The Angler

The angler didn’t 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 kept on until he’d reached the place where the willow dipped its head into the inky water and created a little oasis of sensuous green. His place. From behind him, the hissing weir masked the sound of distant traffic and the water here, like himself, was calm. Only the occasional plop of a fish betrayed the life hidden beneath its tranquil surface.

Only last spring he’d watched a kingfisher perch upon a half-drowned log that had been washed down with the floods during the winter. Watched the brilliant flash of blue skim the glassy surface of the water, diving and surfacing with a shimmer of light so fast, he’d lost sight of it. 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 in agony, but he was oblivious, breathing in raw nature, eyes scanning the river 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 trout liked to harbour in the heat of the day. Satisfied, he sat down heavily on his chair, unscrewed his thermos, poured himself a cup of treacly tea, and settled down to wait. Patience was his forte these days.

It hadn’t always been so. As a young man, he’d been prone to bouts of jealousy. Quick to anger, there’d 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 alcoholic binges that had blighted his life. Years 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 only escape. Except, that it hadn’t been. It had brought him closer to losing Rita. For that stray cigarette he’d found in an ashtray, the appreciative glances she got from his friends – even from his own brother – they’d seemed reason enough for him to keep her in check. She was his wife, after all. And they were his kids. He’d be boss in his own household, if nowhere else. But all of that was laughable now. Women were sly creatures, biding their time, craftily putting money aside for that rainy day. He’d tracked her down several times. She’d taken to hiding in people’s attics; the elderly aunt who lived nearby, the woman she knew who owned the local greengrocer’s, always hoping he wouldn’t find her. He always knew she wouldn’t run back to her parents because she was never sure just how far he would go – whether the violence would erupt. His eyes suddenly clouded over with uncontrolled emotion. Yes, he’d controlled Rita, controlled her for years. But it was not her savings that liberated her.

It was Sam. After they lost their youngest, she was never the same. It was as if she’d become stone. She no longer had any fear of him, whether he was drunk or sober. He leaned forward, reaching in his pocket for his tobacco tin. It had not been subtle, the power shift in their relationship. She’d given him an ultimatum. Any more drunken binges and she would leave, no matter what he did. He rolled the tobacco onto a film of white paper, lit it and took a deep drag, watching the smoke curl into the air. The only thread that still bound them together, was the grief. Only he shared the true depth of her pain. Only he could help her carry the burden of it through the years. He’d given up on the heavy drinking ever since, although he still liked his pint. His daily routine.

A pull on the line brought him stumbling to his feet. The float bobbed up and down rapidly before submerging completely. Adrenaline began to surge and he was up, playing the fish, letting the line drift and then reeling it in, bit by bit. The trout thrashed rigid on the hook, kicking up a fine spray. It was a big ’un all right. And he was going to land the monster, like it or not!  The old reel whirred as the rod bent, taking the weight of the huge fish. Heart beating wildly, the angler stood his ground. “Come on then, tha wily old devil!  Show me what tha’s got!”

But then, suddenly, he was slipping down the bank, still holding onto the rod, his feet sliding crazily in an attempt to reach a foothold. Then, the icy shock as he hit the water, clawing frantically at the bank, but there was no holding onto the slick mud that came away in clumps in his fingers. He was submerging, choking, swallowing great gulps of brown water. Soon numbness began to sabotage his frail limbs; a paralysing heaviness that dragged him down further the more he struggled – down into an underwater turmoil, where water gurgled loud in his ears, drowning out the sound of his own cries. He sank down three times and, each time, through frenzied determination, managed to fight his way up to the surface but bit by bit, his struggles were becoming feebler and eventually, they stopped.

Above him, the willow formed a shelter of verdant green. Birds twittered and rode the gentle breeze on its branches. A pond skater trembled on the fragile surface tension of the water when, from the deep, a huge brown trout rose up 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 upon its favourite branch to scan the river with an eager eye. But the rush of the weir never ceased, nor did the traffic beyond.

 

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