It occurred to me recently that a great many of our viewers will be dads and grand-dads eager to steep their sprogs and grand-sprogs in water lore…to fire them up enough to switch-off the I-pad and get out there! So here’s the story of Decent Dan. You can read it straight off the screen or, maybe, print it off for a bedtime story.
Now, you’ve probably heard of Desperate Dan – he’s the big tough-guy in The Dandy who was raised by his big, tough Aunt Aggie.
But this is about Decent Dan, a young lad with dark, curly hair whose mum and dad worked in a factory that made margarine.
Mum only worked part-time so that she could see as much as possible of Dan whilst earning a little extra money to pay for treats – like days at the zoo and visits to the beautiful villages that surrounded their town.
Although Dan wasn’t yet four years old, he understood beauty and ugliness. Of course, he didn’t really understand those words and, being so young, he didn’t really understand what it was, exactly, that made some things nice to look at and other things unpleasant to look at. He just…well, knew when something looked good and right and when something looked bad and wrong.
Because of this, Dan really looked forward to being taken to the park each week.
As they strolled, mum would point to the flower-beds and tell Dan the names of the beautiful plants that grew alongside the path to the lake.
At the lake, Dan also learned from his mum the names of the colourful ducks and all the other birds that lived on and around the water.
Dan loved those trips to the park. He learned so much! Mum even told him the names of the cars in the car-park and stopped every so often for Dan to see his reflection in the shiniest ones.
When the weather was good, Dan and his mum would eat their lunch at the park – Dan loved picnics! Sitting in the shade of an enormous oak tree, they would eat their sandwiches and yoghurts and drink their milk as the hungry mallard ducks waddled and quacked around them, hoping for a tit-bit.
Sometimes, Dan would notice birds he’d never seen before and would point to them, knowing that mum would tell him the bird’s name. He once noticed a very unusual little bird that made its way up the trunk of the oak-tree an inch at a time, stopping every now and then to stick his pointed beak into the cracks in the bark. Mum told him that the little, mouse-like bird was a tree-creeper and that it spent most of its time searching for little insects to eat.
Another time, Dan saw – at the top of the tree – a bird which behaved like no bird he’d seen before. This one would sit on the very thinnest twigs at the ends of the branches and dart out to catch a passing moth or fly. Other birds did this, too, but this particular bird always returned to where it had been sitting and rarely flew more than a metre or so to catch his dinner.
Again, mum knew what it was. It was a flycatcher!
And that bird which flew in long, straight lines, flapping and falling, flapping and falling, was the woodpecker! You could often hear them drilling into the tree-trunks with their beaks, mum told Dan.
That was the great thing about picnics, Dan told himself in a very three and three quarter years old kind of way…you could lay on the warm blanket looking for birds and animals in the branches and when you’d had enough of that you could watch how those huge, billowy white clouds slowly changed shape as they drifted slowly across the clear blue sky beyond. Dan once saw a cloud turn into a dinosaur and frantically tapped his mum’s arm, pointing all the time, a questioning look on his face. But by the time mum looked up, the wind had pulled the cloud apart leaving it looking like…well, a cloud!
But at other times, they’d lay side by side, staring up at the great, puffy pillows in the sky and laughing at the poodles, the chickens, and all the other animals and objects that formed before their eyes.
But one day – shortly before his fourth birthday – Dan was dismayed to see a beaten-up old car rusting away in a corner of the car-park. It had no wheels, all the windows were smashed and had clearly been set on fire some time before.
Mum could see that her son was unhappy about this.
‘I know, I know, Dan’ She said ‘I think whoever dumped that old car there should be ashamed of themselves’.
Dan wasn’t familiar with the word but he knew what mum meant and gave the slightest of nods to show that he agreed.
The awful sight of an ugly, rusty, burnt-out car squatting shamelessly amongst the tall oaks and the beds of beautiful flowers almost hurt Dan’s eyes. Since the day he’d opened those eyes for the very first time, he’d seen very little ugliness; some of the buildings near to his home were not very pretty, and he didn’t care much for the gigantic lorries that roared along the highway at the back of the shops, but for most of the time, Dan had lived in a rather pleasant world which he had learned to love and respect.
Many months later, when Dan was almost four and a half, his dad announced to his wife (Dan’s mum, that is) that he was going fishing on the weekend. Dan’s mum was very pleased to hear this because her husband (Dan’s dad, that is) had been working extremely hard at the factory for many weeks and, she felt, needed a break from the hustle-bustle and the noise of factory life.
She was also pleased because he planned to take Dan with him to the river and to teach him how to fish. Dan’s grandad (Dan’s mum’s dad, that is) had always said how wonderful it is to explore ponds and streams, to keep your eyes close to the ground and the water in search of fish, frogs and newts. Grand-dad had told him how, as a youngster, he’d built a little swimming-pool out of deliciously smelly black pond-mud and filled it with salamanders, newts, two frogs, one toad and a fish called a gudgeon. He said he watched the little pool of life for hours – feeding its occupants with small redworms and grey slugs – before carefully cupping them and gently placing them back in their pond.
