My bank account was running on empty and I’d fallen out with my flexible friend. My job was on its last legs; I’d even lost sight of what work I was meant to be doing. I guessed my job title was sort of doormat cum acrobat cum diplomat as I seemed to spend my entire time trodden on whilst jumping through hoops but unable to say anything. Life was going downhill so fast you would need a bobsleigh to keep up with me. At least Christmas was only a couple of weeks away and I could spend a fortnight in the drunken abyss that was fast becoming the norm.
Lesser men would have thrown a rope over the nearest beam and ended the nightmare in an instant: not me.
For one thing I’m an eternal optimist, things would get better soon surely. Secondly I am a fighter and I would never give anyone the satisfaction of having beaten me. But lastly I’m a coward and could not bring myself to rip a plaster off quick let alone end it all. The answer was obvious, a mental ‘two fingers’ to the world, an actual two fingers to my boss then off for a weeks fishing, life was looking brighter already.
I'd had a chance encounter with an old-timer sat nursing a small whiskey in a pub a week earlier. I listened to his tales of huge, genuine ‘wild’ carp at a secret lake, set in the grounds of the estate he had looked after all his working life. He told of how the lake was so overgrown and inaccessible that he doubted the estates new owner, some Greek shipping magnate, even knew of its existence. I was intrigued. Now, I know bullshit and beer usually flow in equal measures but this wizened old man spoke with such a passion and excitement of his ‘special’ place I just felt it had to be true. He told me he regularly walked his dog around the grounds of an evening as he still lived rent-free in the lodge: a sort of ‘thank-you’ for over fifty years service. I decided it was worth a chance, if it did exist it would be a perfect place to lay low during the festivities, heck, I mean I didn’t even know where I was.
As I strolled around in the pitch black, in a place I wasn’t really sure I should have been, trying to find an old man I’d met once in a pub; my car laden with tackle in a private(ish) looking lay-by, I wondered if the years of alcohol abuse were finally catching up with me… was I really going mad?
I heard a rustle behind a small thicket, I was unsure whether to run, hide or introduce myself. The rustle grew into a full out clump, clump, clump, as I took the initiative and braved the darkness, "Hello," I called out; nothing. "Hello," I called out again a little more tentatively. As I investigated further, walking quite hesitantly towards the black bushes, all hell broke loose as a startled badger, cause of all the commotion, brushed hurriedly past me in blind panic – ***! @@@@! *%@!!! My heart pounded; let’s just say it was fortunate I was wearing brown pants.
"Did that startle you?" a familiar old voice said calmly.
"Shit!" I screamed as I jumped clear of my skin for the second time in a minute. "Where the heck did you appear from?" I gasped desperately trying to get my heart down to an inaudible level.
"I’ll show you to the lake," he said without emotion.
I thought it was strange as he led me through all manner of undergrowth, overgrowth and general debris that he kept on talking to his ‘dog’, urging it to keep up and suchlike, despite the fact I never saw this thing once; maybe he was just a bit eccentric.
As we approached the lake I felt the temperature drop quickly; too quickly. It was only by a degree or two and it was Christmas week but it just felt a bit weird: eerie.
Upon reaching the secluded pit it was though I’d felt like I had discovered the Holy Grail. Despite the cold and darkness enough moonlight emitted to see glorious unspoilt water. Even more delightful was the noise of those ever so familiar, in summer anyway, ‘clooping’ sounds; but this was December! I shared a little nip of whiskey from the old guys silver hipflask as I thanked him profusely. He beckoned his ‘dog’ again and silently disappeared into the gloom.
Despite all of the obvious fish movement in front of me I just set up camp and lay on my bed-chair, the emotional turmoil of the previous weeks, especially at a time of year families should be to forefront, had really taken its toll. Mentally, physically and emotionally I was a wreck and needed to sleep. I just hoped that when I awoke all this had not been just a dream. It hadn’t.
As I surveyed the lake through the December sunshine I couldn’t take in what I was seeing, this small lake, one-acre tops, was alive with fish, all long lean and golden. I wondered to myself if Richard Walker and those other intrepid pioneers felt like this the first time they had laid their eyes on Bernithan Court, latterly Redmire Pool.
I couldn’t bring myself to use a boilie; it would somehow seem sacrilegious. Bread, cheese and sweetcorn would be the way to go, as I tackled up the first rod I suddenly stopped. It hit me like a thunderbolt, the first fish would have to be caught on a peacock quill; it just seemed ‘right’ somehow.
I cast a gentle underarm lob onto the edge of a small lily bed, still green and healthy despite the time of year. The quill took a while to right itself as the bread flake gradually drifted downwards and pulled it erect. I had to pinch myself to make sure all this was happening. I wanted to call Andrew and tell him to get his rods down here but I was enjoying the solitude too much. This, coupled with the fact I knew he would start plumbing the depth, setting up marker floats, spodding four tonnes of hemp in before slinging out at least four rods had me justifying my selfishness.
That first day resulted in six carp, all but one went into double figures, everyone in pristine condition; mouth, scale and fin perfect. Whether they were true ‘wildies’ is a debate I’m not even going to start, they were long, lean fighting machines and they’d do for me. (As an aside, as I have aged, the condition of fish has taken precedent over the weight, the shine is taken off of any capture that looks battered, bruised and battle weary. Take good care of the little ones, they’re tomorrows big ‘uns.)
Darkness fell at the usual late afternoon stage that we all have to suffer during winter. I made myself some warming soup as that eerie coldness came upon me again. A strange mist came across the water almost obscuring from view as ghostly shapes danced their way from east to west across the surface.
"How did you get on?" came a voice from nowhere.
"@*!* my old boots, Granddad, where did you come from!" I exclaimed, whilst scraping myself from the bivvy roof.
"I told you I always walk my dog around here at this time," he said once again without a hint of expression.
I looked around, still no dog; he was obviously a loaf short of a dozen, bakers or otherwise, but as he was the key to this new venue he was worth humouring.
He sat for an hour or more telling his tales of fishing the lake, man and boy, before the arthritis in his hands made him give up forever. I offered to tie him up a rig if he wanted to have a go, warming to him all the time despite the mysterious dog. We again shared his hipflask of malt before he made his excuses and disappeared silently into the night. I thought to myself he must have been brilliant at stalking carp in his day, the guy didn’t make a sound as he walked away, quieter even than that flamin’ badger.
Over the next few days a familiar pattern emerged, nice crisp wintry days averaging five or six fish a day - no record breakers but all really ‘nice’; older anglers will know what I mean. These were followed by an ‘out of skin’ experience every evening as the old boy appeared from nowhere with his imaginary dog. (I just hope it doesn’t get ‘pretend’ fleas, the vet would have his work cut out!) Then half a flask of whiskey each before he vanished. Incidentally I never had a single run at night, I just put it down to the sudden temperature drops and the ghostly mist.
By the end of the week I was back to my old self and ready to deflect all the crap various parties were trying to throw at me. I packed away and had to make several aborted attempts before I found the car again; man this place was secluded. I drove off to a local off-license and bought the finest bottle of ten-year-old I could find as a thank-you to my new friend. I set about finding the lodge, knocked on the door to be met by a frail aged woman.
"I was after your husband," I explained.
"My husband died ten years since, he loved his fishing but when arthritis made it impossible for him he simply gave up living, his dog pined away a month later, I scattered their ashes together down by the old lake."
"But I… er… well I’ve…" I stammered flabbergasted.
"Don’t worry, love," she smiled taking the bottle from my grasp, "You’re not the first, Merry Christmas."
And I’ve never been able to find that lake again.