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The Last Fish

I fished as a boy. But school, college, and then a job filled my life. In my late twenties I was hard at work, with a pregnant wife. Angling was a distant memory, golden days of youth, fishing off the pier. My son was born, my wife returned to work and we needed a nanny. We found a good one - Viv. Actually we found two, because Viv’s husband Matt would often tag along. Matt was partly disabled, unemployed and didn’t drive. The two things that filled his life were family and fishing. Matt had been a mad-keen matchman, a silver fish specialist. Disability and no transport meant he now spent his time at the local lake. A short distance from town, the lake was totally hammered. Nevertheless, when I came home from work, all Matt would talk about was his fishing. Finally we struck a deal. Matt would teach me to fish again. In return I would drive to better venues and carry his kit. We were an odd couple. I am a big man, Matt was tiny. I was late twenties, Matt late fifties. I was a posh kid from private school, then Oxford. Matt was a cockney who left school at sixteen. But fishing brought us together. Matt was an amazing story-teller and a good teacher too. And so, I learned the ways of Roach and Rudd, of Pike and Perch, and heard tall tales of dodgy east-end dealing. As my learning grew, so did our range of venues and so did my tackle collection. We both detested eels. Whilst Matt – always a jellied eel cockney - would take them home, we hated them with a passion. The rod twists unnaturally in your hand. The eels squirm as you bring them in. They are so greedy they almost always swallow the hook. Handling the slimy things is a nightmare. They slip and slide and wind around your wrist. As a result, eels will break your line, lose your weights and sometimes lose your float too. After an eel, you have to tackle up again from scratch. “It’s another bloody eel” was our frequent refrain. It was, however, a wonderful apprenticeship to a skilled angler, a raconteur and a great friend. Time passed. My son went to school, my daughter was born and my wife was made redundant. Viv no longer nannied for us. I was taking a second degree. And Matt and I went our separate ways. I went through carp and tench fishing and then gained a new love – fly fishing. After many years, we bumped into Viv at Tesco. I asked after Matt. Viv had a brave face but the news was bad, very bad. Matt had brain cancer and it had spread. He’d been in and out of hospital and the tumour was inoperable. Matt had come home and had little time remaining. “Is he still fishing” I finally asked. Viv said that Matt’s physical abilities had been further affected by the tumour. He could no longer fish, he was just at home. Waiting…... I left knowing Matt was unhappy. His illness was severe and he had been deprived of his hobby, his passion. I rang Viv back the next day and after a while I persuaded her to let me take Matt fishing that weekend. I knew, we both knew, it would be the last time. Saturday broke bright and cold – not a good omen. But time was short and today it had to be. I drove to Matt’s and hid my shock. By now, he could no longer walk. He was quiet, too quiet and I wondered if the day would work. I half carried him to the car and loaded up his tackle. Because of the weather, and the need for easy access, I chose a small carp lake about 20 miles away. On a farmer’s land, it was rarely fished – it held some roach, and carp to around 3lbs, plus rumours of a lake monster. More importantly, the farmer would give us sole access and let me drive to the lake’s edge. We arrived, I set up Matt’s rod and I carried him to his box. I set my rod to share the same swim. This was nearer than normal, but just like when he first taught me to fish. Viv had asked that I stay very close and bring him home if he tired. The time passed and I could see Matt relax. Gradually he opened up. The stories ebbed and the banter flowed. So did the coffee and hot soup. Just like the old days. For the first time, a real smile. There was only one problem – no fish! By 3pm, Matt had a resigned look and I was desperate. Today was not the day to blank! I put my rod aside and threw everything into helping him. We changed depths, baits and hook-links. I fed different lines, frequent feeding of a few maggots or balled groundbait to pull fish in. Moving Matt was out of the question, but we did everything else we could. No luck…... Evening arrived, the temperature dropped and the light was slipping away. It was time to go. And yet, as every fisherman knows, twilight is a magic time for bites. By now my tackle was away and we were beyond the return time agreed with Viv. Still we waited. Talked and waited. The air itself was tense, pent with hope and desperation. The sky was painted orange, then faded to red. Our breath steamed in the failing light. Finally, agonizingly, Matt’s float went under. Matt struck, wobbled and I steadied him on his stool. The rod bent over and the fish pulled line from reel. “It’s’ a good ‘un” he grinned. I prayed silently as the good fish ran up and down the lake. “Please, please, please”, I whispered under my breath. It was an eternity before I slipped the landing net under Matt’s fish. I gently unhooked it. With a tear and a huge smile, I presented Matt with his hard-earned fish. It was the lake monster, 8 pounds of gleaming gold fully scaled common carp. After a quick photo, the fish was safely returned. Matt and I shook hands, it was bitter and sweet. It was now full dark and Matt was trembling with cold. I wrapped my coat around him and carried him to the car. I turned the engine on and the heater to full blast. Then rushed back to the lake, to pack Matt’s kit by torchlight. I delivered Matt back very late. Viv was by the curbside as we arrived, her worry soon erased by the smile on Matt’s face. I dropped his tackle in the garage and went to help him in. He waved me off, stood slowly and then embraced me. “Thank you” he said quietly, his voice breaking a little. “Just………thank you”. With that, he put his arm around Viv and, heads down, they hobbled to the house. That was the last time I saw Matt. He died ten days later. At the funeral, Viv came over. “He spent the whole time talking about the last fish” she said. “It was wonderful”. She gave me a small flat box, “Matt wanted you to have this”. I opened it - one of the things Matt had always done, was to make his own floats. Bits of varnished cork and bamboo, bird quills, even empty biro refills were pressed into service, a red painted toothpick stuck on top. And in the middle of the box…… the last float, the one that caught the last fish. It is worth nothing of course. But it is worth everything to me. Twenty five years later, I still have the float. I always will. This is a true story, only the names have changed.

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