All the boats were back bar one, the one which Peter had lingered long in the cold February air to see return. By now every other boat had been emptied and packed away for the night, including the one from which he had fished so successfully that very day, landing two good jacks and one low double. None of that mattered to him right now. All he cared about was the safe return of his old friend.
The raucous voices of the other pikers carried across the cold night air to the post where Peter kept his vigil next to the dyke moorings. He could hear the boisterous jeering as they bragged of their captures, displaying images on mobile devices and bright screen shots on digital cameras in the half-light outside the cafe where they smoked and swilled mugs of steaming hot coffee to warm themselves. Peter strained to make individual voices amide the cacophony but instead detected a foreign grumbling tone somewhere out over the water, which grew louder as his listened.
The repetitive though slightly irregular metal beat to some might be an offensive noise, but it was a noise that Peter had grown to love. Soon he would smell that evocative whiff the old seagull outboard made which would signal his friend’s safe return. The seagull was always heard well before it was seen, and an age passed before George’s old dingy rounded the corner into the dyke. Slowly but surely it did as it always had and laboured up the channel, with scarcely enough light left to find his way, George cruised the old tub back into the same mooring he had done hundred thousand times before.
“Hello there young Peter,” the old man called as he tossed the fraying old rope through the dark.
“Did you get any action today, George?”
“Sadly once again, not so much as a nibble, I think if I am correct that makes over eighty blanks in a row for me. This the worst run of luck I've ever had my whole life.”
“I could come along tomorrow if you want? I already caught three today and I could help you out.”
“Three you say! Any good un’s in there, eh?”
“Yes, one double”
“Very nice young man”
“So I can come along tomorrow then?”
“Peter, your parents were right to get you another boat. My luck has run out! You don’t want to be fishing with an old timer like me when you could be out on a modern boat catching fish here, there, and everywhere.”
Peter didn't want to push the issue and upset George so instead asked “Would you like me to catch you some live baits before we go out in the morning? The public marina is full of them and they’re all a perfect size.”
“You don’t have to do that, I can catch a few when I find a spot tomorrow,” the old man replied.
“Well how about some dead baits then? I have two nice skimmers left over if you want them,” Peter insisted
Knowing the young lad as long as he had, George recognised that he wouldn't give up until he had helped and so to spare his young companion any undue embarrassment, he accepted the two motionless young bream and stowed them safely for the night in the chilly bucket at the bow of the boat that he used as a live well.
Peter helped George carry the little gear he had up the old cobbled lane back towards the village. It wasn't a steep hill, Norfolk not being renowned for its mountainous geography, but even with him shouldering his wicker basket and clutching his old cane rods it still took the old man a lot of effort to walk along the dark, uneven path. As they neared Daisy’s cafe at the top of the lane, the other fishermen’s banter grew louder and clearer until they came into sight, at which the gathering fell quiet. They ceased their squabbling and stared as the old man and young boy walked slowly past.
It wasn't until their backs were turned that the bullish ring leader called out to Peter, “We’ll be off at first light tomorrow if you’re coming along with us kid!”
With a heart full of sorrow, he replied without turning round, “I won’t be late, Johno.”
“Glad to hear it, kid! Your old man practically begged to get you onto a decent boat and off of Jonah’s old tub.”
At that the whole group burst out laughing like a pack of hyenas trying to ingratiate themselves with their leader. Peter frowned through the darkness but his companion still walked on as if he didn't hear the laughter.
“I am sorry.”
“What are you sorry for lad?” said the old man gently.
“That they call you names.”
“It’s not your fault, peter. They’re in their prime and those in their prime always pick on the weak. It’s nature’s way. Besides, one day they’ll be old and clapped out like me and maybe then your generation will be picking on them.”
Peter was still considering George’s last comment as they arrived at his old cottage, with its walls covered with round beach stones cemented over the brickwork and the gorse bush which had grown so large it filled the front garden.
“Are you coming in for a cuppa young man?”
Neither coffee or tea were of any particular interest to him but he always said yes, as he enjoyed to sit across the table from the old man and talk about their other shared passion; canaries.
“So do you reckon we will stay up this season then?” Peter asked from across the ancient kitchen table as George busied himself with the teapot.
“It isn't going to be easy, there is a lot of good teams in this league, like Man U and Chelsea, and the likes of them don’t take no prisoners, lad”
“I know! But we finished pretty well in our league last year didn't we? Eight points clear of Brom can’t be bad.”
“You’re right, we were on top of that league, but up here’s a different matter with players like that Terry Henry running round. That froggy scores goals with his eyes closed and old Shearers going to want a bit of glory to go out with an all. Trust me, Peter, we’re going to be the whipping boys come the end of the season.”
“Ah you say that now, George, but we could take a few scalps when desperate and the lower down teams like Fulham should be a piece of cake.”
The two talked until they were both yawning and their beds called out to them. After George had shooed the hopeful young fan off home he had to force himself out of the warmth of the kitchen, up through the frozen house to his creaky old spring bed. As the years had gone on and certainly since Cynthia had passed away, he’d struggled to find warmth in his bed. Being just him it never seemed quite worth the effort to start up the little fire in the bedroom chimney breast. Sometimes when he remembered, he bothered to take a hot water bottle up with him, but today like on most occasions he crept into bed still wearing his long johns and woolly hat and tried his best to get off to sleep.
Tired as he was, George never slept much. Maybe more than half of his time in bed was spent lying motionless, staring at the small crack in the ceiling. There was nothing special about the crack nor did it worry him; it simply gave him something to focus on while he passed the night. As he stared his mind wandered. He'd think about the past and the things long lost to him, but when that made him sad he'd ruminate instead about football or fishing in order to divert his thoughts from the more painful memories. But tonight he'd ponder fishing especially and more importantly breaking his duck, until the thin strip of half-light appeared in the gap between the curtains heralding dawn and the start of another day where he would attempt to finally end his terrible run of blanks...