Title story from the book by the same name.
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“It is a very good quality in a man to have a trout stream.”
– George Elliot, Middlemarch
Deadlines and jam sandwiches are not high on my list of favourite things. I
guess they hold too much memory of school years, of regimental anguish, of
times that were nothing if not melancholic, rooted in ennui and dependence.
Thankfully those years were brief, passing in the blink of an eye and soon enough
the curtain of destiny came slamming down on my ignominious academic career
around the time of a sixteenth birthday. Nonetheless they set a pattern. Ever
since, and notwithstanding a subsequent lifetime of modest achievement, I still
feel a strange discordance whenever I am around any kind of campus, as if I
were a miscreant, still trespassing.
And so it came to be that long years after shaking the dust of academia from
the by then well-worn heels of my sneakers, my first-born, Sean, in his final
year at a reputable school in Grahamstown, demanded my presence at a formal
dinner in his dormitory. So as not to unduly embarrass the boy, or disgrace
those hallowed halls, I went out and bought what I thought to be appropriate
attire. Properly advised by a bespoke tailor to many generations of well-bred
toffee-nosed snotarses, I found myself the bemused owner of a charcoal singlebreasted
day suit and a pair of finely stitched black Italian leathers. They fitted
like a dream, but would be useless in a river or on any mountain slope. The
soles just did not have any grip.
Sean, unused to seeing me so attired and not expecting it, looked straight
through me, at first with not a shred of recognition – and it began to dawn upon
me that I was in for a jammed-sandwich deadlined weekend.
“Hey Pa? Is that you? What happened? You look like a hippy in a hired wedding
suit. Did you get robbed or something?”
I explained the purity of my impulsion. He grimaced.
“It’s sweet of you, but you should have stuck to jeans, you might have looked
less like a horse’s ass”, he confided gently.
I love that boy and like Abraham could happily have sacrificed him.
The expedition was not entirely a debacle. For brief moments I basked in the
glory of my boy’s academic accolades and sound socialisation, but more to the
point, I got to stop over along the Hogsback on my way home. In the sweetscented
pines with my bespoke trousers wound up around my bespoke knees
I spent long moments rolling casts over a chuckling stream, catching a half dozen
firm-fleshed tiny rainbows and gathering a punnet of perfect little cep (Boletus
edulis) buttons from beneath the forest carpet. What a breakfast they made
seared in a skillet of bacon and butter on an open fire.
The Hogsback, not unlike the hills where I now live, enfolds often in a skirl of
swirling mist, which softens the light until the landscape turns as grey and as
granular as a newsprint photograph. Time itself becomes just another velvetsoft
midrange tonal shade. It is a fine backdrop for a breakfast and though the
memory is now more than twenty years distant, in my mind’s eye I still savour
the bouquet of that mess of mushrooms, crisped fingerlings and musty pine.
It all seems so far away now that the circus blare of modern media marketing
has swept up flyfishing and its once-hidden valleys, its crystal streams and the
still, deep waters where wild fish fin. The spotlight’s glare has entirely passed
by the Hogsback and its trout, and they are today as reclusive as they ever were.
I doubt there are many modern fishermen around who even know of their
existence – and that makes them pure in a way that the monster fish adorning
the glossy pages of fishing magazines never can be.
You will guess perhaps that back then I was at heart a romantic and, as such,
not of much use in real relationships or their servicing. Nevertheless, with Sean
it was different and I took him fishing often, not that it did him any good. The
little ingrate has, with scant appreciation for the many hours we spent together
at waters’ edges, grown to contemn things piscine.
His aversion was never for the water itself, for he has to the contrary given
every appearance of a fondness for the stuff. He will, for instance, lie for hours
on a surfboard beyond shark-infested reefs with the waves crashing down around
him. He will swim in it, dive in it, and too often for his own good grunt and shove
the afternoon away with a dozen testosterone-riven jocks in a polo pool. At the
drop of a hat he will sail single handed in a flimsy craft across great oceans of
endless water. Far latitudes and the treachery of their currents hold no peril for
him. He will raft for days on end down raging torrents on the Zambezi and the
Orange. Even in full spate they are too tame for him.
Given half an opportunity and the right kind of moon, he would, no doubt, like
any healthy young animal, in the course of a summer midnight swim allow
himself to be shamelessly seduced by gaggles of young maidens and think no
more of it than as bitch-creek nymphing.
Yup, he likes water and has a keen appreciation for all things natural, as long as
they are bereft of any angling inference or instrument.
This aberration of his, specific as it is to fishing, betrays an unhealthy pessimism
at his core. Any angler, no matter how depressive he might be in the rest of his
affairs, is naturally and unerringly an optimist when on the water. Every tug and
snag felt in the line is transformed by the mind, if only for a second, into a
leviathan of a fish, a moment of pure joy Every weed, every branch, all flotsam
and jetsam, whatever might brush his line, galvanises the true angler in a way
that is instinctive and primordial.
