I don’t really know how I ended up helping out at the pub that night. I didn’t really want to do it but Sid, the landlord, was an old friend and had conned me into it, just standing in for him for an evening, while he and his wife went on the family rounds, delivering Christmas presents. I guess I’m that soft sort of mug who can get talked into anything. Janice, the regular barmaid was tending the saloon bar and I could call on her for any help I might need. Not that I was likely to need any.
So there I was, the night before Christmas Eve, polishing glasses in what has to be the dullest pub in Britain, when I could have been home with my lovely Angela, feet up and watching the telly. Not that it was hard work, the place was almost deserted, most of the local custom being in the Swan over the road. It seems that most people around here prefer to be deafened by thumping rave music noise, rather than have a quiet drink in pleasant surroundings. In fact, the only customers we had in the public bar on this particular evening were three young fellows and an old tramp. Sid, would probably have never let him in the first place but, as I said, I’m a bit of a soft touch. The old boy sat muttering to himself, his dirty overcoat wrapped tightly around him, held fast with a length of string, watching the younger men who were currently deriding the statement on the brass plaque affixed to the glass case above the bar.
“Pike”. One of the young men was reading aloud. “Esox Lucius. 27lb 4 ozs. Taken from the River Thames. 3rd November 1963. Captor Mr S.J.Col…”.
“Twenty seven pounds! Who’s he trying to kid! More like seventeen.”.
“I’ve used bigger ones than that for livebait” etc.
Although I wasn’t really eavesdropping, when the young men’s talk moved on to carp, I couldn’t help but to pay a little more attention, as carp fishing is my favourite pastime. They were talking about going on a fishing holiday to Romania, or some such place, where giant fish could be expected. Seventy pounds and eighty pounds were mentioned and one chap made the comment that it was possible that even a new world record 100lb’er was on the cards.
From the other end of the bar the old tramps voice interrupted with a throaty cackle.
“Too late for that. Oh yes. Stevie Colgan already got that.”
The young men glanced at him, then continued their discussion, ignoring him. He continued regardless.
“Biggest carp in the world it was. Oh yes Stevie got it alright. Biggest ever. New record…” The old mans gravelled voice started the words loudly, then they faded back into a mutter again.
The younger men gave him a derisory glance and lowered their voices. They finished their drinks. Calling their farewells to me and, still totally ignoring the presence of the older man, they left. We were alone. The old boy was still muttering but now he had fixed me in his sights. His eyes bored into me from across the bar. A steely glint sparkled in their depths.
“Stevie Colgan his name was, Stevie. Yes, he was a right lad was Stevie”. The muttering started again.
I collected the dirty glasses from the bar, washed them and pulled a couple of pints of draught bitter. I walked down to the older man, and mopped the already clean bar for camouflage. There was something a bit different about this muttering old boy, something that made me speak to him.
“What’s all this about then, Granddad” I asked. “Tell me about this carp then”.
Across the bar I could see a wild light in his eyes. The old boy was miles away. He gripped his glass so tightly his knuckles were white. He opened his mouth and words started to fall out, one after the other. Fast, passionate words, his cockney accent not helping, dropping his H’s and speedily running the words together.
“It was there! The creek was running, see, maybe four foot deep and with a lot more colour than he would have preferred, but the important thing was that the boulder was still there, see. And if the boulder could be seen, then it was likely that that fish would be there too. The strength of the flow was all important y’see.”
He went on faster and faster, the words becoming a torrent.
“If the river was carrying too much water then there would be too small a slack area behind the rock to hold her. If too little, then… well, it wasn’t important enough. She wouldn’t need it and would just stay somewhere out in the main flow. Maybe not even in the creek at all but still in the main river…”.
I had to interrupt. “Whoa, whoa… Wait a minute, go back a bit. Who was this bloke anyway?” I pushed the empties to one side, put the two fresh pints on the bar and, dragging a high stool over with my foot, sat down opposite and studied him. On closer inspection he was not quite as old as he first appeared. A good wash and a shave would take years off of him.
