David Churchill, author of popular eBook 𝘍𝘪𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘍𝘰𝘳𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 has just written a new previously unpublished chapter in which the two protagonists, Ken and Dave, have another fantastic adventure.
A pale mist hovered over the fields, and the distant trees were just shadows. There was a touch of mystery in the air. But the mist was going to burn away as the sun went on rising. It was going to be hot. And we were going fishing.
We were always going fishing. Either really going fishing, with rods and bait and sandwiches (mostly for us but sometimes for the fish as well if we ran out of bait), or fishing in our heads when we should be doing homework; planning fishing, dreaming of all the beautiful fish we were going to catch next time.
If you’ve already read the stories in Fishing Forever you’ll know a bit about Ken and me. You’ll know how the hours we spent deep in the magic world of the river sometimes brought us even more than fish. We had some pretty weird and dramatic moments. There was the ghost boy and the fabulous fishy world that came with him, and then there was Sir, drowning, on the day we skived school. You’ll remember the time when we made the (almost) perfect bait and found a canal full of footballers. And you might remember an underground lake with a monster in it, and a fishing match with a girl called Jan.
But there were days and days of just fishing. Days when nothing remarkable happened (if you don’t count the massive rain and the sticky mud) but when everything was remarkable all the same. The water flowing and gurgling, the barking ducks and the gliding swans, our floats drifting, then pausing, then diving, and the brilliant shining, coloured fish which we sometimes caught and gloated over before sliding them back into the cool green water where they belonged. Seeing them swim away with a flourish of the tail was almost as good as catching them.
Today, Ken’s Uncle Ted was dropping us off well down the river. It would be a quiet place, quite a long way from the village and the lock and the weir where the boats and holiday makers would be. There were bends and several big fields between us. Godfrey, the man in the tackle shop told us about it. “It’s quite deep there,” he said, “and it’s a good place for pike along under the bank. Good for spinning.”
So that’s how we were going to spend the first day of the summer holiday. We just hoped that the holiday season for boats hadn’t really begun yet. Some “sailors” didn’t know the rules about going slowly and could wash away your tackle and damage the banks.
“This is as far as I can go,” Ken’s uncle was saying, as we stopped at a five barred gate. “I’m coming back five o’clockish. Will that suit you?”
Ken untangled his long legs out of the car and stood up.
“That’s great, thanks. Should be long enough even for Dave to catch a couple of minnows!”
I let it pass, going round to the boot to get our stuff out. After all the times we had fished, experience had taught us to travel light. By this time we were in Year 10 and we’d reduced the baggage to just one rucksack, a net and a rodbag each. Stuff we could even manage on a bike – just about.
“You’ll have to watch the sun, a bit,” Uncle Ted was saying. “But it looks as if there’s some shade under those trees if it gets too much. It’s going to be a scorcher. Keep your caps on. Wish I could stay. Tight lines!” and he slid back into the car, reversed on the grass and was gone.
As the engine note died away a real quiet descended. There weren’t even any birds singing. We shouldered our rucksacks, picked up the rodbags and went through a small gate by the big one. The river bank was just thirty or forty yards away over the rough grass. There was a curved wooden bridge to cross to the flat field on the other side, where the level bank gave easy access to the water.
And it was perfect. There was a bubbly sound down to our left where the river speeded up at a bend, but at our feet it slid gently past, long reeds dipping and swaying under the pressure. There were a few wrinkles and eddies but mostly it showed a smooth, shining surface, hiding all the mysteries beneath.
Surprised by our arrival a white-faced coot squawked out from under the bank, scurrying, half-running, across the surface of the water.
“Stop that,” Ken scolded, “you’ll scare the fish!”
It reminded me of the first time I ever fished, having given way to Ken’s persuasion. He’d told me off for bumping and stamping about on the bank then, but actually he was really patient, showing me how to get started and all. Getting me hooked for life, just as he intended. Fortunately!
Of course he wasn’t serious this time. I looked up at him and I could see how happy he was.
“This is going to be a day to remember, I can feel it,” he said. “Everything’s perfect. And no school for five weeks either!”
He was right, as it turned out, very right indeed. It was certainly going to be a day that we would never forget as long as we lived. Lots of fishing days were like that, of course, but not many quite like this one turned out to be, let alone appearing on TV! More of that later, however. First, the fishing.
We had planned to spin for pike, like Godfrey suggested. It was new to me, but Ken had done it before, of course. I’d read up about it and it seemed like something interesting to try.
Ken showed me how he tied a little silver spinner straight on to 6lb line, just a simple thing, like the end of a spoon, with a tiny swivel so it could twist over and over, and one hook.
“Pike can be a bid tricky to handle, Ken said, “with all those needle teeth pointing inwards, so a plain barbless hook makes sense – even if they get away sometimes.”
That suited me. Teeth like needles sounded nasty. In fact I was a bit nervous. I read a story once about a farm-worker being dragged in when a huge pike came up and seized his arm when he dipped his hand over the edge of the bank to scoop up a drink of water. I never really believed it, but all the same…!
I glanced up the river. There was quite a long, straight, calm stretch before it disappeared round a bend. Half a mile or so on, where the lock and the weir pool were, it was quite complicated and it would be busy with picnickers and even swimmers. You couldn’t fish there in the summer – might catch a little kid in his rubber ring! But down where we were it was very peaceful, with just that slight burble from the water in the reeds as it gathered pace round the bend below us.
“What we can do,” Ken was saying, “is keep on the move a bit, like explore all along the bank. Start in one place, cast close and reel it slowly back – the water will keep it spinning. Then cast a bit further out, and then further still. Sort of search the water, then move on and do the same again. OK?”
“Sounds great,” I said. “Different. Must be a bit like fly fishing.”
“Yes, we must get into that as well, one day,” Ken agreed. “When we’re rich. I think it’s a bit pricey.”
