by Steven Berry
The bushes were lush, tangled, and deep, Nature’s very own labyrinth. But obscured in the view was a glistening jewel of water untouched except for the minorities who stumbled upon its beauty by mere chance, like Keith Jameson and his boy, Ben.
‘Christ, place is a goddamn maze,’ Keith moaned, with his hands clasped around the map and his fishing tackle at his feet among the leaves and pine cones. He circled himself realizing with stark hopelessness that they had wasted about two hours of good fishing time. ‘We’ve already lost a lot of time; if we don’t find it in the next hour we might as well go home.’
Ben’s face dropped into a saddened sneer. He started into the bushes, whipping branches out of his way with a stick stripped of its bark.
‘This way, no point heading deeper in,’ Keith said, swatting insects from his face. ‘Ben!’
The teenager with light ginger hair clenched his stick and dug it into the ground. ‘Coming.’
The wind blew softly in the trees and rustled the mountains of leaves on the ground. ‘I can hear water.’
Ben ignored his dad’s instructions and hiked off into the trees.
Keith swung the tackle on to his shoulder and started after him. ‘BEN!!!’ He gritted his teeth and pursued, busting through the bushes and branches until he reached his boy standing besides a pond shimmering in the sun. Insects risking their luck and lives on the surface of the water, tempting the carp with a quick and easy snack.
Ben had an excited kind of you-can-trust-me sort of look on his face.
Keith dropped the fishing tackle on the grassy bank beside the pond and trotted a few paces to the edge. The water looked like gin. It was as if someone had set up an immense, sophisticated filtration system. In parts, where the surrounding trees didn’t camouflage its clarity, you could see fish swimming about in the shadowy depths amidst the submerged plant life. The forest of reeds and natural Irises on the opposite side of the pond trembled at its base with disturbance.
Keith turned back to his boy with a look of amazement on his face.
Ben, hands tucked under his armpits, stared back blissfully. ‘Never... I ain’t never seen natural water that clean.’ And suddenly a terrible look of lost hope flashed across Ben’s face.
‘You don’t think, you know, we can’t fish here.’ Keith looked around, spotting a slab of wood established into the shape of a simple bench next to the water’s edge.
‘There ain’t any signs, if someone comes and says something, then we’ll move, but how hidden this place is...’ He didn’t need to say any more.
Ben’s face loosened, and he went and got the fishing tackle.
It took about twenty minutes to get started up; Ben didn’t have the experience or knowledge in setting up his own rod and line. He was actually using a pole; he found it simpler to use. Keith used his normal rod, a Reel Master, a rod older than his teenaged son. This rod was a companion; it had been with him through the rough years, through the dark years. Those days were long gone. Those were days when Ben was too scared to even think about a day out fishing with his dad.
Keith finally got his line in the water at twenty past eleven. Ben had felt a few nibbles but nothing heavy. He was already drinking the can of Pepsi his mother had packed him.
Keith rose up from his seat when the little yellow-tipped float shot under the water.
Ben watched eagerly as his dad wrestled with the line, spinning the reel when he felt it was necessary. ‘You want the net?’ Ben had abandoned his line to help. The water splashed and thrashed about. ‘The net, Dad, you want the net?’ he cried.
Edging to the bank. The strained look on Keith’s face was frightening. His eyes were bulging from the sockets, his skin crimson red and prominently veined. His temples beating under his flesh.
‘Yeah, get it!’ Keith shrieked, and Ben did so, casting an eye back to his own line and saw the float dart under the water. ‘No, noooo!!!’ He scrambled back to his pole, hurrying to catch the bite before it went. ‘Please, please.’ He held the pole with both hands and tried to pull it in.
Then without expectation, with a sharp toof sound a piece of rod took to the air like a spinning javelin. Keith’s line landed in the trees on the opposite side of the pond.
Ben glanced from his bewildered and frustrated dad to his own line, which he couldn’t handle. The fish was lunging all over the place like a kite caught in a hurricane, pulling Ben with him.