He lifted his rheumy, red-rimmed eyes from his glass and swallowed the dregs of the half he’d been nursing for the last half hour. A small dribble ran down the corner of his mouth; he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He took one of the fresh glasses I’d brought and raised it to his lips, taking a long swallow. Then he started talking again, this time slower, clearer, more intelligible. As if I was a child.
“Well, I s’pose it all started in this crappy pub in Hounslow. Years ago this was. Every Thursday evening, the bar would crowd out with the members of the West London Specimen Hunters Group converging for their weekly fix of fishing chat. Y’know the sort of thing. Beer and bravado, boasts and baits, rigs and records. That sort of thing”.
I’d only bought the old sod a drink ’cause I felt sorry for him. I hadn’t really wanted to get drawn into listening to him talking about the ‘good ‘ol days’. Now however, the sound of the old timer’s quiet London accent bored though the background noise of techno music that was coming from the youngsters bar across the road and it seemed to hypnotise me, the thudding bass and his voice mingling
“Records, see. It was records that interested Stevie. No, that’s not right. They didn’t just interest him, they obsessed him. And one record in particular was the prime fascination. Carp. Carp had been Stevie’s main quarry for almost 20 years. He had fished all over Europe for them. Laughed at the pathetic purists back home who claimed that ‘foreign fish didn’t count’. He knew different. He spent all his holidays chasin’ ’em. He’d even been over to Canada and caught ‘easy’ 40lb’ers in the St Lawrence river, and he’d had incredibly hard 50lb’ers in France. Even had an English 50lb fish once. Made the headlines – but that was a long time ago now, a long time. Since then he had even bigger fish to fry, no pun intended. He wanted an ‘undred pounder… Don’t laugh mate, I’m telling you, it’s true”.
I wasn’t laughing, and he went on unabated.
“He eventually got on the net at work and started talking with some guys in Australia. Email y’know. It was all the rage in them days. This must have been back in ’95, ’96. It seemed that someone had netted a dead carp in some lake in Victoria. 106lb or some such weight. That got him interested. He wouldn’t stop after that. His marriage started falling to bits – well, she was a bit of an old cow anyway to tell you the truth. Eventually she left and took the kids but he weren’t really bothered. Obsessed see? He just wanted to go on a six or seven month trip to Aussie, just stay there and suss it out until he caught what he was after. So after his missus buggered off, he just stopped fishing and worked. Serious. Worked till he dropped, he did. Worked the days in the factory and the evenings as a potman in a pub. He was saving y’see. Saving to go to Australia. To Victoria. Trouble was, he didn’t earn too much. The pub job didn’t pay much and the factory… Well. He had always taken loads of sickies, out fishing see, always had taken too much time off work. They never sacked him, but he never got any promotion either, so even after all the years he’d put in, he was still earning peanuts. So he got a little, bitter like, and a bit too desperate if you ask me. Ended up pulling a fast one with the dispatch manager. They fiddled the stock control and lifted a whole load of gear. They said it was over fifty grands worth, but I hear he would have only gotten ten for it… Plonker!”.
With this expletive, he took another long pull on his beer, then reached into his pocket and retrieved an old fashioned tobacco tin. Balancing it on his lap with obvious long practise he continued.
“They found out of course, but by then it was too late. He’d taken his savings out and caught a plane. He’d planned it pretty well. Very well, really”.
A match-thin hand-rolled cigarette had materialised in his mouth. He paused and cupped his yellowed, nicotine stained hands around it, a flame half hidden. Blue smoke billowed forth. He waved his hand to extinguish the match and continued.
“So, what happened was, Stevie’d shot off to Oz as soon as the blag went down, leaving the dispatch manager to flog the majority of the gear. The dispatch manager was supposed to send him half of what he got for it, but he didn’t of course. He just went down the bookies and blew the lot. That left Steve in Aussie with a cash-flow problem and no work-permit. Not that he wanted to work anyway, he was really fired up by just being in the same country as a ton-up carp. So he decided to follow his new career, like. Y’know, to finance his big carp expedition. Guess it was all them Ned Kelly stories he’d heard”.
