Janice called me back to help her lift some crates. When I returned I to the bar I half expected the old tramp to be gone but he was still sitting there, his eyes fixed thousands of miles away. He continued his story as if there had been no interruption. His original soft cockney accent had diluted, merged and spread somehow. In some indefinable manner his voice had strengthened and had taken on a definite Australian twang. His whole character was changing, before my very eyes he became…. defiant, triumphant almost.
"Rain in Aussie is as rare as a virgin in an 'orehouse. It's not something that you can rely on, if you see what I mean. But Stevie sussed it. He was living with a bunch of Aborigines out Etchucka way. They put him straight on the weather and saw to it that he knew when it would rain next. Not precisely when, you understand, just roughly. So he was ready for it. mate. He had the Land Rover packed up and ready, and he was already half-way back to that creek when the first drops started falling. By the time he got to the creek he knew that he had maybe twenty four hours to crack it. It all depended on there being just enough water coming down to afford that big fish a bit of cover."
His voice was pure Strine now, loud and domineering
"These Aussie fish ain't as clever as our ones. Nobody fish's for 'em see, so they've never seen an 'ook Now, when he first arrived in Oz, Stevie had tried all the usual tactics and baits that we use over here, but it only took him a short time to realise that it needed a totally different approach. See, Stevie was a good angler. I mean, really good. He could catch a fish in a bucket of dirty water that bloke, out-fish anyone I ever met… "
At this, he smiled and his eyes twinked, I swear
"So, anyway… He fought his way down to the creek's edge and parked the Land Rover at the top of the high bank, then eases himself down to the lower shelf. He's standing on what's left of a beach on the inside of a bend just across from the boulder. The creek was up to maybe three or four foot deep by then and the rain was easing up. He must have watched that area at the back of the bar for maybe two, three hours before he finally saw it. A great golden flash of flank as it turned. Stevie didn't panic though. He'd gone through this a thousand times in his head already, and he just followed his plan. He had a tackle-bag and a bucket full of yabbies with him - that's like a kind of crayfish, they're everywhere in Oz. Pick 'em up in any little pond even - So Stevie tackles up, one rod, 30lb line straight through to the hook. None of this bivvy and buzzers nonsense. Three foot up the line, he ties a swift water knot with a bit of 8lb and Bob's yer uncle… he's got a weak link. On the end of this he ties an old spark-plug. He always uses spark-plugs for break-away weights, does Stevie. He don't hold with using none of them expensive leads and besides, he knows he's only gonna lose it anyway, 'cause the boulders and snags in this bit of water have got to be seen to be believed. On the hook goes the biggest yabbie in the bucket and he swings the lot out, upstream of the crucial boulder. The current grabs it and tries to sweep it downstream, but the spark-plug falls into a gap in the rocks on the bottom, as intended. The yabbie swings around into the slack water behind the rock. One cast, that's all it took. I told you Stevie was good. That bait couldn't have been in the water for more than about a minute before that big carp grabbed it. No messing about. None of this sucking and blowin' caper. It just… had it. Bosh!"
With this, his hand reached out into the space between us and grabbed a handful of air. Behind his clenched fist his black eyes glittered.
"Now. When Stevie set that hook, he realised two things straight away. One, that this was a very big fish, no doubt about that, and two, he was fishing with too light a line. 30lb test might sound heavy and could probably cope easily with a fish that size in stillwater, but this was a tributary of the Murray in flood conditions. And that fish was river-fit. It was likely to be out into the mainstream faster than you can say 'another pint' ".
He stopped and cocked an eyebrow. I took the hint. From his tin on the bar he rolled yet another skinny white stick as I pulled him another pint. He never spoke another word until he had poured a quarter of the glass's contents down his neck, then he belched loudly and went on.
"The fish was headed downstream at a swift rate of knots. Even if Stevie could have stopped it, he wouldn't have been able to pump it back against that current. Getting up the bank and following it was not on. Behind him was a ten foot high steep bank which was slippery with mud. He would need both hands and five minutes at least just to get up to the top. He had only two choices. He could let the fish spool him, or he could go in after it. He went in.
The power of that current was something else. He lost his footing in seconds, but he never let go of the rod. Nah, he never let go. Thick brown liquid mud that river was, seemed like more mud than water really, and bloody dangerous too. Somehow though, Stevie kept going. Every so often the current would sweep him up against a bank and he could bring the rod to bear. After 20 minutes he was already a couple of hundred yards downstream but he'd recovered some line and the fish had stopped running. Stopped doing anything really, it seemed to be snagged, immovable. Steve carefully cranked his way downstream, recovering line, getting nearer and nearer to where the fish had gone to ground. Then he lost his footing again, and by the time he had recovered it, he was downstream of the fish with a slack line. At first he thought he'd lost it, but as he took in the slack he felt resistance and the fish powered off again, but this time it ran upstream.
