© I.J. Noble
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Hook Line and Sinker
Two pairs of heavy boots crunched down onto the white covering of frost. The hard sparkling frost hung heavily on everything as far as the eye could see. With every step the men took, millions of ice crystals shattered and fused under their feet in that micro-world. The splinters of ice sent all living things scurrying before them.
The men's breaths vaporised in the cold air, as they laboured over the rough and stony ground; on that early December morning. The men had to pick their steps carefully - as there were clumps of nettles with heads bent low, waiting motionless ready to sting them. There were also bramble thickets; they were armed with sickle shaped hooks that were designed to rip clothes and claw at bare skin. But the men were well at home in their surroundings and their minds were set on the job in hand.
The two men were water bailiffs and were using every bit of cover as they approached the small river. This part of the river was near its upper reaches and lay at the foot of the Preseli Hills. The pool was surrounded by trees, and sat in a hollow. The deep pool was well known for holding resting salmon. The bailiffs were approaching it cautiously - because it was also a magnet for poachers.
The hills were glistening white in the bright morning sunlight and the crystal clear air. The setting was picture postcard; but the men had other things on their minds.
Jack, the older man, in his late sixties, was of a stocky build. The hair that was visible under his deerstalker hat matched his grey but well-trimmed beard. These things made his weather-beaten face seem darker and perhaps stronger. The crow's feet around his dark eyes tightened as he looked eagerly for anything out of the ordinary.
The younger man phil, with a similar hat and dark green uniform, was perhaps the taller of the two, but lacked the other’s stoutness. He was in his late thirties, and had had no time for shaving that morning.
He watched his older companion ease forward slowly perhaps thinking that the older man was not as stealthy as he used to be. The younger man wondered if it shouldn’t be him taking the lead - seeing as his older companion was well past his retirement age. And it stood to reason, he having the younger eyes.
A full minute passed before it was clear the older man had spotted something. The younger man's adrenaline began to rise.
"What is it?" he whispered.
“There down on the left by the falls," replied his older companion.
Phil looked in that direction, but he saw no -one. The only thing he could see was a large fox mooching around.
He looked at the fox again. Perhaps there was something different about it. It was a fine specimen and its new red winter coat shone bright in a shaft of light that streamed through the trees. The animal was sniffing something out in the grass and eating it - all perfectly normal as far as he could see.
"What do you think, Phil?" whispered the Jack.
Phil didn’t know what to think, he didn’t even understand the question.
The older man tucked himself behind a large boulder and hid there quietly for a few minutes, his only movement was to glance in the fox's direction every minute or so. The fox slowly made its way out of the circle of trees, over a stile, and was making steady progress across a small meadow, and all the time he was sniffing something out in the grass and eating it.
"Jack,” Phil said sheepishly, “what exactly are we looking at here?"
"The fox, of course."
"Yes I know it’s a fox, but what's different about it?"
"Well, there's nothing different about it."
He glanced in the fox's direction again, the animal was about to go through a gap in the hedge and disappear from view.
"Right," said the old man, "lets go - we don’t want to lose him."
The two men broke their cover, and made their way down to the shallow end of the pool and crossed using the stepping-stones. They climbed the steep bank and in a few steps they were breaking the cover of the trees. The old man had a spring in his step now the younger had to lengthen his stride to keep up.
The older man stopped for a moment to inspect the stile.
"Frogs?" said Phil, but realising it was a stupid thing to say the moment the words left his lips - it was the wrong time of year for frogs.
"I very much doubt it," Jack said.
"Grass!" beamed Phil "he's eating grass, you know, just like dogs do when they have an upset stomach"
"Perhaps," said Jack
Before Phil could ask another question. Jack was over the stile and moving through the field. By the time Phil had caught up with him, he was pushing himself through the gap in the hedge.
They found themselves on a narrow farm lane - there was no sign of the fox. To the right of them the lane ran for about five hundred yards to an open field. To their left it curved at around fifty yards or so. Jack quickly decided that left was the way they needed to go. The fifty yards to the bend were quickly covered. It was on the bend that they took the fox completely by surprise when meeting the animal on its way back. The three of them stopped for a split second, and just stood looking at each other. Then in the blinking of an eye, the fox turned into a small break in the hedge and was gone.
