Friday, 22 February 2013
February 14th. Reg ran a thick black mark through the date on the grimy calendar then returned to the table to prime his arsenal. It was three o ‘clock in the morning. He had slept as well as treetop rook in a hurricane. He’d lain awake throughout the seldom hours with sweaty palms and river coursing blood. He hated losing. For the past year he had fretted and cursed stopping at sudden moments during woodland stalks to shake his head and flex his arm ruing the elementary mistakes he had made exactly one year to the day. He could take a rugby loss; just; because fourteen other men had to fashion his destiny, but on the open water alone with his angling nous he was entirely responsible. In four hours time he and Arn would meet a tiny old man under a bowler hat, on the banks on the river Wye and compete for the Stanley Cup. Though it would be on water not ice.
Mr. Evan Stanley could spread a dry fly across water as smooth as honey spreads on a warm slice of toast. In any weather Mr. Stanley could produce fish from water as freely as an illusionist produces rabbits from a hat. He was eighty six years old, stone deaf, could spot the glint of a trout scale in murky water at midnight and smoked rough shag through a fifty-year-old briar pipe. He was nicknamed ‘The Rise’ in reference to his flawless effect at the evening rise: the time of late-day frenzied-feeding by trout and his ability to conjure dozens from the water before Mother Nature closed the sunshine book on another day. It was said he could have caught a fish from the drip of a tap.
Reg, like most pupils, could not handle defeat at the hands of his tutor. He had only been victorious in The Stanley Cup twice in its twenty one year existence and nineteen runners up awards did nothing to quell the dejection. Arn had twenty one wooden paddles to his name. He ceremonially returned to Orchard House after each competition to cast his paddle onto the fire and whisper, “next year, I’ll have them,” but as Mr. Stanley informed him, “you have the aim of the devil, but not the fishing arm of a discipline. If thee were a trout, Arnold, and god bless I love you, I’d smack you on the head and wrap you in fennel, because you belong nowhere near water.” Yet each competitive day Arn turned up hoping for fortune to favour the trier. “Your Reginald, though, is something else.”
Reg turned his coloured metal spinners and lures through his ordinate survey hands tilting them to catch the glint of the light. He smoothed each one with an oily rag and gently laid them back into their soil free box. He would go through four brick walls to get to where a crow flies, such was his patience, yet he could sit for hours weaving and tying diminutive trout flies with his usually battle ram fingers. After he had assembled his squad of flies and lures he lent back in his chair and afforded himself a power nap before the off. Though for the first time in twenty one years he would make the journey to the river bank on his own.
“Will meet you there,” the note read on Arn’s unmade bed. He considered that Arn must have left the house just before midnight for he did not hear a sound as he festered in his un-slumbered bed.
“He’s unusually keen.”
Smoker’s lung fog clung to the Velcro fields. Reg hovered through the screening countryside casting the silhouette of an oil rig; only the fire burned in his belly.
The Stanley Cup consisted of three rules; no tickling, no gouging and the heaviest bag wins. In 1989 Reg and Evan Stanley’s bags were dead weight dead heat winners until Mr. Stanley fished a four ounce minnow from his top pocket.
“Always have something in reserve,” Mr. Stanley had remarked, picked the cup from the floor of the boat and held it aloft. His triumphant cry had disturbed an otter from the water.
The river wore mist like a virgin bride with only the bank lining trees visible as her unblinking lashes. Sanguine herons as still as their plastic hybrids stood along the banks with rotary eyes and keep net bellies. Reg paused at the water’s edge. He whistled twice and from under an alder a boat drifted into view. Mist arched round its hull. Mr. Stanley sat hunched at one end as if he were Charon and Arn was the doomed soul. Reg frowned and wondered to his early presence.
“Master Hite,” Mr. Stanley beamed from under his hat.
“Stanley,” Reg acknowledged as he stepped into the boat, “you’re about early,” he questioned Arn who shot a look at the captain.
“Just had some things to discuss.”
“No foul play I hope. I’ve got a good feeling about today.”
“Nah, other stuff,” Arn said and Mr. Stanley lent against an oar and the boat drifted on.
The mist continued to wrap around the river side fields as the three fishers handed round a flask and took stories to task. They drifted on to where a small minnow pool collected under a river leaning willow. A tossed coin determined who would fish from the boat first though Mr. Stanley’s double headed fifty pence piece forever meant he had immediate use of the boat. The other two had to fish from the bank and await their turn. Only fly and lure were allowed, which distinctly lowered Arn’s chances, though when the other two were lost to their passion he’d slip a couple of lob worms onto his hook and made sure his bag would contain just a few fish.
