The sun was warm on his face and George felt as relaxed as he ever had. From his lounger he looked over the garden at Cynthia as knelt over the flower bed wearing that old straw hat she always wore and old flannel shirt of his she had rescued from the rag box. She always hummed as she pottered in the garden and although it was no particular tune, the sound of her humming away always made him feel happy. Content in the moment he closed his eyes and rested his head back into the warmth of the sun.
“Are you going to lie around all day George?” she called softly across the lawn
“It is quite possible my dear”
“You know there’s other chores need doing in the garden”
“But darling you love gardening and I would want to take away what you love”
“mmm… Well I don’t love pruning back that infernal gorse bush that’s popped up in the front garden”
“I’ll do it in a while. Right now I am ever so comfortable”
“Don’t make me come over there husband!”
“I think my dear wife that you might just need to come over here and persuade me somewhat”
He never heard her approach and only when her silhouette blocked the sun did he realize he had been called out.
“It’s going to take more persuading than that my dear”
“I’ll chuck a bucket of water over you and that will get you up?”
“Calm down all I am just asking for is a bit of a cuddle”
“You’re a soppy old bugger George”
Gently she slid onto the edge of the lounger put her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. He couldn't have been more happy than he was right now sat with his love in his arms as the hazy sun warming them as they sat listening to the hypnotic sound grasshoppers buzzing from somewhere over the garden.
A violent splashing woke him. Could it really be that he was wrong and the great fish still lived? He sat bolt upright before leaning over the edge. Expecting to see the fish writhing still tied to the boat he was shattered when he saw what disturbed the water. A big old dog otter clawed and bit at the pike under its gills tearing the flesh sending scales sinking down in the water. The sight of the otter eating the great fish was too much. Enraged, he grabbed for the oar and swung down hard onto the water well beyond the otter. It was more than enough to send the creature diving away from its free meal. Even with the otter well and truly sent packing he still swung the oar onto the water again and again screaming with anger until finally the oar contacted with the edge of the boat and snapped in two. Calm again he looked down at the fish. Not so long ago it had been perfection then he had killed it. Even dead it was still in some ways perfect but now at the hands of one hungry otter it had been tainted. There was no way he could leave her to be spoilt further, he had to take it back with him even just so others could see it dead and witness what a fish it once had been, even if they condemned him. So he went about attaching it to his boat.
The head was still tethered so all he had to do was to get another piece of rope and secure the tail so the fish would be tight to the boat for the trip back. Wanting to get away before the otter returned he began priming the little seagull. The fact that it had been out and uncovered all night was a worry but he had to try. The normal six or seven pulls on the cord failed to spark life into the engine and after a few more he removed the petrol cap to check the fuel. There wasn't much but there was some and maybe even enough to make it back again. There was no way he would give up until that motor sparked up. A nasty blister had formed on his right hand were the rope rubbed when he tugged at the engine, well before it came to life one last time. The engine did not sound good at all. Running it was, but not in a healthy way for sure. The damp must have got into it or the fuel tank over night and now it sputtered occasionally as if about to stall. All he could do was chance it and give the little engine more gas. The boat moved and he was off. Having a large pike tethered to the side of the little tub made it handle very badly, the disturbance to the flow of the water round the hull caused the boat to drag on one side and he had to constantly compensate. The engine still struggled and he could barely maintain a straight line never mind any speed. He was only just off the main Broad when the fuel reserve expired and again powerless he realised he was going to have to row all the way back. If only he hadn't of broken one of the oars fending away the otter then the rowing might have been easier, but with only one complete oar remaining it was going to be a long journey rowing Indian style with the single oar from the front of the boat.
He was far too old for this. In his youth he and a friend had spent a summer camping and canoeing on some of the Scottish rivers and lochs but that was more than fifty years ago when he was young and strong. Now every time he leant forward to dip the single oar into the water his back and shoulders ached. The muscles in his arms had not known exertion like this for many years and after the fight with the fish he wondered whether his old body would hold up long enough to get them both back to moorings.