He stopped and drained his glass. He had, at least, the grace not to look at me expectantly.
“Oh, cheers mate” said he, pretending surprise. His eyebrows lifted and he smiled, revealing a mouth full of broken and nicotine stained teeth. A few minutes later, with fresh froth on his lip he continued.
“So anyway, Steve pulled a couple of credit card stunts, nicked a motor. Stuff like that. Then he got silly, got a bit greedy, decided to do one little job too many. Mind you, he’d got enough cash by then and had already gone bush with a Land-rover full of camping gear and fishing tackle. ‘Course, what he didn’t know was, that back in Melbourne they’d got a good picture of him on a CCTV camera. After that, it was just a question of time really.
So there’s Stevie, chasing the biggest carp in history. He’s well equipped and he’s ready for a protracted stay. He’s already been out there in the bush for a couple of months and he’s sussed it all out. The really big fish don’t live in the main lake see. They live in the river and only come into the lake at spawning time, and then only sometimes. The problem is, it’s a bloody big river, and getting through the little ones is his main problem. There’s thousands of little ones there see. Three and five pounders. But he’s got it worked out at last. He’s seen this common. Big common. Really big common, probably the ultimate one. Back on it like a golden retriever and scales like dinner plates. A double bullseye fish…”
His tired old eyes took on a distant gleam and he paused for another long slurp at his pint
“He’d spotted this fish after a heavy rainfall. He was on a recce. He’d left his gear about 30 miles down river and was scouting out for new swims. He was up at this place where a creek entered the main river. This creek was no more than six inches deep normally, but when it rained, it might go up to five or six foot. He found that out when the storm caught him out. It don’t rain there much see, but when it does, you know all about it. Flash floods and everything. Anyway, the main river was in sudden flood, right up and this creek was suddenly three, four foot deep. And then, there it was, at the back of this sand bar hiding behind a big boulder. The biggest carp that you ever did see. Huge, golden flanks flashing as it manoeuvred to keep out of the main flow. There were loads of other fish there too and Stevie realised that this must be a regular thing. Every time it rained, the fish would come up this creek to get out of the main river flow. Well, Stevie wanted to go straight back to get his rods but the rain, mate, the rain! The bankside track had turned to slime and the Land-rover was soon up to its axles. He had no chance. All he could do was wait it out, and by the time the rain stopped and he’d got the motor free, the river had gone down again and the fish had gone. But at least he knew now where one of those great carp could be found, and he was gonna be there when the conditions came right again”.
The tobacco tin was out again. He put it on the bar, rolled another evil, whisker thin coffin nail and took another pull on his pint. I noticed the ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattoos on his knuckles then. An amateur job by the look of them. I looked up and our eyes met. It was like looking into the eyes of a pike. He well… I know it sounds crazy, me being six foot three and fifteen stone and him just a skinny little weasel of a man but…. . To be honest, he scared me a little.
Janice called me back to help her lift some crates. When I returned I to the bar I half expected the old tramp to be gone but he was still sitting there, his eyes fixed thousands of miles away. He continued his story as if there had been no interruption. His original soft cockney accent had diluted, merged and spread somehow. In some indefinable manner his voice had strengthened and had taken on a definite Australian twang. His whole character was changing, before my very eyes he became…. defiant, triumphant almost.
“Rain in Aussie is as rare as a virgin in an ‘orehouse. It’s not something that you can rely on, if you see what I mean. But Stevie sussed it. He was living with a bunch of Aborigines out Etchucka way. They put him straight on the weather and saw to it that he knew when it would rain next. Not precisely when, you understand, just roughly. So he was ready for it mate. He had the Land Rover packed up and ready, and he was already half-way back to that creek when the first drops started falling. By the time he got to the creek he knew that he had maybe twenty four hours to crack it. It all depended on there being just enough water coming down to afford that big fish a bit of cover.”
His voice was pure Strine now, loud and domineering.