Mr. Stanley stole his way into the middle of the river and allowed the current to make his path. He was a sculpture of experience. He gently pulled some line from its reel, unhooked his Soldier Palmer fly and waited. The boat drifted on rocking gently as the water became deeper. As it held in the current the antique angler’s head turned sharply to the dark water under the starboard bank, he wheeled round his arm, spidered several lengths of line and licked the fly across the water. It sat pristine and erect on the surface. He delicately pinched the line and made the fly blink. He could see three fish of fireside size and estimated the larger of the trio would take the bait. He nibbled at the line once more and the surface of the water exploded.
“It weren’t as big as I thought!” Mr. Stanley cried out to his scowling competitors.
“Fall over the edge and bloody drown.” Reg unfurled his line and strode out into the water to where it rose to his waist. The cold bit his legs. He delved into his jacket pocket and produced a handful of leaves he had previously torn from the willow. As they nestled on his palm he studied the tiny insects that crawled across his skin.
“A little black midge ought to do it,” he said and cast the leaves onto the river. He tied a scruffy looking black fox hair fly to his line and closed his eyes.
The mist arched the river as sunshine stole through and warmed its great body. The cocoon trees dozed as midge hungry birds warbled from under their night caps. Reg conducted his rod in lasso loops and cross arm impudent fashion. Mr. Stanley turned slowly in the boat and watched ‘the conductor’ rise his orchestra. He had tutored Reg for years in his own style until Reg broke with tradition and painted one of his very own. It was as rhythmical and effortless as river bed weeds. The water bobbed around his waist sending ripples to wobble the ducks that remained wooden. He fed the air with lengths of line just waiting for the sunlight to strike the water and as the rays illuminated a surface midge Reg cast out his imitation. The doppelgangers’ nestled serenely; until the fake one disappeared. He flicked his wrist and the cane bowed. A sheen of rainbow scales sprinted under the surface. He leant on the water and his heart missed a beat.
“Evan me dear,” he called out to the stone deaf captain, “you haven’t got a bigger boat have you?” he held the plump wedge glitter fish above his head then kissed it before it slipped into his satchel.
Arn cast his rod then his mind to this early morning conversation with Mr. Stanley his poaching mentor. He had garnered much information from the needle’s eye icon. There were tricks that Mr. Stanley had yet to teach his prodigy, though Arn was just glad to remove some weighty information from his chest. He had listened entranced and quietly recorded the utterings in his yellow note book.
“Now see that none of this gets back to Reg.” he had said and pocketed the book.
He dreamt awake in the sunlight crystallizing water. He ran the knowledge through his head, poaching bits and casting others aside. Such was his pre-occupation he missed a jerking bite and his line slackened on the surface.
Even when his boat turn came he hunched over and his lips moved as he read from his notebook. His rod tip flicked and he missed another fish.
“Stay awake mate!” Reg called over as he spun in the water and flicked his fly to gabble alongside the current. He nudged the fly and an erratic brown trout became his sixth fish. Mr. Stanley had seven with a rippling six pound female rainbow to tip the scales. He dropped a piece of bread on the surface and a three ounce gudgeon rose to take it. Mr. Stanley gently slipped his hand under it, placed it in his top pocket and whispered, “always have something in reserve.”
At lunch they were neck and neck, though Arn had barely left the stalls.
“At least you’re good for something.” Mr. Stanley handed Arn an air rifle and pointed at two woodpigeons. They ate seared pigeon breast and watercress sandwiches as the mist all but disappeared and left it to the bubbling kettle to soften the sky.
“You boys been on the wrong side of the authorities recently?” Mr. Stanley asked as he tapped his pipe on the boat.
“Not since we saw you last. Could be that we’re getting more illusive,” Reg replied.
“Or they’re getting lazier.” Mr. Stanley poured the tea then reclined and lit his pipe. “I had a spot of bother with the authorities last week.”
“No. Water bailiff.”
“Aye.” Mr. Stanley said. He’d been caught on a notoriously splendid stretch of the river Wye with seven brown trout down one trouser leg and a six pound female pike down the other. And she was still alive.
“Ha! You couldn’t well make a run for it then?” Arn remarked.
“I’d have got away,” Reg bit.
“Well this was it. He was off to call me in.”
“You didn’t have a bribe on you?”
“Unlike you Stan.”
“I did but he wanted two hundred pounds. What happened to the days when you could shush a bailiff or keeper with a tenner?”
“Got nicked again then?”
“Well….. no,” Mr. Stanley raised an eyebrow and fryling flashed across his eyes, “I bet him that I could make it to the road over a hundred yards away, with the fish in me trousers and all mind, before he could drink a mug of water.”
“Get over you soft bugger!” they roared in tandem.
“As true as taut line. I said if he beat me it was the cells and two hundred pounds,” Mr. Stanley paused and the poachers leaned closer. “Well of course he agreed. We shook on it, like men and I went to the waterside to fill my mug.” Mr. Stanley straightened his back and stood up. The water glistened and projected the surface darts of fish. He breathed the waterside air.
