Shakespeare. Fucking Shakespeare. He wrote the name in his notebook, Shakespear, then worked at crafting the ‘S’ into an eel, sinister and threshing, such as you’d find in deep, whirling pools, where you can’t see their mouths and teeth lurk.
Shakespeare. Old Mrs Whiting said that this would be the next unit. That she “knew it would be a challenge, but hoped it would be seen as an opportunity too. That it would foster intellectual and cultural growth. That all were to keep an open mind.”
Tom’s mind was firmly closed. And when she handed out the books and played an audiobook of the opening, he saw no sense whatsoever in trying to open it. Some of the others had groaned a bit, though not all, some looked interested, or at least open to it.
His head had stayed down. At the best of times, the words seemed to slide by him. To wriggle from his grip, slippery as oiled eels. His classmates seemed to have little bother. They could deftly pluck each up, contain and still their writhing bodies. Words on pages had never been still for him. They quivered and jumped about and it took exhausting grit to snatch at their meanings, whenever a shape stilled itself enough.
And those were words in English. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now he was going to have to try to do something with ‘thees and thous and fairs and fouls and hurburlys’. What the fuck?
Head down he began to sketch under the heading. A new pattern of mayfly emerger he’d been trying to master the tying of. It was tricky, the hackle was wound horizontally around a little white tuft of synthetic yarn. It looked good though—should sit just in the surface film. He was getting the hang of them—but not in a small enough size yet. He’d need a tiny one if he was going to deceive that old hook-jawed brown he’d seen in the pool below the bridge last week. It was some fish, and trout like that didn’t get to be big by being stupid. A grim thought intruded: If I were a trout, I’d of been caught long ago.
The audiobook was still playing and he was supposed to be following along. He waited for a bit, so he could turn a page when everyone else did. Now, there was someone called Thane, and he didn’t want to wear some robes some witches had given him. Well, why would you? He stole a look at Mrs Whiting, to make sure she wasn’t coming his way to check he was on the right page. Safe. She was sitting at the desk, a dozy look on her face as she read and listened. Clearly, she loved this shit.
The Thane guy’s name was really Macbeth, and he was freaked out about being made a duke or something, because the witches told him it would happen. And then he started straight off fantasising about killing his king. He was way too keen. Mrs Whiting had stopped the audiobook now. Great, question and answer time.
Normally, he’d be able to hide. He was well-practised at blending into the background—a trout under the bank. Mrs Whiting had been to a course though, and there were no more hands up allowed. She’d say your name and you had to answer, or say you needed more thinking time.
She cast out the first question, let it drift along for a little: “What are you curious about, when it comes to the way the characters behave here?” Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me…
“Hugh? What do you wonder?” Hugh was smart. He smiled a little, leaned back slightly. “Well, I wonder why he seems scared at the end. He’s just been given a new title and good news, so why does he seem so worried?”
Old Whiting nodded, slightly. “Very thoughtful, you’re right, it does seem like good news, why might he be scared by it? What might he be thinking about?”
Lots of the smart kids, forgetting that they weren’t to put up their hands, shot them into the air. Some of them nearly dislocated their shoulders in the frenzy. Tom could tell they were frothing to show Hugh up a bit—to explain how the thought of being King made him think of murdering that Duncan guy and he freaked himself out with his own keenness at the idea.
He waited for Whiting to choose someone, adding to the hackle of the fly he’d doodled, to the sharpness of the barb.
“Hands down please, remember, we’re a no hands up class now. Right, so the question was, why might Macbeth be scared? Tom, what do you think?”
His pen, shading the body of the fly, froze. He looked up at Whiting. Had she chosen him ‘cause he was doodling? To make him look stupid? Then he remembered—he had an out. He blurted, “I need more thinking time Miss,” trying not to betray how relieved, how pleased with himself he was.
“OK, Tom, I’ll come back to you in a minute. Baxter, what do you think?” Baxter was one of the one’s whose arms had shot up before. “I think he’s scared because of the witches. He thinks that they will put a spell on him if he accepts being a Thane. People back then thought witches were real, so he is worried they’re going to hex him or something.”
“Tom, what can you add to Baxter’s answer?” He’d half hoped she’d forget. But there she stood, the fusty old crone, whiteboard marker clutched in her claw. He considered asking for more thinking time but wasn’t sure he’d be allowed that trick again. He felt stalked, as if eyes were fixed on him, barbed hooks were coming his way. But he had to say something. Words formed in his mind Because he freaked himself out with thinking about killing Duncan. But they slid away. Quietly, he said, ‘‘I dunno Miss, I’ve got no idea what’s going on.” In that moment of stillness that followed he felt the eyes of his classmates stabbing into him.
Whiting moved things on, “Never mind Tom, it’ll start to make sense when the language clicks for you. The more you read, the easier it gets. Can anyone else add to Baxter’s answer?” Again, a bunch of hands shot up; this time Mrs Whiting forgot her new rule (she always did when she got into her rhythm with her questions). She chose Rebecca and Tom started sketching another fly—a caddis pattern he was trying to invent, because none of the ones at the shop ever worked. He paid half a mind only to the conversation, safe in the knowledge she’d not pick on him again. He now let the rest of the words slide by; he had more important things to think of.
