A Children’s Story. by Peter Rose.
It began on a bright warm morning in May. Down on the vegetable patch at the bottom of the garden Arthur and his dad knelt side by side in the earth.
“Right; first thing’s first” said dad. “This is the correct way to plant young leeks. Let me show you”.
“Step one” he announced picking up a smooth wooden stick “this is a dibber. This is what we use to dig the holes for the leeks to go into. Step two; pull the leeks, very gently, from their pots and drop them into the holes. Step three…”
“We fill them in!” Arthur frantically waved a trowel in the air.
“Not this time” said Dad. “Step three is watering. We’ll water each leek in turn and the soil just falls back into the hole naturally. No help from us”
After Arthur had dug the holes and lowered the little leeks into position he went off into the shed to fetch the watering can. The shed was old and rickety with a boarded up window, a door that didn’t shut properly and huge wispy white cobwebs that hung from the ceiling. Arthur looked around trying to locate the watering can amongst the clutter. Out loud, he listed all the different things he could see.
“Two paint pots, a hammer, a crash helmet, a lawn mower, a deck chair, three Wellington boots, a fork, a shovel, a spade, a plastic Christmas tree, a box of bird seed, a rugby ball, a goldfish bowl…”
And then something caught his eye. Something he had never noticed before. Underneath a rusty old bicycle wheel there was an old yellow newspaper and the photograph on the front page told Arthur that this was something he just had to have a closer look at. Quickly he lifted the wheel gently away from the wall of the shed and rolled it forward until he could bend down and pick up the newspaper. It had become brittle with age and the picture was faded and stained but despite this it still made an immediate impression on the young boy. A handsome man could be seen kneeling by a river dressed smartly in a dark jacket, a white shirt, a tie and a trilby hat. On his face was a big smile and in his hands he held a beautiful, and very large, barbel.
That night dad and Arthur sat at the kitchen table studying the ancient fishing paper, carefully turning the pages and reading aloud anything they found interesting.
Dad pointed at an advert for a bamboo roach pole. “Look at that. Your granddad had one of those”. He delicately lifted the page and turned it. Before long they came to an article written by the man whose photograph was on the front page. His name was Frank Cooper. Arthur read every word of the article. It told of how Frank had climbed a tall tree bending out over the river and, on a sunny afternoon, had spotted three gigantic barbel lying amongst thick green weed. Frank, very carefully, came down from the tree, baited a hook with a worm and cast it into a hole beside where he’d seen the fish. And then he crouched in the long grass, not moving a muscle, hardly even breathing, and waited and waited and then suddenly, in the space of a few minutes, he caught not one barbel but two.
As soon as Arthur finished reading the article he could think of only one thing. He wanted to meet Frank Cooper, and more than that, he wanted to go fishing with him. Dad lent back in his chair and sipped his tea.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, son. You see, Frank Cooper was a real big name in his day. He was about as famous as a fisherman can be; he wrote books and articles, and well, he caught more big fish in a year than most anglers did in a lifetime. But that was a long time ago. I don’t know if he still fishes but I heard he became a bit grumpy and prefers to be left alone. He certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the fishing papers anymore”.
“But look at that smile” Arthur said pointing at the photograph “he loves fishing!”
“Thirty years ago he did” Dad folded the newspaper and began to clear away the tea cups. “Things change as a man gets older”
“Change how?” Arthur asked. “What could change so much that you wouldn’t want to go fishing?!”
Arthur didn’t notice that his bedside lamp was attracting moths; he didn’t hear the gentle tap as they bumped against his window, he was too busy, sat crossed legged on his bed, writing a letter in his most careful handwriting.
“Dear Mr Cooper” he wrote but then changed his mind and drew a line through it. He started again on a new sheet of paper. “Dear Frank Cooper, I’ve been reading your books which I have borrowed from the library and they are terrific.”
He crossed out “terrific” and went with “excellent” instead.
“I hope one day I’ll be a fisherman as good as you and then I will catch big fish too. The biggest I’ve caught so far is a pike of 8.lb which I know isn’t very big compared to the pike in your books but I was very pleased with it. My dad said that you won’t reply to this letter but I wanted to write anyway and ask if you might like to go fishing with me and my dad one day. We wouldn’t get in your way and I reckon you’d enjoy it. I’d really like to learn from someone who’s obviously the best. Yours sincerely, Arthur Biggs.
Arthur didn’t know how to spell “sincerely” but he gave it a good try because he remembered his mum saying it was the correct way to end a letter. He folded the paper in half, put it back in the envelope and switched off the light.
Two weeks later Arthur didn’t notice the big red hot air balloon that was floating in the warm morning sunshine outside his window. He was too distracted by the envelope that had just arrived in the morning post; an envelope with his name on it.
“Go on then, open it” said dad.
Arthur carefully tore open the brown envelope and took out a small piece of white paper. He started to read.
“Dear Arthur Biggs, thank you for your letter which I received last…”
“Read it aloud” said dad “I want to know what it says too”.
Arthur started again.
“Dear Arthur. Thank you for your letter which I received last week. It is nice to know that there are still youngsters out there who enjoy getting out in the countryside and fishing just like I did when I was a boy. Now you can tell your dad that I always reply to a letter from a fellow angler, in fact I’ll tell him myself if you both accept my invitation to come fishing with me on the 16th June. I have been fishing somewhere called Willow Lake which you won’t have heard of. No one’s ever heard of it. There are carp in this lake bigger than submarines and they’re so clever that I haven’t yet found a way to outwit them. You could say they’re like ghosts, one glimpse of them in the water and they’ll haunt you. Every time you close your eyes you’ll see their backs breaking the surface of the water and slowly gliding away. I would be very happy for you both to join me for a day’s angling and, who knows, between us we might finally get one of these monsters onto the bank.
