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 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.
…Continued next month in FISHING.CO.UK