Filling in the …
By Simon Smith
The streamers seem barely to have stopped falling, the chime of bells quit ringing out in our ears, and already we are almost a week into this New Year. Well, at least, it is according to the Gregorian system of marking time.
My life, unfortunately, never seems to follow quite such a straightforward path, so constantly is it caught in the crosscurrents of many other systems. We are a few months from the end of the financial year, a third of the way into the academic year, the liturgical year has only barely begun, and the first new shoots of spring are as yet a distant thought. Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether I am coming or going or merely bobbing about helplessly somewhere in the middle.
So, what now?
Some will spend their time looking back, picking over the bones of what has passed, but I won’t be amongst their number. I am usually hugely enthusiastic about Christmas but even I, after a slightly unpleasant year, am glad to leave it behind for once. The season of Christmas will soon be over anyway; in a strangely apt kind of symbolism a large fir, downed by recent winds, lies half-leaning across the mountain path I’m walking as it turns to face back in toward the Afan Valley. The valley itself is almost as hollow as this post-season period. I have read that it is the disease Phytophtora Ramorum or, to give it its tabloid moniker, ‘Sudden Oak Death’, that is responsible for the emptiness of the hills. Large swathes of larches have been infected, the disease proliferating in the milder, wet conditions caused by our prevailing south-westerly winds, meaning that they have had to be felled, stripped and stacked, and now lie piled up in eerie stacks like some great wooden elephant graveyard.
The departure of Christmas will pave the way for the less than inspirational sounding Ordinary Time, which will itself be followed by the austerities of Lent, so perhaps it’s best not to think too far ahead for solace either.
There will be lots of timid beginnings now – notebooks folded along spines and marked with ‘Dear Diary’; brand new pairs of trainers and jogging kit will be unwrapped and slipped on, and perhaps for the first time, new packets of cigarettes will not be bought to replace those just smoked. A few of these will last and become something more permanent, and some will simply end just as quickly as they began, the training kit tossed to the back of the wardrobe or the pages ripped from the notebooks.
Others, less concerned with resolutions perhaps, having enjoyed their life to the full over the last year, will simply set their faces into whatever is to come and wait in an excited anticipation of the unknown, treating it as one big, shiny new fresh start.
Many others, like me, won’t have a clue which way to turn, so it will simply be a case of taking it one step at a time.
Next comes Epiphany with its thoughts of the Adoration of the Magi. Imagine the distance they must have wandered; imagine the terrain they must have had to negotiate to reach their destination. Maybe not so bad though, when you carry with you the utter certainty that you need only follow the light of one star to complete your journey.
There was not just one, but a sky full of bright stars draped over my head last night, yet no such certainty for me as I packed the car. Momentarily they would disappear behind plumes of my own breath and drifting banks of thickening cloud, but then there they were again, simply hanging there in the sky’s freezing clarity, neither they nor I seeming to have any kind of direction about us. Why do I do it? It was clearly a night for warm memories and hot tea and yet, against all better judgement, I had no choice but to go. I had been away from the water for a couple of weeks and maybe the codling would be feeding; maybe I’d be able to pick up a few whiting.
Maybe there would be nothing.
Parking the car, I began to unpack the box and the rods. In the short time it had taken to drive to the beach the sky had closed in. Even the car still wore its mantle of frost as though unsure whether I would be staying or turning back for home. But I was committed now. Here was a gap in the night that could only be filled by the sound of groundswell, the ping of line running through the rod rings. I pulled on my boots, shouldered the rod sling, grabbed the bucket and began to trudge the road that would lead me to the breakwater.
After only a few steps the first flakes of snow finally began to fall.
The sky that had been skulking about for the previous ten minutes had at last been embarrassed into action as though found out as a ditherer, and from such unpromising beginnings the wind found its sting, the flurry strengthened and suddenly everything was whiteout, finally lending at least a little credence to the sensationalist tabloid headlines that had bellowed ‘WORST WINTER IN 100 YEARS’ and ‘FIVE MONTHS OF SNOW MISERY ON THE WAY’ from their front pages over the last two months.