Best wishes, Frank Cooper.
The weeks slowly passed. Dad and Arthur were kept busy with school and work and, in the evenings and at weekends, with watering and weeding the vegetable patch. However, try as they might to take their minds off it; they were both incredibly excited about the upcoming trip.
Finally, at last, the day came.
Dad drove, Arthur sitting in the back reading one of Frank’s old books. They whizzed along the motorway, crawled through the road works, and just as the sun came up, wound their way along the thin country lanes that curled around the edges of bright green fields.
And then they saw Frank, standing by an old wooden gate, his rod bag over his shoulder, a wicker creel by his feet, looking older but just as jolly as he did in the photographs.
The three anglers, each carrying bags, seats, rods, nets and other assorted bits and bobs, crossed the field and disappeared into a large wood of beech, ash and oak trees.
“What does it feel like?” asked Arthur.
“What does what feel like?”
“To be famous”
“I’m not famous” Frank laughed. “Look at me. I’m hardly a pop star am I?” he said grinning and letting his top set of false teeth drop down from his gums.
“Is it true?” asked dad “What you said about this Willow Lake? Are the carp really that big?”
Frank became serious for a second. He looked at dad, then at Arthur. “They’re bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before”.
“But you’ve never caught one?”
“Not quite. Almost. But it’s only a matter of time. I’m certain of that. They’re wily.” He smiled “I’ve watched them in shallow water eat every grain of corn except for the one with my hook in it. But what would you expect? They’re the biggest fish I’ve seen in seventy years of angling. Hardly going to be a bite a cast, is it?”
After a few minutes they began to walk down a very steep hill. Dad wandered off in front leaving Arthur and Frank to dawdle along happily; Frank occasionally stopping for a rest. Frank had noticed that Arthur seemed almost embarrassed of the new carbon rod and shiny silver fixed spool reel that he carried.
“I see you’ve got modern tackle” he said “Do you like my old rod and reel?”
“Yes, I do” said Arthur. “Dad says you’re a traditionalist. That’s why you use a cane rod and a centre pin reel… That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up; I’m going to be a traditionalist.”
“Let me tell you something that’s very important” Frank sat on a bench that was positioned back from the path with a view down the hill. Arthur hopped up next to him. “This business, this fishing, it’s between you and the fish. They don’t mind whether you’re using a cane rod or a carbon one. They don’t care if you’ve got a plastic float that you bought from a tackle shop yesterday or if you’re using a bit of quill that belonged to your granddad’s granddad. That’s the sort of thing that might matter to men but not to fish”
Frank pointed down the hill at the shining plate of water partially visible through the trees.
“Down there, it’s just you and the birds and the plants and the trees and the fish. That’s the joy of it. As long as your tackle’s strong and it’ll bring the fish to the bank, that’s all you’ve got to worry about. Out here, there’s no one to judge you”.
The boy and the old man sat in silence for a few minutes and looked down the valley at the lake.
The bright red tip of a float poked up through the water. Arthur stared at it. He stared and stared, hardly blinking. This was his first cast and from the moment the float touched the water it just felt right; as if something was about to happen. He reached down to his bait box, lifted a handful of sweet corn grains and gently threw them around his float.
Frank, who was kneeling by Arthur’s side, could also sense that this first cast had promise. Minutes passed. Arthur’s hand hovered above the butt of the rod. Suddenly the lilies, by which Arthur had cast his float, began to move.
“Do you see that?” hissed Frank.
“There’s something in there” but these words of Arthur’s were spoken so quietly as to be almost inaudible.
And then the float bobbed. Up, down and up again.
“Get ready…” Frank whispered.
And then the float went under.
Arthur struck and instantly the rod bent double. What a commotion! The water exploded, the lilies parted and the fish tore off into the deeper water.
“I can’t stop it!”
“Just take your time” said Frank. “I’ll get your dad. Play it nice and steady. Don’t rush it”
Frank disappeared down the bank leaving Arthur to play the fish alone. He took his time. He played it nice and steady and he didn’t rush it at all, letting the fish take line and only applying pressure when it swam too close to the tree lined island in front of him. Although he was doing fine he was very relieved when dad and Frank came running along the bank towards him.
“I haven’t seen it yet” Arthur said “I can’t get it up off the bottom”.
“Don’t try to rush it, son” Dad picked up the landing net and squatted down low by some reeds.
The fish fought a few minutes more. Keeping close to the bottom it battled powerfully; surging doggedly into the depths. Arthur held the rod up and let the fish take line.
Finally it came up in the water and broke the surface.
“It’s a tench!” yelled Frank. “It’s a big tench!”
Arthur began to retrieve line and could eventually bring the rod back steadily, pulling the fish into the soft black mesh of the landing net.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. After admiring, photographing and returning the big fat yellow bellied tench, the three fishermen returned to their fishing.
Arthur continued to float fish by the lily pad.
Dad made the long cast to the margins of the island. Every now and again you’d hear the twang of his catapult as he fired out bait.
And Frank sat under a willow tree in the shade. Digging his hook into a large piece of bread crust he spent the day watching it lightly drift back and forth in the summer breeze.
“That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught” Arthur said of the tench.
“Willow Lake must like you” Said Frank as they ate their sandwiches together. “I had to fish here five times before I caught my first fish”.
“This place is so nice I could sit here all day and not even cast out” said Arthur.
Frank smiled. “That’s precisely how I feel about it” he said.
Willow Lake had decided one fish was enough for today and wouldn’t give away any more of its secrets. But the anglers fished on until the sun went down and as they packed up they heard the thundering crashes of big carp rolling in the dark.