The weekend, then, was all Dan could think about, and he constantly quizzed his mum, his dad, the lady at playschool and just about anyone who would listen with questions about rivers, fish and amphibians. By Friday evening, he was almost worn-out by the thought of catching a huge fish! Dan went to bed early and slept well that night…..
….And it’s just as well that he did!
Dan’s dad came into his room and woke him earlier than he’d ever been woken before! It was dark outside but the little hand on the kitchen clock pointed to 3! Dan wasn’t able yet to tell the time but he felt sure that it should be daytime when the little hand pointed to 3. He was puzzled. When Dad told him that it was a very special time of day, that it was three o’ clock in the morning, and that mum, Mrs Quigley next door, the old lady across the road and just about everybody else in the country was still asleep, he felt very excited! Was the Queen asleep?
‘Yes’ said Dad.
‘And is David Beckham still in bed’?
‘Yes, he is too!’
Wow! Dan thought…I must be the only kid awake on Planet Earth!
He pulled the living-room curtains to one side and peered out into the street. There were street-lamps, but there was nobody about! Nobody! No cars, no buses, no motorbikes, though he did catch a shadowy glimpse of Mogadon, next door’s cat, as it tip-toed into the porch.
Dan and his dad hurriedly ate their porridge breakfast then set about packing the rucksack with the things they’d need for a successful days fishing…orange-juice, sandwiches, Wagon-Wheels, tea for dad…oh! And fishing equipment! Dan’s dad put in a reel, a box of worms, a small loaf of bread, a tin of sweet-corn, and a plastic case containing all the bits and pieces a proper fisherman can not do without.
That done, the pair stepped out into the freshness and silence of early morning, climbed into the car and were soon wending their way down the narrow lanes of the Essex countryside.
Dan still couldn’t quite believe that everyone else in the country was asleep…it was all so exciting!
Nose pressed against the window, Dan kept his eyes open for early-morning animals – dad had told him that this was the best time of day to see them and Dan did, in fact, spot a fox, a wobbly-bottomed badger, lots of grass-nibbling rabbits and a huge heron which fanned its’ way over the tree-tops.
By the time they arrived at the river, Dan had had enough excitement for a week – but there was more to come!
As we know, Dan was only a young boy but he did understand right and wrong, good and bad, ugliness and beauty, and as he stood on tip-toe, craning his neck to see over the bridge and down the river, he knew that this was the most wonderful place he had ever been to.
The very wall he strained to see over was beautiful – made of blue-flint boulders and cushioned by patches of bright green moss and lichens. Willow trees draped their long, spindly branches into the water, trapping leaves and twigs to form little rafts of yellow, green and brown which grew large and heavy enough to escape back into the flow.
A kingfisher!…He’d never seen one of those before, but mum had told him to keep his eyes open for a flash of bright blue and orange flying fast and low over the water. With incredibly high, piercing whistles, the little kingfisher alighted upon an old tree-stump just above the weir to look for its breakfast.
Downstream, he could see the water turning to foam where it fell over a weir with a pleasingly subdued roar. Dan and his dad kept very quiet and still in the hope of seeing the bird dive for a tiddler…and they weren’t disappointed! Quick as a flash, it plunged into the clear running water and was back in an instant with a small fish across its beak!
In the distance, and through the haze of mist, the sun – a warm, welcoming, deep orange sun – slowly appeared over the hilltops to herald the new day. Dan looked up at his dad, not quite knowing what to say or how to say it, but dad knew how Dan was feeling…He – dad – was nearly eight times as old as Dan, but he’d never lost that same feeling of wonderment and happiness at being up and around at the break of day. They agreed – without a word being spoken – that it was simply wonderful.
‘Come on, dad! Let’s do fishing!’ said Dan, and he pulled at his dad’s jacket-cuff to hurry him along.
Down on the overgrown towpath that followed the river, Dan and his dad pushed their way through dew-soaked cow-parsley and great fronds of purple loostrife. Emerging from the mini-jungle wetter than the river itself, the pair excitedly hurried along to a bend where, Dan’s dad said, they’d almost certainly catch a big fish. As they drew closer, so their hearts beat faster at the prospect of their arrival and the anticipation of casting their floats into the water.
Almost there, Dan scurried ahead.
‘I’ll get there first!’ he laughed, then fell silent and still as he gazed down into the waters-edge.
‘What’s wrong, Dan?’ enquired Dan’s dad.
Dan could only point, and his dad soon saw the reason for his lad’s displeasure.
Ugly as a wart on the end of your nose, was a heap of rubbish, left the day before probably, by fishermen or picnickers too lazy, stupid and soulless to take it back home with them.
Clearly, they’d enjoyed a meal of salad and had washed it down with large amounts of Tizer, for there – strewn across the ground and the reeds – were plastic boxes and bags, egg-shells, half-eaten tomatoes, three plastic bottles, scrunched-up balls of silver-foil and a dirty, torn T-shirt.
