The Big Fellah
Edward Cubbington parked the range rover off the road by the old bridge and walked over to peer down at the river below. The heavy rains that had fallen a fortnight before, raising the level and muddying the waters with silt were history and now the river was reborn, running gin clear beneath him. Returning to the car he opened the back door and pulled out the previously made up trout rod, carefully navigating the tip through the open back window, then propping the rod against the bonnet he pulled on his waders, slung the game bag with its fly boxes, spare casts and lunch sandwiches over his shoulder, locked the car and took the small footpath picking his way carefully down to the river bank.
There had been a time when he would take the path at a run on his way home, sprinting up the incline with three of four good sized fish in the folded landing net in his hurry to get back to Lucy and show off the afternoons catch for supper. But those days were long gone, he was in his seventy-sixth year now and Lucy had died four years earlier. He had never got used to life without her, even calling out ‘darling, I’m home’ to an empty house months after her death and still thought how she would have gone about solving some troublesome problem before taking any action. They had met at a dance shortly after he finished his National Service and was celebrating his newfound freedom. He had never taken to the Army and bitterly resented the two years taken from his life, an attitude his commanders found both irritating and unpatriotic. But then they were career soldiers who had volunteered to serve from choice while he had been press-ganged into service and with the honesty of youth he had made the mistake of telling them so. It hadn’t gone down well and proved the beginning of a distinctly frosty relationship with his seniors which lasted until Edward’s time was up and he left the army to mutual sighs of relief.
He had decided to fish the blind pool mainly because it was the nearest deep pool to the bridge and he needed what small residue of energy he still possessed for fishing rather than walking, and secondly because local lore had it the pool was the main lair of The Big Fellah. Edward only half believed the many tales of The Big Fellah but like all fisherman the chance, no matter how remote, of catching a brown trout whose size allegedly ranged from eight to twelve pounds depending on the story teller could not be totally ignored. Reaching the pool he lowered himself gratefully onto the bank to catch his breath, resting his feet on a convenient cushion of grassy-topped earth sucked from the edge by the recent high water. One of the few joys of age was the lack of need to hurry he reflected; there was always plenty of time, though it had taken him a lifetime to find that out, which in turn was ironic considering the small amount of time he had left. Edward sat quietly drinking in the river scene, the sun was fighting a losing battle with the September clouds but occasionally it broke through, bringing a burst of warmth and colour to the surrounding countryside, reflecting the flash of cobalt blue as a kingfisher sped to a favoured perch.
Edward slipped off the bank onto the shingle beach caused by the river bend that had formed a flattened U of around twenty feet between the bank and the fast running water. Standing knee deep in the shallows he made his first cast, expertly dropping the fly in the start of the deep water run close to the opposite bank, letting it swim downstream until it ran out of line before casting again. Every three or four casts he moved on a couple of paces downstream to ensure he covered as close to every foot of the deep water he could. Being an old hand at the game his movements quickly became automatic and he let his mind roam free.
They had been married for three years and beginning to despair of having children when Lucy became pregnant. Both were almost delirious with joy with Edward thinking he had reached the highlight of his emotions until Amabel was born. Then, when he first held her in his arms, he experienced a love that was close to adoration mingled with a sense of such fierce protection it almost scared him. Jonathon arrived two years later and he loved him deeply too but Amabel had captured a special part of his heart where no other child could follow. Thanks to Lucy they had been the happiest of families and though there were the inevitable off days, everyone did their best to bring life back to normal because everyone wanted to. After their tenth birthday Lucy, though not forgetting the children were still children, took to reasoned argument rather than demands to put her wishes across. A process that produced surprisingly adult teenagers, more at ease with themselves than most of their contempories and by the time they were grown up they not only loved their parents but considered them best friends as well.
Though far short of being a billionaire Edward admitted to being financially comfortable which was his way of saying he didn’t need to work. Lucy’s family had considerable estates, which included substantial parts of three quite large country towns so money presented no problems for either of them. But like many men born to wealth Edward nursed a secret guilt which expressed itself in the need to help others, or to put something back as he preffered to say. He took an unpaid job in a large international charity where he worked much harder than his less fortunate contempories in the City, but had the satisfaction of knowing he was doing something more worthwhile. When he was promoted to a more senior position in Geneva his lifestyle scarcely changed. He rented a very pleasant villa with gardens running down to the shores of Lac Lamon at a cost considerably in excess of his contempories salaries while keeping their comfortable apartment in London. With several daily flights between the two cities both of them were able to continue their social life almost without interruption. Jonathon was at Boading School so remained largely unaffected by the move while Amabel was already at a finishing school in Vevey, which was just down the road from Geneva. In the winter holidays they went skiing a sport they all enjoyed, but in summer the family divided. Lucy and Amabel usually headed for the South of France, while unless something more exciting was on offer, Jonathon joined his father at their country house for some serious trout fishing.