“Back at it then boys.”
“Hang over! How come you never got nicked?”
Mr. Stanley took an age to re-tie a fly all the while searching the surface for movement. He lifted his landing net, tucked the rod under his arm and said,
“I didn’t say what temperature the water had to be,” and walked along the bank.
Reg took the oars after a snooze that was wet with fish. He pushed the boat out into the current and drifted on. Arn was in a web of line.
“Damn it. You’d think the line fairy comes at lunch and tangles it behind your back,” but his quibbling was disturbed as the water splashed and Mr. Stanley was guiding a ninth fish towards his net.
Lost seagulls with drawling banter sunk and spun over the river. A mink peeked its head from the reeds and Arn mimed a point blank shot. Gwapping cattle chewed cud and fathomed the floating vessel. The sun shone strongly and Reg dimmed his view scratched sunglasses.
“Come to me my loves,” he whispered and a rainbow rolled on the surface. “Once more,” Reg asked and the trout re-appeared. He swung the rod and the line rolled out to meet her. A white fly with a fleck of rabbit fur fluttered to land. He narrowed his eyes and bit at the line. The fly nodded and the fish agreed. The angry reel brought the fish to the floor of the boat. He removed his glasses and the sunlight strobbed from the silver scales. The fish blinked as Reg gently lifted the fly from her lip. His eyes marveled at her sage green flanks and she blinked again. He shook his head and looked over his shoulder.
“They’ll think I’m going soft. But I can’t kill you.” He lowered the fish into the water and sat down. “Tell the others it’s them I’m after.”
Arn finally hooked a fish and although it fought like a terrier in a dark corner he brought only a three quarter pound perch to the thrashing air.
“Won’t need many chips to go with him,” Stanley advised with a shaking head as he hung his needle legs over the bank and sucked on his pipe, “where did I go wrong?” but as Reg’s cane bowed and he guided a sharing brown trout into his net he took solace in that at least one of his scholars had born fruit.
Reg watched the anxious seconds tick by for he had only fifteen more minutes afloat before the boat was moored and all three anglers took to the bank; it would then signal the ‘evening rise’.
A spiteful moorhen gathered flotsam from the water’s edge and propelled towards its bankside nest. Tiny flyling spat from the water signaling the underwater unrest of a predatory pike. A trio of mute swan’s bombed onto the river, skied to halt and surrounded the boat.
“Get from here! You’re disturbing the fish!” Reg sneered. “Oi Stanley! Did you send these to do your dirty work?”
“I’ve no need to cheat!” the rod wizard assured, “not just yet anyhow.” He netted his fourteenth fish and waded to the bank. “Its dry land for you now Reginald. After a spot of supper.”
As the light had inched up that morning during Arn and Mr. Stanley’s discussions the pair had dangled cotton threaded worms over the boat edge and brought truncheon thick eels snaking from the abyss. Stanley dug an elbow deep crater in a bank ledge and stripped the skin from their supper with two knife nicks and a pliers. Oak smoke meandered over the water, chased all the way by pipe tobacco puffs. Reg knotted the rope to the willow and brought his catch ashore.
“Mmm, I’ve caught more from a washing up bowl,” Stanley dismissed and turned the browning eel fillets on wire mesh.
“I’m going to have you this year. I’ve seen the tiddlers you’ve been slipping into your bag. Ain’t that right Arn?” but the one fish wonder was away with the scheming clouds that curled and drifted above.
“Reginald, horse-radish please.” As he marched off to forage the root plant from a hedgerow base Arn cwtched up to his headmaster and they whispered as soft, yet as rich as the cooking smoke.
Mr. Stanley told fibs and fabrications of the women and fish that had got away as they dipped crisp brown eel fillets into creamy horseradish puree. Arn sniggered along to the torments and triumphs of Stanley’s stories until his mind wandered away over the fields. The old man gripped his leg and gently squeezed.
“It’ll all be alright bach. Trust in me. This’ll smooth the worry.” The eel swam down with chilled glasses of parsnip wine.
Reg glugged the pale liquor then whistled through his teeth, “Effy Bevan, Stan. You’d have a job to find to your bed after too many of these. Evan’s own?” In a wink the fish magician sunk his glass as the sun began to disappear.
“Stand by your banks, boys, it be the evening rise.”
Though it was Arn who was first in.
“I’m coming up on the inside fella’s!” but a hologram rainbow of a mere two pounds was far from stealing the march on two professionals reeling ever closer to the twenty fish mark. Enlarging circles conjured by the rising fish grew and merged. Reg picked a gold headed teal feathered nymph from his cap and spun it onto his line, but only on the third time of trying as his attention was hooked by another fish that tail walked towards Mr. Stanley’s net.
“Stay calm,” Reg whispered, but his self help was ridiculed as Stanley held the fish to the lilac sky and called over.
