When Jim Gallagher hauls the corpse of an unknown Eskimo up in his nets off the Northwest coast of ireland he finds the murky undercurrents of his own life shift closer to the surface. His obsession with finding out who the dead man was and how he dies mirrors his search to comprehend his own life and relationships.
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Everything started to go wrong the day we dragged the Eskimo up in the net off Malin
Head. I wasn't long back from Alaska, and it seemed as if he must have followed me
halfways around the world. My initial instinct was to pull his chewed-up corpse free from
the mountain of fish and roll him overboard, to let him sink back into the depths of the ocean
where he had first appeared from, to watch him slip beneath the waves as if he had never
surfaced in the first place. Knucky even suggested as much.
'It's going to be a headache if we don't,' he said, 'a mountain of paperwork.'
But I didn't have the heart to do it. For all we knew someone could be out looking
for him at that moment in time, searching this northern coastline for his remains. Or
somewhere on the other side of the globe perhaps, clinging to some frail hope that he was
still alive, still hanging on to the frayed edges of this world.
'We're going to have to take him in,' I said. 'It's our duty.'
'Fuck you and your sense of duty, Gallagher. This is going to cost us a full day's
fishing.' Knucky cleared his throat of phlegm and spat into the sea. I watched it float there
like spawn. Then a swirl of froth swept across it and took it from our sight. 'Let's just throw
him overboard. It's where he belongs.'
'Knucky,' I protested, 'it's a human being we're talking about.'
'It's a corpse. A rotting corpse. It's probably been buried at sea. Now you don't
want to start digging up the dead, do you?' Knucky walked back to the wheelhouse, his eyes
on the buoys ahead.
'We don't know that,' I said. But all the same, Knucky had a point. There was a
possibility that he, whoever he was, had died on board one of the vessels that fished these
waters and had been buried in that time-honoured fashion. In fact, I had often thought
myself that it would be the perfect way to go, to sink into the murky soul of the sea and be
devoured by the marine life within, drifting forever in one form or another throughout the
oceans of this world.
But what if that wasn't the case? What if he had fallen overboard during a squall, or
if he had nothing to do with the sea whatsoever? If that was just where his remains had
A wave of spray washed over the boat, swept across my face like a light mist. I
held on to the side and looked down at the black water he had emerged from. Its troubled
surface swirled in a filthy froth, keeping its inner secrets to itself. 'If that's the case,' I said,
'if he's been buried, we'll find out.'
'It'll be too late then.' Knucky turned on the engine and let it idle. 'The body will have
I listened to the low rumble of the hidden mechanical components, like a mumbling
complaint. 'It's already been disturbed,' I said. The boat lurched, and instinctively I shifted
my balance. The wooden deck groaned. I wasn't convinced by my own argument.
Nevertheless, whatever way I weighed it up I knew we'd have to take the body in. My
conscience wouldn't have allowed otherwise.
'It's my boat, Jim,' Knucky said. 'When you're out here you're following my orders.
And don't you forget it.' The radio crackled next to him. A gull flew in low, stalled in its flight
and landed on top of the wheelhouse.
It was a half-hearted attempt at asserting authority. It wasn't in Knucky's nature to
be a boss of anything. Besides, that wasn't the way it worked between Knucky and I. I
fished with him and he paid me a wage. We helped each other out. We went back too far
for it to be any other way.
I continued to insist, and Knucky had no option but to relent.
While Knucky turned the boat around I took another look at the body. It lay there in
the net, swallowed up by a slimy wriggling mound of fish, crabs and seaweed. One half-
eaten arm poked out through a covering of sea bass as if reaching towards me, begging to
be saved. The putrid smell of the life of the sea mingled with the stench of his death. I swept
seaweed and some carp and trout from his face to get a better look at him. His left ear was
missing, and his skin and flesh were torn away in parts so that you could see right down to
It was like looking below the surface of your own body, seeing beyond the flesh into
the hollowness of all you contained. His mouth was slightly open as if he was trying to say
something but couldn't find the words to express it adequately. A small white crab the size of
a ten pence piece crawled out of his mouth, across his lower lip and down his chin, then
scuttled away to disappear into the scaly crevices of the stacked fish.
Opening excerpt to The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, 2003)