© Wolf Avni NOVEMBER 22, 2004
A FISH TOO FAR
“I’ve just come in from fishing. Caught only one, a 10-inch kokanee, but enough for my breakfast. I stayed out longer than I should have, hoping to catch at least one more, so my wife, Bun, could have a fish for her breakfast, too. I explained the reason for my tardiness, and she said that had been very thoughtful of me. One tries to be considerate.” #1 Paul Quinnett - Pavlov’s Trout.
‘An angler must live in the present’, said Surly Ghillie serenely. ‘There is just no percentage in anything else. Yesterday has gone and who knows what tomorrow might bring? The fact of it is that there simply is nothing out there important enough to curtail, or worse yet, postpone a fishing trip for, though our significant-others, unless they be anchored as firmly in the moment as an angler aught be, are not always supportive, or reasonable, or even just a little filled with simple understanding’.
I must say, when he puts it like that, one can kind of see his point. ‘Births’, he told me, “ deaths, weddings, christenings, graduations, paying jobs; all that clutter of socialisation - in the eyes of non-anglers at least - is imbued with a significance which it rightly just does not deserve. And all the fuss is really no more than a subterfuge, a scam to mask the generic misery in the emptiness of the lives of non-anglers.’
‘Bit harsh’, I told him.
‘It’s true’, he insisted. Is it possible that he be right, that Surly knows for a certainty something which the rest of us dare not even suspect?
‘Many years ago’, he continued, ‘I went for a walk along the beach, starting innocently in False Bay and ending about thirteen months and a thousand miles later, somewhere around Rocktail Bay, north of Durban. Who would have thought that a little stroll along the coast could cause such a ruckus?’ I looked at him with uncomprehending eyes. ‘It was the woman!’ he explained.
The way he told it, hard though it be to believe, turns out old Surly once had a female counterpart in his life. ‘I went for this walk and she came looking for me.’ he confided. The tyranny of sex! When she couldn’t find me, with the typical hysteria of a compulsive nurturer, balancing as was her habit, between librium and dexedrine, she phoned what she thought was my place of employment and spoke to my ex-boss. It was the only real job I ever had, and I suppose, was good enough while it lasted. Next thing anyone knew, my face was on posters all over the country, seems I had been posted as missing-in-action. Well, anyway, turns out they had a great deal in common. They shared a delusion that my soul was bought and paid for. And neither could believe that I might just leave. When they realised that I was gone, by choice, they consoled themselves in a mutual apoplexy in which they both lived happily ever after. For a moment he looked almost wistful, then perked up. It didn’t matter too much though, because the picture on the poster showed a pasty child, ostensibly of school -going age, with a distinctly short-cropped hairstyle which differed significantly from the free, bronzed sea spirit which I had become. Looking at that picture back then, not even I recognised me, and in full view I remained hidden’, he said, contentedly.
‘I learned more in that year’, he went on, ‘ not only about all manner of fish, their ichthyc habits, and how to catch them, but also about people, than in the rest of my life put together. Around Gans Baai, I stayed a while with a group of shark fishermen, who I can vouch incidently, are as likely to sire comely daughters as anyone else. From them I learned nimbleness and agility. Believe me’, he said, ‘there is nothing so agile as a shark fisherman who has managed to hang on to all his extremities - intact, especially one who suspects that their daughter might inappropriately be entertaining itinerant, broken-hearted beach bums. Girls!’, he smiled laconically, ‘nothing but trouble! There was a lesson in it, and I took it’, Surly mused. ‘Though flailing boat-hooks might do nothing for the reputation of shark fishermens’ hospitality, it works wonders on a sense of balance - and I was rightly schooled never to zig when a zag is called for. In Mossel Bay I met up with some deep-sea marlin fishermen. There, I quickly learned that unless one skippers one’s own craft, the business of deep sea fishing is menial work indeed - and that the absolute power vested in captaincy, corrupts absolutely. Verily’, he said, ‘there and then I decided that one day I would own a boat. Later, in Knysna, falling in with a group of strand-lopers who eked a living stripping oysters from the low tide mark, I discovered that a ‘streep-sak” (mielie bag) full of succulent shellfish doesn’t carry itself up the Sedgefield cliffs, where it rapidly must make its way lest the African sun spoil the contents, and they be rejected by the thin-lipped, hard-eyed buyer from the oyster company . Up the coast a way, in Plettenberg Bay, taken under wing by a pod of hard-boozing Koi-San ghillies, descendants no doubt of the strand lopers whose occupancy of the caves on Robberg stretches back, uninterrupted for more than 20,000 years, I was taught how to trek-net, how to spin for leervis from the beach and yellowtail from the rocks, to snare small antelope, to sleep on a public beach and dodge the long plod of the law, and how to bake a hyrax (dassie) in the ashes of a smokeless fire. >From them I learned too how to lure an octopus from the deepest lair, how to cut red-bait or collect mud-prawn and bloodworm, razor clams and sand mussel. The never taught me to fly-fish, but to cut a fillet from the flank of a fresh mullet and in their own way they showed that sophistication is often a veil for folk who know a lot less that they think they do, that a formal education imbues an arrogance which can make the carrier more than a little vulnerable in a natural environment. In Jeffery’s Bay, I met up with some of the first Australian surfers to ever discover its’ now-famous tubes. That was back in the late sixties. They too liked what they found and so stayed, parking off in the dune forests which fringed the beach. I moved in, sharing their idyll for a while, sharing my fish at meal times. In return, they plied me with exotic, mysterious chemistries which made the sea and the sky and the golden sands glow with an intense, electric luminosity, not only at sunrise. It was not enough to distract me from my mission, I had a beach to walk, and long before their stash was depleted, I had moved on, up the coast. Somewhere between Coffee Bay and Port St Johns, I bumped into Big Ben Decker, archetypal drop-out, a philosophy master from a prestigious university. Big Ben was a remarkable individual who had seen the light. He took the fact of life more seriously than anyone I have ever met, and himself not at all so. From him I learned the most valuable lesson of all; that, should one ever get caught in public, say for example in the shallow waters of some sun-drenched lagoon, in what can only be described as an act of public indecency, in a compromising situation with a buxom, flagrante-naked damsel, one might still get off scot-free, if only you can plausibly convince the magistrate that you thought she was drowning and were only trying to save a valuable human life. But more than that, he taught me that fear, the little death, killing slowly, a bit each day, is all that stands between a soul and daring to dream beyond the horizon.
‘Surly’, I said, I wish I had lived your life. It seems so exciting, yet still, does there not seem to be a clear correlation here somewhere. Every time a woman enters the story, so too does trouble?’
“Can’t say I noticed’, he told me, sighed deeply, then continued; ‘ More than anything, my walk along the beach taught me that the secrets of nature hold bounties beyond description. With not a penny to my name, I lived like a king, dancing in the waves and feasting daily on perlemoen, oyster, rock-lobster, red Roman, Galjoen, and thick, char-grilled mussel-cracker steaks.’
He became withdrawn. ‘You couldn’t do it any more, not nowadays, he said softly. ‘The coast has been all carved up, sold off in little parcels, worked over like the patrons by bouncers at big-city nightclubs.’