‘My rod...’ Keith muttered, trying to laugh, but couldn’t find the humour, he could taste the frustration. ‘Twenty years,’ he sniggered, turning to Ben, who had his own fight to deal with.
Then in a rage of strength, Ben lifted the fish into the warm air. Beads of water dripped off its smooth, tender body. The pole was bent like a warped pencil. ‘Help me. Get the net?’ he shouted, urgent and excited at the same time.
Keith looked at him, to the fish, and then at the remains of his Reel Master.
‘Dad, hurry.’ Keith turned away, staring at the rod bag, feeling bitter yet ashamed. ‘Dad...’
Keith huffed. He wiped the sweat off his face, and grabbed the landing net from off the ground.
Ben finished taking a leak in the bushes and zipped up his fly. He wiped his hands on the grass, and eyed the etchings carved into the weathered timber of the bench.
‘Sixty-nine; Willis of sixty-nine,’ he read aloud, glancing up to see what his dad thought. He was facing the water.
Keith had been determinedly quiet since his Reel Master had snapped and flew to the skies like a boomerang, even more so when Ben landed the eight-pound Roach. That just topped things off nicely. He went back to his seat and waited for another bite. So far it was one to nothing.
It was about twenty minutes after one o’clock that Keith got his new line in the water — using a standard rod and reel — and got his next bite. He had started on his first cup of tea, served from a green Thermos flask when the float dipped. He flicked his reel and stood up, yanking the rod easily. The water rippled. Ben rose to his feet.
‘Want the net?’
‘No, I’ve got this sussed, watch your own line. We saw what happened last time.’ Keith started reeling slowly, his strategy unyielding. He gripped the rod’s handle a little firmer, and then with an explosion of arrogance and delight he brought the two-pound fish from the water. It was flapping but had now stiffened into fright.
‘You gonna weigh it?’ Ben asked, looking over from his seat.
Keith shook his head and freed the fish from his barbless hook. ‘This thing ain’t worth it.’ Keith held the slender fish in his hand, feeling its smooth stomach against his fingers, and for an odd second he felt like squeezing it until its guts erupted. He placed the fish in the keep net, attached another maggot to his hook, and thought to himself: All level now.
Just then, Ben got another bite, a three-pound Carp. This only prodded Keith’s inflamed annoyance a tad further.
Once his line was back in the pond, swimming to gain balance, Keith catapulted maggots into the water around his float. He remained quiet, sipping warm tea.
Ben had another and he let the world know with a cheer. Three one, Keith thought, and felt a dense obscurity of frustration run through him, but the odd thing was he wanted it to stay.
Ben zipped up again after his second visit to the bushes and headed back to his seat, wondering why his wee had been steaming when it wasn’t cold out. The only thing that was cold was his dad’s attitude. Something about him had changed. He was stubborn, grim, and in parody of his old but unforgotten self. The sagging lumps under his eyes had returned. His sullen glare, and his voice, the way he spoke: choky and rough, as if he had a throat infection or something. It was all too much like the old days. Days when he wasn’t bothered about lashing out.
‘Is everything all right?’ The current in the water had started stirring again. If you were on a canal then you’d expect a boat to come floating down sometime soon.
‘Fine,’ he answered, leaning down to grab a handful of maggots.
‘Throw a few by mine.’ Keith tossed them into the water around his own float.
‘Some by mine.’ Ben said, turning to look at him.
Keith chucked a few into the water. ‘Tahh.’
Keith straightened his back and arms, pouring a fresh cup of tea, and wondering why the day’s fishing had been so terrible. He filled his plastic cup, and couldn’t bring himself to look at his boy. Keith peered back to the water, and stood up slowly in disbelief. ‘You’ve gotta be joking.’ There had to be about thirty fish swimming in frantic masses around his float, gulping for air and insects.
Ben came and stood next to him. Keith was up with his hands on his hips. ‘Not one bite, all them and not one bite, it’s like they know.’ More aggravated, Keith moved away from his creel and took a break in the cool, silent air of the woods.
‘I’m doing okay, caught a few.’
