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The Boxer

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In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade... In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade...

This feature was Cliff Hatton's entry to the 2011 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award (USA) and was subsequently published in Waterlog Magazine under the title 'Good ol’ Mr. Wilson!' The new title, selected by Cliff, will be appreciated by all with an appreciation of the music of Simon and Garfunkel.


Wilson sat on the edge of his bed, the confusion of blankets and pillows still warm and inviting. What day was it? He felt sure it was the week-end but he sought confirmation at the window – you could tell what day it was by looking at the lake, he always said. Wavelets were lapping the western shore, serried ranks of gentle blue converging on the shingle. Funny, he thought, it looks like the start of the week. Then he remembered it was a bank holiday so his instinct was right, as usual. 


In the kitchen now, Wilson filled the kettle for tea and quaffed the vision before him through the open door; it was all he’d ever wanted, a quiet life near water with a view of distant hills. Not for him the lights of the town, the burger bars and the scent of foreign foods; fresh air and sky-drama were Wilson’s drugs, ever present, ever-changing and free as the geese that rode the waves of Windermere. Pot now heavy with Wilson’s amber nectar, he moved to the oil-cloth table and set out the things of breakfast time, considering as he dealt his hand the possibility of rowing across to Dead Man’s Island; the going would be easy, but the forecast told of storms to come. A year before he’d been there, rod-less on a silver night and charged with the care of young campers; their only concern had been for their bellies and for keeping the fire alight, but Wilson had agonized to the sound of crashing sea-trout close to the shore, just through the pines. I’ll be back, he’d told himself.


Unsure of his decision, Wilson dug his paddle into the gravel and levered the canoe into deeper water, stones and boulders clear in the morning sun. He peered down in search of fry but the growing chop confused his view. Soon the yellow bed gave way to green, then to black, as Wilson’s craft slid over the shelf and onto the depths. Warm of face and kind of excited, the ex-oil man smiled his way to open water, gently rocking, and mindful of the bounty beneath his boat: he’d have one tonight, he told himself; no God-damned kid’s gonna spoil it this time.

A low roar from the valley raised his head to see the far side turn ripple to wave, blue to grey, and the calm of an early summer day to an approaching maelstrom. Undaunted he dug for Dead Man’s Island, swaying like a metronome and pulling on the paddles, glad of the challenge and sure of his strength. Wilson was winning, but then he noticed a change: his craft was not cutting, but rising and falling; his course had been altered and now he was drifting. He checked his load and all was secure, so he dug again - but the futility of his aim was soon apparent: it wasn’t going to be Dead Man’s Island tonight. There would be no hammock slung between the oaks; no wading in the leeward shallows, no long-throws from the tip of the point - and there would be no ‘silver tourists’ wrenching line from the Pfleuger.  Turning back was not an option, so Wilson’s waning faith in God was pleasingly checked on spotting The Boulders, an outcrop the size of a truck, its back against the wind. This was the haven Wilson needed.

Naked and harsh, the islet served its purpose well. By early evening Wilson had rigged a canvas cuddy across the tallest rocks and had cleared his patch of rubble; the storm-kettle stood firm in the sand and his rods reposed on the flat of a granite table. Wilson had permitted himself one indulgence, the radio he’d wedged into the rocks, straining now to be heard above the wind. The night was going to be dry and largely clear, but gusting winds would affect the north-west of England and southern Scotland. Wilson relished the prospect, the chance to really live, to be there unseen in the thick of a wind-swept Windermere, taking on the elements and free as a bird; and, apparently, starting at 11.30, they’d be bringing him the story of Simon and Garfunkel and all their greatest hits. For half a second he hoped for a fishless night.

Wilson wasn’t a trout-man at heart. As a kid he’d cut his angling teeth on gravel-pits and ponds; in his prime he’d cut his dentures on the rivers way down south.  Up here in The Lakes the culture was something else: no one spoke of carp or tench – and boilies were a skin condition. Here, the good ol’ boys talked about spates and white water, reverse-tapers and shooting-heads - and Wilson didn’t have a clue; he just knew he could cast a heavy line with a ball of nothingness on the end. Above all, he had intuition and from this came his confidence – the fancy stuff could go hang itself. 

Everything is relative. Wilson said it out loud. Sure, he’d questioned his life-long mantra: was he just assuaging his feelings of failure? What was failure? Everything was relative, wasn’t it? He’d never hit the big-time – there’s not much money in cooking-oil – but he’d kept his head above water and raised a fine family. According to the Yanks life was all about the pursuit of happiness – or something like that, so with the chill bluster passing right over his head and a fresh mug of tea warming his hands, Wilson reckoned he’d be right up there with the Beckhams on a happiometer. Yep, everything’s relative! He said it again – and he meant it. When a sea-trout the length of his arm smashed through the unruffled surface of the lee   he knew he was right.  Beckham, eat your heart out. Wilson pulled-on his waders, took a rod from the table and walked out into the wind.