Well, the tables had turned now hadn't they. From going with the current the fish was now going against it, and Stevie was following it. Many, many times he thought he'd lose the fish on that upstream battle but he didn't. He hung on and he stayed with it. Then came the most dodgy part of the whole fight. Stevie tripped up on some hidden rock and went down. God knows how, but he still had a hold on the tackle. Not on the rod though, Stevie was holding on to the reel. By the spool! No chance of the fish taking any more line from the clutch. That fish must have felt that it's chance had come and, instead of just plodding along, it really powered off upstream again. Here's the weird bit. The line didn't break. Steve was face down in the water, the rod at right angles to the bank, and that fish TOWED HIM upstream! Seriously. How the line didn't break I don't know, just luck that the rod was at a perfect angle to absorb the shocks or something, but it held.
Stevie was choking with all that filthy water getting into his lungs but some, I dunno, instinct or something, just wouldn't let him give up. He regains control of the rod and fights his way over to the bank, onto a shallows on the inside of a bend, not thirty foot from where he'd first cast out. Slowly he fought that fish, keeping its head upstream at all times. It was pretty knackered by now so he was able to start exerting a bit of control. Mind you, Stevie was pretty knackered too, but by now the rain's stopped and things are looking good. Ever so slow and gentle he played it back, back to where he was standing, knee deep in what looked like liquid mud. That giant carp came in at the end as quiet as a kitten, totally exhausted. Steve slips off his raincoat, a waxed overcoat type thing, just lays it over the fish and wraps it's head in it. It don't struggle or nuffin. It just lets him do it. So Stevie bends down, gets his arms under it and heaves it up onto the bank He's done it.
The big scales in his bag pull the needle around to 112lb. Even allowing for the wet coat which he's improvised as a weigh sling, he'd done it. A true ton-up carp. That's when the crap hit the fan. Behind him, up on the high bank, there's a round of applause, so he turns around and sees four big coppers looking down at him.
So that was that really. It weren't as bad as it could have been. They were just blokes doing their jobs like. They let him take a couple of photos, even helped him hold it, one of 'em. Then they just slung the fish up the bank and took Stevie in. Poor sod. He does time in Aussie, gets repatriated, then he's met at the airport by the old Bill. So he gets sent down again to do another stretch, in the Scrubs this time. So that's how Stevie got his record. Two actually. He got his ton-up carp, and he got his other, criminal, record".
The old boy sat back, smiled thinly then, draining the final dregs from his glass he stood up, a little unsteadily. Brusquely he shrugged his coat collar up and moved off toward the door. He was speaking cockney again.
"Anyway. I gotta get going or I'm gonna miss the last bus. Thanks for those drinks pal. See ya sometime. Cheers!".
With that, he left. Shambling out of the door, leaving a slick of body odour in the air that was thick enough to cut through even the reek of stale beer and dead ashtrays.
I was having a bit of a clean up, wiping down surfaces and so on, so it must have been at least ten minutes before I realised that the old boy had left his tobacco tin on the bar. I picked it up and, upon some impulse, I opened it. Stuck to the inside of the lid was a creased and battered, dog-eared photograph of two men holding a huge carp. The man holding the tail end of the giant fish was wearing some kind of uniform with epaulettes on his shirt. The other mans face was a little blurred, but the camera had focussed perfectly both on the fish and the hands holding it. I turned the photograph up the other way and held it under a lamp for a better look. Poorly tattooed letters spelling the word 'Love' were clearly readable on one set of knuckles
My attention was distracted as I heard familiar voices. Sam was back from playing Santa. He came through to the public bar, his wife and Janice could be heard talking in the Saloon.
"Ever hear of a fellow called Stevie Colgan" I asked him, as he removed his coat.
"Colgan? No… Oh yes! Used to work here, before my time though. Bit of a villain I'm told, and a liar too. Finally got caught with his hands in the till once too often and was sacked. He's the bloke who caught that pike up there. He's dead now though. Died in prison last Christmas I was told. Good riddance. Why?".
I turned to retrieve the tobacco tin, but like it's owner, it had vanished as completely as if it had never existed.