But with my boy it is different. Once we went fishing at Sterkfontein Dam.
There, with a good four-pound rainbow trout cavorting at the end of his line, he
proved for all time that he is afflicted with a whole string of regressive genes.
“It’s probably a plastic shopping bag,” he said languidly with his hands in his
pockets while his rod juddered and bucked all over the boat’s transom.
“It’s a fish, you freaking weirdo,” I told him with stern paternalism.
“Nah, I never catch anything,” he reminded me.
Youth is wasted on him. While filled with his full due of boundless energy, of
passion and of dreaming, he has not the patience that distance brings and
without which there can be no fishing. Though he is happy enough to accompany
me on my outings into God’s own country, an invisible line separates us. Where
I turn my attention to fish and their watery realms and am bound to their orbits,
he finds distractions in the fields and hills all around. I have become reconciled
to it and no longer try to suck him into piscatory adventures.
Just a few months ago, with summer at its height, my penchant for fishing
brought me face-to-face yet again with a whole universe of new discovery. The
warm, wet solstice evenings saw unrestrained hatches of aquatic insects, many
entirely new to me. They came rising off the water in clouds, accompanied by
the meaty splashes of large, surface-feeding trout. For once my vast collection
of fishing flies was found wanting. Evening after evening, with skeins of bugs
spinning into the dusk, I was caught without a match for the hatch. The situation
was intolerable and I set about its remedy.
In no time I was hunched over my fly-tying table, surrounded by all the bits of
fur, feather, floss and fluff our craft is cluttered with and renowned for. With
samples of the living creatures as a guide, I undertook the construction of all
manner of cunning imitations. Chief among my labours was an attempt to imitate
a little shell-backed iridescent green bug, a member of the chrysomelidae family
that at times blanket the water, bringing the feeding fish to a boil.
Late one night, while all around me the household slept, I burnt the midnight
oil intent on conjuring a replica of the prismatic little beetle. Sean padded into
the room bearing two mugs of scalding tea. He flopped into the rocking chair
next to my fly-tying operation.
“What have we here, dad?”
“It’s that little green leaf-chewing bugger that has been keeping the fish from
eating my flies,” I told him.
“Wow, that’s really cool,” he said, his eyes lighting up with an enthusiasm that
I dared not trust. “Here, let me try one.”
He pushed my mug over to where I would need to rise if I hoped to reach it.
As I did, he slid into my tying chair and adjusted the magnilight.
“We use them to catch trout,” I reminded him.
“Do you have any larger hooks?” he asked, bending purposefully into the task.
Could this be true? Was my boy finally after all these years evincing an honest
interest in something so seminal as fly tying? Was this moment a harbinger of
things more glorious to come? I warmed with an inner glow and paternal pride
welled into my eyes.
I showed him around the tying table, with each shelf baize-lined and
compartmentalised, every part snugly filled with neatly-fitting tubs and containers,
the translucent canisters packed with premixed dubbings, the threads and
waxes, the furs – muskrat, seal and rabbit. And then I pointed to the skins, in
olive, furnace, blue dun, cream and amber, the dyed buck, squirrel and calf tails.
We went through the feathers of jungle cock, golden pheasant, woodcock,
grouse and old English game cock, the teal and mallard wings, the widgeon
and ptarmigan. And the hooks: sneck, snell, limerick and perfect, in every size
from minuscule thirty-two’s to the brutal sixes and fours. I opened the tool
drawer so that he might help himself to thread bobbins, cement needles, hackle
pliers, whip finishers, wing burners, teasers and parachute hackle gallows.
“Wow,” he said.
The moment was deeply emotional. Overcome almost, I left him to it, concerning
myself elsewhere so that he could find his own pace and unsheathe his own
creativity. When I went to bed a few hours later he was still hard at work,
hunched over the vise and surrounded by a halo of light that in my conceit
seemed to radiate from his very centre.
Days later, I tagged him.
“How did your flies turn out?” I asked ingenuously.
He dug into a pocket and removed a pair of oversized hooks cunningly dressed
in a rainbow of colour. But the points had been filed down and coated, each
with a neat blob of pearlescent epoxy.
“I call them millennium bugs,” he said smugly.
“Whadaya do that for?” I asked, perplexed. “You have entirely wrecked a pair
of very fine titanium-coated, chemically-sharpened fishhooks.”
“Can’t you see they are earrings? It’s R’s birthday and I forgot to get her a gift,”
he said, nonchalantly slipping them back into a pocket. “Daddy dear, if you think
they’re for fishing, you’re still a horse’s ass.”
After all these years, my boy remembers and it helps not a jot to bemoan the
passing of innocence.