High tide was only an hour away and so, more out of necessity than judgement, instead of heading right toward the breakwater I could no longer see, I turned left. This path, I figured, would take me to the estuary where I could tuck myself behind the dunes, setting up my large umbrella out of the worst of the wind and snow.
Already the flurry was starting to lay a powdery crust from which my feet had started to take crunching bites. Looking back over my own tracks, they were already smudging into a fuzzy obscurity, the snow falling away from my feet mingling with the fresh falling powder that, together, did their best to erase my presence from the scene, leaving not so much something that could be described as footprints, but indefinable holes or gaps where the snow had been disturbed.
Strangely, far from being a dead loss, I often find that times like these are the best way of discovering anything new – new paths, new directions, new fishing spots – to allow myself to simply wander, blown about by luck and circumstance like a grain of sand until I fetch up against a place that stops me in my tracks. For the present, it’s often better to live in the first draft with all its sketchy outlines, and let the technicalities come later when there’s more information to play with. At the beginning though, all the new experiences should just be allowed to accrete slowly, the way a dune is formed, building and accumulating and giving life to these new places along fishing’s vast songlines in the process.
Despite my pioneer outlook, I soon realised that I wouldn’t be the one to lay down this track. Coming down into the lee of the dune, the sand here hadn’t quite been covered in so much snow, leaving exposed an old bait packet and a few loops of monofilament line so sun-bleached that they could have been laid here six months or six years ago, uncovered now by the recent winds. But then, even those who walked out the animist songlines of the Antipodes never laid down anything that could be seen as final, preferring instead to sing their own version of the song loosely based around the verses left lying around the landscape for them. Maybe I had stumbled across a rickety old verse of this one, waiting for someone to just come along and sharpen it up, improving it with their own fortunes.
There were still blanks enough ahead of me though, as there are in front of any angler, the first of which lay dark and questioning immediately in front of me. The question might be phrased slightly differently, whether it be the slow coursing of the stream through the countryside, the endlessly deep ponds and lakes of literature and lore that have burrowed in to outplot and outwait mankind, or the tide that fails to make up its mind twice a day. The effect is always the same though. In such a state of unknowing the imagination begins to compensate, sketching in some of the details. Perhaps there’s an undercut hole in the bank beneath your feet and, conjured up to occupy it, a fat chub or a scarred old pike waiting for an easy meal to wash down on the current. In the never-resolved jigsaw of the summer surf was that a bass, or perhaps a mullet? Or was it just weed?
Then to the cast. Near bank or far bank? Slow sink or medium sink? Overhead thump to thirty yards or pendulum cast to a hundred and thirty? And what lies in all that untouched water in between the two?
Perhaps the secret is solved, the blank filled in and the cast results in a take. In comes the fish, further, further still until, with a sickening twang, the line parts and leaves the angler with only a tall tale and a small piece of punctuation representing that one big question that will forever remain uresolved, and why not? Life’s no fun when you have all the answers.
Sometimes, the line between memory and imagination becomes so blurred we forget which are the lived moments and which are the imaginings. As a boy, I spent hours roaming the land around the local lake formed by an inactive dock once used by the local steelworks. A true edgeland, areas of grass and shrub were punctuated by rubble patches and small piles of scrap metal – paradise for a young boy. Day after day of exploration and adventures to make any Health and Safety executive break into a sweat were lived, then logged away. Only years later, when I asked my father, a steelworker, about some of the things I remembered, were any of these experiences called into question.
First up was the house at the end of Dock Road. Dock Road was the name of the track that ran from the town centre down to the river bridge near the street where I grew up, but never was it an actual road or street. Yet I remember clearly wandering further than usual one day, then stumbling across the remains of an end-of-terrace house. Like one of those black and white images of a blitzed city in the Second World War, or some kind of gigantic doll’s house, I could see both floors and even some of the attic space where the side wall had collapsed away, though not enough to remove the sign at the top that read DOCK ROAD. As I looked over it I imagined the invented lives of dockers and harbourmasters lived within those walls, and the now absent walls of others in the terrace. When I recounted these details to my father, he looked at me blankly, shook his head and told me that he had never heard of a Dock Road in his life.