Keith looked back from the edge of the bushes. ‘Yeah, I probably would have doubled yours if you would have got me that net in time —you snapped my rod.’ The trees shaded his face from the sun.
‘You can’t blame me; not my fault you can’t fish,’ Ben shouted.
‘I can’t fish, you want me to show you who can’t fish, you cocky little...’ Keith pulled himself away.
Ben went back to his seat, prickled from the confrontation.
Keith sat and got serious, casting his line into the reeds. The wind rustled. The water shimmered golden.
Only, when Ben looked up into the sky the sun was behind the clouds. He looked back at the water. The golden shade had vanished.
‘Got another,’ Ben cried, laughing. He unhooked the fish and dropped it in his own keep net. His dad’s face had lost its entire colour. Ben smirked, and got his line back in the water.
‘Can I have drink of your tea?’ Keith looked over and grunted. ‘Can I or not?’ he asked.
‘You’ve got your own, drink that.’ Ben sniggered. ‘What’s so funny? In a mood ‘cause you can’t catch a fish?’
Keith had to bite his lip to prevent his boy from taking a lashing, and kept his concentration on his line. Ben chuckled deliberately. Keith remained still, a face of marble.
‘Another fish,’ Ben shrieked, pouring more fluid into his dad’s reservoir of frustration. ‘Gotta catch up, gonna get a bad name for yourself.’ The digs were non-stop.
Around three o’clock, the current in the water started thrashing, giving the impression that fish the size of sharks were fighting among themselves. Small waves rose and crashed on to the banks. Ben got up when the water splashed on to his feet. Both Ben and Keith’s floats had disappeared.
‘What’s going on?’ Ben asked, looking around. The wind was gusting in the bushes and trees around them. The water shimmered in the sun. The current dropped.
‘Just the fish, I think,’ Keith suggested. The floats returned to the surface but then Keith’s darted under again with a heavy splash.
No, oh no, come on. Lose it... snap it, Pisshead, Ben thought. He got up, holding his pole, and moved in a bit closer towards his dad.
Keith was spinning his reel and mesmerized by the size of the fish on the end of his hook.
‘God, he’s caught a big one.’ Ben gripped his pole and flicked his line into the direction of his dad’s float. Causing a tangle.
‘Oh no, sorry.’ Smirking. Both lines snapped — so did Keith’s temper. He stood with the rod in his hand, and a short piece of line dangling at the tip. He turned. His face blood red and his eyes steaming.
‘You little...’ Ben saw the change on his dad’s face.
‘You’ve been trying to piss me off all day, your little sarcastic comments... being disrespectful.’
‘Least I ain’t been drinking.’
‘Drinking, are you joking me — I ain’t drunk for years and you know it.’ Ben moved towards him, his hands tightly clenched by his waist.
‘You look like it. That’s why you didn’t want to give me any of your tea, got something in it?’ Neither of them was aware that they were slowly progressing towards each other. Both filled with their own accusations. ‘You’re a bum, a drunk, and you always will be.’
Keith snarled and felt good about backhanding him around the face, knocking him down to one knee. Blood dribbled. Cold humour appeared in Ben’s eyes, just as the lights glimmered in the water.
‘All ’cause I’m a better fisher,’ Ben said.
‘Better fisher?’ Keith laughed and grabbed the rod. In the same swift second he brought it down on Ben’s shoulder. The rod made a whoop noise as it sliced through the air. Ben bellowed in pain as the rod snapped on his collarbone.
‘About time I taught you a few lessons.’ As he lifted the rod above his head, blinded at what he was doing by something he would never understand or if he did it might twirl him toward insanity, the bushes rustled and appearing from the trees on their daily walk were a man and lady walking their dog. Their faces were of ghastly shock.
‘What are you doing?’ the woman cried. Keith looked down at his boy, who was now sobbing. He dropped the broken rod, not understanding what had happened. He looked at the dog as if he’d never seen one before and then at the pond. Was he going to beat his boy with the rod? The bright lights in the water had gone.
Copyright © 2007 by Steven Berry