Evening was coming on. The river was flat calm, every yacht and dinghy, every fishing smack and weekend skiff set back from its mooring as precisely as toys placed on a ribbon of mirrored glass. The tide was out, the light following, and everything perfectly still apart from the distant squabbling of gulls way out on Havergate Island. A bank of cloud was piling up on the horizon. Rain would be coming in. But for now, the sky stretched away a deep and opaline blue.
I pulled on my walking boots and headed off along the levee.
By the time I had made the first stile, I became aware of the flug-flug-flug of a diesel engine, and then washing along with it, even at this distance, the sounds of people chattering and laughing. A heron jumped up from a mud bank as The Regardless came into view, labouring round a dark elbow of land, heading back to the quay after its final trip of the day.
We’d ridden it that morning.
‘So who was it going to pull some pots for me?’
I put up my hand.
The fisherman nodded at me, then smiled conspiratorially at the rest of the people sitting on the bench that ran around three sides of the boat. As he talked he shook a blue plastic crate filled with stinking scraps of skate and crayfish. The children on the boat made vomiting noises.
‘Feeling strong, are we?’
I put up my arm, flexed it.
‘Look at that puppy,’ I said.
‘Well. Never mind. Perhaps you’ll be all right. Now. My advice to you is: hook the line up, grab onto it, haul the pot aboard hand over fist in the time-honoured fashion, and we’ll all have a laugh at how wet and muddy you get. Quick as you can, like, and don’t fall in.’
He tossed a flap of dead fish back into the crate and wiped his hands on his filthy jeans.
‘We’ll be sliding into the buoy from the side. If we set straight on, we’d get our propeller all tangled up in the rope and I wouldn’t be happy. You’ll see. It’s tricks like this my old mate.’
He stepped back into the cramped cabin of the Regardless and span the wheel to turn us in the direction of a half-dozen yellow buoys.
I picked up the boathook and braced myself up on a bench between the cabin and the port side.
The boat slowed but as we closed on the buoy it came up fast. I just had a chance to snag the line with the boathook, pull it up sufficiently to grab onto it with my left hand, and then dropping the hook, begin hauling on the green and slippery line. The pot was deep. It took a dozen passes to bring it to the surface. Everyone stood up as I hauled it first onto the edge of the boat, and then sideways onto the motor housing in the centre, next to the basket of bait.
‘Let’s see what we’ve got, then,’ he said. ‘Huh. Not much, by the looks of it.’
A handful of undersized crabs skittered out with claws raised. They scattered down amongst the screaming children.
‘So what we do now is stuff some more bait in, close the doors, throw her back in, and hope for better luck next time. You should’ve been here yesterday. We had a couple of old monsters in there. But that’s the way it goes.’
He grasped the wicker pot with both hands and swung it in one easy action back out into the water. It bubbled near the surface for a moment, then disappeared down into the gloom, the line snaking after it, followed by the buoy.
‘And on to the next.’
He looked at me, at the mud on my jeans and t-shirt.
‘Up for another?’
We tried just two more. The second was the same as the first – a desultory gang of crabs, more embarrassed than angry, clicking off stage as quickly as they could to spare us the shame.
‘I thought that would definitely have had something,’ the fisherman said. ‘I left it alone special.’
The third one felt even deeper than the others. As I hauled up on the line the fisherman got the other people on the boat to chant lobster! lobster!
‘That always brings ‘em on,’ he said.
The pot broke the surface and I swung it up onto the engine housing with a splatter of mud.
Just visible behind the sopping fronds of weed, a lobster.
‘That’s more like it,’ said the fisherman, unhooking the door and reaching inside to pull it out.
He placed it in the middle of the bait basket, where it spread its tail, raised its claws and flipped its stalk eyes about. Everyone stood up again and moved closer. An alien dragged from a spaceship could not have provoked more interest, more excitement, more probing fingers. Eventually the lobster seemed to deflate a little, then lie in an attitude of surrender, the strange fins of its tail shining in the bright October sunshine.
The fisherman looked at me, gave me a nudge with his elbow.
‘So what do you do for a living?’
‘I’m in the ambulance.’
‘Bit of a change for you, then?’
I looked at the people clustered round the lobster.
‘I’m not so sure.’
He nudged me again, then set to stuffing more bait into the pot. Everyone stood back, the smell was so overpowering. He hooked the door closed again and threw the pot, line and buoy back into the water. Then he smacked his hands together, straightened his shoulders stiffly and said: ‘Okay. Let’s see what else we can find in this river.’