Nor had he heard of the fish pit, the next memory I told him about.
Clear as day, a sunny day in fact, I was bumbling about my stamping grounds when I nearly stumbled into a sunlit pit around a hundred feet deep. With nothing to mark it out, and surrounded by grass and bramble, the pit couldn’t be seen unless you were standing over it and staring down, as I was, looking into it as it descended to a pool, the surface of which was around twenty feet across. However, it was not the pit itself that held my attention, but what was swimming around in it.
Bright sunlight streamed down upon the surface of the pool which must, somehow, have been fed by some subterranean tunnel, allowing four or five huge fish to enter, cruising around in the sunlight. With hindsight, I imagine that they were probably mullet, but as I hadn’t yet begun my fishing career, I had no idea what they were; I could only gawp on as they languidly wound S and unwound Ƨ through that bright patch of water.
Again my father denied all knowledge of any such pit, but even today, when I watch the summer mullet shoals winding upriver with the tide or the bass silhouetted against the breakwater’s rocks, I think of that pit and those fabulous fish I never managed to wet a line for. To this day I still don’t know whether or not I imagined these things, but I’ve happily come to settle on the idea that I’ll never know, that they’re always going to exist somewhere between fantasy and reminiscence, much like many of the best memories that life decides to leave us with.
The weather continued to close in, so I found an accessible spot to get the brolly up and the lantern lit, throwing the area behind its reach even further into shadow. The small hooks were baited with ragworms, prawns and mussels and quickly flung out into the dark before I retreated back to my seat, into a vacuum of silence and snow.
Gently, the spackling of snow on the umbrella settled into a steady rhythm and became the cadence of rain on a crusty old tarpaulin as I remembered myself back in the den I built with my friend a few hundred yards upstream over twenty-five years before. We beat the little hollow into the jungle of vegetation with sticks, dragging into its green cupola an old sofa we found, making it rainproof with that length of old tarpaulin, and we were everything we had ever dreamed we might be – princes, fugitives, men at ease with the great wide world into which we’d carved our own little cosy nook away from parents and homework and the thought of growing up. For the summer days that the den was in our lives we were Lost Boys.
Of course, we soon came to realise that nothing ever lasts, arriving one morning to find that a passer-by, the local homeless man most likely, had found it in the night as Ratty and Moley had stumbled across Mr. Badger’s front door, and had bedded down for the night, leaving behind a gift of empty cider bottles and worn-down cigarette butts.
I had an early taste then of what acquaintances would later describe as the feeling when their house had been burgled – that sense of defilement that forever tarnished a place, taking away the sense of homely belonging for the owner. We went back once or twice after that, but the end of the summer holidays saw its complete abandonment. Soon after, the unbroken spine of dunes that formed our scrubby outpost of the town began to take the weight of development as house after red-bricked house was loaded upon the place where it had been, just as the progressive cares of life were placed on ours – education, jobs, families, all of which led me half a mile and a quarter-century back downstream to a cramped spot under an umbrella and the ceaseless tapping of snow reminding me that, even after all that time, I hadn’t really come so far after all.
Nibbles weren’t long in arriving, though they didn’t warrant any action as there were only small fish out there pecking at the bait, too small to even hook themselves easily. I sat back further onto my seat, occasionally glancing up at the rod tips, but more often watching the still falling flakes accumulate upon the sand and the rocks around me, piling up softly on top of the reels, the rod rings, hearing its continual patter against the umbrella’s fabric so that I was put in mind of the seventeenth century Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s poem:
on the half-finished bridge.