That was it. They had lost the fox. Phil thought perhaps now Jack would tell him what was going on.
"We must be close," Jack whispered.
If Phil only knew what he was close to?
Jack continued down the lane like a stalking animal going in for the kill. Within sixty strides they were standing in front of a small cottage whose door opened directly on to the lane. Tucked between the step and the cottage wall, was a large ginger tomcat. The cat was feasting on a salmon head. The animal had seen them and had fixed its good eye on them. The old tomcat had been in the wars; both of its ears had been bitten so badly they were now only stumps. It had also lost its eye in one of those battles for mating rights.
When Jack took a step towards the cottage the cat growled at him with the ferocity of a tiger. God help anyone wanting the fish head for evidence.
"Come in!" a frail voice called from within the building.
The bailiffs stood for a moment, a little unsure. They had learned to be very cautious in their line of work. The odd poacher didn't want to come quietly. And very occasionally they set little traps for the bailiffs. The favourite of them being a piece of string strung low across the riverside path, which was very hard to see at night. Sometimes it was set to trip them up. Or the string would have a few empty beer cans tied to it. The poacher would hear the cans clattering together and it would give them time to scarper. It was very cat and mouse sometimes on the riverbanks.
Jack couldn't help wondering what possible motive a poacher could have for inviting them into his house. The norm was the bailiff had to threaten to kick the door in to get access.
"Come in, the door isn't locked!"
Jack turned the handle and swung the door open.
"Come in, come in before all the warm air gets out."
Jack stepped in through the open door cautiously. He quickly took in the lay of the room. Sitting by the fire with his back to them was a very old looking man. The rickety wooden chair he was sat in looked older then he did, and was so close to the fire it looked in danger of catching alight. They couldn't help noticing a large frying pan on the open fire. In the pan was a large cut of salmon being licked by the flames that curled over the lip of the shallow pan.
"Good morning," Jack said, and before he could say anymore the old man invited them with a wave of his hand to sit beside him by the fireside.
Removing their hats the two men sat beside him on a large settle that ran down one side of the inglenook fireplace.
A wizened old face turned to greet them. The stubble on his face was as white as the hair on his head; both were in sharp contrast to his one and only tooth, a yellow chisel-like protuberance that would look more at home on a beaver. It became all too obvious when he smiled. The other thing that was made more obvious were the deep lines in his weather beaten face.
"A cup of tea, gentlemen, I insist. If you would be so kind young man as to fetch me two cups and saucers from that shelf," and he pointed a bony, arthritic finger in the direction of an old cupboard. The other three fingers also looked as if they had knots tied where the joints used to be, and they also had the long twisted nails. The hand itself was also deformed. It had dark blue veins that sat uncomfortably under the stretched lifeless skin; it gave the hand a sinister appearance. The younger man found the look of it quite disturbing.
"And while you're there, would you be so kind and bring two of the blue plates and two forks from the middle drawer."
Jack placed the cutlery down beside him by the fire. The pleasantries of the milk and sugar were passed and the tea that had been brewing on the hearth poured and given out. The two men took up the same stance in unison: cap on knee, legs crossed and saucer on cap. The old man looked at his guests warmly.
"I hope the tea is to your liking," he said, noting their hesitation.
"Yes, I'm sure it is," replied Jack,
"Good, good, I've grown very fond of a cup of tea in the mornings. Seems to loosen up my old bones." To drive home the point he twisted his body inside his ragged old clothes.
It looked to the bailiffs as if he had just shaken a bag of bones - because there where lumps where there shouldn’t have been. Jack imagined under his clothes his body was as twisted as his hands - a pitiful sight he was sure.
With that the old man poured some of the tea from his cup into the saucer, then took a long noisy slurp as he imbibed the contents. The cup and saucer rattled a little as they met again, and again as he put them down by the fire. He took up his fork and prodded at the large cut of salmon that was sizzling away in the frying pan.
His two guests sampled their tea in unison. To their surprise the tea was hot, rich and sweet, and what can only be described as better than they were used to.
Jack uncrossed his legs, taking up a more relaxed pose - but felt that the friendliness could go no further, as his duty would have to come first, and it would be unfair to let any misunderstanding come into the proceedings.
