead. At the table under the vine and the heavy black bunches of Clinton grapes, scented from the sun to an atmosphere of intoxifying strawberry bubblegum, you sit with a glass of prosecco that you bottled at Easter and contemplate the day you have had.
You’ve been fishing. You are home.