Amabel had taken to skiing as naturally as a fledgling bird to flight and excelled at the sport. Once her finishing school days were over she explored beyond the local resorts of Grindelwald, Zermatt and Engleberg to test her skill on the numerous runs America and Canada had to offer. Edward was delighted at his daughter’s success until the day with her face flushed with excitement she came home to tell them she had been selected for the British team. He hugged her close and made a great show of opening a bottle of celebratory champagne, but inside a cold hand of premonition closed round his heart. Dismissing his fears as irrational he made a superhuman attempt to put on a cheerful face as he took the family out for dinner. As it turned out his fears were misplaced as Amabel won second place in the Giant Slalom that year with no hint of injury.
Edward’s reminisces were brought to an abrupt end by a sharp tug on the line and knew he was into a fish. The fish made a fast run upstream and Edward let it go, keeping the line taught to ensure the hook stayed in place while at the same time tiring the fish with the added strain as it fought both current and the weight of the line. It was an unequal contest and he netted the fish in under five minutes, a good sized one and a quarter pound brown trout, the sheen of its multicoloured markings shining beautifully in the sunlight. For a moment he toyed with returning it to the river, but only for a moment, the thought of freshly grilled trout for breakfast quickly overcame such altruism and he knocked it sharply on the head before putting it in the keep net. On a normal day he would have gone home content with his catch, for Edward strongly disapproved of killing anything for fun, and though he enjoyed the sport of fishing his catch was always was dependent on the number of mouths to feed. If the whole family was at home and the fishing good he would add more fish for the deep freeze but those days were past and now one good fish was all he needed to satisfy him. But something made him stay, perhaps it was the hope of nailing The Big Fellah, he wasn’t sure but as he waded thigh deep into the deeper waters at the end of the pool he could feel a sense of growing excitement he hadn’t felt for years beginning to run through him.
The Geneva job had become pretty much routine, arriving at the office around nine, taking care of emails and correspondence followed by meetings to revue operations taking place in different parts of the world. Edward was continually surprised by the organisational problems such operations required and welcomed the occasions when they were teamed with other charities like Medicin Sans Frontiers or Oxfam to share the load. Then it was lunch with a contempory or visiting member of the active teams. In summer at one of the excellent lakeside bistros famed for their fillets de perches or in winter at one of the restaurants in town renowned for their steaks and game. So when he learned he had been promoted to take charge of operations in one of the small central African republics the news came as an unwelcome surprise, but hardly prepared him for the horrific shock he received on arrival.
The Republic of Mobambo was about the size of Ireland, set at the tail end of the Congo but there all similarity ended. A line of semi dormant volcanoes provided the spine of the country with a large crocodile infested river at their feet, the remaining eighty percent of space was filled with thick impenetrable jungle, alive with every biting insect and snake known to man and many more yet to be discovered. In comparison to its giant neighbour the finding of Bauxite came late to Mobambo. But once established, and with the help of the Chinese, it had provided a source of great wealth to the country, which in turn had created a lethal rivalry between competing tribes for the country’s presidency. For as in most emerging African republics all the wealth of the nation together with the added bonus of any outside aid passed directly through the hands of the usually acquisitive incumbent president and his staff.
Edward knew his association with Mobambo was going to be short the moment he stepped from the comparative comfort of the air-conditioned plane into the hot damp fetid atmosphere that was the country’s climate. By the time he reached the terminal building he was soaked with sweat, his new tailored tropical suit hanging from his shoulders like so many wet rags, Edward knew he hated Mobambo. He had arrived in the middle of another civil war; the vicious cruelty of both sides displayed by the endless lines of starving people, many of them amputees, heading towards the Capital in hopes of food and treatment. Of course he had seen it all before on film and television but film and television though providing a record of events lacked atmosphere, that vital ingredient of sound, scents and smells that brought the shocking pictures to life. As the days progressed and he saw more and more of these sad people he looked for signs of anger or revenge against their fellow countrymen who had done such terrible things to them. But there were none, only a dull acceptance of their lot reflected in their eyes mixed with the endless patience of Africa. Nor could he get used to the flies that seemed to form a part of everyone’s life. Flies crawling into mouths, noses and ears, flies grouped round eyes like cattle drinking at a trough, and couldn’t understand why people made no effort to brush them aside until one of the residents explained they were too busy dying, and lacked the time and energy to be bothered by such trifles. But in the end it was the stink that got to him, the stench of gangrene, of dysentery and the endless reek of overflowing latrines. Always a fastidious man Edward realised that frontline work just wasn’t for him. Perhaps his entire time working in charity had been a fraud, he didn’t know. But he did know he had to leave, go back to civilisation, to friends and conversation, to baths and comfortable beds, to fine dining and fine wines, to civilisation where the mere sight of a fly was reason enough to reach for the aerosol. He concocted a ridiculous need for a vital fictitious report to be delivered in person to Head Office and left the next day.