Dan was heartbroken. How could anybody do this? He looked around…at the rising sun, the clear swirling river, the wonderfully gnarled and ancient oak trees…He saw the kingfisher again, a yellow wagtail, a blunt-nosed vole making his way across the flow and wondered – in his very five year old way – how on Earth anybody could be so brainless as to deliberately turn a little piece of Paradise, a little piece of beautiful Planet Earth, into a foul and ugly rubbish dump.
Dan and his dad collected all the trash together and stuffed it into the very same plastic bag the culprits had used to carry it all down to the river in the first place. Placing it alongside their rucksack, Dan’s dad said he’d take it home at the end of the day and put it in the dustbin. He smiled at his son, ruffled the lad’s hair and said ‘Come on…let’s catch a fish’.
The day was long and hot, though occasionally the sun was eclipsed by slate-blue clouds, bringing brief but welcome relief to Dan’s sweating dad. Above all, the day was great fun, and fishing is the best fun you can have without laughing. Well, almost….
Dan’s dad fished in a way that allowed him to relax, to lie back in his chair and await ‘the big one’. That’s what Dan’s dad had told Dan anyway, but I think he really just wanted to have a snooze now and then! Nonetheless, he did manage to catch a couple of very nice bream and a rather nice tan to his arms!
Dan, on the other hand, kept busy with his fishing rod all day, sometimes fishing close-in and sometimes casting his bait right across the river. By doing this, Dan learned how water behaved…why it sometimes swirls, why it produces little whirlpools, and why the water closest to you sometimes flows upstream!
He found out how deep the river was in various places – NOT by swimming, you understand, but by sliding his float up and down the fishing line and watching what it did when he cast in.
The little weights his dad had placed on the line – just above the hook – were just enough to make the float sit to attention in the water (And when a fish took the bait it would quickly disappear beneath the surface) If his float didn’t stand to attention it meant that the little weights were lying on the bottom of the river…the water was, then, shallow at that point, and not likely to have bream in it – like those his dad caught. Bream like deep water.
So by sliding his float up and down the line in order to hang his worm high in the water or deep down, he found that he caught different kinds of fish! He took dace and bleak from shallow water and tench and bream from the deep water.
Dan got to know the fish’s habits so well that by the end of the day (When dad was fully awake) he could cast his bait and his float anywhere on the bend and tell you exactly what he was going to catch! Dad was impressed!
Dan also concluded that some birds do not have a sense of rhythm!! For most of the day, a pair of doves had sat in the horse-chestnut tree opposite, cooing their very distinctive ‘song’. Time and time again, Dan noticed, they’d warble the exact same little tune five or six times then suddenly stop after just one note of the next verse! Imagine singing ‘Ten green bottles’ and abruptly shutting-up after ‘There were nine…’
Anybody would think you’d fallen through the stage or had had to run very urgently to the toilet!
Well that’s how doves all over the world end their little tunes…strange but true, and very interesting to young Dan. How many other people had noticed that, he thought to himself.
Something else Dan noticed was the way those prickly purple things attach themselves to your clothes when you brush by. He’d tugged one from his woolly jumper that morning to see what made them so difficult to remove. Unfortunately, someone else had found out long before him and had made a fortune making and selling…Velcro!! Now, Dan had no idea what that sticky material was called, but he did work out that his school shoes stayed on his feet for exactly the same reason that ‘sticky-buds’ cling to your woolly jumper! And dad told him later that day that the plant attaches its sticky buds onto passing furry or woolly animals in order to spread its seeds around! Clever, eh?
Oh! And another thing! You may already know that once or twice a year, snakes shed their skins…they literally crawl out of their old, tired, worn out skin and emerge with a nice, shiny new one. But did you know that dragonflies do the same thing? No, neither did Dan until a beautiful red dragonfly came hovering along the line of bulrushes to settle on his fishing rod. Dan had had no idea of what it was about to do, but he stayed very still so as not to frighten it…he wanted to take a close look at it, that’s all. But Dan was treated to a very long, very special and very rare show as the dragonfly slowly ‘walked’ forward out of its body then flew away! What’s more, it left its old ‘body’- feet, legs and everything – clinging to the fishing rod!
By the end of the day, Dan felt as though he knew everything about everything and couldn’t wait to tell mum all about it, but he didn’t do so until the next morning! Dan had fallen fast asleep within two seconds of fastening his seat-belt in the car.
Dad had unclipped him on their return and taken him straight upstairs to his room where he slept as deeply as it is possible to sleep.
Of course, Dan told mum about the rubbish on the riverbank.
Then he remembered the burnt-out car in the park and…come to think of it, the burger-boxes and the Pepsi tins he’d fleetingly noticed on a village green early the previous morning.
Dan couldn’t make it out. He’d believed that grown-ups are always right and that grown-ups were never stupid. He thought that all mums and dads and big-brothers and sisters could do no wrong and that only the little kids needed to be told off. He was to learn a lot more over the coming years…
PART 2 soon!!
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