He loved this time of day. The soft dusk light, the stillness that always settled for that half an hour between sundown and dark. On a night like this one, there couldn’t help but be mayflies hatching, and trout feeding on them. But it wasn’t just any trout he was after.
He watched, waited as still as the dusk itself, eyes intent on the tail of the glide at the end of the bridge pool. It was impossibly slick, the water here. He’d only get one cast at it, and have to adjust the flight of the line, so that there was a curve upstream into the faster water in the centre. Things would have to fall his way. He’d have to have no doubt—to screw his courage tight.
Screw that—all that English crap had no place here. This was him—and the first fish rose not five metres upstream. A splashy, hungry lurch—just a wee fella. The big, clever fish expended no energy, they lazily drifted to the surface, gently supped at the hatching duns in the foam line, then descended to their lie. It was the reverse of what you’d expect—the bigger the fish; the gentler the rise. Foul is fair.
Two more rises now—the hatch was winding up. Better fish, but not the one he was looking for. Still, best get ready. Staying camouflaged against the scrub behind him, he opened his fly box, picked out the parachute adams, a tiny size 18 that he’d only just tied right that afternoon. He worked the surgeon’s knot, looping under, over through with a precise, practised calm. He stripped off enough line so he’d be ready to go, and stilled himself to wait again.
No sign of it. He should have stayed alert, observant but his mind drifted back to school. Whiting had said they would only listen to the audiobook for the first part of the play. After that, they’d take turns at reading it aloud. He’d have to be alert and observant there too, keep still and unnoticed. A strategic sickie or two might help, if Mum would buy it. He was OK with little words—ones he knew—they’d stay still enough. Anything new, anything big and it was like the word was submerged beneath a fast ripple.
Another rise, subtle and gentle this time. He marked the position from a tuft of grass on the bank. Every sense sharp now. A second, just to the left. The dimple in the surface film grew out, out, then slid into the broken water at the foot of the pool, disintegrating.
He wanted it to get into a rhythm, to become a little complacent. There would be only one chance. It rose again, and again. Feeding happily. He waited for eight more. Another after that, then resolved to commit.
Keeping low, he worked the flyline out in tight cursive loops. He had the length now, cast back one last time, then drove gently forward, dipping his tip, rolling his wrist to form the slight ‘S’ needed to get the fly to drift dead in the current. The tiny tippet line reached forward and dropped the fly, like a precisely placed full stop a metre above the trout. It drifted, drifted, a tiny tuft of white just visible in the dimming dusk.
Then it was gone. The fish was deceived, ripples radiating outward from where the fly had been seconds ago.
You had to wait. About three seconds for the trout to drop its head again, or you just pull the fly straight back out. Some people count to three, some say ‘God Save the Queen’. ‘God save Dun-can,’ he thought, then tightened his line and felt the barb set into some hefty, startled anger.
It ran straight and true for the submerged log by the far bank. He knew it would, had probably broken a dozen lines in amongst those fallen branches. But he was too quick, dipping his tip low to the ground, lowering his rod hand until it was just inches from the gravel, he succeeded in knocking it off balance, turning it. He walked backwards, putting a little more pressure than he should have on the line, but managed to get it into the shallows. Holy shit it was a good fish. Maybe 8lbs. Bigger than anything else he’d landed that was for sure. It ran again and he repeated the side strain as the ratchet in the reel screeched, the line peeled out but he turned the fish again, got it into the shallows once more. Two more runs each less furious than the last and he knew it was tiring. He dared to hope.
He reached behind him, unclasped the net from his back, and waded gently into the water. He laid the net flush on the bottom and gently coaxed the trout towards it. Three times it turned, until he managed to get it over the net, then swiftly lift and scoop it over the head, along the body and up, out onto the bank.
He whooped long and loud, elation, adrenaline coursing. It was some fish. He fitted his scales to the net, watched as the needle pointed towards the weight. 9lbs 3oz. Holy shit, what a fish.
He took the priest from his inside pocket, held the trout firmly just behind the gills, and prepared to knock it on the crown of its head. His eyes focused on the spot, just up from between its eyes. It’s best done quickly. Three short sharp thuds would do it. It would shudder, quiver, be still.
And be a good feed too. A few good feeds in fact, for the whole family. Mum would be chuffed.
He hesitated. The fish was opening and closing its old hook-jawed mouth, desperate for water. It was a beautiful fish. Deep and solid, spots of shades of brown and specks of orange, shimmering on its flank. It was almost regal.
He released his pressure on it. Walked back to the river and lowered the net back down, allowing the fish to breathe again. Then he pulled his fishing pliers from his top pocket, and twisted the hook from its mouth. It came easily, must have very nearly thrown it itself.
He wet his hands, so as not to burn the fish’s skin, held it just above the tail, his other hand beneath its belly. Gently, he worked it back and forward in the water, watching as its gills flared, fins twitched. When he sensed it had found its balance again, he pushed it gently into the shallows. It drifted for a second, flicked its tail, then swam briskly towards the submerged tree.
See. You didn’t need to kill. You could back out, not tell anyone.
His hands were a little slimy from where he’d handled the fish. No matter, a little water was all that was needed.