James Haldane was a good father. He knew he was: he never shouted at his son; he provided a stable and loving home; and he brought in the money. The software company he had built from scratch was now selling binary file transfer protocols around the world. Finn – the child of James’s second marriage – wanted for nothing. Summers were spent on the yacht, winters in the Seychelles and every Easter they had the villa in the Tuscan hills. Finn’s Xbox was the latest; his PC the fastest; his television the biggest; his school the best.
Yet Finn never seemed satisfied. He barely used half the things that James had bought for him. All he wanted to do was run around in the woods collecting creepy-crawlies. The handmade Lobbs that James gave him for his 10th birthday had been ruined within two weeks: scuffed and caked in dried mud. And Finn’s latest thing was the idea of going fishing from a boat.
“Dad,” he’d said pretty much every week for months. “Dad. Daaa–d!” And every time he’d caught his distracted father’s attention, the question had been the same – “Can we go fishing on Sunday? – and each time the answer had been different: conference call, important lunch guests, report to write...
James had been forced to promise: “On your birthday, for sure.” He’d hoped that would put an end to it. James’s habitat was carpet, not mud and water. And James worked damned hard to give Finn all the things he hadn’t had as a child. Couldn’t the boy see that? If he complained that James was always on his smartphone or looking at emails, well... all the high-status objects they required for their lifestyle didn’t buy themselves.
But on the morning of his birthday, Finn had seemed distinctly underwhelmed by his new iPad Pro. He hadn’t forgotten about the fishing.
“Dad, it’s my birthday,” said Finn. “You promised.”
“I know but—”
James sighed, “OK.” Yielding, he summoned up a bit of slightly forced enthusiasm: “Father and son – messing around in boats! We’ll be a seafaring dynasty, just you and me!” It was almost worth it for the look of delight on his son’s face.
But then, of course, James actually had to go through with it. He would ordinarily have invested in some serious carbon-fibre rods, maybe a decent boat with a pilot – but he’d been hoping Finn would forget the whole thing. So, on the day, they made do – a shabby boat hire joint and a couple of rods picked up from the charity shop in Kidlington.
Finn was (aptly) buoyant. He didn’t mind the rusty water slopping in the base of the boat, the gaffer tape on the rowlock, the damp patch on the bench. The sun shone, and as they rowed upstream, willows rustled prettily in the breeze. James preferred not to handle the mealworms, but his towheaded son – where had he come from? – baited both hooks.
Soon enough they were sitting companionably in a bend of the river, watching their floats bob. Then James’s phone pinged: a voicemail from his secretary. He tried to call her back – but as he dialled, the last bar of signal blipped out. James moved around, trying to get a signal, then stood up, much to Finn’s silent disapproval. Then two things happened at once. Finn saw his float vanish and yelped, “A bite!” and James lost his balance and tumbled into the water – throwing his precious phone to safety on the grassy bank, as if by reflex, as he went.
The weird thing was, after all the predictable muted swearing and the picking of duckweed out of the pocket of his shirt, as he sat drying on the bank in the sunshine, munching a Marmite sandwich, James looked, well, happy. And so did Finn. The fish had got away. But Finn had caught a laugh and for once, his father seemed to have caught it with him.
“It’s not bad, this, is it, Dad?” said Finn. James rubbed the boy’s head. “No, not bad at all.” A bit later Finn caught his father glancing at his phone. “Go on, Dad. Phone her back,” he smiled. James did.
“Carol,” he hissed in excitement. “Guess what? I’ve just discovered something wonderful. The waterproofing on my Patek Philippe works perfectly.”