By Avery Mathers
Kitted out in chest-high waders and a tweed hat, Robert Patison cast a salmon rod for his very first time. The fly landed only a few yards downstream, and he was glad that no one else was there to see. The fishing gear had been an inapt retirement gift from his colleagues, clearly intended to intimidate their gutless post room clerk. Relax, they’d said. Let go. He knew they were jerking him around again, but he’d been too timid to stand up for himself.
Robert wasn’t relaxed at all. He didn’t belong here. For him, the outdoors was a public park with a boating pond: this turbulent river was a living, menacing presence. He could feel the power and the icy cold of it driving against his calves. The light was fading. He hadn’t appreciated how long it would take to trudge from the hotel, or how early darkness would fall, this far north.
His second cast was no better. Further out, beyond the shallows, beyond the restless tumble of midstream, the water writhed and coiled over a deep pool at the base of a cliff. That was where the salmon lurked, sleepy in the darkness.
He edged out. River-rounded boulders, slimy with moss and algae, rolled under his feet. And suddenly he was rattling sideways down loose stones, struggling to keep his balance, until he shuddered to a stop, almost chest-deep, gripping the salmon rod like a tightrope walker in a gale. The current pushed up under his shoulder blades and he leaned back into it. Don’t panic, he thought. Breathe deep.
He couldn’t move from this position. He pivoted around to face upstream and plunged the tip of the rod down onto the riverbed. It flexed like a watch-spring. Now he realized what a ‘wading stick’ was for; his was on the river bank, but it may as well have been back in Manchester. As he leaned forward to brace himself, the water threatened to flood his waders.
“Are ye havin’ any luck then?”
The surprise almost tipped Robert over.
“I said, are ye havin’ any luck?”
“Help me.” It came out as a croak. “HELP ME! For Christ’s sake, help me. HELP!”
“Ye’re havin’ a spot o’ bother then?”
“HELP! HELP!” Robert gulped air. He thought he was yelling, but the rush of water seemed to carry his words away. “Help.”
“Ye’re English then?”
Slowly, Robert turned his head to look. A scruffy man in a deerstalker and a camouflage jacket was watching him from the bank, hands in pockets.
“McKinnon,” said the man. “And you are?”
Robert began to sway; he turned his head back and the even flow of the water steadied him again. “Mr. McKinnon? Can you hear me?”
“I hear ye fine. Do ye know what a ghillie is? I’m a ghillie. Ye pay the likes of me to stop the likes of you doin’ things like this. But no. You’d rather die than pay over good money.”
Oh God. The man was drunk; he sounded drunk. Why else would he be so angry? Robert had never heard of a ghillie. His thigh muscles were twitching. How long could he stay like this? He glanced towards the bank again. McKinnon had gone.
Minutes passed. Maybe hours. A suffocating helplessness overwhelmed him. It was almost dark. Soon, this would be over.
A bright light shone full in his eyes. Something tugged at him; lifting and turning. Sour tobacco-breath gushed in his face and a stubbled cheek grated against his. He was wrenched, hard. Pain exploded up his leg and all his terror flushed itself out in one long scream.
“Will ye shut up! Yer boot’s caught in the boulders. Undo the fuckin’ straps!”
Straps? Something tore at one shoulder and then at the other. Robert felt the torrent peel the waders from his body. Water poured over his face and he spluttered and coughed as his rescuer dragged him backwards towards the bank.
“Jesus, English. Ye’re heavy for yer size, aren’t ye? Hell!”
There was a wild commotion of splashing. McKinnon must have tripped because suddenly Robert was under the water, arms flailing. Then his head was up and out and he sucked in air until his lungs might burst. He was sitting on the riverbed, but the current was still pushing hard at his shoulders. Weak with relief, he wept in great heaving sobs, alone in the gathering dark.
Alone? He looked up. A strange shimmer of light rose from the water. He groped about on the riverbed and pulled up McKinnon’s torch. He swung the beam around; no one. McKinnon had buggered off and left a half-drowned man to fend for himself!
Really? Gone home in the dark without his torch? Oh Christ, McKinnon had been swept away. Propelled by a surge of adrenaline, Robert shot to his feet. There was nothing to see but the writhing current; nothing to hear but the rushing water. McKinnon would be far downstream by now.
Robert felt something soft and yielding at his bootless feet. He dropped the torch, reached down, grabbed a hold, and heaved McKinnon from the riverbed with both hands. He was a dead weight. His body skittered on the surface of the water as the current tried to pull it from Robert’s numb fingers. With every moment, Robert was getting more tired. Paralyzed by timidity and indecision, he began to shiver uncontrollably. On his own, he might make it to the bank, but dragging McKinnon’s body he never would. It was a flush of anger, not shame, that rose up his face. Damn it! He had to save himself, or save neither. If it had taken all of Robert’s physical strength to hang on to McKinnon, it took all of his mental strength to let go.
As he turned towards the bank, he might have heard a cry from midstream, but he chose not to hear it. Robert Patison knew now that he still had some living to do.