By ten, he’d inched his moth back a dozen times or more and twice a flank of silver-blue had shocked his expectations, crashing like kerb-stones from a balcony. These weren’t the pretty fish he’d seen them catch in Wiltshire, the lissome ladies of the chalk streams: these were heavy, awesome fish that plundered Wilson’s breath.  Again he cast, laying the line straight and taut on the fourth swing, then he stood motionless to take-in all he could sense: moon-lit waves moving ever west, blue hills to the north, the scent of night and the power of Mother Nature all around. She had a soft spot for the English; no tsunamis for them – just plenty of cloud, and regular soakings to keep them chatting at the bus-stops. Tonight though, a special treat for those with the balls to be out – a silver moon and the frenzied whomp of lost and clueless winds. Inside, deep inside, Wilson was laughing out loud, never more alive and never more in touch with his self; he could smoke here too, and no Health and Safety geek could stop him. Cane at rest on the shingle now, he packed his pipe with ready-rubbed and retreated to the cuddy to fire-up.


11.25. Wilson wedged himself into the shelter and splayed his heavy legs along its walls; the kettle called, and soon a jet of orange flame was higher than his head. To his own surprise, the will to catch lacked urgency tonight; despite his long winter-wait and the promise of line-stripping torpedoes, he was very much enjoying what he was doing. He’d be thigh-deep again soon enough, throwing-out and teasing-in, but ‘til then he’d relax with his briar, another brew and the sound of silence. Oh, yeah – 11.30: time for Art and Paul.


Wilson switched on to the preamble then dropped another twig in the kettle; he watched the sparks rise, suddenly free and bewildered by their liberty, but life was short.  A sea-trout crashed and a skein crossed the moon.

Midnight, and Wilson was in action again. Another time, another place and Wilson would have blown a fuse; but here, this night, in this other world the laid-back strains of Frank Lloyd Wright were welcome, welcome as a sea-trout on a bed of dewy grass. Time and again, Wilson’s Palakona sent his moth flying with the wind to the edge of the ripple, there to sink and inch back beneath the calm of the lee – but it wasn’t working, and casting to either side was futile; with no choice, he bade the architect so long and continued to search straight ahead. Some guy with a sissy voice addressed him from the rocks: our favourite was coming up right after the news. Wilson kept on casting, tugging the line back through the crook of his index and wondering what was next – a fish or The Boxer.


 He was right about the tune. As Simon plucked the opening, Wilson’s mind flashed back 40 years to the beach on Corfu; he felt the sun and he heard the surf and he saw the gals with nothing on – then he saw himself, tanned and taut and with hair that passed his shoulders. Fred was on guitar, Rick was showing-off, Don was drinking melon - and there was his love from Alberta, Florette, up-close now, smiling whitely and asking to be kissed…he didn’t feel the tug, just the pain of fly-line searing through his fingers at a million miles an hour.


Too soon for screaming at the moon, Wilson fought to bring his cane under control, feeling for the moment he might raise the rod and take command - Florette was back in Edmonton with her grandkids, and Art was running scared. A pause, and then a kick that took another forty feet; Wilson’s grip tightened with every thrust of the steelhead’s tail and soon he stood uneasily in thigh-deep rocky water, desperate for respite. He was worried. Glancing back, he saw he’d shifted thirty feet or more, and clouds the size of Cumberland prepared to mask the moon; the gale took on a vicious edge and with it came a rain as hard as buck-shot – then the lights went out: Alfred Wilson, 62, was the last man on Earth, battling with another life-form in the turmoil of the darkest night, unseen, unknown, un-nerved. The reel slowed down and the rod came up at last to form a curve, and Wilson sensed advantage so he leaned toward the shore. Reeling down he took a yard and arched his back again, and again, until he raised his prize enough to make it real, a fish he could feel and understand. In the shelter, Art was taking comfort from a hooker, while the hooker out front was taking none at all.


Wetter than his quarry and battered by the storm, Wilson braced his frame and felt his line lift from the spume; as the fish was launched so a hefty gust sent Garfunkel flying into the sand at full volume. Wilson cursed at first, then he gave out a whoop! as the chorus clashed and lightning flashed to the sounds of the raging night: loud, bizarre, unreal!  The angler was winning, his senses spinning and reeling to natural theatre; his prize was still strong but no longer the monster who’d mocked him from deep in the troubled water. Again she leapt to the crash of percussion and Wilson yelled out that her time was nigh, but she wouldn’t give up, and the tune’s repetition seemed to spur the fish on to redouble the fight! Then, the chorus relaxed and the plucking returned: the steelhead grew weary and entered the lee. Wilson pushed out from the lake to the gravel and saw that his net was still back at the camp, so he drew the fish over the stones of the shallows and chinned his opponent clean onto the shore.


For a full five minutes, angler and angled lay side by side like post-coital lovers exhausted and spent; Wilson saw the humour and went for his pipe – it’d have to do, and the steelhead didn’t smoke. Not yet anyway.

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