Monday, November 07, 2005

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Nick was close to tears as he stood at his bedroom window and watched the white Range Rover drive off down the hill through a whirling snowstorm. He felt as if he had been raped. Never in a million years would he have believed that a debt collector would have penetrated his house, brushing aside the illusion of safety. The sanctity of his home had been desecrated, it would never be the same again. He felt degraded, less of a person, somehow unmanned. He knew he had to get out, to get away from the scene of his humiliation before he broke down completely.

He dressed with feverish haste, pulling on his old Barbour as he tumbled out of the house. He felt like a refugee in wartime. Only when he reached the foot of the hill did he pause to lace up his walking boots. He was out of breath and his stomach was churning as if he had been poisoned. When he bent over he almost threw up. He staggered off southwards, leaning blindly into the teeth of an icy blizzard, his face constantly whipped by stinging snowflakes. He struggled on for nearly and hour until eventually the snowstorm abated sufficiently to reveal an unfamiliar cotton wool landscape. He was breathing hard, his heart was thumping. He stopped to collect his thoughts. He knew he would have to turn back eventually. He couldn’t abandon his family. He was the cause of all the problems, it was his duty to somehow put things right. At that moment a lorry roared past, throwing up a slushy tidal bow wave that knocked him sideways. He picked himself up and slithered on until he came to a T-junction where he deserted the main road and clambered over a wooden fence beyond which was the birch wood forest he used to play in as a child. Underneath the skeletal canopy of trees the snow was sparser and the going was a little easier. He waded through waving fields of waist-deep icy bracken and fought his way past massive banks of bramble bushes that tore at his exposed skin like rolls of barbed wire. His brain was so numbed he didn’t feel the pain. Eventually he picked up the tracks of an old drove road that he knew would lead him to the river. When the track petered out after about a mile he emerged from the forest adjacent to the main road at the point where it crossed the river Dee.

He was exhausted and he leaned against the stone parapet of the bridge and stared down into the steely grey water below. Over the years he had spent many happy hours fishing the river. He sighed. So many fond memories. He tried to re-connect with the past but failed. The river looked inviting for a different reason. He had read somewhere that drowning was a good way to die. He imagined himself plunging into the icy depths. How long it would take or the river would embrace him, he wondered? The prospect of an end to all his problems was a beguiling one. He was ready to admit defeat. He stared thoughtfully down at the water wondering how deep it was.

Despite the recent heavy snowfalls the river was running free of ice and grue. The clear nights had led to a succession of hard frosts which had reduced the run-off from the land as the earth froze. As a result the river was running low, almost at early summer levels. Later, when the snow melted up in the mountains Nick knew that the river would rise and the big spring runs of salmon would commence their journey to the spawning beds in the headwaters of the river.

He leaned out over the parapet of the old military bridge and peered down into the dark churning water below. Immediately beneath the bridge was a fine pool almost a quarter of a mile long that often held large shoals of salmon. He gazed down for several minutes into the powerful swirls and eddies thirty feet below, searching for the tell-tale flashes of silver that indicated the presence of fish preparing to dash through the rapids at the head of the pool, potential companions on his next journey. In the event the water appeared empty, devoid of life. It would be a lonely grave. He craned his neck to examine a stretch of pale sandy gravel running along the edge of the river. He had often in the past watched the dark, ominous torpedo shapes of cock fish gliding upriver in their relentless drive to reach the spawning grounds. The harsh sunlight glinting on the rippling water had turned the pool into a silvery mirror. He squinted at the burnished surface until his eyes watered. Finally he decided that the rest of the pool was empty. Either the fish had already run on upstream after the last spate or they had not yet arrived this far inland, almost thirty miles from the sea, so early in the season. As if to make a mockery of his conclusion that the stretch was empty a big fish splashed languidly in the tail of the pool sending out a huge concentric ring of ripples. From the blackness of the fish’s silhouette he decided that it was probably a kelt, exhausted after spawning, drifting back to sea on the current.

He leaned further out over the parapet to get a better view into the shaded depths beneath the arch of the bridge. To his surprise he found himself staring, upside-down, at two equally startled people looking up at him from the riverbank below.

He saw at once that the couple was a young female fisherman and her much older companion, a burly dark-skinned man of about sixty dressed in thick brown tweeds, almost certainly a ghillie. He smiled self-consciously at them. The ghillie simply scowled back while the young woman, whom he reckoned was in her early thirties, proceeded to ignore him completely as she performed a superbly executed Spey cast, sending the line out and across and down the river in a smooth and effortless delivery that he would have been proud to emulate.

