Story telling from Australia
It rained in Broken Hill yesterday, an English rain of low cloud, persistent drizzle and occasional heavy downpours. Wet leaves floated past, collecting in soggy piles and clogging the drains. Passers by squelched them underfoot. The empty space that surrounds Broken Hill was rubbed out and I couldn’t see much beyond the end of the road. Even the looming slagheap was misty and indistinct under the grey sky.
The difference between Broken Hill and the Gloucestershire village where I spent my childhood was marginal yesterday. Rain gave the whole town—streets, shops, houses, trees and people—a blurry outline of muddled grey and I wanted to stay in bed and drink tea. It seems appropriate given that we’re off to England at the weekend.
It will be a happy occasion, a nephew’s wedding, and a sad one. We all hoped Dad would make it to the wedding, but it wasn’t to be.
And since I’m rushing to pack, this week’s blog will be a short story I wrote a few years ago, when I visited my aunt and uncle’s house for the last time. It’s an evocation of family. And my uncle’s love of fishing.
Picture of Happiness
We were drinking martinis. Not the sophisticated sort you mix or shake, we were on the kind you pour straight from the bottle, topped up with lemonade. It was summer, a humid afternoon, the light so milky and overcast you could have scooped an empty glass through the clouds, filled it full of sky and gulped it down.
I remember Aunty Beth, Mum, Dad and you. Was anyone else there? My memory is as hazy as the sky that day. I blame the martinis.
‘Today’s the day Jim.’
Dad was pulling your leg. The proud owner of exclusive salmon fishing rights along a miniscule stretch of the River Dee that flowed past your rented cottage, you suffered in silence as your rival opposite – the farmer who frustratingly cast his line towards your side of the river – hauled in gleaming salmon week after week. In almost ten years of living in North Wales you hadn’t caught a single fish.
‘I reckon there’s a monster in there with your name on,’ said Dad, staring down at the water. Fuelled by alcohol we decided to have a go. The prospect of one of us catching a fish seemed a bit of a lark, an enjoyable way to pass the rest of that long, late afternoon but under all the laughter you were deadly serious. Fishing was your passion.
You unlocked the storeroom at the bottom of a steep flight of steps leading down from the cottage, struggling with the rotting timber door as it snagged on the uneven flagstones and Dad and I filed in behind you, giggling like reluctant school kids. The rich smell of loamy earth filled our nostrils as our eyes adjusted to the gloomy light, filtered through dust and cobwebs. Shadows turned into rods encased in leather, waders, floppy hats, coloured umbrellas, nets, a folding stool and a shelf full of magazines and books. It could have been a shop.
Like a proud jeweller you reached for a case of precious gems and carried them towards the light, allowing us to properly appreciate their beauty. Standing beneath a small broken window, a glittering display of lures and flies spread out in front of us, it was impossible not to feel a shiver of excitement. How could fish be fooled by such obvious fakes? They were flies in fancy dress, clothed in glittering shards of gold, silver and magenta. Flies dressed to kill. That’s when I made up my mind, with the arrogant confidence of a drunken 20 year old, that we would catch a fish.
You assembled rods with patient, swollen fingers, intent on showing us the proper way of doing things, while Dad and I picked over the jewels. The three of us – you, me and Dad – took our rods into the back garden and cast over the low stone wall, deep into the River Dee, eyes searching for salmon lurking beneath the surface. Dad was cracking jokes but I was quietly determined. Some of your passion must have rubbed off, it was me against the fish and I had no doubt who would win. It was simply a question of patience and persistence.
You showed us how to flick the line upstream, wait for it to drift past on the sluggish current then reel it back in, all the time waiting and hoping for that elusive tug on the line. This was long before holiday makers took to camping in the fields opposite, long before steam trains began chugging back and for on the tourist route between Carrog and Llangollen. It was just us. And the fish.
Mum and Aunty Beth grew bored of watching and went back in. I remember them calling drunken encouragement from an upstairs window.
‘Stick an olive on the end of your line, that’ll fool them.’
We listened to them chatting and laughing as the evening wore on. Daylight lingered in the fields like a playful child reluctant to come in. Darkness wasn’t in any hurry, and neither were we.
Lines whisked back and for, cutting through the air. Dad was the first to crack. ‘I reckon those fish have gone to bed. That’s it for me,’ he said.
I cast again.
‘Leave your rod against the wall Ken, I’ll see to it later,’ you said, flicking your rod expertly over your head. Dad climbed back up to the cottage and we kept fishing.
‘Do you want to go back in?’
Nothing could have dragged me away from that river.
‘Not until we’ve caught a fish,’ I replied.
Darkness crept closer.
Who was the first to suggest waders? The trees were silhouetted against the fields as we pulled on the heavy boots then splashed across a bed of shingle. We planted ourselves waist deep in thick black water. If the fish weren’t coming to us, we would take the battle to them.
We kept fishing, kept casting, you with resigned patience me with growing incredulity. Where were the fish? The sky darkened until daylight was no more than a faint imprint. Twilight toyed with the last few shades of indigo and bats appeared, flitting through the slender gap between night and day, dipping their wings in the inky sky. We marvelled at their speed. And still we fished.
We finally gave up when it started to rain, struggling back to the cottage in heavy waders and wet clothes.
‘Quick, get the oven on, they’re back.’
‘Where’s the fish then? Did you chuck it back?’
‘You forgot the chips!’
We endured their good-hearted, drunken mockery, but I could have cried. We should have returned triumphant, bearing a salmon high above our heads, parading it around the room, water dripping from its shining scales. We had nothing to show for our efforts.
You gave no outward sign of disappointment, I suppose you were used to it – yet another fruitless evening spent fishing that barren stretch of river – but I went to bed in a barely concealed sulk. If only we’d stayed another hour we might have caught something.
Two years later you caught a beauty, a fat salmon, four-foot long and shining with health, the only one you ever caught. Aunty Beth took a picture of you gripping its tail, your face grinning under a floppy hat covered in lures. She had it blown up, framed in oak and proudly hung it on the wall above the fireplace.
Your fishing rods are long gone now and the storeroom stands empty. The roses are un-pruned, ragged tomato plants struggle to survive in the greenhouse and ivy creeps over the windows at the back of the cottage. Looking back, standing in the same spot and watching the river flow past the garden, I realise it doesn’t matter that we came home empty handed that night. Victory would have curtailed our pleasure. Those few hours spent fishing in silence were more important than any triumphant catch. They’re what I remember most from the many visits I made to your house in North Wales. I want to push my face into your jacket, breathe in that familiar bitterness of aftershave and cigar smoke and feel the love in your crushing, awkward hug.
There’s no sense of distance under this close fitting sky here in North Wales tonight. The specs of light dancing over my head could be shooting stars or midges, it’s impossible to tell. I’ll sleep in the cottage for the last time with the windows wide open, listening to the river and I’ll finish clearing in the morning. It’s almost done.
There’s nothing I want to take, except that picture.