“I’ll remember that when we’re swotting up for our GCSE’s. Pass the exams, get a good job – “
“And go fishing,” Ken finished. “Forever. That’s that settled. So let’s get on with it.”
Obediently I set up my rod just like Ken did and then walked a little way upriver by myself. First off I attempted to do like he said – make a first cast close to the bank. I held the rod out in front of me, with the little spinner dangling and twinkling in the sunlight that was getting brighter and warmer every minute.
I released the bail arm, trapping the line with a finger against the rod, tilted the rod to the right, swung it across in front of me and released the line. The spinner zoomed off into space.
Well, not space exactly. There was a yell from Ken as the rather unguided missile flashed in front of his face and landed on the bank some way beyond him.
Putting down the rod I plodded apologetically back to where he was standing.
“Dave,” he said patiently, “I’m not a pike. They tend to be in the river. And that was a lousy cast.”
“Sorry Ken,” I said, going past him to start to untangle the line from a tall thistle that must have been growing deliberately. “Sorry.”
“Next time try stopping the rod tip, pointing to where you want the spinner to go at the moment you release it,” he advised kindly. “Not at me, I mean. Never did fancy having my ears pierced – or any other bits!”
“Got that,” I said and I settled down to free the spinner from those spiky leaves. It took all of ten minutes, by which time the line was so mangled that I had to cut the spinner off and set it up again. I wasn’t too bothered. By now I’d been fishing long enough to have learned that sometimes you just have to be patient until things come right.
Then back I went, up the river, and for a moment or two I watched Ken flick his line out downstream before very, very slowly winding back. I could see how the spinner must twist and shine in the water as it was drawn against the gentle flow until it came close to where he was standing and flickered up across the surface. Then he lifted it slowly out, still watching for a take, swung it carefully back and planted it down the river again, but a bit further out. The weight of the spinner meant you could cast it quite a long way. It went in with a soft splash just before the water began to speed up towards the bend. He was so neat about it! Then he began a nice, very slow retrieve.
Carefully I copied him. My spinner went out a bit further than I intended but at least it didn’t hook Ken or land on the bank like last time. And then I enjoyed drawing it back, turning the reel gently and slowly, waiting for that sudden tug that makes your heart jump. Which didn’t happen, but it was a nice activity, anyway. It was fishing!
I could even look around a bit while I was doing it. There were a few drifts of soft white cloud on the hill where the mist still lingered. Fresh green reeds spiked up along the water edge and a couple of black coots with their white striped faces were foraging along the far bank. It was a very peaceful day – up to that point, anyway.
“Got one!” called Ken, disturbing my happy trance. I saw his rod was bending sharply before he loosened the clutch and let the fish take some line off with that satisfying squeal. With a surge of envy, I dropped my rod and ran down to pick up Ken’s landing net. He was playing the fish carefully, winding in any slack and holding the rod out at arm’s length to keep the line away from the vegetation when the fish drove in our direction.
“It’s not that big,” Ken said. “Good though.”
I wasn’t sorry if it wasn’t too big. Teeth, I was thinking, like needles. And pointing inwards!
It didn’t take many minutes, actually, before the fish got tired. The line rose up in the water and soon there was a swirl as a mottled, greeny-silver back slid up through the surface. It found some fresh energy then and dived under again, taking line off the reel and going a few metres upriver before turning and rising into full view.
Now Ken could steadily and carefully draw it towards us and over the net that I was holding out.
“Don’t move it,” he automatically warned me, but I’d learned long ago not to push the net forward because that’s a sure way of panicking the fish into a last lunge that would snap the line, lose the fish and leave it with a hook probably still in its horny lip.
Once it was well over the net I was able to pull it towards me enough to trap the fish and then drag it firmly in over the rushes and slide it up the bank.
Ken had put down his rod and now he bent over and placed a big hand on its body to hold it still. The spinner was hanging loosely at the edge of the long predatory mouth, the hook just lodged over the hard lip. And the teeth were there all right. Yes, like needles and all sloping backwards like a wicked trap. I felt more than sorry for that farm lad.
With a pair of forceps Ken neatly lifted the hook out and for a moment we contemplated the creature in front of us. It wasn’t struggling, just panting from the fight, gills opening and closing, taking in too much raw air. I really enjoyed looking at its long back, the scales patterned with green and gold and silver, and then towards the almost pink, forked tail; there was the top fin too, a kind of rose colour. I thought, it’s only anglers, really, who get to see things like this. Other people just see the river.
“That’s long enough,” Ken was saying. “I’ll weigh it in the net and we can slip it back in without handling it. Safer that way, too.”
I agreed wholeheartedly. He hooked the edge of the net over the hook of the spring balance and raised it just up off the grass. It showed four and a half pounds.
“Take off a pound or so for the net,” he said, “and that’ll do for a start.”
Then we slid the net over the edge of the bank, across the reeds and out over the water. The fish was twitching now, and flapping its tail in a pretty irritated way. It was definitely time to stop upsetting it.
Once it began to float it stirred strongly, then wobbled a bit but stayed upright – that’s the important bit. Its gills were working strongly now and a sort of a surge went all down its long, muscular body so that it eased forwards until its nose touched the edge of the net. Ken lowered the net further to free it and it waved its rosy tail slowly, pushing itself away. Then, with one vigorous thrash, sending a rainbow spray up into the air, it was gone, down, away and out of our sight.
“What a start!” Ken was saying. “Second cast and we caught what we came for. I’m going to go on searching this stretch. It’s looking really good today. Might be your turn next.”
Well, it was my turn already, as it happened. I went back to my rod – but it wasn’t there. I stood looking stupidly at where I was sure I’d dropped it but it just wasn’t there. Oh no! I breathed. Big mistake!
