The angler did not stop until he was well past the weir. His ancient fishing basket bounced on his arthritic hip as he walked and its leather strap cut into his shoulder, but still he did not stop until he had reached the place where the willow dipped its head into the inky water and created a little oasis of sensuous green. His place. From here, the hissing weir masked the sound of distant traffic and the water, like he himself, was calm. Only the occasional plop of a fish betrayed that there was life hidden beneath the tranquil river.
Only last spring he had watched a kingfisher perch upon a half-drowned log that had been washed down with the floods the previous summer. Watched its brilliant flash of blue skim the glassy surface of the water, diving and surfacing with a shimmer of light so fast he had lost sight of it. His eyes had clouded over with unchecked emotion. Today there was no sign of the bird. He found the little dip in the steep bank and unfolded his chair, before tackling up, squeezing the maggot onto the hook against the dirty whorls of his thumb and forefinger. The maggot wriggled about but he was oblivious, breathing in the raw freshness of nature, his eyes scanning the surface of the water for bubbles and rings.
He cast the line, a little unsteady on his feet, but his expertise allowed the float to land in just the right place, a little out from the willow, but still close enough to the bank, where he knew the old trout liked to harbour in the heat of the day. He sat down heavily on his chair, unscrewed his thermos pouring himself a cup of treacly tea, and settled down to wait. Patience was his forte these days.
It had not always been so. As a young man, he had been prone to bouts of recklessness. Quick to anger, there had been many a brawl in the pub over an imagined insult or some girl or other. He closed his eyes and fought off the half-memories left over from the alcoholic binges which had blighted his life. Times when the futility of his dead-end job made him rail against his life and those dependent upon him. It was relentless, the hard slog of selling door to door, the striving for commission. The pub had been his escape. Except that it had not been. There was always the fear of losing Rita. And so, that stray cigarette he’d found in an ashtray, those times when she’d been late or out of the house when he’d come in – they were reason enough to subdue her, to keep her in check. She was his wife. They were his kids. He was boss in his own house at least. But even that was laughable now. Women were sly creatures, biding their time, craftily putting money aside for a rainy day. He had tracked her down several times. She had taken to hiding in attics… the elderly aunt who had moved nearby, the woman who owned the local greengrocer’s shop, hoping he would not find her. He knew she would not seek shelter from her parents because she was never sure just how far he would go. Whether the violence would erupt.
Yes, he had controlled Rita, controlled her for years. But it was not the money which liberated her. It was Sam. The death of their youngest. After they lost him she was never the same. It was as if she was made of stone. She had no longer any fear of him whether he was drunk or sober. He sat back now, taking a long pull on his roll-up. It had not been subtle, the power shift in their relationship. She had given him an ultimatum. Any more drunken binges and she would leave him, no matter what he did. The only fine thread that still tied them together was grief. Only he had witnessed the true depth of her pain and loss. Only he could share the burden through the years. He had had to give up the heavy drinking although he still liked his pint. His routine.
A pull on the line brought him stumbling to his feet. The float bobbed up and down rapidly before submerging completely. Adrenaline surged and he began playing the fish, letting the line drift and then reeling it in, bit by bit. The fish thrashed on the hook, kicking up a fine spray. It was a big’un all right. And he was going to land him, like it or not! The old reel whirred as the rod, close to breaking point, took the weight of the huge trout. His heart beating wildly, the angler stood his ground. “Come on you crafty old devil, come on then! Show me what you’ve got!”
And then, suddenly, he slipped. He was under the water, choking and swallowing great gulps of fetid water, desperate to breathe. The shock of the intense cold hit him, sabotaging movement and strength. Despite his desperate clawing at the bank there was no holding onto the slick muddy earth that came away in clumps in his hands. Numbness crept into his limbs, a paralysing heaviness that dragged him down further the more he struggled, lost in an underwater turmoil that gurgled in his ears and filled him with dread. He sank three times and, each time, through frenzied determination fought his way to the surface, thrashing about, ingesting great gasps of water, looking up at the cathedral of still greenness above him until finally, he submerged again. His struggles became feeble, until at last, they stopped.
Above him, the willow formed a verdant canopy sheltering his resting place. Birds twittered and rode the gentle breeze on its branches, reflected in the still water. A pond skater trembled on the fragile surface tension of the black water when, from the deep, a greedy trout rose and it was gone. Among the tell-tale circles spreading out on top of the water, a cherished flat cap, decorated with an assortment of fishing flies, floated slowly around and around. There was a sudden splash of blue as a kingfisher landed on its usual branch and scanned the river with an eager eye. The rush of the weir never ceased, nor did the traffic beyond.