by Dave Witherow
(The world news is bad, and I have decided to post something nice every day, in between the politics and poison and general mayhem. I have been given permission to post this story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do).
Albert is gone now, and his like I shall never know again. Soldier, idler, peerless sportsman, he seemed to me indestructible, his spare, powerful frame unbowed, even into his eighties.
We were allies in spirit, despite the difference in our ages, adventuring together in those wonderful years when the war still lived in memory, and the sunny uplands of the promised future was a vision still believed.
I was teaching in Dunedin when our paths first crossed. It was a job I detested, but couldn’t think how to escape. I had an old, wooden villa and a neat vegetable garden and a stamp-collection, and most of the people I knew were it wasn’t working.
On Friday night I would go to the pub with the other blokes and we’d write off a few more braincells – even though some of us had barely a quorum to start with. It was supposed to be enjoyable, and the worse you felt on Saturday morning the better it must have been on the previous evening.
Anyway, that was Fridays. The rest of the time I was sober and responsible, and so were most of my mates. We used to talk about it – responsibility. Apparently it was the thing to have.
My stamp collection was coming along nicely. I had all the aunts and uncles saving them for me, as well as one of the pretty typists in the school office, who had a brother in Tanna Touva. His letters to her had big, triangular stamps – very hard to get in the normal way of things – and they made great
opportunities for flirtation. The other blokes used to get quite envious of me, engrossed in philatelical banter with one sweet young thing or the other. Meanwhile I was going out of my mind.
It was slightly better in the summer, when the school shut down and the kids buggered off. Several of the teachers had holiday places out at Waihola, and I bought one too, and for a fortnight or so every year we’d lie in the sun, if any, and then come back to town and dig our gardens and carry on with painting our houses. One of the blokes knew somebody in the paint business and could get it cheap, but only in one colour: lime green. You could drive around Dunedin and pick out everybody that worked at our school from the colour of their house.
I was well on my way to the nuthouse when Albert, by some brilliant fluke of fate, dropped into my life. His truck had broken down at Waihola while we were on our New Year break, and I towed him to the garage and put him up in my spare room. We sat up all night, yarning about one thing and another, and in the spangled craziness of Albert’s conversation I began see possibilities undreamt of in the land of triangular stamps and green paint and responsibility.
Albert invited me down to his place near Gore. Forget about the garden, he said – do you know anything about fishing? I said that I did, a little bit. That I had been pretty keen when I was younger, but had given it up when I got a full-time job – a response that amused Albert no end.
Alright, he said. I’ll see you in Gore on Friday.
That was the end of the teaching.
Albert introduced me to his pals – fanatics, the lot. We went fishing for trout and groper and cod all summer long. We dived for crayfish and paua, and prospected for gold to pay the bills, and went over to Stewart Island in Albert’s boat and trapped possums during the winter. You didn’t need a regular job, Albert explained. You could make enough money doing exactly what you liked. And in those days he was right.
Albert was the opposite of normal. He had no use for the usual conventions, and he regarded the law as a smorgasbord of voluntary options to be accepted or ignored as he pleased. He was a throwback to some earlier, more expansive era, let loose in a constipated century. He was anarchic and irrepressible, a gentleman and a misfit, and his operating principle was excess.
There was a mystery to Albert, for all that. We would go to the pub on Fridays, as everyone then did, and drink cheap beer out of two-pint jugs. Wine had not been discovered yet, or at least not in Southland, and when we were full of beer we would move on to whisky or rum. There was no café-culture in those days, and pubs, it was generally understood, were places designed for getting drunk in.
It was primitive and often boisterous. Albert would sit at the table drinking round for round, laughing at the absurdities of the conversation and delivering cockeyed opinions on everything under the sun. He had a fund of stories – beguiling amalgams of fact and fiction that grew more crazily improbable as the night wore on, but he never fell over, no matter how excessive the occasion.
There were always girls in the pub when Albert was there. He was a handsome man, and he treated women with an easy courtesy that never seemed to fail. He had many opportunities, and a liaison or two, but he evaded any long-term commitment. There was too much to do, he said. Too many places we still haven’t seen. And anyway, there are enough married people in the world.
Many years afterwards, tucked among the yellowing pages of angling nostalgia and poetry and old newspaper clippings among the books and papers that Albert had left me I found a few paragraphs in his own hand.
“The pleasures of life seemed simple when I was young in Tuatapere. There were pretty girls, and I had not yet discovered fishing and the riddles of the universe.
I was happy, in my way, but my innocence was to end with the beginning of the war.
I enlisted, of course, anticipating overseas adventures, but was persuaded otherwise by the SIS, and spent the duration with the commandos, training in the Takitimus. (And perhaps one day that story, too, will be told).
I operated alone for long weeks and months, and among the skills imperative to survival in that rugged theatre, the ability to live off the land was paramount. Many the time when in a tight spot my prowess with the Lee Enfield ensured venison for supper. And in the hidden headwaters of the Aparima I learned the secrets of the trout, and the subtle pleasures of fishing with flies.
The war ended, and I returned to Tuatapere, and settled into my old ways again. And there I met Gladys. She was young and beautiful as the morning. We courted and made our plans – and then she told me – I must choose between love and fishing.
I was desolate, unable to react, unable to decide. For several days I wrestled with my desires and my nature, but to no avail.
At last I knew what I must do. I would return to the lonely Takitimus, and there, in the wild fastness, I would compose myself and make my decision.
And that is what I did. Again I fished the rivers of my former delight, soothed my spirit with the sound of water flowing, rose in the dawn with the mountain mist and hunted the brown trout.
The living air cleared my mind and at length I could see my situation as though from a remote, impersonal ground. The elements of my dilemma, I now understood, were timeless: the yearning of man for freedom, and his irreconcilable need for security and bondage.
So I decided I would marry. I returned to Tuatapere, light of heart and all doubts resolved, and sought Gladys.
But she was gone.
Gone. Had the strain of waiting overcome her? Had she too been riven by some deep and unspoken anguish?
No, she had not. It was far worse than that. She had run off with a friend of mine – a worm-fisherman from Bluecliffs.
There is no honour among worm-fishermen”.
Fishing the Mataura River, Northern Southland – Photo Carol Sawyer