“Reginald darling? You haven’t got a tin of Silvo and a buffing cloth have you?”
As the afternoon swam on and the evening rose Arn heaved a slimy, knobbled oak branch from the water, slit his thumb open as he tried to detach the hook from the exhumed timber and accepted his paddle fate. He threw his rod down and retired to the wine.
“Next year I’m bringing a shotgun.”
“Try a trawler.”
Every third cast levered another fish over the lip of Mr. Stanley’s net. Reg was marooned on nineteen fish. He wheeled reams of line across the water goading his nymph to seduce a monster from the underworld but nothing rose to take it. He folded the line left to right, drifted it under over hanging willows and passed water bird nests but the fish were queuing up to gobble Mr. Stanley’s fly. The water splashed and wise angler netted his twenty fifth trout.
“Damn!” Stanley cried and Reg bent his angry head and fixed murderous eyes, “I don’t believe it,” he twittered on, slapping his forehead and searching his pockets, “I forget me abacus!” Reg ripped the nymph from his line, thrashed through a wall of nettles along the bank and slid to the water’s edge to under an oak. He glanced at his watch and only five minutes remained.
“One fish is all. And preferably a fucking shark.” He peeled off his cap and looked to the reddening heaven. A neat robin landed in a bush. “Fire with fire.” He selected an emergency red fly tied with fibre he had ripped out of the Ferney bar room carpet. He smoothly tied the fly, spooled spaghetti clumps of line at his feet and whisped the cane through the air. His movement was wordless. Yard upon yard extended the startling fly from the rod tip. Arn cradled the bottle entranced; Stanley lowered his bony rear to the soil. “Cast………. now,” the Merlin of the Wye predicted and Reg licked the water with the line and the fly dinked onto the surface with the all the disturbing force of an eyelash. He crouched. The robin hopped among the branched and pitted. Stanley clenched his fists. The fly stole away with the weaving dark current, then jagged sharply as its manipulator pinched the line. A large shape barrel rolled in the water, but disappeared. He pinched again. Arn’s teeth chattered on the glass. Stanley narrowed his eyes. The fly nudged closer and closer back toward the bank, but nothing stirred.
“She’s coming. She’s coming,” Stanley whispered, “Don’t panic, she’s…,” Reg pinched, the fly blinked and the river exploded. The reel screamed and the robin darted away. The cane arched over and Reg’s line gripped fist wobbled under the tension.
“It is a bloody shark!” Reg hollered. Stanley leapt up so abruptly he toppled over and speared himself onto a thorn bush. The fish dived for the bed of the river but Reg leaned back and forced its torpedo body towards the fresh air. He angled the cane into his chest and the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow trout sprung from the water and slapped its flank,
“Call the Navy Evan my dear!” Reg yelled, but the line slackened and the beast fish retained its legendary status. Not a word was said. Reg stared vacantly at the opposing bank as a cormorant emerged from the water and swallowed a three pound trout.
He sat on the bank and stared at his sodden boots.
“If it’s any consolation Reginald,” Mr. Stanley said with a consoling arm around his temple shoulders, “it was the biggest fish I’ve ever seen.” The ancient angler giggled and continued to dollop salt onto Reg’s wound as they boarded the boat and paddled out into the river middle for the customary awarding of the cup.
Arn had already bagged, weighed and pocketed his paddle before the other two had even got into double figures.
“I had two hands on the Cup, now I’ve got to listen to you gloating for twelve months,” Reg said despondently, but as he added his fish to the bag he noticed that although Stanley had more, they were decidedly lighter. The old man began to fidget and nervously looked to Arn who began to spread a smile.
“Not so cocky now Stan.” Mr. Stanley upended his net but no more fish spilled out and he eyed Reg’s bulging bag. Arn stood in the wobbling vessel and raised the spring balance above his head. “Mr. Evan Stanley,” the wizard tapped his pipe, “you record sixty three pounds,” the needle wavered, “and seven ounces.” Arn hooked Reg’s haul and raised the bag. “Mr. Reginald Hite. You record,” Stanley lit a match, “Hoo! Sixty three pounds and,” a sparrow hawk hovered over the bank, “well bugger me. An’ nine ounces.” The hawk bombed onto a mouse and silence beat across the river. Reg opened his eyes and a wet grin trickled over his face. The old man gently lit another match. He sucked the fire down into the pipe and the tobacco crackled. He blew into the sky, flipped his bowler over, produced the three ounce gudgeon and dropped it into the Cup.
“I win by an ounce. Always have something in reserve.”
Arn clapped his hands. Reg threw his head back. Mr. Stanley bent down and enveloped the Cup with a badger jaw grip. Reg slowly placed his hand on the cup and lowered it back down, then slipped the other hand into his inner pocket.
“Hang on,” and produced a two ounce stickleback. “As they say in Logaston mate….. touché.”