“These Aussie fish ain’t as clever as our ones. Nobody fish’s for ’em see, so they’ve never seen an ‘ook Now, when he first arrived in Oz, Stevie had tried all the usual tactics and baits that we use over here, but it only took him a short time to realise that it needed a totally different approach. See, Stevie was a good angler. I mean, really good. He could catch a fish in a bucket of dirty water that bloke, out-fish anyone I ever met… “
At this, he smiled and his eyes twinked, I swear
“So, anyway… He fought his way down to the creek’s edge and parked the Land Rover at the top of the high bank, then eases himself down to the lower shelf. He’s standing on what’s left of a beach on the inside of a bend just across from the boulder. The creek was up to maybe three or four foot deep by then and the rain was easing up. He must have watched that area at the back of the bar for maybe two, three hours before he finally saw it. A great golden flash of flank as it turned. Stevie didn’t panic though. He’d gone through this a thousand times in his head already, and he just followed his plan. He had a tackle-bag and a bucket full of yabbies with him – that’s like a kind of crayfish, they’re everywhere in Oz. Pick ’em up in any little pond even – So Stevie tackles up, one rod, 30lb line straight through to the hook. None of this bivvy and buzzers nonsense. Three foot up the line, he ties a swift water knot with a bit of 8lb and Bob’s yer uncle… he’s got a weak link. On the end of this he ties an old spark-plug. He always uses spark-plugs for break-away weights, does Stevie. He don’t hold with using none of them expensive leads and besides, he knows he’s only gonna lose it anyway, ’cause the boulders and snags in this bit of water have got to be seen to be believed.
“On the hook goes the biggest yabbie in the bucket and he swings the lot out, upstream of the crucial boulder. The current grabs it and tries to sweep it downstream, but the spark-plug falls into a gap in the rocks on the bottom, as intended. The yabbie swings around into the slack water behind the rock. One cast, that’s all it took. I told you Stevie was good. That bait couldn’t have been in the water for more than about a minute before that big carp grabbed it. No messing about. None of this sucking and blowin’ caper. It just… had it. Bosh!”
With this, his hand reached out into the space between us and grabbed a handful of air. Behind his clenched fist his black eyes glittered.
“Now. When Stevie set that hook, he realised two things straight away. One, that this was a very big fish, no doubt about that, and two, he was fishing with too light a line. Thirty pound test might sound heavy and could probably cope easily with a fish that size in stillwater, but this was a tributary of the Murray in flood conditions. And that fish was river-fit. It was likely to be out into the mainstream faster than you can say ‘another pint’ “.
He stopped and cocked an eyebrow. I took the hint. From his tin on the bar he rolled yet another skinny white stick as I pulled him another pint. He never spoke another word until he had poured a quarter of the glass’s contents down his neck, then he belched loudly and went on.
“The fish was headed downstream at a swift rate of knots. Even if Stevie could have stopped it, he wouldn’t have been able to pump it back against that current. Getting up the bank and following it was not on. Behind him was a ten foot high steep bank which was slippery with mud. He would need both hands and five minutes at least just to get up to the top. He had only two choices. He could let the fish spool him, or he could go in after it. He went in.
The power of that current was something else. He lost his footing in seconds, but he never let go of the rod. Nah, he never let go. Thick brown liquid mud that river was, seemed like more mud than water really, and bloody dangerous too. Somehow though, Stevie kept going. Every so often the current would sweep him up against a bank and he could bring the rod to bear. After 20 minutes he was already a couple of hundred yards downstream but he’d recovered some line and the fish had stopped running. Stopped doing anything really, it seemed to be snagged, immovable. Steve carefully cranked his way downstream, recovering line, getting nearer and nearer to where the fish had gone to ground. Then he lost his footing again, and by the time he had recovered it, he was downstream of the fish with a slack line. At first he thought he’d lost it, but as he took in the slack he felt resistance and the fish powered off again, but this time it ran upstream.