To his surprise no one at Head Office treated his desertion from post as unusual. Curious, he did a quick check on the board and senior executive staff to find that none had ever spent time amongst the nations they provided with help, at best the record showed a few had done flying inspections but the majority had never left the comfort of their homes and offices. Though the news should have comforted Edward strangely it only increased his shame causing him to resign and quit the charity world for good.
Lucy was delighted he had retired from business as she called it. Though she had put up with the Geneva house and enjoyed the nearby skiing, in truth she much preffered to be close to Edward in their familiar haunts of London and the country. Not that she had anything against travel, now that the children were grown she planed to see the world with Edward and in considerable style. Amabel was now living with some ski instructor in Aspen, Colorado. Lucy wasn’t sure she approved but being a practical woman realised there was nothing she could do about it so had invited both of them for Christmas at the house that year together with Jonathon and current girl friend, they changed so often she had given up on the effort required to learn their names. Jonathon was now a successful cartoonist for a leading national paper, proving Lucy right when she had defended his doodling in exercise books at school to the despair of teachers, saying in his defence it displayed an imagination which could well prove useful in later life. Edward was content to let such minor problems pass him by, happy to be free at last from the office, the boring detail and people that went with it. Despite adopting the grave demeanour required of a senior dedicated charity executive, secretly he had always resented the loss of time and freedom these self imposed duties had caused and was delighted to be free once more to utilize his financial strength to follow whatever path he chose, until that day when everything changed.
Edward remembered that day as clearly as yesterday, even now he moaned softly without realising it. It had been a Friday evening, he and Lucy had just returned from a week in London spent going to a couple of first nights, a guild dinner at the Mansion House and catching up with friends. It had been fun but both were pleased to be home for a relaxing country weekend on their own. There was a decided chill in the November air and he was pleased the housekeeper had the foresight to light a roaring fire in the drawing room, central heating may be practical and efficient but to experience the true sensation of homely warmth there was nothing like a blazing log fire. He had poured himself a drink from the sideboard, picked up the local paper and sank into one of the deep armchairs by the fire with a sigh of total contentment when the phone rang. Edward dismissed his rising irritation determined not to spoil the mood. It was Jonathon, his voice masked by tears, saying Amabel had had a fatal accident while practicing for the downhill trials. She had suffered a broken her neck and though rushed to hospital she had been pronounced dead on arrival.
The world became surreal to Edward, as in a dream he heard himself soothing and calming Jonathon, saying they would talk again in the morning. Then breaking the news to Lucy, holding her in his arms as she shook with grief, giving her a strong sedative before putting her to bed. Then he went back downstairs and sat calmly in his armchair with the local paper in his lap listening to the rain; until he realised it wasn’t rain at all but the sound of his tears hitting the paper. Amabel’s death left a deep void in Edward, to the casual acquaintance he seemed normal enough, in conversation he chatted, smiled and even laughed if the occasion called for it. But inside he had withdrawn into a shell, watching his own robotic actions with a dangerous disinterest. The three of them had flown to Aspen for Amabel’s funeral, all of them in agreement that she should be buried there rather than be shipped home along with all the other baggage. After it was over Lucy said they may as well start their world trip from Aspen rather than returning to London first, so having said goodbye to Jonathon they flew to San Francisco and boarded a small cargo ship that serviced the larger islands of the south pacific.
It was over two years before they returned to the house. Time as always had proved a great healer, the pain of Amabel’s death no longer a constant ache and though a word or situation could bring her back in an instant, the instants grew further and further apart as the years went by. Edward had faced his demons, walking alone on deck at night, looking down as the tempting pacific ocean hissed passed the ship’s side calling him to join his beloved Amabel. But the thought of Lucy always stopped him, then suddenly he was past such foolishness and life began once more.