Unable to breathe properly in his bat-like position he regained his footing on the road and waited for the couple to emerge from under the bridge as they worked their way down through the pool. Shortly afterwards he heard the sound of the fly swishing through the air beneath his feet and a few minutes later the couple appeared on the grassy bank immediately below him. The ghillie looked up once more, glaring at him with all the warmth of a store detective greeting the arrival of a serial shoplifter. Nick wasn’t surprised by his reaction. When you are the keeper on a top salmon beat every stranger is a potential poacher. He returned the old man's malevolent stare with equanimity. Fuck you, he thought to himself, the cat can look at the queen, can’t he? I might be a bankrupt and a failed businessman at the end of my tether but I am still a human being. Just about.

The woman wielding the rod fished on oblivious to his presence, appearing utterly intent on expertly covering every inch of the pool. For the first time he could see her face clearly and he felt certain that she looked familiar. She was dressed in a well-cut Barbour wading jacket, jeans and a smart-looking pair of green wellingtons. Round her neck was wrapped a white scarf. She was bare-headed. Her blonde hair was short and quite straight. She wore fashionable sunglasses. For the time being he could not put a name to the face, but he was sure she was some sort of celebrity, an actress perhaps or maybe someone from the world of modelling or music. She would certainly have to be either rich or very well-connected to be able to fish this stretch of water, one of the most exclusive beats on Deeside. Whoever she was he could see she was a looker, that was for sure, A cool, haughty beauty, like something that had just stepped out of the pages of Country Life. Someone who knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. And she wanted a fish and no ill-mannered rustic gawping down at her from a public road was going to stop her.

Despite the almost-tangible waves of animosity beaming up towards him Nick continued to watch the pair for another twenty minutes or so as they fished down through the pool. Three times more the old ghillie looked back up at him, plainly resenting his presence. The woman on the other hand never took her eyes off her fly, although she rose nothing. Despite her good casting technique Nick reckoned that she was moving the fly through the water too quickly for the time of year, not allowing it to sink down far enough to reach the fish. He knew from experience that a spring salmon, especially a big springer, will often appear lethargic and disinterested unless the lure swims slowly right past the end of its nose, and at this time of the year the fish always lay deep. He was surprised the ghillie hadn't pointed this out, or maybe he had but she thought she knew better. She looked like the kind of person who would always think she knew best.

When they had fished down through the pool the couple walked back along the bank to a landrover parked beside the bridge, about thirty metres from where Nick was standing. He could hear them muttering to each other and once more he was the recipient of a murderous look from the ghillie. He assumed that they were talking about him. From the safety of the bridge he enjoyed a mild feeling of satisfaction at the discomfiture his presence was creating – he had fallen so far below them in society’s pecking order this was probably the only way he would ever appear on their radar screens, in any other context he would have been invisible. Although he had never been a political animal for once he felt like he was doing his bit for his class. The underclass, actually, he admitted to himself with a rueful smile. It struck him at that moment that this was the first time he had smiled for weeks. The sudden realisation of what he had gone through in that time made him immeasurably sad. All the pain of trying to build up his own business simply wasn’t worth it and he’d been a fool to think otherwise. The sacrifices had all been in vain. He should have remained poor but happy.

A few minutes later the ghillie strapped the rod onto the bonnet of the landrover and the couple drove off across the meadow at speed, bouncing irritably across the rough pasture, scattering a herd of cows as they did so. Nick watched them go with mixed emotions. He realised that he simultaneously envied and hated them. Envied their privileged way of life, hated the social hierarchy that perpetuated it. He presumed they were off in search of a more promising stretch of water away from the public gaze. To make matters worse he felt snubbed by their abrupt departure in some strange way that he didn’t understand. Maybe he had once aspired to join them, or at least indulge in that kind of lifestyle. Yet another fantasy that had caused him to take risks he shouldn’t have done.

Another fish splashed in the river right below the bridge. And then another, ten yards below the first. Nick had caught hundreds of fish in his time and he could tell that these were big fish. Worth quite a bit when proffered round the back doors of some of the local fish merchants in town. He had regularly subsidised his fishing in the past by selling his catch in just such a way. Cash in hand. Tax-free. No questions asked. He frowned as he stared down at the river. An idea was beginning to take shape in his mind. It sounded crazy but…what if…poaching…on an industrial scale…Maybe the answer to his predicament was actually staring him in the face.
There were problems of course. For a start his debts were so enormous that he would have to catch every fish in the river if he was ever going to pay them off. But maybe that was the wrong way to think about it. He could certainly eke out an existence from poaching, he was sure of that. Not with a rod and line. A big net and a tin of poison from one of his farmer friends more like. He suddenly felt himself getting exited. The idea wasn’t too far-fetched. He knew the river like the back of his hand. The price per pound for wild salmon was high. The spring run was just getting under way, giving him at least six months in which to make enough money to keep a roof over his head and get that ghastly debt collector off his back. Maybe even buy him enough time to get a proper job that would finally get his life back on track.