Well, the tables had turned now hadn’t they. From going with the current the fish was now going against it, and Stevie was following it. Many, many times he thought he’d lose the fish on that upstream battle but he didn’t. He hung on and he stayed with it. Then came the most dodgy part of the whole fight. Stevie tripped up on some hidden rock and went down. God knows how, but he still had a hold on the tackle. Not on the rod though, Stevie was holding on to the reel. By the spool! No chance of the fish taking any more line from the clutch. That fish must have felt that it’s chance had come and, instead of just plodding along, it really powered off upstream again. Here’s the weird bit. The line didn’t break. Steve was face down in the water, the rod at right angles to the bank, and that fish TOWED HIM upstream! Seriously. How the line didn’t break I don’t know, just luck that the rod was at a perfect angle to absorb the shocks or something, but it held.
Stevie was choking with all that filthy water getting into his lungs but some, I dunno, instinct or something, just wouldn’t let him give up. He regains control of the rod and fights his way over to the bank, onto a shallows on the inside of a bend, not thirty foot from where he’d first cast out. Slowly he fought that fish, keeping its head upstream at all times. It was pretty knackered by now so he was able to start exerting a bit of control. Mind you, Stevie was pretty knackered too, but by now the rain’s stopped and things are looking good. Ever so slow and gentle he played it back, back to where he was standing, knee deep in what looked like liquid mud. That giant carp came in at the end as quiet as a kitten, totally exhausted. Steve slips off his raincoat, a waxed overcoat type thing, just lays it over the fish and wraps it’s head in it. It don’t struggle or nuffin. It just lets him do it. So Stevie bends down, gets his arms under it and heaves it up onto the bank He’s done it.
The big scales in his bag pull the needle around to 112lb. Even allowing for the wet coat which he’s improvised as a weigh sling, he’d done it. A true ton-up carp. That’s when the crap hit the fan. Behind him, up on the high bank, there’s a round of applause, so he turns around and sees four big coppers looking down at him.
So that was that really. It weren’t as bad as it could have been. They were just blokes doing their jobs like. They let him take a couple of photos, even helped him hold it, one of ’em. Then they just slung the fish up the bank and took Stevie in. Poor sod. He does time in Aussie, gets repatriated, then he’s met at the airport by the old Bill. So he gets sent down again to do another stretch, in the Scrubs this time. So that’s how Stevie got his record. Two actually. He got his ton-up carp, and he got his other, criminal, record”.
The old boy sat back, smiled thinly then, draining the final dregs from his glass he stood up, a little unsteadily. Brusquely he shrugged his coat collar up and moved off toward the door. He was speaking cockney again.
“Anyway. I gotta get going or I’m gonna miss the last bus. Thanks for those drinks pal. See ya sometime. Cheers!”.
With that, he left. Shambling out of the door, leaving a slick of body odour in the air that was thick enough to cut through even the reek of stale beer and dead ashtrays.
I was having a bit of a clean up, wiping down surfaces and so on, so it must have been at least ten minutes before I realised that the old boy had left his tobacco tin on the bar. I picked it up and, upon some impulse, I opened it. Stuck to the inside of the lid was a creased and battered, dog-eared photograph of two men holding a huge carp. The man holding the tail end of the giant fish was wearing some kind of uniform with epaulettes on his shirt. The other mans face was a little blurred, but the camera had focussed perfectly both on the fish and the hands holding it. I turned the photograph up the other way and held it under a lamp for a better look. Poorly tattooed letters spelling the word ‘Love’ were clearly readable on one set of knuckles
My attention was distracted as I heard familiar voices. Sam was back from playing Santa. He came through to the public bar, his wife and Janice could be heard talking in the Saloon.
“Ever hear of a fellow called Stevie Colgan” I asked him, as he removed his coat.
“Colgan? No… Oh yes! Used to work here, before my time though. Bit of a villain I’m told, and a liar too. Finally got caught with his hands in the till once too often and was sacked. He’s the bloke who caught that pike up there. He’s dead now though. Died in prison last Christmas I was told. Good riddance. Why?”.
I turned to retrieve the tobacco tin, but like it’s owner, it had vanished as completely as if it had never existed.