"I must ask if it is a fresh fish you have cooking on the fire sir?" The question was loaded and gave him no pleasure, if he said 'yes' it would be taking fish out of season.
"As fresh as this very dawn, and a fresher fish you couldn't hope to have for your breakfast on such a God given morning, have no fear."
Somehow he had misunderstood the form of the questioning.
The questioning was going to be harder than he thought, but the law was the law, as painful as it was, he would have to do the thing he was paid to do. How clever he had thought himself picking up the trail, and how he had enjoyed being that step ahead of his younger partner. A very hollow victory now!
"How did you catch such a fish?" asked Jack, the words slipped off his tongue a little easier than he thought they would, perhaps it was because he genuinely wanted to know.
"Catch the fish, Heavens, no - I never caught the fish" he seemed bemused by the very idea.
It was not the answer the bailiffs had been expecting, the two men looked around the room for an accomplice, it all made sense now. Why hadn’t they seen it before? The trail was hot again.
"Can I ask you how you came upon this fish sir?" Jack asked with renewed vigour
"It was a present."
The two men looked back at him blankly
"Him, sir? Who exactly is him sir?"
"Him," he sighed again and this time pointed up to the ceiling with the twisted finger.
"Is there someone up the stairs, sir?"
The old man looked at them with an odd expression, and pointed up again.
"Is it your son, sir, or some other relative?"
"No, him - our Lord and provider." He pointed up again, to push home the point.
The two men were more confused than ever
"How exactly did the Lord provide you with the fish?" Jack asked. If he had been alone he doubted now that he would have started the questioning, he would have liked nothing more now than to simply sit and drink tea and pass the time of day with the old timer.
The old man turned to face them - Phil, was startled by his ice blue eyes! He thought them goat like, devil eyes. he tried to avoid the old man’s gaze, but felt as if he was already under some sort of a spell.
"Why, in the same way he always has!" The old man said, his eye’s still fixed on Phil.
Just then the old man lifted a large knife from somewhere down on the hearth. The knife seemed to Phil to have appeared from nowhere, as if by magic. The nine-inch blade had been sharpened so often over the years it had taken on a resemblance to a sickle with its long menacing curve. This - coupled with the old man’s miss-shaped hand - pushed Phil's imagination too far. An involuntary gasp left his lips, and he found himself on his feet, spilling his tea over his trousers.
Jack gave him an odd look.
"Cramp! Cramp in my leg!" he rubbed his leg to exaggerate the point, and then sat down again.
How glad he was that Jack was there: he was sure if he had been alone at this point he would have run away.
The old timer gave him a sympathetic smile, then he proceeded to cut the fish in the pan in half, one piece was placed on each of the plates that had been brought from the dresser.
It suddenly became obvious to the men that the fish was intended for them. Aiding and abetting suddenly came to Jack’s mind: they would have to say no.
The old man had taken it for granted they would be sharing breakfast with him. A look of puzzlement crossed his face when they refused the food by holding up a hand.
"Eat, gentleman, eat! It is not every morning I am fortunate enough to share my time and breakfast with two such worldly men."
Lifting the plates from the plank, he held them out to them. Both men fought the impulse to accept.
"No sir, we couldn’t eat your breakfast," said Jack holding up a hand again to drive home the point.
"As you can see, there is more than enough for everyone."
"I was hoping to tell you about the fish, as you ate. I feel it is time to share the secret that has been passed down through my family for generations, and now that I am the last in our line, I will be more than happy to share it with you, seeing as you're so interested in fish."
If ever there was a fly so perfectly presented to a fish, there could be none so perfect as this one. They were caught now - hook, line and sinker.
A second later the first fork full was being eased in to explode on their tongues; it was by far the finest cut of salmon either had ever tasted. The delicate mixture of salts and herbs electrified the taste buds.
"Well. I will have to start at the beginning. When my family cleared this land and shaped it into what you see today - they were hard times. Children went to bed more often than not hungry, my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was such a child. On this particular day, when he was only about eight years old, he went down to the river to fetch water for his mother.