He saw the first herring gull flying towards him low scanning the water for a meal. The moment it sighted him and the fish it let out a shriek and turned on the wing diving towards him. Holding the oar in the air and jabbing it in the bird’s direction halted its descent, but this was no timid otter, this was a true scavenger of the coast and lands, a real landfill hunter. Repeatedly it dropped out of the air and every time George waved his oar it screamed louder and louder. It was only a matter of time before it attracted more of its brethren. When they came they did en masse in a flock like the ones you see following a trawler on its way back to port, or tractor ploughing up a field. One he could deter, fifty he could not. For every one he batted off the fish two more dove in picking at the loosened flesh. One or two took hard enough shots to end up flailing on the water with broken wings. For hours this went on as the whole fiasco drifted down the stream between the reeds. His defence of the fish grew less and he could hardly stop them turning the fish and his boat into a mess of gore and shit. When they had had their fill the birds just silently drifted away into the sky satisfied with their find, leaving him to survey the damage. The fish was hardly recognisable any more, now it just looked like a fleshy mess. It was as he peered down into the water that he saw the sea gulls were not the only ones who had found the carcass. Hundreds of tiny roach pecked at the unseasonal bounty and worst of all the vibration had brought the eels up from and they now took their piece too. The fish was disappearing and George could do nothing to stop it, all he could do was push on for home.
Even the sight of the dyke entrance after such an arduous experience did nothing to raise his spirits. It was all he could to slowly keep going after rowing all day. The boat turned easily into the dyke as if to help the broken old man out one last time. Panting and wheezing George called forth what little he had left to get up the last few hundred yards towards the deserted wooden moorings. It certainly didn't feel real as he pulled the oar from the water and let the boats momentum carry it thumping into the dock. With nothing left in the tank he grasped for the wooden platform scratching the skin from his finger tips on the rough surface as he did. For a moment he just sat with his head hung low panting. There was no thinking to be done no considering the situation. He simply tied off the boat to the dock with a single half hearted knot and then dragged himself slowly up onto the wooden stage. Unsteady on his feet he nearly dove head first into the reeds behind the walkway, he was that tired. He was about to walk away when he stopped in his tracks and thought of the fish. Turning back he could make out nothing but the very tip of its tail beyond the boat from where he stood. The image of that beautiful giant came back into his mind; then the sight of its haunting eye. Looking down towards the water he could still see the ripples caused by a million tiny scavengers emanating from where the carcass was still tied up. It was too much to bear, he had to walk away and resist one last look.
The walk along the lane was one he had made alone hundreds if not thousands of times before but this was the loneliest journey he had ever made. It was like he was trapped in a bubble and all he could hear was his own laboured breath as he plodded forth back towards his home. With little care of how long it had taken him to silently walk back, George suddenly found himself looking at the over grown gorse which dominated his front garden. “I really must do something about that” he said as he stepped around the bush towards the house. Inside it was cold and crisp. No heat came from the agar and he would not stop to light a fire in it either. Still in his own world he walked right by towards the creaky old stairs. After only two boards he stopped and exhaled before sucking in a deep breath and pushing on. It really did take the very last scrap of life to drag himself up those few wooden boards before turning off into his bedroom. Only his boots were removed before he dropped onto the bed and pulled the sheets around him where upon he softly slipped away.
For Peter, Mondays were always slow at school, having double maths and double science both on the same day. But this Monday was far worse than normal. The previous afternoon he had waited round at the mooring for George to return from his fishing trip. But after hours of hanging around darkness had fallen and his old mentor had still not returned. Concerned, Peter had gone up to the cafe to speak with the other anglers and inform them of George’s absence. More mockingly than concerned they discarded Peter’s worries saying that George was probably just fishing into dark. But even the young man’s assurance that George never fished into dark did nothing to incline them into action. After running home he had pleaded with his father to help him look into it but all his father said they could do was contact the community police officer over the phone. PC Gallington had assured both Peter and his father that George had to actually be missing for some time before he could do anything and that it was more than likely that he was just out late fishing. None of this was good enough for Peter, he knew his old friend so well and he knew something wasn’t right. After a sleepless night he had thought to do an early runner out of the house and bunk off of school to go and looking for George, but his father anticipated this and was waiting downstairs when Peter tried to sneak out. Forced to go to school, Peter bided his time, but once that bell went no one would stop him from heading out looking for his friend.
Like a greyhound from a trap Peter burst out of the door knocking over two first years as he did. The moorings were on the opposite side of the village so he would have to use every alley and short cut he knew to shorten the journey. With his rucksack banging up and down on his back he charged through the streets in a record time until he found himself outside the cafe at the top of the lane. Strangely he could see others hurrying down the lane towards the alley that lead to the moorings. Running twice as fast he pushed his way past to get through until he came to a solid mass on mooring right by where George moored his boat. With thirty or more voices all talking in different directions he could barely make out what was going on. Desperate to get through he jumped down into another boat and then began unsteadily making his way forward. As he tried to avoid going in the water he heard his name called, “Peter!” It wasn’t his old friend calling him, but instead Johno.