Then a movement down in the rushes caught my eye. It was my rod, lying crookedly below the bank, luckily trapped in the vegetation. The movement I’d seen was the end of it leaping and jerking.
I blundered down into the soft mud, feeling the water flood into my trainers, and grabbed the handle. As I lifted it the rod tugged back at me. There was definitely something pretty angry on the end of the line. I yelled for Ken and at the same time tried to keep the strain off the line by keeping the rod up, not pointing it at where the fish must be.
“Don’t force it,” Ken called as he came towards me, no doubt having sensibly taken his spinner out of the water first. “Loosen the clutch. Take your time.”
Still half stuck in the mud I steadied down and felt for the knob on the reel so that I could slacken the pressure. Then I got back in a more comfortable position and began to reel in gently, keeping up enough pressure to hold the fish without risking snapping the line. I guessed the spinner had gone on flickering in the current when I abandoned the rod and the fish had seized it.
By now Ken had joined me.
“Could have lost the rod,” he said unhelpfully.
I knew what he meant. Of course I shouldn’t have left the spinner in the water. I just didn’t stop to think. Anyway, here was a fish to land.
“Don’t rush it,” Ken was advising. ”Take your time,” he said again.
So I did. It was a brilliant feeling, like it always is, playing the fish. I never did like to think that I was “fighting” the fish as some people say. It’s not a fight, playing the fish to tire it so you can land it safely is something much more careful and skilful than a fight and the fish is a lot smaller than we are anyway – which is just as well when you think about it.
“I suppose you’ll claim you caught this one,” Ken said. “I reckon it caught you!”
I was managing the rod as carefully as I could, and I didn’t reply, but I was impatient to land the fish and see what it was. You never know in the river – that’s part of the excitement. I was afraid of it straightening the hook or getting snagged somewhere and the line breaking. It was easier to gain line now, as the fish tired, but it was still pulling in different directions as it worked against the pressure.
“I’m not sure it is a pike,” Ken was saying. “It’s rushing about too much. Could be a – “
“What?” I exclaimed, as a high silver fin, like a sail, and a long, white back, briefly surged above the surface before swirling and diving out of sight.
“You lucky, lucky devil!” said Ken. “Don’t lose it! I think it’s a grayling. I don’t believe it!”
Well, I didn’t lose it even though at one point it streaked clean out of the water like a flying fish making my heart jump in my chest. But after that it tired enough for me to tighten the clutch a little and, very cautiously, draw it in over the net. Ken lifted it out and we knelt down to enjoy it.
The body was gleaming silver and the big fanned-out tail was almost pink, but the top fin was fantastic. It was like a high rounded sail which went out to a point before curving back down to the body which was covered from head to tail in rows of fine, small, silver scales. I had never seen such a beautiful fish.
Ken said softly, “You know what they call her? ‘The lady of the stream’ and you can see why! And she came to us. Well done Dave. You played it well. I just didn’t know that grayling like that were in the Thames. They like fast streams – chalk streams usually. You just never know!”
Now that was generous of him, but he was in heaven at the moment.
The spinner had fallen out as Ken laid the net on the grass so all we had to do was hook the balance under the end of the net to get a rough idea its weight. It was about a pound and a half. Ken said, “Not bad, the record is around four, I think. But it’s a magic fish!”
Reluctantly then we had to say goodbye to it, so I slid the net out into the water and we watched as the fish wobbled a bit then righted itself, and as I withdrew the net it tilted away downwards to vanish, creating hardly a ripple.
By midday, when it really was pretty hot, we had done rather well. Ken had landed three more jack pike of around four pounds each and had lost a much bigger one that he played for ages only to see it leap clear when it was right over the net I was holding. We actually saw the spinner go flying out of its jaws as it leapt.
I’d caught no pike at all, but three sturdy perch had seized the spinner. Perch are like pike – they eat smaller fish and my spinner obviously sent out the right signals. Best of all, of course, I’d made Ken really jealous by catching that brilliant grayling.
The spinning had been enjoyable. It was active, you could move about and even look around a bit while you were doing it. You knew soon enough if anything grabbed the lure. As Ken said, if fly fishing was anything like that – casting and retrieving and waiting for a pull – it could be worth doing one day if the chance came.
We were sitting in the shade of the bushes now, having a sandwich and a break. Sometimes, however hungry you are, it’s hard to put down the rod and stop fishing; you might be missing that one magic moment when the fish of a lifetime is looking for a snack. But it was hot and we really needed to get out of the sun for a while. Anyway, we were dead pleased with how things were going and it was only the start of the holidays.
“You can fly fish for coarse fish as well as game fish like trout and salmon,” Ken said. “Chub and dace and even pike will take a fly. I read that in a trout magazine in the barber shop.”
“Are there trout in the Thames?” I asked, mouth full of prawn sandwich.
“Brown ones, wild trout. Beautiful spotted fish. But it’s mostly rainbows in the fishing lakes I think. If you’re clever you catch them and eat them. Might be a bit hard for you of course!”
I ignored the insult. “What, you have to kill ‘em?”
“Well, they’d wriggle a bit inside if you didn’t! It’s only a quick tap on the head.”
“Mm,” I said. “Not sure about that. I eat fish so I guess somebody’s had to do it. Anyway, one day we’ll try it. We’ll be fishing forever and we’ll do it all!”
We let time go by, glad of the shade and pretty relaxed with the whole of the summer holiday ahead of us. Year 11 and revision and exams and homework all seemed centuries away and not quite real. They could wait. This was real – the water and the sky and our rods lying ready in the grass beside us.
“I’m going to set up a ledger now, I reckon,” Ken said.” Might do some more spinning later. I’ll put sweetcorn on and fish the bottom. There should be chub under this bank. They like sweetcorn and I like chub. Could be bream too. A big shoal of bream would be magic!”
“I’m going to float – ,“ I began.