There were other drawbacks naturally. Not the least of which was that the Dee was well policed by bailiffs. He knew they were equipped with walkie-talkies and night-sights and other high tech devices. They were mobile too, which he wasn’t. They had also, reputedly, a rough and ready way with the poachers they caught. On the other hand… On the other hand there was an awful lot of river to watch and provided you were well-camouflaged and kept your wits about you… Nor would he be operating in an alien environment. He knew the river round here at least as well as any keeper. There was no doubt about it: the idea had legs. He clenched his fists in front of his chest like a boxer. He wasn’t beaten yet. There was still hope.

He checked his watch. The afternoon was wearing on and he was a long way from home. He would be lucky to get back before Maureen and Martin arrived back from town, expecting to be fed. He took a last look at the deserted river. A silvery ribbon of hope weaving its way through the rich green pasture. A ribbon he would soon untie to claim his prize.

Nick retreated into the wood. His legs were stiff from standing still for so long, his feet were lumps of ice, he was chilled to the marrow, he hadn’t eaten all day. But for the first time in weeks he was happy. He had found a potential solution to his problems. It was up to him to make it work. He knew it was his last chance. He couldn’t wait to tell Maureen. She was the one who had really suffered in all this. Now he had a plan he would make it all up to her.

He strode out with a sense of purpose. He had played in the woods as a child and despite the encroaching darkness he soon found a track he recognised. He reckoned he was about eight miles from home. At least while he was still within the river’s ancient floodplane the track was flat and mostly free of snow and ice. Despite his tiredness he quickly got into his stride and was soon marching along at a brisk pace.

As he walked he tried to remember who the fisherwoman was that he had observed earlier down at the river. It really irritated him that he could not put a name to her face. She was definitely famous, almost certainly a film star, maybe even royalty. Maureen would have known who she was, she was good at that sort of thing.

After a while he gave up puzzling about the woman and started thinking about the meal he would prepare for Maureen and Martin. He was pretty sure he could spice up the tin of corned beef and maybe he could do the potatoes in a different way. Even the cabbage could be glamorised if he stir-fried it for example. Martin in particular loved spicy foods . It was a shame there wasn’t any drink in the house to celebrate his Big Idea. They would just have to make do with spring water. He was ravenously hungry and he started to salivate as he imagined the intensity of the flavours he would create. After the meal he would tell Maureen about his plan to rescue them from financial ruin. It occurred to him that he didn’t have to stop at salmon. He could reap salvation from the land not just by poaching salmon but by snaring rabbits and hares and shooting pheasants, maybe even the odd deer. What a feast that would make – like a medieval banquet. Now that spring was here he could dig up the garden and plant seeds and potatoes too. In future they would live off the land just like their ancient ancestors had done. Mushrooms and chanterelles could be picked in the autumn. Wild raspberries, gooseberries and damsons harvested in the summer. He wasn’t being romantic about it either – he wasn’t some old hippie or like someone out of the Good Life. Nor did he hark after the good old days when he knew only too well that life for most people on the land was nasty, brutish and short. What he was doing was entirely pragmatic. A short term solution to tide them over until he got a proper job. Maybe even chickens. They had a bit of land after all, nearly half an acre. Being realistic, sheep and pigs were probably out of the question. Raising animals to kill them wasn’t something he felt too comfortable about to tell the truth. All the same he smiled to himself at the miraculous way the day had been transformed. Where there had been despair there was now hope.

An hour later he reached the foot of the farm road. Wearily he trudged up the hill in darkness towards the cottage. To his great relief there were no lights showing so he figured Maureen and Martin weren’t back yet, they’d probably been held up by traffic in town, an increasingly regular occurrence nowadays. He felt guilty at the length of time he had been away. Really he should have been home a couple of hours ago to get the tea ready. If they did arrive home before the meal was ready it would mean that Maureen would be all harassed and resentful, while Martin too would be indignant that his tea wasn't ready and waiting as usual. Once again, in trying to work out a solution to their problems, he would have failed them abysmally. In desperation, despite his tiredness, he quickened his footsteps. Please God, he prayed as he struggled up the hill, please let me get it right this time. And he was just thinking about the meal either.