Edward was nearing the end of the pool now, but to place his fly over the fast water by the far bank he needed to go a little deeper. After a couple of paces he could feel the strength of the current pushing angrily against his left side and moved his right foot onto what seemed like a convenient boulder to counteract it.
After Amabel’s death the years seem to kaleidoscope. Jonathon married then later took his family off to the States where he had been offered a job on The Chicago Tribune. Suddenly the house once filled young and laughing faces seemed empty and too big for just the two of them. One evening after dinner they had a long discussion on the subject and decided to sell, but that was as far as it ever got for they both knew the house was a part of them and the children. To sell would be a denial of all the happiness and love that had happened there and would always be a part of it. Instead they immersed themselves in local projects. Hosting village fetes in the field at the bottom of the garden, opening the gardens two days a week in summer, paying for the upkeep of the cricket ground and other small public services. They also built a new village hall, subsidised the local cottage hospital and paid for the pensioners annual holiday but these and more were considered private actions and were fronted by their solicitors. Lucy was particularly proud of her herbaceous border that ran the complete length of the south lawn. In fact Edward was idly watching her weeding from the terrace, garden basket beside her as usual, when suddenly she seemed to lean forward at an unnatural angle then freeze. Calling for help Edward ran the hundred odd yards at the closest thing to a sprint he could manage but he was too late. As the doctor later explained there was nothing he could have done, Lucy had suffered an aortic aneurysm and would have died in a matter of seconds. Whether it was shock or the hundred yards sprint no one could be sure but Edward suffered a massive heart attack the same evening and had been plagued with angina ever since.
Edward smiled to himself. The doctors would have a fit if they could see him now, up to his waste in swirling river water casting again and again with a rod that seemed increasingly heavy. Perhaps he should call it a day, they had all warned him about over exertion and his back was aching like hell, while he could hardly feel the hand holding the rod. One more cast then home. Hauling in the line he whipped the rod back, held it steady for a moment then flicked it forward releasing the line at the same time. Fly, cast and line flew out to hover for half a second over the water before dropping gently on the surface without a ripple. It was a perfect cast and Edward could feel himself beaming with pleasure. Then the rod bent double as the line screamed out from the reel and he knew he was into a big fish. Back ache, frozen hands and over exertion warning were forgotten in an instant as the adrenaline of excitement pumped through his body. The fish reversed direction zooming directly towards him. Edward pulled in line reeling frantically as he did so, whatever happened the line between fish and rod had to remain firm or risk losing the prize. As the fish passed him running up stream no more than a rods length away for a fleeting moment its huge dorsal fin broke the surface and Edward knew he had hooked The Big Fellah. The fish turned and made another run downstream tearing line from the reel with a high pitched screech before going deep to swim amongst the bottom boulders in an attempt to break the line. The rod bent double with the strain as he used all his strength to lift the fish from the bottom at the same time taking a floundering step back towards the shore, for he knew he could never land a fish this big mid channel, the landing net was too small.
If he was to win this contest of wills he would have to beach the Big Fellah on the shingle shore. Waiting for a moment when the fish was inactive Edward took another faltering step backwards, but his right foot slipped on a weed covered rock and losing his balance he fell backwards into the river. As the water closed over his head and his feet scrabbled to find a purchase on the bottom he was conscious of holding on to the rod with a grip of iron in his determination to keep a taught line on the Big Fellah. Somehow he found his feet and with waders filled with water staggered to the shore, rod over his shoulder with the line still taught. Once safe in the shallows he turned to face the river again and found that during his fall the line had become a birds nest of tangled knots and loops that would take a good hour to unravel. His only way of beaching the fish was to haul it in by hand. Ignoring the pain of the line as it cut into his hands he pulled the fish steadily towards him. Then suddenly the Big Fellah was there in the shallows, black with age and far bigger than the most fanciful stories he had heard Edward regarded the great fish in awe, then as he bent to haul it in the last few yards he was hit by an agonising pain in his chest. Though his hands involuntarily let loose the line his eyes remained locked on the fish, watching as with pressure gone it gave a shake of its head, releasing the hook then with a swirling beat of its great tail turned back to the safety of the river depths.
Edward had never experienced such pain, it came in waves each one greater than the last until it felt as though his entire chest had been brutally ripped open. Then the pain was gone as unknowingly he pitched forward into the river. The water seemed agreeably warm and to his surprise he found no difficulty in breathing. It felt wonderful lying there drifting slowly downstream in the current. He was pleasantly surprised to see the Big Fellah swimming companionably beside him and though Edward knew it was impossible it seemed to him big fish was smiling, but then the light was fading fast so he couldn’t be sure.