Sue Brooks‘ thoughts turn to neighbours with fish-rich gardens, and the herons who outsmart them.
March 17th. Five days before lockdown. Sunrise into a cloudless sky: a white column of smoke among dark conifers across the valley, long shadows over the fields. The heron comes silently to his viewing place on the roof of the shed next door. Below him, forty or fifty overfed goldfish and four gigantic carp glide in the dark waters of my neighbour’s pride and joy – his newly enlarged, four foot deep pond with enhanced pumping system and heron-proof netting stretched tight over the top. The heron flies down into the garden and I watch him disappear and then reappear close to the edge where the water runs smoothly over a concrete lip. Garden ornaments obscure the view except for his head and neck. Perhaps there is a small opening, just there where the water cascades, but surely too small, far too small to allow a lightning strike on a fish. I watch and wait, camera at the ready. Minutes go by…fifteen…twenty. I’m perched on the window sill and the NE wind is chilling. I take a break and return. The heron hasn’t moved. The camera has closed itself down. I’m distracted and look away. A sudden flurry of movement and the heron has gone. I fumble with the camera, try to focus, and the heron is there again – in full view with a fucking great goldfish in its mouth. I say “mouth” rather than beak, because it’s so monstrously fat – the goldfish – that the heron can’t deal with it. Can’t swallow it or get it the right way round to enter the throat. I press the shutter. One shot through dirty windowglass – not in focus, I’m sure, and no chance of another because the heron takes a couple of quick steps and lumbers off with flapping wings, the fish still clamped in its beak. THRILLING.
I’m still glorying in it an hour later, and other glory moments too. I’m thinking about Doug Cavey – another neighbour who dug a pond in his back garden and filled it with fish. Not goldfish: rainbow trout which he hatched in the bath tub and fattened up in the pond before releasing them into nearby fishing lakes. Doug Cavey, with his tin leg and BSA Bantam with a leopard skin saddle cover, the proprietor of KV PRODUCTS, LEATHER GOODS, SHOOTING and FISHING ACCESSORIES and a dog called Lady who travelled pillion. I remember all the personal details and where to find them. Chapter 4 of Love, Madness, Fishing by Dexter Petley. I read the chapter again, every sentence hammered out on the anvil and still sparking even though I’ve read some of them a dozen times. I’m looking for the liver episode. Here it is. Dexter, aged twelve, stays up late to do what he has watched Doug Cavey do every night at 10:30pm – feed the trout in the pond with small pieces of defrosted liver. Dexter cuts a corner off his own family’s liver for tomorrow’s dinner and creeps as close as he can to the garden hedge. He lobs the liver over towards the pond, but has forgotten about the chicken wire. It sticks to the wire and blood drips into the water. There was one listless swirl, then another until they were lashing at the wire, half a dozen trout about two pounds each throwing themselves at the mesh right under the Cavey’s kitchen window.
I can’t stop now. The book is dedicated to Doug Cavey, the true martyr of the rod. I need the fame and fortune AND the spectacular fall from grace. It comes in the last chapter, Chapter 15 where the sustained brilliance of the writing never fails to take my breath away.
Dexter Petley, at the end of his twentyninth year, finds himself on the Road to Damascus. He sees a vision, like a tryptych in a holy chapel and understands the simple truth: I was an angler after all. Scenes from childhood play out, fishing memories and insights, while he stands centre stage leaning up against a wall with his mother on the pay phone on his thirtieth birthday, witholding as she always does, the news from home. The six pages of this elaborate ritual are excruciatingly and magnificently slow, as I imagine it might be to land a fish of a certain temperament. The adult Dexter brings all his skills to bear: it is a majestic performance as he lets the silences build, gives her time, remains patient, and finally, finally he listens spellbound to her voice telling him the awful truth of Doug Cavey’s last walk down the front path.
I read to the end and the tears come, as they always do.
There is a hidden treasure to this day. It is on page 160, unnoticed until now. When Dexter picks up the solitary birthday card – from his mother – he hears flashbacks to the old Heron bite alarms ringing in his ears, Mark’s voice saying “Hit it Dex”. I look it up online and discover a Super Vintage Boxed Heron Bite Alarm for sale on Ebay at £49.99.
This one’s for you Dexter, with thanks.
You can read Dexter’s writing for Caught by the River here.
Love, Madness, Fishing is available here in our shop.