Where would it eventually lead to, that bridge? Was it ever completed? I wondered if he ever gave in to that childish little voice inside all of us that would surely have urged him to take a step out onto that half-finished bridge, just one step, and look down over the edge. Bridges would have been important to a man like Basho, always on the go, journeying on foot around Japan’s Edo Five Routes, coming to observe and know and love the changing of seasons and the progressions of life and death around him. For him, much of the joy of walking was the aloneness on a journey, the getting away from the bustle of life and the growing band of admirers that had begun to recognise his poetry. Even the dream written about in his last recorded poem is a wandering one, allowing his imagination to roam out across the landscape as he himself physically began to fail:
…only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors.
Ah, hopefully there would be no failure for me though - there was a proper bite. And another. My fingers were freezing winding the rig in, but mercifully, it didn’t take long before the fish emerged from the water – a dab that must have weighed all of two ounces.
This was it? This was all I was going to get? I began to make an effort to work the whole thing out: ten pounds on bait; a couple of pounds on petrol to get me there and back home again; not to mention the minor fortune spent on tackle. Then, of course, there were the adversities of the weather. I put up with all of this and all I was going to get out of it was one single, solitary dab that barely covered the palm of my (shrivelled, very cold) hand and was almost as transparent as a sheet of tracing paper.
But then, I wondered if it can it ever be so simply balanced like this? Does
[B]ait + [T]ime fished = [S]uccessful angling?
On the other hand, perhaps
[E]nthusiasm ² x [T]ime fished + [Fi]sh caught = [H]appiness
√[S]atisfaction = [T]ime fished x [F]ish caught
The thought that angling could be reduced down to some simple equation began to depress me, and I was never much good at Maths anyway, so I plopped the fish back and retreated to the shelter to try to restore some circulation to my withering digits with a warming cup of tea.
Suitably revived, I began to give that little fish a bit more credit. First, it managed to hold its own in all the tide and weed, and then it managed to find my bait and, somehow, muster enough energy to tug on the line enough for me to see the bite. Not bad at all.
So how did I measure up, the great judge and jury over all things piscatorial? Going back nearly two thousand years, another poet, the Greco-Roman Oppian, had very clear views as to what made a good angler, laying down his ideas in no uncertain terms in his great fishing poem Halieutica. Let’s see:
“First of all the fisher should have body and limbs both swift and strong”.
Okay, admittedly I’m not maybe as quick or as fit as I was ten years ago, but I like watching a bit of rugby.
“Cunning of wit, too, and wise should the fisher be since many and various are the devices that fishes contrive”.
I’ve been called many things in my life but I can’t remember wise being amongst them. Cunning? I’m probably the only man on the planet that has as little common sense as this.
Okay, there’s got to be something in my favour here. What’s the next thing?
“Daring also should he be and dauntless…”
Well, there was that time that I filled my flask with coffee rather than tea.
“He must not love satiety of sleep, but must be keen of sight, wakeful of heart and open-eyed.”
It was pretty strong coffee.
“He must bear well the wintry weather.”
No problem. This floatation suit keeps out the worst of the weather, although there is this annoying leak I meant to fix that lets the rain down the back of my neck…
Hm. Perhaps I’d not be so quick to judge next time.
After that first dab things quietened off considerably and the temperature eased itself further downward. True, there was to be no chance of a great journey from beneath my umbrella, but neither was I quite ready to go home yet. Perhaps there was still time to add another detail or two to the session.
There was no rush anyway as this place was mine now; it had been added to the collection, and whether this was through discovery or adoption it mattered little. Places like these are important – the often unvisited or forgotten corners tucked away like secret pockets in an old coat. Like these pockets that turn up old shopping lists and hand-scrawled notes that cryptically allude to an event long since lost to time and memory, there’s just enough that is familiar about them to maintain interest, but just as much of the unknown that piques the curiosity.
I’d like to think that had Basho been there with me, huddled under the umbrella’s nylon rather than in one of the bashō huts built for him by admirers, he’d have appreciated my little stand and its attempt to soldier on and finish the session. Perhaps he’d have leaned over and uttered a few wise observations to while away the hours whilst everywhere around us the snow kept falling, its cherry blossom flakes, endless beginnings, drifting like little asterisks through the night.