“Knowing you, you’ll probably sink,” he interrupted.
I ignored his sad attempt at humour. “I fancy watching a float on this smooth water. Roach, dace –“
“Minnows, bleak, gudgeon, tadpoles,” he interrupted again.
“Maybe,” I said. “We’ll see.”
So we set up our second rods, lighter and more flexible than the sturdy pike rods, with our usual reels that held four pound line. Ken tied his straight on to a size 10 hook with an open ended swim feeder further up the line, held by a small shot, that he was going to fill with sweetcorn and block with bread. It would gradually release the feed on the river bed close to his baited hook. I put on a stick float that took 3BB shot and a size 16 hook on a pound and a half trace and off we went back to the water’s edge.
Ken cast out a metre or so from the bank where there was a reasonable flow. I stood there for a bit while a cheeping flotilla of little brown mallard ducks cruised past, fussily guarded by both parents, the male’s plumage gleaming blue and green in the sunlight. It’s brilliant how they hatch the chicks and then look after them so efficiently as they learn to cope with the river and search for food.
Once they were past, Ken tossed a handful of corn into the water so that it would sink down somewhere near where his hook was lying and as I idly watched I saw his rod tip twitch. He lifted it smartly and something very small was kicking and wriggling on the end of the line.
“Big chub?” I called.
“****** gudgeon!!” he mumbled back.
“Oh dear,” I sympathised. “And where there’s one, there’s…”
“I know. I know!” I’ll put three sweetcorn on next cast. Even gudgeon’s mouths can’t be that big!”
I left him to it and wandered up the river. There was a spot where there weren’t any rushes and the water looked dark and calm right up to the bank. I had a little punch that would make bread pellets for bait. They didn’t always stay on the hook too well but I wanted to try it out here. I made a ball of ground bait from some of the bread crumbled up and a few grains of sweetcorn, and tossed it out in front. Then I cast the float a few metres up to my right and watched carefully as it righted itself and began to drift slowly and steadily down towards me and on down to where I could see Ken, who was sitting now, watching the tip of his ledger rod.
I let the line play out slowly until the float was quite a way from me, then I checked it, paused and drew it back and lifted it out. The bread pellet was still on but I replaced it and flicked it back upriver. This time, just as it passed me, the float dipped under. I lifted the rod quickly but there was so much slack line that I missed the fish. “Stupid!” I grumbled, remembering too late that you’ve got to keep the line fairly tight to the float – “mending the line” they call it. So I cast again, this time out in front, so the line wouldn’t get slack, and held it very carefully to keep in touch with the float.
After drifting down for a few minutes it wobbled, then wobbled again, making my hand tense on the rod. Then it simply vanished. I lifted the rod, felt the weight on the end, and I was in. I knew how light the trace was – just a pound and a half breaking strain – so it was a scary moment.
“Ken!” I called, but I couldn’t look to see if he had heard.
I fumbled to slacken the clutch and then concentrated like mad on not letting the fish have a real tug on the line. This was good! I had a solid fish on, swirling away out into the middle of the river before beginning to steam away upriver to my right, pulling line off the reel as it went. Then it came zig-zagging back so I had to reel in as fast as I could.
I was aware of Ken coming up behind me and picking up the landing net but I stayed focussed on what was happening in the water in front of me, trying to keep stress off the line.
With Ken hissing advice into my ear like, “Let it run, let it run, reel it in, reel it in…” and other unnecessary stuff like that, I was enjoying being the one to have such a good fish to play. But as it went on I grew more and more anxious. How good was my knot? How long before the hook straightened or came out? Would the leader take the strain much longer?
At last it got easier and I really did believe that I might not lose the fish. It was getting too tired to pull line off against the clutch and I began to manage its movements and persuade it to come my way. In the end, after a few alarming moments when it found the strength to lunge against the pull of the line, it came to the top and glided over the net that Ken was holding. He didn’t try to lift it but drew it back in towards us, sliding it carefully up the bank and on the grass at our feet.
It was a chub. A big chub.
”Lubbly chubbly,” Ken breathed. It was one of his jokes. He doesn’t have many and they’re all about fish. He’d said it before but I let him hear me laugh. Actually I was laughing for pure pleasure – and in huge relief. If you’ve ever fished you’ll know the great pressure there is on the nerves of having a fish on the end of your line.
I’d played it successfully on light tackle, and we’d landed it safely and it was very good. We weighed it in the net and it was three and a half pounds – a really lovely looking fish. The back was covered in big silvery-grey scales that became pure silver under its body and the fins were fresh pink. Its tail was slender and the points were sharp and undamaged.
We looked at it with such a sense of enjoyment that it was a bit of a wrench to have to part with it. But it was getting its strength back and beginning to make escaping moves so I slid the net back out and lowered it until the water was lapping over the fish. We waited and watched as its gills began to work more and more strongly. I could feel the strength coming back into its body almost as if I was the fish myself…that was a weird sensation but great!
I lowered the net still deeper until the chub was floating free, while still keeping it where I could support the fish if it wasn’t ready to stay upright. But then it tilted downwards, swished its lovely tail gently from side to side, and simply slid away back into the depths of its own element and was gone.
“That was quite good again,” Ken said. “A masterclass. Must have had a good teacher. You’re having quite a day aren’t you Dave. Well done!”
I was happy. Very, very, very happy.
“They don’t tend to be by themselves,” Ken was saying. I would go up a bit and trot down over the same area. Looks like a chub hole under this bank. But take your time, let it settle. Go for it.” And he went back to his ledgering, above the next bend.
I don’t know how Ken knows all that he knows about fishing. He’s always been an angler, and he reads about it. But he’s got a sort of instinct, I reckon. Like he was an otter in a previous life, or something. It’s interesting.
