The joke was 20 years old and weak enough, even when it was first hatched aboard Brennan's old Hillman wagon as we trundled south through Ireland, along County Wexford hedges creamy with meadowsweet and richly entangled with July honeysuckle. For a while he had been silent, polishing the words, no doubt. Then he came out with it. "Nemesis approaches at 40 miles per hour," he announced. Half a mile back we had nearly hit a nun who was dreamily cycling along on the wrong side of the road, missing her by a rosary width. I naturally thought Brennan had this in mind. I should have known better. What Brennan had in mind was fish. Unknown to the schools of bass hanging in the slack water, waiting to feed over Splaugh Reef when the tide started to run, Nemesis Brennan was sneaking up on them.
Twenty years later here I was, ready and waiting to bang the ball back at him, outside U.S. Customs at JFK. "Nemesis approaches, hey?" I said to the disheveled figure with the rod tubes. "By way of Dublin, Shannon and New York. At 500 miles per hour and 33,000 feet...." If I hadn't said it first, Brennan would have; no score had been kept, but one of us had come out with some sort of variation on the greeting since that first trip in 1958. Each year since then we had met to go bass fishing. Not a single year had we missed. In the early days, Nemesis traveled slowly enough, at around 20 knots aboard the old St. David, the ferryboat that plied between Wales and Ireland. The trips to our home-and-home meetings on the surf beaches of the two countries had speeded up when a regular air service started and really began to move when the first short-haul jets came in. But this was the first time that Nemesis had crossed the Atlantic.
By necessity. You do not toss away a 20-year-old fishing partnership just because one of its members has migrated 3,000 miles west. The 1977 Annual Outing would not be held in County Wexford or County Kerry or on the coast of west Wales. Instead, it was going to be in Massachusetts, terra incognita for both of us, like a country on one of those old maps inscribed "Here be dragons" when the cartographer could think of nothing better.
Well, perhaps that was a slight exaggeration. For a very long time, out there on the Celtic fringe, Brennan and I had thought longingly of going after striped bass, those fish that looked so similar to our own sea bass except in two particulars. Ours were pure silver, with no lateral stripes. And they were very much smaller than stripers. In Kerry, a seven-pound bass was more than acceptable, a 10-pounder a more-than-viable reason for a late night at Tom Fitzgerald's bar. It was hard to believe in 40-and 50-pounders. The fever to catch one had grown strong enough to turn both of us into propagandists, trying to persuade our respective Ministries of Fisheries that striped bass should be introduced to the eastern side of the Atlantic. No chance. Who could tell the effect stripers would have on our native Atlantic salmon—invading the estuaries, maybe, to feast on smolts migrating to the sea.
So, possibly, even if I had not crossed the Atlantic to live and speeded up the process, Brennan and I would have made the trip someday. As it was, as I stood there relieving Brennan of his duty-free Scotch and cramming him into a cab, it seemed to me that it might have been better had we made that east-west trip together. I had been in the U.S. for several months and so I felt responsible for the weather, for the time of year I had picked, for the guide. From what I had heard and read, the place seemed right: Nantucket was classic ground. I was remembering, though, how critical weather could be. The saddest words in the English language, Brennan once claimed, were in the sentence found all too frequently in the weather section of the Irish Times on the morning we started a trip: A NORTHEASTERLY AIRSTREAM COVERS IRELAND, a wind that would flatten the surf, making it fit only for water skiers. We would drive away from Shannon, and a little south of Limerick we would start to look for a particular tall factory chimney, for the plume of white vapor that would tell us whether or not the wind was the sou'westerly we wanted, not too gentle, not too strong. We were lucky about one time in five.
We flew to Boston and then out across Cape Cod. I didn't even know what weather you needed in Nantucket, or at least which way you needed the wind to blow, but we could see that there was a lot of it. Below, whitecaps flecked the sea, and when we saw the island, lines of surf were curling in, how high we couldn't tell. "Nemesis arriving by air," I told Brennan, "without a single clue." In Kerry we would know what to do. We could go to Tom Fitzgerald's and be told that the surf was great last Wednesday and there was this woman down from Dublin on holiday, never had a rod in her hand before, and you wouldn't believe it but that evening she walks into the bar with the biggest.... We wouldn't be happy, but we'd feel at home.
That was the shape we were in when Bob Francis found us, bewildered, disoriented and, in Brennan's case, jet-lagged. Francis was a small man, lean, with an elfish look enhanced by a woolly cap and red flannel shirt worn outside his trousers, his machine-gun speech and rapid movement. It was with no surprise that I later learned he had been the master barber of Nantucket for 20 years. Snip! The rod holders were in the back of his wagon. Snap! So were the tackle boxes, the bags and ourselves. No time to take in the island, a pattern of small hills and scrub woodland in fall colors, little weathered houses and then, incongruously, a cobbled street. "Stones came from England," Francis rapped out. "Come back as ballast on the whalers." He pulled up at a tree-shaded house. On the sidewalk was a hitching post surmounted by the head of a horse in cast iron. "Not genuine," he snapped. "Put there for show. Come on in."
A long time ago Brennan and I decided that on the Annual Outing, hotels were not for us. Or at least hotels built since, say, 1930. At one time we used to patronize Benner's Hotel in Dingle, County Kerry, where a 30-pound salmon from Castle Island glowered down on the tiny lobby, and the manageress, Miss Maloney, didn't believe you could register until she had brought you a full and gratis glass of Powers whiskey. But when Miss Maloney retired they put down a new carpet and tricked out the bar with a lot of plastic and chrome, so we migrated to Mrs. MacNamara's on the far side of the Connor Pass where we felt at home again, even after her son bought her the color TV.
So I had made no hotel reservation for the Nantucket trip, relying on Francis' telephone promise. "Best food on the island, in my place," he had claimed. That might be so. Meantime, I reasoned, if we stayed at his house we wouldn't have problems like securing a box lunch at 4 a.m.
That afternoon I was pleased to notice that at least the infrastructure of our trip was in good shape. For lunch there was homemade chowder at the Francises', and the significant fact soon emerged that the kitchen was going to be the social center. And later we found that even if Tom Fitzgerald's bar was 3,000 miles away, the Nantucket Anglers' Club, a short walk from Francis' house, was no mean substitute.