As he approached the pool he heard a voice crying out for help, in the centre of the pool was a man thrashing about in the deep water and in some difficulty. But for my ancestor's quick thinking, the man would have surely drowned. Not being able to swim himself, or able to see anything long enough to pull him out with, he threw the wooden bucket in to him, which was grasped with both hands and the man was saved.
The man, who called himself Merlin, offered the boy, my ancestor, a reward. The boy - seeing a fish jump in the pool - asked for a big fish for supper. Merlin said he could do that and from that day on he would make my family the keepers of the secret place."
But there was one promise to be made: a fish was not to be taken alive, only the dead were to be eaten and the rest put back to continue their perilous journey. To my knowledge, this has been the way ever since, and if I tell you now you must promise to keep the secret and to return any living fish to the deep."
This was a promise they could certainly keep, and one they eagerly made - like a couple of schoolboys about to be given some secret hiding place.
"Is the fish to your liking?" asked the old man.
"Indeed," Jack put in quickly, hoping to keep the old man on track.
"Where was I?" he asked, having lost the thread for a moment.
"You were telling us about the secret place."
"Yes, indeed I was. If you go out of here and carry on down the lane for about a hundred yards, you'll come to a small gate on your right - it's only a hole in the hedge now, I've been meaning to fix it for a few years now." From there you will see a stile facing you at the bottom of the field, once you're over that you'll find yourself at the pool, just to the right of the falls you will find a foothold in the rock, place your foot in it and pull yourself up, step on to the ledge, and from there you will see a long gully formed when Merlin used his great power to force the rock apart.
At the other end there is a hole, put your hand in the hole and if the conditions are right, more often than not, there will be a fish waiting for you there. But don’t forget - if the fish is alive you must put him back, or the magic of the pools could be lost forever. And there is one other thing -we are not the only ones to know of the magic: it seems that the fox has been able to pass the same information down through its family, so if you aren’t there early, you can bet the fox has been.”
Jack had stopped looking into shadows for many years, suddenly it was as if this old man had flipped a switch and turned his imagination back on, he was more than eager to see for himself.
As politely as possible without causing offence and with a solemn promise that they would visit him again soon - they left the old man as they had found him; sitting by the fire cooking his breakfast.
They wasted no time getting to the poolside. Jack was first to find the foot hole, and pulled himself up.
Phil grabbed his arm, "before we go any further, I just have to know,"…
"It was quite simple; the fish had a belly and as he walked the peas had left a trail to his door, and with the fox's keen sense of smell and love of salmon eggs it made the whole thing too easy.
"I always thought you were the smartest bailiff on the river, now I know it"
"I don’t think I'm very smart at all, it gives me no pleasure to think that old man could be punished."
"Punished, why the man should be commended for all the fish he has put back over goodness knows how many years," Phil insisted.
"Well? Is it there?" asked Phil.
"It's here all right - come and see for yourself."
A gully ran down the back of the rock from the main stream of water and into a drain hole about ten inches round.
"Do you see what's happening? The fish miss the falls, hit the mouth of the gully and slip down into the hole, put your hand in Phil"
The very thought of it suddenly filled him with fear - who knew what would happen to him if there was a curse on such an act.
"No, it's all yours"
"You’re a good lad," said the older bailiff. He was thinking Phil wanted the privilege to go to him, and wasted no time in thrusting his hand into the dark place. But there was nothing. After a further twenty minutes of inspection and discussion it was decided to do absolutely nothing and leave well alone - at least until they visited the old man again, both men hoped salmon might be on the menu.
On an exceptionally mild February day the two bailiffs returned. As their van bumped down the track to the cottage, a land rover met them on the narrow track. The driver of the other vehicle got out thinking them lost, a few pleasantries were exchanged and then the news that the old man had died over a month before, no one had come forward to claim the estate.
It was sad to see no smoke coming from the cottage chimney. The two men walked in silence down the track, through the gap, then down through the field. They climbed over the well-worn stile and on down to the pool. They spotted the change right away. The gully to the entrance of the trap had fallen away.
In the years that followed both men outwardly said they believed that it must have been frosty weather that had caused the rock to split and come away. But there had been many hard frosts in the winters that had gone before over the centuries. But they both knew it had been one of the mildest winters on record.