Anyway, I did what he suggested and wandered a bit further upstream. I thought I would rest the water for a few minutes – I felt satisfied enough not to want to cast again straight away.
The quiet was broken then by the sound of a helicopter away in the distance, coming closer and closer then hovering somewhere just out of sight up the river. I looked towards where Buscot lock must be and caught half a glimpse of the whirling blades before they sank out of sight beyond the trees. For a moment the sound persisted then faded to nothing. I wondered if it had actually landed near the river somewhere and why.
But as I gazed, towards where the shining water bent round out of sight through the flat fields between us and the lock, I wished I had a drawing pad or a camera. It was a real picture and I felt I wanted to have it to keep. There were a couple of willow trees arched right over the water, and lots of that tall white flower on the bank – cow parsley – which tangles your line if you hook it but looks good. In the field there some patches of scarlet poppies and the sky was pure blue. I wanted to capture it somehow – paint it or write a poem about it, just anything to catch and keep it. It was all part of the rich mood I was in, ‘specially after having contact with those beautiful fish.
But something was butting in on my floating dreaminess. Something was pulling at my attention and disrupting the dozy state I was in. What was it? I looked back at Ken and saw only his motionless, hunched silhouette against the bright water where he sat on the edge of the bank gazing steadily at the tip of his rod. Nothing there. I turned and looked back across the fields. Just a couple of cows having a chat across the fence. It wasn’t them. Then I turned and looked upriver and it clicked.
There was something odd in the water. It was quite a way from me so it looked small, but out in the centre, as if it had floated into sight round the bend, at the moment I looked away, only just catching my eye. There was a something – and it was floating towards me.
As I watched its steady progress, turning gently in the flow, I saw that it was white, like a lumpy pillow. Puzzled, I stared at it, getting more and more curious because I couldn’t make sense out of what I was seeing. It was some sort of rubbish, I thought. It’s horrible how some people can just dump stuff in the countryside.
Slowly it drifted closer, still turning, first one way and then another. Automatically I began to walk up to meet it. Now it was looking odder and odder. It definitely was like a small pillow but with something sticking up a bit in the centre.
Then something happened that gave me goose bumps all over. I actually felt the hairs on my neck prickle and rise. The thing in the middle suddenly moved – something waved – and there was a shrill, wailing cry. And a little arm moved again and the cry came again, only louder. More goose bumps shivered down my back. The movements were getting faster, rocking the thing in the water, and the sharp cries were merging into a howl.
It was close now and I stood transfixed on the bank. It was swaying and tilting from the violent movements. Once it tilted so much that it almost overturned but came upright again. But by then I knew what I was seeing, though I still didn’t believe it.
I dropped my rod and turned and ran like mad back along the bank.
“Ken!” I yelled, almost falling as I sprinted over the rough turf. “Ken – it’s a baby!”
By the time I reached him he had recognised that some sort of crisis was happening and had reeled in his line and was putting his rod down. He stood up.
“What - ?” he began.
“That,” said, pointing up the river. “It’s a baby. It’s going to – “
“Sink any minute,” Ken said, catching on incredibly fast. “I’m going in.”
In moments he was heaving his way through the rushes and slippery mud below the bank. I feared he was going to be too late as the flow increased towards our bend and the baby was already passing us.
In a moment of desperation I grabbed his rod and ran downriver to keep ahead of it. It seemed crazy to try to use the fishing rod but I wasn’t thinking straight and it was sinking deeper in the water every minute.
Now the wailing had stopped. Perhaps the rocking of the water had distracted it. Who knows? I ran again, getting close to the bend now, and made myself slow down. You always get in a tangle if you rush. The baby came turning and drifting towards me. Ken was out behind it, swimming the crawl to overtake and get round it, but in danger of tipping it up himself if he got too near.
My brain was going overtime. I couldn’t cast at the thing, there was too much risk of hooking the baby. Horrible fear! But perhaps with the ledger weight on Ken’s line I could somehow slow it down before it rushed away round the bend.
Again I ran ahead to give myself some space. Looking back I saw that Ken was still out in the river, half wading, half swimming, but the little raft was leaving him and was bobbing its way towards where I stood.
I ran on a few more steps so I was in the lead again. It was like a crazy race. “Run for your life!” came into my mind – but it wasn’t my life at stake.
I stopped still and tried to make myself calm down a bit, though I was panting as if I’d run a mile. I watched as the baby – very visible now in its soggy nest – turned gently in the flow. Ken was swimming properly again now, coming up behind but keeping clear so he didn’t overwhelm it.
Hardly aware of what I was doing, I raised Ken’s rod so the ledger and swim feeder were swinging out over the water. Then I opened the bale arm with the line trapped by my finger, drew back the rod and tried for the best cast of my life.
For a moment I thought I’d made it as the weights flew out over the water, well in front of the baby. It went in a perfect arc, running cleanly through the rod rings. But then I saw that I had been too panicky after all. I’d cast too hard. The rod was very flexible and the swim feed was quite heavy. It all overshot and with a sickening feeling I saw it hit the far bank. In a panic I jerked it back. The end tackle snagged in the undergrowth and for a horrible moment I thought it would snap the line. But it didn’t. It tore free and dropped down into the water bringing a twiggy branch with it.
I started to reel in, as fast as I could, seeing the twigs and swim-feeder splashing across the flowing river. I glanced to my right to see that the sailing baby was hardly above the waterline now, with Ken swimming beside it but afraid to get close. It was desperate! Ripples were washing over the bedding and the baby was silent. Was it even alive?
But I realised that despite my panic I was still managing the line, keeping it tight on the surface, steadily and carefully drawing it in, the twigs creating a turbulence as they were dragged along but keeping the line up.
Then the little raft met the line and began to slide over it.