“Peter have you seen it?”
“That!” Johno pointed frantically down to the walk way alongside George’s boat.
There lay the most unbelievable thing Peter had ever seen. The head of the pike was huge! Probably close on a foot wide and certainly close on two feet long. It was perfectly intact all the way back to the gills. From there it was nothing but a four feet long skeleton. Every speck of flesh back from the solid head had been picked clean off the bone. The tail was still in near perfect condition from above were the rope had secured it out of the water even though it was a little dried up. It was amazing to see.
“How big do you think it was?” was all he could think to say? The now silent crowd burst in to action all speaking at once. Fifty, sixty and seventy pounds were all called out as well as every weight between. It was the bullish Johno who quietened them all down by yelling, “Shut the hell up will you’s.” He then held up a set of scales before calling for them to weigh it.
They all fell silent once again as two of them lifted what was left of the fish up to hang it on the scales. Struggling to hold the weight up high Johno peered down to read the weight.
“Well bugger me! Just over twenty pounds for the head and bones alone.”
The whole crowd burst out with some outlandish weights and the discussion went into over drive. It must have been half an hour before they all decided that with the head making up maybe only a quarter or fifth of the fishes weight eighty plus pounds was not out of the question. The whole time this was going on Peter just stared at the giant pikes lifeless eye. As he did he filled in the blanks of what might have happened and then he came back to his friend.
“Get out of my way,” he yelled pushing, his way along the moorings.
“Where are you going Peter?” called Johno
But all the young man called back was, “George!”
The house was not far away but Peter ran faster than he had ever done in his life before. He ran so fast that his feet hurt where he pounded them at the ground needing to go ever faster. He skidded round the last corner and finally caught sight of the over grown gorse hanging out of the garden. Not stopping for a moment he charged down the street and through the open gate. He caught his knuckle on the stone covering of the wall but that didn’t stop him. What did though was when he reached the back door of the house and found it wide open. His heart pounded in his chest and he dared not call out. Slowly he crept into the door way. The house was freezing as if the door had been open all day and this worried Peter even more. Further in he went and called quietly as he went, “George… George are you in here?” Silence was the only reply.
Peter had never been in to the house any further than the kitchen so once he parted the curtain that separated the kitchen from the sitting room he was in an alien place. The dank sitting room was like a museum. It was clean but everything looked to be years old. On the mantel piece he spotted a picture of George sitting in a deck chair with his shirt open and wearing sandals. In a black and white one he was in uniform and young, and in another he stood arm in arm with a beautiful young woman. Even with pictures of him everywhere George was nowhere to be seen. Peter delved on further in the unknown and went the door way into the hall and up the stairs.
The stairs creaked as stood on each one in turn and by the top Peter was convinced should George be at home he would off by now heard him, but still he went on anyway. At the top of the stairs he stood on the little landing with three doors all open in front of him. The bathroom was cold and empty and the second room was half filled with old junk so all that remained was the last open door. Not daring to look he walked towards the open door holding his breath. There, lying on the bed covered by a sheet was the shape of a human. No movement or sounds were obvious at all. Almost in tears Peter moved closer reaching out with his hand to make contact. His hand rested slowly onto the figure feeling for any life. Unable to detect anything he shook gently and quietly called out, “George,” but the silence still clung to the air. He had to try again so a second firmer shake moved the body back and forth but drew no answer.
As a last resort Peter reached to pull back the sheets and finally saw his friends face still and his eyes shut. He reached out and touched George’s cheek as he spoke, “Oh, George…”
There was warmth! He could feel warmth when he touched the wrinkled old cheek, “George!” he called loudly and his old friend’s eyes opened and with a dry voice crackled, “Hello, Peter”
“Hello, George” he relied joyfully with a smile
“I was having the strangest dream about lions”
“Yes, they were running on a beach”
“Never mind lions. What about this giant fish?”
“Oh yes I’d forgotten about that. Put the kettle on and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Thank you to both Jacky and Jeff.
Without all of your help, advice and patient editing
I don't think I would have had the confidence to post this story.