“No!” I yelled as it looked like it was passing over and going on down the river. But then a sticking out twig snagged against a corner of the cloth. The whole thing swung dangerously, wobbling horribly. The baby let out an ear splitting wail which added to the awfulness. But another twig caught and by some miracle the object stabilised and I actually felt the tug on the line as it stayed attached.
Now, very, very gently, I began to wind in. It swung slowly towards the bank, below me and I feared that as it turned it would come loose from the twigs and drift on, free to sink. It was a ghastly thought but then came a big splashing. I’d forgotten about Ken in the tension of the last few moments, but now I saw that he had guessed the danger and was doing a fast crawl out in the river to get below us.
In spite of the heat I was in a cold sweat of fear. It was a horrible moment. But still the line stayed attached to its burden and the weight on the end even pulled line out against the clutch. I was playing it like a fish!
The baby had gone quiet but suddenly it shrieked again and two little arms waved in the air.
“Don’t move!” I yelled – as if it could make any difference. Dreadfully, a line from a poem we did at school came into my mind. “Not waving but drowning…”. Until that moment I didn’t know I’d remembered it. Sodger (as we called him), my English teacher, would have been pleased. He was pretty keen on that poem. Now I understood it! But “Keep still!” I yelled again as the raft lurched and dipped, still slewing across the current, the water getting faster and the bend closer.
Then I was aware of Ken again. He was there! Brilliant! He’d overtaken and cut across to head the thing off and was swaying around with half a footing in the mud as it came sluggishly bobbing towards him.
Now he was standing unsteadily with the water tugging at his waist. As I watched, still keeping light tension on the line, he leaned forward, straightened, and miraculously his arms were full of soggy baby stuff. But the effort had made him lurch sideways and he was struggling to keep his balance while still gripping the baby. If he fell now, it would be disaster.
“I can’t move,” Ken shouted. “Get the landing net!”
I dropped the rod and raced back to where he’d been fishing. Grabbing the long handle I slipped and slithered back. Ken had managed to half-turn by now and was holding the baby out towards me. “I’m stuck,” he said, sounding desperate. “You’ll have to…”
By then I was sliding down into the water up to my knees and pushing the net out. But it didn’t reach and he couldn’t risk leaning towards it. I took an uncertain step out into the gunge which sucked at my trainers, threatening to pull them off. Then another. Now the net was close to Ken and he risked bending forward enough to push the bundle over it.
“Watch out,” he called. “This is the moment they make a run!” It was only afterwards that I realised he had made a joke. Two in one day and what a time to make it!
It was still just about floating which was just as well because there was no way that I could have taken the weight with the rod fully extended. Ken was managing to force himself forward, now that he could use his arms to balance. I partly turned to the bank and began to draw the net over the shallower water where the rushes grew.
There was a blundering splashing as Ken went wallowing through the muck to just under the bank. I turned and swung the net slowly on round until he could reach over it and lift the baby out.
He was well stuck in the mud again now so I twisted the net to release the cushion thing and leave it to sail away on to London. I threw the net up on the bank then I was able to lurch towards Ken and reach out to take the now screaming creature out of his hands, afraid to drop it and afraid of gripping it too tight and hurting it, but I managed and turned back to reach forward and lay it up on the grass, too close to the edge. I kept a hand on it because I’ve known fish to squirm and wriggle and put themselves back in the water. By then, Ken had crawled out and was on all fours still, panting, dripping wet and plastered in mud like a big dog that had been diving in for sticks.
I clambered out of the rushes and kneeled up, still keeping a hand on the baby, but I felt very shaky and I think Ken did too, because he just stayed there in that position with his head down. The funny remark I’d just been about to make about him being a god dog didn’t pass my lips. Now it was all over I guess we were both suddenly feeling how close it had been to something horrible – something too horrible to imagine. Even now, years later, I shiver when the thought of what could have happened slips into my mind. In the heat of the action I hadn’t realised what the implications were. I’ve got goosebumps writing this as I feel again what It might have been like if we’d only made matters worse. Anyway…
Here we were, very wet and mucky, in the middle of nowhere, with a screaming baby. Ken rolled over and sat looking at me. I think we both felt drained. He turned to look at the baby and I joined him. It was really tiny with a little, angry face, the colour of milk chocolate, huge brown eyes, and the smallest hands and fingers I’d ever seen waving fiercely in the air.
It was half wrapped in a kind of gold blanket and its legs were kicking about underneath. There were some little black curls over its ears, otherwise it was a bit bald.
“She’s ever so young,” I said, marvelling at how very tiny the baby was.
“What d’you mean, ’she’?” Ken grunted. “How do you know?”
“Oh, I just know these things,” I said. I must have been starting to feel better by then.
“Smartass! But go on, how - ”
“Could the pink elephant be a clue?” I suggested.
Ken peered down at the twitching blanket. ”OK, could be,” he conceded. “But she’s got a bit of a temper. How can she make that much noise! And where’s she from, anyway? And will she be all right?”
He surprised me then by getting to his feet, with muddy water making streaks all down his legs, and bending to slide his hands under the soggy little bundle and pick it up. The yelling subsided at once, which was a relief, and turned into a sort of gurgle. In his big hands the creature looked minute. He tried rocking it a bit and almost at once the big eyes closed.
“God, is she still alive?” he said in alarm, stopping the rocking.
At which point the eyes opened and the mouth opened and a fresh wail began to develop.
“Quick, keep rocking!” I said. “She’s fine.”
“Yes,” he said, rocking away for all he was worth, “but she’s a bit wet and we’ve got to do something with her. Somebody must be missing her.”
That stopped us both. What on earth could have happened to leave a baby floating down the Thames, all by itself?
“Some sort of an accident,” he went. Something weird’s happened. But someone’ll be panicking if they haven’t drowned as well. But we’ve got to find out. Up-river somewhere. That’s the fishing mucked up anyway!”
I knew he wasn’t really moaning. Now the shock seemed to be wearing off we were both pretty excited about it all. Scared a bit too. Handling anything so little and vulnerable was hard on the nerves. It was a first time for either of us. You felt you could hurt it so easily, but there we were, all alone, perhaps even a mile from anywhere, and we had to sort it out by ourselves. No mobile phones back then.
“Here, you have it – her – for a bit while I sort out the tackle. We’ll have to risk leaving it all somewhere.” He thrust the baby into my nervous arms and looked around. “I’ll hide it away in those bushes behind us. In the nettles. No-one’s going to leave the river path and push in there. Anyway, perhaps we’ll meet someone round the bend, coming to get it.”
The baby was sleeping now and as I wasn’t quite so afraid of dropping it or breaking it or something. It felt nice enough as I took a more comfortable hold. I thought there were things I ought to be saying to it…”coochy coo”… or something like that, but it wasn’t listening and I couldn’t risk re-awakening Ken’s sense of humour!
Before long he had gathered up all our tackle and stowed it out of sight in the bushes. I kept looking up the river, expecting someone to appear at any moment to take the little problem off our hands but there wasn’t a human being to be seen.
“Let’s go then,” he said and we began to plod along the bank, our feet squeaking and sloshing in the wet trainers and our t-shirts clinging to us. At some point we’d both lost our caps - they must have been sailing off to London by then - but still, it was a good job the sun was so hot or we’d have been freezing. I thought we’d be steaming like kettles before long.
The path was a bit overgrown – not many people walked that stretch, so far from any buildings – only people doing the whole Thames Path, I reckoned – and it was bumpy too. Carrying the baby and keeping your balance was quite awkward, always being afraid of stumbling and dropping it, so we kept swapping over.
“It’s really weird,” Ken said as he stopped and reached out to take it from me again. “Finding it all the way out here with nobody else about. There’s no houses anywhere near as far as I can remember. It’s a hell of a long way to stay afloat.”
We’d looked at the map yesterday and I agreed with him. It was a lovely natural stretch of river. The thought of the baby sinking under the water left us both quiet.
So there was nothing for us to do but keep walking until we came to civilization. The grasses rustled past our legs, the shining water slid softly by, an occasional duck scuttled down the bank and the sun beat down. Our clothes were drying on our backs.
It was my turn to carry the baby again when she opened her dark eyes and gurgled up at me as if she thought she was in safe hands. If only she knew! I made a gurgly noise back and Ken looked at me pityingly.
“You can’t do baby talk,” he said, “so don’t even try!” How right I’d been not to do the “coochy-coo” stuff!
On we went, round a couple of bends where the river slowed and had a glassy sheen that reflected the perfect blue of the sky. Once a boat came up the river from behind us. Too late I thought of shouting out for a lift but the bank was overgrown there with high thistles and we were in a particularly overgrown bit where an old concrete look-out post, relic of the war, still stood. The boat was gone before we could do anything. It was going at an unusual speed too. Idiots, I thought. They probably didn’t even see us. Soon I was to realise that they definitely hadn’t seen us!
Suddenly I caught a far off glimpse of the tip of a church spire in a gap of the trees ahead of us and I felt that at least we were going in the right direction. I nearly tripped then and Ken said, “Don’t drop her at this point. Shall I have her?”
“No, I’m OK for a bit,” I said. Actually I was getting used to carrying the little wet bundle, and didn’t particularly want to let go yet. But I couldn’t admit that of course.
So on we went, slowing down as the heat was really getting to us. At least we were drying off fast but my feet were rubbing in the still damp trainers and my legs were itching from the nettles and prickles on the bank when we were struggling to get the baby out. We weren’t talking much now, just concentrating on getting somewhere, and sorting out the problem we had landed ourselves with, while the baby still seemed to be OK. It was just so small and seemed so easily hurt.
Suddenly my arms were aching and I was really afraid of stumbling in the long grass and dropping her. “She’s all yours now,” I said to Ken. “Here you are, go to Daddy.” I got a grunt from Ken and a gurgle from the baby which felt quite good.
By now we’d come to a spot I recognised, where the path went up over quite a long narrow bridge with wooden rails. It crossed a straight stretch of water that had come through a sluice gate where I always reckoned barbel might be found in the rushing water. I held the gate for Ken and we crossed the bridge and followed the main river round to the right, towards where I remembered the lock and the lock-keeper’s cottage was, with its flowery garden.
We’d been walking for quite a time, and it had been an almost silent world, with just our breathing, occasional chat, and ourselves toiling along, puzzled and alone in the wide flat landscape of the riverbank. Now, in a moment, as we turned alongside the field, everything changed so shockingly that we both stopped dead. It had been so quiet all day, but this new silence was weird because there were people. Worse than weird because of the sight that we were staring at and struggling to take in.
First we saw the boat. It was horribly upside down, its pointed end jammed into the vegetation of the far bank, only the scabby underside of it sort of shuddering and shaking above the water. There was another by the side of it. Some sort of patrol boat with a uniformed man on. Then there was the helicopter, a dark grey bulk in the field behind the people. All these images flooded in. I stared at all the people - a crowd - families with children clinging to them, three uniformed policewomen who seemed to be holding someone up, a couple of what looked like medics kneeling by a man on a stretcher, with a bandage round his head and his arm strapped up and, oddest of all, the stillness, the hush, not the laughing and talking you get with a crowd. Just, I noticed then, a sort of stifled sobbing coming from the police cluster.
We gaped, absolutely confused by what we were seeing. It was like looking at a painting, or a scene on a stage - something unreal. Then, to make it even more weird, just in front of us there was a splash and a swirl in the river and a round black shining dome broke the surface. It was the top of a helmet and below it was a transparent visor with two dark eyes looking out. The diver rose high enough against the bank to show the top of a cylinder on the back and shoulders with tubes and wires looped round. He, or she, rested there for a moment and I sensed a shake of the head inside the helmet.
I was still staring, still confused, when Ken broke the spell. “Come on,” he croaked. “I think we’ve got what they’re looking for.”
The realisation of what he said hit me like a tidal wave. Of course they were looking for the baby – our baby. The little wet thing we had rescued and carried all the way back along the river bank. They must have thought she was dead.
For a moment my legs forgot how to move, then I caught Ken up and we walked nervously towards the crowd of people who were so intent on staring at the diver that they didn’t see us coming. It was like moving in a dream - or a nightmare - as if we were invisible.
We passed behind two women, standing with their arms round each other’s shoulders, and it was automatic to go towards the white shirted summer uniforms. As we got nearer, one of the policewomen turned away from whoever they were comforting to see what everyone was looking at but her head jerked as she caught a glimpse of us. I saw her eyes widen and the way she seemed to freeze. Then she grabbed the arm of one of her colleagues as if she wanted someone else to confirm what she was looking at. We stopped again, while they stared at us. It was like time itself had stopped. Then Ken, who had a better grip on himself now than I had, took a few steps forwards and held the baby out to her.
“Is this what you want?” he said.
The baby decided that this was the moment to open its mouth and screech, long, loud and shrill. It waved its arms and kicked out its legs too, so fiercely that Ken nearly dropped it and I dived forwards to hang on as well. There was another frozen instant, with us gripping the bundle, the police staring, the baby’s repeated cries piercing the silence and everybody else as motionless as if they were statues. It was really embarrassing, being the focus of so many eyes. (It was even more embarrassing later when a photo of that moment, with us clutching the baby with gormless expressions on our faces, was in all the newspapers.) But then someone shouted, “Baby!” and chaos followed.
The first police woman reached out and Ken gratefully offered the baby to her. A second one moved quickly to take Ken’s arm, then mine, and turn us away from the crowd. Some sort of shock was hitting me now, from all the emotion I guess, and suddenly my legs went wobbly and I couldn’t see properly. There was a seat just in front and the woman must have realised what was happening to me because she guided me on to it. I felt like I wanted to be sick, and the world seemed to be swinging round me, but she gently pushed my head down towards my knees and said, “Take a deep breath.” I did, and the shaky feelings started to clear. I felt a cold sweat trickling down my back, in spite of the heat, and sounds seemed to be echoing in my head, but I could see again properly and I knew I was coming back into the world.
I sat up carefully and took in what was going on. Ken was standing there grinning and the policewoman, having seen that I was OK again, was looking at him and smiling too, and obviously desperate to start asking questions. But they had to wait. Behind her were excited voices. Someone started clapping and a voice called out, “We’ve got her! She’s all right!”
I took another deep breath and stood up and felt marvellous.
We’d got her. And she was all right.
She was all right.
Then the policewoman turned to me and said, “You OK now? Great. My name’s Sandy. Who are you two heroes?” She was a nice lady, with ginger hair curling out under her uniform cap.
We told her and she asked, “Where exactly did you find her?”
I said, “She was drifting down the middle. A long way. It took ages getting here. Big fields and bends of the river.”
“I had no idea,” she said. “That’s unbelievable! You don’t mean she’d floated all that way? You do, though! Of course, we’ve been searching round the boat for ages and it took time to get the crew here anyway. We’d given up hope but we couldn’t stop trying. How did you - ”
“We’ve left all our fishing gear there,” Ken interrupted. “Under a bush. We’d better start plodding back.”
I think Sandy had forgotten she was a police officer for a moment, in the wonder and relief of it all, but now she stiffened up and turned to her other colleague.
“Look after these two,” she instructed her, “and keep the crowd off. Take their contact details. Back in a minute.”
Soon she came back. “There’s an ambulance across the lock for the family,” she said to her mate. No-one’s badly hurt so they don’t need the chopper. Come on, you two.”
A bit dazed, we followed her past the crowd who hardly saw us go, and not realising what was happening we found ourselves standing in the gale that was blowing now from the ear-splitting, roaring helicopter rotor.
Sandy grabbed my hand and shook it, then Ken’s. “I could kiss you both,” she said, but I’m in uniform! Get in and I’ll contact you tomorrow. This isn’t the end!”
And that’s how it was that we found ourselves up in the air, seeing the ribbon of the Thames down below us and all too soon were telling the pilot where to land on the flat green field beside where it had all begun. We said thanks to the pilot, went down the steps, and scuttled back out into the fierce sunlight, bending low as he’d told us to. There was Ken’s uncle, standing on the bank with a troubled look on his face.
We straightened up, hearing and feeling the chopper take off behind us.
As the sound faded and we set out towards Uncle Ted, Ken said, “Oh, I do hope he says it!”
He’d come to meet us and stood by the bush where our gear was still safely stowed.
“What was all that about?” he said. “Are you OK? I was just getting a bit worried. And did you catch anything?”
Sandy had been right. It wasn’t the end. We were famous for a bit with horrible photos of us in the newspapers, even the national ones. There was a TV thing with us sitting on a bench in the studio being interviewed by a friendly-enough presenter even if she didn’t have a clue about fishing, and even a medal later on. Best of all was a pretty wonderful Indian meal for us and our families, laid on by the baby’s parents and grandparents.
But you don’t want to know about all that, you want more fishing stories, like we always want more fishing. We didn’t accept the reward money they tried to give us, and we never did tell them what it really felt like. How terrified we both felt all the time, especially at the end when we thought we might fail.
But we didn’t fail and we both feel good when we remember it. Forever, it was our catch of a lifetime!
However, one day when all the excitement had settled down, Ken did try another joke.
“You know what we got wrong, Dave,” he said. “We forgot to weigh it, so we can’t claim a record. Shame about that!”
- Ends -
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